Winter Running

I started running in 2010, using a treadmill at the gym and following a Couch-to-5k program on my phone. I participated in my first outdoor races in April and early May of that year, then embarked on a more formal (and outdoor!) training program in mid-May. I still did some of my training runs on the treadmill that year — but at the minimum, my long runs were all outdoors. Every weekend, I would meet my training group and run on one of the local rail trails, either the Perkiomen Trail or the Schuylkill River Trail. The closest I came to actual trail running at that time was when I would traverse the gravel portions of the Perkiomen Trail.

I ran my first half-marathon that November and, as the days grew shorter and colder, I assumed I’d be spending my winter trying to maintain a treadmill-based running program. Running outdoors in winter? In the dark? Worst of all, in the cold? No way, no how! I couldn’t do that!

And yet, members of my training group were planning to keep running together during the off-season, and were planning to run outdoors. The group had been a huge part of my motivation, and I didn’t want to miss out on group runs. Before I knew it, I was shopping for extra layers and meeting people for runs when it was 40 degrees … 30 degrees … 16 degrees outside. And then … it snowed. Well, that’s it, I thought; no more running outdoors. Once again, I was proven wrong. Fellow runners pointed me to Yak Trax, and waxed poetic about the beauty of running in the snow. I was suspicious, but let’s face it: I was hooked on running AND hooked on my great running group, and I didn’t want to be left out! I bought my Yak Trax. I showed up for the run.

Friends, it was amazing. The trail looked like some cross-country skiers had gone down it, and parts of it had obviously seen snowmobile traffic (which created a really nice, smooth snowpack) and we pretty much had the morning to ourselves. There was a lovely hush around us, and running on the packed snow felt wonderful — like I could go all day! Of course, there were a few rough spots, where prior snow and ice had compacted under foot traffic, and the new snow was concealing that very rough surface below. I remember twisting my ankle several times that morning, but still completing a total of six miles and being amazed at the fact that I could still walk — when I was younger (and less fit), a twisted ankle would have meant the end of my day’s fun.

As introductions to winter running go, 2010 was about as gentle and kind as it could be. This year, however, I’ve challenged myself to avoid the flat, paved trails in favor of more challenging terrain — and winter makes those trails even more difficult. A little over a week ago, we received some snow — and last Friday, I ventured out onto one of our easy local trails, a flat dirt and gravel path that runs between the river and the paved Schuylkill River Trail. There are some side trails off this smaller trail that I often see mountain-bikers using, and which I got to explore with Pete from Misery Loves Company a few weeks prior. I thought this would be a great introduction to winter trail running — I could start out on the flat trail, explore some of the side trails and, if the going was too hard, reconnect to the flat trail.

The flat trail had seen a lot of foot traffic since the first bit of snow, and there was a hard, rough layer of compacted snow and ice — almost like running on cobblestones with lots of deep gaps. I was really glad to have my Yak Trax! Many of the side trails were invisible under the snow, but I did find a couple spurs that I remembered running with Pete. These were a mix of snow to break through, or slippery spots where mountain bikers had already compacted the snow. The wind that day was the real killer, and that’s what eventually drove me back to the flat trail — I was less exposed there, and the wind didn’t seem as bad.

Today, I met up with Pete and some other MLC runners again. This time, we were heading for a more challenging course: trails in Evansburg State Park. I’ve never run there before, and was really looking forward to exploring some new scenery. Pete originally rated today’s run a “4” on his 1-10 scale of difficulty. (Pete also has a tendency to tell us a run is mostly flat, with only one hill, then tell us all those other hills we ran were just “slight rises”.) When we gathered in the parking lot, he asked us if we wanted the good news or the bad news first — the good news was that there wasn’t a lot of mud; the bad news was that there was a lot more ice and snow than he expected. When I left my house, the temperature was in the upper 40’s and climbing quickly into the 50’s; I wore capris instead of full-length tights, and left my Yak Trax at home, expecting muddy trails. Somehow, Evansburg decided to keep its chill; when we met, it was still in the 30’s there! I was not a well-prepared runner.

