How (Not) To Run On Snow

A British Introduction To

Canadian Snow Running

It’s -8ºC outside when I wake up. I untangle myself from the layers of blankets and sleeping bags and climb out of bed. Frost has formed on the steel windowpane of my third-floor student dorm and my breathing steams the glass as I pull the blind.

 

Outside it’s pitch black yet the snowfall is so thick I can see it slashing down in the faint moonlight. I check my phone: February 2nd, 6:46 a.m. 

As far as winters in British Columbia go, this has been a mild one. A cold-snap from Alaska dropped temperatures down to -20º for a week in mid-January however the worst seems to be over. Or so I’m told.

 

Having grown up in the relative warmth of northern England, my first winter in Western Canada has so far been anything but ‘mild’. The rain-drenched, wind-swept, hail-battered fells of the Lake District in December sound like a tempting summer getaway compared to the chore of reviving each nerve ending in my fingers every time I go out for a run. (Note to self: buy new gloves). 

Despite this, I am relishing the sub-zero temperatures and almost daily snow-showers of my first winter in BC. After all, what’s not to like? The street outside my apartment has been blanketed in three-feet of crisp white snow since late November, the pine trees are top-heavy with fluffy snow-pillows, and each morning the sun-facing mountain slopes surrounding the town illuminate in the most striking pink-orange haze.

 

Oh, and the bears are hibernating too. This enables me to relax into my pre-class morning run without the possibility of encountering a 600lb North American black bear halfway through. Could there be a correlation between bear presence and running speed? I hear you ask.  Absolutely. Most-definitely. Yes.

 

The heart-stopping sight of an uprooted tree-stump lurking in the forest shadows has sent me sprinting up hills like a frightened chipmunk on countless occasions. 

 

The nerve-jangling adrenaline of running through miles and miles of endless bear territory is yet to wear off and is one of the things I am learning to live with as I navigate my way through trail-running (and life) in Canada. Other notable things I have learnt include:

  1. Ice is slippy. 

  2. iPhone batteries freeze in anything below -2º.

  3. Not all snow is soft snow. 

  4. Ice is slippy. 

  5. Wet hair turns to icicles without you realising. Never go outside with wet hair. 

  6. Tree pillows are all fun and games until you set one off and it lands on your face. 

  7. Ice is slippy.

Aside from the early onset of the dreaded runner’s knee (of which I attribute to the transition from running on soft Cumbrian mud to - you guessed it - hard Canadian ice) I have never felt this good.

 

I have given up trying to record my runs, partly because thick snow is agonisingly slow to run in, but also because the formation of ice crystals under my phone screen suggests using precious battery life for strava is probably not the smartest idea. 

 

Regardless, battling the ice, snow, cold and frozen-fingers in a place as breathtaking (metaphorically and physically) as the forests and mountains of BC’s southern interior has taught me a new way of running.

 

A type of running detached from the PB’s and medals and expensive gear of what author Richard Askwith describes perfectly as ‘Big Running’. A type of running which connects you with nature and makes you feel as though you could run forever. Quite literally free running; running as it was meant to be, perhaps? 

 

Halfway through a recent run up Peterson Creek, a (now frozen) waterfall just outside of town, I remind myself that I’m 5,000 miles away from home and yet I have never felt so connected with my surroundings. Yes, the cold temperatures are foreign to my English-weathered skin. And yes, the views here are otherworldly compared to those seen on top of Warton Crag on a wet Tuesday evening (harsh comparison, I know). But I can’t help but feeling a real sense of intimacy with the landscape I run through, as desolate and unforgiving as it may seem.

Point is, I’m feeling good. Not good enough that I am prepared to try barefoot winter running (although the thought has crossed my mind. Briefly.) but good enough that I have signed up for a 10km snowshoe race at nearby Stake Lake; a Nordic ski centre a half-hour drive out of town. 

 

Organised by Dirty Feet, a local running club filled with some of the craziest, most positive people I’ve ever met (and who you will soon have the pleasure of being introduced to), the snowshoe race is the second in a three-part series in the surrounding towns of the BC interior. 

 

Minutes after seeing the race advertised in the window of a second-hand ski shop, I have already registered.

