Winter Running Fun – Comfort in the Cold & Solitude

Winter Running Fun – Comfort in the Cold & Solitude

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.

I’m really not sure why I loved this spot so much, but I almost always stopped here just to enjoy a few minutes of being there.

Winter Safety

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.

Beautiful, but I was also 30+ miles from the nearest open road, hadn’t seen human footprints in days, a blizzard was approaching, and this was before GPS and satellite communication devices were within the budget of someone fresh out of grad school.
I recently had to abandon a mid winter solo unsupported Bob Graham due to dehydration.

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.

Fortunately the dozens of eyes often reflecting my headlamp in the woods were just deer. Just really creepy deer.

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.

These days are absolutely worth it, but things can change in an instant.

Winter Comfort

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.

Cold snowy and sunny? Sounds like a perfect day. Photo: Lisa Bergerud
Maybe actually a bit warmer, but much less pleasant. And nothing is going to help me see here.

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.

I’ve always loved the strategy of tying my outermost shell around my waist – easily accessible and saves a lot of pack space. Just be careful it’s out of the way for any glissading. Photo: Lisa Bergerud

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.

Over-mittens are also great as a temporary measure to warm hands back up. Like say, after a dip in a bog.

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.

Speed matters

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.

I would not have been smiling in these conditions running at a slower pace. As soon as I stopped, I was really cold. Photo: Ally Beaven

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.

The difference in temperature in and out of the sun can be remarkable, and is also important to remember for underfoot conditions. Areas that melted in the sun can quickly refreeze into treacherous ice.

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.

On the final descent of The Grand Round I was like a Russian nesting doll stripping off all my layers. Photo: PH Balance Photography

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!

The Spine Race can often be more about staying dry than staying warm. Photo: Steve Ashworth

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.

Who wouldn’t want to see the sun set behind Scafell Pike on a clear winter’s evening? The person who doesn’t have a light to get down with, that’s who.

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.

An incredible day out quickly turned bad, and I headed down early.

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.

Well, that’s unfortunate. Beautiful, but unfortunate.

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.

Without sufficient water, I wasn’t even able to enjoy all my leftover Christmas treats.

Example kit

My kit list from last year’s Spine Race can be found at the bottom of my race report.

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.

  • Feet
    • La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
    • XOSKIN wool toe socks
    • Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
  • Legs
    • XOSKIN tights
    • La Sportiva Radial Pant
    • La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
  • Core
    • XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
    • La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
    • La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
  • Hands
    • La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
    • La Sportiva Race Overgloves
  • Head
    • Generic knit Santa hat
    • La Sportiva Beta Beanie
    • Janji neck warmer
  • Pack
    • 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)
  • Navigation
    • COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
    • Bob Graham Round Harvey map
    • Baseplate compass
    • Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
    • Backup pocket compass
    • Phone with OS Maps loaded
    • OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
  • Lights
    • Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
    • Petzl Actik Core
    • Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
  • Extra in pack
    • First aid kit
    • Kahtoola microspikesa
    • 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)
    • Small battery recharger
2020 Podcasts and Interviews

2020 Podcasts and Interviews

I did a lot of podcasts in 2020. I guess without many races there weren’t as many people to talk to or things to talk about. In the future, I won’t be doing as many. I enjoyed these, and greatly appreciate the opportunity to do them and the time the hosts put into them, but too much time doing podcasts = not enough time to properly prepare for doing the things the podcasts are about. My main 2021 goal is to cut back a bit to focus on the priorities and have time to enjoy life’s day to day moments.

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The Grand Round Documentary

When I was first approached about making a film on my 2nd attempt at my Grand Round project, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. What if I failed again? Or got injured and had to stop on the very first round? This was a personal project, something I was passionate about doing for the adventure and individual challenge. As Covid emerged and escalated, it wasn’t clear that I would be able to do it at all much less whether there would be any available support for a film. In the end, I’m incredibly glad we moved forward with it and that Phil and Jon from PH Balance Photography came out to capture and share the experience. They did a wonderful job and this is something I will always cherish looking back on.

My full report on the adventure can be found here: The Grand Round 2.0.

The Grand Round 2.0

The Grand Round 2.0

Update: A film on this adventure is now available on youtube.

I’ve had the draft of this post open on my computer for over a week, the relentless cadence of the blinking cursor mocking me as I sat here idle, unable to figure out how to even start. Do I start with a simple summary, repeating the same old statistics on distance and elevation? Or maybe I should wax philosophical on one of the many things I wrestled with or discovered on this journey. The literal journey itself – the incredible places and landscapes I got to explore… surely a remark on that would be a suitable start. And of course I would be horribly remiss to not lead with a mention of the amazing support I received throughout, without which none of this would have been possible.

