Ithaca in winter is both beautiful and maddening. A general cold creeps into the air sometime in October, followed by a first sticking snow in mid- to late-November. After one or two brief periods of post-fall (relative) warmth through the end of that month, a series of snowfalls -- usually no more than a few inches at a time -- is broken up only by frigid nights and cold days. Waterfalls freeze and icicles turn the gorges into gaping, predatory maws. Forests are coated in powder that will persist into spring, by which time the gentle fluff will be a mass that seems determined to stay through summer. Little-used roads thaw, freeze, thaw, and freeze again, an endless parade of damage wrought to the pavement from within.
Running, it should be apparent, becomes a challenge. The valley holds limited appeal, but its flanking hills are slick with ice and snow. And the treacherous roadways push cars to less dangerous approaches, raising the ire of frustrated drivers at the expense of safety for everyone else on the roads. Trails were essentially off-limits, piled with snow of varying depths and marked with blazes that, while apparent during summer, are nearly impossible to find in the bleak, gray uniformity. But I did the runs anyway, with shoes or snowshoes.
Cycling becomes even more difficult: the ride up the steep hill brings immediate heat to the core, but limbs dangle in the frozen wilds and cry out for attention. Most of my rides were capped by 10 minutes in the bathroom with my hands and feet immersed in warm water, hoping that they would come back to life. They always did, but I don’t wish the stabbing pain of their reawakening on anyone. Distance riding exacerbated the problem, as well as fighting darkness and the attendant vehicular dangers. But I did these rides anyway, extremeties bundled to look like wiffle ball bats affixed to my slender frame.
Since I hadn’t raced much recently, this would be the winter of snowshoe, the time when I would enjoy the snow as much as possible in spite of my limited winter sport experience.
I started taking second runs in the evenings while wearing snowshoes, doing a few miles at a time just to practice the motion. I enjoyed it immensely, especially on frigid, clear nights: the crystalline air, the pleasing crunch of snow underfoot, the quiet calm of a snowbound cemetery at 10 p.m. The experience was soothing and inspiring.
I also rode my trainer to keep in biking shape -- much to the chagrin of my downstairs neighbor, who happened to be the landlord. I had to tailor my times to be sure he was absent when I rode, but I managed to maintain a base.
What all this meant, of course, was that I was getting in better shape during the winter than I had been at the end of summer.
A diversion: Professionals (read: not me) advocate an extended break over the winter wherein the runner allows muscles destroyed over the other 9 or 10 months to recover. During this period, the runner should pursue core athletics, like weight lifting or light indoor cycling or whatever might give you some feeling of “doing something” without continuing the assault on key muscles.
Duly noted. Now let's close 2003 and open 2004 by ignoring that. Running? Check! Biking? Check! In fact, I did more running. Sure, my cycling load went down, but that was mostly by necessity, since it’s pretty much impossible to put in 2.5-hour rides safely after work when darkness falls within a half hour of the end of work. I also swam more, since the pool was open year-round. Oh, and did I mention the indoor track sessions? Running 8 laps per mile is crappy, but running 4 miles outdoors and 16 laps inside isn’t nearly as bad.
That winter, I visited a friend in Germany for two weeks, crashing at his apartment with anywhere from 0 to 4 others and taking weekend trips around the country’s southlands. I don’t know how he felt about me hanging out for so long, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience -- mostly because of the chance to re-connect with people from undergrad in the evenings while running my sorry ass off each morning.
A few days into the visit, I found a space that lies somewhere in the ill-used experiential octant of “absurdly painful”, “exhilarating”, and “pleasantly satisfying”. I left my friend’s apartment around 7 a.m. with the goal of running some of the marked trails up the hill to a place called Schau-Ins-Land, a ski top which promised a tram down to the road, from whence I would catch the bus back into town.
Morning dawned chilly but not cold, so I donned a light jacket but not a hat or gloves. On the first plateau behind the Max Planck Institute, I encountered not the 3 marked trails I was expecting, but a vast array of intersecting and almost entirely unmarked routes. I picked a direction based on the map (go right!), then came upon an intersection with a sign that suggested I was on a trail I didn’t want. Dipping slightly down the hill to recover the actual trail -- which I managed to find pretty easily -- I continued along the plateau and up into the foothills.
The expected climb would be a few thousand feet, and at this point that didn’t seem like much. I pounded through the foothills along the path, every once in a while passing an obvious intersection. I tried to ignore these intersections, but something nagged at me every time: what if I was picking wrong? The trail exited the forest and ran along the east side of a hill, then into a logging area, then onto a small road. At which point there seemed no way forward but on the road, a route I discounted because it clearly went downhill quite significantly. (This was a time before ubiquitous GPS phones, so I was running blind here.) Knowing I had been out for about an hour at this point, it wouldn’t be a problem to just go back, toast this near-2-hour trip with a fresh beer, and enjoy the afternoon.
I turned around, disappointed to have fallen short of my goal. But lo! what luck! A half mile back, I encountered the first person I’d seen on the path, a middle aged woman walking her dog. This close to the trail’s departure point from the road, she seemed a likely information source. Mustering my directional German, I got the scoop: the trail actually spurred off the road, just past a fallen log on the right hand side. Straight on and straight up.
I told myself it could be no more than a few miles before Schau-Ins-Land and dashed back to the entry, which was right where the woman said it would be. The straight vertical at the bottom turned into a series of extended switchbacks, maybe a few hundred meters each, with a steeper climb at either end. I ascended into a cloud and felt the thickening dampness on my uncovered hands and ears. The air cooled: chilly but not cold became a little cold became a Pacific Northwest mid-winter's day. The trail was slick with rainfall, the wind harsh at one end of the switchbacks that towered over the valley below.
