new snowshoes, new adventures

27 01 2012

Winter has finally (sort of) arrived here in southern New England.  Yes, as I type this, the sleet is falling, and all of the snow has melted away…but at last we finally had SOME snow over the past week.  I’ve been absolutely jones-ing in a terrible way for crazy winter weather, especially after the freak snowstorm that dumped nearly a foot of snow on us back in October.  I grew up in Ohio, but moved to southern California in 1994.  With the exception of two years that I spent in Michigan (working a Master’s degree during the late ‘90s), I haven’t experienced the full duration of a winter season since high school!

While southern California was a very “convenient” place to train in many respects due to its fantastic weather, it wasn’t terribly exciting.  My husband and I would often joke about the enthusiasm of our local San Diego weathermen/women during the infrequent rain “storms”…a headline would tear across the television screen, screaming something like “Winter Storm 2009!,” while outside in 55 degree temperatures, gray cloud cover would produce a misty haze necessitating the occasional use of windshield wipers.  Traffic would consequently come to a grinding halt on all of the freeways and multiple car pile-ups would result, all because of a little water on the road.  As a community college instructor, attendance in my classes would suffer, and those students that attended would envelop themselves in furry-hooded parkas and scarves.  Crazy.

On the other hand, many ultrarunners, like myself, actually thrive in what the average person (especially the average person from SoCal) might consider to be “severe weather.”  We like challenges, live for extremes, and relish new adventures.  One example of my predilection for seeking out ridiculous running conditions occurred this past fall, when we were hit by a second tropical storm (after Hurricane Irene) that called for heavy rains and winds.  I had a podiatrist’s appointment in the next town on a day when my SUV was unexpectedly in the shop and my husband was out of the country; we had just moved here, and I didn’t really know anyone local yet let alone know of any options for public transportation.  I DID know, however, that I was going to be charged the full amount for a missed appointment with less than 24 hours notice.  So what did I do?  I put on a waterproof jacket and an emergency poncho…and ran the 8.5 miles to the doctor’s office.  After that, I ran to the auto repair shop and picked up my Xterra, making for about a 15 mile training day in heavy rain.  Not too many miles in the grand scheme of things, but enough that I ate an entire pizza after a hot shower.

Given the above, you can imagine my excitement at the prospect of a cold, harsh New England winter!  And then, you can probably imagine my disappointment as days passed through December…and into January…of 40-50 degree weather?!  Add to this receiving a shiny new pair of Dion racing snowshoes from an ever-supportive husband for a Christmas gift…and imagine my mounting frustration.  Day after day passed of checking the 10 day weather forecast, hoping for snow, and feeling ever thwarted.

That is, until last week, when we received a modest few inches after a steady snowfall all day on Saturday.  We also enjoyed some frigid temperatures earlier in the week, during which I happily completed a 2.5 hour run in 12 degree weather, and an easy 8 miler in similar temperatures with a couple of inches of powder that called for my trusty Yaktrax.

snowy run, bundled up like the Yeti

Ah, but on Sunday, we finally had some REAL accumulation – a beautiful blanket of white that beckoned, “get those snowshoes and head to the trails!”  I couldn’t ignore the invitation.  I put on several more layers of clothing than normal as the temperature in town was a whopping one degree; this meant that the temperatures were I was planning to run were likely zero or possibly even below.  Cold.  I also grabbed my running pack and those shiny new racing snowshoes.

I had my husband drop me off at the trailhead, as I had gotten stuck a week prior in snow (apparently my Xterra doesn’t do too well in the snow).  With the snowshoes in hand, I had a few minutes of “how the hell do I strap these damn things to my feet” but finally figured it out.  And then I headed down the hill.

ready to roll!!!

At the beginning of my last blog post, I talked about that crazy nightmare that many of us have where we’re trying to run away from a bad guy or a monster and our legs just don’t work, feeling like we’re wading through jell-o.  That was pretty much my first experience in snowshoes.  No one had really been on the trail – at all – so I was blazing through fresh powder, several inches deep.  Talk about a full body workout!  It took me a bit of effort to stay upright, as at first I kept tripping on the back of the snowshoes.  My running form changed, being forced to keep my legs further apart to avoid tripping and falling on my face.  After about a half mile of downhill, I turned onto another trail, heading south and uphill, and started to get the hang of things.

