Blizzards, cold and wind are frequently part of the experience for marathon runners who live and train in a region often known for lake effect snow.
Preparing for a spring marathon isn’t exactly easy when temperatures are below freezing. This is especially true in Cleveland, where the snow can fall at a rapid-fire pace as winter storms pick up precipitation from an unfrozen Lake Erie and then dump it as the system moves east over land.
Three hearty runners from Concord Township make the best of it, and say they honestly enjoy it.
Geoff Weber, 37, has completed 12 marathons and is training for his second attempt at the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon on May 16.
Most of the time, running outside in the winter can be a pleasurable experience that is a great way to keep up with friends and stay in shape, he says.
“When it’s 30 degrees or even 25, it’s not bad at all – it really isn’t,” Weber says. “When it gets below 20 and maybe 15 is when it isn’t any fun. When it’s 30 degrees and above, it’s great.”
At 40 degrees and warmer, the weather is temperate enough for him to wear shorts.
There are, of course, days when running outdoors in the Cleveland winter isn’t so easy, though. During a recent 20-mile run on a cold morning with temperatures around 14 degrees and a 15-mph wind blowing that made it feel like it was below zero, Weber’s hat completely froze and became rock-hard, rendering it useless after 10 miles.
“My ears were freezing, and my eyebrows and eyelashes were frozen,” he recalls. “There’s not a whole lot to say, but it sucks, really.”
In the winter, runners have to worry about avoiding snowplows or cars that may lose control on the ice, but so far, Weber has managed to avoid trouble.
One of the best places where he and other runners in the region train is the paved 4.8-mile Lake Metroparks Greenway Corridor that spans through Concord and Painesville townships. The path is plowed throughout the winter.
Other common places to train include bike paths along roadways in Mentor and in Chardon. Farther east in Ashtabula County is the Western Reserve Greenway Trail, a 43-mile trail that runs south through Trumbull County. Although only part of the trail is paved, when the snow levels are low enough, this serene path is ideal for runners who enjoy the pleasure of solitude and a scenic rural location.
On the west side of Cleveland, where the snowfall total is generally less, runners may train on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail that lies within the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The mostly crushed gravel trail spans from Cleveland to Akron and is a great place to run when snow levels are low, especially on a warm sunny day.
Some health and fitness clubs also have indoor running tracks that are typically much smaller in size than a typical quarter-mile outdoor track. They may be an option for runners when conditions are just too brutal to run outside, although there is the added cost for a membership or a usage fee to consider.
Because marathon preparation can be a grueling, soul-searching and ultimately rewarding experience for most, many runners frequently feel the need to change up their training routines and find variety in their surroundings by running different routes.
With that in mind, running indoors or on a treadmill, which is often referred to by some runners as the “dreadmill,” is typically not preferred by many marathon runners, if it can be helped.
Weber finds the best way to cope with cold and sloppy conditions outside is to share the experience with others.
“We run in groups, and misery loves company,” he says. “You run and talk and complain about it, but it’s much better than being by yourself.”
Included in a group that gets together on Saturday mornings for long runs are veteran marathoner Jeannie Rice and first-time marathoner Ted Dalheim.
Rice, 61, plans to run her 70th marathon this spring. She knows how to cope with the region’s tough winters after 42 years and manages to get in a 20-mile run every three weeks unless temperatures fall below 10 degrees.
The best time to run is in the morning, she explains, because there aren’t many motorists on the road. Afterward, she has the full day to accomplish whatever else she needs to do. But if the conditions are below 10 degrees, when the potential for frostbite increases, she will wait until later in the day when the temperatures are usually warmer.
“I dress accordingly, and I’ve been here long enough that it doesn’t bother me as long as the roads are clear,” Rice says. “I go out early before traffic gets bad, so the winter really doesn’t bother me as much as the hot (weather). I go out pretty much no matter what.”
She prefers training in the winter because temperatures in the 40s are what she considers to be ideal for marathon running and training. That’s because runners tend to sweat less in the cooler temperatures, and their bodies generate enough heat to keep warm when dressed appropriately.
When Rice runs in the cold, she and other runners typically wear a base layer of clothing made of wicking material like polyester to keep perspiration off the body. Then they add additional layers of clothing, including a hat and gloves that can be shed if they get too warm.
Cotton materials are rarely worn by runners because the fabric absorbs perspiration, making the clothing heavy and bulky with an increased potential to cause chafing.
Dalheim, 47, who will embark on his first marathon this spring in Cleveland, says he’s already experienced a bad-weather run that wasn’t much fun.
“It was 10 degrees and fresh snow and nothing had been down the path except a snowmobile, so we followed the track and it was like running in sand for 12 miles,” Dalheim says.
His marathon training program features three weekly runs that include interval sprints on a treadmill mainly to ensure accurate distances and speed, then two outdoor runs that include a moderately hard run and a long run on the weekends.
Dalheim says running in poor Cleveland weather conditions is not usually as cold or sloppy as it seems when you’re indoors looking at the mess outside; he keeps this in mind before heading out.
“The weather always looks worse from the inside,” he says. “Once you get out into it, it’s really not that bad. You just deal with it.”