Editor's Note: This story was written a couple of years ago after a crazy cold run in Chicago. With much of the nation in the freezer this week it seems like a good read on a cold and snowy day that might might motivate you to go for a wintry run.
The radio station in the frosty black rent-a-Hyundia was tuned to the local Chicago hits station B-96 when the weather news came on. Zero degrees at O'Hare Airport, one degree downtown with a wind chill of minus 18.
What the hell was I thinking going for a 9-mile run on such a cold and frigid morning? I knew it was going to be bitterly cold the second I peeked out of the bedroom window. The sun was shinning and the trees and roofs sparkled in the frozen and bitter air. Lazy white white clouds of steam billowed out from some distant power plant on the Horizon.
But the shining sun was what really gave it all away. It never gets too cold when the ground is covered by an insulating blanket of clouds. But today the only clouds were the tiny ones that puffed out the tailpipes of shuddering cars that rolled on frozen tires that crushed the new fallen snow with a painful squeal of submission. I stuck my nose out of the car door and immediately confirmed what I already knew.
Yeah, it was that cold.
Just as I got ready to do battle with Mr., or is it Mrs. Freeze, I recalled that at minus 4 degrees the moisture in your nose freezes making conditions ripe for a bloody nose. And at minus 49 degrees, the cold welds your skin to anything made of metal so sunglasses should be worn at your own risk.
But I only get to Chicago once, or perhaps twice a year, and the 9.35-mile loop at Waterfall Glenn in the Chicago Suburbs that now called my name, is in my opinion, one of the best and most beautiful places to run in the entire country...especially in the winter after a fresh fallen snow.
You can get a better idea of the wonderful diversity of this hidden Chicagoland paradise from the park district web site:
"Its natural characteristics give Waterfall Glen the greatest diversity of habitat in any DuPage County forest preserve. Prairies, savannas, oak-maple woodlands and planted pine groves add to this diversity. Plant surveys by District ecologists have recorded more than 600 native plant species at Waterfall Glen. This biologically diverse area includes 75 percent of all the plants known to grow naturally in DuPage County.
Waterfall Glen is host to a bevy of wildlife that uses the preserve year-round and during migration. Records show 17 fish, 11 amphibian, 19 reptilian, 30 mammalian and more than 160 avian species."
This runners paradise is hidden in plain view from the millions of Chicagoland residence that drive by every year unaware that that they just passed one of the most glorious running/hiking/biking/dog walking natural preserves in the entire country.
Just off the Stevens Expressway, and about 40 minutes from downtown Chicago, Waterfall Glenn surrounds Argonne Nation Laboratories in a protective forest preserve of secrecy. The nation lab does research into nuclear power so it certainly does not like to draw attention to itself. In fact, during the cold war the site served as one of the homes to the Nike missiles that surrounded Chicago in case of a Russian ISBM attack.
To this day the missile silo that protected the Nike anti-ISBM missile still exist on the grounds of Argonne National Lab.
As I start the 9-mile loop that goes around the entire facility I get a glimpse of the tall fence and menacing barbed wire that surround the gleaming white research buildings in the distance. But for most of the loop, you would be hard pressed to know that you are running around a government research facility that in the past has done top secret work for the Manhattan Project.
Instead, I choose to focus on the fresh snow that crunches beneath my running shoes with every step. The first mile is really rough. The cold bites into and through me like a 9-year-old into a frozen snickers bar. The wind is blowing through the naked trees and my cheeks, nose and eyes begin to freeze.
It hurts to blink.
And it hurts not to blink.
But by the time I reach the one mile marker I'm starting to feel warmer. The first mile of the run crosses a silent yet still rambling stream, heads up and ever some gentle hills, and meanders through a totally unmolested and sparking white forest. I would not be surprised if Tunmus (one of the mythical creatures from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), were to greet me with a cup of hot cocoa around the next bend.
Instead I spot two coyotes playfully chasing each other down the path a few dozen feet ahead of me. They seems unconcerned by either my presence, or the bitter cold.
Looking down I notice that they are not the only creatures using the running path. Indeed the path is criss-crossed with a vast variety of animal foot prints from the very small to the scary large. The most disturbing and fresh is a set of large foot prints with a trail of crimson blood.
I follow what I assume are coyote prints as they criss-cross the path leaving a bloody trail for about a quarter of a mile before they disappear into the woods. Every-so-often I see an obvious struggle in the snow before the foot prints continue along the path.
