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It's a Cold and It's an (Un)Broken Hallelujah

jonnah-perkins-snow-road1.jpg

I never dread winter, I actually look forward to it. After strong fall running, I picture myself thriving on a lighter farm schedule with a late winter race to keep me hungry. What I always come to realize is that my lighthearted attitude for training turns into a cerebral, existential march toward my running goals. In summer and fall I'm a frolicking doe, gladly rolling out of bed a 4am. In winter I'm a pensive snow tiger, questioning the meaning of my effort. After five winters of heavy training on the frozen roads and trails of Wisconsin I've developed some strategies to weather the most severe season. Winterize your wardrobe and fueling The most common winter running mistake is overdressing. Stepping out into frigid weather, I know I will be cold for at least 10 minutes but with aerobic activity I warm up quickly. Having on too many layers, or the wrong layers, will lead to over-sweating and subsequent chills. On cold days (under 5 degrees) I wear a base layer under loose running pants, two running shirts, a soft-shell jacket, headband, hat, Buff around my neck, socks and running mittens. On sub 0 degree days I will add a light vest under the jacket. On warmer days the layers are reduced. I wear trail shoes on roads with mixed levels of traction and only ever wear added traction on trails. In my experience, quality goes a long way with winter running gear. Being comfortable can make or break your level of enjoyment when it's freezing, so invest in a good pair of pants and coat. You don't need to wash them everyday and can wear them for years.

Staying hydrated and fueled is easier and harder. You do not lose as much fluid through sweating when it's cold but it's still important to manage hydration. On runs longer than 15 miles I bring a warmed up electrolyte drink in my water bottles and it stays in a drinkable state for up to 2 hours. TIP: unscrew bottle tops, do not try to drink out of the nozzles. For runs over 25 miles I work in a stop for water. Gels become hard to eat when they are frozen so store them close to your skin. I also run with for real foods like Honey Stinger Waffles and Energy Bars.

Cross training can add value Other than the occasional snowshoe run or hike, and ice skating with my kids, all I do is run. But snow sports are great and someday I plan to play one. As boring as it sounds, my personal approach to winter training is to put everything into running and not wear myself out with other endeavors. For runners who are just trying to maintain a base or are building up for spring and summer races, playing out in the snow is the best way to enjoy winter. Snow sports are a great way to build and retain fitness, give your mind a break from higher-volume running, and let your body heal from micro-injuries. Just be careful not to get a traumatic injury that will take you away from running!

Don't be snobby about running surface Even though I consider myself a trail runner at the core, I run most of my winter miles on the road. When trail conditions are good I will be out there as much as possible but I never compromise my ankle health just so I can tell myself that I am running trails as much as I do other times of the year. Winter roads are more challenging than dry roads. With varying degrees of traction, snow accumulation, and debris on the shoulder, I make it a game to hop around, keeping my agility sharp. My road-heavy training has not seemed to limit me in a race setting, though I do wonder how I would be different as a runner if I had dry trails to run year-round.

Something is better than nothing, except when it's not There are so many reasons not to run in the winter. It's dark, cold, and treacherous. With holiday parties and beers to be consumed, running can seem unimportant. But any amount of running is better than not running at all. Once you're out there it usually turns into a good run. If it doesn't, at least you gave it a shot and got your blood flowing. However, once the diehard mindset takes hold, it's important to stay honest with yourself about your health. With colds and flues going around in the dark months, most of us will get sick at least once. Running through a little cold won't kill you, but it can derail your training efforts. I have personally prolonged viruses but trying to push through. Just be smart.

Seek out warmth In the winter, I spend a lot of time in cold places. Although I work less on the farm, when I am there, I work in a cold office in the barn. I do farm chores to help out on my parent's hog and poultry farm and I am out in the cold running 6 days a week. Even through I dress right, the cold just wears me down. I have learned that being close to a direct heat source warms my body and spirit. I often eat dinner in front of our wood burning stove, with the door wide open so I can stare at the flames. I take a hot bath several times a week and a steamy shower on the other days - I actually bathe more in the winter than the summer. Adding in a hot yoga practice or finding a sauna can take the edge off of the season for runners and non-runners alike.

