Thoughts on Apocalyptic Winter Running...

A year and a half ago I was 40 lbs heavier. Most days being overweight didn't bug me. However, my annual medical check-up was something I came to dread. Every year at the end of my exam, my doctor would pause and tell me I was still too fat. Every year I'd button my shirt, and remind her she was still unattractive. It was always an awkward exchange. She'd ask me if I would consider getting a gym membership, and I'd ask her if she'd consider treating me wearing a veil. We were both right. She was fairly ugly and I was fairly fat.


Anyway, long story short, I started running.

As with most things I love, running became a bit of an addiction. To get the full benefit of running you need time. The only way I could make it work was to run early in the mornings. I started to get up really early to do my work and then I'd go and run. In the spring and summer, it was convenient as I could run outside. When winter came, I changed my routine and went to a gym. The travel and prep time needed to go to the gym cut into my day pretty hard. When I ran outside I could be home in an hour. Going to the gym tacked on another hour. One freezing day in early January, I watched the wind whip across the gym's tundra-like parking lot, and I came to the rather sad conclusion that I could not afford the time to run inside anymore. I knew I had to run outside, in the arctic. I shuddered and quietly apologized to each of my knees. Later that day, I bought a balaclava, ice traction devices for my running shoes and a huge bottle of glucosamine.  


My house is 2,819 kilometers south of the arctic circle. For six months, it's pretty dark around here. Every once in a while, its also the coldest place on Earth. I have run outside in this environment for three months, every other day.  On average, I go for about 1.5 hours, which is about the same time it takes a 15-ounce cup of coffee from Tim Hortons to freeze solid at -30 C. After two cups of coffee, I suit up and leave at 5:30 am so I can be back in time to help my wife get our kids ready for school. When I get back, it takes me 7 minutes to thaw enough to unlace my shoes. I take 30 seconds after each run to pay silent homage to the inventor of the forced air furnace. 


The city is spectacularly empty at this time. For most of the winter its been like running through a badly made apocalyptic climate movie. Sometimes to keep myself motivated, I run from imaginary zombies, bandits or robots. Sometimes I run from the prehistoric looking graders that lumber down the main streets, as they tear out ice and pavement. It's interesting to note that I have never seen a police car while winter running. Here's other things I've noted:

  • SCAVENGERS - Coyotes and hobos are rare but real threats. I treat both with the same degree of caution. I've learned that coyotes are pack animals and very good runners. Hobos are the opposite. They carry psychological burdens and knives. Fact is, one deranged hobo or starving coyote can wreck a perfectly good run.  I try and avoid all animal and human scavengers.
  • WEIRD LIGHTING - There's a mixture of street lighting in the city that gives each neighbourhood its own uneven look. Some areas have brighter but softer light from new LED street lights. Others are bathed in high contrast yellow from the older High Pressure Sodium street lights. This different lighting impacts the shadows on the sidewalks. I think the City lighting engineers should run on a sidewalk before they play with the lights.
  • SOUND - Sound carries in the cold. If trains are loading in the switching yard by 99 Street, the boom of train cars colliding sound like they are right next to you. They're not. They're five kilometers away. Sometimes when I sneeze, I hear someone very far away saying, 'God Bless.' That's very Canadian...and reassuring.
  • NO PEDESTRIANS - There are rarely any people on the sidewalks at 5 AM. If I do see a person, they are covered up, hiding from the wind, waiting for a bus or a hangover. If they look up at me, their eyes look scared or puzzled. I completely get it. Only crazy people run in the dark in winter. 


First, there's nothing tender about a Canadian sidewalk at 5 am in winter. Second, for me, running on black ice, in the dark, has to be one of the best metaphors of life. It's simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Every part of my DNA knows that each step forward has the potential to end my little hobby, and possibly my life. I've become excellent at gauging ice and snow and terrain for slippage. In fact, pondering the math/physics that is involved to carry one's body across these surfaces, at speed, has even made me wonder about the possibility of 'A Greater Being'. Think about it. Eyes, feet, legs, arms, respiration, circulation....all being controlled by 3lbs of pink pudding housed under a skiff of hair and a toque — it's a shockingly well built system to have been created by chance and/or primordial chemistry. But that could just be the endorphins talking....Third, the cold is a menace. It only wants one thing: to eat your warmth and kill you. If you don't forget that, you're good. If you do, you can get into serious trouble.  

Yesterday was the first day of spring. It was -8 C. Go home Winter, you're drunk....

*(I wrote a small article about how I changed things around with exercise. It was published in the Globe and Mail.  You can read it here.)