Be bold, start cold. "Don't dress like the Michelin man," says Richard Donovan, founder of the North Pole Marathon, a race that draws up to 55 runners each year to the icefield at the top of the world. Too much sweat will freeze your buns off. "One of the ironies of running in cold weather is overheating," he says.
The Irish marathoner caught the bug for sub-zero running in 2002, when he became the first to complete a marathon at the South Pole. On the frigid Antarctic plateau, he hoofed it at 10,000 feet, braving temperatures of minus 50 C with wind chill. Donovan won the race, but says he doesn't remember his time. "It was no PB [personal best], I can tell you that much."
Two months later, he headed for the Arctic to become the first to finish a marathon at the North Pole. The 50-year-old economist turned extreme-marathon entrepreneur now offers the same adventure to others, at a cost of €13,800 (about $20,000) a pop. (Donovan charters a plane that departs from the Svalbard archipelago off Norway. Then there are the heated tents and polar bear guards to pay for.)
Some participants have trained for the race by running on a treadmill in a freezer. Donovan says he doubts that offers much benefit, "except maybe a psychological one." A better approach, he says, is to run longer distances and get used to spending more time on your feet. Icy, snowy terrain makes the going tough. "What might normally take four or five hours is going to take you longer."
Trail runners are the best footwear for running on ice and snow, he says, adding that some runners wear "gators" over their ankles to keep the snow out. Clothing for cold-weather running doesn't have to be expensive.
Donovan suggests a base layer on the legs and torso to wick away sweat, a fleece layer on the upper body for warmth and a shell for the legs and torso, ideally with zippers to let out body heat.
Mittens are better than gloves because they allow air to circulate. Goggles and face masks are a must in extreme cold to protect eyes, ears and mouth from frostbite.
But since goggles fog up, and wearing a mask can start to feel claustrophobic, runners tend to keep pulling them off and on again.
This increases the chances of the dreaded white nose, a sign of frostbite. Donovan recommends immediate contact with bare skin. "Don't put your glove on your nose because that's not going to warm it up."
Nutrition for a cold-weather run is no different from how you'd eat before a Miami race, he says, although North Pole runners are more likely to rehydrate with hot soup or coffee instead of cold water. As for body fat, "I think if you're very, very thin, obviously, that's not necessarily beneficial."
Proper ventilation is the main thing, whether you're running in the Arctic or in Toronto when it's 30 below. As long as you layer your clothing and mind that your extremities don't get too cold, he says, "nothing should stop you being able to go for a run."