Surviving Winter by Staying Active

By Farah El Masri, February 5, 2016.

I am an average runner who is super passionate about running. I started at the age of 23, after graduating with a Bachelor Civil Engineering in Beirut, Lebanon. I had no athletic background and I was overweight. My approach to life completely changed when I decided to participate, for the first time, in the Nike Human Race (10k race), in October 2009. At this race, I met inspirational professional marathon athlete and Lebanese National Champion, Maria Pia Nehme. Running with her by my side not only encouraged me, but pushed my limits. She treated me as no less than a champion. Maria's support helped me overcome health issues (sciatica, back pain, exercise induced asthma) and enriched my transition into a healthy active lifestyle.

Running is a gift. It teaches you valuable life lessons and pushes your limits, both physically and mentally: "It is never too late… No hard work goes unpaid…Be grateful for the lungs that can breathe and the body that can run…You can always be a better person", and more. Ever since my experience with Maria, I have participated in countless marathon road races ranging from 5km to 21 km. I was a member of running clubs in Beirut; I also joined the varsity track team at the American University of Beirut where I studied for my Master's degree. I was recognized as Most Valuable Person in 2012.

In September 2014, came to the University of Alberta to do my PhD. Not only was I super excited to fly 10,000 km to the other side of the world, I also faced challenges (like all international students studying abroad) in all aspects of my life and culture.

Surprisingly and unexpectedly, one challenge I thought I would struggle with was actually one the easiest: living in below zero temperatures with snow for the first time. Even though there are snowcapped mountains in Lebanon with ski slopes and the like, you still have to drive for an hour to experience winter weather. Before coming to Edmonton, I experienced running in very stormy, rainy, weather in Beirut, but never ran in the snow.

At first I found it hard to get back into my preferred activity. I decided a good place to start was to join the UAlberta varsity team, but I missed the tryouts. I contacted the coach anyway and I shared my passion about running. The coach encouraged me to participate in a cross-country race, organized by the Running Room Athletics Club. He felt this would be a good starting point for me to later be considered for the varsity team. This is how I met my future running coach, Matthew Norminton, who coaches the Running Room Club and the Concordia Thunders.

Still, I was not at the same level and speed as the rest of the team and I needed to train on my own, especially for the long runs. I love running outdoors and I hate running on a treadmill (it makes me feel like a hamster spinning on a wheel). Living on campus allows me to explore Edmonton's gem - the river valley.

My first race in Edmonton was the cross country race in the Strathcona Wilderness Centre in September 2014. It was +8 degrees Celsius and I felt so cold, but prayed we could get started so I could warm up. The other Canadian runners found this to be amusing, I suppose they were thinking, "Just wait until January!" When it snowed for the first time, I had trouble walking and I was always amazed how easily Canadians gracefully ran on the snow. How did they do that? I desperately needed to know.

After seeing the beautiful trails of the River Valley, I was not ready to easily give them up because it was cold. I started looking for ways to overcome these obstacles. I said to myself, "if I am going to survive the "monstrous" winter that everyone keeps talking about, I better not give up running.

I have always known that running is vital to keep me sane; it is my stress relief. Plus, I came here for a PhD degree, meaning that I will be staying in Edmonton for 4-5 years (that thought alone was terrifying enough). I had to acclimatize myself and I could not stop running because of the winter freezing weather. I had to face my fears. So I started researching about appropriate winter running clothes and shoes that will allow me to run comfortably in -25 degrees...or even -40.

I bought winter tights, wool socks, light thermal layers either made of merino wool or synthetics. Basically, the base layers used for skiing would work just fine for running. You have to wear another light fleece layer on top and a very light wind breaker. Don't forget to cover your head, ears and wear warm gloves. Sometimes you need your mittens sometimes you need lighter gloves. If needed, be ready to cover your mouth.

Even after buying all this winter gear I was still scared of slipping on the snow and I felt it was still too cold. One day, it was -10 degrees, and I was chatting with my physician, I commented that it is too cold to run outside. To my surprise, she said no there is nothing to worry. She told me about her own running adventures in -30 or so, where her eyelashes would freeze. Somehow, listening to her story motivated me.

As for slipping on the ice, I asked my running friend, she told me that I need to modify my technique and take small strides. Now, despite my new confidence I still highly suggest that you pay attention to the state of your shoes, if the treads are too worn; you risk slipping and watch out for those icy patches. I still stop and walk when I need to avoid them. Invest in a good pair of trail running shoes.

All of this experience prepared me for my first Sunday run in -25 degrees, I ran for 45 minutes through the River Valley and … I am still alive! Not even a scratch or a fall!

From that point on, I ran all of winter 2015 outside. I joined the Running Room team plus I also run, sometimes, alone. It is a beautiful experience to build resilience and strength. You feel ready to face all of life's challenges.