The Challenges of Snow Running
While snow has a single definition, snow is never the same. It can be wet, fluffy, pillowy, heavy, frozen, crunchy, solid, or hard. Depending on where you are, snow presents a variety of challenges for even the most seasoned runner.
In the Colorado Rockies, snow is dry and sticky. It makes a sharp, almost metallic sound when the foot lands on it, but the clock is ticking, because snow falls often and hard. After a couple of good snowstorms, it quickly piles up, and runners cannot lift their knees high enough to maintain stride efficiency.
Runners rely on other users to pack the trail, but only cars or snowmobiles pack it well enough for a good running surface. Ski and fat bike tracks are too narrow, and footsteps only create holes to be avoided. A solid ski track in heavy, deep snow can also be deceiving. Having been pressed down, the track itself supports the runner’s weight, but a centimeter to the right or left, and the foot sinks a half foot into deep snow.
Until the melting season, snow in Colorado just keeps piling up, the frozen layers buried by softer ones. Spikes work well and provide a safe ride, with smaller spikes perfect for less snow on roads and larger spikes ideal for deeper snow.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, snow is not quite as common. Yet, when it falls, it can linger for weeks at higher elevations, morphing and changing into something that eventually becomes unrunnable. The first snow is always wet, heavy, and clumpy. Just a few inches can reduce towns and trails to wonderful, deserted running paradises. The foot sinks and easily finds the ground.
However, one cold night is all it takes to turn the malleable snow into frozen crust first, and then a solid sheet of ice. The frozen crust is never thick enough to bear weight. It easily breaks with every step, scratching the ankle breaking through. Slippery like glass, wet from rain or surface melt, the solid sheet cannot be navigated without spikes. It often hides disguised on pavement or dirt. Runners, navigating a mostly clear trail or road and not using spikes, will hit one small patch, and all friction is erased.
In the Alps, one can go from clear trails to solid glaciers in the same run, with springtime in full bloom at lower elevations and winter still lingering higher up. The steep, exposed trails become rivers of ice, making even well-equipped runners rethink their routes or resort to heavier crampons. The lingering snow freezes and thaws, exposed to the warm sun and updrifts. Sometimes it melts, but higher up, it never does, eons buried under eons, the ice as blue as the sky.
No matter where you are, snow makes the usual seems unusual. On the trails and on the roads, it makes us pay attention to our footsteps again. Snow is a challenge and a welcome change at the same time. It’s a clock of the seasons, and the absence of it makes months blend into one, long uniform time frame.
The silence right after snowfall is a welcome companion when everything is too loud, too fast. It helps us to slow down our step and our brains.
Dr. Francesca Conte is an accomplished ultra runner and co-founder of Bad to the Bone Sports, a race production business organizing premiere events since 2001.