Mark Sutcliffe: My Running Life Yuck: Winter. Yay: Winter running.

Yuck: Winter. Yay: Winter running.


I hate winter. But I love winter running. Here’s why, as I once wrote in my column in the Ottawa Citizen.

I hate the cold. I hate the snow and the slush. I hate the extra clothes you have to wear, the layers, the heavy boots. I hate shoveling and scraping. From Christmas until baseball season, I do whatever I can to avoid going outside. My main ambition in life is to find a way to be somewhere else for the first four months of every year.

At this point every year, people close to me begin to be subjected to six months of whining. During my regular shivery rants about winter, my father would always say, “But you’re a Canadian.” To which I would point out that I had no choice in being a Canadian, whereas he, someone born in a less wintry country, did. Then I would scowl, put on my parka and go home.

All of which make this fact all the more peculiar: I love winter running.

Learning this was as much a surprise to me as if I had suddenly discovered that I loved brussels sprouts. If 10 years ago, you took me in a time machine to see my future self jogging in -20C weather, I would have assumed that 21st Century me had been sent to some kind of forced-labour camp.

Five or six years ago, I was a fair-weather runner. If I managed an outdoor run on one nice day in March, I thought I was being hardy. In the winter months, I exercised indoors, the way God intended.

Running on a treadmill was warmer than running outside, but I found it to be as boring as the neutral-zone trap. If you think time is moving too quickly in your life, just get on a treadmill for half an hour. It’s amazing how long even a minute can seem. I was constantly playing games with myself to avoid looking at the clock. Just stare straight ahead and don’t look down for 10 minutes, I would tell myself. Then I would run for what seemed like 15 minutes, sneak a peek at the timer and find out it was only five.

When I started training for my first marathon, the long runs began in January. At first, I tried to figure out how I could do most of them indoors. The problem is that, at most gyms, you can’t use a treadmill for more than 30 minutes at a time.

A few people said to me, try running outside, you’ll love it. That’s not possible, I said.

Having no other choice, though, I joined a running group to prepare for the marathon. I went shopping for winter running clothes. I bought a pair of running pants, a few long-sleeve shirts, a hat and something to cover my neck, mouth and nose. I now had a complete outfit that made me look like a cat burglar. I learned, for the first time, about fabrics that “wick away” moisture. I learned that “wick” had another meaning unrelated to candles.

I started running with a friend in sub-zero temperatures. We did a couple of short early-morning runs when the temperature was -25, and another on a mid-January morning that was -30, with a windchill factor of -41.

What I learned very quickly was that, no matter what the temperature, 10 minutes into the run, I felt comfortable. The wind was sometimes frustrating, but the freezing temperatures stopped being an issue as soon as you were warmed up. I started to feel like I was tougher than I had thought, like I was withstanding winter conditions that normally made me cower.

A month later came the big test: a 26k group run on a Sunday morning with blowing snow and a windchill of -35. The wind was so strong that I was almost knocked over once or twice. My running partners and I were pelted with snow and ice. When I finished, I thought, if I can do this, I can do a marathon. Since then, I’ve become a committed year-round runner. I run as often in February as I do in August.

As a reader once pointed out to me, there is no bad weather for running, only the wrong clothes. You have to adjust your pace sometimes and change your stride if it’s slippery. You also have to take extra precautions, like making sure you have a cellphone or at least a quarter for a payphone. You don’t want to get hurt 10k from your house and have to hobble home in sub-zero temperatures.

I still prefer running in the spring and fall and early and late on hot summer days. But I’ve gone from being a fair-weather runner to being someone who sees the elements as a welcome challenge. After a winter run, I regularly get home with a steaming head and icicles on my earlobes and eyebrows and a feeling like I’ve conquered the Canadian elements.

I’ve learned to love winter running, but I still hate winter. I’m still dreaming of a condo in a warm place.