Fragility

Hot and Cold.

There are people that thrive in one condition, and tolerate the other condition. In my experience, few people enjoy both extremes. As for myself, I can bear being ‘too hot’, but find little to enjoy in being ‘too cold’.

Canada, at least around this end, is certainly a country of four seasons. Montreal can swing from 33c and above, with heavy humidity in the summer (or wet heat as my non scientific brain tells me) and -36c and below in the winter. (My first ever night in Montreal, fresh off the plane, was a blistering -42c with wind chill).

One of the few positives of these seasonal swings is that you really feel like you are transitioning through the year (although there is a good argument that spring is nonexistent here). It feels like someone arbitrarily flips a heat switch at an undisclosed point towards the end of April and it goes from snow everywhere to early summer heat in a matter of weeks. It is a small cause for celebration, and the often premature shedding of well-worn layers, people rushing out in the open air to embrace the warmth, only to meet a last cold shock that descends before winter finally leaves.

This seasonal shift makes running an endless challenge. One is tied to the whims of nature, judging the shifting landscape and temperatures with each run. Do you layer up, do you dress down, are the running trails clear, where should I run, what time of day is optimal. Many questions to answer with each run….

In my experience, the crucial difference between running in the summer heat, and running in the winter cold is that, if I am too hot, I can just stop running, and cool down, or grab refreshment for a short-term fix. That is not minimizing the risk of running in the summer heat…when I ran my only marathon, someone died 2/3rds into it from heat stroke leading to a heart attack. I avoid the heat of the day and try running in the morning or evening, but it doesn’t always work out. I just run and sweat and run some more, until I am a ragged soaking mess, but it feels like an achievement.

In the winter, there is no refuge, especially on a long run. If I get too cold, then I am too cold, and that is a fixed situation until I stop running and seek refuge. The longer the run, the more tired I get, and the more frequent the walk breaks become, and this adds to the general cool down. I lose the ability to ‘just keep running’ to warm up again. Once I have passed a certain point, I am just cold, and there is little I can do to fix this. If I stop running, and grab a coffee from somewhere to warm up, the run is pretty much over.

There is a small number of times where extremes has lead to a situation where I no longer felt in control of the situation. In the heat, less than in the cold, but once on a long run I got faint and dizzy due to the heat, but a slow down and cool off period fixed it. Once while hitchhiking in the snow, stuck in the same spot for 4 hours, I began to lose the feeling in my legs; a creeping cold that became impossible to avoid and ignore, and that was frightening, only resolved by a fortunate lift stopping to pick me up.

Today was my final run of the year, and I was determined to finish the year with a half marathon. In my 7, 8 years of running, I try to end each year with a half marathon run. Last Xmas was a cold and windy -12c, with a break in McDonalds towards the end for a coffee and muffin. It was a scrappy run, but relatively uneventful. I wasn’t trained for it. But I got it done.

This year, for a few months, I was actually running a half marathon a week; a distance I would consider unthinkable in my running career. Somehow there was a mental shift in my attitude towards distance running, where it felt ‘do-able’ I can’t explain it, but previously unattainable consistency just felt like it was achievable, therefore I ran. I had a crazy month or so (at least, crazy for me, for ‘serious’ runners, nothing special) where I was nudging a 50 mile week. I never quite got to that goal, or my idea of running 4 half marathons in a week, but I enjoyed stretching things out.

Of course, that was before winter descended, and then my mileage went to crap. One to three short runs per week, in the frigid shock of the Montreal winter. This week was brutal temperatures, -20c for around 8 straight days, still going currently. This week I had managed one 7 mile run, and although my high point, distance wise was only a few weeks in the past, this was 15 miles in pre-snow conditions.

Now the snow and ice makes for hazardous conditions, unpredictable trails, unsteady footfalls and constant improvisation.

So, today, the final day of 2017, I set out for a half marathon distance with determination, and some level of confidence, given my recent level of distance capability and fitness , however, it became one of the few times where I became afraid and fragile and worried for my health.

I had run from my home location to the end of the island in the west, which is just under a half marathon distance. It is a long, flat, generally featureless run, hard to entertain myself, but something I had achieved this year, having long planned to do it, so I looked to the east for my run. There is a spot around half marathon distance to the east which is where a long canal ends and opens up to a kind of artificial land-mass ending which looks over the river. I have visited it a number of times by bike and on foot in the summer, but never ran there, so I was familiar enough with it to run there. It is basically a long straight canal path all the way to the waterfront.

I layered up, 4 layers on top (with nipple plasters) and just regular jogging pants and boxers below…hat, gloves, and face mask. It’s my ‘maximum’ protection for a long run in the cold. The temp was hovering around -20c. This is on the cold end of my runs. I have run in colder, but not by much.

