Dear Athletic Identity,
January is a change month. That fourth digit in the year ticks up, and brings with it a sense of newness and possibility. This change in time, the reminder that it relentlessly marches forward, often prompts people to take stock of their lives, goals, desires, and set intentions for what they want to come next. You are doing this too, more than you have in the past. You find health and fitness to be annoyingly esoteric concepts, but you strive for them, and January gives you hope that you can improve both. The hope of something new, marked by a new year.
Here's the thing about January though: it's not really a fun month.
January running is difficult. It's dark, cold, usually rainy. At the very least, there's a pervasive heavy, gray mist that settles on exposed skin and synthetic layers like the clammy, unwelcome hand of a person you'd hoped you wouldn't have to see again. January is a disappointment. The sparkling lights and all of the excitement that made them shine brightly are dull now- graying along with the landscape- and now it's just a waiting game until spring.
You spend those extra, precious morning minutes, which somehow feel like endurance efforts in themselves, suiting up in tights, vests, reflective gear, arm sleeves, gloves, headbands or hats, while incessant darkness presses its palms against the glass of your windows. Your bed, which you already made so you wouldn't get back into it, still manages to remind you of that clammy hand, whispering at you from the other room as you stand by your door, lacing up your shoes. You curse January, and then you curse your bed, and you push that door open and lock it behind you.
This is January running: all the effort at the front end.
But January has a secret, and that secret is quiet. In January, you will not fight for space along the lake paths and sidewalks. You will not hear the buzzing of the summer heat or the hum of a city alive around you. Your city will be asleep.
You will not burn up in a fiery ball of sweat and pain the way you would under the unforgiving July sun. You will hear your gentle footfalls. You will gain that specific sense of satisfaction and pride that comes with pushing back against the darkness and shouldering away from that cold, wet grip. Your mind will feel cool.
There is another secret to January running: You will be among your people. Not everyone chooses this particular suffering- many take time off, transition to winter sports, or migrate to the gym. All of those things are great. But you despise the gym. You never liked skiing and anyway you don't have the money. There are others like you. They curse their beds and the dark at their windows and push through their doors too. They will be the warm hands on your shoulders and the arms around your back. You will need each other more in January, and this will build trust and understanding- in other words, they will be your kin.
Last January, you were beginning to train for your first marathon. You were doing tempo runs in the pouring rain every single Wednesday at 5:30am, and long runs of 16-20 miles on Saturdays, with dark morning easy to moderate runs most other weekdays. It was one of the hardest things you've ever done- to consistently put in that much time and effort when every single day, your bed whispered sweetly and your windows mocked you with all of the darkness they let in. But you had discovered your January secrets: your people, your training partners, your family. Their calls were more important than your bed's. Their voices and shared efforts and bursting lungs and quick footsteps and huge hearts lifted you up and propelled you forward through every bleak January day.
This year, your sport looks different to you. You are still on the rocky, switchy, frustrating climb back to running from the most serious injury you've ever experienced. You've been forced to do things differently, to change your approach to your entire life. You are scared. You continue to question everything, including how much control you really have over your choices, if you can make it to the start and finish lines of your 2018 races without breaking, how you will manage to balance your athletic life and your mental health. There is a lot of uncertainty. But this is true at every new beginning. And your tribe is still there, even in such different circumstances: holding you up, helping you propel yourself forward.
Despite the vast difference in your running life between last January and this one, there is one thing all January Sundays have in common: they are easy days. With the new year stretching out ahead, an unknown road shrouded with trees and impossible to see very far down, January is a good time to tread lightly forward while taking time to look over your shoulder and think about the road you've already journeyed. The one that has worn the treads of your sneakers, the one that turned in places you didn't expect and in some places you did. The places it took you through- ones you've known most of your life, and ones you were utterly lost in. The people whose roads joined yours, or diverged. The things you felt, the skies and mountains you saw. An uncomplicated Sunday run is perfect for this kind of reflection.
So go ahead and run easy, brave one. You've earned your miles. You are changing, and your relationship to your sport is changing, but you still have each other.
See you next year,
Your Inner January, 2018