Braving the Beast Coast Winter

I grew up in New England, and I was a cross country ski racer in my youth. I’ve always played outside in the winter – no matter the weather and no matter the temperatures, I was in my happy place when outside on the snow. I went to college on the Canadian border, and insisted on wearing sandals year-round…yes, I was that girl. I often wonder how I still have all 10 fingers and toes! Over the past few years, folks toss around phrases like ‘polar vortex’ and now ‘bomb cyclone’ as if those phrases have been used forever. I don’t recall experiencing cold like that in my youth or in college, but the last few winters of training have been pretty challenging to train through.

I fondly remember my coldest run ever, on Valentine’s Day a few years ago. It was a 20-mile road run with temperatures starting at -15 and warming up to -9 by the end. I was so numb that I could barely talk, and those that know me know that’s rare! The main reason I managed was due to an awesome friend who met me every 45 minutes with a warm cup of hot chocolate to keep me going for the next stretch.

So, how do I survive the long miles of ultra-training through the bitter cold temperatures, beyond recruiting hot chocolate-toting friends?  I’m sure anyone who trains through these temperatures has their own tricks of survival – here are mine.

  1. Dress in layers. Adjust the layers, open/close jackets and shirts as you warm up or cool down on the run. My secret weapon is to wear a base layer of a wool shirt that wicks moisture away from my body, then layer with a warmer shirt and windbreaker on top. My lower half is often multiple layers of spandex, sometimes including a pair of spandex shorts so my butt doesn’t becoming a bumsicle.
  2. Buffs are best friends. I wish that buffs were a thing when I was a kid, because I would have avoided getting frostbite on my earlobes. Now, they give away buffs at so many races and my earlobes, chin, and neck are all kept warm during my winter runs. Of course, men can always grow an ultra-beard to keep the chin warm.
  3. Start the run warm. I used to spend the first mile or two of a run with numb feet and hands, now I do some quick lunges or body weight squats in the living room before heading out for a run. If I’m starting elsewhere, I do some jumping jacks in the parking lot. Or, at a minimum, I’m famous for keeping my down jacket on until the last possible second, often also having a fleece blanket wrapped around my waist.
  4. Change the outer layers regularly. After many years of training through frigid temperatures, I honed in on the fact that under 10 degrees, it takes 75-90 minutes for frost to cover the inside of my jackets (can you tell that I’m an engineer?). And at that point, the jacket is making me colder rather than keeping me warm. So, by planning runs that involve multiple 60-90 minute loops from my house or car, I can switch out my jacket, gloves and hat every lap and stay warm for longer to pack in the miles. As a bonus, I also refuel/hydrate regularly without frozen water bottles and without chipping a tooth on a frozen energy chew.
  5. Adjust the plan as needed. During one of the coldest weekends of this winter, I was scheduled to do my long run on a day when the warmest temperature would be 0 with a wind chill of -25. Rather than suffering through that, I instead shifted the long run to a slightly warmer day and did a shorter recovery run instead. It’s not ideal, but I’m doing my best to make it work within the constraint of the weather.
  6. Cross train. Snow on my favorite trail makes running much slower and harder – but it’s also an opportunity to do some snowshoe running. Or some cross country skiing. Cross training (and running over snowy trails) will make you stronger, and hopefully allow you to enjoy these conditions rather than dread them.
  7. Enjoy the beauty. I don’t know about everyone else – but winter offers some of the most beautiful scenes, take a moment to appreciate them! I was treated to a beautiful sunrise yesterday morning as the horizon glowed a deep magenta and the low clouds were deep purple. This morning, some snow had turned a wide trail into a narrow single track with evergreens, bend under the weight of the snow, lining the route making it feel intimate.

Winter training is often a struggle with the conditions that I train through. Heck, it’s even a challenge to keep up with the amount of laundry that needs to be cleaned and find enough heating vents to dry my gloves and hats between each run! However, armed with a few tricks and plenty of warm clothing, winter can be a great time to build a solid base so you can start the spring ready to rock any ultra! And it’s a bonus if you have a friend to meet you with hot chocolate along the way.

This post was written by Amy Rusiecki.

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