Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Avoiding Frostbite

This story is about a fairly ordinary morning trail run, but is being shared to serve as a cautionary tale to others.

I've been trying to up my mileage lately. Since we were leaving for a full weekend of skiing, I decided to sneak in one more run before heading to Summit County. Plus, I got some sparkly new shoes the day before, so I was anxious to break them in. At dawn, I headed out for an easy 10-miler.

I ahould add that just a few days earlier, I did slip on some ice and fell right on my butt, so I was a bit more careful about sticking to visibly dry pavement and concrete. Although this was a far cry from the shirtless running weather of just a week ago, ice was not the concern of the day.
Verily, it was cold, but so far, so good: the streets were quiet, and the air was crisp.

Still, the air stung my face a bit and made my fingers tingle. Over time, I bunched them inside my glove to try to get them to warm up. Then, I tucked them under my armpits briefly. This only helped for a few minutes, so I needed a new tactic. I suppose one of the problems with running in the cold is keeping the hands elevated. Over time, this prevents proper bloodflow, I guess, so I shook my hands downward, and the began to warm up. Painfully. But, I figured I only had 20 minutes or so left in my run, and then I could look forward to turning the fireplace on, grabbing a coffee, and taking a shower.

And then I got home. Now, as an engineer and introspective physiology hack, I've questioned the 'intelligent design' of the silly human body before. Why does my head and upper body sweat and overheat, while my extremities suffer painfully? Extremities, yes...finger, toes, and...uh-oh.

Often, when running in the winter, I'll debate pants vs. shorts, but in either case, they're snug and windproof. (And most of my winter outdoor activities involve multiple layers of pants and snowpants). Today, for some reason, I wore some rather light, NOT windproof pants, and loose-fitting undergarments. This, with the wrong amount of sweat, conspired to create a near disaster. On my run, I felt like I needed to take a pee for about 45 minutes, but when I got home, I realized it wasn't that simple. A burning sensation, yes, but something altogether worse. Although the male human body will go to great lengths to regulate testicular temperature, apparently keeping the rest of it warm was an afterthought.

I quickly headed to the shower. A few times in the past, when I've thawed out cold hands, I've found the re-warming to be even more painful. Today, as I thawed out completely, I literally doubled over in pain, felt like I was going to vomit, and bit into a towel so I wouldn't scream...too loudly. After 6 or 7 minutes of hell -- is it fire, or is it ice? -- I regained hope for the future. I headed over to the Internets, and quickly learned that this problem is not uncommon at all; rarely permanent; and rarely suffered more than once.

The lesson? Stay snug and windproof!


  1. Um, I'll avoid a number of crass comments that came immediately to mind after reading your public service message, and just say thanks for the reminder!

  2. Nick: Yes, I'm sure I set myself up for it, but I sure was reassured when I found similar stories with 'happy endings', as it were, so I figured one more google-able instance might help someone someday. Or just avoid it altogether!

    Funny, if I'm skiing, biking, trail-running or hiking in the winter, I give it more thought than if I'm "just" running around town.

  3. Man, I have been there before. I finally learned my lesson and invested in some thicker thermal tights and always make sure to layer on the really cold days. I've had runs where I knew it was happening and took off my gloves and shoved them down my pants, figuring I'd sacrifice a few fingers to save a more important appendage.