 

The woman at the counter asks me if I have ever done a snowshoe race before. I tell her I haven’t. She asks me if I have ever tried snowshoeing before. I shake my head. She smiles knowingly and hands me a copy of my receipt. Immediately I get the feeling I’ve walked into something without putting much thought into it. A seemingly increasing occurrence as of late. 

My next task, under guidance from the woman at the ski-shop, is to find myself a pair of snowshoes. She suggests a running shop at the top of town and I make my way over the following day.

 

It’s Tuesday and the race is not until Sunday but I am under the impression that a pair of specialised running snow-shoes cannot be so easy to find as to walk into a running shop and ask what colours they have.

 

I am wrong. Runner’s Sole has the widest selection of snowshoes you could possibly imagine for a family-owned running shop in the outskirts of a sleepy Canadian forestry town.

 

Narrow, wide, long, short, fat, pink, green. For someone who has never even seen a snowshoe before, I am stalking the shelves with remarkable confidence. Surely you can’t run in these. No way, just look how at big they are.

 

Thankfully I am rescued by a shop assistant (easily 4 years younger than myself) who politely shows me their rental options. 10 minutes later I am the proud owner (for the weekend at least) of a pair of specialist running snow-shoes. In a true Canadian red, of course. 

 

My next mission is to find a way to get to Stake Lake, a mere 30km of winding ice-roads and caribou-crossings from my apartment. None of the university buses venture that far south of the city and even if they did, they don’t run on a Sunday. The idea of cycling crosses my mind but this is short lived. A quick look at the slushy roads reminds me that bikes and ice rarely see eye to eye. 

Thankfully I am able to get in touch with Jon Shepherd, member of the aforementioned Dirty Feet running club and who I have come to realise is somewhat of a local running icon.

 

Completing the 125km “Canadian Death Race” through the Canadian wilderness in just over 21 hours, climbing 17,000 feet in the process, Jon embodies all the good traits of a trail runner. Essentially, positive to the verge of lunacy.

 

Jon informs me that James Fraser, top-scorer of the U-Sports PacWest soccer division, has also entered the race despite completing a road marathon in Vancouver just days before. As a rookie goalkeeper for the men’s soccer team, I have spent the better part of the fall season being peppered with shots by ‘Blades’ - as he is affectionately known - during training sessions and pre-game warm-ups. I arrange a lift and am somewhat relieved to find that he is just as apprehensive about the race as I am. He too, has never run in snowshoes before. 

And so this is why I am staring out of my dorm-room window at 7 a.m. in early February.

 

I quickly prepare breakfast (microwaved oats with chocolate almond milk and banana slices) and start getting my kit together. Two base layers, two pairs of gloves, hat, leggings, windbreaker, wooly socks and of course, the remarkably lightweight snow-shoes that I am yet to figure out how to put on. 

Two hours later we’re on our to way to Stake Lake, briefly joining the highway heading south towards Vancouver before turning left and joining the backroads which lead us straight to the ski trails of Stake Lake.

 

As we park next to the log cabin at the western edge of the lake, I notice an ice-fishing hut standing on its own in the distance, right at the centre of the frozen ice. I make my way over to the shore, where the treeline abruptly ends and the vast ice sheet stretches out for over a kilometre.

 

I wonder how it’s possible for fish to survive through such a long and cold winter, unable to breach the surface, confined to the eery silence below the ice-pack. 

It doesn’t take long before I notice how much colder it is here. I check my phone. Just 30 minutes out of town and the temperature has dropped another 5ºC. I don’t even recall gaining any elevation on the drive up. Just endless rows of snow-topped Douglas fir and the odd cattle ranch every few miles. 

 

We make our way along the frozen path towards the eastern side of the lake, cautious to avoid any Nordic skiers when we emerge onto the groomed trails about a half-mile from the cabin.

 

Here a gazebo has been set up and a huddle of excited runners crowd into a smaller log cabin behind it.

 

Immediately I notice the jovial atmosphere. Kids no older than 5 or 6 run around in the snow as parents drink coffee and chatter loudly inside. (Side note; Canadians spend more time drinking coffee than they do eating. I am yet to meet a Canadian who doesn’t drink coffee. It’s remarkable.)

