I was between my fourth of five sprint intervals on the rail trail, jogging slowly, when I stopped. A flurry of rabbits had run across my path, leaving muddy hare prints illuminated by my headlamp. I laughed inwardly, grateful that the dread I usually feel each autumn for shortened days and the darkened cold had flipped to full, headlong embrace of the blessed gift of my nighttime outdoor gym.
That’s an odd concept, granted, but one I’d learned years ago. Trying to run or row or cycle indoors was a torture chamber I could never adjust to in winter. I’m a creature of the outdoors, even if I can only get there at night, in the snow, in the dark.
The problem is, each year I have to re-learn the lesson. And each fall it starts just the same — me gritting my teeth at daylight suddenly extinguished too short by the random arrival of “standard” time.
That happened a month ago, when I found myself starting a ride just after work on an unusually still evening, frosty, crisp, and lovely.
Lovely, but I was cursing the darkening skies. Okay, okay, I told myself. I have an LED on my bars, it’d be fine. But “fine” isn’t the same as “stoked.”
To distract myself I made a game of riding in the dark. I hammering up the 30-minute ascent, brailling my way ahead, absorbing the trail, listening to distinguish dirt from leaves from puddles. Each twist brought a new horizon line through leafless forest; I was chasing the twilight west, always a step behind, a quarter-lit moon already hovering to the southeast.
As I progressed back in a slow arc toward the trailhead, through a patch of cliff-walled, darkly lit forest of tamarack, a white-winged owl launched just ahead of me, swooping down toward some prey I couldn’t see and then alighting on a branch overhead. I stopped dead in my tracks and watched it. Its head swiveled around and it stared back, blinking. My teeth were no longer gritting about being out too late; I was elated, embracing the silent woods and their quiet, calm company.
On my run, I followed the same path I’d used on many fall and winter nights. One strangely warm November evening a few years ago, I had pushed myself out the door at 6 p.m. in the pouring rain. The trail was a thick and muddy soup and I charged along in a blitz of headlamp-glowing, steamed breath, only to realize the beacon on my head was attracting a cloud of mosquitoes and they, in turn, were bait for bats, dozens of them. The bats were always just ahead of me, dive bombing in perfect pace with my slog. Transfixed, I flew along faster — and the bats kept up. We were dancing, symbiotically, and I was utterly immersed in the moment: swimming with dolphins? Try running with bats.
Maybe you’ve gone indoors for winter, into the gym. More power to you to keep at it. But I’ll be in the woods, happy to be in my own dark, muddy, snowy “gym” along with owls, rabbits — and the rest of the big, dormant outdoors.
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