Friday, February 25, 2011

Living and Training in Snow Country

I grew up in southern California, 20 minutes from the beach. With only a 20-degree temperature swing between summer and winter, I was a child without seasons.

Considering this, I think I've adapted fairly well to a climate which receives an average of 30 feet of snowfall per year. To be sure, I love the mountains. We get very little rain (most of our precip comes as snow), and if it's not absolutely dumping outside, it's sunny. Friends in the valley complain of the fog and how they haven't seen the sun in weeks, while I wouldn't dare leave the house without my sunglasses for fear of snow blindness.

Here in the Sierra, we lack the frigid temps of the midwest. Even in summer we're absent the heat of the desert and the humidity of the coast. The only real challenge we have is vast quantities of snow. With last week's storm dumping five feet in four days, and today's storm already totaling two feet at my house, I wanted to share a few of my strategies for running through a winter of snow.


Some days, my house looks like this:

When that happens, I generally don't run. Trails are chest-deep in powder, making snowshoeing and cross country skiing ridiculous endeavors, and roads are full of cars sliding around with drivers who can't see - not a good scenario for running.

If getting to the resort is a viable option (taking road conditions into account), then powder skiing is the best crosstraining around. (I don't recommend backcountry skiing on big storm days!) Think a gravity sport like skiing isn't a good workout? I dare you to try doing it all day in deep powder.

Other good options for big storm days include shoveling, snowblowing, snowball fights, and carving out sled runs in the neighborhood.   

Andrew gets his snowblower on, along with all the neighbors.

After the driveway is cleared, head inside for some yoga and strength training. This is a great time to do some serious stretching!

On non-storm days, snowshoeing, skate skiing, and telemark skiing all make for excellent crosstraining.

Skinning up and skiing down is a serious workout for me!


Drive for Dirt

Getting tired of running the roads or snowshoeing? If you're lucky enough to live within driving distance of snow-free trails (like I am) then take your Saturday to drive somewhere that you can get in a long run on dirt. It's a welcome respite!

When the Storm Breaks, Go Big

I took five days off during our last storm. I actually needed the rest, but when a clear day coincided with a day off work, I made the most of it. Not only did I drive for dirt, taking an hour to get to Auburn and the Western States trail, but I joined a friend for a 36-mile day. It was wonderful, and I'm glad I did since I'm back to crosstraining for the next couple of days.

Embrace the Life

When people complain about the snow, I often wonder why they live here. This is what you get in the Sierra! If ultrarunning were my highest priority, maybe I would live elsewhere. I find, however, that doing multiple sports early in the season not only helps prevent injury, but it also helps prevent burnout later in the season. I haven't been running like a madwoman all year long, and that is a good thing.

I guess embracing the life is about attitude. I make the most of good weather, and I don't let myself get frustrated if mother nature throws a wrench in my training plan. I simply adapt.

I also recognize that there are a myriad of wonderful things about life that have nothing to do with running. Crazy, I know.

Here's one way the people in my neighborhood embrace the life. At the moment, our street looks like this:

After the blower plow comes through, the snow banks become sheer, white walls. And what do you do with a blank white canvas? You draw on it, of course!

Some of the snow bank art on my street:

Peace, and a flower.

Smiley face and "Hi."

Flower. Someone is ready for spring!

I think maybe this poor guy got run over by the snow plow.

More smiley faces.

Apparently we're a happy neighborhood.


Your standard pooping duck. Clearly we have children living in our hood. :)
And of course, declarations of love. Aww.

I'm excited about my upcoming races, and I have been training hard. A six-week spell of warm, sunny weather in January and February allowed me to get a solid early-season base. Now that I'm back to winter-style training though, I'm enjoying the pleasures of winter in the mountains. I make the most of my running days, and play hard in other arenas. I think, for me, this is the best approach, as I have a tendency to get obsessively focused on things if given the chance.

As spring approaches, I know my training will increase in intensity and mileage. For now, I'm content with a "quality over quantity" approach.

How do you deal with the training challenges presented in your neck of the woods? 


  1. Your attitude and appreciation are nice to read. Makes me almost wish we were vacationing in Tahoe during winter, not summer, this year.

  2. Great timing for this ... I'm currently sitting here wondering if it's worth the trouble to chain up the van and drive to the XC area, or just go out and build a snowman. Or maybe just take a long nap ... but I noticed that wasn't on your list.