About three miles into the loop I notice a prominent sign that I could not read at the beginning of the loop when my eyes were still frozen shut. The sign reads "Path Temporarily Closed Ahead."
For a second I worry that all of my planning and pain would be in vain today. But then I quickly look around and notice the slightly elevated railroad tracks running along the path. At the very worst I would run on these and hopefully finish the full loop.
I have little to fear. A small lake has overrun the path and washed it out a bit. But since it is hovering around zero the entire area has been turned into a glorious ice skating rink. I burst out of the forest, past the "path is closed" sign, and into a winter wonderland right out of a Disney movie.
The last of the human prints now disappear, and I'm the first and only two-legged creature to cross this part of the path. I slip and slide over the ice like a kid on Christmas Morning. My presents are simple but magnificent. A glorious natural world, frozen and alive...all at the same time. The wind whips through the frozen willows as the geese circle overhead. Shouldn't they be someplace warmer I muse to myself as I cross the frozen lake and head back out onto the rest of the trail?
I'm at about mile 4 on the loop and almost halfway around. This part of the forest preserve offers the best view of the National Lab. I can clearly make out the research buildings just past the model airplane field.
Today nobody is flying anything, but the wind sock is standing tall and erect in the hollowing bitter wind, that once again has taken a bite out of my hide. It is with great relief that at about mile 5, I once again plunge into the forest and out of the chilly breath of Mrs. Freeze.
The path meanders right, left, and right again before it plunges into a small series of gentle rollers. My heart starts pumping harder and soon the chill of the frozen lake is forgotten as I run by the crumbling foundations of the old Lincoln Park Gardens. At least that's what I recall from a brief talk I had with a friend about the origins of these mysterious long forgotten buildings.
Almost 80 years ago these now overgrown foundations and crumbling remains used to be the home of the Lincoln Park Gardens. Plants were grown here for the Lincoln Park Area of Chicago and perhaps even the Lincoln Park Zoo. Today all that remains is a large prominent stone inscription still clinging to one of the crumbling buildings that reads LPS 1927.
I ponder the meaning of this as a distant train whistle blows heralding the unwanted arrive of a civilization into my peaceful frozen world.
But before the train can disturb my solo run, I turn right, cross yet another small foot bridge and head away from the train tracks and deeper into the woods.
At mile 6 I start to struggle a bit. My running is no longer fluid and easy, but becomes more labored. I start to ponder the wisdom of running on such a frozen day. I still have 3 miles to go and stopping now could be deadly. It is only the effort of running that is keeping my sweaty body warm. I'm positive that if I were to stop I'd freeze solid like the water in my fuel belt did about 2 miles ago.
When I left the parking lot was empty. The last time I had run this loop in the winter I happened upon two illicit love birds deep in the throws of passion in the the back seat of a white BMW. But alas this morning it was even too cold for their love affair. I still have just over 3 miles left to go before I get back to the safety of my car and I have yet to see another human. Just as I begin to fret I round a corner and meet another runner going the opposite way on the loop. She asks me about the closed path and I say not to worry. We smile beneath our frozen face masks and I keep running with a new sense of determination.
Now the waiting warmth of the car's heater is pulling me forward like a human magnet. The last 3 miles of the run fly by as I run past the namesake Waterfall. Perhaps the miles pass so quickly because much of the path is either flat or downhill.
For almost all of the run the only sound I really notice is the gentle crunch of my shoes and the subtle pounding of my heart. But now I start to hear the roar of the expressway as I near the parking lot. With a final hard effort, I bust out on to Cass Avenue and spot my car.
I look down on my frozen watch and it says 1:44. In the summer I ran the entire loop in just over 1:30.
But hey I wasn't wearing 80 layers of clothes and I was able to hydrate throughout the run. I try to suck down some post run hydration I left in the car. But the best I can do is take a small lick from the frozen Gatorade Popsicle Bottle. Yea, it was that cold that the Gatorade froze in my car in under two hours.
But it was all worth it.
I had one of the best and most memorable runs in my life. I just have to keep reminding myself that sometimes the colder the weather, the better the run, as I sit shivering, waiting for the car to warm up.
Roman Mica is the managing Editor of EverymanTri.com He recently had a new book published, entitled "No, Seriously, My Training Begins Tomorrow: The Everyman's Guide to IRONFIT Swimming, Cycling & Running." Both books in traditional and electronic form are also available from www.Amazon by clicking HERE.