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6 Lessons Learned From a Hard Run in the Snow

Posted by on Dec 29, 2010 | 12 Comments

Jesse Scott and I decided to take advantage of our holiday break and get in one more long training run.  Being slightly stupid, we decided it would be a good idea to do a long out-and-back completely unsupported on an unknown trail in questionable conditions.  It sounded perfectly logical in the planning phase!

For those that don’t like wordy explanations, here’s a shortened version:

Trail was hard, we hurt a lot.  We made it about 30 miles and learned a lot of lessons.  Scroll down the page to read those lessons.

The Long Version

The plan was to run anywhere from 30 to 50 miles on a portion of the North Country Trail.  The complete trail system extends from New York to North Dakota.  This particular section is somewhere north of Hesperia, Michigan.

Since it was an out-and-back, we would have to carry all needed gear, including food, water, and basic survival gear should we become stranded.  My gear consisted of a Nathan HPL 020 hydration vest, a disposable lighter, space blanket, three Clif bars, about six PowerBar gels, eight miniature Slim Jims, my Fenix flashlight, my camera, phone, and about a gallon of water.  Jesse had similar gear.

We started around 8:00 am with just enough light to illuminate the trail without lights.  The run started okay, but felt a little more difficult than usual.  The snow conditions were odd.  Most of the trails we normally run get a fair amount of traffic and are fairly packed down.  This trail had thin hard crust of snow followed by a layer of fairly dense sand-like fluff and a hard, uneven icy base.  These conditions necessitated a different running technique.  The natural tendency was to slow the foot as soon as it hit the crust.  The foot would break through, push down through the dense fluff, and land on an inconsistent uneven surface.

The experience was somewhat like running on sand, but the uneven frozen layer resulted in a lot of “running by feel”.  We had to relax our foot and legs to contour to the hidden surface, then immediately react to the unevenness.  The net result was an intense workout that required constant attention.  It was like running on a fairly technical trail covered in sand  in complete darkness.

By mile six, I was seriously questioning my own ability to run more than about 10-15 miles on the trails.  At mile 11 or so, we came to a fork.  The left branch continued on the North Country Trail.  The right branch veered off toward a schoolhouse about four miles away.  The trail to the schoolhouse looked as if it had even less traffic than the NCT we had been following.  In a moment of stupidity, we mutually decided to check out the schoolhouse.

As soon as we hit the new trail, I was silently chastising myself.  This trail was significantly more difficult than the previous trail.  A bad situation became even worse about a half mile into the new trail.  I was following Jesse and focusing on his heels.  It’s a winter trail running trick I use… I can see all the imperfections in the base layer by watching how his feet react with the buried hard icy layer.  I looked up to check for the white paint stripes on trees that marked the trail.


I tiny branch scraped across my face and poked me in the right eye!  I continued running about 10 steps as I checked my right contact to make sure it hadn’t moved.  When I opened my eye, I saw severe blurriness… the contact moved.  Shit.  I felt around in my eye expecting it to be off to the side of my pupil.  I didn’t feel it.  At that point, I told Jesse to stop.  There was a very real possibility I lost it.  I continued to feel around for it, asked Jesse to look for it in my eye, and went back and checked in the snow.  Nothing.

I stood there for a minute trying to assess the situation.  Normally I carry a spare contact in my foot care kit (I would highly recommend one for any barefoot/minimalist shoe/trail runner).  However, in an attempt to save weight, I took it out the night before.  I had two choices- keep going or head back.  If I headed back, we’d only get about 23-24 miles… well short of our planned distance.  Even though the trail was much more difficult than expected and I was essentially blind in one eye (I have really bad eyesight), I wanted to keep going.  Jesse and I decided to continue to the schoolhouse and make a decision there.

Running became even more difficult as it was impossible to accurately determine depth since the snow had little or no contrast.  The run was quickly evolving into an unmitigated disaster.  We struggled through the next three miles until we reached a main road.  We were approximately a half mile from the schoolhouse and could not find markers for the next trail section.  We decided to head back.

The return trip was filled with frequent breaks, some walking, and a whole lot of suffering.  I’ll spare the details, but we eventually made it back to his car.  Our final distance was a few yards under 30 miles.  We both agreed it was the most difficult 30 mile run we had ever attempted.  We also agree the contact situation was a good thing- without it we probably would have continued on ever farther; both suffering in silence as we ventured farther and farther before turning around.  When we got back to the car, we assessed our supplies.  We both had some extra water, but our food was pretty much exhausted.  Had we run farther, we would have run out well short of the finish.

