Why I Hate/Love Running in Winter . . . by Kevin Sullivan

[Kevin Sullivan from Team Inov-8 (and winner of iRF’s best debut 100 mile of 2008) kindly provided the following article on winter running in the wake of a particularly harsh two-week stretch of New England weather. Read on to learn how one man’s misery can delight many and then share your own winter running stories.]

Kevin SullivanWhy I Hate/Love Running in Winter . . . by Kevin Sullivan
I hate running in winter. Yeah, I know, it sounds pathetic and whiny coming from a guy who voluntarily lives and trains in one of the worst winter locations in the lower 48. But to make matters worse, I don’t just run; I run ultra marathons. So training during the winter means days where the miles logged often exceed the high temperature for the day.

Boo hoo hoo, you say. Give me a break.

The familiar complaint is that it is just so difficult to get up in the dark and step out into the cold, dark, whipping winter winds. And it is. Winter is most cruel when the sun is asleep. But, isn’t that when we do our best training?

Yes, that is part of it. But I don’t think it makes me tough to train in weather that is about 70 degrees cooler than the weather I race in. That just sounds dumb. It is simple physiology that cold weather makes it more difficult to move your muscles and your body goes into rescue mode. I have literally – no joke – had my eyes start to freeze shut during two of my runs this year. It is no wonder the East Coast runners are the black sheep of ultra running with very few of us on the national radar. But besides the anemic mercury readings, there’s much more that makes running in winter something I dread—even more than my 27th Just Plain GU at mile 80.

Let’s start with the roads. I mean, who wants to run on pavement? That’s for hippy dudes wearing tight short shorts and racing flats. Roads are for cars. And who among us has not dealt with of crazy drivers – let alone New England drivers? Starbucks in one hand and Blackberry and cell in the other, listening to sports radio or Brittany’s latest. That’s not exactly the perfect setup for a waif-like runner with his head down struggling to finish four hours of running in a blizzard. I want dirt—not pavement—and not snow, ice, or that brown slush that looks like stuff you see streaming down legs during the last 20 miles of a 100 miler. That is a visual I want to erase from my mind, not etch in there with repeated exposure (a la Julie Moss).

Running on the roads is simply dangerous. Blinding snow banks, ice, potholes, and plow trucks make for an undiscovered reality show. So far, the score this winter is plow trucks 5, runners 0. There’s nothing like the roar of big yellow metal against pavement and some shooting sparks to trigger the adrenaline response. I’m pretty sure the drivers give themselves bonus points for runners wearing reflective vests and flashing lights – pinball wizard rules!

And when I finally do venture off-road, it is quite an adventure. First, I never liked wearing shoes – not as a kid and not now. I like sneakers and flip flips, that’s about it. Snowshoes fall into the shoes category. Enough said on that. Winter trails are usually riddled with footing challenges created by snowshoers and XC skiers. I go to the trails to find peace but winter often brings the interruption unnatural noises – like snowmobilers at 40 mph slinging their rifles. For some reason every time I see a Sno Cat all I can think of is Bo and Luke Duke with Roscoe on their heels. Gives me a chuckle, for a moment. But I want to hear birds chirping, not the gun shots of winter hunters that startle me into thinking, “DAMN, what color am I wearing today?!”

And, what of speed work? Try finding an indoor track that is longer than 100 meters without right angles for corners. 40 or 50 laps around one of those would pay my for my PT’s continuing education classes. Instead, I developed a workout called cartleks: an all-out sprint on the few patches of clean payment in the middle of any road. I time the intervals by how long it takes to avoid oncoming headlights. As a bonus, cartleks have the distinct benefit of not generating a snicker every time I mention them around my kids.

I remember a few years ago I was training for the Austin Marathon, which is in February. It was my way to escape the misery of winter. I logged all six 20 plus-mile runs on a treadmill in my basement. Uggh. What was my distraction for each? I killed the first two hours with a season’s worth of The Sopranos, followed by the dread of thinking about the two feet of snow I was going to have to shovel. For what it’s worth, here’s some free advice – shoveling is not good cross training unless you are a professional lumberjack living in Alaska (another very cold place, you know). I am not – and my massage therapist thanked me for that every time I saw him that winter to fix my back.

Running in winter also requires an extensive (read: expensive) wardrobe of technical (read: malfunctioning) layers. I generally don’t have the time to plan my route ahead of time, let alone figure out whether I need a base layer, a midlayer, and/or a shell. The advent of layering systems and wicking technologies are heralded in running, but why is it that no matter what I wear, I am either too hot or too cold? Should I go with a single, heavier weight pullover with a vest and some optional arm warmers? I now wear mittens – me, a man, in mittens. Sometimes I need to ask my kids to help me untie my shoes because my fingers and forearms are frozen solid and unusable.

The author (Kevin Sullivan) after a recent run

Running with a partner in winter conditions is a whole different encounter that requires a new dialect of short sentences and disjointed grunts. I often feel like I must sound ridiculous, as I try to force my words with tightened jaws through the frozen cheeks, “Sa how ferr do you wannago . . . wha di u do lasssstnit?” When my partner speaks, honestly I usually just say “yes” or laugh or sometimes just act lik
e I haven’t heard anything. What’s the sense? It’s not like I will be able to respond or that my response will be understood. It’s no wonder no one wants to run with me.

Nutrition and hydration are . . well, a joke and a cruel one at that. Try carrying a hand bottle for a couple hours and learn what it must feel like to be a popsicle maker – literally. GU = half dried cement. Clif Bloks = ice cubes, well actually, more like jawbreakers. I have come very close to chipping a tooth just trying to nibble a frozen block for some needed calories. And maneuvering the little tear packages with icy mittens brings me back to my frat house days. By the time I get those little buggers open, I’ve probably used up half the calories I was hoping to replace.

So I spend my winters swimming through germ cesspools on airplanes to go run in warmer locations like Texas, Arizona and southern California while my wife and kids ask, “When can we go to Disney?” to which I respond, “Well, they have a marathon there. Maybe then…?” To add insult to injury, I can’t pick up a running magazine without staring at some smiling, tanned runner dude (or dudette) in shorts on the cover and on nearly every page. Sometimes, I run on the treadmill with no shirt and turn the heat way up in my basement and listen to reggae to escape.

In the end, running in the torture of New England winters makes me appreciate all the other months. There is no better day to run than a Fall New England day, under the umbrella of Earth’s most genuine colors and in air so rich with possibilities that nothing is impossible – not even 100 miles. So for that, I really don’t mind running in the winter. Enjoying the crunch of just my own feet running across a fresh layer of snow. Watching deer hop through a naked forest in search of someplace warm. Listening to just my own breath and the echoes of snowflakes piling up around me. Just me and my running getting ready for the mud oatmeal of Spring trails and then the nasty May flies, the awful summer humidity, the tourists . . . .

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Kevin, thanks for sharing this great read with iRunFar’s readers! We can wait to learn how you really feel about summer! ;-)

Readers, if you’ll be doing some icy running soon, check out iRF’s overview of winter running traction devices.

Questions/Comments

  • What’s your best/worst winter running story?
  • What gets you out the door when it’s cold and icy out?