Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Grey Days and Mental Fortitude

When did the sky turn black? 
And when will the light come back? 
We all suffer but we recover 
Just to discover life where we all are
--Owl City, Beautiful Times

February in New England is usually wall-to-wall grey. The sky is grey, which you think you can picture just by reading it -- but it is a totally different experience of grey than you have ever had if you don't live here. It is like a back lit grey during the daytime, and it is unrelenting. You don't even look out the window in February or March because you know that it will be grey. There is something very defeating about that color, and the bitter cold that accompanies it.

You have to build color into your life, because the monotony can be defeating. The lack of variety can really drive up the depressive feelings. The grey light can be really piercing.

So it is easier to run in the early morning or night, and stare into the headlights of cars, or the champagne colored streetlights around town. When we worked on our kitchen this past summer, my wife picked a bright yellow to paint on our accent wall. I hated it at the time. But, lit up it does make the house feel as if the sun is in the room and that is a relief this time of year.

I'm also lucky in that I can climb some hills in my neighborhood and see straight across the bay to Providence. There are a plethora of twinkling lights, including my favorite red lights on the immense energy-generating windmills we have. It puts me in awe most nights, but especially nights where it is very clear, and offer a contrast to stormy nights or nights of thick fog where there is a wall between me and the capitol city. I love running at night. It can be hard to drag myself out for the miles at night, when I'm tired from a long work day.

But those lights never disappoint.

There is a certain amount of mental toughness that is really necessary to do this thing. I mean, you need a lot of mental toughness to survive all that unrelenting grey I mentioned. But running in the winter conditions and also after dark takes an ability to go to a mental place where you can ignore the temporary discomfort associated with cold. Cold usually doesn't bother me, by the way. I take regular ice baths, go outside barefoot in winter, and have polar-plunged a couple of years in a row. But there is a difference between these temporary outings into cold and a prolonged exposure to these conditions.

Long runs in these conditions are really tough. A couple of weeks ago I ran when the windchill was reportedly down to -25. The temperature had a "feels like" of -3. I actually found the first part of that run (about seven miles or so) to not be so bad, and had some fun with it. Running back home, however for the last miles was painfully unpleasant. The wind was ripping me up, and my balaclava had shifted such that I couldn't get the thing to cover the lower half of my face. When it did cover my face, the vapor from my breath fogged my sunglasses so I had to ditch them. On top of all of that, I realized when I got home that I had worn the lighter of my two pairs of tights. Honestly, I should have worn pants over the tights.

That run put me in a bad place, even though I cut it short at twelve miles (it was supposed to be fourteen.) I didn't want to run the next day -- which was supposed to be even colder, and didn't end up being as cold. I took a rest day and worked the miles in later that I missed. But mentally I was pretty beat.

You have to maintain a high level of focus and composure, because slip ups in form are really dangerous when you're running among snow and ice sheets. Pot holes can be harder to spot. Narrower pedestrian paths mean drivers are even more dangerous than usual (and that is really saying something!) On top of all of that, less focus and composure means less motivation. I'm in the midst of some real quality weeks for the Eastern States and Big Sur. I can't afford to lose mileage at this point in the plan. But, I am so tempted to stay where it is warm and have a beer. The inward struggle is tough.

This last week I made almost every scheduled run happen -- my speedwork was lacking in quality because of the cold, but I did get it in. The recovery miles from my speed ended up being pushed off a day. Being that I live in New England we have started this week off with some really unseasonable warmth -- I was even able to run in shorts and a t-shirt this past Sunday, but being that I've been running after dark more often I'm still in my tights and jacket. It gets cold at night.

Having a goal also helps. Thinking about an upcoming race, thinking about the end of the week, or the end of the workout. You do what you gotta do to get through a tough situation.

I'm optimistic about Eastern States and Big Sur. I feel like this winter has gone better for me than past years. I put up about 51 miles last week -- quite a few miles for me especially at this time of year. I'm planning another 45-50 miles again this week, but I'm taking it day by day and trying to really take it easy on my lighter days. Want to make sure I have the strength to really build my endurance on my long runs.

On the parenting front we've started to hit our stride, I think. At least as far as the general welfare and household management goes -- this past week I was finding it easier to keep up with things and not get overwhelmed. We also had more of a chance to spend time together -- and I still got eight hours of running in -- and that was really good on both fronts. I also have been getting a better quality of sleep which helps with my all around sanity, and my wife's postpartum anxiety and depression have been much better with treatment. She is a really strong woman, and I admire deeply her ability to not only seek out and work towards help, but also to refuse to allow the stigma surrounding this mood disorder to change how she sees herself.

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