One snow-covered Sunday in New York City, some years ago, two friends met me early at my west side apartment. We ran north through a strangely quiet city just waking up and digging itself out. In Harlem, we helped a guy push his car out of the snow pile left by a plow. A bit farther, we ran over the sweeping George Washington Bridge and headed north beneath the Palisades. We left fresh footprints on the rolling road alongside the partially-frozen Hudson; the air was crisp in our lungs, sun glinted off the new snow. It was magical.
On our return to the bridge, however, we found a road worker barricading the sidewalk. We begged him to let us pass to get back to Manhattan. “To your death,” he said. The morning sun was melting the ice that had built up on the towers and cables and it was falling onto the sidewalk in big sheets. We were contemplating our next move — run several miles south to the mid-town ferries? Try to find a cab? — when he offered us a ride across. We all squeezed into his pickup and soon were running south along Riverside, chatting and laughing in that giddy end-of-a-long-run way, with a great run behind us and a story to tell.
Winter has a way of making every run an adventure and every setting magical. I recall the first 10 miler I ever did, a late-November loop of Silver Lake on the Maine coast after my freshman cross country season at Bucksport High. We left after school on a bright fall day, and by the time we returned it had started getting dark and snowflakes were falling around us, melting as they hit the road and the water. The seasons had changed during our run, the world was different than when we left. I was hooked. It may be the day I truly became a runner and knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
I remember a more recent run along the Chicago lakefront during a winter “bomb cyclone.” I wasn’t sure it was even safe to leave my hotel, but thought I’d bundle up and venture out for a few minutes. Out on the lakeshore path, the snow swirled around me, softening the hard lines of the city that emerged and disappeared as I floated along in a snow globe. I ended up doing 8 miles, feeling no fatigue, high-fiving the other crazies out running, all wearing the same huge, idiotic smile I could feel on my face.
I would have none of those memories, nor the hundreds of others — from daily 4-milers in howling blizzards with my dogs, to epic long runs making first tracks over mountain passes — had I let winter keep me from running, or had retreated to a treadmill. There’s a place for the treadmill, when the wind or ice or bitter cold make outdoor running seriously dangerous. But most of the time, getting outside not only makes us feel alive but is also a great training tool to improve our running, as we develop strength, toughness and a better stride.
As we enter this December, we can hunker down to endure a dark winter, or we can head out and see familiar paths with new eyes. As we taste the crisp, fresh air and float through the white quiet we may feel a spark of long-forgotten magic, and maybe even hope; hope for a different spring, one we’ll be ready to embrace with the youthful strength of a winter well lived.