For the past week or so, I’ve had an odd image in my mind, a kind of half-memory, of seeing a small herd of deer come out of the woods and wander into the backyard of our house in Amherst where I grew up. This memory has no date on it, so I don’t know if it was a long time ago when I was a little kid, or not so long ago when I was visiting my parents as an adult. But in the memory, it’s late winter or early spring, and someone — my Dad? — observes that it has been a long winter and the hungry, emaciated deer are leaving the safety and anonymity of the woods and coming into people’s backyards looking for food.
Here in the present, it’s late winter in New England, and we’re once again between snowstorms. No sooner have we shoveled out the walks and the driveway after one bout of winter weather, then we are told another one is on the way. No single storm sticks out as being particularly epic, no “Blizzard of ’78,” but the overall effect of repeated blasts is, as Kevin says, “aggravating.”
For runners who are committed, for one reason or another, to getting in a lot of miles, the aggravation of winter induces a kind of mental numbness, distinct from the numbness of fingers and toes, but no less real. Many weeks ago there might have been something mildly heroic about braving the elements to get in that long run. Now, there’s a kind of deer-in-the-backyard quality as we search for routes that give us a chance to get in miles without running through too many snowbanks, or over too much ice, or into too much oncoming traffic.
After last week’s snow that hammered the East Coast, including Washington D.C., Joni told me about how Dennis, here fiancé (and a native of country where it never snows), had expressed incredulity that she would run in spite of a declared snow emergency in the city. Eventually Dennis will learn this is normal behavior. I remember there was a time when my loved ones, too, expressed incredulity and — did I imagine it? — a certain reluctant admiration for my resolve, but that era passed long ago. Now, Ann expresses no surprise at what she has come to accept as a typical, albeit mildly dysfunctional habit. The best I can hope for is that she takes enough notice to scold me for not wearing a reflective vest.
The mental numbness of runners is late February is evident, too, in the decision about what constitutes a reasonable running route. Of course, for some runners, a treadmill or an indoor track solves the problem. Kevin told me yesterday that a fellow age-group competitor of our acquaintance was doing his long runs in the Lexington Field House (9 laps to the mile). If that sounds tedious, it’s not so very different from the routes chosen by those of us committed to running outdoors. Last week, a day after a foot of snow had fallen on Greater Boston, I completed a 45-minute run in Burlington that consisted entirely of loops through the parking lots of nearby office buildings. Yesterday, Tom admitted he had just recently done a three-hour run in which he had never strayed more than three miles from his house. At least there have been no parking garage runs for me this winter, at least not yet.
All this brings me back to my image of that small herd of deer. During yesterday’s run through Arlington and Winchester, I kept thinking about those scrawny deer foraging for food in suburban backyards, just as we scrawny runners were now foraging for relatively bare pavement down streets that we would normally avoid, drawn away from our usual secretive trails to show ourselves on public thoroughfares, searching, searching, searching for good footing.