Tag Archives: Winter Switchbacks

Not So Frightful! Winter Running

We’re in the middle of one of the coldest winters in recent memory. Walking around outside has not been much fun.

But what about running? Do I still go out there and get the miles in? Maybe even actually do some races?

You bet your balaclava!

Zeeb Road pathway, New Year’s Eve. Temperature around 10 degrees.

In fact, I’ve already completed my first two races of the year: the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K in Traverse City, and the Winter Switchbacks 5K on the Waterloo trail system. Both are among my favorite events. If you’re interested, last year’s posts can be read here for Bigfoot and here for the Winter Switchbacks. For this post I’ll just share a few photos.

My wife captures me at the Bigfoot finish line. (I finished #14 overall and 1st in my AD.)

Bigfoot: Check out the variety of clothing choices – from very light to traditional winter.

Winter Switchbacks – Charging up to the top on the fourth (and final) loop.

One of the few decently hazardous parts of the Switchbacks course this year. (That’s ice underneath the water and mud.)

Okay, you say, races are one thing. Do you really go outside and run regularly all winter long? Even with snow and ice on the ground?

This photo from a December club run should answer that question. And if you’re wondering what my running coach thinks of this, he’s the one next to me with the ice beard.

Your next question is, I’m guessing, “Are you really comfortable doing that?” No, not always. But over the years I’ve become more cold tolerant. At Bigfoot, I wore just one layer; the wind jacket on top was mainly to keep the snow spray off me. At Winter Switchbacks I wore two light layers, and it should have been just one. Even in slow easy runs I wear shorts if it’s above freezing.

And it’s not just the short stuff. In January 2017 I ran the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50K; my post about that can be read here. I planned another winter ultra this year, but that changed when I selected “the big one” – my main goal race for 2018. I’ll announce that, and my training plan for it, in my next post.

I do have limits. If it’s below zero I won’t run alone. And a couple of club runs have been cancelled when wind chills went below -10. So there’s a least a thread of sanity left in us.

But I must stop now; it’s time to go for a run. Good Lord! The sun is shining and it’s over 40 degrees outside.

I may have to run it naked.

Drat That Good Weather! Winter Switchbacks Race Recap

YOU KNOW YOU’RE FLYING when a high school runner steps aside to let you by.

The snow came back to Michigan one day too late for Saturday’s Winter Switchbacks 5K. So we had a reasonably clear and dry trail, much to the disappointment of the race organizers – and me, too.

Not big on frills.

Not big on frills.

The Switchback Runs take place in the middle of winter and summer to make sure conditions are as miserable as possible. And as if ascending those brutal switchbacks four times in three miles isn’t bad enough, fallen logs and bramble piles mysteriously appear on the trail to keep you hopping – or, in some cases, tripping.


Yet while the race is advertised as, “stuff that will make a mule puke,” it’s actually a family-friendly, laid-back event. It’s put on by local high school running coaches, with proceeds going to support the teams. It’s mainly comprised of high school runners and their siblings, plus a few well-salted trail nuts like yours truly who enjoy something like this.

Coach Eric fires up the pack before the start.

Coach Eric (left, in shorts and blue hat) fires up the pack before the start.

I’ve run the winter 5K four times now, and there’s always been something memorable about it –  either plenty of snow and ice and cold temps, or like last year, an encounter with fox hunters in full regalia and a stampede of hounds.

Tally ho!

Tally ho! Just after the 2016 race.

This year not much was out of the ordinary, except we had a much smaller group of runners – about 40 total. But the race went on, and the group that was there hit the trail for all it was worth.

I’d been fantasizing about being first to the top in loop one, with reality setting in when I began climbing. Cardio-wise I felt okay, but this being my third race this month, the accumulated leg fatigue meant I had no push. Last year I was able to run the entire distance, including all four climbs. This time I couldn’t even make the first ascent without slowing to a walk in a couple spots.

I charge uphill with all -- my -- huuh huuh huuh -- might.

I charge uphill with all — my — huuh huuh huuh — might.

Oh, well, there was still a race to finish. I stuck with it and little by little I began to improve. By the third loop I was feeling much stronger and began to pass people. On the final leg even a couple of the high schoolers stepped aside for me, and I finished in the top ten again. My time of 24:47 even beat last year’s time by over a minute, tired legs and all! I must have really rocked the downhill and flat parts.

By the way, the winner finished in a mind-boggling 17:30, which is a fast time even for a flat 5K. I sense a scholarship in his future.

Yeah, it was like that.

Yeah, it was like that.

Now a little break from racing, with my next scheduled event at the end of February. On the other hand, that gives Skip & Co. at Body Specs free rein, which they took full advantage of today. Quick, where’s that list of February races?

Sorry, Conditions Are Too Good Today

RIDDLE FOR YOU: What goes up four times, but comes down only three times?

Here's a hint.

Here’s a hint.

ANSWER: The Winter Switchbacks, an evil little 5K on the trails near Chelsea, MI.

The writeup makes it seem like the worst race ever

Facebook promo - Winter Switchbacks 2016

Truth is, it’s mainly cross-country runners from the nearby high schools, and also a fair number of veteran trail runners. About 60 runners showed up, including kids as young as three (!) giving the bill hill a try. The race is put on by Eric and Mike, who coach the Chelsea teams.

That said, it is a “no frills” event. The entry fee is only $5.00, which goes to support the cross-country teams. There’s no bottled water, no porta-potties, no race bibs, and no finisher’s medals – you know, all the stuff you get for free at a $40.00 event.

The hardened veterans prepare for the grueling contest.

The hardened veterans prepare for the grueling contest.

The race is named for its singular feature, a climb up a very steep hill accomplished by weaving back and forth in a gradual climb, just like what trains do to get up steep inclines. The race begins at the low point of the loop, with the finish during the fourth loop at the top of the switchbacks.

