I’m a very goal oriented person. I always have been, it will probably never change, and I’ve written so many posts about goals that I gave them their own page. For the most part, I consider it one of my greatest strengths. It’s helped me take on and overcome big challenges, spurred on by failure and unexpected obstacles. This is true not only in running, but also in my career and really life in general.
My main goal for this year, though, is to focus less on goals. Sure, I still firmly believe in success through failure of stretch goals, and I have some big ones for 2021 that I’ll pursue wholeheartedly, but I don’t want those to completely overwhelm everything else in my life. Writing this out helped me think through what concrete steps I could take, and I decided to post it in case it’s useful to anyone else who feels they’re in the same situation.
Failure through success
One difficulty from being a stubbornly focused and irrationally driven person is the potential to steamroll anyone with a much more reasonable mindset. I’ve worked hard on communication and on listening to the goals of my wife and others who share the same lane on life’s highway, but I must admit that so far it’s been my own goals that have had the larger gravitational force on those around me. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the unwavering support of my wife and family. “Hey, how about we move across the ocean with 3 pre-schoolers so I can build out the 4 person startup I just co-founded? Great, now that we’re here how about I bike and run around the whole country and we have a 4th kid during a global pandemic? Ok super, now next…”
The more easily overlooked difficulty is the risk of my goal-oriented mindset steamrolling me. I’ve realized that I have essentially lost the ability to just be – to just sit, and relax, and do nothing that makes progress towards one of those goals. It’s difficult for me to enjoy the day to day seemingly trivial experiences that make up the majority of life. This probably started as far back as grad school, when nearly every free minute that I wasn’t working I felt guilty that I wasn’t. It’s not how I want to live and not something that’s sustainable.
I want to enjoy every moment with my kids; I will never have them again. One day I want to be able to just sit, and do nothing, and be completely content and happy in it. Maybe I’ll actually read a book, or try out this Netflix and chill thing I keep hearing about.
Since leaving my nice safe corporate job with regular hours, I’ve been in leadership positions at startups and have had the incredible benefit of largely setting my own hours. I could show up mid morning in the office muddy from a run commute, or flex days around family trips and races.
But that benefit comes with a terrible curse: my work hours have no bounds on timing and duration. Saturday morning? Sure, why not. 2 AM? Of course, that’s when all my best thinking happens. It’s like grad school: there’s rarely a specific time when I absolutely must be working but even more rare is the time when I don’t feel I should be working.
One reason I love long crazy things in remote places is because they force me to pull the plug. “Yeah, about that email… I was off on a mountain with negative 2 bars of service and a dead battery.” It’s also one of the few things that can fully mentally detach me. When I’m worried about not getting lost, cold, hungry, or giving in to the dozen body parts yelling at me to stop… that TPS report somehow completely disappears from thought. The effect lingers as well – once back in the real world it takes a while before I’m fully reabsorbed.
So I plan on forcing that upon myself more. Certain days of the week, certain hours of the day: no phone, no computer, no anything where anyone can message me or pull my thoughts elsewhere.
Be in the moment
Disconnecting and being physically present is simple. Being mentally engaged is something altogether different. It’s easy to be somewhere or with someone yet be completely preoccupied by something else: a problem at work, something in the news, an upcoming goal, or the cat picture that random guy on Twitter just posted. All of those things have their time and place, and some of them might even be more important. But they’ll still be there later, and not every moment will be. “Hold on son, I can’t help with that right now because people just stormed the capitol building and I need to read these updates now before you go to bed or else it will be an even bigger disaster.”
I’m a master multi-tasker, which is a great way of saying I can do 4 things in an hour instead of 1 thing every 15 minutes. Sometimes that’s useful, but not everything can be spread out over that hour. Some moments, some of the best and most irretrievable, might only last 15 minutes.
Whatever it is I’m doing, it will have my attention. Wherever I am, there I will be.
Just say no
Of course there’s a limit to how much we can prioritize. There’s usually a choice between doing a few things well or many things poorly. I could target 50 races a year, but then I would never perform at my best. I plan on saying no to a lot more responsibilities, including podcasts, sponsor requests, and tasks at work.
I’ll still do podcasts, but I’ll likely stick with people I know or ones I’ve done before – not because I know them but because they know me. They’re more likely to have insightful non-repetitive questions.
I’ll still work with my sponsors, but I’m well beyond the point where I have any interest in essentially selling social media posts (alongside small pieces of my soul) for gear. My sponsor engagement will focus on product feedback and testing (hopefully using those products to succeed in some big challenges), and on leveraging our combined platforms for positive change within the sport and beyond. My posts will be personal and my own voice. That might mean my benefits aren’t as good, and I might miss some opportunities altogether, but it’s entirely worth it to me.
