Last year I used my consumerist impulses to motivate myself to get out for runs—I’d buy running gear, and then feel like I had to go for runs to justify the purchase. 🏃🏻‍♂️ This year I’m running anyway. But that doesn’t mean I can’t buy new running gear. This handsome top is perfect for runs when it’s just about freezing.

Selfie in my new running top

Objectively speaking, autumn is probably the best season. Not cold like winter, stormy like spring, or hot like summer, autumn has great weather—totally aside from the pretty colors and Halloween (arguably the best holiday, albeit in a near tie with Groundhog’s Day).

For pretty much my entire adult life I’ve dreaded the cold dark days of winter, and among the many ways that Seasonal Affect Disorder affected my life in a negative way was that it ruined autumn. I could usually get past the summer solstice okay (although in the back of my head, I knew that the best day of the year had come and gone), and I could keep it together through July and August. But by the beginning of September I knew that winter was coming, and I’d spend the last months of nice weather steeling myself against the dark days to come.

It was the dark that bothered me, more than the cold. It’s easy to armor yourself against the cold—flannel, moleskin, fleece, wool, down—there are many ways to deal with cold. But even a Verilux light therapy lamp (which does help) does not solve the problem of the dark days of winter.

All of which is merely an introduction to saying: Last winter I did not suffer from SAD!

I had meant to write something at the time, but I didn’t want to speak too soon, and then once it was spring, it didn’t seem like the most important thing.

I don’t want to jinx anything, and I’m sure the right combination of stressors on top of the cold and dark could once again put me in a bad place, but something more important has changed than just a good year: I’m no longer afraid of the dark days. Maybe I’ll suffer from SAD again, and maybe I won’t, but at least the mere knowledge that the cold and dark is coming is not ruining my fall! In the back of my head I seem to have turned a corner and developed some confidence that I’ll be okay despite the season.

So what has helped?

First, not having to work a regular job. I’m sorry that I can’t recommend something more generally available, but that was the biggest thing that made a difference. Because I don’t have to be productive on a day-to-day basis, I avoid the depression-spiral that used to result from realizing that I wasn’t getting anything done, which made me anxious about losing my job and being unable to support my family, having the anxiety make me more depressed, and the depression making me even less productive. That used to be a killer. On top of that, because I don’t have to be in the office during any particular hours, I’m able to spend a few of the few non-dark hours of the day outdoors, taking advantage of what daylight there is (and making some outdoorphins).

Second, exercise. I always knew it was important, but I took things up a notch each of the last few years, and each new tick up turned out to provide an enormous improvement in my mood. In my experience, all kinds of exercise are good. Endurance exercise is good. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is good. Skill-based training—ballet, parkour, animal moves, taiji—is good. Resistance exercise (lifting) is perhaps best of all. Letting the dark days of winter compress you down into a lump that seeks (but never finds) cozy because you’re unable to move? That’s the worst.

Third, community. Granted this is not so easy during a pandemic, but even people that you only see on-line are still people you can have a connection with, and having connections is good.

Fourth, something to look forward to. It can be almost anything. Last year I was looking forward to having my family visit. Other years I’ve looked forward to taking a vacation somewhere warm. Even little things help me—ordering some fountain pen ink or cold-weather workout clothes and then looking forward to the package being delivered, and then looking forward to using the newly acquired item.

Fifth, a project that you can make progress on. Ideally something without a deadline—at least, no deadline during the dark days of winter—but a project that you care about. Something that you can spend a few minutes on every day and see some headway that brings you closer to completing it. Creative projects are good, but creativity isn’t as important as just having a thing that you’re working on, and making steady headway.

Not suffering from SAD, even if just for one year, has been wonderful. Having some confidence that things will be okay-enough this winter that I’m not spending all fall dreading it is even more wonderful-er.

Jackie and I went out for a walk this morning, as we do. The double-digit negative windchill seemed to offer a bit in the way of bragging rights, even if it wasn’t nearly as cold as a year ago.

Me and Jackie one year ago, when the temperatures were -16℉

I’ve got a bit more in the way of clothing choices this year, having bought a bunch of cold weather gear for winter running, but I didn’t use much of the new stuff.

I wore my Alaska pipeline coat, of course. Under that I wore my Dale of Norway sweater that Barbara bought on her last trip to Antarctica. Under that I wore a silk mock-T base layer. For my lower body I wore my flannel-lined jeans, which were just the right weight by themselves. (I’ve got a pair of fleece-lined khakis a size larger, big enough to wear tights or something under, for when it’s really, really cold, but I didn’t need them today.) I wore silk sock liners under my usual wool/silk-blend socks, under my new waterproof Lems boulder boots. (I’m very pleased with these boots so far. All the minimal/barefoot features I want, waterproof, and warm enough for the bitter cold.)

The one imperfect thing about the Alaska pipeline coat is that the hood is hugely oversized (I assume so that it can go over a hardhat) and tends to slump down over my face, obstructing my vision. So to keep my head warm I wore the Khyber pass hat that Jackie made me. (If you remember the war in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance forces wore the same sort of hat. Very versatile—roll it up and it covers the top of your head to keep the sun off. Roll it down and you’ve got a thick wool hat you can pull down over your ears.)

All of that, except the bolder boots, was pretty much what I was wearing a year ago in the picture above, but this year I had one novel item: I wore a buff over my neck and the lower half of my face. It’s just a thin layer of microfiber, but over my beard it was dramatically warmer than just the uncovered beard. I’ve had buffs for years, but I mostly wear them in hot weather (to keep the sun off my neck), so I think of them as cooling rather than warming. It was amazing to find how much of a difference it made just to put a layer over my beard.

