The Three A’s of Braving Deep Winter

AJW's TaproomAlong with thousands of other North American runners, I have been forced to brave near-record cold over the past week in order to get in my daily runs. While other perhaps more sensible people have taken their exercise indoors, I have remained stubborn and have laced them up each day to run outside. I can’t exactly say the running has been pleasurable but something about the process of braving the extreme cold this winter has been oddly motivating and energizing.

Earlier this week, I awoke before dawn and began the 20-minute process of gearing up for my little, morning five miler. There really is truth in the saying, “there is no bad weather, only bad gear,” and I have certainly appreciated good gear this week with beefy socks, two layers of tights, a thick base-layer top, a breathable softshell jacket, and of course the essential hat, gloves, buff, and ‘heavy-duty’ underwear. Properly clad, I headed out into the pre-dawn dark in a state of relative comfort but also with a bit of trepidation.

While on my run, I found myself thinking back to all my years of braving deep winter on the run. From Pennsylvania to New York, and from Idaho to Virginia, I have come face-to-face with some tough winters. On this particular day, I found myself reflecting on what it has taken for me to get out the door and how those experiences, repeated on an annual cycle, have informed other parts of my life.

First, there is the acceptance that I just have to get out there. It is not optional. The temperature is not going to warm up and the wind is not going to stop. Therefore, you must go into every winter run knowing that it is nonnegotiable. It has to happen. Once you’ve done that, and established a mindset which provides no escape, the run becomes the process and, ultimately, in that moment, all that matters.

Then, there is the adjustment period. The first five minutes of a sub-freezing winter run are filled with a bunch of micro-adjustments. Pulling the hat down a little farther, cinching down the hood a little tighter, and monitoring the breathing to be just a little less deep so as to ward off the inevitable coughing fit are all part of that critical five-minute period necessary to get through the winter wall. Through that series of physical adjustments, the mind adjusts as well: This isn’t so bad; The wind is less cold than yesterday; and That moon is awesome. Before you know it you are clipping along already into your second mile and the familiar rhythm of the daily run takes over.

Finally, there is the awareness. Winter running seems to strip away any extras. Maybe it’s because the landscape is more barren or perhaps it’s because the light is fleeting but whatever it is, the ephemeral nature of the winter run puts my senses on edge. The sights and sounds are a bit more acute on these winter mornings. After overcoming the urge to not run and then beating down the desire to turn around early and head home, the revelation of the fact that the simple act of running is the reward makes it all worthwhile. And that, in turn, impels me to eagerly anticipate tomorrow, and all the acceptance, adjustment, and awareness it too will provide.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia. They make what I think is the perfect winter beer, called, appropriately enough, Christmas Morning. They take their award-winning Gingerbread Stout and mix in some Christmas spices and a touch of coffee and chocolate to make a beer that will warm even the most frigid heart.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Polar-vortex runners, do you care to share your stories of running outside this week? Or perhaps you have a story from winter running in general?
  • What does winter running teach you? Anything a little different from your regular everyday running?

There are 15 comments

  1. AT

    Love it AJW. I only live at 1,100 ft, so not quite altitude haha. I embrace Pittsburgh’s nasty winters by telling myself, “this is my 8,000 ft,” toss in a steady dose of hills, and it gives me more of a mental edge. While it might be complete bs, running as we know is quite mental too. Have to take what ya can get, and it makes those 60 degree days that much better!

  2. Rich

    The origin of the expression ‘there is no bad weather, only bad clothing’ comes from a Swedish rhyme – ‘det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder’. Although this is drilled into children in their early years in daycare, by their teenage years they seem to completely forget this. Anyhow, my own take on ‘bad weather’ comes from my distant past as a whitewater guide in Maine; while on a slow stretch of the river on a quiet, light-rainy and somewhat cold day as my raft drifted past the head guide’s, he leaned over and said, “It is always a good day on the river”. If we weren’t on the river, where else might we be? Although he was a real curmudgeon, this was a piece of wisdom, which carried over to all things I have done and do outdoors. Since that time, some 30+ years ago, every run has been a good one. Whether sick, injured, tired, hot, cold, or whatever, being out has always been better than being in.
    Winter imposes a welcome seasonality on running, and although the 4-5 months of snow I live with might be a tad longer than wished, I have used the slower running induced by winter as my volume block. As the first ice/snow-free patches open up on the bike paths sometime in mid to late-April, these provide natural intervals for fartlek – just in time for a first trail race in late May.