After switching to a different trail, I had one of the best surprises of my first snowshoe excursion: getting to see a variety of animal tracks, including coyote and moose.  MOOSE!  I knew that these were in the area, given that my husband brought home an antler (which he had found on the same trail) as a “happy new year” gift a few weeks ago.  Yeah, weird, I know, but that’s how we roll.  But wow, it was cool to see evidence of moose in person!  Those prints were BIG, as in the size of my hand.  I’m not sure what I would do if I actually came face-to-face with a moose on the trail…not sure at all how I would react.  If it’s anything like the time I saw a mountain lion cross the trail in front of me (yes, this happened last summer on one of my last trail runs in the mountains of eastern San Diego County), I’d probably freeze, stare…and possibly crap in my compression tights.  Might be time to develop a better game plan.

animal tracks: coyote, moose, and me

The rest of my first snowshoe experience went uneventfully.  I slogged back up to the trailhead, completing 2.6 miles in 52 minutes.  Slow.  But exhilarating!  Here’s hoping for some more REAL weather so I can hit those trails again in style sometime soon.


some tips for winter running!

20 01 2012

Ever have that crazy nightmare where you’re trying to run away from some nasty monster and it feels like you’re treading through Jell-o, not making any headway?  Winter running, particularly in snowy conditions, can certainly have the same effect.  That is, if you’re even able to muster up the courage to head outdoors when the mercury falls below the freezing mark.  Luckily, you don’t have to be trapped inside or resort completely to “dreadmill” training during the long, cold winter months.  With the right planning and the right “gear,” it is possible to train for ultras even in snowy conditions.

I have to admit, I’m a bit of a newbie to extreme winter running myself.  While I grew up in Ohio and lived for several years in Michigan, I haven’t run through an ENTIRE winter in about fifteen years, since I first moved to southern California.  That said, I’m rediscovering a lot of old tips and tricks about cold weather running this winter – my first entire winter in western Massachusetts.  Here are some things that have been working for me so far, and that have worked for me in the past as well!

1. Dress appropriately and make the investment in the right gear.
Winter is not the time to go out for a jog in your favorite cotton t-shirt, sweatshirt, and other layers.  Why?  When cotton gets wet, it stays wet.  And, if you’re wet when it’s freezing cold outside…well, that’s just a recipe for disaster.  Think about it…do you want your clothing itself to freeze???!!!

Wicking fabrics are key in the winter, as is layering.  Here’s an example of what I typically wear, if the temperatures are in the teens to 20s:
long sleeved base layer
wind breaker or “weather proof” running jacket (I own three)
a pair of running tights
thicker socks – I recently bought several pairs of Drymax “trail running” socks and they have kept my feet very toasty even in incredibly snowy conditions…almost TOO toasty!
light skull cap
wicking gloves (I have a pair by Injinji plus a thicker pair by Nike)

Once the temperature gets to…oh, 10-ish…things really start to feel uncomfortable.  In this case, I tend to add:
some kind of tighter sleeveless layer around my core, occasionally with my fleece-lined Moeben sleeves under the long sleeved base layer
a “Buff” – coolest running product ever! – around my neck
a Smartwool balaclava.  If you don’t know what a balaclava is, it’s basically a ski mask that keeps everything except for your eyes covered up, and makes you look like a bank robber (which is always kind of amusing).  The Smartwool option is nice and light!  This helps keep water droplets from freezing inside your trachea and lungs.
a fleece hat on top of the balaclava
if cold enough (sub-zero), a pair of clear glasses or goggles (so my eyes/contacts don’t freeze)
an extra pair of socks – usually Thorlos meant for hiking – on top of the Drymax
a pair of wind pants over my tights
And if it’s snowing and really windy, sometimes I add a waterproof jacket by Marmot on top.  It’s actually my husband’s, and is ten sizes too big consequently, but it covers me to my mid-thighs and keeps me very comfortable in extreme conditions.  I’ve worn it in a hailstorm in the San Juans of Colorado, for example, and had no issues.

To summarize, put on layers (and strip some off if you get too warm) and keep the fabrics breathable.  Can’t emphasize that one enough!

Snow isn’t so bad, but ice can be a killer, especially if you slip and fall on it unwittingly.  I did this on an icy run a few years back and really hurt my knee in a bad fall!  (I ended up having to take almost a month off to heal.)  Using some sort of traction system for your running shoes is key in extreme weather conditions.  Two companies I know of make great options that simply slip over your shoes.  These options are Yaktrax and Katoohla microspikes.  I personally own the Yaktrax (be sure to buy them in a size larger than you think you need…got that tip from the helpful folks at Northampton Running Company and they were right!).  They only cost something like 25-30 bucks and will save your neck.