When you feel sick, you prefer to sit still. This behavior pattern is not only well known, it even has a name: “inflammatory-induced sickness behavior.”

In the modern world this easily leads to a particularly pernicious vicious cycle. Modern lifestyles lead to metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome produces systemic inflammation, which makes you feel like sitting still. Wanting to sit still makes what would otherwise be the most potent tool for reducing systemic inflammation—exercise—tough to bring to bear.

This rather dense article from back in 2010 describes the problem: Inflammatory modulation of exercise salience: using hormesis to return to a healthy lifestyle. It also proposes a category of solutions: hormesis. That is to say, any of a set of mild metabolic stresses that prompt a response greater than “just enough” to stave off the damage produced by the stress itself.

The result is less systemic inflammation, and therefore less inflammatory-induced sickness behavior, hence an increased inclination to move.

Or, as they say:

We therefore propose that exercise salience, the motivation to undertake physical activity, is modulated by the inflammatory status of an animal, decreasing in an inflammatory phenotype, including the metabolic syndrome and increasing in an anti-inflammatory “healthy” phenotype. The type of phenotype may well be determined by the degree of hormesis, as metabolic stressors, such as exercise, plant polyphenols and calorie restriction tend to induce an anti-inflammatory phenotype.

Besides exercise, the article suggests two other broad categories of available hormetins.

One is related to food, and consists of the obvious stuff that everybody knows: Avoid industrially produced edible substances. Consider such modalities as time-restricted eating, calorie restriction, or fasting. Include foods rich in plant polyphenols. (In other words, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”)

The other is related to temperature: Expose yourself to mild cold and/or heat stress. (Spend time outdoors in the winter. Take a cold shower. Spend time outdoors in the summer. Take a sauna.)

Each of these things will produce some mild metabolic stress. As long as you don’t overdo it, that mild stress will produce a stress response greater than necessary to handle the stress itself, with the side-effect of bringing down systemic inflammation. With the systemic inflammation eased, you’ll start feeling like moving again. That puts the potent tool of exercise back on the table.

Nature has a more recent article on all this stuff, which is sadly behind a paywall.

Me in winter running gear

Every year I try and fail to establish a winter running habit. This year I managed, and learned a bit about why I usually fail.

In my imagination, the key has always been to keep running through the fall. As it gradually gets chilly and then cold I’ll gradually adapt.

That never works.

The main reason it never works is that seasons don’t work like that. One gets frequent warm days in early fall, then infrequent warm days in late fall, and then at some point—identifiable only in retrospect—there’s a last warm day, which is then followed by months of winter weather.

But it’s even worse than that, perhaps especially so for people like me who don’t have a regular job. Since I have pretty complete control over my schedule, I’m able to get out for my runs whenever the weather is optimal. In the summer I can run in the morning or evening when it’s not too hot. In the fall I can gradually shift my runs toward mid-afternoon when it’s not too cold.

The upshot of that is that I’m never confronted by gradually cooler temperatures when I go out for my runs. Rather, I get to run when the conditions are perfect right up to the last day of perfect conditions. Of course, there are days when conditions are imperfect all day, but I can adapt by just shifting my run to the next day or the day after—a strategy which works fine right up until late fall, when all of a sudden conditions are imperfect every day.

This fall as usual I failed to establish a running habit. I ran into mid-September, and then quit running for two months. But somehow I managed to get started again in mid-November, and proceeded to get in 24 runs from then until April Fools Day. Why this year and not other years? The answer comes out of looking at the reasons why I don’t run in the winter: Cold, dark, and ice.

For ice I have to chalk this success up largely to luck. We had an ordinary amount of snow this year, but the size of each snowstorm and the timing of warm and sunny bits after snowstorms meant that it was rarely more than a week or so before the sidewalks were clear enough that I could get out for a run. (In my running log I only spot five weeks with no running, and only one spot where two of those weeks are consecutive.)

For dark the credit goes back to my not having a regular job. There’s no boss expecting me to spend my daylight hours sitting at a desk. I can run whenever I want.

So it comes down largely to cold.

I have always been of the opinion that dealing with cold is just a matter of having the right gear, and I had some of it—a pair of very warm tights, a half-zip capilene top, some sweat pants, some mock-Ts, some sweatshirts, a silk baselayer, and a bright-red buff with reflecty bits.

To this I gradually added a machine-washable merino wool hat in high-viz yellow, a pair of high-viz yellow gloves, and a pair of lighter-weight tights suitable for wearing in moderate cold.

That little burst of consumerism turned out to be highly effective. First, it meant that I had the right clothes for the conditions, from pretty cold up to just barely too cold for shorts and a t-shirt. Second, because I wanted to give my new gear a try, I got out for at least three (probably more like six) runs that I’d otherwise have skipped, just because I wanted to wear my new tights or my new hat.

And so, for the first time since 2004 I have come into spring with a running base that prepares me for serious training right off the bat. I can comfortably run 10k, so I could compete in any 5k or 10k race this spring. I could easily be in shape for the 7.1-mile Lake Mingo Trail Race in early June. I’m probably within striking distance of being in shape for a half-marathon (although not the Illinois Marathon half-marathon in less than three weeks).

Mainly though, I’m in shape to just keep running on through the spring and summer. And maybe, just maybe, next fall.

Behold a gallery of running-related images from the winter, most of which were shared to my twitter feed sometime along the way: