It happens so often that I walk outside and a certain light captures my attention. It happened just now, in fact, while letting the dog out for his mid-day pee. The light was flat and the air was inviting. Damp with melting snow. The temperature warming ever so slightly. Sun growing stronger with the progress of February.
This is when distance athletes, both runners and riders, begin to dial in their base training to prepare for early spring races. It is a subtle dance with light and temperature–available and acceptable.
Which is why walking out into the sun filtered through the mid-winter sky gave me a jump, of sorts. My brain is so trained to get ready to race each spring that even the light outside triggers an instinct deep within. That makes sense. Humans program so many of their activities by amount and type of available light. But it is something more as well. Our associative minds key in on certain clues to get us ready for seasonal activities.
We’re not very different from so-called “lower” forms of animals in the way we respond or react to light. Birds, for example, respond to growing sunlight with hormonal responses that trigger their breeding instincts as well as recognition that it is time to migrate.
My favorite symbol in the bird world for creatures that will themselves through the winter months is the great horned owl. These large North American birds nest in January and February. The adult birds trade turns sitting on the eggs. They carry out these duties through cold and wind and snow and sleet and rain and winds. Sounds like a few runners I know. And even a few cyclists.
Owls set up nesting activities during the deepest dark of winter. You can hear them hooting to each other, love calls as it were, on December and January nights. It suits them to nest in winter. They have the feathers to keep themselves warm, and there are less predators, especially crows, that can steal their eggs when the leaves aren’t shrouding their activities.
And by the time the young hatch in spring, usually mid to late March and into early April, wildlife is just emerging from winter hibernation and young mammals are just being born as well. It’s a cruel fact, but food is plentiful as a result. Owls often have 3-4 young to feed. That’s a lot of meet.
This pattern of winter resolve; living a nocturnal existence with spring in mind down the road is a great metaphor for runners and riders who train through the cold, dark days and nights of December and January.
Then the first hint of spring light hits the central cortex of the mind and your brain goes “zingggg!” and wants to run and ride even faster. It’s positively primeval. Can you feel it?
Happens the same way each fall as well. The failing light of early September gives way to the crisp clear days of October and we want to finish off the season with a big effort. A PR. A marathon. A chance to show what we’ve got before the bright, happy leaves of our summer’s fitness grow brittle and fall to the ground.
Then it’s back to winter training. Dark, cold nights. Feet crunching in the snow and sweat dripping from your forehead as you pedal away the hours on your indoor trainer or burn off calories on the treadmill.
The intrepid still train outdoors, by moonlight, starlight or streetlight. Those are the brave souls. The night fliers. Who hear the owls calling from their perch on the neighbor’s chimney: “Whoo hoo, hooohh.”
Indeed, who? Who has the strength to see through lack of light to brighter days. If it wasn’t you this winter, there’s still time. Still weeks to go before spring racing season kicks off.
We’ll owl be waiting for you on the roads.