If you don’t want to spend that amount, look into making your own traction system by creating “screw shoes.”  All this involves is putting a bunch of shorter sheet metal screws into the treads of your running shoes…takes a little bit of effort, but is by far and above the most economical method.  You can find a nice, detailed article of instructions on how to make your own screw shoes here.

3. Stay hydrated!
Cold winter air has less humidity than you’d expect.  Also, you seem to sweat less in the cold, and so you don’t really drink as much as on a warmer or more humid run.  This can be a recipe for disaster, particularly in long runs.  Always remember to keep up with your hydration – in the cold, DO drink before thirst (within reason).

A particular challenge in winter weather is keeping your water from freezing.  I’ve read some things from folks on the ultralist about additives for water that lowers the freezing point, but I’ve never personally experimented with those methods.  Instead, I use a hydration backpack, and keep the tube/straw feature INSIDE of my clothing, close to my core.  The bite valve still seems to freeze shut on occasion, but thaws out after chewing on it for a few seconds.  I really like the hydration packs by Ultimate Direction, personally.  The bladders are a pain to deal with – they have a funky roll top – but they include a really cool INSULATED tube/straw that keeps your water cold in summer, and relatively unfrozen in the winter.

4. Don’t be afraid to slow down.
Cold will slow you down in a parallel manner to heat, even though you think it may not.  Check your ego at the door before you leave the house!  For me, my most comfortable long run pace on roads is something like 9:30-9:45 miles, but in cold, snowy conditions that pace could easily become 11:30-12:00 miles.  Or even slower, depending on the terrain.  I recently did a hilly trail run in 20 degree weather where 15:00 miles felt like a sprint, uphill in several inches of snow.  Ouch.  Lower your expectations of your speed performance as the temperature lowers.

5. Consider running for “time” rather than “miles.”
Because you’re going to slow down inevitably, getting in “x” number of miles on your training schedule might not be practical, taking too long.  Try going out for the same duration of time that it would typically take you to complete that mileage goal in better weather.  You’ll still get the training benefit of being on your feet for an extended period of time, plus running in cold/snow is MUCH more strenuous than running on flat roads in 50 degree weather.  Trust me.

6. Be flexible in your training schedule to accommodate extreme weather changes.
I can’t stress this one enough.  If you know a severe weather pattern is rolling in, get your workout completed before the weather hits (and always carry some emergency supplies in your pack in case it hits while you’re out!).  No one is holding a gun to your head, saying that you must run your speed workout on Tuesday and your long run on Saturday.  Just get the workouts in when you can!  And if you miss a long run because of inclement weather…well, the world won’t come to an end.  Go to the gym and cross-train.  Or stay home and practice “recovery.”  That’s not such a bad thing.

7. Consider splitting up your long runs into multiple parts by taking a short break in the middle.
This really works great when you have to get in a 20+ mile run in very cold weather.  Go out for the first ten or so…come inside, rehydrate and eat, warm up and go back outside after a half hour.  This is also a good method for practicing eating meals during ultras, I’ve found!  Plus, it helps to train the mind.  You’ll find you want to stay inside, in the wonderful warm air…you’ll have a similar experience at mile 80 of a 100-miler…actually, one that is MUCH more challenging to overcome.  Practice the mental resolve you need for an ultra finish in your training.

8. Run with the wind at your back whenever possible.
A good running friend, Paul Schmidt, gave me this tip when I first told him I was moving to Massachusetts.  And believe me, when someone with an ultrarunning resume like multiple grand-slammer Paul tells you to do something, you listen!  Simply have a friend drive you “x” number of miles out on the road, first taking note of the wind direction.  Then run home with the wind at your back the entire way.  This way, you’ll avoid getting chilled; running INTO the wind often will have this time of debilitating effect.

9. You can do a decent workout indoors, believe it or not. 
Join a gym…try some of the other aerobic machines, like the elliptical trainer or the rowing machine.  Lift weights.  Run on the treadmill, but vary the pace and incline…you can even mimic a “mountain run” by setting the incline to something relatively steep and running/walking on that for several miles.  I do this, actually, to practice for mountain descents; I set the incline to a negative number and practice downhill running for several miles at a faster pace than usual…we don’t have the long grades here in New England that I used to run back in the mountains of California (or Colorado).

