By 5:30 this morning, I already had brewed myself a cup of coffee and went tiptoeing through the apartment, careful not to wake my family while plucking various pieces of running gear from closets and drawers.
I laced up my running shoes, slathered my cheeks with Vaseline and reached for the front door.
Everybody needs fresh air. Some need it more than others. I’m one of those people who desperately needs it, who relies on it, who can’t feel happy or creative or organized or even remotely sane without a daily appointment with nature.
So, for the past 15 years, I have risen almost daily — usually before the dignified hour of 6 a.m., when my schedule is sure to be free of conflicts — to run about five miles on off-road trails near my Minneapolis home.
Sure, I’ve dabbled in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing over the years. I even tried an outdoor circuit class on a subzero Saturday last winter.
I find I prefer the simplicity of running.
In warmer weather, my daily run serves up sunrises and plenty of good company — mallards, cardinals, a fellowship of friendly local runners.
But in the darkness of a cold winter morning, I have the place — meaning the city’s expansive parklands — mostly to myself. It’s like stepping into an empty but beautifully maintained country chapel. The mood is set by the candle-like glow of distant streetlamps. On clear mornings, the sky is studded with silver skyscrapers and stars. In hazier conditions, city lights lend the scene a certain pink aura.
And it’s quiet there. The only sounds are my breath and the dampened thud of feet hitting snowpack.
Winter running is inspiring and refreshing and life-affirming. I’m left feeling grateful for my physical health and for living in this lovely frozen city.
Winter running also has its hazards. As I get older, I grow ever more terrified of slipping and falling on the ice.
My fears are compounded by the practical challenges of running in the dark.
To my great fortune, Minneapolis Parks is quick to plow its trails. After last Friday’s light snowfall, the paths were clear in time for my 5:30 run (you can’t say the same for the nearby streets). I also wear a sporty LED headlamp to help illuminate slick surfaces.
Wind is the more persistent challenge. I’ve learned Vaseline offers some protection against sleet and gusts off Lake Calhoun. I’ve also learned to abandon my beloved lakes on the windiest winter days. Because there is no joy in a 30 mile-per-hour slap to the face, especially when it comes from the north.
Which brings me to a confession: I’m not one of those crazy Minnesotans who runs outside no matter what.
Remember the Polar Vortex of 2014? I was a newish mom back then, struggling mightily with postpartum blues, sleep deprivation and my husband’s constant business travel. I used my running regimen the way a climber uses his rope — to keep my head from falling into a canyon.
Still, I stuck with the treadmill in my apartment building’s tiny basement gym. I ran there every morning for weeks, breathing the dusty air, staring at my kneecaps in the wall of mirrors. I didn’t venture outdoors until the mercury reached 0 again.
But for the most part, I find the problem of cold is exaggerated. Temperatures of 10 or even 5 are easily overcome by layers of specialty running gear. My usual get-up includes fresh Smartwool socks, a smelly, old Nike windbreaker and a pair of thick leggings from the Athleta store in Edina.
My favorite winter running hack? I wear a 15-year-old pair of windproof mittens over some freebie gloves from the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon.
And, yes, balaclavas become essential at a certain temperature point. I notice most winter runners don theirs when it’s 10 above or colder.
I first made this observation about four years ago. I was doing a little trail running near Cedar Lake on a snowless but frigid February morning. Suddenly a masked man came around a bend and started bounding my way. Eek!
Without thinking, I raced out of the woods as fast as I could. I didn’t stop racing until I reached the outer confines of Uptown, more than a mile away.
Then it occurred to me: That wasn’t a masked murderer. That was just another diligent winter runner like me.
I peeled back my own balaclava and had a good laugh over that one.
A couple Sundays ago I woke up early for a quick run before church. It was a misty morning and the predawn skies had their romantic pink glow. The temperature was mild, in the low 20s.
In other words, it was the perfect day for a run.
When I was finished, I greeted one of my neighbors as we passed in the stairwell. “Good for you for getting out there in such weather!” she said with wide, smiling eyes.
“No need to congratulate me,” I assured her. “I love running outside in the winter.”