February: a month on the edge of hope - sharp, bright, cold, short. A kind of counterpart to Keats' "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness!". Daffodils are exploding in the garden in what seems to me to be a fit of unseasonably early optimism; we haven't even had our annual dusting of snow yet. But meanwhile time marches on. The morning routine is soothing and rhythmic. I know almost to the minute how long the ride to the pool is, when I'll be done with my swim, when I'll be home, when I'll be having my first cup of coffee.
On night I cycle out to Horspath via the Cowley Road and Hollow Way. This is unfamiliar territory. Out by the Mini plant it's pitch black and deserted but for a few cars whizzing by, and the road suddenly becomes unwelcoming. I find a bike lane, eventually, on the other side of the road, and teeter in almost complete darkness towards, I hope, the athletics track. At a certain point the blinking light of a cyclist ahead of me is the only thing that stops me turning round in fear of dropping off the edge of the earth, but once there the journey feels short again; I know where I am on a map of Oxford and it's not very far from home at all. I enjoy the sensation of being somewhere unfamiliar in a familiar place. There's always a moment of almost dreamlike disconcertion, followed by fizz of excitement and possibility: it's good to still be surprised by a place, to still find new things, and the longer you are somewhere, the stronger your habits become, the more likely it is that these new things exist just on the edge of your consciousness, close by but hidden, and you have to make an effort to see them.
I haven't been on a track in years. I quit my high school track team halfway through my first season because one morning I woke up and realized that the feeling of dread I carried with me all the time had a cause, and that cause was daily two hour sessions at the track, and that in spite of all the motivational speeches I'd heard in movies, quitting really was an option. At the time I was proud of myself for making this discovery, for getting my own way. Now I wonder if maybe I should have toughed it out. I probably could have learned a thing or two. I would never have been a star, but I wasn't an awful athlete; I was certainly capable, in theory, of doing everything that was asked of me. We all warmed up at meets in matching t-shirts that said, in black block capitals against a red background: "TRACK AND FIELD: THE ONLY TRUE SPORT. EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST A GAME" (I held on to mine for years, as a reminder of my two months of toughness, but eventually it became the casualty of a breakup, which seemed a fitting fate). There was a certain pride in being a member of this group of people, even if I was a straggler, an outsider, still, at 14, largely uncomfortable in my own skin. But I didn't tough it out. I went to play a game instead, and for years thereafter my relationship to the track as a place was characterized largely by the memory of pain: physical pain, yes, but also another, less tangible kind of pain: the pain of not winning, or even being in the vicinity of winning; the pain of learning your limitations; the pain of giving up.
That was almost fifteen years ago. Tonight the air is cold and clear - no rain, for what feels like the first time in weeks - and the darkness, the chill, the floodlights, the heavy breaths of the serious runners as they pound past, lend the evening an electric atmosphere. Like February, which is so close to the mania of springtime, so ripe, so carefully balanced on the edge. And true, there are moments, tonight, of intense boredom, moments of intense discomfort, moments of intense frustration. I'd forgotten that the thing about running around a track, as opposed to running through a city, is that there's really nowhere to go to hide from boredom, discomfort, and frustration. It's much more an exercise in meditation than an exercise of the heart or lungs or legs, in some senses. But there are also pleasurable moments, too. The way I feel light and unfettered (not, for once, running with keys, and iPod, and headphones, and more layers than I need, not distracted by indecision about which route to take or jolted out of reveries by aimless pedestrians veering into my path or whistling men in vans stopped at lights). The color and texture of the ground, the coolness of the air on my arms when I take my sweatshirt off. Yes, I am slower than I'd like to be, but I will always be slower than I'd like to be, and there are moments when this seems okay: I have nothing to prove.