This was my 6th half marathon race. Every race I run I am always nervous. Usually my anxiety increases until I feel like I might puke. And this time my anxiety was high, but not that high. Honestly, I had low expectations for this race. I have been sick with a cold and allergies and been running slow this winter too. All in all, I would have been happy with any time under 2 hours. I had resolved not to beat myself up even if my time was over 2 hours.
The morning was cold. In the 30’s and with a piercing wind. My original plan to wear spring weight clothes was scrapped and I broke out my winter gear. I didn’t sleep hardly at all the night before and had nightmares about getting to the start line late. Finally, I was sore from the 30 miles I had already put in over the course of the week. I hurt at the start line.
But there I was. At the start. Lined up in the last wave of half marathon runners, hoping my broke down body didn’t make me into a liar. I had signed up in the last wave, expecting to finish in under 2 hours, and now hoping I could do it.
The first mile all I could think was that my body was moving too slowly as I watched people pull away from me. Then my running app announced my time: 7:58. I better slow down, I thought. Then for the next several miles I trundled along through Peaceful Valley, then Browne’s Addition. I barely registered the historic mansions passing by in my peripheral vision. I was fixated on the ground in front of my feet.
When I got to People’s Park I caught up with the first groups of walkers I would pass. I was able to maintain a good pace and energy through switchbacks leading up to Kendall Yards. At the first turn around point I got to see some of the truly fast runners coming back my way as I went out and they flew back in. At about 8 1/2 miles I felt a flood of adrenaline and endorphins hit my brain and I couldn’t feel my body. It was like I had gone numb for a quarter mile. Then feeling returned and I continued on out to Mission Park. As I was heading out to start the loop around the park, I saw a friend of mine completing his loop on his way back to the finish. Then, after managing to get my fleece hoodie off, and all of my gear back on, I started the final 3 miles of the race.
This is my favorite part. I love seeing people up ahead and passing them. Especially if we have been trading places during the race. I knew the route back in to the finish well since I run this area all the time during my regular runs. I was able to maintain and pick up speed those last few miles. Just after the 13 mile marker I realized I was still holding back and remembered that I didn’t need to anymore. This was it. The finish line. When I crossed it I had a PR of almost 2 minutes and placed 4th in my age group. I was tired but not spent. It was an excellent race.
How do I run in the snow? I get this question a lot. The most honest answer is that I just do it. The longer answer? I do it. Slower. Carefully. With a lot more clothes than when I run in temperate weather. Let’s talk about warmth first.
I hate being cold. My hands and feet are almost always cold. I have medical condition called Reynauds Syndrome that prevents my blood from flowing to my hands and feet and fingers and toes regularly. It’s particularly bad if I touch something cold– like the steering wheel of my car first thing in the morning or run my hands under cold water. The ends of my fingers turn white and get tingly. Sometimes they stay that way for the better part of an hour. It’s miserable.
So, when I run outside in the cold, my first concern is making sure I will be warm enough. Or at least as warm as I can manage without turning into Randy from A Christmas Story. Layering is the key. First, the base layer.
I wear fleece lined running tights in the winter. My favorite pair comes from Athleta. They are ridiculously expensive but really warm. My second favorite is Zella (Nordstrom store brand.) they are only about $20 cheaper, and also warm. On top I wear long sleeved tech shirts. I have three Nike shirts that I bought on clearance and one Zella brand shirt. I have worn them each for hundreds of miles, at least, and all are holding up pretty well. My oldest Nike shirt has some pilling now but that’s it.
Next layer is a light weight pair of windbreaker type pants. I bought these at The Gap last fall. They are good for retaining some body heat around your legs, especially if it’s windy. On top I pull on a long sleeve fleecy shirt. I have two that I rotate. One has a hood and one has a head swallowing funnel neck. Both are good for retaining some of your body heat on cold days.
Lastly, I cover my hands and my head. Did you know that you lose a significant amount of body heat through the top of your head? Wearing a hat is a good way to keep some of that heat from escaping. I have several handknit wool hats that I rotate on my runs. Taking off my hat mid run is also a good way to cool down if I get too hot. I often take my hat off and shove it into the back waistband of my tights in the middle of a run.
Hands. My hands are the hardest thing to keep warm. I usually wear two pairs of coverings on them in the winter: a pair of either cotton or tech gloves and a pair of wool mittens over top of them. Even so, I often am a couple of miles into a run before they get warm.
Once I’m out the door I can shed some layers as I run if I get too warm. Gloves and hats can be shoved into the waist band of my tights. If I really get warm I can also pull off my fleece shirt and tie it around my waist as I run.
Is always the hardest one. Especially this time of year. I’m always cold but when it’s well below freezing? It takes a real mental feat to convince myself to step outside and subject myself to the kinds of temperatures that make your face go numb and hurt. That cause my feet to go numb for the first mile or 2 until the pounding on the pavement forces my body to pump blood to my toes. So cold that sometimes I can’t feel my hands for the first half hour. So cold I can feel the wind through 3 layers of fleece, drying and cooling the sweat on my chest and arms. So cold it’s hard to take a deep breath.
But then there is the beauty of it. The still quiet of snow. The softening of my footsteps beneath me. The absence of other walkers, runners, people. And the cold itself. Hard. Sharp. Like a concrete barrier at its worst. On the cold days I feel like I am most inside myself. Enveloped in my own world of forward motion — step, step, step, step, step. And on and on. Thousands of times. The only thing I have to do is take that first step out the door.
One of the most frequent questions I get is why do I run outside? Why do I run in the wind and the snow and the heat and the rain? Why run outside when I could be in a climate controlled gym? Where I wouldn’t have to worry about sunburn, windburn or slipping on ice? The answer to these questions are both simple and complicated– I love to run outside. There are many days of the year (winter, and most of spring and fall) when I would only venture outside when absolutely necessary if it weren’t for running. It’s often too cold for me to really enjoy being outside, except when I run. And that’s because my run is also the only time I’m actually, truly warm.
To be constantly cold wears on me. To feel the ends of my fingers go numb at the tips when I’m sitting at my desk in the middle of the day or when I grip the steering wheel on my drive home at night is both uncomfortable and disconcerting.
On the days when it’s below freezing outside I visualize my feet crunching in the soft snow and the sting of the snow in my cheeks. My heart pumping in my chest and the hammer pound of the blood in my ears. And then I put on as much clothing as it takes to get me out the front door. Wool hat, mittens, fleece hoodie, long sleeved shirt, fleece lined running pants, and a second set of mittens over the first. I shed clothing as I go. I tuck the hat into the waistband of my pants, hold on to my mittens in one hand. And usually, as long as it’s not wet, by the time I am 2-3 miles in I am warm. My toes burn as the numbness recedes and is replaced with a rush of heat as they pound against the pavement. My hands are always the last things to get warm. But eventually blood warms the ends of my fingertips. When that happens I am a machine. Well oiled. Smooth. Tireless. At least for a little while.
And in the summer and warm spring and fall days I sometimes stand outside and feel the heat envelope me. I stand in direct sunlight and feel it burning me. Just a little.