Monday, January 27, 2014

How Winter in Chicago Ruins Everything

This morning at 6 AM, I ran on the park trail that goes by my home. At night, this unlit trail becomes the setting of a bad horror movie, one in which someone does something unrealistically stupid and gets a limb chopped off by a machete-wielding maniac. For me, the stupid was choosing to run in the dark at 6 AM, but since life isn’t a movie, I mercifully got to keep all my limbs. Funnily enough, though, I wouldn’t have noticed if I had lost a limb, since they were all numb from the cold anyway.

Anyway, let’s talk about winter weather in Chicago and running.

It is awful. There is no aspect of it that is not awful. The only defense I can imagine is that it will make you appreciate running in other seasons more. Before winter truly took hold, though, I was hopeful. There was a brief time, during my first run after a heavy snowfall, where I was momentarily struck by the beauty of my park’s changed landscape. Powdery snow ghosts, kicked up by the wind, danced on undisturbed snowbanks, and yellow streetlamps gilded the white tops of bare tree branches.

It took my breath away. Then it took my footing.

I hit a patch of black ice, playfully hiding under the fresh powder, and fell into a snowbank that, while cushioning my fall, also inserted about ten pounds of pure-driven snow into my jacket via the sleeves and neck.

Oh, I thought, so that’s how it is.

Since then I’ve considered winter and myself enemies when it comes to my running goals, and she has not done much to call a truce. Obviously there are her acts of direct aggression: snowstorms, negative temperatures in the double-digits, and long hours of darkness that turn every outdoor run into the aforementioned horror-movie.

Pictured: my morning run
But it’s the subtle aggression that so dispose me to hate her. For example, just two weeks ago, we had a light thaw. Temperatures soared into the high 30s, sunlight broke through the clouds, and everything in Chicago dripped for 48 hours. Great! I thought, na├»ve little runner that I was, my path will thaw too! Everything’s coming up Milhouse! However, when I stepped onto the downward-sloping start of my park trail, I immediately slid 14 feet forwards to where the trail leveled off. I wish I could remember the curses I yelled out as I slid, because the swears preceding physical injury are always the most creative. The kids playing nearby certainly looked impressed.

It turns out that my path doesn’t thaw. Instead, it develops a highly original method of breaking people’s legs. First, you have an un-thawed layer of ice over most of the trail. Nothing short of spring will strip that away. But then, since it is slightly warm, a filmy water layer forms to cover the already-slippery ice. These two elements combine to form a surface that has negative levels of friction. Stepping on this surface will shoot your foot off in a random direction at roughly 80 miles per hour.

But that isn’t the worst. If I came to the trail and saw a wall to wall wet-ice combo, I would leave. I’m not a masochist. It’s the fact that there are spots where the trail is clear. Where the concrete pokes through with its delicious dryness and firmness. That’s what made me run that day: hope. Hope that I could weave a path through the patches of terra firma without breaking my neck. That the dry concrete and wet ice looked almost identical to the naked eye was incidental. I was teased with the hope of winning, even in the face of insurmountable odds.

It was The Hunger Games. Except more dangerous, and without a boring, forced love triangle.

The other subtle way winter messes with running is in the clothing choices it forces upon you. First off, running is a beautiful pastime because it is so cheap. Got running shoes? You can run. (You should wear pants as well.) In the winter, though, all of a sudden you have to balance athletic with warm. I run in a discolored hoodie (I spilled drain-o on it once), gloves, sweatpants over my running shorts, and a ski-mask that both inhibits breathing and, I feel, makes me look like a serial killer. On one hand, this mask is great for keeping my face warm. On the other, it traps my warm breath under the mask, heating my cold nose and making it run like a faucet. Since I cannot wipe my nose during a run, the snot runs into my mouth the whole time. If that was gross to read, just imagine living it.

We also have the problem of warming up as you run. What keeps you warm when you start out will boil you alive when you get going. But if you start out wearing too little, you’ll end up like Jack Nicholson sitting frozen at the end of The Shining. And if you have any sort of cool down outside after you’ve finished running, you’ll be doing it in wet clothes, so again, you’ll end up as frozen as an alcoholic who chased his telepathic child through a frozen hedge maze.

It happens to the best of us
So, winter. I could go on about the ways it upsets me, but by now you’ve gotten the point. At the end of the day, though, runners don’t run because it’s easy. Adverse conditions make things harder, but the act of distance running is also adverse to my natural laziness. So that’s the other thing I’ll say in defense of winter running: you get a fierce and satisfying pride from completing your run when it is awful outside. I think it’s because the winter reflects how difficult distance running inherently is. Your brain must be harsh to your body to get it to run, and winter is likewise harsh to both of them.  Rather than being pitted against each other, your brain and body must work together to overcome the odds, growing closer as things get worse, until they win by working together to overcome the Capital…

It’s The Hunger Games. I’m talking about The Hunger Games again. Damn that Jennifer Lawrence’s natural charisma!

So much charisma!

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