How do you train to race when it’s too cold to even step outside? Max White talks about what it’s like to run in New England winters.
29/19, 26/2, 14/2, 27/2, 38/24, 56/29, 29/9, 22/7, 30/19, 37/18, 59/34. Those were the high and low temperatures in Boston, Massachusetts, for the first eleven days of 2013. Four days with lows in the single digits, two days with highs approaching sixty, three days with snow, three days with rain, including one day with a thunderstorm that wouldn’t be out of place on Cape Cod in July.
The snow fell, the snow turned to ice, the ice transformed sidewalks into skating rinks, it all melted, and then it happened again. Twice so far this month we’ve had dew points approaching 60 degrees, the point at which the air is sufficiently saturated to make outdoor activities too muggy or sticky to be comfortable for many people. Dew points don’t usually approach this level until the middle of June. As I write this column on the night of January 12, the temperature is finally a seasonably dry and chilly 39 degrees. It’s about time.
Unstable and unpredictable temperatures are only one of the many challenges that confront runners who train during New England winters. Icy and crowded sidewalks, snowbanks, howling winds, and snowed over tracks and trails also make New England winter running one of the more harrowing recreational sports enjoyed by scores of otherwise ordinary people.
In fact, almost all of the region’s most accomplished amateur runners work regular jobs and have regular social lives. They walk among you, revealing themselves only on race day, when they push their bodies to their physical limits. Many don’t even stick around for post-race awards, either because they’re on an extended cooldown to pad their mileage totals or they have somewhere more important to be. These runners put the “amateur” in amateur athletics, but their dedication and effort is every bit as significant as the professional runners who populate Olympic teams and receive substantial appearance fees just for showing up to a major marathon.
My point with these first few paragraphs is not to belabor the obvious or valorize recreational runners (although competitive running could be far more engaging to non-runner viewers with better television and event production). My point is to demonstrate that training through a New England winter (and similar conditions in the upper Midwest and mid-Atlantic) is as much about a runner’s mental and emotional approach to training as it is about physically getting out the door and running.
My own experiences with a variety of New England winters bear out this argument: I’ve gotten into top shape during relentlessly snowy winters, and struggled to maintain my base fitness over extended stretches of mild conditions. What I’ve consistently discovered is that successful training depends primarily on my motivation to train, and only secondarily on external conditions and factors outside of my control.
Of course, motivation is a complicated beast. When I was 22 and fresh out of undergrad, new to Boston and just getting my feet under me as an adult, it was easy to set aside two hours a day for running, cross-training, and any other activities I might need to do to improve my fitness. I didn’t have many friends and my workload was light, so there was essentially no limit to the energy that I could devote to training. The endeavor was new and exciting, and I spent entire workdays looking forward to training runs.
That winter wasn’t especially bad, but there were a couple of significant snowstorms, including a nasty one that turned the city into a sheet of ice for three days. I endured the conditions and ran a personal best half-marathon that March.
I got into the best shape of my life when I was 25 and beginning my PhD research, despite a bitterly cold winter that necessitated several layers, top and bottom, almost every day of the season. Coming out of master’s coursework with newfound free time in the evenings, I was able to increase my mileage and introduce secondary workouts each week. More importantly, though, a cohort of runners developed within my running group, and we all pushed each other to train more and run faster. Success was contagious and we pushed each other relentlessly. My training partners motivated me and (I hope) I motivated them.
More recently, I’ve struggled to stay motivated to train through the winter. Boston experienced several large snowstorms last year, including the infamous Winter Storm Nemo, which dropped 25 inches of snow on Logan Airport. I remember opening my back door to shovel a hole in the snowdrift just so I could step out the door and begin to shovel said snowdrift. I didn’t run that day.
I ran 41 miles this week. That total would have been a cut-down week in years past, but it’s one of my better since mid-October. I didn’t train at all over Thanksgiving. My fiancé and I spent a few days with her parents, it was brutally cold, and sitting around the house with my soon-to-be in-laws seemed more rewarding than struggling to put in an easy hour of running. I’ve never been more satisfied with my life.
I don’t mean to suggest, here, that being very much out of racing shape and twenty-five pounds over racing weight is in any way desirable, or inherently rewarding. There is no correlation between my declining fitness and increasing personal happiness. What I’ve recently begun to understand, though, is the evolution of my training motives. Whereas in years past I was motivated to train because I was bored and lonely, I’m motivated to train now because the rest of my life is going well and I want to extend that success to my running. In fact, I think I might finally be hitting the tipping point at which my motivation is increasing and I’m ready to put more effort into my training again.
Recently, all of that effort’s been going into my dissertation, which I plan to defend in April, and into spending more time than ever with Sandy, my fiancé, who I will finally get to marry in May 2015. These activities satisfy me, and make me happy.
Contrary to Marty Liquori’s reported claim that “Happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile,” I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect happy people to be just as capable as sad people of performing to the greatest extent of their abilities, a fact born out by Alberto Salazar’s victory at the Comrades Ultramarathon after he began taking Prozac. And while we’re at it, let’s note that most runners won’t run a 3:47 mile (or, more to the point, become professional athletes), whether they’re happy or not.
The cold, gray, snowy winter months can present many difficulties for runners looking to drop their race times. With the right motivation, though, most every obstacle can be overcome. From amateur to professional, fast to slow, motivation is critical for every runner to succeed. Hopefully, 2014 brings you all the motivation you need to run faster than ever.
Photo: AP/Nam Y. Huh