Soon enough we meet up with Jon who, happy as ever, shows us how to put our snowshoes on properly and very generously gives us some tips on how to save energy during the race. Jon advises us to hold back on the first lap and let people in front of us condense the snow and then pick up the pace on the second loop. 

 

There are more than 60 runners at the start line, ranging from all sorts of ages, backgrounds and abilities. I am marvelling at how incredible it is that such a turnout has come together in the middle of rural BC at the peak of winter’s grip when the starting gun fires.

 

Immediately I find myself at the front, Blades shortly behind me along with Jon and three others. The feeling of my snowshoes digging into soft powder after each stride is strangely comfortable and I feel myself settle into a rhythm as we head into the thin forest bordering the eastern edge of the main lake. 

Under the pine canopy the snow is much thinner, even icy in patches, and I feel the jagged metal teeth under my snowshoes crunch into the hard ground.

 

Not long after, Blades cruises past me and he is almost out of sight by the time we cross the lake for the first time.

 

Initially I am convinced that I have been following the wrong trail. But sure enough, the orange flags lead straight across an inlet, over the frozen lake, and back into the forest on the other side.

 

Duly I follow the flags, half-expecting the ice beneath me to crack at any moment. My worries are needless. The ice below my feet is so thick and covered in so much snow that my legs are unable to tell the difference between frozen land and frozen lake. 

 

Back in the forest the track veers right so that we are now heading north along the western shore of the lake. By now Blades is well out of sight and I can hear two runners closing the gap behind me.

 

300 metres later we reach one of the volunteers who points us away from the lake and towards a trail leading directly into the forest. We cross a section of the Nordic ski track and begin a sloping ascent up through the trees. 

 

Here the snow is so thick and so soft that I am reduced to an energy-sapping crawl. The only sign of human activity is an orange flag every 20 metres and what I believe to be Blade’s deep snowprints. Only I’m wrong. Somehow Blades has gone off course and doesn’t realise until he has run a mile into the forest in completely the wrong direction. 

Soon enough, the two runners behind me overtake and I am all too happy to let them try and break the trail for themselves.

 

At first I expect them to struggle as much as I did. Take one step, trip over the hole you just made, fall face first in the snow, repeat with the other leg. But I am astonished to see them power through the forest without any sign of fatigue. This is not their first rodeo.

 

I watch their technique and in vain I attempt to replicate it. They are quickly out of sight and I am left alone with nothing but snow, trees and more snow to keep me company. 

 

Eventually I reappear at the junction of two groomed ski trails and the flat, hard surface feels like heaven. My thighs rejoice in the sudden drop of resistance and I take a moment to catch my breath. I am panting heavily and can already feel the moisture in my hair start to freeze.

 

On the other side of the ski trails another coffee-drinking volunteer greets me enthusiastically and directs me back towards the lake. A short run through the trees and I reach a clearing at the northern shore of Stake Lake. I follow the flags straight out onto the ice for the 500 metre stretch across frozen water. 

Running in a straight light across the lake feels surreal. I remind myself that there is a freezing abyss below my feet and this does actually make me run faster. I consciously make an effort to lighten the impact of my strides and quickly find myself rejoining the forest and beginning another ascent into the treeline. 

 

Here I am once again reduced to a slow shuffle. Step. Trip. Fall. Repeat. The snow is just too thick and too powdery to build any sort of momentum without bursting my lungs in the process. 

 

Behind me I can here the cheery voice of Jon as he and another runner start closing in on me. It sounds as though he hasn’t stopped talking since the start of the race and his effortless conversation contrasts starkly with my laboured breathing. 

 

I pause for a moment and allow Jon and the other runner to overtake. Jon laughs and asks me how I’m finding my first snowshoe race. I struggle to muster the energy to speak and shoot him a look of dismay instead. He giggles knowingly, gliding through the deep snow in front of me without breaking stride. 

 

Having four people to break the trail does make things easier and I keep up with Jon until we summit the top of a small hill in the forest.

