Last Friday night, I was chatting with a friend online, and they mentioned that they had received a snowfall warning on their phone. This friend knows I’m a runner, and they know that that’s the sort of thing I’d like to know. I opened my own weather app and saw that the snow was due to arrive Saturday night, dumping 5-10cm before my Sunday morning long run.
Before the pandemic, I trained for the Around the Bay 30k road race for five consecutive winters. There were winters when it felt like it never snowed, except every Saturday night into Sunday, so my long runs were always done in the worst conditions. In December 2021 alone, there was one Sunday morning with a fresh snowfall, and another where the whole city was ice. In all of these cases, as with last weekend, I could have moved my long run to Saturday. I could have run indoors on a treadmill. But in all of those cases, I didn’t change my plans, and I probably won’t the next time I see snow on the forecast for a Saturday night.
I’m not a masochist. I don’t get off on being a hero by running when the going gets tough. Sure, I love winter running. I like the feeling of being outdoors when the temperatures are cold and the contrast when my body gets warm and sweat pools under my layers. But I don’t enjoy running in fresh snow, particularly as a runner with historically weak ankles. I definitely don’t enjoy running on ice, activating stabilizer muscles I never knew I possessed, tensing my body with every precarious step. But I will do it, and have done it, every winter for the better part of the last two decades, every Sunday morning, regardless of the forecast. Not because I’m a hero, but because I don’t know what else to do. And because maybe I’ll look up on that tough run and notice how beautiful the city looks in snow. Or maybe I’ll see a sunrise full of colours I didn’t know existed. It’s not a guarantee that there will be beauty in every run, but it’s the possibility that’s enough. And it’s the knowledge that when the run is done, I’ll be a slightly better runner, because I did it, even though it was hard.
Parents in Ontario, where I live, are facing another round of uncertainty and stress in the face of another school closure and rising case numbers of COVID-19. We feel helpless, powerless, confused, angry, frustrated, and disheartened. And we don’t know what to do. Some of us will choose to send our kids if schools are open. Some will choose to keep them home. It’s impossible to know what’s safest or what’s best.
We don’t know what to do. It’s hard.
I recently listened to a podcast interview with Dr Anna Lembke, author of the book DOPAMINE NATION, where she explained that pleasure and pain are co-located in the brain. There’s a whole bunch of science behind it, but one point that stuck with me was this: in order to get our bodies to produce dopamine naturally (rather than chasing it through addictive substances or behaviours) we can and should engage in what she calls “effortful tasks,” things that are not easy, on a daily basis. Some examples she mentioned included meditation and exercise, but I couldn’t help but think of this advice in the context of running. No one I know puts more daily effort into their lives than runners, especially runners who are also trying to fit running around their jobs or lives as parents. By doing so, we may be temporarily pushing the pain button in our brains, but we’re also making it easier to access pleasure.
As a parent in Ontario, a parent who is also a teacher, the last two years of my life have been challenging in ways I could have never anticipated. If I hadn’t also been waking up every morning and lacing up my running shoes (or getting on my bike, in the interest of injury mitigation, or going for a walk or a swim), these last two years would have been immeasurably harder. As we face another hard season, all I can do is to keep opening up those moments for pleasure, by pressing a little bit on the side of pain.
I don’t actually like the expression, “We can do hard things.” I don’t know why, it just never resonated with me. Maybe I’ve found a new version: “We can do the things we need to do, especially when it’s hard.”