Running through snow, mud and a touch of parental guilt
It was a brutally windy Wednesday in early February. I was running hill repeats on my usual trail, a loop through the fields and the woods between our house and the neighboring villages of Únětice and Roztoky. My boys were at home with their guitar teacher, and Anna was taking the metro from school. I hoped to finish the run with enough time to fix something warm for dinner. But, at the rate I was moving, we might be having grilled cheese and canned soup.
You know, raise those kids of yours and in a couple of years, you can go for that marathon. My dad’s words, spoken six months ago over Skype, rang in my head as I trudged up the snow-covered hillside. My father had been a runner for my entire life. Having run a 15K race the day after my birth, when he arrived at the hospital to drive Mom home, the nurse wouldn’t let him carry me because he looked so ill. I wondered what Dad would think if he could see me today.
As I pushed up the hill, I made myself count 1, 2, 3, all the way to 10. I started again at 2 – 2, 3, and then 3 – 2, 3. The snow stung when it cut my face. I tried to adjust my gait, so I could step into the tracks I’d made on my first climb and avoid getting my shoes and tights wet. But the footing was awkward, and sometimes I missed. My toes felt numb.
I breathed into my neck warmer and scrunched my hands into a ball, so that the fingers of each glove flapped loose by my side. If anyone had seen me huffing up the steep knoll, they would have thought I was crazy. Earlier in my run, I’d passed a pair of ruddy-checked cross-country skiers gliding through the fields above the hill where I was now running. Now, I was alone.
By the time I had gotten to the 7th round of counting 1-10, I crested the top of the hill. I checked my watch. Close to 2 minutes had gone by. I must have been counting slower than I thought. I slowed to a jog for my descent. Going down the slippery hill was even harder. My knees were wobbly, and it took all the strength I had to keep them tucked under me. Six more repeats to go.
With each painful down step, I could hear my husband’s voice. Of course, I’ll support you. But, do you really think it’s a good idea with your knees to run a marathon?
Another glance at my watch revealed dismally slow mileage. I reminded myself, it wasn’t about the time. On a day like today, getting out of the house had been its own mini-victory. I hoped the boys wouldn’t call to ask when I was coming home. I had my phone with me, but to answer it I would have to take off my gloves, which at the moment, seemed like a deal breaker. I tried to steady my breathing.
Registering to run the Prague May 6th marathon (and its sister half-marathon to be held 4-weeks before), had been a split-second, instinctive decision made on a dark November night, when I was desperate for a tangible goal to guide me through another grey Prague winter. I didn’t want to wait until my children were grown; by that time, I figured my husband would be right – my knees would be shot. I’d have missed my chance.
Unlike other items at the top of my bucket list – writing a book, publishing an article or raising children who were kind – running a marathon had a start and finish. On May 7th, for better or worse, I’d be done.
Just before I clicked SEND on my registration form, I imagined the rush I might feel as I completed the final kilometers of a race that had loomed at the pinnacle of all running races for the nearly 30 years I had been a runner. Could I really run 42.2 kilometers? Could I do it in under 4:00 hours? I dared myself to find out.
Once the thrill of registering wore off, reality set in. I asked for a trail running vest for Christmas (the kind with rubber inserts for liquids and pouches for snacks). I found a 16-week training plan on a women’s running website. When I began to pencil workouts like “1-mile WU, 4×1 Tempo, ¼ mile recovery, 1-mile CD” into my 2019 planner, I realized timing would be an issue.
The shorter training runs fit. It was the weekend runs of 3-plus hours that I didn’t know how to squeeze in. My family spent the winter on skis in the Czech mountains and in the Alps. I would have to do my long workouts on week day mornings or early afternoons before dark. I wondered if I had gotten myself in over my head. Still, I reasoned, I had 20 weeks to complete a 16-week workout plan – how hard could it be?
I started out full of enthusiasm and energy. Weeks 1, 2, and 3 proved easy. I tracked my runs on the Strava App where my father posted his feedback with comments like, “Great pace. Hope you felt good and knees are holding up.” One Friday, I ran a 14-mile trail run. Dad wrote, “Looks like you can eat what you want. Good run. Lots of hills.” I congratulated myself that I was halfway to my goal. Over Christmas, I ran fast 10K workouts with Radek, and I felt my confidence soar.
Shortly after the Christmas holidays, winter hit Prague. Prague’s snow-covered spires and red roofs made the city look like a thickly-iced gingerbread village from a Josef Lada painting. The boys woke early to shovel the driveway, make bunkers and pellet snowballs across the yard before school. I was living in a Winter Wonderland. It was beautiful.
