“Shorts? What’re you, nuts?”
So shouted an ice fisherman who caught sight of my pale gams a few weeks back. He was one of maybe 20 anglers crowding a semi-frozen stretch of the old Welland Canal; I passed by them just north of the Dain City train bridge, about five miles into my morning run.
This guy wasn’t the first person I’ve heard suggest that a runner who wears shorts in winter is either sick in the head or some kind of showoff. I probably thought the same before I started running.
Except during extreme cold weather alerts, count me among those who’ll take shorts over running tights. Even on really icy days, bare legs on the move stay toasty warm.
But I get how it might look weird to people who don’t run, and typically half a dozen of them will say so to my face between October and April. It just comes with the territory for us shorts-wearing types.
What made this ice fisherman’s quip stand out was the context. It was 10 C outside, as close as you can get to a heatwave here in February. You could see the icy surface that supported the fisherman sweat like mad in the unseasonable warmth, and hear the pooling water slosh at his ankles.
I wanted to yell at him to get off the ice before it cracked and the canal swallowed him and his buddies whole, but knowing what a stubborn bunch old anglers are, I just shrugged and kept running. As poor as he was at judging how much cloth I needed on my legs to keep warm, I could only hope I was even worse at guessing how much ice he needed under his feet to keep from drowning.
Still, the sight of the fisherman calling out to me about my shorts, while his friends were slinging their hats and scarves over their coolers because it was getting too hot out, made me smile.
Although I switch up my routes, running close to home means covering a lot of the same ground over and over on trails that aren’t all that busy, especially during the colder months. While no two runs are quite the same, months can pass between encounters with characters and situations that are truly out of the ordinary.
The ice fishermen topped up my “there’s something you don’t see every day on a run” tank nicely, and I figured I wouldn’t be due for another until at least late April.
Turns out the next such moment was only minutes away, about a mile up the canal trail from the anglers.
Two guys on big motorbikes thundered across the icy waterway, one of them popping a wheelie that must’ve lasted half a minute. I’m not much into vehicles of any kind, but the sight made me wish I had a half-decent camera handy. The wheelie guy’s back tire was spraying slush wildly in all directions, like cake batter when the electric mixer isn’t deep enough in the bowl. It was, in an odd way, beautiful.
As spectacle, the motorbike riders one-upped the anglers. Two out-of-the-ordinary encounters on the same run, the second more impressive than the first, was a rare treat. I probably shouldn’t expect another now until at least mid-summer.
But there was a third, about two miles up the trail. It left the deepest impression of them all.
Despite it being such a warm morning – maybe because of it, I’m no meteorologist – the wind was fierce, suffocatingly so if you were facing the wrong direction. That’s the reason I decided to follow the canal route that morning. The wind would be at my back for most of the 25-mile run into St. Catharines.
I happily accepted the extra nudge from Mother Nature as she pushed me past the motorbikes and up the path.
There was plenty of action on ice, but I hadn’t come across anyone else on the trail itself. Then, off in the distance, I saw two skinny silhouettes, seemingly stationary with arms outstretched, like scarecrows.
As I got closer, the figures revealed themselves to be a delicate grey-haired couple struggling to inch their way south, into the wind.
Instead of stepping astride, the man walked in front of the woman, but backwards, so they were face to face.
He put his full attention on shielding her from the wind, and although it was apparent that taking the brunt of the gusts was physically taxing for him, his smile was warm and reassuring.
Seeing this couple brought to mind a dharma talk delivered by Ajahn Brahm a few years ago, one I contemplated in the miles after passing the elderly pair.
The topic of the discourse was attachment. The part that grabbed me wasn’t so much the talk itself, but a response to a question posed by someone in the audience, which went something like this: Since Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become the Buddha, left behind a wife and child to pursue his spiritual path, should married men follow his example?
Pretty spicy question, and as Ajahn Brahm is arguably one of the most influential living Buddhist monastics, I was especially keen to hear his take on it.
I’ve since tried hunting for a recording or transcript of his response, but Ajahn Brahm talks an awful lot for a monk, and have so far come up empty-handed.
The essence of his reply has stuck with me, however.
It is reprehensible, said Ajahn Brahm, to use the Buddha or Buddhism as an excuse to shirk one’s commitments to a partner, or one’s responsibilities to family.
If anything, he continued, being in a committed relationship presents a precious opportunity for spiritual practice.
Abandon your partner? No. Instead, he said, see where there are opportunities to abandon your selfish wants, and make your partner’s priorities your own.
I felt as if I were seeing the fruition of Ajahn Brahm’s words as the old man on the trail shielded his partner from the wind. It showed how a person’s own character shines brightest when acting out of love for someone else.
That said, as my gut started rumbling 11 miles into my run, I wish I’d shown myself a bit more love the night before by passing on the junk food.
Two miles later, my stomach felt too crappy to continue, so I pulled the plug on the run. I texted my wife to see if she could pick me up at the bridge in Allanburg, where I was doubled over on a bench.
She pulled into the south end of the lot 20 minutes later, parking her SUV so that it blocked the bench from the wind.