Think of the last time you ran in the snow.
You set out making tracks in the fresh white powder. Snowflakes tickle your eyelashes and you can hear the crunch, crunch, crunch beneath your feet in an otherwise still and quiet world. Clumps of the cold stuff hang on tree limbs, piñata-esque waiting for you to jump and bat it down, and you can almost taste the hot chocolate waiting for you at home.
But soon, maybe after a couple miles, your fingers and toes are a little numb. A breeze kicks up every now and then and cuts through your jacket. Brr! You’ve hit an icy patch and now the fun dash through the snow has turned into a dainty dance as you keep your balance.
It’s the struggle we face as runners in the winter. The pull to stretch our legs and run and sweat is met with the challenges of battling the elements.
But ask Brooks Beast Garrett Heath what he thinks of running in the winter and he’ll give you a smile. After growing up in Minnesota and spending winters in the “North Country,” Garrett has a nostalgia and affinity for cold, snowy (read: kinda nasty) weather that few other professional runners have. He relishes the conditions that send many of us indoors to the treadmill: cold, wet, muddy, snowy and downright tough. In his eyes, those are some of the best parts about winter running, and his love of them just might just be why he runs so darn fast in them.
Garrett grew up with the snow in Winona, Minn. Although he’s lived in Seattle for years, Winona is a place he still calls home. His parents live there, he grew up there, and he still goes back there for the holidays to visit family and friends.
When talking of home, he of course mentions the running around beautiful forests, the great canoeing and kayaking locations and the Midwest temperament that’s both hospitable and kind. What he might not mention right off the bat, though, is the part of the Midwest personality that’s rugged; both on the part of its residents and its geography.
Winters are harsh. Especially for a place with regions named the “North Country” and the “Boundary Waters.” Both of which are beautiful, Garrett assures. But when he talks about Minnesota winters, he smiles.
“Thinking about putting on my running shoes and going out on the roads or the golf course covered in snow with mittens and two pairs of tights, it seemed weird at first, but after a while you get used to it,” he says. “It becomes a little more of an adventure and it takes some of the focus off how hard the workout is and it’s more about facing the elements and enjoying seeing what you can accomplish.”
And Garrett has accomplished a lot in the snow. To his credit, he’s accomplished a lot generally in his running career. The Brooks Beast recently ran 13- minutes, 55-seconds for the men’s 5,000-meter run at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships last summer (his personal record is 13:16). Before that, he placed fourth in the same event in 2015, running 13:51.
So it’s not that Garrett does poorly on the track at all. But in the snow… well, in the snow, he shines. Earlier this year, Garrett won the Great Edinburgh Cross Country International Challenge 8-kilometer run, besting Olympic Gold Medalist Mo Farah on his home turf. And that was after two consecutive wins at the 4-kilometer distance.
“We were running through mud that’s 6-8 inches deep,” Garrett remembers. “You’re basically running through a swamp. The temperature was a little bit warmer like in the 30s.”
Garrett pauses to laugh, acknowledging how it sounds to say “warmer” about any 30-something-degree temperature.
“I wanted to take Mo to the line, but it’s hard to have expectations going up against an Olympic champion,” he continues. “Having that added element of strategy and gamesmanship against competitors is another element I like about it. When you’re in a race and competing really, hard going to the extreme, you’re mentally looking for a reason to give up and go easier, and having the cold, adverse conditions are just another reason to cave in because it gets tough. Maybe that’s an advantage for me because I enjoy those conditions.”
The threepeat cross country win is no coincidence or surprise when you dig into it, though. It’s a part of his running history born and nurtured on the snow-blanketed paths of Minnesota race courses.
Garrett recalls an unusually cold September cross country race one year at Winona Senior High School when it snowed, “I remember running and sliding all over the place. It was early in high school and I had no spikes, I was running in training shoes, and actually slid off the course,” he recalls. “I don’t remember anyone being disappointed by it. I remember it as being fun.”
The “fun” part of really terrible running conditions has stuck with him. It’s why he doesn’t seem to mind at all when it’s cold and raining and his feet are soaked from soppy mud puddles. It’s just another fun challenge for him, something he’s used to and grew up with.
Even before he started running, he was enjoying the snow and the cold at cross country skiing races. Garrett’s dad was the ski coach in middle school and competed in races himself, like Minnesota’s legendary Birkie 50K race. He remembers cheering his dad on from the sidelines, ringing cowbells as skiers sailed past. Those years didn’t last long. Soon, Garrett was on skis of his own, crushing trails and races. The pull to find his own success boosted his competitiveness in sports and he slowly made the transition into running in college and then professionally.
But for a guy raised by the Winona winters moving west to run at Stanford University and then as a pro presented some unique changes by way of average temperatures.
“Growing up, I never thought of people being tough in Minnesota. But then you come out west and you hear people say, ‘everyone in the Midwest is so tough for enduring those conditions.’ You’re like, ‘Yeah, we are so tough!’ You have to live up to that and enjoy it, and it’s part of my identity,” says Garrett.
But above his identity as a Minnesotan or now a Seattleite is his identity as a runner. It’s one part of him that he shares with his teammates, his friends, even his brother who also is a professional runner. It carries him through his travels and it has opened up doors throughout his life. Running is a constant for Garrett and for so many other runners. Because barring most major blizzards (or heat waves), running is universal. It’s doable by anyone, anywhere, just about any time. And Garrett, for one, won’t let a little snow stop him.
“You have to live up to that identity and embrace it. No one wants to be the one who ruins that tough and rugged Midwest reputation, so it just becomes part of who you are,” he says.
In fact, he’s already starting his training for next year. Fall practices with the Brooks Beasts began recently, and Garrett and his teammates are out logging long miles, completing tempo runs and surging up hills in preparation for the upcoming season. He’ll be the one eagerly awaiting the winter, though, when he’ll get to hit the trails for cross country season. Because three, it turns out, wasn’t he charm. Garrett wants another win in Edinburgh. He wants another chance to fly across the snow and the mud and break the tape. He wants to show that either because of nature or nurture, he’s excited and prepared to throw down on what will likely be a cold, rough cross country course.
So this holiday season while many of us peer out curtained windows as winter sleet or snow falls onto our once pristine and perfectly runnable sidewalks and roads, Garrett is already lacing up, relishing the chance to challenge himself and Mother Nature herself by running, and running fast.
Will you join him?