Tag Archives: winter

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.

winter-switchbacks-2017-runners-charging-uphill-cropped

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?

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Winter Warriors: Yankee Springs Winter Challenge Recap

4:45 a.m. on a January Saturday is when sensible people are nestled snug in warm beds. I was outside in single-degree temps, trudging through 100 yards of snow toward frigid vault toilets.

It was my own fault. I’d signed up for the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50K, and the Long Lake Outdoor Center has no indoor plumbing. Or bed linens. Or running water. “I wonder why I’m doing this,” I said to the lady at the Outdoor Center when I called for information.

“You are a winter warrior,” she replied firmly.

Geared up and ready to hit the snowy trail!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters)!

What a great answer! But why did I sign up for a winter ultramarathon? Well, I’ve run many ultras (this was #15 for me), and plenty of times in the snow, but never the two together. So why not try it? Plus it seemed like a fitting way to kick off 2017, my self-defined year for doing oddball athletic stuff.

I spent Friday night in a 20-bunk cabin instead of a hotel. The advantages were an easy walk to the start, a warm place to keep extra clothes, and the camaraderie of fellow runners, some of whom brought water and were happy to share. (Have I mentioned before how awesome trail runners are?)

Carbo-loading at Walldorff Provisions in Hastings Friday night.

Carbo-loading at Walldorff Provisions in Hastings Friday night.

For having to get up before 5 a.m., I was surprisingly awake and energized for the 8:00 a.m. 50K start. I would run two 25K loops, so there was a chance to make adjustments at the halfway point, which was really helpful on a day like this.

For those of you interested in such things, in the next few paragraphs I will share my gear selections and race strategy for this event. If you’re not, but would like to know how it turned out, you can, “skip a bit, Brother.”

Gear Selection

Shoes were my Pearl Izumi EM N2 Trail. The course was wide singletrack, packed snow with just a little fresh powder. I had great traction throughout. I brought my old Hokas as backups or to deal with deep powder, but I wore the Izumis the entire way.

Socks were my Xmas present Darn Tough Endurance. They got a bit wet but not enough to need to change them, and they did a good job keeping my feet from sliding around, which can lead to blisters. Feet were never cold, either.

For the body I wore a Merino wool base layer with my Heater Hog over that [*] and a light wind jacket on top. Standard winter tights for the legs. Core was always warm, although arms were a bit too sweaty and got cold toward the end of the first loop, so I changed to fresh shirts for the second.

Head: a balaclava with a knit cap over it. This combo kept the wind out of my ears and the cold off my face. Some people wore buffs but they got moist from breath and then froze. The balaclava retained less moisture and dried out quickly so I could pull it back over my mouth when needed.

Hands: I wore my warmest gloves, but my hands always somehow get both cold and sweaty, so I changed to a fresh pair after the first loop. I brought hand warmers just in case but didn’t resort to them. Just clenched my fists inside the gloves.

Food and Hydration

I ate my usual breakfast of a banana and Clif bar an hour before the start. At the aid stations I ate mostly trail mix and bananas. My usual favorites of orange sections and PB&J froze early on, but I got down a few. I brought Gu but never used it.

I drank less than usual. The water in my bottles got so cold I didn’t drink more than a little at a time. At the aid stations where they had soup or warmer water I drank more. But my “fluids check” that occurred every 90 minutes or so was clear, so I was adequately hydrated.

Let's see...do I want frozen bananas, frozen potato chips, frozen olives - or just a Coke slushie?

Let’s see…do I want frozen bananas, frozen potato chips, frozen olives – or just a Coke slushie?

For electrolytes, I took two S-Cap salt tablets every 90 minutes. Usually I take them every hour, but figured I was sweating less. I supplemented with Gatorade and salty soup. I had no digestive problems or nausea, so it seems to have worked fine.

Race Strategy

I elected to run my standard 50K pace – faster than conversation pace but not hard breathing. I was able to run the entire way, with just a few power hikes on the steeper climbs. Toward the end of the second loop I pushed my pace to ensure a sub-6 hour finish. It was uncomfortable but not painful. My lungs seemed to handle the low temps just fine.

