March is indeed stomping in like a lion this year. But two weeks ago, for two consecutive days, it was warm enough for shirt sleeves. We broke records. Same thing last week, though not quite as warm. Out came the running shoes, and the long leash, and the water bowl for the car. About this time last year, we were thinking of running, but our regular running route on a country road along the Battenkill River was pretty slick still with remnants of wintry ice. Dirt roads in Vermont (which describes many of the roads here) are not so much actual dirt as they are compacted gravel. After weeks of traffic, heavy snowfall, ice, a little thawing, and then refreezing (maybe a cold rain thrown in for good measure), to say nothing of rough treatment by snow plows, they develop wicked potholes—even the paved roads get them—and frost heaves when the conditions are right for it. (For my Southern friends and readers: a frost heave is an evil little bump in the road that will shake your teeth out of your head and toy with your car’s suspension if you hit it at speed.)
Then the town grader comes through and sort of smoothes out freshly dropped gravel, although it’s not smooth so much for a runner: the ‘old’ road surface that was nicely packed down morphs into a distinctly bumpier one, which I can feel right through the soles of my running shoes, never mind how that must feel on a dog’s tender pads. It’s not comfortable under the best of circumstances, worse still for a compromised heel. Somehow we power on.
And then there is mud. When the weather has been warm enough to start melting snow and ice on the roads (or a tad more accurately the snow banks the plows create on the sides of the roads), as it has for the last few weeks, it takes time for all that moisture to dry out—time, as in weeks. The water’s gotta go somewhere. So a road that looks deceptively dry is actually fairly squishy and wet, for a long time. For running, it’s a fabulous surface—soft, with lots of joint-cushioning ‘give.’ You must make your peace with the reality that by the time you get back to the car, your legs and feet will be caked in a dried schmutz roughly the color of putty, and in truth probably also saturated in the chemicals that keep the roads passable during and after a winter storm.
So it has been, last week and the one before: beautiful late winter afternoons beckon, and Scout-the-Lab is happy to answer the call, as am I. By the time we finish our new three-mile-ish loop, Scout is encrusted from his toes to his armpits, and of course his entire belly is filthy. He cares about this not at all, and I’ve learned the hard way to travel with towels, always. Once home, I soak another in warm water at the kitchen sink and do a ‘deeper’ cleaning, which is not saying much, considering. I meant to bathe him today, and at this point in the afternoon it’s looking less and less likely to happen. As I said, the doggy does not care.
The prize for a sloppy run on a winter’s day in Vermont is the jaw-dropping landscape that is the Green Mountain State, and the contemplative joy of being outdoors with your dog, and of course that exquisite post-run euphoria. (To those pleasures Scout would add near misses with cheeky squirrels and vexing chipmunks, and the occasional deer who cross our path in twos and threes.) Although our new house is in the city, driving a few miles out gets you right back to the country again. We gave up our Battenkill run since moving to our new digs (although we might revisit our old route this summer a few times just for kicks). But our new trail offers its own splendors. And by next Sunday, Vermont’s impossibly short winter days will have grown an hour, giving us the indulgent luxury of taking our sweet time.
Just when we start dreaming of daffodils, a Nor’easter blows in, breaking our reverie, and keeping us honest: it’s Still Winter. And when life hands you snow? Well, the answer is obvious.