The truth is, none of those things alone would sufficiently reflect the experience I had. In fact I’ll go ahead and say that I’m incapable of putting it all into words even with a full write-up. So I’ll skip the whole synopsis bit and get right to it, with everything included in due course. You can find a recap of each section over on my Instagram starting here if you would rather have a brief summary or don’t have time to sit down to the ensuing novella (this is the longest report I’ve written by a wide margin, and I’ve written some long stuff). If you’ve fully exhausted your Covid19 Netflix watchlist and are in for a full binge reading session, there’s also a prequel trilogy on why I decided to do this in the first place, how that first attempt turned out, and what was different going into this second attempt.

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Still Seeking Grand Challenges

Still Seeking Grand Challenges

I don’t think there’s really anything I can say here that I didn’t say at this point last year before setting off on this adventure. In a way, the very fact that I failed at my first attempt at “The Grand Round” shows that it was a good challenge – one that forced me to learn, grow, and develop a better plan. If a grand challenge doesn’t teach us anything, doesn’t force us to improve ourselves or develop a better strategy, then was it really all that grand?

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A New Pennine Way Record

A New Pennine Way Record

Update: Totally FKT, a film on the summer’s record breaking runs on the Pennine Way, is available on Vimeo (and also on Amazon Video).

I’ve made a bit of a habit of setting out to do things that I’m not sure are possible. Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record on the Pennine Way, England’s first national trail, fell squarely in that category – not just as something that I might not currently be capable of but as something that might not ever be within reach. I ended up besting his time by just 34 minutes, roughly equivalent to the ~30 seconds per hour margin I had when I finished Barkley.

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The Hartley Slam

The Hartley Slam

Like nearly everyone, my 2020 plans were pretty well wrecked by Covid19. I’m still hoping to cram in a couple of big challenges, though. I’ll be chasing a Pennine Way FKT and giving another attempt at my Grand Round project, barely a month apart. As alluded to in my previous post, I’ll be raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust through these efforts.

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2020 The Spine Race

2020 The Spine Race

The Spine Race was one of those rare experiences where I couldn’t have possibly imagined beforehand exactly what it would be like, but afterwards I couldn’t possibly imagine it any other way. Granted, I get to look at it through the rose-colored glasses of having achieved exactly what I set out to achieve. If I had come away with the win at some of my other recent races it assuredly would have shaped my recollection of the experience.

But as someone who analyzes data for a living, I’m quite practiced at forcing my own bias aside and looking at only the facts. The facts here are that this race is a truly unique adventure, well-organized with only the necessities organized, and with a group of people who care about every runner first to last being able to safely experience that adventure in full. Thank you to everyone who made that possible and who make the race what it is, from the other runners to the staff and safety teams and volunteers to the random people who showed up in the middle of the night to cheer, hand out food, or provide some brief company. Apologies if there was anyone along the route who didn’t get a more timely thank you and only saw me in “race-mode” or sleep-deprived zombie mode instead of my normal cheerful, chatty disposition. 😉

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2019 Cheviot Goat Ultra

2019 Cheviot Goat Ultra

I’ve long known what it’s like to have a home field advantage. At Barkley, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. The first time I ran it I was shocked to see how shocked people were by the terrain. In ultrarunning just the mential stress caused by misaligned expectations can often present a large problem, let alone the lack of proper preparation. Running in the cold is fine. Running in the heat is fine. Running in one when you expect the other (or both in one day) is often disastrous.

And so when Jim Rutherford picked me up to head to the Cheviot Goat Race, I thought I had an idea of what the race would be like. It would be wet, there would be some bogs, but I mean, it couldn’t be much worse than Paddy Buckley on the Grand Round, right? I’ve dealt with that stuff before. It would be fine. And with work having been overwhelmingly busy leading into the race, I just hadn’t been able to prioritize giving it any more thought than that.

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The Grand Round – A Fun Run

The Grand Round – A Fun Run

I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.

As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.

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Seeking Grand Challenges

Seeking Grand Challenges

I wanted to get my thoughts on why I’m doing this “Grand Round” out ahead of time, before they’re forever altered by the pain, joy, and experience of actually doing it. For my own sake as much as anything, I wanted them crystallized in writing and set aside for me to reflect on afterwards. Because honestly, I’m terrified. This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley, and I haven’t been this terrified of anything I’ve attempted since my very first attempt at Barkley. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; actually I’d say the opposite.

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