As I finished my first loop I noticed my cold arms and a hot spot in my left foot. In addition, my gloves had frozen. So I sacrificed about 15 minutes to change clothes and tape toes. On a warmer day I might have let these go, but Saturday was no time to fool around. The temps never got above 15 degrees, and the wind chill was most likely below zero. Safety had to come first.

===  End nerdy runner stuff  ===

So how did I do?

If I'm dumb enough to be here at the starting line, I suppose I'll have to run it!

If I’m dumb enough to be here at the starting line, I suppose I’ll have to run it!

I finished the first 25K in just under 2:40. Due to the aforementioned issues, I began my second loop around the 2:53 mark. I still hoped to finish around 5:30, but it was not to be. As many runners confirmed, the second loop seemed much harder than the first, perhaps because it got colder instead of warmer. Running in the snow also takes more effort than on dirt, so the extra fatigue added up.

The last few miles seemed to stretch on and on, with more hills than I remembered from my first loop. When it began to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, I lost it a little mentally, and the woods heard a few colorful phrases. But finally the road to the finish line appeared, and all was good again.

I ran the second loop in 2:57. finishing just under 5:51. This was good for second in my age group and #11 overall. Not too bad for my first winter ultra! And I remembered to have fun out there. Being “in the moment” even once or twice, and grateful to be healthy and fit, really puts minor discomforts into perspective.

Swag: Finisher's snow globe and age group gloves + gift certificate.

Swag: Finisher’s snow globe and age group gloves + gift certificate. Worth six hours of running on brutally cold trails? You bet!

Lessons learned for next time:

  • Maybe wear a sleeveless wind vest rather than a full jacket.
  • See if I can find a way to keep my water bottles warmer.
  • Bring water for brushing teeth and stuff the night before.

Overall grades:

  • Race organization: A. First-class job all around, from registration to the great fire at the start/finish to the aid stations to the post-race chili.
  • Course: A. Starkly beautiful. Mostly wide singletrack with a minimum of roots and rocks to worry about. Total elevation gain was about 3,000 feet, mainly from rolling hills. Only a couple of steeper climbs, and no issues with traction.
  • Lodging: B. Cabins were comfortable enough but the trek to the outdoor toilets sucked.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in trying out a winter race, Yankee Springs is an excellent choice. I might even go back next year!

P.S. In addition to the 50K, there are 10K and 25K options if you’re not up for an ultra. There’s also a 50-miler, but since you start at 6:00 a.m. and likely finish in the dark too, you’ve got to be really nuts. (I’m not saying anything those folks don’t already know.)

[*] – Unfortunately, the Heater Hog is no longer available, but you can likely find something similar out there.

Chilling Out, But Still Running

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE.

Winter has Michigan firmly in its grip. The snow is falling, the wind is blowing, and we have below-zero wind chills. So my non-runner friends have begun asking (with tone assuming Yes), “So you’re done running for the winter,” and “I suppose you’re doing your running inside now?”

Nope.

First Snow Run 2015-2016

I admit it’s harder to get motivated to run outside than in the non-winter months. Here I rely upon sheer habit, and having others to run with. So far it’s worked, even with my new 6:00 a.m. midweek run. The only thing crazier than my friend Hirak and I running together last Wednesday in the frigid dark was that we saw a few people running solo. Sorry, but that’s just dumb – slip and sprain your ankle at that hour, and you could be a statue by the time the ambulance arrives.

I run year-round but I consider this the “off season” when it comes to racing. This means the workouts at Body Specs are pretty brutal, but they’re meant to build strength for the spring and summer. So I cut back a bit on distances and don’t race as much.

It's as much fun as it looks.

Yes, that’s a tension strap around my shoulders. It’s as much fun as it looks.

