Staying Present While Running Toward the Sun

I’ve done it for the past 5 years. It just makes sense with the farm calendar. Training through winter months in Wisconsin for warmer weather races in the southwestern corner of the country is all I have every really known, actually. My family’s farm is a large CSA (community supported agriculture) which produces 50 different kinds of vegetables that are distributed to families in the greater Madison WI area throughout the spring, summer, fall, and into early winter. The farm keeps us tied down late February through mid November. Our schedule lightens up dramatically for December, January, and February so this is when I we have time to travel. I race regionally for most of the year and choose one or two more competitive events to focus on during our farming off-season. My winter race this year was Sean O’Brien 100k which traverses the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu CA. I have run Sean O’Brien events for the past 3 years. I raced the 50k and the 50mile, so I decided to give the 100k a shot for 2017. This would be one of the most competitive races I had ever competed in, so needed to work hard if I wanted to have a strong finish.

Snow covered with sand. This was a typical winter running day for me. A strip sand for traction down the center line.

Snow and sand. This was a typical winter running day for me. A strip sand for traction down the center line.

Ultrarunning has an amnesiatic effect. Why does the epicness of the races and glory of strong training surface in my memory and the struggles get suppressed? Every winter I tell myself how hard it is to get deep into training while managing the uncooperative weather, risks of winter viruses, shorter days, and challenges of managing little kids. Yet when the farming season tappers off I’m salivating at the thought of grinding it out through the icy landscape of the Wisconsin winter. I developed an actionable plan to stay focused and happy during frozen training months because, after all, running isn’t my entire life, it’s just one of the many awesome things I have going.

Don’t be snobby about running surfaces
This winter was particularly brutal. I usually run trails year round. The state park up the road from our house has 10 hilly miles of mountain bike trails that get beautifully groomed by fat bikes in the winter. Trail running was not an option for me early in the season because I sprained my ankle on the Appalachian Trail in November and re-injury was too big of a risk. By the time I had strength and stability back, our winter had hit a disappointing freezing and thawing pattern that turned the trails into pure ice. Running on the road is a reality most cold-weather trail runners contend with. It’s a great way to keep your training going in between periods of poor trail conditions. I, however, didn’t run more than 5 miles of trails in December and January. Every single run I did was on the road except for two. The conditions of the road were often snowy or icy as well. I decided that this was better than only running on dry pavement because the mixed textures kept my core engaged and my footwork nimble.

Sean O'Brien 100k sunrise. 5th female overall. With 13,000+ ft of elevation gain and miles and miles of mud, I am happy with how my winter training panned out for this awesome event.

Sean O’Brien 100k – 5th female overall. With 13,000+ ft of elevation gain and miles and miles of mud, I am happy with how my winter training panned out for this awesome event.

Compartmentalize the training
My work schedule is relaxed in the winter, but I am also home with the kids a lot more. I did my best to create firm divisions between my running, recovery, work, and time with my kids. An unstructured day can get really sloppy and have huge chunks of wasted time, so I tried to plan a schedule the day before that included a run, an outing with the kids, time in the office, and specific time for stretching and strength exercises. There were days when these areas bled into each other and that felt stressful, so I worked hard to avoid them. To compliment my running, I joined a yoga studio with hot classes and childcare. This was a great way for me to clear my head, get warm, and work on my body while giving the kids a new, fun place to play.

Embrace the suck
Unless injured or sick, I run 6 days a week. Gearing up for my target race, we had days on end when temperatures didn’t creep over 5 degrees. Running in snow, on ice, leaning into polar vortex winds, and dodging snowplows excited me in a gnarly, wild way because the conditions made me feel like I was toughening up for the 100k on the horizon. From past experience, I knew that winter training would be hard and I needed to find joy in the challenges otherwise it would take too much happiness from other areas of life. It’s amazing how a positive mindset can change the entire experience.

Ice, snow, and biting cold don't give me race specific training but they do empower me mentally.

Ice, snow, and biting cold don’t give me race specific training but they do empower me mentally.

Be resilient in the face of adversity
In mid January I set out on the longest run in my training block for my target race. We were in our second week of single digit temperatures and I had 26 miles on my schedule. 5 miles into the run I went to take a swig of my electrolyte concoction and was met with a frozen waterbottle nozzle. I screwed off the top and sucked down a few mouthfuls of slush. All of my liquid was frozen solid by mile 10. I finished the run desperately thirsty but exhilarated by pushing through the setback. In running there are many variables we can control but twice as many that we can’t – trail conditions, training weather, struggles with work or family. The single most important aspect I can control is my attitude toward the process. Making a conscious decision to laugh instead of whine this winter kept my stress levels low which is the most important part of staying healthy.

Prioritize sleep and nutrition
This is ALWAYS important no matter what time of year, but it feels extra critical in the winter. Cold weather running burns more energy and is harder my body. Lack of sun takes a toll on my emotional health but when I buffer myself with a lot of sleep and restful activities (reading, yoga, writing, cooking) I feel much more stable and grounded. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen in the winter cooking hearty meals for me and my family. Keeping a lot of meat, vegetables, and healthy grains in my diet helps me recover from my runs faster and ward of evil viruses that have plagued me in the past. I’m a local food advocate and encourage everyone to eat food that is grown close to home but I believe there is nothing wrong with buying foods produced in far away places if we cannot grow them here. We buy a lot of oranges, avocados, and bananas and these fruits are a big part of my diet. This year I started drinking green tea every single day and I will continue this until I die. Green tea is such a powerful antioxidant which is important for controlling inflammation in athletes (and everyone).

Second breakfast. Post run meals are so important for recovery and health.

Second breakfast. Post run meals are so important for recovery, health and happiness.

Ultimately, my training wasn’t ideal – the best way to train is to replicate race conditions. But I did the most with the situation I had on hand. The Sean O’Brien 100k was extremely muddy from the huge amount of rain California has been pummeled with this winter. Part of the course was re-routed because the trail conditions were so bad. I feel that the challenges of my winter training prepared me well for smiling through the exhausting mud and rolling with the punches. With my survival strategies in place, I can stay happy and strong while working hard towards my winter races. Ice, snow and subzero temperatures aren’t going to hold me back. Our wild, little farm family will be taking western running adventures forever.

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