Be kind to yourself and others Winter running can be intense for a lot of us but ultimately it's a choice. When I truly do not want to run, I won't. It's hard to keep a relaxed grip on structured training but it's important to remember that running is for fun. In the winter I eat more chocolate, I let my house get messier, I burrow down inside my own mind and indulge my introverted side. I try to love myself more in the winter because winter is hard for me. This also means that we need to be kind to our friends and family who are supporting our running pursuits. We are choosing to take on our own challenges and it's easy to feel like a noble martyr of the Arctic Tundra but no one is making us run, so just be nice about it.

The reason winter is important to me is because my drive for running shifts from joyful autopilot to contemplative examination. I feel my runs more in the winter months and the entire process is more epic. In fair weather, one day bleeds in the next and I rarely ask myself if I like what I'm doing. Winter forces me to check in and make sure this is still a meaningful use of my time. Running holds me close and asks Do you still love me? My response is I will love you forever.

Well Honey, You're Our Leading Woman

I shot the mile 37 aid station volunteer a wily smile. I threw back my second cup of Mountain Dew and wanted more. I took the 2 liter from her hands and tipped it up to the sky. The plastic sides buckled under the pressure of my swallows. She leaned in close to me and said, Well Honey, you're our leading woman, now go catch those guys ahead of you. I had a several mile margin on the other females in the race so there was no fear of not winning my division. But I could possibly catch a man. Soaking wet with sweat and water in the finishing area.

I trotted out of the aid station and into the prairie section of the race, Dances with Dirt 50 Mile. I was on my second lap of the course and knew how hard this six mile exposed portion would be. The prairie radiated heat off of tall grass and the dirt was loose and sandy. After I zigzagged over rolling hills through the prairie for a few miles, I stopped and put my hands on my knees. I felt a wave of dread roll through my body - I was winning but far from finishing. As I stood up I tilted my head back and squinted at the sun. Tears and sweat streamed off of my face and into my hair. I still had 11 miles to go and it was only getting hotter. I dumped the rest of my water bottle over the nape of my neck. The cool water stung as it mixed with salt and flowed through my top, over my stomach, into my shorts and down my legs, burning all of the raw, chafed spots along the way. I took a deep breath in through my nose and blew it out through my mouth. Ok, Jonnah, just do your plan.

So what was my plan? To win - I had reduced this 50 mile course to that. A few weeks before the race Jesse and I were driving back from the field after turning off an irrigation system. He glanced over at me and smiled. What? I said as we bounced over the rutted out farm road. Oh, nothing. Well, I have a goal for you. I think you could win the whole race. He meant an overall win - including the men's division. Why would you say that to me? You know that's impossible. I'm not even sure if I can finish. While I ended up finishing way behind the winning man, Jesse's wild goal, as unlikely as it was, stuck with me. I'm not sure if this was intentional but by putting me up to that feat, I decided that I would at least win the women's division - as long as my injury stayed at bay. Leading up to the race I didn't know if I would finish because I was still recovering from an injury that had caused me to drop from my previous 50 mile race. Back in January when I was planning out my race year, I was going to compete in the Dances with Dirt 50k event, not the 50 mile, but when I dropped out of Ice Age 50 Mile in May, I knew that I needed a redeeming race to reassure myself that I could be competitive in the 50 mile event.

devils lake

So there I was at Dances with Dirt 50 Mile leading the women's division by several miles. I had nothing left to do but race the clock for a strong finish time, and possibly catch some of the guys ahead of me. I was in a great position and was able to put myself there because my training was so specific to this race and the conditions I might face.

Training on the trail: This was the first trail race where I had done almost all of my training on trail. I ran less often but the quality of my runs were much better than running on the road. For a month and a half I ran at Devil's Lake State Park, the location of the race, once or twice a week and I ran at Blue Mound State Park (just down the road from home) twice a week. I usually added in a 6-10 mile road run as well. My peak week was about 60 miles.

Cooling down after a long training run at Devil's Lake

In addition to having very relevant training, I also got super familiar with the course. I knew it well already, but learning how my body would hold up on challenging sections was very valuable. A lesson that I learned on a 23 mile training run was that my favorite descent, a 2 mile technical trail with a lot of opportunities to get air time, would destroy my quads. In the race we ran down and up this hill twice. On both descents, I fought back the urge to tear down the hill because I knew I could compromise my legs. It was a smart move, but I could have run faster on that hill, as well as others, and still had strength in my legs. Ultimately, I played it too safe, but during the race I knew that the only way I wouldn't win was if I was foolish with my pace.

