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


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.

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.