20 Miles, 20 Below

An image of insanity-the author prepares for his run and confirms just how cold it is

20 Miles, 20 Below

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John Dudas

Since the Las Vegas marathon was only three weeks away, this was the day, in early January 2005, that we needed to do the capstone 23-mile training run. Shortly after waking, I looked outside and recognized the familiar, glorious dawn sequence playing out over the Bridgers: the dimly lit sky slowly overtaking the deep blackness, the emergence of soft pink and orange pastels, and ultimately the dominating sunlight beaming upon the Gallatin Valley. It was bright, clear, still, and serene. My peaceful morning quickly turned to panic, however, when I noticed the thermometer outside my window. “It's minus 20 outside!” I cried out, breaking the dead silence. I rushed to open the front door and was stung instantly by dry, arctic air that flooded my lungs. Old Man Winter was happy to teach me his lesson: Welcome to Montana, newbie!

Fearful about the formidable task before me, I fretted over the possibility of surviving nearly three hours outdoors. I called Tim, my running partner, to ask his thoughts about our situation. Could we blow it off, reschedule for another day? We understood the importance of this workout for our training. With a busy week ahead, we should run today. Although I felt terribly anxious, I was resistant to let vulnerable feelings compromise my outward demeanor. So, I flexed my bravado and declared ourselves marathon runners without limits. “We can handle this, Tim. We’re marathoners who live in Montana. Let’s embrace it, this is what Montanans do!” Tim followed my lead. A large part of me wished he hadn't.

While dressing, my pent-up anxiety burst. This was stupid and dangerous! Nonetheless, I piled on layers of clothing: four polyester shirts, two pair of running pants underneath wind pants, two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, a windbreaker, a neck warmer, and a pull-over face mask. Recollections of my coldest running experience haunted me—a zero-degree day in Boston lasting only 45 minutes, which I barely survived. Every appendage froze and hurt like hell. Yet today, I faced three hours at minus twenty. Would we make it?

With two of us, there was twice the chance something could go wrong, but certainly it was safer than running alone. I eased my tension by conceding that if either of us became hypothermic or had other trouble, we would flag down a driver or knock on a door for help. After drinking water and grabbing a PowerBar, I left to meet Tim.

We quickly set into motion. All the layers swelled my frame to resemble an awkward blend of Pillsbury Doughboy and Michelin Man. Every stride was inefficient and required extra effort. The freeze permeated me like a bolt of lightning. My lips cracked when I struggled to speak. Within minutes, my eyelids were nearly frozen and difficult to blink. Ice crystals accumulated on my eyelashes and my runny nose formed an icicle. My lungs initially rejected my inhalations, causing me to sputter like a car low on fuel. I noticed that Tim's face became almost completely white as moisture crystallized on his skin, whiskers, lashes, and brows; a skinny version of the Abominable Snowman. After 25 minutes, my water bottle froze. Later, I bit down on the PowerBar and discovered it was solid as a rock. After an hour, I noticed the arms of my windbreaker were heavy and that my elbows were numb. My sweat had pooled inside and froze at the elbows. The prospect of enduring became mind over matter. I amused myself that if Jim Bridger could survive out here, so could I for three hours.

Everything was in slow motion—our bodies, pace, speech, and passing motorists who paused to witness the idiocy of our cause. “Hey, you want a ride somewhere?” a sympathetic driver offered. Although my body pleaded yes, the will said no. We chose to be out there and would finish what we started. These strange looks, though well deserved, actually boosted my resolve. I felt strong and proud, to be running 20 at minus 20 degrees. It was a demented sense of empowerment, but empowerment just the same. We were not limited by the elements.

We lasted three hours and ran the full distance, a success. As our adventure drew to a close, I became reflective and nostalgic about the experience. Once able to withstand the initial fury of the deep freeze, a calm, peaceful sensation overcame me. It was my appreciation for experiencing a true Montana moment. This is why I live here, to savor the full spectrum of nature’s extreme and varied glory. I choose to embrace it, and I hope to connect with it again and again.

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