Training in (real) Winter: Stumbling into Gratitude

The Hypothermic Half Marathon, Montreal 2007
Let me start with this: I'm from Quebec. I am plenty used to training for spring races through brutally cold winters. I've raced a half marathon when it was -30 degrees C outside. I suffered frostbitten fingers after a long run because a truck splashed me from head to toe with frigid slush and my hands got soaked when I tried to wipe the slush off my jacket. I've seen my running partners' balaclavas (yes, we had to wear balaclavas) completely frosted over in white. Having hot showers after runs sometimes felt like being stabbed with thousands of tiny needles. I once ended up in a freezing rain storm so horrendous that I was trying to run with my eyes closed and seriously considered lying in a ditch on the side of the road until it blew over. I used to say my favourite temperature for winter running was -15: cold enough so that the snow on the roads was packed down solid. So believe me when I say, I am not just a fair weather runner. 

Pic: Hilary Matheson
But this winter - this oddly snowy, crazy La Nina-fuelled BC winter, has been the hardest one I've ever had to train in. Why? For one, I'm frankly not used to it anymore. Winter here in Squamish, in my experience, is usually about a month of pretty snow with a return to shorts-clad running on dirt by the end of January. Secondly, I'm not running road races anymore. When you're training for a road marathon, you run on roads, for the most part. And even when the weather is awful, most days you can still run on roads fairly normally (with some exceptions, of course); you just need to bundle up, watch your footing, and be prepared to run a little slower than you're used to running. When you're training for a trail ultra marathon (as I currently am - Chuckanut 50k, which is on March 18th), you mostly run on trails - at least, ideally. Specificity in training, and all of that. And this is where things get interesting. Most of my usual trails are not runnable right now (due to being buried in snow), and the ones that are "runnable" are still slip-sliding, post-holing, crusty snow ankle-grabbing, hidden icy patch obstacle courses. Instead of complaining, though ... ok , I've complained a tiny bit, but only after these last 2 massive snowfalls that came right as the original massive snowfall was starting to melt ... I'm going to offer a list of tips for us to all get through this while trying to still get a solid training block in and maybe, just maybe, realize that this winter is exactly what we needed:

1. Be prepared to give up on distance and just go for time on feet (this is my wordiest tip, mostly because I am terrible at taking my own advice here):

Note that while my moving time on this run was 3:46, my elapsed time was 4:41! 
This is easier said than done if you are a numbers person and have even a moderately Type A personality, as a lot of runners do (myself included). Going by time on feet makes a lot of sense in ultra running, especially if you are running in mountainous terrain where it can take inordinate amounts of time to cover very short distances. But on the trails I train on most frequently in Squamish, which are certainly hilly but all mostly runnable, my preference is still to map out runs - especially long runs - by distance. Usually I can route a run by distance easily, and know the approximate time it will take me to run it. This has not been the case this winter. I'm still clinging to my distances by my fingernails, but it has not been easy and I have had to relax my goals on a number of occasions. Here's a perfect example of a day last month when I should have given up on distance, but didn't. I'll offer a 'running' commentary of the thoughts going through my head on this 30k solo adventure:

Such...deep...snow...
I know, I'll route one big loop. A good chunk of it is on a logging road, which should definitely be cleared. I'll just run a few trails to get there, which should be ok since they are under lots of tree cover. Ok, well these trails are knee-deep snow. But that's alright, they're short and steep anyway, I'll just push through it. Once I'm on the road, it will be great!... And yes, it is great! Perfect tire tracks to run in. The mountains are beautiful. I love this. Logging roads have great views. Maybe I'll just take this connector trail instead of running the whole way on the road...oh, well ok now I'm plowing through thigh-deep snow. Oh god, it just took me half an hour to cover like 2 k. And the hose of my hydration bladder is now frozen solid. But I'm almost back to the road; then it will be all smooth sailing. Ohhh...where did my tire tracks go? Why is the road now shin-deep crusty snow that cuts my ankles every time I punch through it? Maybe I should invest in gaiters. Maybe I'll just wait here for someone to find me...but no, I must keep going. Holy eff, this road is so much longer than I remember it being! When I finally get to a runnable trail, I might cry [I literally almost cried]. 

Back to the tip: don't do what I did on this run. Some days, you just need to throw your distance goals out the window. 