  3. It doesn't count as snow if you don't have to wear mittens (and why does my pooping duck make me a child???). How do I handle the challenge of weather? Well, at the moment it's 0 degrees and snowing and I'm typing rather than running; that sort of says it all.

    Love the snow drawings!

    I just wrote a pretty good post about why it took 16 hours to do a load of laundry. Your adventures seem so much more... hmm, enviable?

  4. Hell, yeah! I get it. You've got to embrace it. It's a coping strategy fer sures. We have a lot of people who live here in Banff because they enjoy waking up and looking at the pretty mountains. It's beautiful, it's calming and magical. But can you imagine just looking at them every day? OMG, winter would be so long. I am however, super envious that you can get in your car and drive down to sweet dry trails. Now that is special! You've got it all, honey!

    And Donald - napping is the secret ingredient to winter training success. If you live in a place that is snowy and cold - Naps are a must!

  5. Anne - Well, truthfully summer is still my favorite season here. If you're not a big skier, I'd say stick with your summer plans!

    Donald - Oh you lowlanders with no 4-wheel drive! ;) I say go xc skiing, build snowman, then nap. By the time you wake up your wife will have finished baking cookies, then you can read your book by the fire. See how good snow country is?!

    Steve - Actually, I was thinking a mom probably drew the duck, then the kids came along and added the poop. Or maybe some grownup with your sense of humor did it. ;)

    Leslie - That's what I always think when I meet people who live here but don't ski. Ack! How do you deal with all this snow if you can't get excited about playing in it??? by the way, it was 7 degrees when I got to the resort this morning. I figured you'd think that was balmy, but it is totally the limit of what I can tolerate. the powder was SICK though!! :)

  6. Nice little blog entry and pictures Gretchen. Sounds like your on track for a great run at W/S. Love the "snow bank art". :)
    I got about 18 inches of snow here at the house. Love it.

  7. Jack - Glad you're loving the snow! Hope you're getting some snowshoeing in while it lasts down there.

  8. Hi, Gretchen,

    Love your post, as always, but especially the snow wall art and I agree so much with the statement, "When people complain about the snow, I often wonder why they live here."

    See ya next weekend!

  9. Umm, Gretchen, apparently you missed the obvious... those were duck eggs, not poop.

  10. I love the pooping duck! Too cute :)

    I really, really look forward to living somewhere cool someday soon so that we can have more hobbies than just running all the time :) I would love to strap on snowshoes and go for a hike, or drive a few minutes to get in some skiing. What fun! Chicago gets crappy ice snow which makes everything sorta miserable in winter, so that means lots of treadmill miles on those days/weeks, and not a whole lot else active-wise. You are so lucky! Your snow is waaaay cooler than our snow, for sure!

  11. Helen - Thanks! Snow wall art is fun. :) Looking forward to skiing on Sunday!

    Steve - Doh! Maybe I'm the one with the questionable sense of humor?? Still, I think eggs would break if laid while standing, no?

    Paige - You are building massive toughness though by running through a midwest winter. I did that once, but I think my weekly mileage topped out at about 20!

  12. It looks like absolute paradise! Honestly, I run so much more now that I live in the Midwest with no mountain or ocean opportunities available. However, I think it takes sheer determination to get out the door around here to deal with ice and arctic conditions. I'd take 5 feet of snow with a blue sky any day! So, so pretty!

  13. I've really enjoyed your last few posts. (As if that's unusual.) This one planted the thought that I might have to flatter you through imitation and write a post about coping with the peak of summer in the desert southwest.

  14. This SoCal native has come to embrace winter in the mountains as well. It's a great break in the summer routine, but nothing feels quite so nice as those first miles on bare trail in the spring. Great post, Gretchen.

  15. Pecwan - It really is beautiful. And I have to agree with you - I'll take this over training through a midwest winter. Good job for getting it done out there!

    Stacy - Thanks! That sounds like a great post - I'd love to read it!

    Hank - Definitely, when the high country melts out and I get back to my favorite trails, they're just that much more fun for having been gone all winter. Maybe that's part of what I like about winter as well - it builds appreciation for those summer trails.

  16. I shared this with my wife and she commented that there are so many lives to lead!

    Great do live in a Christmas Card!