This doesn’t all mean that I’ll cut myself off or go live under a rock. There are many important and urgent issues right now and I hope that I can help in some small way with my time, resources, and skills. I might even make more non-running blog posts.
So I’ll aim for more, by doing fewer things. Opportunity costs are unavoidable.
Ignore the noise
The big choices are usually easy to recognize, but oftentimes it’s the little things that kill. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, and it can all add up to hours lost.
I’ve placed a great deal of emphasis on eliminating noise over the last 5 years. I work, I spend time with family, and I run. That’s basically it. I have no other hobbies, no social activities, I don’t watch TV, and I gave up video games years ago when the twins were born. My scrolling on social media is already extremely limited (sorry for all the Facebook birthdays I’ve missed), but I plan on restricting that even more. It won’t be my main news source, a chat room, or a distraction.
That doesn’t mean those choices are best for everyone. They might be terrible for some. But there is significant value in deciding what’s personally meaningful and truly of value.
I’ll continue my own usual social media posts for those who are interested or genuinely get something from them, but also for me. Like this one, they’re often very useful to me for gathering and articulating my own thoughts.
I’ll more carefully consider the value that everything brings and weigh its cost against the pursuit of my goals, the support of a good cause, or just sitting and relaxing – being truly in the moment, disconnecting to recharge, and enjoying the day to day experiences of life.
Building on 2020
I think many people would like to forget 2020, but often our bad times can form a strongest foundation. Focusing on the bright side, I was extremely fortunate in 2020. My family and I are in good health, we welcomed a daughter into the world, the startup I’m at actually grew, and I’ve spent more time at home with my family than ever.
But other than those few big events, life has been rather monotonous. Every day is the same and it’s easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, something I think a lot of people probably relate to at the moment. No matter when we get back to normal, or whether we ever fully get there, I hope I can be more intentional about enjoying those day to day moments.
I love winter running. For me, one of the few places that can compete with the view from the top of a mountain is a forest blanketed in snow. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is not only my favorite poem, it’s probably the only one I actually know by heart. When I worked in Washington, D.C. my greatest respite was my commute home from work. Anyone who has dealt with a D.C. commute is probably pretty confused, but I didn’t take the constantly jammed beltway or the over-crowded and prone-to-catch-fire metro. I left my office in Dupont Circle and in just over 2 miles I hit the trails in Rock Creek Park, which would take me the remaining 12 miles home.
My favorite time of year for this wasn’t when it was sunny and 90+ Fahrenheit with 90% humidity. It was when I was in the dark and cold, and the air was calm and crisp. Snow was a bonus, with thousands of tiny crystals glimmering in my headlamp’s beam on the ground and in the trees. It was magical, and peaceful, and I felt as if I had the whole place to myself.
As great as winter running is, it of course has its dangers. I want to be clear: this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive set of winter safety recommendations. It has some suggestions to hopefully add to your comfort and your enjoyment of winter conditions. Before venturing out, always be sure you have the proper experience, knowledge, and gear, and that you’re aware of all conditions you *might* face. Not what you’re likely to face, but might face with even just a tiny probability. Gradually work your way up from short days out to longer adventures. Learn from problems others have encountered and don’t be an idiot like I was on a November hike in Yosemite back in 2013. This is even more true this winter with emergency services in most places already pushed beyond their limit from Covid. Here in the UK, any winter adventures currently shouldn’t be overnight or involve travel from home.
Nature isn’t the only danger
I also recognize that the scene I describe in the first paragraph is one that unfortunately many women don’t feel they can safely enjoy. If one of my daughters were old enough to go out for a run, I can’t say I would feel very good about her doing it in Rock Creek Park at night. Without launching into an entirely different topic that I’m severely unqualified to speak about, I’ll only add two more things to that. First, if you’re a guy please be aware of these issues and listen to and support the women who face them. Second, if you face these issues yourself, please consider carrying mace. Not just for bears. I’d love for my daughters to one day think it’s the cool thing to do if they go off running through the woods at night.
Emergency avoidance > emergency preparedness (but do both)
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, and don’t even read anything else, let it be this: mountain rescue is not a safety net or a security blanket! Be sure you let someone know where you’re going, and carry some sort of tracking and communication device, but otherwise when you plan, prepare, and venture out, pretend that mountain rescue doesn’t exist. Your mindset must be that you’re on your own – there will be no one coming to get you and if you get in trouble you need to always know the quickest route out and be able to keep yourself warm and safe at least through the night. Then if you do experience an emergency situation and someone is able to come get you back to safety then you can be pleasantly surprised and appropriately overcome with relief and gratitude.