Heat training and management: July in Wisconsin can be really hot and humid. I raced the Dances with Dirt 50k last year and was very lucky with the weather - it was overcast with a 75 degree high. Those mild conditions might be one of the reasons I was able to come in second female overall. For this year's race, I wanted to be super prepared.

I was sure to run on the hottest days, ideally during mid afternoon when the temperature was peaking and I was tired from the day. I knew that if I suffered in these grueling conditions prior to the race that I would have an advantage.

I spent 20 minutes twice a week in a sauna at the gym. Sauna heat is very dry and easy to relax in for a few minutes. But once I got over 10 minutes I was pretty miserable. Pushing your body to acclimatize to the stress of heat can be valuable in a race. I am a big believer in sauna heat training, but advise that anyone seeking the benefits to consult a physician prior to starting a program.

I run with an Ultimate Direction Jenny Running Pack to carry supplies that I need for most of the race. Jesse had the brilliant idea of leaving my pack at an aid station toward the end of the race to allow my body to cool more efficiently. At mile 37 I left my running pack in my drop bag and picked up my handheld water bottle. Taking off the pack, even though it's not heavy, made a huge difference in managing my body temperature.

Fueling my delicate system: I have always struggled with eating during distances over the marathon (26 miles). In my past races I've had such bad nausea that even keeping liquids down is challenging. I took time leading up to Dances with Dirt to figure out what works with my stomach. Ask any experienced ultrarunner what the key is to fueling and they will all have a different formula. For me I found that I need natural sugars anchored with whole foods topped off with plenty of coke or Mountain Dew; Gatorade is good too. I ate 1 Honeystinger gel every hour for the first five hours, a potato dipped in salt at every aid station, some fresh blueberries, a few handfuls of dried cranberries and two pieces of dried papaya. I'm not sure how much water I drank, but I know it was too much. I guzzled soda whenever I had a chance. I still have a lot to learn about what is perfect for my body, but at least I can get through a 50 mile race without needing to throw up.

Dances with Dirt course map

Learning to improvise: The Dances with Dirt 50 Mile and 50k courses were changed last minute due to miscommunication between the race organizers, Running Fit, and Devil's Head Resort. From what I understand, it was handled as well as possible by Running Fit. I had studied the course map and elevation table very closely and was concerned when I learned, at 5:20am race day, that my course had been changed. Less than 10 miles were affected but the new terrain was very different.

elevation profile

We skipped a climb at the beginning and a descent at the end, making the overall elevation gain lower. I imagined that this should make for an easier course, but the shady hills were replaced with burning hot, sandy prairie which really took a lot from me physically and mentally. This last minute change was a good exercise in improvising in a race setting. I am sure that I will encounter more uncertainties in future races.

Just over the finish line with Mischa, my 1.5 year old.

I was able to pass one man ahead of me at the finishing chute. He took a few seconds longer than I did to pickup his little girl. We both ran over the mat with our toddlers in our arms. I'm happy with my standing in the race, 1st female overall - 4th overall. I think that I was too conservative with my pace. I was afraid of running out of power so I held back knowing that I would win anyway. With every training run I do and each race I compete in, I learn more about my body and what I'm made of. I am looking forward to applying some of these lessons from Dances with Dirt to my next 50 mile - The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin.

Snowshoe Racing: My Off Season Challenge

Last December I was flipping through the latest issue Trail Runner magazine, and came across a listing of National Snowshoe Association snowshoe races. The first race on the 2015 schedule was in a small town in northern Wisconsin, near where my grandfather lives. I learned that this 10k in Minocqua, WI could qualify me for the National Championship Half Marathon. I was long overdue for a visit up north to see him, so this felt like a good excuse for entering the race. I had been back country snowshoeing for several years and the idea of running on snowshoes seemed really hard to me. But as a trail runner this is what I go for - a challenge. Moose Tracks 10k race start

I registered for the Moosetracks 10k in Minocqua, WI, and bought my racing snowshoes. I had about 3 weeks until the race to train, but southern Wisconsin hadn't gotten any snow yet. I had zero opportunities to try out my snowshoes, except for the one time that I ran around our yard on the frozen grass, just to know what it felt like to have the things on my feet. I was also injured during December and I knew that I wasn't going to be in the best shape, but I was confident that I could at least be competitive in the race.

