Awakening before dawn on Saturday the 28th of January, I checked my phone for the Alamosa temperature. Sounds strange does it not? 17 below zero. Okay, it is January and it is the Ice Fest. The one time of year, winter, when we humans can walk on water, only because it's frozen! Remember the days when we looked out a frosty kitchen window at a thermometer attached to the house, checking the red fluid that would expand and contract with the actual temperature? The red stuff would easily have been midway between the minus 15 and minus 20 mark and generally quite accurate unless the sun hit the thermometer, warmed it up, and would no longer 'read' the actual temperature. Surely, I thought, it will warm up by race time at 9 AM. Yep, it did, all the way up to 9 below. But, no wind and the sun was shining, so we had that going for us!
I geared up. Two layers of Under Armour, consisting of a pair of athletic briefs and running tights and over those, my North Face sweat pants. A pair of nice thick FIT socks and instead of wearing my usual running shoes, so as to avoid frost bitten toes, I put on my lightweight Keen hiking boots which completed my lower half. My splits per mile were less important to me than getting splitting and cracking toes from being frozen. I like my body parts intact, numb or not. Up top, I wore a Patagonia long underwear shirt, an Under Armour top over that, a wool ski sweater and a down vest. Canada geese know what they are doing when it comes to growing feathers. Down feathers are always comfortable over the 125 degree temperature swings geese see in the course of a year from outdoor living. Ma Nature takes care of her creatures! Covering my head was a face mask and a wool stocking cap, and over my hands, glove liners inside of my dad's hand me down rabbit fur gloves. So, the only cold parts to my body were my exposed cheeks and nose.
I powered up. A nice cup of coffee, a couple of shots of fresh squeezed orange juice, two bites of greek yogurt, and one of my famous energy balls with 20 ingredients for all my running nutrition requirements. I was more than ready to face the cold of the the day. Out my door I went, dressed like an Alamosa penguin, jogging slowly on the 1.5 miles to Cole Park and the Rio for the start.
I checked into the Senior Center, paid, received my race packet, grabbed my Rio Frio t-shirt and put it on also. What's one more layer? I greeted other crazies (collectively what we are all called who do this run during Ice Fest weekend) and we exchanged stories about the cold morning. We made our way to the river starting point with the big timing clock, the starter's tent, and a number of race officials and photographers. The ice was thick and there were no strips of open flowing water as there have been in years past.
Jeff Owsley, the race director, briefed us on the race course as the 200 plus of us gathered at the starting line. He gave us the ready, set, go! My experienced control center in my head was telling me to not start running to quickly, as air below zero can damage lung tissue. Frozen lung tissue is not healthy and it can happen at these temperatures, as the air cannot be warmed enough with each breath. Our body's response is to send a burning feeling to our brains that tells us to slow down. Yep, I was cold to start, as I followed the runners in front of me wearing all sorts of garments. Seems that clothing is directly proportional to age. More age, more clothing. Some of the younger crazies were dressed as if it were 50 degrees warmer! Their choice.
Costumes are also part of the get ups. Some people consider this sort of a winter Halloween run and dress to the theme of the Ice Fest and put a lot of thought into their outfits. Maybe next year I will be a penguin, go as Opus from the Bloom County cartoons.
We ran south toward the Highway 160 Bridge, made our way around the palm tree magically growing out of the ice and turned back north. A slight breeze on the cheeks made my face really cold. Steam rose from everyone's breathing and no one was talking. We were concentrating on the frozen icy surface, intermixed with tire tracks from ATVs out in front of the racers. Exhaust smells are obnoxious, especially in cold air when they cannot dissipate as quickly, but did not last too long as they were out in front with the lead runners who were easily distancing themselves from me. I settled into my own rhythm, pace and mindset. I actually listened to myself and followed my prime directive for the day. Relax and enjoy!
By the State Street Bridge, my breathing had increased mostly due to altitude (the Rio Grande flows flat through town (slightly over seven thousand five hundred feet) and though I was trying to do what cold running tips suggest, breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, which allows the air to warm a bit more before the cold air molecules slam like baby icebergs into our lungs. Ultimately, I started breathing through my mouth. At that point, I noticed the front of my tongue going numb, strangely feeling like a burn, similar to eating a piece of pizza before a hot blob of cheese has cooled properly. Next, that lovely feeling when our cold noses start a moisture stream out of each nostril, running down and over our upper lip like a tapped Vermont maple tree during sap season. It flows, and flows, wipe it away, flows some more. Tis the nature of cold weather running.
So much for those bodily function descriptions! Distant views are wonderful. The snow plastered San Juans to the west, glances north toward the upper end of the majestic Sangre de Cristos, the golden colors of the cattail groves on the edges of the river, lying dormant till growing season returns. The sun glistens and sparkles off the ice and snow on the river and on the banks, where a few brave spectators have gathered, cheering us on! Who's crazy? The colorful clothing of runners contrasts sharply against the 'snowy white' and the deep blue winter skies. High fives and words of encouragement are tossed about in the frigid air as the front runners have made the turn at the only other palm tree in the river and are headed back to the finish. Finally at the turn, the half way point at 1.55 miles, my metabolic heat gain from my lungs and legs working together has kicked in, I face the warmth of the sun, my hands have warmed up and I can take my gloves off. Perspiration is building up under my clothing. I wave and smile at runners I know, say 'thanks for hanging out' to the water rescue people standing on the banks, keeping a watchful eye in case a soft spot in the ice (there is flowing water underneath!) swallows one of us. Have to remember, this is nature.
I cross the finish line and listen to several people who had finished before me who were talking about their runny noses. I said that if we were running as fast as our noses, we would have all set personal records in our 5K times today! They agreed with that!
As always, the heroine of the day is Tara in her wheelchair. I greeted her several minutes after she had received an assist across the finish carpets from Holly. We chatted and I noticed she had a new chair that allows her to elevate and stand up. Cool addition to ever changing technology. Enjoyed many words with finishers but, once we stopped running, our bodies cools down, and it was only zero! January only comes once a year, so the Rio Frio Ice Fest reminds us that the month is almost gone! Once we hit February, and days get longer, I know I can survive winter...