 

One second I’m talking with Jon about the best way to plough through the snow, and the next he’s disappeared. I look down from the top of the hill and see he’s already a quarter of the way to the bottom, surfing along the surface of the deep powder using the back of his snowshoes. Moments later and he’s essentially skiid down the slope that took us nearly 5 minutes to climb.

 

I’m still at the top, trying to muster the courage to let myself go, when I hear Jon laughing at me from below. I commit and clumsily surf down.

 

It’s so much fun that the thought of re-climbing the hill just for another ski-down is surprisingly tempting. 

 

For the next kilometre I stick with Jon as we make our way across another ski trail and into a forest which separates the main Stake Lake from a smaller lake at it’s northern-most point. Here the route takes us in a semi-circle over the smaller lake and back out into the trees on the other side.

 

At first the ice closest to the shore is only covered by a shallow dusting of snow, however this gradually deepens until we’re both back to waist-deep trudging.

 

I’ve only just managed to reach the opposite shore when a forceful push throws me face-first onto the snow. I lay there exhausted as a giggling Jon unforgivingly strolls past and opens his stride back into a run. Fortunately enough for me, the offence has been caught on camera and I have evidence to prove my case. 

I dust myself down and once again catch-up with Jon  as we make our way back to the start line which marks the end of the first loop. Surely that was more than 5km. It must be. By now I am flat-out exhausted and can feel my muscles starting to resist my brains’ demands. There’s no way I can do another lap. Not at that pace. 

 

Thankfully Jon was right. The snowprints of 120 stomping snowshoes has flattened the course so that it is now a (mostly) runnable 5km loop for the second lap. The seasoned Canadians have lost their advantage and I make the most of the harder, flatter terrain - opening a gap between myself and Jon as we re-enter the first section of forest where Blades went missing.

 

Throughout the race I am under the impression that Blades is miles ahead and it is only when I reach the finish line that it becomes clear of his venture out into the wilderness. If he hadn’t gone so far off course, I would have no doubt that he would have cruised through the rest of the race without any issues, such was the ease in which he glided past me earlier on.

 

By the time I reach the long straight over the ice, Jon is a distant figure behind me (although I can still hear his unrelenting chatter). I summit the hill in the forest and once again enjoy the ski down to the bottom, leaning back onto my snowshoes and noticing a significant improvement in my technique compared to my previous attempt. 

 

For the second time I cross the small lake at the northern tip of Stake Lake (this time with no foul-play involved) and soon find myself emerging out onto the ski trails with the finish line in sight.

 

I trundle through and keel over at the finish. The cheering and shouting of coffee-drinking spectators reminds me just how amazing these Canadian’s are. It’s well below -10ºC on a Sunday morning in early February and yet they are here, right in the middle of rural BC, cheering on strangers as they crawl through the snow.

 

What a great culture. 

Jon finishes a few minutes after me and dramatically crosses the finish line. I notice he is barely breathing and he gives me the impression that he is ready for another three laps. Enthusiastic to the verge of lunacy. 

 

Blades emerges shortly after and informs me of his navigational error in the forest. It’s possible he’s run through nearly 3km more snow than the rest of us and yet he has finished just minutes behind myself in third place and Jon in 4th. 

 

The post-race atmosphere is lively as all of the competitors huddle together in the warmth of the small log cabin adjacent to the finish line.

 

Having not touched a drop of coffee in my 18 years before moving to Canada, I tentatively sip at a the scalding liquid. Partly to get some energy down me but mostly because the heat is bliss through my frozen gloves. The runners (or snowshoers I should say) congratulate each other and tell tales of the different parts of the course they encountered. 

 

Eventually we begin to filter back to the parking lot on the opposite edge of the lake and make our way back to town.

 

In the car I slump back against the cushioned seat, completely spent; calves, thighs, hips and abs all screaming every time I try to move my lower body. 

 

In my dorm room I crash onto my bed and cover myself in the layers of blankets and sleeping bags. Never have I been so exhausted after a run. 

 

I remind myself that this was no-ordinary run. This was a true-Canadian snowshoe race, filled to the brim with everything that running should be; unforgiving terrain, grit, laughter, more grit, friends and more laughter.