Monday, January 17, 2011

Season of Lights

*Note* A piece I wrote for Robious Corridor Magazine in December...

It’s the time of year when the days get shorter. They’re still 24 hours long, but the sun takes a bit of a holiday for several weeks. The shorter daylight and cold air compel us to hunker down and more often than not, stay inside. I spent most of my life in the snow belt of western New York and learned the way to survive the gray skies, mountains of snow, and frigid temps were two face cords of wood and a sturdy crock pot.

When I moved to Midlothian eight years ago, I was immediately struck at the number of people who ran, walked, and biked throughout my neighborhood in Salisbury – even in winter. Granted, our much gentler climate allows for this luxury.

The neighborhood is lovely indeed – it’s streets a ‘bowl of spaghetti’ of turns and rolling hills, instead of the grid-like neighborhoods in which I’d grown up. I’m lucky to live in such a park-like setting which provides miles of roads for safe recreation. I’ve spotted the Albino deer, hurtled snakes, seen owls and hawks fly past. I chart the progress of the seasons with the budding and blooming of trees in the spring, the smell of honeysuckle in the summer, and the riot of color in the fall. But the winter running is often the hardest of all, as most of it is done in the dark.

The 6 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years, though, provide a gift of light. The winter solstice – the darkest day of the year – falls right in the middle. After the seasonal chow-down of Thanksgiving, the Christmas lights start to show up on the houses, and each run through the neighborhood reveals another house or two that is lit up to celebrate the holidays and combat these long dark days. I’m wearing my own version of “Holiday Lights”: reflective clothing and a halogen headlamp that I refer to as my “miners light.” Getting out on a cold night and anticipating the next new set of lights then finishing up with my cheeks red from the cold and seeing my breath in the cold air, I’m transported back to my middle-school self running home for dinner.

The neighborhood is a friendly place. People rarely fail to wave when I pass them in a car or on foot. In the dark of winter, they often have their bright headlights on to see. And if they don’t, often times they’ll put them on when they see a runner or walker as if to say “Yup, I see you.” It’s just a funny observation I’ve made over the years that many drivers turn off their highbeams for oncoming cars but turn them on for people on foot, and I’ve taken to wearing a ballcap in the middle of winter to block the glare, a seasonal anomaly for sure. I went for a Christmas Eve run one year to do a tour of the luminaries. It was a crisp winter evening; the glow of the candles along the road was enchanting. Headed home around a curve in the road I saw an oncoming car. And – you got it – the driver turned on his brights. I was momentarily blinded, took a wrong step on a spot of crumbling pavement and tumbled head-over-heels into someone’s yard. It was not an elegant dismount. Fortunately I didn’t hit any of the luminaries and become the Richmond version of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. To his credit, the driver stopped to make sure I was ok. Gasping for air – the fall had winded me – I thanked the driver for stopping and explained the source of my gymnastic exhibition. I then wished him a Merry Christmas and continued home to bandage my bleeding hands and knees.

The mornings can be particularly dicey with people rushing to school and work, trying to beat the clock and I take extra care to avoid the routes that have a lot of traffic or blind corners. A week or two ago, I was running with my Tuesday/Thursday morning group. We were turning a corner on Kentford Drive in single file headed toward the Salisbury Golf Course’s water fountain. A car came caroming around the corner, its tires hugging the edge of the road. We were all wearing some kind of reflective gear and I was wearing my trusty “miners light”. In addition, the sun was rising and it was light out. However, the driver was either careless or distracted and all four of us were forced off the road to prevent being hit. Out of breath and incensed is not a good combination and we loudly grumbled the remaining tenth of a mile until we got to the water fountain. What if that had been a kid? What make of car was it? Someone had seen the first three numbers on the license plate; someone else mentioned the car was a Volkswagon. To which I laughed and said “BLACK ONE” and gently smacked his arm.

After Christmas, the light displays are turned off, and are pretty much gone by early January. Then it’s just me and the occasional headlights. The temperatures dip, they days are pretty dark, and spring seems a long way off. And while the desire to hunker down is as strong as ever, I’ll still take to the streets for a run. And when I return, I’ll throw another log in the hearth and then fire up my crock pot.

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