The view, though -- ah, the view! How can I describe the beauty? Imagine the expansive vistas of Yellowstone, or the sweeping sights from atop the high peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, or the brilliant hues of autumn gazing down the White Mountains! Sublime! And exactly unlike mine, which was a scrubby forest terminating suddenly in a featureless, white void. Pine forest. Fog. When the snow began to fall, my mind turned itself around, and I passed the point of desiring the destination to find myself at the point of desiring the end.
I had been out for 2 hours now, and all of my little piggies had long since burned their last piece of coal and begged for warmth. So it was that what was probably about 12 miles into my expected 13-mile run (and actually closer to 14 miles of total ground covered), I turned around for home, simply incapable of going any farther up the foreboding path.
The descent back to the logging road was speedy, and 20 minutes later I was ducking back into the forest where my ephemeral local navigator had appeared. But it was an hour from this point to home, an hour I wasn’t sure would be plausible. Each step felt both relieving and terrible, that sickening agony of having abused oneself beyond reasonable recovery, knowing simultaneously that the end was nearer and the air was warmer but also that the end was not particularly near and the air was not particularly warm. Dashing back through the clear cut, the wind blasted my still-damp and well-chilled body, and I wondered if I would ever be warm again. (As we’ll see, this is a theme for me in long runs. Maybe I should just accept that eventually I will most likely be warm again.)
And now I was back into the trails, and now I was about to find my second Al on my Beckettsian journey: an ex-military runner out for the morning, his English as terrible as my Polish. My German, though, is passable, perhaps up to the level of “intermediate proficiency”, particularly if the audience isn’t expecting perfection. And having been out for 2.5 hours, soaked in sweat and rain, I somehow retained enough to have a cogent 45-minute conversation with a man whose name I never caught.
He was -- and I say this only mildly hyperbolically -- my mental salvation. We descended like a pair of old running buddies, him in front taking all reasoning requirements away from my incapable mind. Down we went until we emerged behind the Max Planck Institute once again. I bid tak and adieu (however you say that in German) to this temporary companion, made my way through the church lot and down back roads, past the bar I had been at until 1 a.m. that morning, across the tracks, and, knowing there was little to eat at the apartment, straight to the grocery store.
Fruit first, a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, and as many beers as I felt I could afford with the remainder of my 20 Euro -- the cash I had pocketed as tram and bus fare. People watched this beaten man walk the store. I must look terrible, I thought, but I’m hungry and will never leave the apartment once I get there. I brought the goods to the front, where the cashier sized me up, said something I didn’t understand. I stared at her. She repeated, and a look of pity spread across her face: she took my bananas, brought them back to the fruit section, weighed them for a price tag, then took both back to the register.
“Klar?” she asked, and gave me a look that suggested she found the situation at least a reasonable diversion from an otherwise uninspiring day.
I laughed at the absurdity, and the line that was forming behind me seemed unfazed by the entire fiasco. I was too tired and cold to care.
The apartment was like a cozy blanket, and I knew a shower was in order. I stumbled inside while mashing a banana into my mouth, barely able to chew. The shower was upstairs, and I could hardly move my legs.
And it was now, almost 4 hours after the run started, as I gingerly prepared to take off my jacket, that I first looked down. Here was the source of such bemused looks from passers-by, those smirks and stares: two enormous stains of blood streaked down from my nipples. I had bled through the undershirt, through the running shirt, through the jacket, to make symmetric spears of crimson.
The shower was probably drawn out, and my subsequent nap went for hours. I ate a loaf of bread slathered in black currant jam. I felt exhausted, wrecked, humbled, and overjoyed.
A week later -- after running every intervening day -- I found myself outside Munich, staying with a cousin of my friend. One morning I left the apartment with a 10 Euro note and an agenda: run about 10k, stop at the bakery, get back to the apartment with fresh patisserie before anyone woke up. I dutifully killed the kilometerage, then popped into the baeckerei to buy some wholly unhealthy bread products for 5. I picked out 6 items, tallying the costs mentally, but missed a 1 somewhere; when the total came up, it was 10.80. The woman behind the counter looked at my 10 Euro, looked at me, looked at the 10 Euro.
I picked a croissant. “I don’t need that one. Just take it off so the 10 will cover the cost.”
“Once I ring it up, I don’t know how to un-ring it. Can you get the money and come back?” she asked.
I shrugged. “It’s 10 minutes round trip, and I’m leaving today, or I’d drop it by later on.”
There was a pause while we looked at each other. Then the woman reached across the counter and dug her hand into the tip jar. She pulled out a few coins, stuck them in the register with the 10 Euro, and smiled. “You can pay me back next time you’re in town,” she smiled.
My European adventures ended with stints in Brussels, the Netherlands, and finally (again) in Germany. I returned home and resumed snowshoeing, enjoying the cold of Ithaca that doesn’t sneak up on you. At the end of January, I ran a snowshoe race. My one and only snowshoe race, unfortunately, as (a) snowshoe races pretty much didn’t exist at that point and (b) my time in Ithaca was soon to come to a close. The race was 7.6 miles over forest terrain, and I decided at the outset that snowshoeing at the front was a bad plan -- you don’t want to break trail for everyone -- but passing would also be practically impossible. It was necessary, then, to stake out a spot near the front and work to maintain that position. I did so admirably, holding 3rd through most of the race and falling to 4th when Rebecca decided she had made a mistake in following me.
As happy as I then was with snowshoe racing, winter wound down swiftly. I had kept in pretty good shape and was eager to get back out there for another season of kicking ass and maybe taking a name or two but mostly just making up more nicknames.
Mash out. Spin on.