10. And if none of the above work for you…
How about taking an off-season during the worst winter months to hibernate?  Just schedule your racing season at the opposite time of the year for the worst months for weather.  After all, we always could use a break now and then to recover.

Do you have any tips you’d like to add?  Let me know!  And happy winter running…it really can be fun!

don't forget to enjoy yourself...take the time to be a kid again and make some good snow angels!!!

my top 10 of 2011

12 01 2012

The beginning of a new year…always is a great time for setting new goals and resolutions!  However, instead of resolving to do a particular “something” this year (a trap I usually fall into, often abandoning the goal within a week or two), I’ve been reflecting about the past year.  2011 was a year of change for me on so many levels.  The biggest change was my relocation to the other side of the country with my husband, forcing me to rethink a lot of the major life choices I’ve made, such as my career path.  Despite my personal life being in a state of transition, I’m grateful for the continuity that running has provided me over the past 20+ years, since I started running cross-country as a middle school student.

2011 was a big running year for me.  I raced in two ultras – both of (slightly over) 100 miles – along with countless training runs of marathon and beyond distances, on both trails and roads.  As I get older, I find that I become more and more of a “soul runner.”  I’m honestly not a big fan of running with the iPod; instead my training time is a form of meditation and inner contemplation away from the distractions I typically face, working from home as a telecommuter.  It seems like I’ve learned a great deal about life in general through meditative running.  As a result, I thought it would be a fun exercise to compile my “top 10 of 2011” running lessons…things that I’ve learned in the past year that have helped me to complete two 100-milers.  This is also my top 10 list to keep in mind for LIFE in 2012.

1.  There are NO magic solutions for success; avoid falling into the traps of trendy “quick fixes.”  Only purpose, persistence and patience will get you to the finish line…not to mention a hell of a lot of hard work.  Yeah, hard work might be a dirty word in today’s internet-obsessed culture, where anything and everything seems to be available at the touch of a button on the iPhone.  But anything worth doing, worth having, or worth achieving rarely comes easily.

2.  That said, the closest thing to a magic formula for health is: good nutrition, enough sleep, and stress reduction.  Again, avoid the trends or anything extreme that tells you that certain things are always forbidden…eat a balanced, sensible diet and be sure to adequately fuel your activity level.  Make self-care a priority…get that 7-8 hours of sleep every night and you’ll feel better, get less sick, and have adequate time to recover.  Don’t kill yourself with stress.  I find it funny how doctors never seem to ask questions about stress, but in my own experience, I get the sickest (or most injured) during periods of intense personal stress.  Don’t undermine the power of stress over your health.

3.  With setbacks or injuries, treat the cause and not just the symptoms.  Sure, it’s easy to pop a pill to make the pain immediately go away, but what caused that pain in the first place?  The best fixes to problems aren’t always obvious, and sometimes it’s a challenge to go beyond the surface level to discover the real issue at hand, but it’s worth the trouble in the long-term.

4.  Just because you can do something, it doesn’t always mean that you should.  Just because something feels good today doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing for tomorrow.  Unwise choices and habits (like overtraining) tend to be cumulative over a long period of time – as in years – before negative effects are noticed.  Do the right thing for yourself and your body.

5.  Only you are responsible for your own success (or failure).  And only you are able to set the terms for both.  It’s so easy to get caught up in what other people are doing and to compare yourself to the achievements of others.

6.  We are all “an experiment of one.”  What works for someone else – a certain type of shoe, a particular training regimen, a dietary plan – may not work for your own unique body and psychology.  Trust your instincts and listen to your body to discover your own path.  And always remember…many times, the best solutions are often the least sexy!

7.  Don’t base your self-worth on validation or recognition from other folks.  At the end of the day, you answer only to yourself.  Whatever you choose to do in life, do it for YOU.

8.  Let’s all just face it…in ultras and in life…there is a certain inevitability (despite our best efforts) to times that simply suck.  Knowing when to muscle through it or when to throw in the towel is true wisdom.  There is an appropriate time for each.

9.  There is no shame in deciding to take much-needed time for yourself.  Everyone needs time to recover and recharge.  It’s always important to help others, but you can’t do that if you yourself aren’t in top shape.

10.  Balance in all things is key.  Remember that there are always other things in life…keep it in perspective.  Enough said.

