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December 28, 2010 / elodie kaye

Winter Animals

To run long in the winter is to accept cold as a state of being for that interval.  This is a dirty little secret that outdoor Canadian runners keep to ourselves.  We bear our stoicism to the weather like a patriotic badge, and to admit that running for more than 3 hours in the winter is unpleasant, is to risk derision as a Bad Canadian.  But, it’s true.  No matter how carefully you layer, cover, zip and un-zip vents, it’s impossible to maintain a perfect defence.  There is no triple-layer, technical laminate to shield you from the reality that you will come to know the growth and spread of chill, across your skin and into your bones.  It’s not a terrible, mortal cold, and from a broad perspective, two or three miles at the conclusion of a 3-hour run isn’t very much time, but neither is it avoidable.

On my long run last weekend, I remembered the ever longer excursions I took one year when I naively thought to train for a spring marathon.  The purpose of very long runs of 18 miles or more is to consume all of the easily available glycogen in your body.  Glycogen is a chain of sugars, and is stored in muscles and the liver for fuel.  As these sources run low, blood sugar drops slightly, and the body tries to do more with less.

It begins at my hands, the fingertips or the top of the thumb, the shivering numbness travels slowly along the upper line of my forearm toward the inside of my elbow.  Then, the back of my arms, a tingling at my shoulders, a passing quiver at the nape of my neck when the wind catches a bit of moisture at the escaped strands of hair. For a time, I can pick up speed for short bursts into the wind to generate more heat, then coast as I turn away to regulate my temperature.  Eventually though, I reach that point when this recourse too, is denied.  Blood and sugar is served only to my deep organs and working muscles.  My goose-pimpled skin, deemed inessential, is on reduced rations.

However, my glycogen is not exhausted yet.  My legs confirm by their relative liveliness that they still hoard some precious fuel.  So it’s necessary to run on.  These final miles of a long run are inevitably frigid.  Adding layers blunts the penetrating bite of the wind but fails to eviscerate this basic animal law: to be deprived of food is to become intimate with cold.  For my long runs, it’s only 20 or 30 minutes, a relatively brief period.  A single time, I was simply too spent to run the last 3/4 of a mile of a 23-mile long run.  I had shuffled for almost two miles before that, and I could not continue.  It was really only ten extra minutes to walk home, but there was nothing larger in my consciousness than crushing dread, that the steely cold gripping my spine would slice deeper.  I didn’t feel any dejection that I had fallen short of my goal.  I bore no anxiety about the marathon, no speculations about what went wrong.  My whole being centred itself on a single, all-consuming drive to find warmth and food, and a convulsive fear that I might not reach it.

Of course, this is really the same drive that inclines us to seek comfort with others in love, friendship and community, to give, receive and feast together.  It roots the symbolism of food with comfort, light with warmth.  In comfortably sheltered circumstances, it’s easy to believe that these are cultural constructions, our prerogative to embrace or cast off, or perhaps a privilege of civilisation for which we ought to be grateful.

The definitions of cold include illness, death, numbness in sensation or emotion, a kind of living death.  Squirrels, raccoons and skunks don’t hibernate in my neighbourhood, partly because food isn’t as scarce in this urban environment.  A steady supply of calories from visitors to the nearby cemetery and parks allow them to withstand winter temperatures.  When I run, I consent to exist briefly as a creature at the mercy of light and dark, warmth and cold.  In this condition, love, and charity, and the reassurance of plenty don’t seem as far removed from the imperative of survival as we like to believe.

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5 Comments

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  1. Anne / Dec 29 2010 8:43 am

    I’m not sure I’ve ever read something so eloquent about this subject. It reminds me of my marathon training through New England winters. They are nice memories now. I think yours are too.

    • elodie kaye / Dec 29 2010 12:35 pm

      Thank you, Anne. The subject is kind of obscure, isn’t it? It reads like I made a lot of hay with very little.

      The memories get nicer as the years go by. I do enjoy almost all my winter runs, so I think it was inevitable that I would try marathon training in the cold, too. In a few more years, I predict the memories will be sufficiently rosy that I’ll be tempted to try it again. 🙂

  2. gpetitto / Jan 12 2011 5:12 pm

    Reading this leaves me feeling somewhat nervous about the longer training runs I’ll be facing in a few weeks. I’ve had my share of difficult times with long runs around 20 miles already and those were all in warm temperatures. It could be very, very hard to slog through the final miles of a big one in cold temps. I can only hope that keeping my routes close enough to home or some other warm building will allow me to make the changes necessary to sufficiently deal with those inevitable physical challenges that come over the miles.

    • elodie kaye / Jan 14 2011 2:12 am

      It wasn’t my intention to discourage anyone from attempting long runs in the winter, though this post isn’t exactly sunshine and roses. You may not have the same response to glycogen depletion. I certainly didn’t know my body would conserve calories in this way even though I’d done many long runs in warmer weather. Maybe more generally, I’m trying to make the case that running in the cold gives us a window to unique insights and experiences that we’re normally sheltered from. I think it’s worth doing even if it’s harder to love winter running. I look forward to hearing about your discoveries as you break trail to your first ultra, Greg. 🙂

      • gpetitto / Jan 14 2011 1:02 pm

        “It wasn’t my intention to discourage anyone from attempting long runs in the winter…”

        I know, and I didn’t really mean to hijack the comments by blathering about my own fears. Your larger insights are wonderful and thought-provoking. When the time comes, I will gladly take on the challenges of winter long runs and will likely find a way to get through them successfully despite whatever cold suffering I encounter. There’s not much sense in me wasting any thought worrying about much of it now. I’m certainly not going to learn anything by staying within my comfort zone through the rest of winter. It’s fun to think that 12 or so miles in all but the nastiest conditions is rather comfortable for me these days and I’m quite encouraged by knowing my body is capable of going much, much farther.

        Thanks for reminding me there’s much to be learned even when feeling like we’re freezing to death. 🙂

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