The run went largely to plan for the first 6, 7 miles. The cold was manageable, the trails were maintained enough, and the temperature low enough, that the snow was hard and packed underfoot, so although progress was slow, it was steady.

Things started to go ‘tits up’ in the second half of the run. The canal-side trailway was closed, either because they don’t maintain it in the winter months, or there was some kind of longer term construction. That forced me on to a roadside that ran along the canal route. There was a long, straight stretch that lasted perhaps 5 miles, with no variation, and no place to hide from the relentless headwind. As the miles ticked by, it began to take a toll on me. It started with the thighs, getting cold, numb, aching in the joints, which slowed me, forced more walk breaks, and that in turn started to cool other parts.

Passing 10 miles, and the cold became relentless. I had been checking my mileage once a mile until then, now I began glancing at my watch more often, and hence focusing far too much on the remaining distance, which slowed. The face mask was a constant source of annoyance, it would slip down my face and block my air passages, ice formed around the nose and mouth, sweat would drip down to the bottom of the mask and freeze around the adams apple, the ice would rub and irritate my throat. The hair in my nostrils froze, further restricting my breathing. I tried removing my mask to clear my nose and face, but I lost a bunch of heat doing so, and had to slip the mask back on. My eyes began to water, droplets freezing on my eyelashes, distorting my view in my periphery.

The last few miles were the toughest, my left knee began to lock up, further restricting forward progress, so the last mile or two was more walking than running. It was at this stage that determination and stubbornness took priority over logic and sense. I was close, the distance was tangible, and I needed to finish it, despite my fitness level being lower in the previous weeks, I had to prove to myself that I could still achieve the distance.

I was withing touching distance of the planned run, and I began to lose feeling in my right hand, particularly my little finger. I simply wasnt generating enough body heat to power the system anymore, and my extremities were shutting down. It was a worry.

I reached the end of my run, and slipped off my right glove to snap a quick picture. There were actually icicles on the front and back of the phone. I was amazed the battery hadn’t drained. I snapped a quick picture to signify the end of the run, near the waterfront, and quickly slipped my glove back on, but I had no feeling in some of my fingers now, and couldn’t slip the fingers back into the right glove fingers, so the glove was half on. As I had no feeling, I couldn’t navigate the inside of the glove and judge how far it was back on my hand. It was partly hanging off, a number of glove fingers were empty. I simply didn’t have the co-ordination to jam the glove back on.

A small amount of panic crept in at this moment….nothing was open at this stage, and I was relatively in the middle of nowhere. I was shaking, no solace from the weather, no way to warm up, and I couldn’t extract my phone to navigate a route to safety due to my gloved hands losing their dexterous touch.

I ran in a small circle, trying to tuck my hands under my armpits to extract some warmth, but couldn’t find any respite from the cold. The main problem with running gear is that it is great while you’re running, but once you slow or stop, it just doesn’t retain heat.

I ran in an aimless small circular route, looking for the nearest spot of refuge, but everything was closed.

I ended up in a bus shelter, barely warmer, but warm enough that I could quickly check my phone to gain my bearings. Nothing close enough to me, and I was exhausted. Looking at getting an expensive cab ride, when a bus turned up, going in the wrong direction, but I didnt care, it was temporary refuge from the bitter cold.

At last, a small amount of warmth. I pressed my legs against the floor heaters, trying to warm up. Some of the fingers on my right hand just werent responding, and I couldnt stop shivering, a small moan escaping my mouth as I sat and shook. I had misjudged the run, but was lucky to be out of the cold.

After I regained some level of feeling, I recalculated my route. I had to spend 45 mins on the bus just going to the end of it’s route, turning around, and going back to the other side of the road where I got on the bus, and had another hour plus to get back home by public transport, but I didn’t care. I was regaining feeling and body temperature.

It was only the second time in my life where the climate had made me afraid. I know, most of the run was first world problems, I realize I was a phone call and taxi ride from safety, that my phone had signal, that I could have figured a way out, but I also realize how the cold makes one panic, makes one less composed, easier to make sloppy judgments and decisions. A small domino collapse of judgement calls, one small moment falling on another, until you are in a place where the ability to control the situation is slipping away from you.

I realize that I am not the person to rely on in a tragedy. I am not the cool, calm, composed head that I would love to be. I have been in situations and stumbled my way out of them, but it felt like more luck and chance and fortune than planning and skill.

The shivering lasted beyond my cold’s life-span, until it was out of fear, and bad judgement, and worry about being in helpless situations.