It’s 4:40 a.m. and Gene Hale’s alarm is going off. It’s still several hours until daylight, and it’s below freezing. But he gets out of bed, puts on a base layer, a hat and a head sock and heads out the door.
“I get to run today,” he’s thinking — this is his positive thought for the day, the thing that gets him out of the door.
He’s training for the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50-mile race on June 14, and to tackle that kind of mileage in a single day, runners have to start training months in advance.
This means running through a Wyoming winter.
“My alarm goes off every morning at 4:40 a.m., so how do you motivate yourself to get up that early and go for a run?” Hale said. “Honestly, I tell people, you have to find one thing, one good, positive thing in that morning and focus on that. Whether that is meeting your training partner, or maybe it is that you are going to get to go see the park in the dark. Whatever that is, you have to find something that works for you. You have to do that every time you wake, that positive thing is going to be your first thought.
“For me, I’m one of those people that for me, I think, ‘I am going to go run today,’” he said.
And he isn’t alone. In a recent discussion on a post on the Bighorn Trail Run Facebook page about training outside on a nine-degree day, runners reported completing 14 miles in six degree-below zero weather, running in deep snow in the Black Hills and training in below-zero temperatures in Minnesota.
At least one user posted a photo of a minor injury, saying simply, “My knee found some ice.”
Trials notwithstanding — or maybe because of them — the training process is as important to many runners as race day itself.
“I find that the beauty on a crisp snowy February day is more comforting than running in the 100-degree heat of July or August,” said Chris Hayden, who is training for the 100-mile distance this year.
This year will bring Hayden full circle for the Bighorn distances — he has completed 50k and 50-mile race distances, both in Utah.
“I’ve always felt that events are won/finished in January and February, rather than on race day,” Hayden said. “Without logging several hundred miles in the winter, chances are slim that you will finish a 100-mile ultra in June.”
Hale said that a training partner for those early, cold winter runs is crucial.
“It is always easier to get out of bed when you’ve got someone who is counting on you to be somewhere,” Hale said. “That keeps you accountable. Another tip is to dress for the weather.”
Hale said he will run outside in any weather, even if it is 20 below, but having quality gear keeps him safe.
“You have to have the right gear to stay warm enough, but you don’t want to be overdressed either, because if you are sweating, you will freeze,” he explained.
Hale said he recommends a good base layer and invested in quality running tights, which may not keep him warm on a 20-below day, but keep him from getting cold.
A base layer that will wick sweat away from you, leaving it between an outer shell and inner layer, is key. Hale also wears two hats on cold days, one normal hat topped with a head sock for extra protection. He also mixes up his workouts and isn’t running every single day.
“In addition to running several times a week, I do workouts on the treadmill, some core exercises and run in the pool,” Hale said.
Hayden tries to overdress, though, to make sure he has all his gear when he heads out for a long run, and sets a mileage goal before leaving the house. He said he wants to be prepared for both the conditions outside and race day when it comes.
He also recommends carrying an extra hat and extra gloves in a running pack.
“These items tend to get wet while you’re running and turn cold,” he said. “There are also times that you may need to double layer.”
Hayden said he signs up for races very early, which serves as motivation through the toughest conditions. He has found a few key trails runnable in the winter, especially Clear Creek in Buffalo. He said he really counts on these for trail run training.
He also builds running into his vacation time.
“I travel to a warmer climate for at least a couple events per year in the winter, which keeps me smiling and interested,” Hayden said.