  3. MJ

    “It is always a good day on the river”. If we weren’t on the river, where else might we be? Although he was a real curmudgeon, this was a piece of wisdom, which carried over to all things I have done and do outdoors. Since that time, some 30+ years ago, every run has been a good one. Whether sick, injured, tired, hot, cold, or whatever, being out has always been better than being in.

    Great stuff, Rich. I totally agree. I’ve had good runs, better runs, and great runs, but never a bad run.

  4. John Vanderpot

    Umm…it rained for a few hours yesterday here in San Diego, practically closed the whole town down!

    Saw one other guy out on the trails, noticed Utah plates on his car in the parking lot…

  5. Jonathan Gardner

    Getting out there on bad-weather days also is a good mental game for race prep, e.g., “It might be this bad on race day,” or “at least it won’t be this bad on race day,” or “If I feel like quitting on race day, I’ll just remind myself how I got through this bad day.”

  6. Russ

    AJW’s story of running in the cold reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago…

    Runners are strange creatures indeed. Some never want to quit running; even in the dead of winter in a place like the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado where it is common for the early morning temperature to be several degrees below zero for weeks and even months at a time. It is a quiet time of the year as the days are short. If a working person wants to run, it will probably be in the dark. Below are a list of common maladies that will afflict those hearty individuals who refuse to quit running even when it is cold outside:

    Runner’s lips – The condition that runners get when they run on cold winter mornings. This is where the lips got really cold and when they finally started to warm up they tingle. It is like the feeling you get when your leg “falls a asleep” and when the blood finally starts to flow you get this tingling sensation. You know it was cold when the tingling doesn’t start until about 3:00 pm.

    Yeti Syndrome – This is when it is so cold outside that the vapor that is leaving the body freezes to the outer layer of the clothing you are wearing. The longer you run, the thicker the ice buildup on the body becomes. After about an hour of running the runner looks like the abominable snowman.

    Moon Burn – This is a very rare condition that only happens when you have fresh snow on the ground, when there is a full moon, and the sky is clear. This phenomena is when the moon light reflected off the snow is so bright that it causes a burn to the exposed skin. It is similar to a sunburn but much more severe. It can also cause snow blindness.

    S’not that cold – This is when your nostrils freeze together while you are taking a huge inhale through your nose. The air temperature is so cold that the little nasal hairs freeze and stick together.

    Delay of game – Buy the time you put on three pairs of pants, six tops, a vest, two hats, two pair of socks, gloves, etc. you are late for the start of the run. Having to take all the frozen sweaty clothes also takes extra time too so you either have to give yourself more time to get dressed and undressed or run for less time so as not to be late to work.

    Half a pair of gloves weather – I hate this condition more than all the others… This is where a guy needs to decide if he needs to take a glove off his hand to stick down the front of his shorts and risk losing the five appendages on his hand due to frostbite in order to prevent frostbite on the single appendage between the legs. To avoid having to make this decision I always carry an extra strategically placed glove to avoid frost bite to any appendage.

    Lady Godiva stares – These are the looks us runners get by others when they see us running when it is 20 degrees below zero. Unlike Lady Godiva, who’s stares were for her beauty (wow, what a babe!) the stares we get are those of unbelief (wow, what a dumb ass).

    Squeegee affect – The sound made by the sole of hard frozen running shoes that are in contact with ice or hard packed snow. Each foot fall sounds similar to the sound of someone walking in sopping wet tennis shoes on linoleum. The cold sort of muffles the sound so is more of a squeegee, squeegee sound instead of a squish, squish sound. (How do you describe a sound to a deaf man?)

    Puff the Magic Dragon – This is when you can see each and every exhaled breath in a form of steam not unlike a puff of smoke or the breaths taken by a fire breathing dragon. This “magical” effect is best if seen only through the moon light during a moon burn.

    Post Holing – The effect of running in deep snow where each foot step is in snow the depth of a standard post hole. It is very difficult to keep up a steady pace when you sink to your knee with each step.

    The Wow affect – That is when you get to experience all of the above in one outing and in addition, you see the sky transform from completely dark to a glorious sunrise. The range of colors that start with just a hint of orange in a star-lit sky, to a blazing blood red, to full sunlight. It is so hard to convey this experience in the written word; it’s like trying to describe colors to a blind man. Us winter runners who run in the morning get to experience the rising sun not only in the sky, but in our hearts and in our souls… There is no other feeling quite like it.

