My Love/Hate Relationship With Winter Running

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Well this looks motivating. 

I’m so ready for winter to be over.

I actually fell in love with running in the winter.

I started running in July of 2013. By started, I mean that I ran consistently for about 6 weeks, worked myself up to 3 kilometres or so and then got injured. I think that tells you everything you need to know about my fitness levels at the time, but that’s not the point. The point is that, by the time I started running regularly again, it was freezing cold outside. I didn’t have any winter running gear. I used to layer leggings under a pair of track pants and top it off with a very poorly ventilated windbreaker. This was back in the day when I owned exactly one sports bra. I promised myself that if I ran through the winter I could go out and buy some real running clothes for the summer. That was my primary motivation.

There was also a part of me who thought that “real” runners had to run through the winter and if I stuck it out I’d be passing some kind of runner’s commitment test. At the time, I had no plans of ever racing and I’m not even sure I knew how long a marathon was, but I’d head out two or three days a week and get it done. It wasn’t so bad in the late fall and I remember coming home elated after a 6km run (my longest run ever!) and signing up for the Yonge Street 10k.

The Yonge Street 10k isn’t around anymore but all you need to know is that it’s in early April. So I’d head out in my track pants and horribly uncomfortable windbreaker/old fleece combo and train. It was slow going but I managed to drag my mileage over 10km by the time the race came around. I have a lot of memories from Winter 2014. Mainly, it was frigidly cold and every time I came in to defrost I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I’d gone out and faced off against the elements and gotten shit done. I had a goal and I was going to power through. And February is the best month for sunsets over country roads. My phone has been littered with sunset photos since this first training cycle.

Now, I do this every year. Signing up for early Spring races forces me out the door in the most ridiculous conditions. I ran my first ever half marathon at the Chilly Half Marathon on March 1, 2015. I ran Around the Bay in 2016 and 2017. I’ve had some pretty adventurous long runs. It’s been -30C and I’ve been out there with three pairs of pants on. I’ll be attempting my first ultra at the end of April. This has become a tradition. It isn’t winter if I’m not running across the countryside dressed like a ninja.

My biggest nemesis is probably unshoveled sidewalks and unploughed roads. I live in a small town where no one seems to care if the sidewalks are maintained in the winter. Ploughs don’t hit the roads until late in the day or, in the case of country roads, days later. I train alone and sometimes the thought of slogging through ankle deep snow for hours is a lot to stomach. There’s also a bit of a safety issue. I fell flat on my ass just last week and I’ll admit it completely freaked me out. Injuries are my worst fear right now.

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What’s a plough? Never heard of it. 

That said, I have made some pretty crucial adjustments to my wardrobe. I now have real winter running tights of varied weight and layering options. I have fancy Merino wool base tops. I own five running jackets (two were gifts, and one was Chilly Half race swag). I still only have one hat and one pair of gloves.

And Winter running still sucks. No amount of fancy gear will change the fact that some days it is damn hard to get out the door. I joined a gym a few months back and sometimes I do run on the treadmill. After 4 winters of nothing but outdoor running, it feels like a luxury and I don’t really want to get too used to it. Winter running has taught me to tough it out even when you’re miserable and that you don’t always need to like running to love it.

This isn’t to say that the runner’s commitment test my former self believed in is a real thing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being on the treadmill November-March. Do what you need to do to chase down your goals. If nothing else, it will make you look less crazy. Which, I’ll admit, in a small town, could be a very valuable thing.

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2018 Frosty Trail Run Race Report

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Last Saturday, I ran the Frosty Trail Run at Camp Heidelberg in Waterloo, Ontario. This means that after years of obsessively reading everyone else’s race reports for every single race I have ever entered, it is finally time I write my own.

The Frosty Trail Run is a loop race. You have a specified amount of time to run as many loops of the 2.1km course as you can. I was in the 3 hour event but there is also a 1 hour and a 6 hour, making this a great race for all abilities.

I first did this event in 2017 and, I’ll be honest, I was afraid it was going to be boring. I like to watch the scenery change as I run and could not imagine seeing the same 2km for hours on end. This is the wrong attitude. Totally wrong.

So, let’s start off with a brief note on the perils of winter running and, in particular, winter trail running. I didn’t exactly win the accessible trails lottery. I am lucky enough to have a 24k loop trail a short driving distance from where I live. In the summer, this is fantastic. In the winter, the park is closed and the trails are not maintained. Running through knee-deep snow is an absolute slog that threatens to double the time of my run while I wonder if my water is going to freeze because it’s -15C. Maybe not the safest training plan for this solo runner.

