Feb. 11, 2012, was my first trail ultramarathon. The Psycho Wyco Run Toto Run 50K in Kansas had single-digit temperatures and below-zero wind chills at the start. It was the coldest ultra I ever ran.
Until last weekend.
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, was my 25th trail ultramarathon, nearly 11 years to the day from my first deep dive into this sport that I love. The TARCtic Frozen Yeti in Massachusetts lived up to its name. A week earlier I ran in shorts. On race morning at Hale Reservation it was -9 degrees Fahrenheit at the start with a wind chill of -28. Runners wore ski goggles and ski gloves, masks, and all sorts of combinations of layers to keep warm and protect their skin from the elements.
The challenge wasn’t staying warm; the strategy was to avoid sweating. It was surprisingly easy to keep warm in all the layers and a little bit of movement. The running was the easy part. It was the mental component of managing the delicate balance of choosing when to run and when to hike, when to ditch a layer or unzip a jacket to shed heat and then zip back up, that was exhausting.
I started the race with four layers on my upper body, tights and pants covering my legs, ski gloves with two sets of hand warmers inside, a balaclava over my head and ears, buff covering my face and safety glasses to shield my eyes from the wind. I quickly learned that I had to strike a balance with the glasses and buff, removing one while using the other to avoid having the glasses fog. I ditched my first upper layer (Marmot running jacket) a mile and a half into the race, and ditched a second upper-body layer (an Icebreaker sweater) after 10 miles, leaving me with a 200-weight Icebreaker long-sleeve and Rab windstopper jacket as my upper layers for the remainder of the day. I considered ditching a lower layer but opted against it so my legs stayed toasty warm all day. I wore a pair of mid-level Balega socks, and my feet and toes stayed warm the entire day with zero issues.
By around 2 p.m. the wind subsided quite a bit and the temperature climbed to a comfortable 13 degrees (wind chill at 0), making the final miles quite pleasant.
I finished my 30+ miles unscathed. Several others went farther, including two guys who went 100 and 110 miles, respectively. Pretty incredible, but also not surprising knowing both of them. There were no reports of weather-related injuries or illnesses because folks were prepared, brought proper gear, listened to their bodies, stopped early or lingered longer in the warmth of the lodge if they deemed it necessary. We were also well looked after by race directors and a slew of volunteers who checked on us, asked questions, made sure we ate and drank and did the little things right. I’m thankful they were there to take care of us and make this adventure possible. It’s an experience I’m quite certain none of us will forget. I certainly won’t.
I never figured I’d run an ultra in temperatures as cold as my first one. Hopefully this is a one-time thing. Then again, I had that same thought 11 years ago.