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Opinion

01 April 2013, 7am

Conventional advice is that you should not run at temperatures below –20˚C. In Siberia they think differently…

Loving a cold climate

by Inna Chernoblavskaya

Based on 23 successful editions of the Siberian Ice Half-Marathon and my own (13-year) experience as one of its managers it is quite possible to run in low temperatures with the proper preparation and training.

The Siberian Ice Half-Marathon is held in the depths of the Siberian winter, with temperatures as low as -42˚C (in 2001); the warmest race was in 2012 at –4˚C.

The race was started in 1991 by enthusiastic local runners, with about 40 taking part and the temperature a mild -10˚C. The organizers wanted to create more opportunities for mass competitive running in winter. At that time there was not a single winter race in the Russian calendar – and winter in most parts of Russia lasts up to six months. Over time, Mother Nature has turned the race into one of the coolest races in the world. The complexity of climate dictated the need for professional management, and the second edition was organized by the Siberian International Marathon team.

In its early years the race was under careful scrutiny of the city authorities and health services. They saw potential danger, but the first results showed that the race had positive effects, both social and economic. Over the years the Siberian Ice Half-Marathon has grown into an international event, becoming a member of AIMS in 2011, and attracting runners from all over the world. Russian participants expect that the race will bring them overwhelming joy; foreigners see it as a challenge to Mother Nature, a test of their endurance.

The early fears were that hypothermia could cause cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. There is a danger of frostbite. Slippery surfaces will distort efficient running techniques and may lead to injury. The body loses fluid which is difficult to regain while running.

Race medical records show not a single case of either hypothermia or serious frostbite, although in 2001 (at -42˚C) a few people suffered a little frostbite on the exposed areas of the face. The lack of incidents is because each component of the race organization is controlled to adapt race services to the needs of the runner, focusing first and foremost on their health and comfort:

  • The distance was determined solely on the opinion of medical professionals, and was not to exceed a half-marathon.
  • The configuration and location of the course were chosen for the protection of the runners and to allow complete visual tracking of each participant. The course is six laps of 3.5km and runs through parks in the centre of the city, to protect runners from the wind.
  • The course surface is prepared by clearing the snow with special equipment (in some parts we compact the snow), and putting a special skid-resistant coating on the road to increase the grip of runners’ shoes.
  • The medical services allow for any participant to be reached easily and quickly, with three fixed first aid stations and two mobile medical teams on the lap.
  • Equipment is provided to participants to protect the body parts most susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia: head, face, neck, arms, legs. We offer low temperature resistant accessories: hats, masks, scarves, gloves, thermal underwear, and frost protective creams.
  • Race preparation is offered to those who are running for the first time in such low temperatures, including training plans and recommendations about conditions.
  • Advice about weather conditions is given immediately before the race.
  • Rehydration is ensured by providing hot tea with herbs that warms the body without increasing sweating. Water is not recommended because of the risk of getting cold.
  • Recuperation: to prevent cold-related illnesses participants are invited to a Russian banya (a kind of sauna with humid air) after the race. The body is warmed in the banya through a massage applied with fresh leafy twigs which press hot air to the body.
  • Motivation: foreign runners who may be facing such extreme climatic conditions for the first time in their life, need particular support. Fan groups, jazz bands and folk groups line the course to cheer runners on. Each participant feels our support; we instill the “I can do this!” attitude in them, boosting their motivation.

Siberia’s extreme continental climate is characterized by rapid changes in temperature and humidity and heavy rain and snow. The organization of the race has to be adapted to whatever new conditions arise. In 2001, with a temperature of -42˚C, participants’ safety became a real issue. But the race was not cancelled and of 40 who started 37 finished.

Siberian runners used to cold weather need do little to adapt to these climatic conditions. The practice of ‘morzhevanie’ – “winter life style” (‘morzh’ means ‘walrus’: it is believed that the walrus could stay warm because of its blubber) involves some Siberians running in little more than summer gear: T-shirts, shorts, light shoes (the only winter clothes are a hat and mittens) even at sub-zero temperatures.

Foreign runners can only simulate Siberian conditions with difficulty – by using industrial refrigerators or going to the mountains.

A group from Switzerland took part in the 2013 race. They were of different ages, professions, and sports preferences, but none of them were runners. They were united by the common idea of participating in an event held in extraordinary conditions that test their endurance and resolve. They trained in industrial refrigerators in Zurich and imagined their trip to Omsk as: “we get into a huge refrigerator called “Siberia”, the door is closed behind us, smart phones are turned off (smart phones at low temperatures really are turned off), the connection with civilization is cut off and the adventure begins.” After they finished they commented jubilantly: “We challenged Mother Nature and feel like heroes after we have won over her. It was difficult but still possible.”

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