How Low Can You Go? (Published Feb 2011)
Have you wondered lately whether your porch thermometer is broken? Have you found yourself scanning the newspaper forecasts with a longing for bigger-digit days? Have you recently been seen sporting a running tights/shopka ensemble despite the pleadings of children and resident fashionistas? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be a runner mired in a February freeze. But as bad as that is, there’s reason to take heart. It could be worse. What if you had to relive the same February day indefinitely (or until you pass your cosmic exam), like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day? Or, more likely, say you were a runner in a place that actually gets cold–and I don’t mean for a week or so every few years when that frigid Canadian air rides the southbound all the way to New Mexico and stays for a sit-in.
The next time you–and I, for that matter–think of hanging it up because the thermometer reads 15 degrees (a typical February overnight low for Colorado Springs), we should warm ourselves with thoughts of our fellow runners in Fairbanks, Alaska. Fairbanks. Whoever arrived at that name had an ironic sense of humor or didn’t get out much. Fifteen degrees! If it were 15 degrees in Fairbanks, it would most likely be an April day. Chances are that right now the Mars rovers are enjoying warmer temperatures than some poor guy lacing up on his porch in Fairbanks. It can be 20 degrees warmer on the surrounding hilltops. Holy temperature inversion, Batman! And you thought nothing would ever make you want to run hills. And then there’s the problem of limited daylight. Or shall I say, “limited gloaming?” Better run at lunch, or it’s lights out for you. In late December you could boast of starting and finishing your long runs in the dark—you might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. And even at high noon in mid-winter, a feeble sun seems to hang just above those pine trees on the horizon. Talk about the Twilight Zone. Well, I guess they have the Aurora Borealis to look at, anyway. As for me, I’ll take the view of Pikes Peak (and not that tiny light at the top, visible only in the dark). Add a 15 mile per hour wind to an otherwise lovely Fairbanks run and you might as well be on the wing of a DC-10 at cruising altitude (hey, didn’t I tell you it was like the Twilight Zone?) “No thanks, Mr. Flight Attendant, I think I’ll pass on the in-flight hot toddy, thank you; but, say, have you got a balaclava–or better yet, an EVA suit—in that serving cart?”
Ok, you’re right. I sound jealous because I am jealous. I’m jealous of the stalwartness of these folks. I’m jealous of the audacity that taunts Old Man Winter at close range. I’m jealous of folks who can get away with wearing stylish knit caps and scarves every day for months.
You may be thinking that surely every Fairbanks runner has a treadmill or belongs to a gym with a treadmill, and that outdoor running in winter is as great an oddity as liquid water. I wondered about that too, so I looked up the website for Fairbanks’ running club, Running Club North. (I fancied them the Polar Bear Club, but the name, we know, is already being used by another group of extremophiles who appear a little soft in comparison to these hearty folks.) And guess what? People on the perimeter of the Arctic Circle really do run–in the dead of winter. And stranger still, they actually seem to enjoy it. The good folks of Running Club North claim, with an earned air of braggadocio, that they used to call off races at -25 degrees, but now they leave it up to the individual race director. I’m with them; why draw the line at dangerously cold, when hypothermic hallucinations are just around the corner? (No, that bank thermometer that reads -55 isn’t a hallucination; you’re perfectly safe.) Club North hosts a weekly training run called Fahrenheit Be Darned (at least they keep their braggadocio clean). To satisfy my (morbid) curiosity I clicked on a menu option entitled “Cold Weather Running.” Among the advice offered is the suggestion that one choose his or her course with a potential refuge in mind. I was thinking that loops around the emergency room parking lot seemed like the most prudent course (outside of an indoor track).
Ok, accuse this middle-latitude dweller of exaggeration if you will. But there’s just something about imminent danger of frostbite that’s always brought out the hyperbolic in me.
But seriously, how low is too low? To paraphrase exercise physiologist John. W. Castellani, more people are injured running in hot weather than cold weather. Now that I can believe, having known the pleasure of a 93 degree marathon finish. The good doctor gives the green light to running down to -50 degrees fahrenheit. It should be noted however that Dr. Mom stridently challenges Dr. Castellani’s findings, never mind his professional standing.
Since the temperature has never plummeted much below -30 in Colorado Springs, I figure none of us has an excuse for not running outside in winter. So lace up, layer up and have some hot cocoa waiting for you at home in a thermos. And look on the bright side. February too will pass, whether or not you ace your cosmic exam.