Winter running offers up unique challenges and rewards

Cinthia RitchieAlaska Newspapers Inc.
Bob Hallinen

It's 5 degrees and I'm in the middle of a 20-mile run, each step of my spiked shoes hitting the snow with a resounding "pat!" My eyelashes are iced, my hair frozen solid. Up ahead lurks the obstinate hill leading to Kincaid Park. Even though my thighs are cold, my nose numb, I feel gloriously and unexpectedly happy. I'm running and the world is silent, the trees softened with snow. Soon it will be dark, but for now the air is caught in that lull between daylight and dusk, when everything is bathed in purple shadows.

Winter is not my favorite season. Yet I still run, even when the temperature drops and the wind picks up. There is a beauty to the winter, a beauty to running through the darkness with only a headlamp for light, the Inlet stretching out, chunks of ice wavering like ghosts along the shore.

Yet, winter running offers unique challenges. You can't simply tie on a pair of running shoes and head out the door. You have to plan. You have to dress according to the temperature.

In fact, heading out the door is often the most difficult part.

Michelle Baxter, who won the women's division of last year's Kenai River Marathon and blogs at The Runner's Plate, runs early in the morning before the sun rises, when temperatures are at their lowest.

"Waking up early, when it's dark and cold in the winter, requires a lot more motivation and willpower," she said.

Yet daily runs have become essential to Baxter's routine.

"It has become a habit, like brushing my teeth and showering in the morning," she said.

Anchorage ultra runner Brandon Wood views harsh weather conditions as the biggest winter running deterrent.

"When the temperature is below zero or it's really icy or we're in the middle of a snowstorm, going out for a run isn't always the most appealing thing," he said.

He schedules midwinter races to keep him in the training mind-set. Later this month, he'll head down to Texas to tackle a 100-miler.

Staying warm

Too often, newbie winter runners overdress for winter runs. The rule of thumb is that if you're warm when you start, you're overdressed.

Which is why Wood suggests layering up.

"Obviously, it's important to not get too cold out there but it can be just as dangerous to get too warm."

If you're sweating excessively, he explained, the moisture can bring your body temperature down quickly and lead to hypothermia.

"Having on multiple layers allows you to start peeling off layers if you get too warm," he said.

Top layers can normally be tied around one's waist. For longer runs (15 or more miles), many runners carry a light hydration pack, which usually has pockets for stashing gear.

Baxter typically wears two or three layers on top and one or two layers on the bottom.

"I've found that having my face and neck covered makes a big difference," she said.

You don't have to spend big bucks for winter running gear. Baxter finds items for $25 to $50 at outlet stores, online and season-end sales.

Where to run

Basically, if you can run a route in the summer you can run it in the winter. Popular trails include the Coastal Trail, Campbell Creek, Powerline Pass and Turnagain Arm, which offer great winter views, though run-ability depends upon what the snow and ice is like.

Baxter prefers residential roads.

"Usually they are pretty clear and not too much traffic at the insanely early hour I run," she said. "Sometimes the bike paths and paved trails are plowed before the roads, so I will seek those out."

Wood, on the other hand, sticks mainly to trails.

"I live on the east side of town, so many of my runs are in Bicentennial Park," he said.

He also hooks up with the Hillside trail system and heads out to the Coastal Trail on a regular basis.

As for current icy conditions, Baxter suggests the route around Lake Hood and the service road behind the airport (on Northern Lights out past Point Woronzof Park). Runners can wear Yaktrax or Icebugs to avoid slipping. Skinny Raven will "spike" shoes by inserting screws in the bottoms ($10) or runners can do it themselves with a handful of 3/8-inch hex screws and a power drill.

If you don't feel confident maneuvering over ice or through slush, you can take it inside on a treadmill at local gyms or the indoor track at the Alaska Dome.

With the exception of extreme weather conditions, there's little excuse to not take it outside. Winter running offers the opportunity to ease up the pace, to look around, to savor.

"When it's clear and cold outside, it's absolutely beautiful out on the snow-covered trails," Wood said. "As long as you're dressed appropriately, it's actually quite comfortable running in the cold."

Cinthia Ritchie is an Alaska journalist and author of "Dolls Behaving Badly." She blogs about running and writing at

Daily News correspondent