After a night of sleep and some quality rest, I definitely feel the effects of the difficult run.  I hurt in places I shouldn’t hurt after running.  My feet, ankles, and knees are pretty beat up from the constant uneven icy base layer.  My leg muscles are pretty sore from the sand-like layer of snow.  My back and shoulders hurt from bad posture from carrying so much gear.

Despite all the negativity, it really was a cool adventure.  It was an excellent learning opportunity and gave us some experiences we would not have gotten on our more frequently-traveled trails.

Lessons Learned

1. If planning a long run, be familiar with trail conditions.  Snow can be horribly unpredictable, which will dramatically affect the energy exerted.  Adjust accordingly.

2. If you wear contacts, always bring at least one spare.

3. Backpacks suck.  If we ever do something like this again (very likely), we will stash supplies along the way.

4. Neither of us make smart decisions.  We both have a tendency to take the most difficult path possible, even when we know it will make a bad run even worse.

5. Feet get wet when running in snow over the ankles.  It is nearly unavoidable in this situation.  While my feet never got cold, the skin was starting to show signs of extended moisture.  Had we been on the trail for a few more hours, the foot situation could have become a serious and issue.

6. Cold weather sucks more than backpacks.  Dress too warm and you sweat, with ultimately makes you colder later in the run.  Dress too cool and you may run into issues with frostbite or hypothermia.  To make clothing estimates more difficult, heat generated by running seems to decrease as the distance increases.  Jesse hypothesized it has to do with an increased reliance on fat utilization after glycogen stores are used up… sounded good to me.

All in all, the run was tough but worthwhile.  A day later, I am already forgetting a good deal of the suffering.  There’s even a part of me that is contemplating our next ill-planned adventure…

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    […] 5k in Grand Rapids, MI; 19:12), run a 50k in 20° weather (HUFF 50k in Huntington, IN), did a 30 mile training run in terrible snowy trail conditions, and did a 20 mile road run.  Between these runs I’ve had countless shorter runs of varying […]

  2. Paul
    December 31, 2010

    I learnt the same lesson for #2. When I completed IM USA in 2003 I had to bike the 180km, and run the full marathon with one contact as I lost one in the swim. A bit difficult in the pouring rain. Also the first and only time it ever happened and first time I didn’t have a spare!

  3. Janice
    December 31, 2010

    What do you put in your foot care kit?

  4. Boris Terzic
    December 29, 2010

    My hats off to you for actually getting out there.

  5. Brandon
    December 29, 2010

    Count me in for your next crazy run. I like a challenge.

  6. Jen
    December 29, 2010

    I’m so impressed that even with the “bad” decisions you still made it through without any major problems. And lessons learned the hard way are sometimes the best. I’m totally impressed.

  7. Sean
    December 29, 2010

    Jason, makes sense… I do enough unsupported stuff that I need to be able to throw on a pack and not be miserable! 🙂 In 9 out of 10 races, I just use a handheld, and sometimes a waste pack, because there is usually enough support along the way.

  8. Jason
    December 29, 2010

    Sean- I used to use the Nathan for all my runs. Since switching to handhelds, the hydration packs are too uncomfortable. Since I don’t use them in races, I try to avoid them in training.

    Frances- that’s a great way to think… too many times we forget to stop and enjoy the scenery.

    Dan- that’s exactly what we SHOULD be doing! 🙂

    Nora- for me, my feet warm up after about a mile or two. As long as I keep moving, the heat generated keeps my feet relatively comfortable. Stopping is bad, though…

  9. Nora
    December 29, 2010

    I am in AWE of those who can run in these conditions. I just can’t seem to do it. My toes go numb and we haven’t even had snow yet!! I’ll be releasing the footsies when I can.

  10. Ramblin' Dan
    December 29, 2010

    I’m just beginning to acclimate to cold weather running in minimalist footwear. We had a major snow storm in Philadelphia on Sunday. Yesterday was my first adventure in running in the snow. As you say, wet feet are a given. My strategy was to run close to home, up and down neighborhood streets, in case I got into trouble. Of course, that’s only practical for shorter runs.

  11. Frances aka "Barefoot Fresca"
    December 29, 2010

    In a way, I love being a “beginner” because my little 3-mile runs have been so comfortable and wonderful this winter. I can overdress and it doesn’t hurt. Feet get wet, and it’s okay because I’m not out there long enough to do any damage. I’m going to enjoy this time as a beginner!

  12. Sean
    December 29, 2010

    Why do you say the backpacks suck? They certainly take some getting used to, but when you are going long and/or unsupported, they are necessary. I use te Ultimate Direction Wasp, which looks almost identical to your Nathan, and while it’s definitely noticeable, it’s not too bad. I’ve been able to do 13-14 hours unsupported with it.