It's a little early to be making any forecasts (especially since I'm not a meteorologist), but there's at least a decent chance that April 7 will be a beautiful spring day, complete with crisp cool air and clear blue skies. That would be just fine with the thousands of runners, many of them local but some from around the world, who will be taking to the streets for the Go! St. Louis Marathon (and Half Marathon).
But among the challenges of getting ready for a spring race is growing accustomed to running in the cold. Most plans follow a 12- (or 16-) week schedule, which means lots of chilly runs in the blustery months of January and February in preparation for an April race. I'm signed up to run the half marathon, and I can tell you from personal experience that when the alarm clock is going off at 5:30 a.m., it can feel just about impossible to lure your legs out of your warm bed to knock out 5 miles in freezing temperatures.
So what should you do if you're six weeks into a training program and losing the nerve to brave the cold? When I found myself in that position, I signed up for the training team at Big River Running Company. Several running stores offer training groups, but we like the one at Big River for a few reasons, most of all because it's free.
Here's how it works: First, you sign up online. The group started back in January, but late comers are welcome. Every Sunday morning, the training team meets for a long run, usually at Forest Park or Katy Trail. On Mondays, group runs are held at the South City and O'Fallon store locations. Then during the week, participants receive an email with information about the run for the following Sunday, the list of attendance-prize winners from the previous week (swag!), and a recommended workout for Wednesday.
My first long run with the group came a couple of weeks ago. It was a Sunday morning at Forest Park, and we were doing 10 miles. About halfway through the run, the sky opened up, and it started pouring rain. It wasn't long before every inch of me was completely drenched. But for whatever reason, having those other runners there with me made the conditions more bearable. We could share a knowing glance, roll our eyes, lament the lightning, and power through.
The head coach of the Big River training team is Tim Bradley, who is also assistant coach of the track and cross-country teams at Saint Louis University. He says the biggest perk of joining a training group is having that support system. "On cold winter mornings, it's tough enough," he says, "so to run with a group on a regular basis, especially your long runs, is probably the biggest advantage."
Bradley is an elite runner in his own right, with a long resume of accomplishments, but the training team offers something for runners of all ability levels, with programs tailored to beginner, intermediate, and advanced runners for both the half and full marathons. "Most people, when they start running, they have this perception that they're the slowest person out there," Bradley says. "So the fact that the beginners can meet up and see other people of the same ability level trying to accomplish the same thing, that element is huge."
Meghan Mueller, who is now one of the pace coaches for the Big River, started out in that beginner group just a few years ago. She says the training team has created "a community of runners of all shapes, sizes, speeds." And most importantly, "People have a great time."
Mueller's advice for motivating yourself on a cold day is to set up running dates with friends, whether through a training program or otherwise, who can keep you honest with a little peer pressure. Sometimes, on a cold morning, she'll text her running buddies and say, "No. I don't want to do this." Moments later, she'll get the response: "Yeah, we're doing it." So she pulls on her running shoes. And as corny as it sounds, Mueller also has covered her house in pictures and quotes to help keep her focused on her goals.
At each Sunday run, Bradley gives a quick clinic on a topic like nutrition, stretching, rest, or pacing. "Running is kind of this thing where it’s a simple activity, but it can really encompass a lot of facets of our life," he says. His advice for sticking with your training program is to make specific goals and then to focus on them daily. He also says that stocking up on appropriate cold-weather running gear can make frigid days much more bearable. And as hard as this is to fathom in February, he says that it's much easier to run in the cold than it is in 100-degree heat.
As for race day, Bradley's No. 1 tip is to focus on pacing. That's because the No. 1 mistake is getting too excited and starting too fast, then running out of gas before the finish line. Mueller cautions against trying anything new for the first time on race day. "New clothes, new shoes, new food—bad, bad, bad," she says. And don't forget the most important advice of all: Have fun.