In 2020, I stumbled across a race called The Drift while browsing through ultras. The event caught my attention as it was different from any other race I’d ever encountered. The Drift takes place along the Continental Divide in the Wind River Range of Wyoming… in the winter! Negative temperatures, fierce winds and wild snowstorms are not only possible during The Drift, but probable. I have since learned that there are several races like this. They are niche events that require a specific type of grit and resolve to press the register button. I was captivated by the idea of running through harsh winter elements and the training that would be involved to prepare for the challenges. In 2020 I was not physically or mentally ready to enter The Drift. The idea of running in the winter fascinated me, but also intimidated me. Still, I never stopped thinking about that race. Several years later, I evolved into a runner with a passion for moving through extreme environments and moved to Wyoming where The Drift is located. Shortly after unpacking I sat at my computer and typed The Drift 28 into the search bar… a few screens later I clicked register. The hardest part, making the commitment, was over. Next I needed to solve the training puzzle!
I decided early on that to prepare for The Drift 28 I would need to focus on specific training for the variety of conditions I might encounter on race day. The goal was to gain snow specific fitness, decision making prowess and confidence by exposing myself to a diversity of race day scenarios. The Drift course is on a snowmobile track and I have the benefit of living near similar snowy trails. Some folks might not have this advantage and will likely need to train in a very different fashion than I did. However, even if an athlete has regular access to a snowy surface, training for a winter race is not as simple as logging snow miles arbitrarily. There are many details that need to be considered when developing a training strategy for this kind of specialized race.
In this article I will cover a broad array of subjects including winter gear, snow running, movement in negative temperature, and safety. Winter trail races are complex and my aim is to demystify training for these unique winter running events.
Keep in mind that winter running can be a dangerous activity with many risks and should not be taken lightly. The following details techniques and methods that worked well for me. Your own personal risk tolerance and experience level must be taken into account before proceeding with any of the training methods/suggestions listed below.
The Winter Kit
Winter conditions can range from delightfully chilly to deathly bitter and sometimes both within the same hour! It is worth carrying the extra weight of additional layers that can be mixed and matched to create the best temperature regulation system. In addition to a variety of layering options also consider the following:
Mittens: The extremities lose heat quickly in the cold and separating the fingers in gloves can often lead to icy digits when the mercury drops. I suggest carrying mittens in addition to gloves or a glove that converts into a mitten. In general, I always have two coverings for my hands regardless. Fingers can easily get frostbite and I like having options to protect them.
Vest: I often find myself wearing a softshell vest during brisk days in the winter when it’s too cold to just wear my base layer, but too warm for a full jacket. It keeps heat in my core without causing excess sweat. On frigid days I will wear both the vest and jacket.
Face covering: There are several options out there to protect your face from severe weather. I personally like to wear a shirt with a large collar that can be pulled up over my face when needed. You can also use a neck gaiter, ski mask, scarf, etc. The goal is to protect your facial skin (and lungs) from the cold and wind.
Dark sunglasses: Snow is obscenely bright even on a cloudy day! A good pair of dark sunglasses or goggles will protect your vision. Glasses will also shield your eyes in blizzard conditions when the snow is coming at your face like a bunch of tiny needles. I prefer sunglasses with transitional lenses for varying light conditions that wrap a bit further around my face to prevent light (and needle snow) from coming in on the sides. I personally do not use polarized lenses because I like to see the glare of ice. Another critical feature is good ventilation as you might need to cover your face at some point. Note that sometimes in extremely cold conditions glasses will fog no matter how many vents and anti-fog coatings they have. One day my glasses fogged and then the moisture froze!
Sunblock: Going with the theme of winter’s powerful sun, sunblock and lip balm are two other important items. Use these products even if it’s cloudy. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was fine and then had the most amazing raccoon tan after taking my sunglasses off.
Traction: Snow and ice can be slippery and you might need a little more than the tread on your shoes to stay upright! The most basic traction devices are spikes which act like tire chains for your shoes. There are a variety of options to choose from in this category, but they simply slide onto your shoe and offer grip in slick conditions. When they’re not needed you can simply take them off. The drawback of spikes is the weight. A lighter, semi-permanent option is to literally install screws into your trail runners for traction. There are many websites with instructions on how to do this. The benefit of screws is they are lighter weight and can be removed when the snow melts. Finally, several companies make winter trail runners with tungsten alloy spikes built into the soles.
Gaiters: Sure, you can wear Gore-Tex shoes, but snow will inevitably work its way over the top resulting in wet feet! Purchasing a winter specific trail runner with a built-in gaiter or simply strapping gaiters over all-season shoes will keep the snow out and your feet warm.
