Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Snowy pavement, cold temps don't deter these runners

by Alecia Warren
| December 3, 2010 8:00 PM

Like awkward deer, they pluck their legs through the snow drifts, limbs straining for a place to land.

Cheeks reddened like raw meat, their nose and eyes water. Breath puffs out in staccato clouds.

True winter warriors.

It's an exclusive tribe, the outdoor winter runners. Even when the sidewalks are buried and the streets gleaming with ice, they gallop past struggling cars with deliberate steps.

It's tough to explain, said Garth Merrill.

"A lot of people do not like treadmills, so they'll go outside," said Merrill, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Coeur d'Alene and a devoted outdoor runner. "People run for a lot of reasons besides just fitness. A lot of that is the visceral feel of being connected to nature and the world around them, and they want to go out and experience that, regardless of the weather."

The Coeur d'Alene area boasts a good, hardy group of winter sloggers, Merrill said, estimating that up to 45 juggernauts show up for the Winter Warriors running group that takes to the snowy streets three times a week.

Winter conditions absolutely slow a runner's pace, Merrill acknowledged. Carelessness can lead to a slip and smack on the ice. And of course, snowy athletics are cold and wet.

But there's more to it.

With the regional race season at its brief winter close, this season is when most runners temper their training, focusing more on distance than speed.

"That's great, 'cause you can't really run fast," Merrill said.

Like the rest of the world in hibernation, the outdoor runner is forced to slow, the wet and icy streets requiring meditative focus. Usually trails like the Centennial Trail are plowed, so options abound for a jaunt through nature.

In the muffled quiet of the snowbound world, the run is soothing.

"I was at the Fourth of July pass on Sunday. The snow was deep and it took me twice as long to slog 15 miles," Merrill recalled. "But it was so pretty and so quiet, and so different from what you've been seeing the whole rest of the year. It's amazing how a coat of snow can change what is normally really familiar."

Outdoor runners know the snow like Eskimos, which recipe of slush and ice and powder is best to cushion their tread.

Give Tracie Ferris a nice layer of fresh powder any day, she said.

"I love fresh snow, making my first tracks out there," the Coeur d'Alene woman said.

After she joined Winter Warriors three years ago, layered in clothes and with traction devices strapped to her shoes, she couldn't return to the treadmill.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy and thinks I'm going to freeze my lungs or get pneumonia," the 42-year-old said with a laugh, adding that she is addicted to the winter air and scenery. "But I dress for the conditions. Maybe the first 10 minutes can be a little chilly, but once you get moving your body warms up."

Although this is her break period from marathon training, she added, she is convinced that snow running helps with endurance and building muscle.

"It's kind of like running in sand," Ferris said. "You're pushing off more, using more stability muscles. I ran Sunday 10 miles in the snow, and I was more sore than after running a full marathon."

After about 20 years of winter running, Don Witulski says he manages by keeping extra layers in a backpack and curbing his confidence on the ice.

"You almost have to act like you're ice skating. You can't lift your feet up," the Coeur d'Alene resident said. "I've learned that the hard way."

His lonely slog out to Higgens Point in the mornings is ritualistic, Witulski said.

"Going out early in the morning, everything is calm and still," he said. "I like the solitude out there, by myself just running, just watching the sun come up. The earlier I get out, the better."

His spirits are only dampened on days like Wednesday, he said, when temperatures slid just high enough to turn the ice to slush.

"The worst is slush," he said. "Some of these trucks, they just want to see how far they can spray you."

Ferris can get strange reactions from passing drivers as she battles the snow, she said.

She doesn't think twice about it.

"The looks on some faces is shock," she said. "But in my mind, I just think it's jealousy."

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