Now moving on to the actual topic of the post: finding greater joy and comfort in winter running. And this isn’t just about comfort, it’s also about performance and injury prevention.
The most obvious discomfort in winter: it’s cold. I’ve long been a fan of the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just inappropriate clothing.” In the past couple of years I’ve found that that’s not necessarily true. It’s not the temperature that causes the unavoidable problems, though. It’s poor visibility, immobilizing wind, or sloppy underfoot conditions. Subzero temps (on either scale), or light precipitation and wind… those can all be addressed by wearing the right kit.
Core is key
I used to think that I was really susceptible to cold hands. I’ve collected quite the variety of gloves to attempt to remedy this problem. It turns out, the problem was usually that I wasn’t protecting my core enough. If it’s not sufficiently warm then the body essentially says, “abandon the extremities, protect the vital organs!” Moreover, it’s using extra energy in that attempt to fall back and defend the keep. Running along with a cold chest might feel manageable, maybe even nice, but if the chest starts to become unbearably cold then we’ve stopped talking about comfort and now we’re back to the issue of safety.
Second to the core are the legs. I used to overlook these entirely. I even had a saying I used for years – “tights are for the teens” (as in degrees, Fahrenheit). I would happily run around in bare legs in freezing temperatures. I reconsidered first at the behest of my coach, David Roche, who penned the article I linked above about performance and injury prevention in cold weather. It turns out, muscles don’t like being cold. And leg muscles, well, they’re kind of important when running. I’ll now start covering up my legs when temperatures are just above freezing, and just like protecting my core it also helps with overall warmth extending to my extremities.
But the other stuff is important too
Protecting the core doesn’t mean you can run around in freezing temperatures with bare hands. I used to go with the minimal choice that was bearable for gloves. Having available fingers that can manage zippers, open food packaging, etc. is important. I’ve always been a fan of lightweight gloves with built-in mitten covers like the La Sportiva Trail Gloves. Those are still my go-tos for “chilly” temperatures, but when things get really cold I’m less shy about moving up to heftier gloves. I’ve found that my hands are happier and more nimble if they’re warm and cozy throughout the run but really cold for a minute when I rip the gloves off to use my fingers, rather than being constantly a little cold in lighter weight gloves that I never need to remove. I’m still a huge fan of the flexibility provided by over-mittens, though. Mittens will always be much warmer than gloves of comparable weight.
Feet are often overlooked. As ultrarunners, we’re used to dealing with all sorts of strange things going on with our feet. The gradual onset of frostbite is not something that should be casually ignored or battled through because we’re super tough, or something. Wool socks are a must, and it might be necessary to get shoes that are a size or two bigger to allow for multiple layers of socks. If feet are stuffed into shoes without enough room for blood flow and a bit of toe wiggling then extra socks can do more harm than good. Gore tex shoes and waterproof socks are also great for extreme conditions, not because they’ll necessarily keep your feet dry in all conditions, but because if your feet do get wet they’ll provide a bit of a wetsuit-like effect to keep your feet warm.
One mistake that’s easy to make is to judge what’s needed in a race or long day out based on what’s been needed in training. In ultrarunning nearly everything is magnified in races, but this is especially the case for cold weather. Generally we aren’t moving nearly as fast in a big mountain 100K as we are in an hour long training run. The slower we move, the colder we get. And the longer we’re out, the more that matters and progresses from a slight inconvenience to a major problem. It’s also a much worse situation than getting hot. If you’re hot you can always slow down or even stop, or go lie in a cool mountain stream for a few minutes. If you’re cold, and you’re fatigued or dehydrated, the solutions to those problems are in direct conflict. This is again why if you’re headed out solo into the mountains you absolutely need to have enough gear to stay warm even if you’re forced to stop moving completely.
Zippers are a modern marvel
Saying “dress in layers” is probably the most trite thing I could say in this post (albeit very important and true) and there are tons of resources detailing how to do this properly. I’m going to expand that a bit and say dress in layers with zippers. Conditions can change quite quickly in winter in the mountains, and there can be substantial differences even between two spots 10 meters apart. A long steep climb in the sun and protected from the wind can leave you wondering why you’re not in shorts and a t-shirt. Then once on the ridgeline getting hit by the wind with snow underfoot and clouds coming in overhead it can suddenly be dangerously cold.
