Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Estonia: Running in the deep dark

During winter, I often run on weekdays in the dark. For the past few days in Estonia, in the far Baltic north, I’ve been running not in the dark but the deep dark. Night here in mid-December stretches for close to 17 hours; the sun sinks by 3:30 p.m.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but when I set off at 6:45, as I have in the last few days, it feels like late in the night, not early in the morning. The sun won’t rise until after 9 a.m. So when I set off, there’s no dawn peeking around the corner.

I’m in the university town of Tartu, and it feels very European. Fanciful truffles are in the windows of shops. Women wear thigh-length wool coats and knee-high black boots, brightly colored scarves knotted around their necks. Men, hair stringy, rush by in suits, scarves, cigarettes between their fingers.  They all watch their steps along the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town or along the bridges that are for pedestrians not cars. Christmas lights are everywhere, strung up on lamp posts and bridge posts and high in the air above Town Square.

The Christmas lights don’t only raise holiday spirits, but they also raise spirits, period, it seems. They provide light. This morning, I ran underneath a string of holiday lights along the Mother River and up and over an impressive pedestrian bridge, passed by a few bikers wearing winter coats and scarves that flew behind them, flapping in the breeze. Then I headed along the river again on a long stretch of blackness.

When it’s dark, I often feel a lightness of being. I’m concentrating on not falling and I watch the ground for holes or humps. I’m not thinking. That is freeing mentally and sometimes, when my pace is just right, I can run for a mile or two and not realize it. Night makes you feel invisible. Night also makes others invisible, of course, which can be a problem. But when you see an occasional person, and when it's exceptionally cold (as it is in Tartu), and when wind is cutting across your stride, it is possible to relax into a rhythm and lose yourself.

On the run this morning, I retreated into this zombie-state and only snapped out of it when I looked up the sky and saw light. It was limited to a large circle in a bank of low-lying clouds. I couldn’t figure it out at first. But then it dawned on me that the lights from the street, Christmas decorations, and a nearby mall had reflected upon the clouds. It reminded me of one of those spaceship movies in which the scene is all black until shafts of light reach to the ground. Only in Tartu, the direction of the light is up, not down.

I don’t know why, but the scene almost made me laugh. It was entirely a man-made phenomenon, and it seemed a rare one. I thought to myself it’s not often on a run when you think of nothing in the dark and then you look up and think of spaceships.

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