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  • Writer's pictureBrett Stanton

Cold Weather / Winter Trail Running Training

From Boston to Santa Fe to Jackson Hole, One New Englander’s Approach to Beating the Winter to Prepare for a Race

sun setting over Santa Fe, New Mexico leads to beautiful pastel blues, pinks, and purples lighting up the sky over the high desert

Sunset from one of the many local trails: Santa Fe, NM - Photo Credit: Moriah Wolfe


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In running, and particularly in trail running, preparation is king. In order to perform your best come race day, you should have built up your stamina and pre/post-run processes well before you step up to the starting line. However, when training for a recent race I ran into a serious problem: how do I ensure I’m the most prepared I can possibly be while living at sea level in a freezing climate, with an upcoming race at high elevation? This was the question presented to me when I signed up in December for an alpine trail running race taking place in the Summer.

For some background, I live in Boston. As you may have heard, the weather in Boston is decidedly unpleasant in the winter. This was also my first formal trail running experience, so the entire training process was new for me. In order to learn the ropes and build my endurance, I had to start slow - however, I had no interest in doing so in the bitter cold of a Boston winter.

As companies across many industries have made arrangements for employees to work from home over the course of the pandemic, many have realized that we're not tethered to a single location to work/live/play/etc throughout the year. I am fortunate enough that Pathloom lets us work remotely, so with winter fast approaching I began looking for a location where I could train - a more mild climate, at elevation, and with an extensive trail network close by. I hate running in the heat, and most of the hottest winter destinations in the U.S. are coastal (and thus not at the elevation I was seeking) anyways, so I quickly filtered out New Orleans, San Diego, Charleston, and other similar spots. I targeted the Southwest because it generally checked off all of my boxes. As it satisfied just about my entire wishlist, I eventually settled on Santa Fe, New Mexico.

New England's winter wonderland may look beautiful when the snow has freshly fallen, but it's not the ideal situation for trail running training

Attempting a run in New England and deciding to head West - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton

It took me a while to secure housing and get everything in order to make the drive from Boston to Santa Fe, but I finally arrived there in mid-January. While every part of the Massachusetts winter is rough, I was pleased to escape half of January and all of February - the two coldest and snowiest months of all. Since Santa Fe is at elevation (the house I was staying at sat around 6,800 feet), it is by no means as warm as some other desert destinations. However, it was consistently 10 or so degrees warmer than home - perfect running weather - and gets 3 times less snowfall on average. Also, with an average of 325 sun days per year (compared to just 200 in Boston; most of which don’t come during the winter) I never felt bitter cold or had to contend with significant snow conditions.

As it turned out, when I first arrived I was limited to trails in some of the lower-lying areas. There may not be as much snow as back in Boston, but there’s still a fair amount at higher elevations - which meant any of the true alpine trail options were still thoroughly impassable. As a result, I had to make do with a slightly reduced slate of options initially - which worked out, because I wasn’t ready for any intense excursions when I first arrived anyways. On top of needing to acclimate to the elevation, I arrived in the area relatively out of shape, especially so after a 3-day road trip to get there. Suffice to say, no mountains were getting climbed with how I was feeling, regardless of the weather conditions!

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with training in Santa Fe - it is truly a hiker’s and trail runner’s paradise. The area offers National Forests, Wilderness Areas, and other local parks and trail networks. While starting slow, I mostly frequented the La Tierra Trails, which were relatively flat and offered effectively unlimited customization for running routes. I had a blast getting an initial baseline level of fitness here on these trails.

map of La Tierra Trails near Santa Fe New Mexico

La Tierra Trail Map - Santa Fe Conservation Trust

map of Dale Ball trails near Santa Fe, New Mexico

One of the most brutal parts of a Northeastern winter is the length. You can expect wintry conditions in Boston basically from Thanksgiving until April Fool’s Day. Not good. Luckily, it began to warm up much more quickly in Santa Fe. As I built my endurance, I was able to access more intense trails both due to my increasing fitness and the melting snow. After about a month of chilly-but-manageable late afternoon runs at La Tierra, I began to ramp up my activity by moving on to the Dale Ball Trails.

While I love my home back East, it just doesn’t offer the level of open space and extensive trails afforded in the Western U.S. The Dale Ball Trails are a great example of this. Miles and miles of beautiful desert loops, with some serious elevation change - right in your backyard! I started with a simple 3 mile loop of the Northern Section. There were three serious ascents on the loop, so the early runs were challenging. However, I quickly coasted through those and moved on to the 6+ mile loop, before eventually moving to a near 10-mile version of this run.

While certain parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine offered comparable training opportunities, they were all hours from my Boston home, not even close to the elevation of my race, and would be covered in snow and ice for at least the next month or two regardless. As I started to feel more and more confident in my fitness, I also became happier and happier to have made the decision to come out this way for a winter of training.

By early April, I started to feel my mid-June race day in Jackson Hole, WY coming into focus. Luckily, by that time, certain mid-alpine elevations started to become passable in Santa Fe. With the progression I’d made and new trail opportunities, I began to ramp up my training considerably. The next phase of my training consisted of daily runs of the Atalaya Trail. This beautiful 6.2 mile out-and-back featured nearly 1,800 vertical feet of elevation gain, and was quite a challenge when I first started. After a few weeks, however, I was able to knock out two loops of it.

sun setting over Santa Fe, New Mexico leads to beautiful pastel blues, pinks, and purples lighting up the sky over the high desert

An evening run on the Atalaya Trail - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton

By the time I was doing two loops of Atalaya with ease, a whole new world of alpine opportunities began opening up as snow had melted at the higher elevations. Slowly, I ventured into the beautiful Pecos Wilderness. With countless miles of beautiful trails and surrounded by National Forests and BLM lands on all sides, I found it easy to ramp up my mileage and elevation gain here, while creeping up to higher and higher elevations as the snowmelt permitted.

a clear day trail running in the high desert near santa fe new mexico

A run in the desert in Sante Fe, NM - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton

After months of training, mid-June was fast approaching. I actually found myself encountering a different problem: I had to shift my schedule to run in the morning to beat the heat! What a journey it had been; from escaping the frigid cold of New England, to slowly having more moderate temperatures and more trail access in Santa Fe - it was remarkable how far I’d come. The culmination of this long journey inspired me to take on a major challenge before race day: summiting the Sante Fe Baldy.

This ~14 mile hike with nearly 5,000 feet of vertical elevation gain was a true beast, and I wasn’t ready to tackle the entire thing while running. In order to take this one on I took a hybrid approach -- running for a long stretch then stopping to hike briskly when necessity dictated. Even utilizing these tactics, with the huge gain and max elevation sitting at over 12,500 feet this monster definitely was still the most challenging piece of my training. After a successful journey to the summit and back (and some pretty epic views along the way!), I felt that my training was officially complete.

The breathtaking Lake Katherine, as seen from the summit of Santa Fe Baldy in New Mexico

Lake Katherine, from the Baldy summit: Santa Fe, NM - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton

The next weekend, I went off to Jackson Hole and completed my first ever trail running race. I could not have been better prepared, and I felt really comfortable and in control throughout the run. I've already signed up to take on a longer version of this same race taking place at the same time next year, and I think I may just have found the perfect training playbook. If you live in a cold-weather climate and have the ability to head out somewhere else to train during the winter, I’d highly recommend doing so - whether to Santa Fe or somewhere else that fits your needs. Escape the blizzards, explore new areas of the country, and get ready to race!


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