Running during the winter presents some uncomfortable challenges. The main challenge has to do with temperature: not only the frigid outside air but your internal temperature, too. That’s an important distinction that shouldn’t be overlooked.
As you read this in the heat of July, perhaps you’ve all but forgotten those early January mornings when you roll out of a warm, inviting bed to face a cold, cruel reality: it’s freezing outside and you’d really rather not be freezing. But since you’re a runner and runners tend to want to run, you’re faced with the paradox of both wanting to do something (run) and not wanting to do something (run in the cold).
Sipping your morning coffee and contemplating your existence on those winter mornings (Does a meaningful life really need to include the unnecessary discomfort that you’re about to endure?), you’re faced with the important question of what to wear or, more specifically, how many layers of clothing you should wear. And it’s all too easy to get it wrong. There’s a cold-weather running adage that’s meant to help here. It says, “Dress like you’ll want to be dressed two miles into the run,” or something like that. The idea is that you shouldn’tover dress because then, aside from the icy air stinging your lungs with each breath, it’ll feel like mid-July instead of the dead of winter. But then if you dress for several miles into the run, those first few miles are painfully cold: your legs are stiff and your extremities start to go numb and icicles start to form where you didn’t think they could. I always over dress.
When it’s cold out, if you’re like me, you try to avoid being outside before the run actually starts. The only thing worse than running in arctic conditions isnot running in arctic conditions. That’s why, while the morning coffee is brewing, you must put on the warmest coat you own, start your GPS watch, dash into the front yard and place the watch in an area with good clearance overhead. Even if you have the fastest-finding satellite watch, it’ll take at least ten seconds to connect the GPS. Those are precious seconds best spent indoors. (Whenever someone poses the question, “Would you rather freeze to death or burn to death?”, I think about standing outside before a winter run, waiting for my GPS watch to locate satellites, and the answer becomes very clear.)
As your winter adventure begins, and your mind is fixated on the deep, penetrating coldness, you’re tasked with the added challenge of staying upright. Since it’s winter, the trails are probably filled with snow or frozen runoff from melted snow, and you’re forced to navigate slick city streets and sidewalks. (This is another uncomfortable winter running challenge for those that prefer trails: road running.) There’s probably ice on sections of the road, and there’s probably ice that you don’t see, and even if there isn’t ice, you’re probably looking for it just in case. Now your mind is working overtime in an effort to simultaneously placate the cries of your freezing limbs and nimbly navigate the ground in front of you. By the time you get two miles into the run, it feels like you’ve run ten. Winter running is exhausting.
Then there is Phoenix, Arizona in the winter. It’s a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak, wintry nightmare. The temperature hovers around seventy degrees Fahrenheit and the sun shines pleasantly. The trails aren’t snow-packed and a soft, crisp breeze recycles the still air at regular intervals. It’s a trail runner’s paradise and it’s often what I dream about before I wake up on a snowy January morning in Flagstaff.
There are a lot of trail races, and road races, and all manner of races in the Phoenix area during the winter. There’s a trail race there in January called the Coldwater Rumble. There’s also a road race called Rock N’ Roll Arizona. Last year, those two races were on back-to-back days.
It was the middle of January and I was about a month away from racing the Black Canyon 100k, yet another race during the winter in Arizona. I had been sick in early January and training had stagnated a bit and I was so sick of running in cold weather that I was willing to do whatever I could to leave Flagstaff. But you can’t leave town just because you’re sick of the cold.
“Hey boss, I’m going to be out of work for a few days because I hate the cold.”
That reflects poorly on a person. On the other hand, if you have to leave town for a race or, better yet, two races on back-to-back days, your boss views you more as a hero than as the soft, cold-weather-avoiding runner that you are. I care very much what my boss thinks of me, so I signed up for the Coldwater Rumble 52k on Saturday and the Rock N’ Roll Arizona half marathon on Sunday.
Racing is uncomfortable. Racing ultramarathons isn’t as acutely uncomfortable as, say, a 5k, but it’s less acutely uncomfortable for a much longer time, especially if you’d like to cover the distance as fast as you can. Racing on back-to-back days provides a further level of discomfort that I can’t properly articulate but I know what it feels like because I’ve done it, and I suppose if you haven’t then you’ll have to try it for yourself or take my word for it.
Arriving in Phoenix that Friday, I was so happy to be in warm weather that I wanted to be outside at all costs. It turns out the costs were a bit high because we slept in the back of our truck, with the tailgate down, near the race staging area in Estrella Mountain Regional Park. The Coldwater Rumble offers a variety of distances and start times, including the 100-mile distance with a 7 AM start time. I learned very early that morning that these race staging areas take some time to set up. Like several hours worth of time. Setting up a start/finish area in the dark requires lights. People working at those hours enjoy music. I know this because by 4 AM there were flood lights bright enough to illuminate a football field and there was music playing loud enough for the far-away mountain peaks to hear. But I couldn’t complain. It was January and I was sleeping--rather, in the angle of repose but awake now--in the cool desert air and I was about to run 30-something miles of trails.
I managed torun quite fast that morning and tried my best not to think about the half marathon the next day. I’ve always found that the key to running well is to forget: you omit the miles ahead and ignore the miles you’ve run and, if you’re racing on back-to-back days, you definitely neglect the fact that you have to run hard again the next day.
But the next day came, as days tend to do, and I had to forget all over again: about the 30-plus miles from the day before and the painfully fast miles in front of me. It was early in the morning again, still dark, and I had to prepare to be uncomfortable again.
It can be especially difficult to do painful and stupid things when you’re alone but it’s made a lot easier when you have someone else who’s willing to do painful and stupid things with you. On this Sunday morning in January, I hadJustin Houck, among others, to thank for getting me out of bed. Justin is a much better runner than me and I’ve found that one way to find new levels of discomfort is to run with people faster than you.
Justin did a formidable pacing job that morning as he ran by my side for the first five miles or so. It wasn’t long after the course went near his house and he left me to go home that I slowed considerably. But I managed to keep a decent pace and completed my weekend of racing with a newhalf marathon best. Thanks, Justin.
I’m amused as I reflect back on that weekend in January last year. It’s funny because I realize now that I wasn’t trying to avoid being uncomfortable when I convinced myself that I had to get out of Flagstaff’s freezing temperatures to spend a long, warm weekend in the valley. Really, I just chose to replace one form of discomfort (running in the cold) with another (racing twice in a weekend). I guess I like being uncomfortable.
I’ll most likely run again in the cold, dark hours of an early winter morning and I’ll most likely endure the discomfort of back-to-back races once more. And I’ll likely forget about the discomfort just as soon as it’s over so that my mind will allow me to do it again. I think I seek out uncomfortable situations because that’s when I learn the most about myself. That’s true in running but it’s perhaps just as true in other facets of life. I think it’s important to take on challenges that will inevitably drag you out of bed in the morning, that will make you question what you believe, that will force you to treat people more kindly, and expand your willingness to accept different people and different situations and different views.
Training through the cold of winter or racing back-to-back days might not by themselves make your life more meaningful. But it’s a start and I think it’s worth trying again and again.