Running in a Winter Wonderland, however, was tough. Snow and icy conditions meant the trails were better suited for sledding or cross-country skiing. Running on paved roads was dangerous as the shoulders were covered by piled-up snow, cars came too close, and there weren’t always sidewalks. The paths along the Vltava River and in Stromovka Park were slippery. I took mincing baby steps when I ran, trying to make sure that I wouldn’t hit an icy patch. Still, I slipped more times than I could count. Once or twice, I even landed on my bottom.
That snowy afternoon just as I was finishing my last hill repeat and preparing to jog carefully on the icy trail home, my fanny pouch vibrated. I fumbled with the zipper and tried to wipe the snowflakes from the screen, so I could unlock the phone. It was Oliver.
Huff. Huff. (The sound of my heavy breathing.)
“Mommy? Where are you?”
“I’m running.” Huff. “Is it urgent?”
“Well, no, Mommy. Me and Sam, we did our homework. We’re going to have electronics for a little while, is that okay?”
Groan. “Sam and I.” Mental note to talk about proper grammar later. “Fine.” Huff. “I’m on my way home.”
“What’s for dinner?”
Later that night my Dad wrote on Strava, “It’s not the speed but the effort. Way to go. It does make it sort of fun. Any good runner can do hills. Takes a dedicated soul to do it in the snow. Really impressed with your desire. Keep it up. How are you feeling. Mentally and knees. Ha. Love ya. Dad.”
I appreciated my dad’s confidence, but I still wondered – did I really have what it took to go through with it?
Over the next two months, my personal calendar transformed into a checkerboard of arrows and X’s as I rearranged workouts, swapped days, shortened or lengthened runs according to the weather. Some days, the ice turned to patches of thick mud. I felt like Shrek lurching through the swamp. I wrenched my knees on unstable footing. My confidence plummeted.
Then, in late March, it got warmer. For good. The trails dried out; my footing stabilized. Pink and white magnolias in our garden bloomed, and yellow tulips opened their petals to the sun. Runs that used to be painful began to feel easier. My times weren’t always faster, but I felt like I had run through the darkness into a better place.
Each time I passed the knoll where I did the hill repeats, I felt my pace quicken. If I could stick it out that afternoon, I believed I could, with a bit of luck, finish the marathon. The 4:00 hour finish was a huge question mark, but I would be satisfied with a strong run.
Two days before the half-marathon, my phone beeped. The message was from my 14-year-old daughter, Anna, who, despite numerous invitations, rarely wanted to run with me. That morning she had woken up early. To run. She took the bus to town and met a classmate in front of her school at 7:00 a.m. They were training for an Easter week marathon event sponsored by their school, where 10 students would each run 4,2 km.
Anna’s message read, “I ran outdoors for 4,27 KM.”
I smiled. I texted back, “Cool, great run!”
On the cusp of my own marathon adventure, I had the sense that a new chapter of my family’s multi-generational running saga was about to unfold. I couldn’t wait.
Saturday, April 5th, if things go as planned, I will line up with 11,499 other runners for Prague’s Sportisimo Half-Marathon. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate other runners of various ages, body types, nationalities and ethnicities, as we run together on the cobblestone streets and paved avenues of the city I now call my adopted home.
What I Learned During My Winter Outdoor Training
Be consistent. It’s not about the pace. Just getting out in the elements even for a short workout can have both mental and physical benefits. Particularly, if you do it 3-5 times a week.
Wear adequate gear. For me, this meant – Gortex trail shoes, ski socks, wind resistant leggings, gloves, a hat, a neck warmer (plus a trail running vest with 2 water bottles and snacks on long runs).
Pay attention to weather forecasts and road conditions. On icy days, running on trails seemed safer than roads or paved paths. The rugged terrain gave more options for secure footing.
Share your location. On long runs, I shared my real time GPS with my husband. In the off-chance I ran into trouble, he’d know where to find me. For short runs, I told my children where I was running, and when I’d be home. (Hence, the phone calls when my pace was slow.)
Grilled cheese and canned soup are acceptable post-training dinner options. You are not a superhero. Make post-training meal options easy and get your family to pitch in.
Just keep running; Spring will come. No matter what happens in my two upcoming races, no one can take away the benefits, both physical and mental, I have earned from training outdoors through a Prague winter.