  7. Aaron

    I like that feeling, “Wow, I could die out here!” – which, of course, isn’t true. I’m dressed for the weather, I have a cell phone (although the battery dies on longer runs due to the cold), I’m only miles from my house and usually along the same back-road with houses scattered every half mile or so. But that feeling that I don’t belong in this environment, that I’m interloping through a hostile landscape – it brings a certain clarity of perception that I just don’t get during milder days. And the stunning beauty of winter landscapes, the infinite variation of snow and ice contrasted against dark towering evergreens or pale birch trees makes for some amazing sights.

  8. caper

    As the Canadian here winters just down right suck. It’s is truly tough to stay motivated, and honestly I don’t typically love winter running…yet I do it all winter long. There’s two motivators I have. The first being, if I don’t run now, when the trails thaw in the spring I’ll suffer through gaining fitness, when infact I want to suffer through having fun. So its the age old beach bodies are formed in the winter, well spring fitness is made in the winter as well. The other is, winters are just damn long, and if I did as I want to…go into hibernation, they seem even longer.

    There certainly is fun to have in winter, trails, once beaten down by fat tire bikers or snowshoes, are quite fun to run. Its a very different set of trails in the winter v summer despite often being the very same trail. The other fun part is on a crisp clear blue sky winter day, even with the cold, the sun is glorious. It shines brighter, and the reflection off of snow makes the world all that much more brighter.

    BTW it was -52c wind chill a few days back, that’s dangerous weather, but its runnable with advice. Plain old vasoline keeps bare skin from freezing, it doesn’t make it warm, but it keeps the frost bite away. Wind briefs…whom ever invented them deserves a nobel prize. If you’ve ever needed them you’ll know why. Small gloves, small mittens over the small gloves. After you run, you really do warm up, being able to peel away light small layers is helpful. Some sort of gaitor or even just ripstop shoe goo’d on the front of your shoes acts as a great winder barrier and your feet don’t get as cold, and you don’t need to buy special ‘winter running shoes’, and finally sheet metal screws in the lugs of your old trail runners…as good as buying shoes with metal nubs for ice.

    Winter sucks…I truly hate it, but it is tolerable as long as you’re doing something.

    1. Rich

      Hi Caper, living in northern Sweden I can relate to the conditions, though I doubt with windchill I have experienced -50C. Fatbiking and snowshoe running are both great things to do in the winter, and on colder days the extra effort and slower pace of snowshoe running helps to keep one warmer. As for winter shoes, I am a big fan of studded running shoes (I have used Inov8 Arctic Talon, various Icebugs, as well as Sarva) rather than putting in screws, which are much more noticeable underfoot when on harder surfaces. People balk at the prices, but I get 3 winters per pair because the wear-and-tear is less. I’d be good with a 3-month winter rather than 4+ months, but I love the seasonality. There is something to be said for the silence of running on a cold, snowy day, when all others are huddled inside.

    2. lori enlow

      Ooh, good tips! Where I live we infrequently dip into the single digits, but when we do I am usually not well prepared because it is so rare. No one around here goes out on these days….they don’t have to, as the weather usually bounces back so fast, so no one here knows how to prepare for long cold runs. My efforts have been trial and error.

  9. Kevin Mays

    You know, AJW, it’s all about being smart, prepared and doing the hard things, which applies to everything in life. There are no obstacles too great if one tackles them with sound forethought and determination. There is an element of personal pleasure in knowing that you’re doing something others think crazy, maybe like running in cold weather, but that’s a measure of determination & grit which separates the “want to’s” (“I want to be healthier, I want to be a runner, I want to get better, I want to lose weight, I want to __________ . . . “) from those that actually achieve their goals. Thanks for the life illustration, and go get it at Western States!

  10. Markus

    I think there is a point where running in really low temperatures just gets plain stupid.
    Frostbite is a serious thing and the damage can be forever.
    Not sure if it worth doing that, just to have that one cool Facebook or Instagram entry.

    When I used to run in Colorado I ran on weekends when it was the warmest. Call me a wimp but I don’t think it is worth to get skin damage.

  11. Sam

    There is so little hardship in winter running, and I say that while running every morning in one of the coldest spots of the Gunnison Valley, Colorado. It is routinely -20f when I step out the door to do my pre-dawn run. It doesn’t take long to warm up and my dog couldn’t be happier. Keep your skin covered, layer up the core and take pride in knowing that you braved the piercing cold while everyone else was still in bed.

  12. lori enlow

    I learned this week that when your nose is really running and you are blowing snot and repeatedly wiping snot with the same spot (left forefinger) on your not-so-water-proof glove, the moisture from the snot seeps through and you subsequently have a frozen left forefinger. Gloves must be snot proof.

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