Moose Tracks 10k - January 4

It was 4 degrees with a windchill of -12 when the 10k started at 11am, I counted my articles of clothing: 14! There was 5 inches of fresh powder - nice conditions for downhill skiing or snowboarding - but super hard to run in snowshoes. Racing snowshoes are smaller than back country snowshoes and don't hold the weight of your body above the snow as well.

I went out with the leaders and tried to stay at the front of the pack. The snow was so fine that the stampede of racers whipped up a huge snow cloud making it hard to see and got snow down my neck gator. Only a half mile into the race my muscles were screaming and I quickly realized I was going too fast, but we were already into a single track stretch. I would have had to get off the trail to let racers pass, or suck it up princess and do my best to go with the flow of traffic. I sucked it up. Since it was so cold, my snowshoes glided under fluffy piles of snow making the weight of lifting my leg really heavy.

The course was two laps of a 5k loop. The second loop was much better than the first because the snow was packed down by the racers that came through behind me. That's the problem with being at the front of a snowshoe race on fresh snow - you are using your energy to stomp down the trail while trying to move fast. Once the trails were easier to run, I was actually able to really enjoy the beauty of running through the woods blanketed in snow. I felt like a woodland creature bounding through a deep forest. I finished 3rd, the second place woman beat me by 15 seconds. I left the race feeling pretty good about the whole experience and I was now qualified for the National Championship Half Marathon.

Pretending not to be nervous before the Half Marathon.

I ran a really good 50k a few weeks before the half marathon. This boosted my confidence for the snowshoe race, maybe a little too much. We had snow that I could have trained on, but I didn't bother. The two nights leading up to the half marathon I spent away from my kids. This was the longest I had ever been away from Mischa, my 15 month old baby. The extra sleep was amazing and I am going to remember this for racing in the future.  Sleeping away from my family won't always be possible, but getting to bed at 8pm instead of my usual 11pm certainly is.

My race started at 9am and the weather was great, 25 degrees and overcast. But there wasn't a whole lot of snow in Eau Claire, WI where the Championships were held. This fact would make the trails much easier to run for everyone. The half marathon was the last race of the weekend, so the course was packed down by the 5k and 10k events held the day before.

Focusing on a hill.

There were 68 racers from 16 states. This was a small, but serious group of snowshoers, almost all more experienced than me in the sport. I was counting on my trail running skills to save me.  I went out near the front of the pack. I knew there was a quite a bit of double track, so I didn't worry about getting stuck behind racers going too slow. The leaders went flying out at the gun! I got a sinking feeling that I was way out of my league. I stuck to a steady pace, focusing on the clickety clack of my snowshoes slapping on the crusty snow. This course was two laps of a 10k, so I would assess my situation at the halfway point.

Around mile 5, I was ready to start passing girls. Passing on single track is a big commitment on snowshoes - cruise up behind the racer ahead, announce my desire to pass, accelerate past my opponent, continue accelerating while not showing my urge to stop and lay down in the snow, once ahead of the racer try to recover my heart rate and return to a sustainable pace. I did this to three women. This put me in 5th place, where I stayed for the rest of the race. Once I got a strong lead on the girls behind me I focused on just finishing the dang race.

Racing alongside snowshoe legend Jim "Braveheart" McDonell.

Running hills on snowshoes is not something I enjoy, but maybe with more training I could learn to like it. The fact that I didn't put any training in before this 13 mile race really destroyed my calf muscles. The race was one week ago and I am still not able to walk down stairs straight - I have to walk sideways which is hard when I am carrying the children.

I was the 5th woman over the finish line. This earned me a silver medal in the open division! My mom was there at the race with me and when I crossed the finishing mat and they announced Jonnah Perkins, 31, from Black Earth Wisconsin, our 5th place female, I could see tears welling up in her eyes. This race was not the hardest race that I've competed in, but I think that she was proud of me for finding a new sport and going for it. As we left the race to make our drive home she said, Jonnah, you are a national silver medal holder in the sport of snowshoeing.

