Who’s got frozen feet? Runners find routine braving the elements

Winter hibernation has no place in Ridgefield.

The seasonal spell of inactivity and metabolic depression has been dealt a crushing blow this year, thanks to the Ridgefield Running Company’s Frozen Feet Streak Challenge, which has motivated runners and walkers to exercise daily outdoors through the cold-weather months and has untapped a new-found discipline among its 250-plus participants that will carry over long after the final miles are logged Wednesday, Feb. 28.

“It’s been nice to stick to the routine of being outside,” said Pam Custode, who’s been logging an average 12 miles a week since the challenge began on Jan. 6.

“The challenge might be ending at the end of the month, but I’m not stopping — I’m going to continue after February,” she added. “It’s become priority for me. I don’t miss it; I don’t let it slide. It’s part of my day now.”

Susan Becker, who’s run in four half marathons and numerous other 10Ks, has been walking about the same distance on Main Street as Custode each week. She doesn’t necessarily like being out in the bad weather, but the Frozen Feet Streak has turned an aversion into a habit.

“This challenge is no longer a challenge for me,” she said. “It’s turned into a life change. Even if it’s an off day — after the challenge is over, I will make sure to go outside. I won’t clock or monitor the mileage, but I know I will be outside, because I really love doing it and having that commitment in my life.”

The Streak was the brainchild of Megan Searfoss, owner of the Ridgefield Running Company and Everywear on Main, who said she borrowed the idea from another run-specialty retailer, Aardvark Sports, in Bethlehem, Pa.

“The owner, Bruce Haines shared it with us. I honestly thought I would get 100 people and maybe 50 would finish the challenge,” Searfoss told The Press last week.

She might have been selling Ridgefield athletes short.

The first week of the challenge saw 417 runners and walkers turn out. Five weeks later, the challenge still had 257 participants who had run or walked at least one mile every day — no matter what Mother Nature dealt them.

“My favorite time to run is actually when the snow is coming down,” said Emily Carr, who’s been running an average of 35 miles a week in preparation for the Boston Marathon in April.

“I wouldn’t have figured that out about myself without the challenge.”

There and back again

So far, the group has covered more than 22,000 miles — far surpassing Searfoss’s original goal of logging enough miles to make it to Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host city of this year’s Winter Olympics.

“We are making our second trip to Pyeongchang now,” Searfoss told The Press last week in the midst of the Winter Games.  

An image on the group’s Facebook page, where runners and walkers upload pictures of themselves outside exercising, displays the mileage from Ridgefield to San Francisco (2,834 miles), San Francisco to Seoul (5,623 miles) and Seoul to Pyeongchang (99 miles).

“We have two athletes covering about 100 miles each per week, but mostly the athletes are first-time exercisers,” she added.

The prize

Searfoss has dangled a free T-shirt as a prize to all those who complete the challenge, but every participant The Press spoke to last week said that the journey — and the life lessons they’ve picked up along the way — is the only reward they need.

“It’s been about learning to make this a priority and holding yourself accountable every single day,” said Custode, who lives near Main Street.

“The prize at the end of this is kind of silly,” she added. “It’s not about the T-shirt.”

Becker agreed.

“It’s not about getting a shirt or anything like that,” she said. “It’s been about getting the wonderful benefit of movement.”

Silly or not, Searfoss plans to give the finishers a shirt at the store March 3.

“It’s been wonderful to see people moving and hear how they are succeeding in this crazy winter we are having,” she said. “If they can make it through this winter, covering a mile a day is peanuts the rest of the year.”

Creative minds

The dedication has not been limited to Ridgefield’s Main Street.

Searfoss said she’s seen pictures of people walking around outside the terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport — all for the sake of getting in their outdoor mile on a day when they otherwise wouldn’t have enough time.

Becker can testify to that type of creative commitment.

When she spoke to The Press Friday, Feb. 16, she was about to walk her mile in a Massachusetts parking lot — in the middle of a rainstorm — because she knew she’d be in the car the rest of the afternoon and evening.

“I still don’t like being out in the bad weather, but it is a habit — it’s become second nature at this point,” said Becker, who’s done a majority of her walking with her husband and dog. “No matter what the weather’s like, I say to myself, ‘I’m going out there’ and that’s it.”  

Cold hands

Appreciation for the outdoors — and for the winter, in general — has been gained during the streak so much to the point that its participants haven’t even felt the name of the challenge in their daily exercise routine.

“My hands are a lot colder than my feet,” said Carr, who’s been doing one long run a week in preparation for the Boston Marathon.

“My feet are moving more than my hands,” she said. “The challenge is always keeping my hands warm.”

Custode can attest to that.

“I’ve had no problem with frozen feet because I wear thick socks and winter boots when I walk,” she said. “But my fingers get pretty cold.”

Becker said a good pair of gloves has made all the difference in her travels up and down Main Street.

“My ears and head tend to get cold, but I have started to leave my hat and my gloves in my car now so I can do my walk at any time,” she said.

“No problems with my feet, but it has been plenty cold — Ridgefield has a lot of wind going down Main Street.”

Sunsets and street lights

Perhaps the biggest winner of the challenge has been the place where a majority of participants have been congregating over the last several weeks.

“I love walking on Main Street at night,” Becker said. “It makes me smile seeing the sun go down and the street lights go on. Those are the kinds of things that you take for granted.”

Becker, who has children in their early 20s, has lived in town for more than two decades.

“I’ve always loved town, but I think I started to take it for granted,” she said. “Thanks to the challenge, the town is part of my daily routine.”

Main Street store owners, like Searfoss, may be reaping the benefits of all the exercise going around town this winter.

“Economically, I think it has brought more to the town,” Becker said. “Just yesterday, I bought two gifts in two different shops. …

“Walking around makes you think about these places more,” she said. “They’ve become part of my daily ritual. … I feel like I’m more connected to the town than ever before. You can lose sense of it over time, but these last couple of weeks have brought me back to it.”

Pay it forward

In addition to re-opening her eyes to Main Street, Becker sai,d she’d like to thank Searfoss — who founded the annual Run Like a Mother 5K and has expanded it nationally — for changing her attitude toward winter.

“In the past, I would hibernate in the winter at all costs — total snowbird,” she said.

“Now I’ve been given this chance to appreciate what our town is like in the winter, and that has allowed me to really clear my head.”

She’s not alone.

“Without this challenge, I would definitely be indoors,” Carr admitted.

Instead, the soon-to-be marathoner has found herself on Main Street and in other parts of town exchanging running routes, sharing tips, and telling complete strangers about her experience.

“I’m bummed it’s going to end before the marathon,” she said. “I’ve really started to branch out.”

“I would like to motivate someone new to do it next year,” Becker added.

“There’s no reason this can’t take off beyond Ridgefield, just like Run Like a Mother did. I think it could definitely catch on elsewhere. I would recommend it to everyone.”