Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Winter and I have never been fast friends. When I was a kid, I spent hours outside building elaborate snow forts and sledding down our front hill, in thrall not to fun and adventure but to my older sister. My devotion was deep, complete: though I begged to go indoors, one fierce look from her would shut me up. I also frequently put on her shoes and tied them for her because she pretended to cry when I refused. What habits grow out of the confused loyalties of childhood.

Though I still don’t enjoy the cold weather, I have been a runner for most of my adult life. Twice I have braved extreme cold to head out and get in a workout, due in part to the adopted philosophy of my sister: never give up, never give in. The first time I was nineteen, a Sophomore in college and given to running only in spurts. I was not in top shape then; my main exercise consisted of walking the mile each way to campus, lugging my load of books, in all weather. I also lifted weights then, building up strength but not stamina or wind. I missed the discipline of all the high school sports I’d played, so I started running sporadically.

In January, we had what was called J-term, a month-long “break” between semesters when intensive coursework was offered. Students were required to take two J-term courses in 4 years. I signed up for one each of my first two years, because besides trying to get in shape, I was discovering my vocation: writing. I could supplement my regular English lit and creative writing courses with month-long courses focusing on a single genre. My Freshman year, I took a Poetry course. My sophomore year, I took Fiction. Perhaps it was that foray into the relative unknown of prose that made me a little crazy; I remember sitting in that classroom with much older students—Juniors and Seniors, certainly—feeling a mix of intimidation and cockiness. I could write. I had ideas. But I felt like a juvenile next to these students, my ideas shrinking in my mind until I had to go home and pump myself up with a run, to build my confidence so I could write them down.

That winter we had a week of record cold, wind chills hovering around -60. One day, to prove I could do it, I decided to go out for a run. I told no one, figuring that since I ran through residential neighborhoods, help would be there if I needed it. But that is my older psyche speaking; I didn’t fear anything, and that was na├»ve—or stupid.

I layered up in the way I normally did in those days: one T-shirt from my softball days, my favorite long-sleeved T-shirt sporting an image of the Tasmanian Devil, and a hooded sweatshirt. I wore only one pair of sweat pants. One pair of socks. Gloves, I think.

The day was almost painfully still—no wind scattered snow across the pavement or made the frozen tree limbs creak. My first impression was of stiffness; the cold was so brittle that nothing could move, except me. I began slowly, treading carefully over ice, wiggling my fingers inside my gloves to keep them warm.

I felt the cold after the first quarter mile, in my cheeks, which were uncovered. Did I wear the hood on my sweatshirt? I can’t recall. What I remember thinking was that the cold couldn’t penetrate me very deeply if I kept moving. So I did, completing my circuit with only a few frozen eyelashes to show for it. The skin on my legs and arms was red when I undressed for the shower, otherwise I thought I had triumphed. Now I think I was just lucky.

Years later I did it again, in another snap of brutal cold, my three children home for Christmas break, my mind spinning in circles from the lack of physical movement. I planted them in front of the TV (they were old enough to stay home for short periods of time, with the door locked, with strict instructions not to answer it if someone rang). And I went out.

This time, I was older, which occurred to me as I noticed how slowly the tape in my Walkman was playing. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sounded like they were being filtered through one of those voice-warping machines. By the time I rounded the corner by Savoren’s Service and turned to face the long straight stretch along the parkway, I was chilled. Even inside thick gloves, my fingers began to numb. My legs felt fine, swathed this time in long underwear and a pair of running pants. But by the time I circled the monument at the halfway mark, I could hardly feel my feet. I kept them moving, thinking with a smirk—my lips were too cold for a smile--that my route said something about me: half the distance out, half back. Once I’d gone halfway, there was no shortening the mileage. I was stranded by my own idea of toughness; I never wanted to give myself a break. Now, when I might want one, it was unavailable.

My muffled feet kept moving; I felt like I was on a layer of air. I couldn’t really feel my feet hit, I just felt a vague pressure in my ankles and legs.

In the shower afterwards, I stared at my fingers, cramped, red, stiff, even after standing under a stream of hot water for 10 minutes. I tried to wash my hair but couldn’t really press my scalp hard. Eventually, a half-hour post-shower, I regained the full movement in my fingers. Only then did I think I had made a dumb, risky decision to go out in this cold. What had I been trying to prove, and to whom?

I haven’t run outside regularly in winter since 2004. Even when I did, on cold days I stayed inside for yoga or took many days off in a row, waiting for a day mild enough for me—at least 15 degrees, not too windy.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, when I gave up and became “sensible,” I also gave up my mindless devotion to my sister, who works out harder than anyone I know: up at 4:30 am every day, she lifts, rides the stationary bike, runs or walks outside. And did I say, she has allergies so severe that she carries an inhaler with her all summer?

She can win this one, I guess, she who advised me to exercise in the throes of morning sickness so the sickness wouldn’t win. I do what I can to stay in shape, trying to respect the cold and my aging body. She can do what she wants; if push came to shove, she could kick my sorry ass. But I will have to live with that.

I still struggle to make it through winter. The older I get, the colder it seems. This past week, when the temps hit 30 I finally ventured out, running on the wide shoulder of the road rather than the iced-over sidewalks. It felt good to splash through some small puddles, to feel the initial cold of my soaked socks warm to a faint dampness, to feel my muscles stretch in a way they never can on a treadmill. Now, I think I can safely commit myself to being outside, where the trees dress and undress for me, where muskrats and geese cross my path by the pond, where I measure distance by the challenges I set for myself (push it until you reach the railroad tracks), where there is never dullness or monotony or pressure. I’m doing it because I want to, I still can, and not because I’m chasing my sister’s shadow, plunging ahead of me.

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