Ron Marinucci December Column - Winter Running in Michigan
by Ron Marinucci, Nov. 30, 2012
This morning, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was greeted with a pleasant surprise. Not having paid much attention to the weather forecasts the past few days, I wasn’t expecting the snow on the ground. It wasn’t much, maybe half an inch or so. Nonetheless, the white stuff made for a pretty run and was a reminder than winter is here.
While many Michiganders (skiers, snowboarders, ice fishermen excepted) scurry indoors for the long Michigan winter, most runners embrace the colder months. I know I do. Winter is my favorite running season.
Of course, for safety’s sake, precautions must be taken. Proper dress, such as layering and a warm hat and gloves or mittens, is required. But with the micro-fiber materials, we don’t have to bundle up as much as we once did. Care must be taken to avoid slippery patches and black ice, not to forget more hazardous traffic and greater hours of darkness. There is gear, such as shoe cleats and head lamps and reflective clothes, to help with these hazards, too.
But I enjoy the many benefits of winter running. By necessity due to the snowy and icy conditions, running slows a bit. For quiet, peacefulness, and beauty, it’s tough to beat a long run in a few inches of freshly fallen snow. And, there’s something to be said about running in deeper snow and below-freezing temperatures, bringing about a chest-thumping, “We’re not wimps!”
I’ve run in up to nine or ten inches of snow. It was tough, but fun and self-satisfying. Temperatures, not wind-chills, have been below zero and I’ve gone out there. There have been double-digit wind chills and I’ve still run. Karen would shake her head, but knew there was no stopping me. One time an SUV slowed and a woman rolled down her window to say, “You are the epitome of dedication and determination.” That may or may not be so, but I was enjoying myself. One winter, training for Boston, I was doing a long run, more than twenty miles. It was near zero, but I had on my mask, which I usually wear when temperatures dip below 10 degrees, and my Gore-Tex running suit and mittens. I was fine, until I got home. Matt saw me and started laughing; he then went and got Karen and Mike. They laughed, too—at a four- or five-inch ice goatee I had grown on my mask while running. Karen took a picture and we still have it around somewhere, labeled “The Long Road to Boston!”
The unofficial winter running season for me begins with the Wayne County Parks Light Fest 8K on Hines Drive on the third Tuesday evening of November. Not all of those runs have been wintery, but that’s my start. The Light Fest is a fun run, not a race, for me. Hines Drive is closed to traffic and runners get a sneak preview of all the wonderful lighted holiday displays along the parkway. (The past few years have included a bike ride the following evening.) I think there have been sixteen Light Fests and I have run all of them.
My running buddy Bob Drapal has joined me for most of them. We began a tradition, years ago, of stopping by De Luca’s Restaurant for our favorite pizza afterward. It has real pepperoni, the small stuff that curls up with grease that sits in the center! The past couple of years, Karen and some good friends—Michelle Mendez and Russ and Carrie Farnum—have come along, too. At first, they walked and Bob and I ran. This year, socially, Bob joined the walkers. Carrie and I ran and walked. She was looking for “more of a challenge.” Needless to say, the six of us stopped again at De Luca’s. After all, it’s a tradition and the Light Fest wouldn’t be the same without pizza with real pepperoni.
I’m not the only runner in these parts who looks forward to winter running. Stu Allen, a Flint-area runner who has a great e-newsletter, reminded us “that winter can be some of the best running of the year. You just need to have the right gear and you are good to go! Some of that high-tech clothing that exists nowadays allows you to run comfortably on the coldest of days with just a layer or two.” He added, “Getting outside for an hour or more for a run or good walk can counteract the blahs that many of us get when we are cooped up inside on gray winter days…. Being able to burn some calories during holiday goodie season is an added bonus.”
Gus LaRuffa, who has lived in Buffalo, NY as well as southeast Michigan, said, “I always enjoyed winter running.” Echoing the idea of hardy runners, he went on. “Most of the time I am the only one out there on a Saturday morning. It was like you were cheating time…taking advantage of the day knowing most people weren’t.” He also noted, “The best days were the gray days. They were the most quiet. That feeling of solitude was wonderful.” Two examples came to him. He recalled “running in the woods [in nearby Proud Lake State Park]. When you got to the valley(s) surrounded by tall pines there was nothing like it.” Looking at the other side of the coin, he remembered some holiday runs “followed by chili. [It] couldn’t be beat.”