Frosty Trail Run solves this problem. No matter what happens, you are only ever going to be 1km away from food and water and a warm building. The start/finish aid station is stocked with fruit, candy, chips, coke — all the necessities for running around and around in the woods for hours. Instead of a freezing cold long run on a poorly plowed country road, I get to put in time on the trails with plenty of good company. This is a small event (around 35 people) so everyone is friendly and encouraging. I’m still pretty new to Ontario’s trail and ultra scene but people are always nice and don’t make me feel like a complete rookie who accidentally stumbled into the woods on a Saturday morning.

It’s hard to set a goal for a winter trail race, and I really didn’t get the impression that people at Frosty Trail are there for competitive reasons. It is less of a race and more of a big training party in the woods. Last year, I used the race to give myself a kick in the butt after a few months of post-marathon slump. This year, I used it to to gauge my fitness at the start of training for my first 50k – Pick Your Poison in April 2018, because there is no way in hell I am showing up at Squamish an ultra virgin if I can avoid it.

Whatever your plan is, the weather that mother nature happens to bless us with on race day is a major factor. I was a bit reluctant to sign up until I was convinced the forecast wasn’t going to require me to drive for an hour in freezing rain. Luckily, the weather was absolutely perfect at just below zero with some lovely sunshine to warm us up. 

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Cheers to RD Partrick Campbell for getting a picture of me where I actually look like I like running. And for making delicious veggie chilli.

In 2017, my somewhat defeated post-marathon self was pleasantly surprised with 10 laps and quit after about 2 hours and 50 minutes. This year, I wanted to run for the full 3 hours regardless of where I was on the course. If this meant starting another lap with only 1 minute on the clock, I’d do it. This turned out to be a very motivating strategy in the final hour as I wanted to travel as far as possible. I pulled off almost 11.5 laps for a total of over 24km and I absolutely ran as hard as I could to get that extra 0.5. No, it doesn’t count towards my total and official results will only say 11 laps but I know I did it with a smile on my face. I’ve convinced myself that I am at a pretty good place for the start of a 50k training plan. Mission accomplished.

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Short and steep and still (kinda) smiling. (Photo: Patrick Campbell)

But, why isn’t it boring? Don’t you start to feel like a hamster? I still haven’t quite answered that. I find that running loops helps me get into a sort of flow. I know what’s coming, I know where I should push it and where to conserve energy. I look forward to whatever treat I’ll grab at the aid station the next time I pass through. It helps that the trail was beautiful in the early morning sunshine. I can’t say that I would want to do this on the roads but feel free to drop on in here and tell me how totally and completely wrong I am about that.

This turned into less race report and more Loop Racing 101. But did you really want to read my blow by blow description of all 11.5 laps?

TL;DR

What I ate and drank: Razz Cliff Shot (x2), two random Cliff Shot Blocks I found in my jacket pocket, banana, chips, gummy bears, M&Ms, gatorade, water

What I wore: Brooks Adrenaline ASR 12, Injinji socks, Oiselle Joggings, Oiselle Moto Traction Bra, Nike 1/2 zip, pink Running Room jacket I’ve had for years, Buff

Do this race if: you need to bust out of a winter slump, you want to support the KW Optimist Club, you need to regularly ingest candy to stay motivated

So how many hill repeats can I do until I lose my mind?

Hi.

My name is Nora and I live in Ontario. Ontario is a relatively flat province. We don’t have mountains in Ontario.

At the end of November I signed up for my dream race – the Squamish 50k. Now I have to train for a race with 8500 ft of gain while living in a town surrounded by farmland. This might end up being a pretty decent story about how I turned corn fields into rainforests and dirt roads into mountain trails. It could also be pages and pages of me describing stairmaster sessions and endless hill repeats.

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No hills in sight. Plenty of dust, though.

I’ve always wanted to start my own running blog and Squamish training is the perfect excuse. I will admit that I have read an embarrassing amount of other people’s SQ50 race reports. I probably should have been deterred from signing up because that would be the sane response to all those tales of suffering, but here I am starting my own blog the content of which will primarily focus on how hard I can kick my ass to prepare to have it kicked harder.

I’m a pretty average runner. I could wear one of those “World’s Okayest Runner” shirts and people might actually believe that’s a legit title. I’ve run four half-marathons and two full marathons and a bunch of other distances, several of those being on trails. I love trails. You get lost in the woods and don’t have to talk to anyone (except maybe other trail runners – who are always cool). I like the technical challenge. I get excited if someone says a course isn’t very runnable. Sometimes I even think I like hills.

If someone is out there on the internet blogging about being a totally average runner living in a completely average place and training to run up mountains, I would absolutely read that blog. If it was specifically about SQ50 I’d probably just quit this one and religiously read theirs. Or maybe not, because as a person who can read 15+ race reports, I definitely think an extra opinion can’t hurt.

It would make me ever so happy if someone (aside from my parents, probably) would read this and tell me about their own experience with flatland training for not at all flat races. Bonus points if your race is Squamish.