By Clark Fair
I awoke at 4 o’clock on the morning of a race and struggled to get back to sleep because I was worried about whether I was capable of finishing the event, and, given the conditions outside, whether I was capable of even surviving.
My running partner, Yvonne Leutwyler, and I had spent the night with friends (and race organizers) Andrea Hambach and Dave Johnston in Willow for the Dec. 22 inaugural Willow Winter Solstice marathon/half-marathon. At 6:30 a.m., their outdoor thermometer read minus 32 degrees. The clear dark skies were pinpricked with stars. We were about three miles from the race venue and at least four hours from sunrise. Normal, rational people would not have ventured outside on a day like this. They would have cranked up wood stoves, snuggled under wool blankets or wiggled their tootsies inside of fuzzy slippers — but not us. We planned to run in it.
For Yvonne and I, that meant 13.1 miles of ice and hard-packed snow mainly across a series of low-lying lakes, starting at the Willow Community Center on the western shore of Willow Lake. This would be the longest run of my life — if I made it — and, by far, the coldest.
About 50 percent of the 31-person field would be joining us for the half-marathon. The rest would be running the full-meal deal — 26.2 miles, all the way to a tiny island on Red Shirt Lake (in the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area) and then back again. (The marathoners, obviously, were the real crazy ones.)
The route had been constructed and groomed with snowmachines operated by members of the Willow Trail Committee, and the trails had firmed up nicely in the subzero weather. We would run the width of Willow Lake, a quarter mile of back road, a pond-and-swamp system known as Emsweiler Lake, nearly the full length of the aptly named Long Lake, up and down a small hill to reach and cross Crystal Lake, then another swamp to gain access to the full length of Vera Lake, and a patch of woods leading to the Willow Swamp, where a well-insulated Dave would be waiting at the half-marathon turnaround point with a bonfire, a clipboard to record bib numbers, a few samples of GU, some water, emergency gear and a smattering of extra clothes.
After breakfast (a cup of yogurt with half of a banana and some whole-wheat cereal, chased down with two cups of hot coffee), the layering began. From the waist up I wore an ultralight, long-underwear-style T-shirt, a medium-weight North Face long-sleeved running shirt, an old lightweight fleece long-sleeved hiking shirt, a thin down-filled Patagonia jacket, and an ultralightweight Patagonia Houdini shell. On my back, I carried a CamelBak hydration pack with a half-full, 100-milliliter reservoir and a feeder tube, the end of which I stuffed beneath the outer three layers of clothes. Inside the pack were snack bars, tiny earmuffs, toilet paper, a headlamp, a paper painting mask and some matches.
Over my head went a fleece neck gaiter and a thin Buff. On top of my head was my
trusty old fleece Mountain Hardwear hat. On my hands were ancient, tattered pile-fleece mittens, each containing two hand-warming chemical heat packs — one for each set of four fingers, and one for each thumb. At the community center, I added a half-wide strip of dark blue duct tape across the bridge of my nose and tops of both cheeks, and a second smaller strip near the tip of my nose. (I made the error of allowing about a quarter inch of nose tip to protrude from beneath the second strip.)
From the waist down, the layers were fewer. Beneath my Mountain Hardwear skiing pants with Gore Windstopper, I wore a pair of cotton briefs and the bottoms that went with the ultralight long-underwear-style top. On my feet I wore a thin pair of calf-high liner socks and an over-the-ankle pair of blue-and-yellow running socks, topped by adhesive toe-warmer strips, my almost brand-new Ice Bug cleated running shoes, and the neoprene gaiters that Yvonne had recently made for me.
Yvonne, who is tougher than I am (and far more experienced in cold weather), was dressed similarly but with fewer layers on top and more on the bottom. And when she told me that we were going to be fine, I believed her.
At the community center, we met my brother Lowell, whom I had convinced a few days earlier to sign up for the race. He was eyeballing the other runners in the large main room, silently pleased that he wasn’t the only idiot about to venture into the deep freeze.
Lowell had talked about sticking with me and Yvonne for at least the first half of the
race, but halfway across Willow Lake he was already putting distance between us. And even though he somehow managed to miss Dave’s trail-side bonfire and run perhaps an extra half-mile in each direction, he still finished almost 25 minutes before we did.
One of the real challenges of the race involved the mind-set needed to step outside in the first place. If it was 70 degrees inside the community center and minus 30 outdoors, each runner would experience a 100-degree shift in temperature just prior to race start. Consequently, Andrea made sure to go over the race rules and safety protocols while we were indoors, and after she herded us outside she kept the preliminaries to a minimum. Within two or three minutes, we were tromping down the narrow, shoveled path and through a fog of human breath to the wider race course on the lake.
The course was beautiful in the way that monkshood is beautiful — deadly if misapplied. Yvonne and I mostly jogged, content in the early gloom to find a comfortable pace and stick with it. Over the two hours and 45 minutes we were out there, the sky lightened almost imperceptibly, and the sun crested the horizon at about the eight- or nine-mile mark.
As we ran, I tried to keep my neck gaiter up over my nose and mouth, but my breath formed ice on the material, adding weight to the fabric and causing it to sag. When my lips were uncovered for long, they stopped functioning correctly. I was sweating beneath my top layers and producing visible frost on my bottom layers. My breath shooting upward past my neck gaiter frosted my eyelashes. My hands were mostly warm, although my mittens later grew wet from perspiration, causing them to freeze hard enough that I could knock them together like blocks of wood.
I stopped once in each direction to pee. (Blame the coffee.) Yvonne and I also stopped at the turnaround to chat with Dave, eat a packet of GU, and drink a cup of water. Dave examined my nose and decided it needed more protection, so he slid a black headband over my fleece hat and directly onto the middle of my face. On the front of the band were the white words “Will Run for Beer.”
As we jogged back toward the community center, the extra face protection forced more warm breath into my eyes and produced a curtain of ice on my lashes. Every 15 minutes or so, I used a bare hand to gently squeeze the ice clumps and pull them away. Yvonne, with her longer lashes, was practically blinded at times by the same condition.
Recrossing Willow Lake was exhilarating because I knew I would finish the race and fail to die. Beneath layers of face protection and a veneer of frost, I was smiling as Yvonne and I reached the shoveled trail back to the community center, where Andrea was standing with her clipboard, a stopwatch and a camera. She snapped a photo of us running the last few yards together, and then dutifully recorded our times before joining us indoors.
Inside, I began peeling off wet and frosty clothes. Off came my hat, Dave’s headband, my Buff, my neck gaiter — all of them crusty with ice. All of my layers above the waist were wet, so I removed them all to air out for a few minutes before donning something clean and dry. Then we warmed up with hot spiced cider and helpings of Dave and Andrea’s homemade chicken noodle soup and butternut squash chili, each simmering in its own Crock Pot next to an assortment of Saltines.
I slept much better the night after the race. The tip of my nose was red and sore and threatening to peel, but nearly everything else felt good, particularly my self-esteem. I’m not sure that I want to repeat the experience, but it’s nice to know that I can.