Ruth Thelen is a member of the Lansing-based Playmakers National Masters Grand Prix Award-winning 60+ team. “I love winter running,” she enthused,” especially when the big snowflakes are falling. I feel like I am running inside a winter snow globe. I also love it during the holiday season when everyone has their Christmas lights on.” She’s a hardy soul, having run in temperatures “a few degrees below zero” and in “eight to ten inches of snow [which] helps to strengthen my legs.” One episode highlights a winter peril. “I was doing a long run and it started to sleet. My eyelashes were almost frozen shut.” She’s careful to take precautions. “I wear Yak-Trax when necessary and I try to run where there isn’t much traffic, especially in slippery areas [such as] intersections.” She’ll occasionally, for safety, “run on the track in winter.”
Jed Hubbell considers “my winter runs among my favorites. I love starting out on a really cold day—I think the coldest was around zero—and warming up as the miles go by.” Winter night running is also fun. “It is incredibly quiet and peaceful, especially when there is a light snow. It’s a scene only runners get to enjoy.” To avoid nasty spills, he suggested wearing titanium ice slip ons. “They saved me on numerous occasions from black ice.” He also quipped, “Keep a keen eye out. Once I ran into a mailbox and twice into garbage cans. Not fun.”
Maggy Zidar has completed more than one hundred marathons and countless longer and shorter races. She opined, “Born in January, I love snow and running in the winter.” She showed exactly how much earlier this year. “This January, I ran a 50K on January 21, my 62nd birthday, because I was born in ’50, 31 miles [50K] is half my age, and I was born on a Saturday and this birthday conveniently fell on a Saturday.” The planets were in perfect alignment! She continued, “The run was organized, but not timed. There was fresh snow from the night before, 16 degrees at the start, and the course was on a trail and country roads with hills. I wore Yak-Trax and was slow, but I was so glad I did it. I called my husband on the way home and told him I’d never do it again; but I felt the personal accomplishment we all do when we go beyond what we think we can do.” She recalled other winter runs. “I’ve run in 40-below wind chill out at Metropolitan Beach when Joe Smetanka used to host races every Saturday and Sunday all year long. He would often change a four-mile to a two-mile and offer a big jar of Vaseline to all for coating our faces was we headed out to the point. I remember watching all of us struggle against the wind, the men’s facial hair bearing icicles as we returned, like a scene from Dr. Zhivago.”
Of course, not all runners enjoy getting out there in the winter. Brian Lane is a runner and founder and CEO of Fifty-two4Mom, a charitable running organization. His favorite running season is the autumn; his “least favorite is winter. Winter running,” he said, “is difficult because of the ice and snow. I prefer to run in the early morning or in the evening. When it is dark [earlier in the winter months] I worry about slipping and getting injured.” Because of the perils, he takes it indoors. “I do more treadmill running, which I don’t like, in the winter.” But he’ll still get outside if it’s not too bad. “I have a winter hat and running gloves as well as a running jacket. I still will run in shorts unless it is below freezing. Then I wear track pants.” He admitted, though, to running 20-mile marathon training runs in “fairly heavy snow.” And he remembered doing the Chilly Creek 10K in Camden, AR in 2010, “the coldest race I’ve ever run. It was six degrees out, but luckily no snow. A group of guys ran shirtless with short shorts on. I guess it was their version of joining the polar bear club.”
Karen Lewis, co-founder of Feet and Friends Fighting Colon Cancer, learned a hard winter lesson. “One year we were training for the Las Vegas Marathon, back when it was held in February. We needed to do a long training run. Since there was a foot of snow on the ground, we decided to try snowshoeing [instead of running] the Potawatomi Trail in Pinckney. We were new to snowshoeing, having only recently completed a 10K a week before—on a groomed trail. Little did we know that snowshoeing on an ungroomed trail is hard! [After] about two and a half hours, we were only halfway done. It took us five hours just to do thirteen miles. We ditched the idea of doing another five miles and also ditched the snowshoes for the rest of the year. That was the toughest long run ever!”
Snowbird Patty Pape had some advice for winter running. “Go to Florida where you can run in shorts and tee-shirts all winter long. When it gets cool, we put on a long-sleeve shirt!” But, when in Michigan during the colder months, she has “one good piece of cold weather gear. [They] are ‘tube mitts.’ My mom made them for me, sewn out of fleece. They are just a tube with a spot for your thumb.” She sent greetings to Michigan runners, “Have fun this winter!”