Hope you’ve enjoyed my top 10 of 2011, and that you have a wonderful 2012 of adventure and discovery.

making new friends on the trail

5 01 2012

It’s a new year, and my off-season following my last hundred miler is officially over!  This week marks the first training week since November, and I’m stoked to be back on the trails.  I have some racing plans for the coming spring and summer; I’m VERY excited to try out some new races in my new home of New England!  First up will likely be the Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug 100K in April.  After that will definitely be another hundred miler, although I’m not sure which one yet…I’m first on the waiting list for the Viaduct Trail Ultra in PA, and I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that I get in!  It has all of the hallmarks of a more “old school” type of race that I love…little aid, little support and little whining.

Today was one of those days when I was reminded of why I love running so much, especially on trails.  By traveling on foot instead of by car, one has the chance to observe everyday surroundings with much more detail.  A good past example of this occurred a couple of months ago when I decided to run 34 miles in celebration of my 34th birthday.  My birthday is in mid-October, when the fall leaves are at their color peak here in New England.  My birthday was an incredibly rainy day this year, so I was greeted the morning of my epic run with a near deluge on the country roads along with a sideways assault of windy water.  Nonetheless, I went on the run, leaving from my home at 5 am, and ran the seven miles from the house to Quabbin Reservoir.  At Quabbin, I ran twenty miles on dirt trail, and then ran the remaining seven home on the windy, hilly country roads common to this area.

This run was magical, because I felt like I got to see something that most people never get a chance to experience: a visible change from autumn to winter.  At the beginning of the twenty miles around Quabbin, the trees were filled with colorful leaves.  But, within about three and half hours, almost all of the leaves had fallen on the trail, and only bare branches remained.  I remember thinking, “How many of us actually get to experience this moment?”  It’s so easy in this hectic, ever-connected online society to forget to notice what is right in front of us.

fall leaves at Quabbin

Today was another equally interesting experience.  I woke up to a frigid “arctic blast” in terms of the weather.  By the time I went for a run at about 9 am, which was rather later than I typically prefer to run, the outside temperature had warmed UP to a positively balmy 12 degrees with a wind chill of 3.  Not bad!  I pulled on a few layers, along with a new balaclava I received as a Christmas gift and headed out down one of my typical mellow, easy week-day running routes, down the Norwottuck Rail Trail that runs right behind my house.  On a typical day on the rail trail, I generally see a handful of other runners, some fitness walkers, people walking their dogs…OK, maybe an occasional cow or chicken (or ten) as well.  But nothing really weird has ever happened to me on the rail trail.  That is, until today.

I stepped onto the rail trail at the entrance of state route 116, right behind Amherst College.  Heading west toward Northampton, I ran maybe a quarter of a mile and suddenly got the eerie feeling that I was being watched.  You know, that whole hairs on the back of the neck sticking up kind of thing?  Sure enough, I looked up the wooded ridge to the south and saw a very large canine.  I stopped, thinking it was probably just someone’s dog, but quickly realized that this was no house pet.  The canine bounded down the steep hill and crossed the trail maybe ten feet in front of me, running up toward the college athletic fields.  I had a chance to look at it closely – it was about waist-high with dappled grey and brown fur, muscular legs, a large shaggy wolf-like head (and snout), along with a big fluffy tail.  No pet.  Coyote, or probably really what’s called a “coywolf.”

Coywolves are also called “eastern coyotes” and are a hybrid breed between eastern wolves and western coyotes.  They are larger than the typical coyote that I’ve encountered out in California, and are known for being a bit more aggressive than coyotes.  They are also less fearful of humans, a trait I can certainly verify first-hand now!

an image of a coywolf...not the one I saw though!

Once I realized what I had seen, I turned to head back to the trailhead, figuring I’d just stick to the roads today…after all, it was only about a quarter of a mile back to the main state route, and I could easily run a four or five mile loop around town.  However, this coywolf wasn’t so eager to just let me go easily.  After I turned around, the coywolf began to circle around me on the trail…up one side and the hill, then back down the other…probably five or six times before I got back to the road.  Wow!

I’ve run that rail trail more times than I can possibly count, and I’ve driven on the state route by the area a million times over.  But, to see a coywolf up close for the first time…this was a priceless experience, and one that never could really be experienced sitting in the driver’s seat of a car.  I love being a trail runner!  Although, I have to say, it’s both comforting and unnerving to know that I’m never truly “alone” out there in the woods…