Outrunning the polar vortex

Learn to love the cold


When I raced cross-country skiing in high school and college, -4F was the official low cut-off temp for competition. Because of this we spent many weekends standing around in our thin spandex suits freezing our asses off waiting for the mercury to rise a scant millimeter. I don’t remember any spectators at our races, probably because they were all hiding in their cars wishing their child had joined the swim team instead.

We would take turns zipping out and back on the course to warm up (futile, but better than freezing to death in place) and peeing in the bushes (less effort spent heating the water in your bladder means more energy available to heat your toes). It was during those sub-zero races that I learned the insulating value of nose hair and eyelashes, what real lung-burn feels like and how cold is too cold. I also learned the secret to loving winter:

Get outside everyday no matter what and keep moving.

The key to getting myself out the door is a non-judgmental attitude when it comes to weather. Weather is not good or bad. It is guaranteed to happen no matter what I think about it, so I try not to waste my energy thinking about it. A grudge will only slow me down and make my toes colder. I try to go out the door with my shoulders rolled back ready to receive whatever the day gives.

Winter running

Dress based on how confident you are that you’ll be able to keep moving

Running, skiing, hiking or walking in sub zero temps is only dangerous if you are forced to come to a halt. How much cold weather gear you choose to bring with you when you head out the door depends on how much you trust yourself to get back to the door without being forced to stop or slow down along the way. As long as you’re moving, you don’t need much. While I might fetch wood mostly naked I wear a bit more when I head out on to the trails for a run. But not too much more because I don’t like to be a sweaty mess, plus I’ve always had a minimalist streak – I prefer light and fast. Partly because I’m cheap and partly because I like trusting my body as much as my gear.

Here’s what I wore and why this morning on an eight mile ran up and down Cadillac Mountain at AcadiaNational Park. I started at 6am, it was still dark and the thermometer read 1˚F.*

• A neck gaiter is a must for sub zero temps. I like my synthetic Buff

Charlotte on Cadillac

because it is thin enough to breathe through but thick enough to keep my nose, cheeks and ears frost-bite free. When it’s really cold it freezes solid with my breath and creates a wind proof layer over my face – which is just what’s needed when it’s that cold. I also wear a thicker fleece neck warmer around my ears and a pair of Swix ear warmers, because I find most hats don’t come far enough down over my ear lobes. Once you’ve had your ears frost-nipped you’re unlikely to let it happen again.

• Thin, wind proof gloves are less sweaty than fleece mittens and good for adjusting laces and clothing without exposing flesh, but they won’t stay warm if you are forced to slow down. Sometimes I stick a pair of homemade waterproof mitten shells in the back of my underwear as backup. (I made them out of the same silicon-impregnated nylon that I made my tarp-tent out of. Buy a couple yards of this stuff and the possibilities for lightweight cheap, windproof, waterproof homemade gear is endless . . .  ) This morning I opted for windproof fleece mittens and sure enough they were soaked on the inside and frozen solid on the outside by the time I got back to my car.

• When I’m road running I often wear cheap acrylic leg warmers bunched up around my ankles. They keep my feet warm without having to wear thicker socks (which would make my shoes too tight). This morning I wore a pair of short stretchy nylon gaiters to keep the deep snow out.

• The rest of my body is covered by a pair of Patagonia wind proof tights (the same ones I wore under my spandex race uniform 20 years ago**), long and short sleeve wool t-shirts and a water resistant windbreaker with a hood. I consider the tight-fitting hood part of my emergency back up gear.

Bring backup

I admit I like to play the edge on winter gear. I often ski or run a 15+ mile loop around Acadia National Park’s remote carriage roads with no more than my wind breaker tied around my waste. But a wiser athlete would pack one or two instant hand warmers, a space blanket (I saved one from my last marathon for just this purpose) and something sweet into their waist pack. That way, when you accidently end up sideways in a snow bank or limping home into a 30-knot headwind the local police beat will at least report that you were “prepared”. A friend is great backup too, there’s always the get naked and shiver together strategy . . .

Eat your warmth

I pre-fueled this morning’s run with a nice warm baked sweet potato sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder, coconut milk and hazelnuts. I added an extra tablespoon of coconut oil for good measure.

Oil inside, oil outside

Every day in winter I coat myself in oil head to toe. Yup, that’s right, just like Joe Uhan does. I use sesame oil (untoasted!) after every shower  – I feel naked and cold without it.

Never underestimate the value of a Hot Drink

I also always leave a thermos of hot tea in my car for when I’m done. The first few sips are truly life-giving. I find at 0˚F and below I need nearly twice as much water as I do on an average warm (30-60˚F) run. Warm water is absorbed more quickly and will keep your body warm even as you cool down post run. I also leave a change of dry clothes in my car for when I’m done running or skiing. I change right away and it helps me sustain the post-run glow until I can get warmed up inside for real.

If loving winter and cold weather running is just a matter of attitude and gear, I’m not sure why more people aren’t moving to Maine. But a least maybe after this winter’s polar-vortex, more people will fall in love with the cold?

* Some people really LOVE cold weather running. This morning Gary Allen started chasing down the Polar Vortex on his 500 mile run from the summit of Cadillac to New Jersey and the Superbowl (#maine2superbowlrun). He’s raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Read more here or track his run here.

**Have you seen Patagonia’s short film Worn Wear? It’s a fun look at the special bond we create with our most trustworthy gear.

Gary Allen Running #maine2superbowlrun

Gary Allen taking off down the road from the Summit of Cadillac. (Photo by Melissa Ossanna)


5 Comments on “Outrunning the polar vortex

  1. Love the idea of coco on sweet potato. I often put apple sauce or sugarfree apple butter…As always IAdmire your fortitude, I am walking indoors, but still moving…..Love and Light to you and your family.

  2. Nice overview Charlotte! Getting out every day and getting moving really works. I appreciate your advice about clothing.

  3. great advice charlotte, esp neck gaiter. lived in Nome one winter and this was the magic piece of gear. starting into the wind was key also. Mark

  4. Very interesting and informative. I will certainly follow your advice next time I run in sub-zero weather.

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