Solace of Running Cold

Day break
Sara Russell

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Winter seemed as good a time as any to commence training for a fast marathon, while living in Anchorage, Alaska. With temps averaging between -6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the daylight hours of 10am-3pm, it was perhaps a more prudent time to cozy up to an off-season or to reintroduce the treadmill back into my life, rather than risking a host of cold-related injuries and suffering.

Yet, winter running was calling my name louder than the solace of easy things. So, I surrendered.

Make no mistake that my allure to cold has never been in vain, nor to be contrary. I am not an influencer and prefer to keep my specific training and goals mostly to myself. I simply love the discipline, focus, and momentum of training, and the trials of winter training bring out my fiercest and favorite version of myself.

Indeed, my draw to cold is one rooted in dizzying contrasts. Cold makes me feel at home in the same way the smell of sunscreen reminds me of summer. In cold, there is a stoic stillness and a vibrant intensity. The world is softer, draped in delicate blankets of snow while jagged sharp frost cuts my fingers, freezes my nostrils and incites automatic recoil. Cold breeds in me a fear of trying, yet propels me forward relentlessly. In cold, I cannot stop, linger, or procrastinate; I only have the option to continue moving forward.

In cold, I find I will not and cannot fail.

I became mindful of my love affair with running cold during a half marathon in Willow, Alaska – an event that started and ended before the sun came up a few days prior to the Winter Solstice this past December. The Willow half is a yearly race put on by local residents to honor the end of the darkest dark and welcome the coming of light. As I entered the warm community center housing the race start, I was enveloped in a palpable energy and sheer giddiness exuded by participants and volunteers (inarguably a harder task than running). Simply put, people were eager to run. In freezing temperatures. In the dark. And I realized, actually, so was I.

The usual pre-race rituals ensued: pinning of numbers, nervous chatter, discussion of upcoming ultras, fiddling with shoes. There was something missing at this race, though. Absent was bemoaning of conditions and the mutters of complaints common at the start of other races. Rather, the Alaskans embraced the opportunity to be cold in fresh snow, and even, it seemed, excited about it. The closest approximation of anxiety or complaint was a man wondering aloud if his wool kilt would be too warm in the 9-degree day (it wasn’t).

We all made our way to the line drawn in the snow, and with a casual call of “go!” by the race director, we were off. A 6-inch dusting of snow, my first few steps felt wobbly and a bit slick. As headlamps clicked on, the gentle fog made from hot breath meeting cold air illuminated an ethereal world, with 50 or so of us shuffling forward into the heart of winter.

I assumed the course would let up, that the perfect crunch of cold frost would appear. After five minutes and a half mile with more of the same, it was clear this day was going to be painful in a new way. Within a mile, my ankles were rolling, my feet splayed out in front of me and the rest of my body jerked around at awkward angles in response. My arches ached by 5k, not used to such a soft surface and erratic motion. For a second, those all-too-familiar lazy mean girl voices entered my brain. “What’s the point of this?” they provoked. The coward voices inspired to chime in whispered, “Is this even a good idea? Are you giving yourself an injury?” And at last, the critical coach piped up, “Couldn’t you be getting a better workout on the treadmill?”

I know those voices well, but during this morning something about my cold surroundings quelled the voices, replacing them with chilling, stunning, expansiveness. I surrendered my ego, my doubt, and my negativity to the cold that morning, and to my favor, the voices followed. I was entranced by the exquisiteness of winter’s color palette, a world in black and white encroached upon by a brilliant blue as the threat of light approached the horizon. I allowed myself to be hypnotized by the symphony of squeaky snow and rhythmic breathing interspersed with wide silence.

And, I continued.

I shuffled.

I slid.

I smiled.

I cheered.

I marveled, I reveled, and I fully enjoyed each step, sloppy and painful as they were.

Cold was a sage teacher that morning, bestowing on me lessons I’ll carry through the spring, in marathon training and beyond.

In that morning, cold taught me that my own inertia determines my circumstance. Cold reminded me that despite discomfort, I have the power to create my experience via action and thought. Cold showed me that I’m tough, that I’m relentless, and most beautifully, that I’m alive.

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Sara Russell

Sara Russell

Sara is a smiling road and trail runner, who loves the discipline and rigor of running fast as much as the splendor of marveling at trees while running slowly. She loves to train and push her limits, meander listlessly, and pace her friends who run crazy distances in equal measure.Sara has a background in education and has been a classroom teacher, backcountry wilderness instructor, and has led immersive educational programs in Nepal, India, Peru, and Guatemala. Sara currently works as an independent curriculum developer, global education writer, and coach. She is a staunch girl power enthusiast and is driven daily to create a better world for girls everywhere. Outside of work and running, Sara loves to meet humans and dogs of the world, experiment in the kitchen, and frolic in hot springs.

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