Winter running carries with it the risk of exposure. It is tremendously important to monitor your sweat output and adjust your layers accordingly sooner rather than later. Nothing will freeze you faster than running around in drenched layers when the windchill is -10F!
Additionally, I highly recommend carrying an extra insulating layer (like a puffy coat), emergency bivy, hand warmers and satellite communication device in addition to the cold gear mentioned in the above section. These items are part of my kit whenever I venture out on trails during any season, but become especially important in the winter when hypothermia and frostbite are a very real threat. Finally, let someone know where you’re going and when you will return. This is always a good idea when you go trail running, but holds additional importance if you are going to run through wind, cold and snow. Winter is not forgiving.
Leave your Ego at the Trailhead
Perhaps the very first lesson I learned when I began training for The Drift was to check my ego at the trailhead. There is a forest service road near my house that I use regularly for hill work during the warmer months. When the snow falls this same route is groomed for snowmobiles making it the perfect venue for specific training. I can vividly recall attempting to mimic my “snow-free” pace up the route and promptly hyperventilating 45 seconds later. On dry ground, my endurance pace uphill on the route was about 11-minute miles at rate of perceived exertion (RPE) 5-6. Now that same pace was RPE 10+ and not even sustainable for a full minute. Running on any snow will slow you down! I had to let go of any notion of how fast I’d previously run up the hill and completely focus on RPE. That meant uphill running and power hiking at paces ranging between 13 to 18 minutes per mile and an RPE (relative perceived effort) of 5-7 depending on snow conditions. A bruise to the ego for sure, but slowing down meant I was able to move constantly and efficiently which was faster overall than the start/stop pattern of my previous pacing.
Typically, when you train for a race, you have a pretty good idea of what the surface will be like. Snow conditions are a bit harder to predict even when the route is on a groomed snowmobile trail. Therefore, during training I made an effort to expose myself to an array of circumstances. The goal was to give myself the experience and confidence to run on whatever snow surface I found on race day. This included:
- freshly groomed snow
- frozen, hard packed snow
- punchy wind slabs
- powdery drifts
- sun exposed slushy snow
- fresh snow on top of an old groomed track
No two snow years are alike! In all likelihood, conditions encountered on a winter course will not be apparent until the day of the event. Even closer to the race it is difficult to selectively train for specifics as the snow surface structure will depend on the temperature and precipitation that occurs in the direct lead up to the race and by then you’re tapering! Plus, winter courses will often feature several different types of snow depending on the aspect, shade, sun exposure, wind, etc. The possibility of the groomer breaking down right before the race also exists! Consequently, preparing for multiple scenarios is crucial during training. I also recommend following the weather patterns very carefully during the two weeks leading up to the race. This will give you a hint of what you might encounter on the trail on race day so you can mentally prepare. Regardless, be ready for anything!
Running in The Negatives (true and wind chill)
Everyone has their own personal definition of what constitutes extreme cold. For me it is anything under -10F (windchill or true). For others it may be more or less. In most cases, running in the cold is often done as a necessity. Not many folks seek out training in freezing weather! However, when training for The Drift, running in unbearable cold became part of my specific training. I hoped to not only gain
experience enduring the cold, but to also learn what I personally needed to do to combat the icy blast. Running in extreme cold should never be taken lightly as hypothermia is a very real and deadly risk. If you’re new to this type of training it is better to run laps near your car or house in case you need to bail out. It takes some time to dial in your kit and learn to cope. With experience you can begin to venture further, but always carry the emergency items mentioned earlier.
Training in extremely cold weather taught me the importance of getting my layers correct the first time in order to avoid frostbite and hypothermia. If I began with too many layers, I would begin to sweat heavily a few minutes in. Conversely, if I began with too few layers I would feel like an icicle and never warm up no matter how fast I ran. In either case layer adjustments posed a problem: if I stopped to switch layers I would turn into an instant popsicle! I attempted to switch clothes a few times in <-10F and froze so much I ended up sprinting back to the car and driving home instead. I felt chilled for at least an hour afterward! In these temperatures stopping was not an option for me. I learned to run a lap or two around the trailhead parking area before venturing further to make sure I got everything right! I also began to closely observe the temperature and cloud cover before leaving my car and learned from trial and error exactly what layers I needed for nearly all situations.