On my Grand Round this past summer, I faced Storm Ellen in Scotland at a time when my body was completely drained and no longer capable of regulating its own temperature. I ended up getting decked out in 10 layers up top. All but my base layer had a zipper, and on some climbs I would unzip all of them about 3/4 of the way. Once up top, they were all zipped back up. Even a lot of shell pants / trousers have zippers on the side that can be used like this for temporary ventilation.
Cold isn’t the worst enemy, wet is
Avoiding over-heating isn’t critical due to real-time comfort; it’s due to sweat that can come back to do real harm later. If base layers are wet when it gets cold again, it’s going to be extremely difficult to stay warm and again an uncomfortable situation can very quickly turn into a dangerous one with hypothermia a real possibility. This is also why having a shell is so important in any sort of wet conditions – even if it’s just clag that can slowly be absorbed by an exposed inner layer. A good shell (or two) can create its own nice dry and warm micro-climate (nano-climate maybe?) around your body. Don’t wait until you feel cold to worry about rain, sweat, or anything else that can get you wet. Stay dry at all costs!
Be prepared to abandon ship
Being able to recognize an unacceptable level of risk is important across pretty much all decisions we make. Risk is basically the probability that something can happen times how bad it would be. The “how bad could it be” part of the equation is high if solo in the mountains in winter. The probability of something going wrong can change quickly, and when it does we need to recognize it immediately and escape. During these outings I’m constantly considering changes to internal and external conditions and forcing myself to answer the question, “is it worth it?” in terms of the most up to date risk / reward profile.
Always know the quickest and best exit from every spot along the route. GPS devices and phones are great, but those aren’t 100% reliable. Have a map and compass and a familiarity with the map before heading out. And always have a headlamp (or two or three)! With the shorter days it doesn’t take much for a run to get extended beyond dusk, and getting stuck out there as the temperatures drop even further can quickly get dangerous.
In the brief window when Wales was open to visitors before the Covid curve started flattening against the wrong axis in December, I went to the mountains for some winter solo fun. I was having a great day out when I face-planted into a bog. I was completely soaked through from head to toe. My hair was wet, all my inner layers were wet, my pack was wet (which is why it’s a good idea to put spare layers in ziplock bags). I had nothing dry left. I continued along for a bit just fine, but as evening approached the temperatures began to drop and the wind picked up. Cold + wet is dangerous; cold + wet + wind is the absolute nightmare scenario. I knew the situation would only get worse, and pulled out my map to find the quickest way off the tops and back down to the road. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to finish my planned run that day, but it will be there another day and now so will I.
It’s not just about body warmth
Food and water are always important for mountain running, and in winter they can be much trickier to manage. Food can be difficult to open with gloves or cold hands, and can freeze and be difficult to eat. Calories are another ingredient to staying warm, though. One thing I like to do is take the next thing I’m going to eat and stick it up my shirt sleeve, like a little oven to warm it up before enjoying.
Water is even more difficult. Many of the usual sources could be dry or frozen. Always plan ahead where to refill, and consider whether something to break through the ice might be necessary. Sometimes giving a forceful (and careful) heel kick to the edge of the ice can do the trick. If in doubt, carry extra water to ensure you don’t run out between viable sources. We might not be sweating as much as summer, but the dry air causes a lot more water to be lost through the skin and mouth. And don’t eat snow! You can bottle it and let it melt first, but don’t eat it directly – that will cause further dehydration.
Bottles, particularly valves, can also freeze. Having a shell that fits over your vest can usually take care of the problem. Another solution for moderate freezing conditions is to put a wool sock over the top of the bottle. Bonus: emergency pair of socks (or gloves)! Also try to alternate sips between bottles to keep the valves from freezing solid.
I made this mistake myself on my most recent winter excursion: an attempted solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round. Everything was going great, and it was an absolutely beautiful day and incredible experience, but I over-estimated the availability of water and slowly became dehydrated to the point that I had to stop with just one short section left.
For my recent failed solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round, below is what I took. Note that I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
XOSKIN wool toe socks
Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
La Sportiva Radial Pant
La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
La Sportiva Race Overgloves
Generic knit Santa hat
La Sportiva Beta Beanie
Janji neck warmer
Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0
Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 with Adventure Pocket (I really like the additional easily accessible storage a waist belt can add)
COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
Bob Graham Round Harvey map
Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
Backup pocket compass
Phone with OS Maps loaded
OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
Petzl Actik Core
Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
Extra in pack
First aid kit
Dry XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
La Sportiva Rook long sleeve
La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket
La Sportiva Merak soft shell jacket
Blizzard 3 Layer Survival Blanket (bulkier, but highly recommended over a standard Sol Bivvy for solo outings in true winter conditions)