2. Use particularly miserable days to do workouts.

Hill repeats in freezing rain. See Footnote for my gear of choice.
Case in point: hill repeats. Every time I've done them this winter, it has been either pouring rain or essentially a blizzard. One day I put my microspikes on my shoes and did them on an incline of sheer ice. Let's face it, hill repeats are never going to be fun anyway, so you might as well do them on days when you just want a 'good bang for your buck' run. 

3. Laugh. Remind yourself that trail running is really just playing outside.

Pic: Starr McLachlan
Running in snow is pretty hilarious. It's insanely hard, and in these conditions even the most coordinated runner with the best form can look like a drunk person toddling through the snow. Running on trails in winter is the closest I get to re-creating that feeling of playing outside as a kid, and that's pretty special. Once you stop thinking about it as work, your whole perspective shifts and it's nearly impossible not to laugh at yourself.

4. Get out there with friends.


There are a few reasons why this is a good idea. First of all, making plans with someone gets your butt out the door when your every instinct is to curl back up in bed with a cup of coffee. Second, I defy you to not have a good time once you are out there. Yes, the running will be ridiculous at times, especially when you find yourselves breaking trail or trying to cross a bridge with so much snow on it that you can't see where the bridge actually is under your feet. On the run pictured above, it was something like -14 and we were running loops of the only well-packed trail in town to get our long run in. But sharing these experiences with friends is priceless, and will give you war stories to relive for many sunny months to come. 

5. Practice gratitude.

Pic: Starr McLachlan
So your training is maybe not going quite the way you wanted: your runs have been more stumbly (mis)adventures than smooth tempo runs, and your mileage is nowhere near where you wanted it to be. You've also been granted the good fortune of:
    • Working out those stabilizing muscles! They're important for trail running, right?
    • Wearing all those cute toques that you rarely get to run in.
    • Practicing for technical trail conditions by finding good lines down icy, chunky snow-filled trails.
    • Slowing things down for a change.
    • Spending hours (and hours) in nature, both solo and with friends.
    • Being able to escape the insanity of current world events into a much simpler, happier place.
    • Running in an absolute winter wonderland.
    • Having that feeling that if you can get through this, you can get through anything.
And there you have it. I have no idea how my race is going to go in 5 weeks, but I have to believe that training in these conditions, while not ideal, is making me stronger. And most importantly, despite having been running in snow for the last 10 weeks or so, on reflection I've had one of the most fun winters of training ever. Grateful for the blessing of doing "hard work" in the snow, in beautiful forests, with friends? You bet I am. 


Footnote: My must-have gear for running trails in winter*:

  • Traction devices for shoes. I use Kahtoola MICROspikes and love them - they let me run up and down icy hills with no fear of slipping.
  • A running vest. This is a must for long runs, to carry water and snacks as well as to have the space to bring/shed extra layers and spikes as needed. I usually use a hydration bladder, although the hose will freeze when it gets cold enough - this can be resolved by taking really frequent sips of water (which is probably a good idea anyway). My favourite vest for everyday runs is the UltrAspire Alpha - it is a nice snug fit with just enough room to carry what you need. If I need to carry more gear, I use the Ultimate Direction Jenny Adventure Vesta.
  • Merino wool tops. I almost never run in synthetic material in the winter anymore; wool keeps me so much warmer because it dries so quickly.
  • Smartwool socks. I use PhD ones, and they are actually for hiking, but they fit me perfectly for running and I've never once had a blister or any chaffing, even after 100k. I pretty much wear these year-round actually, because my feet get wet so often. 
  • A Gore-tex (or similar) jacket. I use the Arcteryx Norvan, and it is essentially bullet-proof when it comes to cold rain/snow and wind. The hood fits snugly as well, for those really miserable days when you want to hide inside something while outside.
  • One pair of really warm tights. For those days below -10, I have a 9-year-old pair of Sugoi tights with a very thin fleece lining - they are still going strong and my legs have never once been too cold in them.
  • Mittens (or, in a pinch, socks for hands). Unless it's a balmy day, gloves don't keep my fingers warm enough - probably because of the frostbite I got on them all those years ago. I just wear whatever ones I can find, nothing fancy. If anyone has amazing running mitten recommendations, I'd love to hear them!
  • A selection of toques. Because, I just love a good toque.
*If running in the mountains, I'd have much more gear than this! This is just my everyday running stuff.

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