We slipped and slid our way onto the trail. I tried to run to the edges of the trail as much as possible; I had better traction when I was breaking through the snow than I did on the compressed, icy trail. We managed a few creek crossings without incident, and broke through some thinner ice on muckier portions of the trail to our discomfort — my left foot got well and truly soaked early in the run, and my right foot matched it by the end. We all got mud-splattered at one point or another, and I’m pretty sure we all took our turn at flailing for balance as we slid over particularly well-frozen portions of trail. Steeper portions were particularly challenging, and there were a few spots where I could feel myself sliding perilously toward the edge of the trail (and therefore toward the creek), but we all made it through without anyone taking a dunk.

It’s a whole different ballgame, this sort of winter running. As I type this up, hours later, my legs are sore in a way that I only experienced in my longest runs when I was running on flat, paved surfaces. I can’t help but think that this is a good thing — I’m waking up muscles that have grown accustomed to pretty mindless, straight-forward running, and challenging them (and my brain!) to an entirely new method. I hope that, between my strength training program at home and repeated trail excursions, I will be able to build myself up to the increasing challenges of the trails.

(At the end of today’s run, Pete allowed that the icy conditions bumped his rating up from a 4 to a 5.)

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Learning the Trails

I’m not sure what it is in me that causes me to be drawn to things that are going to be difficult, possibly even painful. Things at which I will likely never excel, but will instead push through with stubborn (and possibly dumb) determination. Some people react to being told, “You can’t do that”, or “You’ll never finish that”, or “That race is beyond your abilities” — but I don’t even need to hear any of those things before I’m mulishly butting my head against it.

I took 12 months off from distance running, never running anything over 10k (at least, not on purpose– there was one run that went to 7-ish on a day I simply wasn’t paying attention) and then I greatly reduced the frequency of my running while I increased cycling mileage to prepare for my first century ride. As I resumed running earlier this Fall, I started looking for interesting events that I thought would help keep me motivated.

Around the same time, I decided that I needed to find a way to better balance my two sports and that I didn’t want to do as many road runs. To avoid road running, I decided I’d try to make more runs with my crazy trail-running buddies, Misery Loves Company. Then, I started to plan out ahead and put some events on my calendar so that I would have things to train for, both for running and cycling.

I’m not a natural trail runner. My initiation to the trails, thus far, has been both kind (the MLC crew really are great people) and a little painful. I haven’t injured myself beyond turning my ankle a few-dozen times, and the only injury to my pride is the one I’m used to: I’m usually the slowest person in the group.  I’ve attended several “newbie”-focused runs with MLC, and even tagged along for a tricky, spooky night-time trail run (the week before Halloween) that was certainly beyond my abilities. (I measured success in two ways that evening: I did finish under my own steam, and none of the blood spatters we saw along the trail belonged to me — or anyone else in our crew.)

And yet, all this data aside — my slowness, my general clumsiness, my struggle to adapt my form for the light step needed on the trail — I somehow decided that the event I need to prep for is the hilly, challenging Quadzilla 15k. Currently, the only reason I hold out any hope for finishing this race is the fact that I have seven months to train for it. However, I may end up regretting that when race day arrives and the temperatures are in the 90’s!

The next trail race I’ve registered for is in April, the Tyler Arboretum 10k Trail Run. I ran this last year, and had a lot of fun — I think this event is behind my decision to do more trail running, honestly. 

After Tyler, my original plan was to ramp up the cycling mileage and prepare for another century ride at the end of June. Now my new plan is to find a way to balance trail running and cycling, so that I can complete a century ride followed two weeks later by the Quadzilla, which will be my longest (and, from all reports, most challenging) trail race ever.

I may actually need to take the time to work up a formal training plan. Whether it’s stubbornness or just plain dumbness that gets me into these things, I’m going to need to train smarter if I want to finish and feel good about it.

If there are any trail runners reading this, what are your favorite tips for new trail runners?