Marathon Training During a Bad Chicago Winter

Chicago marathon

I ran my first marathon in 2008. It was more than 80 degrees and I felt like I might die. I struggled just to make it to the finish line. Nonetheless, I was hooked and have finished four more marathons since then, my last back in 2011 in Tallinn, Estonia at the start of my career break trip.

It was in early November that I decided it was time to sign up to run another marathon. I desperately needed to get back into shape and lose some weight and having a race to train for always seems to motivate me the most to get moving. I always put together a training plan and, being the Type-A person that I am, I am hard on myself if I don’t stick with it.

I went with the Georgia Marathon (Georgia the state, not the country). It is in Atlanta on March 23, which means my “official” marathon training began in early December. In order really keep myself on track, I joined the Chicago Endurance Sports’ Winter Warriors training group. Although it targets a half marathon on February 2, the long run mileage closely mirrors what I need to do for my marathon until that point.

Our first day of training, way back in mid-November, was amazing – temperatures were close to 60 and I ran in a running skirt and short sleeves! Oh, how soon things changed.

Of course the temperatures soon dipped into the 20s and 30s (Fahrenheit – that would be -1 to -7C for my non-American friends!). But I was prepared with multiple layers, an ear warmer, neck warmer and mittens when necessary. The cold didn’t intimidate me, but unfortunately the darkness kind of did. I am normally an early morning runner, but when my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and it is still pitch black outside, it is hard to drag my butt out of bed to run.  So those first few weeks were a struggle to get in my mid-week runs.

Then the snow came.

I woke up the Saturday morning before Christmas and headed outside to run 6 miles in about 6 inches of new snow – and counting! It had snowed all night so it was too early for many of the sidewalks on the way to the lakefront path to be cleared. It all looked a lot like this:

Chicago snow

The next day, my CES group was set to run 9 miles. Much of the North Shore path that we run on was clear but there was about a two-mile stretch that had not been cleared at all. By then, it was packed down and very uneven so my ankles wobbled and my hips strained with every stride I took. But I got it done.

And then I headed to Minnesota. My first day there, the temperatures did not even rise above zero, so I made an executive decision to stay inside and do Tae Bo in the basement instead. Then it started snowing and didn’t stop for about 24 hours. So when I went out for a run the day after Christmas, I encountered sidewalks and running paths that had not been cleared the entire winter. I made it a mile and a half and gave up. I managed to make it out again on Saturday and the paths were better, but still had some rough patches. By the time I returned to Chicago, I was hurting in places I didn’t even know I could hurt.

And then it started to snow in Chicago. Starting on New Year’s Eve, nearly a foot of snow fell before it stopped two days later. Still sore from running in the snow in Minnesota, I just couldn’t get myself out there to do it again. At the same time, I needed to at least get in my long run mileage on the weekends and 12 miles was beckoning. While my CES group normally runs on Sundays, a forecast of below zero temps and far below zero wind chills starting on Sunday convinced me to churn out 12 miles on my own on Saturday. Thankfully I did because out of nowhere a winter storm warning appeared and another foot of snow fell over the next 24 hours.

And then the polar vortex swooped in.

With temperatures as low as -16F and wind chills down to -50, I didn’t even leave the house for three days, much less run.

And then the heat wave came. Kind of. Temperatures crept back up into the 30s, which meant all of the snow started to melt. Which meant slush, slush and more slush. I cranked out five miles on Wednesday and my feet were completely soaked by the time I was done. But then it got even warmer and by the time I went out for 7 miles on Saturday, I was running through ankle deep puddles in some places. After just a few blocks, I stopped to wait for a bus to take me to the lakefront, where I hoped the path would be a little better. It was, but not by much. There was a lot of this:


And then I made the horrible decision to run home instead of waiting for a bus. I pretty much alternated between running, walking and wading through the slushy puddles that covered the sidewalks. By the time I got home, all I could think about was how horrible our group run on Sunday would be once the puddles had frozen over and the sidewalks turned into mini skating rinks.

I skipped the group run and slept in, catching a bus to the lakefront to get in 8 miles before taking the bus back home. Waiting to start my run worked and much of what was probably iced over around 7:30 a.m. was water again by 10:00 a.m. Still not ideal, but I’d rather run through puddles than over ice.

So here I am, in the middle of January, wondering what the hell I got myself into by committing to train for a marathon through a Chicago winter! Of course, last winter at this time, it was in the 50s and there wasn’t a spot of snow on the ground. I have a feeling I am not going to get that lucky the rest of this winter, but I’m certainly not giving up either. I have ten weeks of training left and the hardest part is yet to come, with 14, 16, 18 and 20 mile long runs on tap,  so I’m going to have to find a way to push through it – rain or shine, snow or ice.

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right?


5 thoughts on “Marathon Training During a Bad Chicago Winter”

  1. I’m a little late on this one, but at least you know you won’t have to deal with anything remotely close to this once you’re actually in Atlanta for the marathon. Late March in Atlanta should be reasonably mild.

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