Running in the negatives presents additional risks aside from the obvious danger of hypothermia and frostbite. Breathing in cold air can reduce you to a coughing fit and for good reason. In this article written by Deb Balzer, Dr. Aryan Shiari explains that “cold dry air can enter your lungs and cause irritation, leading to bronchospasm that could cause that tightening sensation of the chest.” Breathing through your nose, instead of your mouth can help alleviate this problem, but that’s often difficult to do while running. In fact, my body seems to naturally convert to nose breathing when it gets really cold. Then I find myself short of breath because I cannot get enough oxygen to sustain my energy output. This is my cue to pull up the collar of my shirt over my mouth. Covering your mouth with your shirt, neck gaiter, scarf or similar item helps warm the air before it enters your mouth which reduces lung irritation.
Winter often conjures thoughts of cold, but that’s not always the case. It can be 10F outside and feel like 40F on a clear, sunny day! Even then the temperatures will vary depending on whether or not you happen to be running in the shade. Temperatures also change throughout the day especially in the hours around dawn and dusk.
Temperature fluctuation must be adapted to with great intention during the winter. I previously mentioned sweat management in an earlier section, but it is worth revisiting. It is all too easy to leave on your warmer layers as the sun shines overhead. It’s warm out so the increasing amount of sweat building under all those jackets isn’t such a big deal. The temperature is mild after all, so why waste time stopping to take layers off? Two reasons: heat exhaustion and hypothermia.
Sun is powerful in the winter! It is not only shining down from the sky, but also reflecting back up from the brilliantly white snow. Heat exhaustion can absolutely happen in the winter! Adjust layers to avoid overheating!
Conversely, you might feel mildly uncomfortable running in the sunshine with a sweaty shirt, but you could round a bend and find yourself in a headwind! Windchill can drastically reduce the temperature feel and suddenly that mildly annoying sweaty shirt is causing you to shiver violently. Or, more subtlety, you can run from an open meadow into a shaded forest. Also, running naturally creates air flow over your body which is like wind. Therefore, if you run into shade there will be a self-created windchill in addition to a temperature drop. It is worth the time to stop and change your layers to reduce sweat build up (elimination is impossible)! In order to avoid multiple stops, you can first attempt to regulate sweat by removing (or putting on) gloves and a hat. These items can help dump or retain heat without much effort and sometimes are enough to achieve temperature homeostasis.
Storms, Precipitation and Wind
Storms, wind and precipitation are always a possibility for races in any season. The discomfort these elements can bring are exaggerated in winter because severe weather events are more frequent, the temperature lower and the precipitation is often snow. A great deal of tenacity, confidence, navigation savvy and knowledge of the correct gear to use in these less than savory conditions is essential during a winter race. Choosing to run in these conditions was a critical component of my training. In fact, I would intentionally plan runs during winter storm warnings.
It should be noted that I am an experienced alpinist and have spent over a decade navigating through mountains in winter during horrendous weather conditions. I felt very confident going on a few solo training runs timed to coincide with storms. However, this is not something I would suggest unless you have the appropriate outdoor background. You can run around the parking lot in the storm or up and down a quarter mile of road if you are new to winter storm running. More ideally, find a willing experienced winter athlete and train with them in a storm.
Navigation is also a critical skill when running through winter storms. Sometimes wind and snow are so intense that they result in a whiteout. Running through a whiteout is like running in a ping pong ball. You can’t tell if you’re going up or down, left or right, etc. You may experience vertigo. You may not be able to see hazards like cliffs. Having the ability to stay on track using a GPS is a winter survival skill. Learn the skill in a warmer environment before venturing out on winter trail runs and especially before running in a storm. Fumbling around in -5F trying to learn how to read topo lines is not ideal! Additionally, extreme cold can cause electronics to fail, so keep items like your phone (which will likely also be your GPS device) in an inside pocket or with a hand warmer.
Winter trail races are undoubtedly intimidating events. However, with creative and intentionally specific training along with the right kit the unknowns inherent in winter events can become manageable and even exciting to troubleshoot. The Drift 28 Miler Run 2023 edition ended up featuring some of the roughest course conditions to date. At the start my car read -4F (others reported -11F), but the 20mph headwind brought the windchill value down to -25F. About 90% of the course was not recently groomed and a winter storm that occurred two days prior (during the 100-mile version of The Drift) left snow conditions on the course soft and slow. By mid-morning temperatures had warmed to 8F and the sun radiated powerfully overhead making the trail even softer. Exposing myself to a variety of conditions during race preparation paid big dividends. Every single obstacle I encountered during the race was familiar to me from training which allowed me to strategically persevere throughout the day. As a bonus, the training gave me confidence during the race and provided a huge mental boost as well. I cannot recall having a single low point even during the most rigorous sections. The hours of suffering in the lead up to the event allowed me to suffer with tenacity and thoughtfulness on the course and was 100% worth the effort!
Dandelion Dilluvio-Scott is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about her or to work with her, check out her coach profile.