One Foot in Front of the Other

The last time a snowstorm hit Seattle a few years ago, I trudged through the snow to my neighborhood grocery store in slippery-soled boots and watched with envy as a runner glided across the frozen terrain, utterly unbothered thanks to metal traction devices hooked onto the soles of her running shoes.

As I committed to memory the sight — and subsequent FOMO — I grumbled internally: I would never have thought to do that.

In the Before Time, I’d often take my winter workouts inside: A gym treadmill, while dull, gets the job done, especially combined with muted CNN and a proprietary mix of Buzz Ballads and Charli XCX. But when it snowed, I had nowhere to go. Without my running routine, I’d languish indoors like a petulant child, bored and antsy.

Then COVID hit. Gyms were over. If I wanted to run in winter, it meant running outside — rain, shine or snow.

So when our latest snowfall arrived, bringing snowsuits out of storage and inciting panic among West Coast drivers, I decided to emulate that seemingly blissful runner I’d seen previously.

I snugged a pair of Yaktrax gifted by my brother over my usual Adidas Aerobounce STs, and hit the road in my two masks and newly grippy running shoes, first to Woodland Park (you are contractually obligated to go if it snows and you live within a 3-mile radius), then along the ridge and through the neighborhood.

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I felt unspeakably free as I wove in and out of the snow, among slow-moving pedestrians and sidewalk skiers, past the snow-covered prayer wheels outside the Sakya Monastery at Northwest 83rd Street and First Avenue Northwest and a giant snow sculpture of an open-mouthed monster outside a tiny house near my apartment.

Along the way, I caught glimpses of kids on bright saucers as they slid downhill from Phinney Ridge — or, in one case, imaginative adults trying to ride a shovel (!!!) down North 81st Street between Alice Ball Park and the Greenwood branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Elsewhere, a plastic storage bin was repurposed as a boxy sled. It wasn’t the weirdest improvised object I’ve seen used that way. We do what we can with what we have in Seattle. I saw all this as I cruised past, satisfyingly, almost unsettlingly light on my feet.

If you, too, are exercise-dependent enough to want to chase endorphins in the snow, traction devices for running, walking and hiking are easy to find at outdoor recreation retailers like REI and Ascent Outdoors. Yaktrax and Kahtoola MICROspikes are two common brands. MICROspikes are exactly what they sound like — metal spikes that help the sole of your shoe adhere to the ground. Yaktrax, which are slightly cheaper, achieve the same effect using rubber and steel coils or chains. You can select different models for different activities, from hiking to mountaineering, but for stability and grip while running on Seattle snow, either option will work; you just pull them on over your running shoes.

Traction devices like Yaktrax (pictured here) help runners’ feet grip the road in icy, snowy conditions, making it possible to run in otherwise slippery conditions. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)
Traction devices like Yaktrax (pictured here) help runners’ feet grip the road in icy, snowy conditions, making it possible to run in otherwise slippery conditions. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)

My Yaktrax employ chains sort of like a tiny version of the ones you’d put on your car. They grip snowy, slippery surfaces similarly well and stayed put through two runs in snow. (And slush. And mud. And all three.) The user experience is similar to running on racing spikes or waffles, but with the solid support of a running shoe.

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The added traction also made social distancing easier; when you’re not struggling to keep your footing, it’s a lot easier to pop up onto the side of the trail when you meet another runner on the trail.

But even with good traction, you should proceed with caution if you’re running on a snowy day. Moving briskly on icy surfaces is a markedly different experience compared to running on a clear, dry sidewalk. The surface can be bumpy and uneven, and the whole enterprise is immediately more energy-sapping. I recommend decreasing your pace slightly and abandoning any crazy-high mileage goals you may have.

As with trail running, you’ll also rely on your core and ankle stability more than usual. I shortened my strides and avoided especially slushy areas. While game-changing, traction devices are not magic: If you sink into a snowbank, your feet will get wet. (Also, maybe don’t run at the bottom of any hills where people are sledding?)

Traction devices can make you feel near-immortal on the icy streets of Seattle, but the moment you walk anywhere indoors you’ll feel weird and unsteady.

At the end of my run, I ducked into the local grocery store to pick up some fresh-cut flowers (do you live alone in a pandemic? I recommend you do the same) and had to seriously slow down as I hobbled to the bouquets on my chains, among the biggest crowd I’d seen in the store since the start of the pandemic. (As is Seattle tradition, when it snows, we try to buy everything we need at our corner grocery stores, with mixed results and all employees called to the registers.)

Still, as I speed-walked home, clutching my bunch of pink-and-white flowers with the tenderness of a figure skater in the kiss ‘n’ cry, I realized I was looking forward to being back inside after my vigorous workout in the snow. Home would be a place to relax with hot cocoa and an old episode of “Gilmore Girls.” No longer was it the cooped-up hell of previous snowstorms, or even the dull, dystopic command center of my life in quarantine. I couldn’t wait to see my couch and my view and my cat again. I had been absolutely right to be jealous of that other runner during my gym-going days. If you’re reading this now, thank you.