Race day conditions were too good for Eric’s likings. Last year there was a fair amount of snow on the trails, and the roads were iced over and slippery. With practically no snow or ice this year and temps on the warmer side, the worst he could do was toss some large branches and logs across the trail (which he blamed on “localized winds”). I saw a few slips, but as far as I know there weren’t any “agony of defeat” spills.

Link to Agony of Defeat Video

If you have never seen the “Agony of Defeat” clip, you must. Click the image.

With all the hill running and ultras I’ve run in the last few years, I figured I was in good enough shape to run the inclines without too much trouble. Reality slapped me upside the head the minute I hit the switchbacks the first time. I’d run this race last year, but had forgotten how much of a lung-draining, life-sucking grind it is up that thing. I was able to recover on the downhills, though, and actually ran the final lap faster than the others.

Final climb!

Final climb!

What’s really annoying is that it doesn’t look all that hard when going uphill. You need to look down from the top and watch the runners behind you gasping and slogging their way along to really appreciate what you’ve just done.

"Ouch" prize winner!

The “Ouch” prize winner!

The winning time was just over 22 minutes, but glory is all you get for winning! There were only two awards: the first to the top on the first loop (but you have to finish to claim the prize) and the “Ouch” award for the person with the most spectacular fall.

My time of 25:56 was good for 8th place, and I admit to some self-pride about beating many of the cross-country runners. Coach Rob of PR Fitness may be “hill happy” when it comes to our group routes, but the payoff is undeniable. And I’m getting to the point now where I see hills as opportunities, not obstacles; in races I pass many people on them. So I think I’ll be back next year. Hopefully there will be subzero temperatures and whiteout conditions!

When this happens to a teenager, you know it's a good workout!

When this happens to a teenager, you know it’s a good workout!


P.S. I earned an award for running the entire way. I don’t put a whole lot of stuff on my car’s bumper, but this one went on for sure.

Bumper Sticker - I RAN the Switchbacks

P.P.S. There is a summer version of this race, and I was told that some runners can finish it in under 17 minutes. Now that is practically superhuman.

BONUS PHOTO: I didn’t see any puking mules, but there may have been some foxes puking from exhaustion! Check out the fox hunters!

Fox Hunters - 2

Watch for Puking Mules: The Winter Switchbacks 5K

SO IMAGINE YOU’RE PERUSING A RUNNING WEBSITE, and you come across the following race promo:
Winter Switchbacks - Part of the PromoNo pre-race registration, no bathroom facilities, no food or water, and the only award you might get is frostbite. And when you get there, you hear this from the race organizer:

Up the Final Hill - Others 2“The race ends at the top of the hill. So you get to go uphill four times, – and you only have to go downhill three times.”

Sound like fun?

Somehow, some way, it was.

I’d gotten a flyer for this race a few years ago, but had other commitments and let it pass. But last week, while looking over the website for the new Ann Arbor Running Company store, I came across the 2015 flyer. Yep, same race: the only text that had changed was the date. So I blew off my assigned 12-miler on Saturday morning and drove to the Waterloo Recreation Area in search of adventure.

Methinks someone didn't like the sign.

Methinks someone don’t like being told when he can and can’t shoot.

With only the flyer as my source, I was half anticipating a group of bearded, fur-clad survivalists. And just a few hundred yards from the gathering place, I spotted three orange-clad guys with rifles heading into the woods. Their eyes were on me as I went past. Hmm..., I could hear them thinking, I wonder if he’s good eatin’.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. Yes, I could make the obvious joke, but I'll let it go.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. I will save the obvious “fox” jokes for another time.

So imagine my surprise to find that the majority of the runners were Chelsea and Grass Lake high schoolers in track clothes and sweatshirts. Turns out the race is run by the Chelsea High School cross-country coach. There were even kids as young as 4 there. They all seemed remarkably unconcerned about running 3.5 loops on trails covered in snow and lined with fallen branches, and a monster climb times four. Ah, the innocent nonchalance of youth! But I wasn’t too fazed; I’ve climbed worse hills, and run through deeper snow. Just not both at the same time before.

Winter Switchbacks - Start

At 10:00 a.m. sharp, after a briefing about the course (“Just keep turning right”) we were off. Each loop climbed up the switchbacks, with the steepest part just before the top of the hill. Fortunately right after that there was a steep downhill, so there was a chance to catch my breath, and I finished the 5K in a respectable 28 minutes and change, even managing a reasonable charge up to the finish line.

Just in case you were wondering what "switchbacks" were...

Just in case you were wondering what “switchbacks” were…

Funny, that wasn't there the first time. (We'd been warned about "surprises".)

Funny, that wasn’t there the first time. (We’d been warned about “surprises”.)

Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.

Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.

And the winner is...the guy in shorts. (I was only 8 minutes behind him.)

Me with Tom, the winner, who ran this race about as fast as I can run a 5K on a flat road. With a tailwind.

While the race was tough as promised, it wasn’t really so bad. With temps around 30 degrees I stayed quite warm, and the promised mush and horse poop never materialized. And I saw no puking, mules or otherwise. The race organizers seemed disappointed.

“Last year,” they told me, nostalgia misting in their eyes, “the snow was twice as deep and we ran this thing in a blizzard.” Better luck next time, guys.

Finish - Wiped OutPredictably, many of the high schoolers kicked my butt, but I still managed to finish in 10th place, and that with taking pictures along the way. That four-year-old never knew what hit him. Just wait till next year, when I take all those pre-teens to school. Yeah.

Oh, and I have at least two more snow races coming up – the Super 5K this Sunday, and the No Frills All Thrills 8K in March. Can’t wait!