The Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs at 11:48 p.m. EST tonight.., and I say, let the pagan celebrations begin!
Reaching the solstice is a little but like reaching the starting line of a marathon. It’s a relief, and not a trivial accomplishment to have made it to this point, but the hard work of enduring has only begun.
I’m sure I’m not the only runner who obsessively checks the calendar, constructing personal goals from the impersonal passage of time. Focus on the next milestone, I tell myself: first, the beginning of the hundred coldest days of winter, then the earliest sunset, then the longest night, then the latest sunrise, then the days when a century’s statistics tell us we’ll experience the coldest temperatures of the year… I look forward to reaching each of these celestial and meteorological signposts as though they were my own accomplishments. It’s funny, because the earth would keep circling the sun and the seasons would come and go even if I were staying in bed with the covers over my head. That, by the way, was my instinct this morning, but I managed eventually to rouse myself to action by reminding myself that on the day of the solstice, of all days, it was not very difficult to rise before the sun.
I think perhaps runners, especially, have a deep-seated need to know where they’re going and when they’ll arrive. But the thing is, there’s no real destination, and so the idea of arriving is a little vague. Finish the nth rep in a track workout and within a few moments you’re preparing for the nth+1 rep; cross a finish line swearing that marathons are dumb and you’ll never do one again and within a week you’re planning your next attempt. There’s something to be said for being able to re-focus and re-motivate yourself for the next challenge. But I suppose the down side, if you want to call it that, is that you’re always running towards some distant finish line that turns out not to be a finish line at all.
It’s true, we might forget about the big picture as we focus on our immediate and arbitrary goals, narrowing our ambition to handling the next interval, but maybe that’s our special talent. What’s the alternative? If we think too far ahead — to how many intervals or how many miles are left — then our concern for the future will only make a mess of the present.
I think focusing gets harder, not easier, as we get older. I’ve noticed recently, that I have to work harder to trust that if I take care of the task at hand, I’ll be able to handle the tasks to come. I distinctly remember workouts last summer when I had to talk myself into running less conservatively, something that’s never been a problem before. And so, workouts become about so much more than pushing the body; they become battlegrounds where we fight our growing aversion to risk and self-preservation.
Granted, on the longest night of the year, an instinct for self-preservation isn’t such a bad thing. Our ancestors knew that survival depended on laying in the stores to make it through the months of deprivation. But instead of staying home, huddled in their blankets, they also built bonfires and put on silly plays, marking the solstice as a night of celebration of the beginning of the long journey to spring.
I resolve, then, to adopt that same brazen attitude. Spring is coming! (Never mind that winter lies in wait.) And I’ll be there to celebrate the equinox, as I now celebrate the solstice, along with all of us, a throng of ragged but happy long-distance runners passing under a banner that says “START” on one side and “FINISH” on the other.