Winter Running

Published: March 1st, 2007

Under a sky of burgeoning dawn, all blushing and sun-streaked in early morning glow, Paul Holovnia blew a cloud of frosty breath. “Let’s run,” he said. “I’m freezing here.”

It was 7:34 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid January, and Holovnia, a 45-year-old finance executive from Chanhassen, Minn., had met a friend at the Minnesota River near Minneapolis for a quick before-work trail run.

Steam rose from a swamp as the pair took off, shoes pounding prints in fresh snow. The trail ahead dropped from the parking lot, skirting cattails, disappearing into dark reaching arms of the woods.

Holovnia runs 50 miles most weeks. On trails, and on the road. Quick weekday jogs, long weekend slogs. “Sometimes 60 miles if I have the time,” he said.

And Holovnia runs year-round, hot summer days to the dark early mornings of January, where the temp might poke below zero in his hometown.

But Holovnia is not unique. Indeed, thousands of dedicated runners in the northern latitudes refuse to let the cold, wind and snow slow them down. While people head indoors each winter to the treadmill — or take up a cross-training regimen of Nordic skiing — the huffing, puffing, steaming hordes of hardcore runners sprint on through the coldest months of the year.

“Cold and snow adds a different beauty and an adventure to running,” said Kurt Decker, Holovnia’s 35-year-old running partner, who is a manager at Gear Running Store in Edina, Minn. Decker said there are also performance advantages to running when it’s cold. “You can’t ever overheat, for one thing,” he said.

Frozen faces
In Minnesota, more than 100,000 people call themselves runners, according to Heidi Keller Miler of the Minnesota Distance Running Association. A good share of these runners — up to 50 percent, Keller Miler estimated — will pound the pavement when the sun is out and winter temps are bearable.

“Go to one of the lakes on any given Saturday morning and there are hundreds of people out running, some in groups,” she said. Health clubs and athletic organizations form groups that meet every week.

The Minnesota Distance Running Association’s Polar Bear Group meets each Saturday of the winter, regardless of the weather. But when it’s really cold — near zero or below — Keller Miler said most people stay inside to train. “Maybe 10 percent of runners are outside when it is sub-zero,” she said.

Chad Austin is among that 10 percent. “I’ll take a 10-below day over 90 degrees with a high dew point,” he said.

Austin, a 37-year-old marketing analyst from Apple Valley, Minn., runs about 75 miles per week in the wintertime, which is more than what he runs in the summer. He grows a beard for added warmth each year as the temps begin to drop. He rubs Vaseline on his face for protection while running on the harshest days.

The winter months are the offseason for foot racing, allowing Austin to slow down and focus on endurance training. “I use winter for my prime base building,” he said.

Not all dedicated runners embrace winter, even those who continue to train outside. Paula Vicker, a 42-year-old manager with Wells Fargo and a veteran runner of 16 years, jogs outdoors all year long in preparation for marathons. But she is not a fan of the cold. “I’m looking forward to retirement when I move to a warm place and don’t have to deal with the snow,” she said.

Vicker, who runs up to 75 miles per week, listed several hardships with her cold-weather regimen, including: the additional time it takes to get dressed; the struggle for her muscles to warm up once outdoors; and the ever-changing frigid and slippery elements on the streets in her Edina neighborhood.

The key to comfortable wintertime running? “Layers and lots of them,” Vicker said. She recommends investing in a good running jacket, a hat, tights and breathable tops. “Good gear is well worth it for your comfort on a run.”

Lightweight gloves and a breathable winter hat are essential. Some runners wear neoprene face masks when the weather turns extreme.

Brian McCollor, head of the running department at Gear West in Long Lake, Minn., recommends shoes with added grip. Companies like Asics, Montrail and Icebug sell running shoes studded with hard plastic or carbide tips that bite into the snow and ice.

Add-on traction products, including Yaktrax and Sure Foot Get-A-Grip, strap to the sole of your workaday runners.

“These products do an amazing job of keeping runners upright,” McCollor said.

Trail time
At 7:50 a.m., on the trail with Decker and Holovnia, the air was a tingly 12 degrees. But there was no wind, and the runners were dressed light, moving fast.

In the woods near the Minnesota River, the sun was creeping up in the distance, golden rays skipping across the snow.

“It’s perfect out here,” Decker said.

The runners kicked up a hill, feet digging in, arms pumping, snow crunching. The woods was still. You could hear your own heart beat at a pause.

Decker and Holovnia — both ultra athletes training for 100-mile races — run some days for 20 miles or more in the Minnesota River bottoms.

“The snow slows you down a bit,” Holovnia said. “But to be out here right now, running with no one else around, any complaints seem silly.”