Last winter was undoubtedly the hardest of my life. I had to suddenly adjust to living alone after my marriage quickly fell apart. I was incredibly burned out at my job, but stuck there for financial reasons. And running was a struggle, day in and day out. I didn’t know what was going on at the time, but I confided in my coach that something just felt “off” and that I couldn’t get into a rhythm. Still, I refused to relent. As the cold and dark descended and pushed against my will, I responded by pushing back. I’m not one to just let external forces dictate my life for me, so every day I prepared for the next, to make it as easy as possible to get up in the morning, go for my run, eat, ride to work, get through the day, make it back home and start all over again. I fell into a rhythm that was at times reliable and at others, felt like an ever tightening rope that was about to snap and send me plummeting into a blackened cavern, of which I didn’t know what lay at the bottom.
Still, I pushed on. Every morning I got up and ran in the bitter cold, knocking out ten milers, intervals, mile repeats, and so on…hoping against all unseen obstacles that SOMETHING, something I couldn’t name, would finally relent and I would break through into my old pattern of easy running and continuous progression.
But it didn’t.
The cold wore me down, physically and emotionally. I struggled so hard to keep running, to keep waiting for that moment, that breakthrough. That breakthrough that would prove all my previous efforts leading up to that point as not futile. I ran a couple winter races to keep me motivated and although I had relative success in them, they were certainly not where I wanted to be, where I thought I SHOULD be. And so I couldn’t help doubt myself. Was I hitting my running plateau? Was aging holding be back?
Hell no. I refused to accept those fates and continued to push against the cold, against the dark, against the accumulation of effort making only little progress.
It was the winter. I knew it was. I knew I just had to wait it out…to keep pushing until the weather broke and I could be set free in my running. When I didn’t have to mentally battle against the idea of running with fingers burnt from the wind. When I didn’t have to labor over the decisions of dressing appropriately. When I didn’t have to wear tights and could move unrestricted. When the sun would light my morning paths and wake my mind along with my body. I kept running, but was hunkered down too, just waiting it out.
And then that day came, when my friend and I went out for that 30 miler. The sun rose by the time we hit the trailhead and after the second loop and some previous shedding of layers we made the decision, an incredibly liberating gesture, a shaking off the snow from our shoulders…to run shirtless. The wind was dead and the sun was alive. We took off our shirts and ran out for the third loop. The feeling was indescribable and I couldn’t hold back, extending my arms and fingers outward to absorb it all as we shot into the woods, our bodies generating any necessary heat lost in the shade of the leafless limbs.
Winter was over. I knew it. And with that I was going to break free and run with an ever increasing speed and strength.
But then, no. Three days later my life was turned upside down. Cancer.
And after I had time to really stop and think about it, it all came clear. That unpredictable rhythm. The deep, deep cold. The emotional struggle. The compromised runs. The lack of progress. It wasn’t the winter…it was cancer. All along, it was an unnamed, unknown force deep within me, and now I could finally understand the confusion in my words when I told my coach that something just felt different, just felt “off”. It wasn’t the burden of life changes, the losing of love, the weight of financial struggles, the biting cold of winter…it was cancer.
No wonder that winter was so damn hard.
And that brings us to today. Photos on my Instagram feed already show snow falling in other parts of the country where distant friends react with varied excitement or dread. The mornings have already become blanketed in cold, the ground in frost. A jacket and thin gloves no longer cut it when leaving the house. The heater hums a comforting song in the basement. The dark creeps in.
And it’s only going to get worse. Winter is coming.
For me, where that dread of pushing through the slowed pace of the dying season once took a hardened fortitude, now lies a different sort of concern, yet a similar pushing back against the forces of winter. Although my physical efforts are severely compromised, I’m still driven to keep at it as much as I can, to keep mind and body as strong as possible, but that entails working against the cold with new obstacles created by the effects of chemotherapy treatment, the incredibly sensitivity to cold. I feel driven inside to the comfort and warmth of the gym treadmills, but that still demands a bike ride through the darkened cold to get there, and a subsequent ride home. The comfort of my home beckons me to a state of consistent passivity, against my need to push back and remain strong. I could, of course, throw down the cancer card and hide under the covers until it all passes, but I know that’s just not going to happen, that the feelings of regret and defeat would far outweigh the benefits of warm skin, soft morning music, slow risings and ceaseless passivity. No….that’s not how it’s going to work.
Winter is coming…and it’s going to be yet another battle. Despite the conclusion of last year’s winter, I still came out on top. I still battled through and made it back into the sun with a shirtless run as a gesture of victory, and this winter is going to be no different, though my battles may be. I will be rallying against the continued accumulation of chemotherapy, the freakishly problematic side effects of cold sensitivity, the need to remain as strong and healthy as possible against the darkened mornings, and the general desire to curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee as companionship instead of the feelings of accomplishment that come with battling through adversity.
No…we’re going to make it through again, in some form or another. Because when winter comes and the cold cuts deep, there is only one thing to do. Run faster.
Cancer or Cold. I’m going to make it back into the sun again.