Off the Trail

Living in Wisconsin, the trails I run are either through woods or prairie - or the boulder fields at Devil's Lake State Park. It's pretty hard to loose the trail without noticing. For the last three years I have been coming to the Sedona area to escape winter, and do some warm weather running. One of my most underdeveloped trail running skills is having a sense of direction, so it's no surprise that every year I get completely lost on at least one of my runs. Trail or dried creek bed? Trail.

The terrain in the Coconino National Forest around Sedona is strikingly different from the thick woods and open prairies of southern Wisconsin. Much of it is bare and exposed with cacti and low, scrubby bushes. Pines and oak grow thick in the canyons. But that's the problem - it all starts to look the same after a few miles. A creek bed looks an awful lot like a trail and so do paths stomped out by local runners and hikers. If you are looking down at the rocks or up at the view, it's easy to wander off of charted trails.

Three years ago, Jesse and I drove out west for the first time. We were both getting into trail running and I had a marathon in Death Valley National Park so we decided to check out the area. We camped in the cold Oak Creek Canyon, and spent days running trails and playing with Paavo. I was completely unprepared for the labyrinth of unmarked trails and dry creek beds. On my first  run, I relied on verbal directions from Jesse and ended up miles off course. I left for my run in early afternoon with plenty of time to get back before dark. At the top of Brins Mesa I trotted along the edge of a rock out cropping that had clear foot prints and mountain bike tire tracks. A half hour later I was wandering down a chilly creek bed and the sun was going down really fast. I only had a hand held water bottle with no room for a phone. I kept thinking I saw a trail just ahead only to find more of the same looking rocks. Eventually I turned around and made it back to the truck just before sunset - I was scared and cold.

Trail or dried creek bed?  Dried creek bed.

Last year my mom brought my 3 month old daughter and me to Sedona for a long weekend. We needed some quiet time and sunshine after a bitter cold winter in Wisconsin. I was out of shape and dying to get back on the trail. My first run out I took a wrong turn and headed up a dead end trail. As the path narrowed I kept thinking if I could just get up a little higher I could see where I was. Eventually I was using both hands to climb a canyon wall. When I reached the top, it had been over two hours since I left Mischa and I really needed to get back to her. All I could see was another tier of canyon that looked the same. Climbing down, I was shaky and anxious to get out of there, not sure I could remember which rock and dirt and path to take. That run lasted twice as long as planned - I got back to our apartment exhausted and stressed from being away from my baby for so much longer than I had planned.

Jesse got me an Ultimate Direction running pack for Christmas. Now I can carry my phone, maps, snacks, and extra water. I was sure this year I would not get lost - I would understand my course and pay attention to the trail. I even took a picture of the map with my phone to reference if I felt turned around. First day out, I was on the last leg of my run when I took a direction from a chatty hiker who told me about a pass that would give me some cool views. Yeah, sure. Let's do it! I headed up Cibola Pass and found the landmark barbed wire fence she told me to watch for. Then the trail went cold - where did it go? I followed a narrow path that went up to a plateau then another. I decided that if my legs are getting scratched by cactus and brush or I need to use my hands to climb or my butt to scoot down on, I'm off the trail. For some reason I kept going. I came out onto a beautiful, flat rock that dropped away on three sides. I knew I would be late getting back to the trail head to meet Jesse and the kids so I had to check in.

I held out as long as I could before calling Jesse. When he answered, there was a long silence. I could see him rolling his eyes and holding back his playful annoyance. 'You ran this exact stretch two years ago. Just take Jordan Trail back to Soldiers Pass - it's just over a mile.' Jesse has an incredible memory for maps, trails, and geographical details that most people wouldn't remember for more than a few minutes. 'Yeah, I'll just backtrack and get back to the last place I remember, cool. See you in about 15 minutes.' I feigned confidence that I would be able to differentiate one dusty path from another.

As I stood there on the edge of that rock, I waited for my fear of heights to kick in - it never did. I sat down and dangled my feet over the edge and looked at my watch. I would give myself three minutes to enjoy the silence before racing back to the truck. I know that I will go off the trail again, but now I appreciate the experience of being lost. Part of the adventure of trail running far away from home is finding your way back.