I did sneak in the Holiday Hustle 5K on December 10. Since I was also managing our Zero Waste team for the race, I was there from setup through teardown. So my afternoon went something like this:

– Freeze my tail off for four hours
– Get warm for 20 minutes running the 5K
– Freeze my tail off for two more hours.

I think he brought the weather with him.

I think he brought the weather with him.

So you might think I would be looking forward to a nice warm interlude until the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K in late January. Do a little training on the treadmill, or just curl up by the fireplace with hot chocolate for a few weeks. Seems only fair.

So what did I do?

Signed up for a 50K trail ultra. On January 7. In Michigan.

And I’m looking forward to it.

The Yankee Springs Winter Challenge in Middleville, MI.

The Yankee Springs Winter Challenge in Middleville, MI (photo from their page).

To the inevitable question I can offer two reasons: because 2017 is my “off the wall” year for athletic events (more to follow there) and because I’ve never done a winter ultra before. So why not?

And you know what? Yesterday morning’s run with the PR Run Club started out pretty chilly and bleak, but we had a good turnout anyway. And halfway through, the sun came out in a bright blue sky, and the snow around us lit up in brilliant white. And boy, did hot coffee taste good afterward.

That’s why I run outside in the winter.

I really must run!

     (But baby, it’s cold outside.)

Go gotta have fun!

     (But baby, it’s cold outside.)

Cold Logic: No Frills All Thrills Race Recap

I HAVE FOUND SOMETHING TO APPRECIATE ABOUT THIS WINTER.

(Warning: it’s based on the fact that I ran outdoors all winter, so I’m guessing that many of you will not be nodding your head in agreement.)

Oh, we're all ears, I'm sure.

Oh, we’re all ears. Enlighten us.

Okay, here goes.

.

.

.

(Remember, I warned you.)

.

.

.

Last Saturday, I ran the No Frills All Thrills 8K trail race at Huron Meadows Metropark in Brighton. I run it every year, and it lives up to its billing. No shirts, no photographer, and it’s timed by the gun – no chips on the bibs. But it supports a good cause (Girls on the Run), and whoever baked the post-race chocolate chip and red velvet cookies gets my vote for sainthood.

The metropark trails are challenging in the best of conditions, with some steep climbs and descents built into the course. This year was not the best of conditions. The snow may be gone from the roads, but the trails were still covered in several inches of the stuff, and while some of it had been tamped down, for most of the course we just had to slog through it.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

But that’s exactly what I’ve been doing all winter – slogging through the snow. And I was wearing the Hokas, which while not exactly letting me glide along, gave me good traction and kept my feet dry. I liked my chances.

The few...the proud...the nut cases...

The few…the proud…the nut cases…

I got off to a decent start at the back of the leading pack. The trail was mainly ice for the first quarter mile, which meant stepping carefully and trying not to trip over other runners. But when we entered the woods I settled in, and began to pass people one by one as they struggled in the snow. It was hard going, like one of those bad dreams where you’re running really hard and going nowhere. But no one passed me – no one – while I continued to improve my position.

No gold shoes for age group awards this year, but  check out the mug with integrated spoon.

No gold shoes for age group awards this year, but check out the mug with integrated spoon.

I crossed the finish line pretty sure I’d done well. And the initial posted results had me in 12th place overall, out of about 120 total. Quite satisfactory, although I had to settle for second in my age group.

But the story wasn’t over. That night, I logged in to look at the final results – and I’d moved up to 9th place overall. A top 10 finish! Woohoo!

But wait, there’s more…

Tonight I went back to look up my finish time so I could update my race results widget, and saw this!

NFAT 2014 - my race result

According to the race organizer, some of the 8K runners decided to take the detour and just do the 4K – and didn’t tell anyone at the finish line. They think they have everything correct now. Too bad – they way things were going, I’d have won the race by next week!

So there you have it. I rocked out a cold, snowy race for a 6th place overall finish – my best ever – and I owe it all to this winter.

For my next trick, I will explain how the 2012 Dexter tornado led to my current PR in the 5K. Or maybe not. One twisted logic story is enough for now.