The days that make you strong.
Sure, I’ve complained endlessly about the weather here since about November 3rd, and I’m willing to bet everyone in my life is sick to the devil of hearing about it. In the back of my mind, though, I’m sometimes thankful for Juneau’s predictably uninspiring weather, because there’s nothing quite like it to sharpen my mental toughness. Through these months in the poor weather, I’ve become so much more adept at running within myself, calmly accepting the circumstances, and not letting the conditions derail my run.
It’s not easy. This week I’ve been popping awake between 4:15 and 4:45 — not too long before my alarm goes off — anxious and restless to be out there so that I can get the insult of the weather over with. The view out my window these fall and winter mornings is so often the same: I peer out through the curtains and blink at the rain, snow, or sleet roaring by beneath the glow of orange streetlights, pinging into the lakes of slush that form on the sidewalks and road shoulders.
I take a deep breath. I can do it again.
I can pull the tights on, pull on the sports bra and the longsleeve shirt, the reflective vest, some pair of wool socks that will keep my feet from becoming too cold after getting wet. Thread my ponytail through a brimmed cap to cut down some of the wind and rain that will assault my face. Pull a fleece earband around my head, gloves on my hands. Lace the ice grippers over my shoes.
I can do it again. I can get out there. These, I say to myself, are the runs that make you strong.
As I turn my key in the lock, I know that in about 90 minutes I’ll be back here. Soaked. Shivering. Elated.
90 minutes is so small. Very soon I’ll be showered and dry and drinking a hot pot of tea. 90 minutes is nothing at all.
Nobody knows I do this. None of the kids I work with know I’m out there at 5 am in the dark. None of the teachers I nod to in the halls. Even my friends and my coworkers, the people who know that I run — even they don’t know what it means to be out there by myself in the nastiest part of the day, stomping through rivers of slush in the dark, stomach in my throat, talking myself through every single minute, my arms going numb with the cold, sleet nicking my face, wind howling over the bridge and it’s raining sideways again. They don’t know. This belongs to me and nobody else.
I set my course this morning for a 10KM pace workout. Six miles of work at the pace I hope to hold for my next 10K race.
I wake up and see the same old scene. The icy rain smacking the window, wind whipping past the street lamps. I decide at first that I will run inside on the treadmill for this workout.
Then I reconsider. Speed workouts on a treadmill are hard for me; harder than running outside.
Before I know it, I’m pulling on an outdoor outfit, pulling on my shoes, pulling on my ice spikes. I can do it.
I know within the first minute outside that this one will be a fight. The wind over the bridge is nearly unbearable and I am soaked from head to toe by the conclusion of the first mile. I take three miles to warm up and then I launch into the first set of speed.
The workout: 2×2 miles and 2×1 mile at 10K pace.
For the first set at two miles, I run with the wind at my back, and it feels easy. Hilly mile one in 6:32, flat mile two in 6:16. Piece of cake.
Then I turn around.
That’s why I was going so fast with so little effort… the wind greets me like a wall and the sleet pings into my face like a million icy spitballs and I am instantly freezing cold, tingling legs and arms, can’t get my legs turning over to save my life.
The first mile of my second set is a 6:40. Ugh. FORGET THIS. Screw it. I prepare my proverbial towel for throwing and my white flag for hoisting… and then I hesitate. Because I can do better than this. Everyone has bad days, but this doesn’t have to be one of them. I don’t have to let the weather unravel this workout. I can fight back, press, stop being such a colossal whiner and remember that sub-40:00 10K pace is well within my range of abilities. I’m awake, I’m alive, I’m in excellent health, I’m young, and I know it’s not going to be like this forever. Someday I won’t be capable of doing this anymore — not in this way, not to this extent, and not even at all — and life will be different. Today, I’m lucky to be out here. I GET to be out here.
I pump my arms, focus on the quarter mile I’m in right now, hug the treeline on the side of the road to cut down on the wind. Second mile in 6:28. I roll my eyes. Whatever. It’s in the bank, and all I have left are my 2 x 1 miles.
Half the distance. One quarter at a time. Both miles will be into the headwind. This will make me tough.
The first mile is a 6:21. Dashing onto a side street gains me half a mile of respite from the direct headwind, and my enthusiasm for the workout is renewed.
The last mile is the most wind-exposed of the workout, and also happens to feature the poorest footing and highest number of icy slush lakes. The wind, awful footing, sleet-rain-ice-whatever-it-is: this will all make me strong. I finish in 6:21.
I jog home.
I’m back 87 minutes later, a 10K workout and another 12 miles in the books, turning my key in the lock again. Soaked. Shivering. Elated.
I’m not special. I’m not an Olympian. I’m not an elite. I’m a nobody. And it’s not even the most fantastic workout I’ve ever had or the most encouraging pacing I’ve ever produced. But it’s mine. And I’m stronger because of it. And that, today, is all I want.