Embrace the high of running cold this winter
By Pete Estabrooks
Photography by Birgitta Sjöstedt
“I know where you are going. I’ve been there. I know what you’ll feel. I’ve felt that. I know it makes no sense. It’s senseless. I know you are going to do it. I am.”
These thoughts rattle through my head rhythmically, haiku-like, punctuated by my breathing, the poetry befitting a steep downhill descent. I’m running one of my favourite trails in reverse. It’s late fall and I’m preparing myself for winter. Summer’s warmth is acquiescing to the chill of an October morning as I begin to run, only to stop, turn around and rummage through the back seat of my Jeep for another layer before returning to face the day.
I am beginning my run from where I usually end and running to where I normally start. It’s a ritual that marks the changing of the season, something I do to clarify a mindset that prepares me for running in beautiful, brilliant brutal cold weather.
I’m writing this now and you will be reading this then. You will be in the thick of it, not remembering what the trees looked like with leaves. You’ll have forgotten what it feels like to run on unfrozen, unfettered, dry trail or pavement and no run will be started on the spur of the moment. Winter running is a beast.
There are few, if any, physiological benefits to running at -20C. If you want to increase your speed this winter, run intervals on a treadmill. If you want to increase your endurance, run long on a treadmill. If you want to increase your strength find a tower with indoor stairs, or run hills — on a treadmill. These are running plans that make perfect, practical sense.
Winter, however, is a time for mental toughness. Running afraid for life and limb provides the ability to focus in a way not required at other times of the year. Being aware of environmental danger and developing the skills necessary to protect yourself in adverse conditions builds huge running confidence. Displaying your ability to overcome obstacles will stick with you in any tough run situation. Freezing your ass off a couple of times a year also leaves a grand appreciation for shorts, singlets, ankle socks and the months April through October.
Be clear, I am an advocate for cold weather running, not risky behaviour. Running cold and running unprepared are different animals. Both can entail running in malevolent conditions. Running cold requires proper clothing, tuning in a weather report, knowing terrain and charting backup plans A, B and C. Running unprepared is just stupid, regardless of the season.
Winter is a time to embrace more than running’s practical benefits. There are soul-stirring reasons to running incredibly cold. Dialling into even a single “winter runner’s high” makes months of favouring your fingers, covering your ears and double-wrapping your most personal parts seem an insignificant price to pay.
Waiting for you is a sense of beauty, peace and calm that transcends temperature. In these moments your senses are suspended and the part of you that is all of you and only you becomes animated. Thoughts are clear. The answers are there. The moment is complete. You tap into a supernatural world where you are reduced to paying attention to the sound of your breathing, the sound of your feet crunching snow underfoot. Sometimes, it is the utterly awesome sound of nothing at all.
This all-consuming, omnipresent, ethereal feeling feeds the quiet part of yourself that is neglected amid the noise and clutter that is the necessity of our busy lives, connecting our bodies with the peace that resides deep within us.
Sometimes running incredibly cold is just running incredibly cold, a ballsy effort filed away in your “I am an idiot, and I’m never doing that again” drawer. But other times there is a moment of magic just outside your door that you’ll never know unless you put your shoes on and snow up.