THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

In Marathon training, no snow holidays

By John Powers
Globe Staff / March 5, 2009
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The secret to running in snow, confides Bill Rodgers, is Yaktrax, a rubber and steel coils device that attaches to shoe bottoms to provide extra traction. "They're like tiny snowshoes," said the four-time Boston Marathon champion, who did an 8-mile training jaunt in Boxborough Monday after the storm had dumped a foot of white stuff. "What you do is, you adapt. You have to find a way around the winter as an obstacle."

For thousands of local runners, this winter's nasty combination of snow and subfreezing temperatures has presented an unusual challenge for training for next month's 113th Marathon. But it hasn't kept them indoors. "Many of our members just put their heads down and truck through their miles out in the elements," said Mike McKechnie, president of the Cambridge Running Club, which has three dozen entrants in the field.

With race day less than seven weeks away, competitors need to build up an endurance base that will enable them to survive the world's most demanding 26-mile layout. "You have to get the miles in," said Erin Heslin, a Newtonville resident who runs for the Boston Athletic Association and coaches cross-country at Framingham High School. "You miss a long run and your whole training is off."

So competitors have been doing whatever it takes to get in their 100-plus miles a week. "Generally, the guys go out in whatever conditions pertain," said Bruce Davie, president of the Greater Boston Track Club, which will have between 15 and 20 athletes in the race.

Marathoners, who are obsessive by nature, hate missing workouts, even in arctic conditions. "A group of us call ourselves the Ice Road Runners, after the Ice Road Truckers TV show," said Rodgers, who has asked the BAA organizers to set aside a number for him just in case he gets the itch to race. "We're just as crazy as they are."

This season's volatile weather - snow followed by 50-degree temperatures followed by a deep freeze followed by a thaw followed by more snow - has demanded both flexibility and creativity from runners determined to get in their work. But they've been undeterred. "You just run through it no matter what," said Beth Coughlin, a Newton resident and BAA member who has run the race five times. "Nothing is going to stop you."

The experienced marathoners keep a sharp eye on the forecast, juggling training days and times. They use indoor tracks. They strap on Yaktrax and slosh through the snow. Or they cross-train. "On Monday, I went for a snowshoe run along the banks of the Charles," said Davie. "It's a great workout."

One way or another, runners are determined to get outdoors. "I'd rather run in ice and cold and freezing rain than run on the treadmill," said Coughlin. For serious distance racers, there's no substitute for pounding the pavement, particularly long sections of the hilly course from Hopkinton to Copley Square. "To train for the Boston Marathon, you run on the Boston Marathon course," said race director Dave McGillivray, who annually runs the route immediately after the event. "To run strategically here you have to know the course, and to know the course you have to run it."

That is why Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher, the top two American hopes in this year's race, made a point of lacing up for lengthy training runs when they were in town recently. Hall, who trains in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., went out last Sunday just as the weather was turning foul and ran the final 20 miles. Goucher, who lives in Portland, Ore., spent the better part of a week here last month when she was competing in the Reebok Boston Indoor Games and will get in more work on the course this month en route to the Lisbon Half Marathon.

"I was surprised at how much I liked it," said Goucher, who's bidding to be the first domestic women's victor in 24 years. "But I was also surprised at how much it upset my stomach. The course is so rolling."

For local club members, training on the course on Saturday and Sunday mornings has become an annual ritual. "That's when everyone comes out of the woodwork," said Coughlin. Last weekend, hundreds of runners could be spotted on the main routes of Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and Newton - Routes 135, 16, and 30. "I took the commuter rail out to Ashland last Saturday and did the last 24 miles," said Bernie Muller, who lives in the Back Bay and runs along the river and the Emerald Necklace.

Since the roads along the course usually are the first ones plowed, they're an attractive option for runners wanting maximum mileage with minimum slipping. But the marathon route requires dodging traffic and avoiding ankle-busting potholes. "The biggest challenge is finding roadways and pathways that are safe to run on," said McGillivray.

The paths along the Charles are a favorite, as is the carriage road along Commonwealth Avenue. "I've been doing a lot of training on Heartbreak Hill," reported Heslin. "That's my best friend."

Parking garages also are popular, as are cemeteries. "They're always plowed," observed Coughlin.

Boston's storied marathon is unique, both in its quirky topography and its meteorology. During the past five years, the temperature at the start has ranged from 47 to 83 degrees, with the 2007 race held amid windswept rain. "Sometimes weather like this is the best preparation you can get," said Muller. "I told someone I was running with that I would hate to be coming here from Arizona."

The problem with an April marathon is that runners have to train during the winter. But Boston habitues wouldn't change the date any more than they'd level the Newton hills. "I wonder what it's like to run a fall marathon," mused Coughlin. "It would be a treat. But this is what makes this race special."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.