Duluth man’s quest for a very cold run works out well

Lane Ellis of Duluth e-mailed his account of a New Year’s Day run at 40 below zero. Understand, Ellis deliberately sought out temperatures that low so he could break his personal record for a coldest run. He left Duluth very early on New Year’s Day and drove north to Soudan, near Tower, to do his run.

Here are excerpts from his description of that run. He calls his essay “The Chilly Consciousness of a -40F New Year’s Morning Run.”

Lane Ellis


“My alarm went off at 3:45 a.m. on New Year’s Day and I put on the cold weather running clothes I reserve for only the coldest of runs, and prepared to attempt the coldest run of my 16-year running career… My goal was to break my personal coldest run record of -26°F (with a wind chill of -52°F), which I’d run at home in Duluth in 2004. A recent cold snap had sent temperatures in Duluth down to around -23°F, but the really cold weather was in Minnesota’s traditional icebox cities, whose forecasts I’d been studying for two days trying to find the coldest spot reasonably nearby…

“After scouring National Weather Service and other weather website hourly predictions, I settled on an area north of Soudan as my best bet, and at 4:15 a.m. I walked into the dark -17°F Duluth morning, happy that the Volvo started up with only slight hesitation even after several days below zero. As I drove north on U.S. Highway 53 I watched the outside temperature quickly drop as the miles passed, with -23°F near Twig, -27°F by Cotton, and then past Virginia on Highway 169 to Ely -29°F, -30°F, and dropping. By the turnoff towards Embarrass it was -35°F, and I continued on to Tower’s sleepy main street…

“I was giddy with excitement as I finally saw the signpost noting that the turnoff into Soudan was just two miles further. When it came up I turned into the very small town and drove up to the northern edge of town, parking by the dark, closed town store next to the road I planned to run. I put on my neck gaiter, facemask, and double pairs of gloves, and turned off the car there at the edge of the wilderness, hoping it would start again after my run.

“The small store had one dim light-pole, and the road I planned to run looked intensely black as it disappeared into the woods… I quickly started my iPhone iSmoothRun app and began running at around 5:45 a.m. It was -40°F. The roads were completely snow-packed… I rounded a corner by the store and headed onto the unlit road, almost immediately struck by how utterly black the sky and my surroundings were. When I ran along a curve in the road and the light from the store was no longer visible, I realized that this was perhaps going to be one of the darkest runs I’d ever had. A vague blackness that I knew must be thick dark pine trees lined the road on either side…

“The nearly invisible road started up a hill, and it seemed for a while that I was floating, running in place, with no discernible changes in my vision no matter how much I picked up the pace. The sky was mostly cloud covered, but I could see an occasional dim star. I thought about northern lights but saw none. I also thought about wolves, moose, and deer as I moved through the -40°F air with only a slight crunch of the snow under my running feet. My plan was to run 5K (3.1 miles), a short run but all I dared to do alone on a dark unfamiliar road at -40°F early New Year’s morning in one of Minnesota’s more remote regions.

“The longer I ran the more it felt I was running through space. I wasn’t cold yet, and my thoughts of surprising a wild animal weren’t as troubling as a growing concern over what might happen if I had an accident or somehow couldn’t make it out of the dark, frigid area on my own. I tried not to worry about such things and focused instead on savoring a truly surreal experience…

“Far in the distance a sign of civilization came into sight — a single light. When I reached it I was at the turnaround point for my 5K and happily headed back. There were a few other roads or snowmobile trails by this turnaround point, and although I knew I’d gotten back onto the right road, for a while after returning to the darkness, I wondered what would happen if I had somehow gotten onto the wrong road and was instead heading to a deserted mine or lumber camp…

“For some runners in places such as Alaska, far-northern Norway, or Siberia, -40°F runs might be commonplace, but for me it was a new experience. Eventually I saw the light of the Soudan store. Just before I finished my run at the car, I spotted a beautiful Christmas tree, illuminated by all white lights, visible through the large window of a house. Seeing it was a peaceful and fitting end to my run.

“At my car I quickly opened the door, put in the key, and turned the ignition. Happily, it sprung to life… I was elated, and with the ‘Pennsylvania Polka’ playing, drove south toward Duluth. I watched as the temperature slowly exited the insane cold of the Soudan, Tower and Embarrass region and back into the -20°s and then as Duluth neared, the -10°s. I felt a bit sad as I was exiting that strange arctic-like Bermuda triangle, where life seems to exist on a slightly different plane of chilly consciousness.”




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