Sometimes it’s pretty dark on the running path up, down and through Lincoln Park, but darkness seems to be a problem only as far as it affects the footing — because the footing’s the thing, running through an eastern Washington winter. If I can make it to March — if I’m not sidetracked by my trick knee — I can run the year round.
You do have to be careful. A simple frost promises texture, but a glaze on the ground that can scarce hold a gleam might throw you down. Snow complicates things. Melting, too. And refreezing, and then maybe snow again. So on a day when fresh white has been laid out in slippery swirls and stripes, you might pick and place your steps in between, on the gritty blacktop. Other days, when the black has been coated with slick clear ice, you might run on the rough white stuff at the side of the path. In mixed conditions, assuming you have enough light, the safest place for your foot just might be the boundary between black and white. The trick is to remember that texture for the eye often corresponds to purchase for the foot. Beware the smooth expanse. Aim for the edges, keep on the crunch.
Now there’s a way to run on ice, if not on ice water flowing over ice, down a hill: You slow down (not from any brilliant clip to begin with, in my case). You shorten your stride, angle your feet outward, splay your toes wide inside your shoes (you can hardly keep from doing this). Rather than pushing off, you allow your foot to rock through a complete, careful heel-to-toe, lifting straight up before swinging forward, and then you lower your foot to the ground for another careful rock. Your foot’s trajectory should trace a shape more like a croquet wicket than the usual shallow rainbow. (Of course, you can also just wear crampons, but where’s the romance in that?) You can rush through slush, if you can take the misery of frigid water sucking and slishing between your toes and trashing your shoes.
You can make it through deep snow, too, but sometimes it’s a lot of work — a lumbering trudge. Once I came down through the snowbound park to freshly plowed, salted and darkly glistening 17th Avenue, then sprang along on legs so light it seemed the street must have been paved with midnight moonrock.
To some, cold would seem the overwhelming problem, and there was a Saturday morning in January when the needle on the thermometer outside the kitchen window jammed deep on the wrong side of zero.
Up at the top of the park, sky lightening, deep into the run, I loosened the drawstrings and doffed my hood to better hear in the distance the tuneful hoots and ahems of a chilled and drowsy train. Immediately, my sweat-wet head was plunged into a burst of deceptive clarity that unraveled as the heat differential hit. A vortex formed, whirling the warmth of my brain off into the tropopause, leaving me to mull over the precise implications of the word numbskull….
It was that cold. Usually, from running into my own breath, I generate a fine crop of frost on my beard (it has occurred to me I could mitigate this effect by running backwards). When I looked in the bathroom mirror that day, it seemed as though an albino hedgehog was clinging to my chin. No longer stoked by the furnace of my running, I was starting to shake as I rolled and wrestled off my wet hoodie and t-shirt, wanting nothing more than a shower hot enough to strike sparks from my bones.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when the snow season starts around here. Winter begins in Spokane in fits and tips (this winter has been an exception), lunging, retreating, backing up for another go. But my first encounter with winter came one very dark November day, when I ran face-first into a cloud of unexpected precipitation — vaporous and crystalline at the same time, an invisible sparkling of my lips and eyelashes, my cheekbones, the rims of my nostrils. It was like colliding with a flight of bubbles escaped from champagne.
On another day, the quality of light leaking over the top of the window shade told me — even before I looked outside — that snow had been and was still falling and flying and drifting deeper. “Nature’s alibi,” Emily Dickinson once called snow. A gift you can open yourself out into.
Running through falling snow is the most beautiful physical thing I’ve ever done. I just had to write that down once. It might even be true. Skiing tends to be too bundled up with technique and money and speed. When you run in falling snow, tension eases and shrugs and flakes away, as though clotted and tangled stress were an actual substance. Your anti-levity muscles relax, your shoulders and the corners of your mouth float up.
Have you entered the treasuries of the snow? The Lord, with a snort and a strut, asked Job, who found it hard to reply. But all I can say is, you bet.
Steve Wing is a local freelance writer and an occasional contributor to The Inlander.