At 4:29pm on Dec 21, the sun set on the longest night of the year. In Steinbach, the gray sky hardly blinked as it slowly faded to deeper shades of grey, and the street lights slowly took over lighting the streets of town.
And as the darkness settled in, we began to run.
The weeks leading up to this date had been filled with anticipation. This, the third annual Longest Night Run, had never felt more appropriate. As Covid restrictions had changed some of the beautiful expressions of community we’d seen in past years, somehow we all were feeling the darkness and loneliness more poignantly than before. In addition, our event’s benefactors, Ashleigh and Jordan Dueck, were living far from their home community and experiencing a darkness that would take a different shade in the days and hours leading up to the 21st.
I set out, walking with my family for the first leg of my run. There’d been a buzz about the magical conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in which they’d appear to touch on Dec 21, making a bright “Christmas Star” in the western sky. As we looked up to the thick cloud cover we realized there’d be no Christmas Star on this night.
The Longest Night Run has never been about vanquishing darkness, not even about looking for hope in the midst of darkness, but about staring darkness in the face, living in it, “inhabiting” the night, as Ashleigh put it. This wasn’t a time to skip too quickly ahead to the “happily ever after.” Stories were shared about the many motivations for participation. Some ran because of their own experiences of darkness and grief, or that of their loved ones.
We’ve all experienced darkness in one way or another.
This blessingJan Richardson, from Blessing for the Longest Night
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
in the company
of a friend.
Before starting my run, I checked our spreadsheet of relay slots. It had become a wonderful mess of names stretching way outside of the neat borders and boxes I’d initially created. The outpouring of solidarity was clear, and beautiful. Some people chose to walk for 30 minutes with kids in tow. Others joined friends in the darkest hours of the night. Others decided to run or walk for 8, 12, even 16 hours.
I had personally committed to the full night of running on behalf of my friends. I worried whether this would be possible, particularly if I’d be alone for long stretches. My concerns, though, were quickly set at ease. At 5:00pm, Gord and his son joined me for a lap of town. Then Jaala joined in. Then Edwin. Later, René. Then, long past the time when anyone would want to pull themselves out of bed to head out into the cold for a run of all things, Shannon F, Shannon and Dale S, then Shannon D (Shannon triple threat!) joined me in what, by that time, had become a half-walking, half-running pace. Gord, after his evening family commitments wrapped up, came out to join me for the bulk of the miles of the night. And, as the town started to come to life, and the eastern briefly cast its red glow, Greg and Devyn appeared to escort me home.
I was struck again by what is possible with the support of friends.
Near midnight I glanced at my email. Registrations for the event had continued until 11:30pm, with e-transfers and GoFundMe donations flooding in throughout the night for our friends.
Despite being unable to gather, the community, in its subtle (and virtual) ways, came together to inhabit the darkness. In the end, 160 people registered to participate, and about $14,000 were raised to support our hurting friends.
My route for the night included a pass of the Bethesda Hospital 14 times, roughly once each hour. On the floor-to-ceiling windows of the hospital, huge letters cut from orange paper spelled the word “RESILI”. This became a topic to ponder each time we passed. Was this the beginning of the word “RESILIENT”? Had someone lost “resilience” in putting up letters, or run out of orange paper? Or was it Italian, we joked, like the “fragile” leg-lamp from A Christmas Story?
It seems we’d shown up to a half-written word, a story hanging in the balance, paused in the middle of its writing. (And yes, the full word “RESILIENT” now hangs in the windows.) But maybe the half-written word this was fitting on the longest night. Resilience is one of those words, like “gentleness”, or “kindness”, or “love”, that makes a better verb than a noun. Are you resilient? The word is proven by each step one takes, choosing to keep moving forward, even when everything in us wants to stop.
The Longest Night Run ended, but this story continues. For the Duecks and the community supporting them. For our healthcare workers and communities in the midst of a pandemic. For our own stories filled with grief, anxiety, hurt, and despair. Our stories aren’t wrapped up neatly like a sunrise run, followed by a shower and coffee. Instead we’re living these stories, choosing to put one foot in front of the other, day after day.
Thanks so much to all of you who participated this year, and gave generously of your time and funds. Your efforts made an incredible difference. Thanks to Greg, Tanya, Erin, Shannon F, and Anna for helping mastermind this event. Also thanks to Source for Sports for the great toques, and Coffee Culture and Golden Fried for accepting cash donations (and the use of your little tree), and Motion Graphics for the signage. Thanks to my family for adopting this event, and the Duecks for letting our community come alongside of you in this way.
Until next year, and until the sun rises.