Winter trail running: The ultimate in resistance

Written on Mar 8th, 2017 by , Category Trail Running, Training

By Barry Hodges

CASHMERE — Only the foolish attempt to maintain their running trail in winter when the forces of nature make it obvious that it’s time to hibernate. You don’t plow a trail like you do a road or snow blow a trail like you do a driveway. You can run through a wooded trail when it’s dusty, muddy, rocky, sandy or leafy, but not when it’s buried in feet upon feet of snow. Such is the state of Central Washington trails right now, just a couple short months before they will need to be uncovered for runners to race on.

Barry Hodges heads up the trail near his home in Cashmere.

The sport of winter trail running is more one of survival than speed. A run isn’t so much measured by pace as it is by stamina against the elements. I’ve withstood the -5 degree temperatures that turn my goatee to instant icicles, the sloppy snow that results in sore quads from slipping sideways, the drifts that cover up my tracks from just the previous day, the storms that have buried the trail altogether, and the ice crust on top of the snow that cause every step of my run to be heard from miles around. I may be running half as fast as I do on normal terrain, but as long as I’m breathing hard and sweating a little bit, I know I’m working about as hard to cover the same distance.

My daily battle against nature is to attempt to run the trail across the street from my house. It’s a pretty steady climb for about a mile-and-a-half, then flattens out the final half mile to a bench that looks down into Cashmere and beyond, up Mission Creek to a sweeping panorama of Cascade vistas toward Leavenworth and the hills leading to the Columbia basin in Wenatchee and the snaking gorge in the distance. To truly conquer the trail, there is a quarter-mile, straight-up climb to the hill’s summit, but that is usually reserved for fairer weather.

Alternating between snowshoes and running shoes this winter, and with the help of other brave trailblazers, the trail has not been closed for the winter. It is so nice to not have to deal with cars, not have to leash the dog and not have to change my starting point from home — I guess that’s why I live here. But a 35-minute run in the summer on the trail recently took me nearly an hour-and-a-half running in snowshoes. Pushing through an inch of ice brought by freezing rain got me to a foot of new powder snow, which rests on an existing two feet of snow. Think of it as the ultimate resistance training. While flailing my arms to go a few inches with my feet, thoughts cross my mind such as, “I wonder what the world record for a mile is … in two feet of snow … or with a two-inch crust of ice, because that person would have totally bruised and bloodied shins.” For the last month or so, thoughts of “When is this winter ever going to end?!” have been a theme.

Runners are already taking to the pavement, braving the ice and snow patches for the chance to finally get something solid finally under their feet. The winter has taken its toll and runners are out for revenge. I have even leashed up the dog and hit the pavement just to remember what normal cadence and solid ground feels like, now that the roads have cleared up a bit.

No need for any leashes during this run.

The melting is occurring at a glacial pace, with the low winter sun and dreary rain peeling away at the layers of snow like a giant slippery onion. The trails will eventually become exposed, a few patches of dirt at a time. The wildflowers will start to bud, insects will emerge and shoe prints will be etched in the earth once again. In four months, the open trail will be dusty and pushing 100 degrees until the fall. The shade of what is now the unrecognizable snow-blanketed paths through the forest will be the only place to go without overheating. It’s hard to envision, but we know it is coming.

In the meantime, when you look at the hills still covered in snow yearning to run on them, know there are those out there battling the elements to try and to make it a year-round sport.

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