February is the best time for a run in Chicago. Or rather, February is the best time for a run in Chicago when you’re anhedonic, it’s a global pandemic, it gets dark at 3 p.m., and you have butt sores (butt! sores!) from working at the same kitchen chair all day. Under these circumstances — which every Chicago winter imitates — February is the best time to put on a hat, get to the lakefront, and run until you look like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.
This is not because of thermoregulation or smooth muscle contraction or glycogen stores or any of the other gibberish in running magazines. It is because of the scientific equation Body + Movement = Warmth. And if it can be held that Chicago + Winter = Cold and Cold + Warmth = Good, it stands to reason that Chicago + Winter + Movement = Good. (For the summer runners keeping track, Hot + Warmth = Bad.)
I am not a serious athlete. I jog for 30 minutes at a time — 20 if I get bored — and I’ve never experienced the elusive runner’s high (surely just dehydration guerrilla-marketed by sneaker companies). I run for reward — to feel a little less horrible when it’s all done. And I’ve found no stronger Pavlovian trigger than a Chicago winter.
In Chicago, the cold isn’t just something to run through, but to run from. It’s the ultimate stick, your heated apartment the carrot. It pushes you to go just that much faster, if only to make it end sooner or hurt less. And on good days, it can remind you how it feels to thaw out, like a microdose of spring three times a week.
At the risk of sounding like a fitspo blogger, I’ll say too that running in winter is therapeutic. Muffled by snow and ice, the city takes on a new form, like Antarctica or the moon. On the lakefront, the water stilled by ice floes, it’s quiet, untouched, removed from the ever-worsening news cycle and your ever-shrinking apartment. It’s an adventure, at a time when so many of us have forgotten what those feel like. And sometimes, when you’re out there grinding to the mantra of Fuck fuck fuck why do I live here? you’ll pass another runner, and you’ll grin from behind your Turtle Fur as if to say, Hey, weirdo, me too.