This morning I stepped out to run after a sleepless night. A pingy frozen mist fell on streets two degrees too warm for it to freeze there. It hit my face as soon as I stepped out, and my feet slipped a bit on the wet pavement. Can’t run in this, I immediately decided. Then I took a breath and the cold air filled my lungs; I took a few steps and my muscles responded; something like a thrill ran through all of me, and I began to walk. By the time I got to the running path I was ready to burst out into long strides, it all felt so good. All of which is especially strange, because it was still dark.
I am still running in darkness. We wait and wait through the darkness of winter for the sun to return, to give us days that are light when we wake up and stay light as long as we care to be outside while the evening draws to a close, and then, sooner than expected, the days begin to shorten.
It has been a weird winter—that’s the word people tend to use most to describe it. Weirdly freezing during December, then jumping back and forth from very cold days to record-breaking warm days throughout January and February. But we accept the unreliability of heat or cold in the seasonal cycle. Some summers sear you with weeks of excessive heat and humidity; some winters keep you in the deep freeze for far too long. Then again, either season can be mild and pleasant.
But the cycle of darkness and light never changes. I suppose meteorologists have tables that can tell us the exact moment of sunrise a hundred years from now. I enjoy running when the sun is up, when drivers heedlessly speeding to their destinations can see me. Like most runners I have had many near collisions with inattentive motorists, though a truck has only hit me once.
The problem is that we do not change our schedules according to the seasons–and that means according to darkness or light. In the old days, maybe Farmer Jones got up at the crack of dawn to start his chores. Well, the crack of dawn is not a time on a clock, say 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., it gradually moves through the year. As the year progressed, someone who awoke at the crack of dawn gradually moved with it.
Once we started doing everything according to clocks, at set hours, that all changed. Now Farmer Jones awakes at 5 a.m., whether it’s dark or light then. When we realized what an artificial overlay timekeeping was to the natural order, we put in force our clumsiest time tracking device of all: Daylight Saving Time. At that point, Farmer Jones likely wanted to hang himself from the hayloft. I can think of nothing that happens in the yearly round of days and nights that more effectively disorients and confuses people.
My thoughts are different when I run in the dark. More about how hard I’m running, how hard it is to run, how my ragged breath claws at my chest, my legs ache ascending a hill. It’s not that bad, but it seems like it in the dark.
Daylight is the good time, darkness is the bad time. Darkness, when philosophers and sneak thieves prowl the night, when dastardly deeds are done, when the lonely stalk their rooms in desperation. We fight the oncoming dark. Jack O’ Lanterns, bonfires, candles, Christmas lights and more illumine our wintry evenings, at least for a while, until we give up, throw in the towel, and let January and February chill our souls. But by then the corner has been turned, the solstice passed, Sol Invictus, Apollo, the Son of God, or whatever ancient spirit appeals to you has returned. To me, prosaically enough, it’s just the sun.
I ran a good distance, though not as far as I was running before I got the flu in January. When I got home I was barely winded and felt very good, and sat down to write this. Finishing up, I look out, and a pale light, struggling through dense clouds, is brightening the window. It’s too cloudy to see much, but the bit of future I can read in the brightness tells me that soon, I’ll be running in the sunlight.