Winter Running In Spokane

I grew up near Seattle, where the merest dusting of snow provoked round-the-clock weather coverage and an endless freeway backlog. As a kid I watched winter weather reports with anticipation. An inch of snow could delay the start of school; two inches almost guaranteed a full-fledged closure—a day I’d spend in mittens, hat and snowsuit—even as the temperature rose to the upper 30s. My dad, one of the adults bold enough to venture out, would weather the “storm” like a suburban mountain man, donning an ancient backpack before hiking to the grocery store for supplies. However inoffensive west-side snow tended to be, it meant canceling plans, bundling up, and hunkering down. I loved the way snow stopped normal life.

When I moved to Spokane seven years ago, my idea of winter was due for redefinition. Cold now meant entire days that passed by with highs in the teens and lows in the single digits. There were new sensations, like one I experienced on a sub-zero December morning: frozen nose hair, a phenomenon I’d previously thought my native Spokanite husband had made up, and which became my barometer of true winter. Unlike some transplants from milder climes, I loved Spokane’s four defined seasons, and that winter I watched the world around me with interest. To my surprise, buses kept their schedules, businesses operated as usual, and children continued to go to school, on time.

And if everything else maintained the status quo, then I would, too. For me, that meant one thing: running. Upon moving to Spokane that September, I’d been diligent about getting in my near-daily jog. And then, December hit. With it came snow that drove me indoors, where I ran on the treadmill during my lunch break. But the treadmill soon grew monotonous. So one day I left my downtown office heading for the Centennial Trail, placing each stride cautiously to avoid ice and slush, certain I would fall at any moment.

I hit the trail and followed it east. Frigid air filled my tight lungs. My ears soon ached from cold, and my nose began a steady drip. Under my cotton t-shirt and fleece top, a cold sweat formed. My heart pounded as I slipped and caught my balance. I had to laugh: this was perfect. I felt like the suburban mountain woman, braving the outdoors when so many, even in hearty Spokane, take their fitness routines inside until spring. I was alone with the crisp white snow and icy blue skies, lit up by the fleeting daylight that would be long gone before I got home that night.

Just like that, I’d become what my boss called “an all-season runner.” I’d run while flakes fell, sticking to my hair, getting in my eyes. I ran when the temperature dipped into the single digits, before the snow was plowed, when the drifts came up past my ankles. I was watchful, checking for the places where a thin layer of snow covered ice, where slick spots had been broken up by studded tires, where shadows camouflaged a frozen patch. I fell regularly, getting a patchwork of bruises on my knees and hips. So I got better gear, water-repellant clothing, stretchy gloves, ear warmers, and, for those really cold days, hand warmers. My best purchase was a pair of “traction aids” called Get-a-Grip, which fit over my shoes and have tiny spikes that grant near-perfect footing on even the slickest surfaces.

Of course, winter running wasn’t always easy. One weekend morning, I ran from my house to Manito Park. New inches had just fallen, and a “shortcut” across the park meant numb toes and white stuff that coated my pants to mid-shin. I chugged along awkwardly, pep-talking myself into believing that the sheer effort of maintaining my balance was giving me a good core workout. I was struggling to stay upright when I saw them: two cross-country skiers, gliding atop the foot of snow I had just sunken back into. They were graceful, perfectly equipped for the conditions, sleek and silent. I was anything but. I rounded a corner and passed a group of children sledding. They howled and giggled as their plastic sleds whooshed down the hill and spilled them out below. I smiled, then grimaced as I felt snow pack into my socks, begrudging my chosen sport for being such a comparatively faulty companion of winter.

And it may be less winter-attuned than true snow sports, but I still run all year long. It is, after all, my status quo. Running in winter makes me feel a little tougher than I actually am, a little more adventurous, like a literal trailblazer. Whatever’s falling down, however low the temperature drops, I put on my Get-a-Grips, grab a hand warmer, and head out, occasionally crossing paths with snowshoers and skiers along the way. My sport may never make the Winter Olympics, but with a little re-jiggering, it works. I’ve run along the river on Christmas day, sunshine on my wind-slapped cheeks as my shoes crunch through packed snow. I run every January 1, whatever the conditions, to ring in the New Year. I run on the days the snow melts, trying to avoid the slush and puddles but often as not cracking through ice and getting home with soaking wet shoes that smell so bad my husband makes me keep them outside.

And every year when I visit my parents around the holidays, I run around my old neighborhood. It’s almost too easy. The weather is (relatively) warm, traction is a given, and my nose hairs are frost-free. But running because there are obstacles is not the point. The point is to run.

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