Jared Bassett says he was lucky.
While running on the Deschutes River Trail in Bend last month he slipped on an icy hill, landing hard on his lower back and slamming his knee into a tree.
“It just ended up being a bruise, but it could have been worse,” says Bassett, a professional trail runner and employee at the FootZone running store in Bend. “It could have been a broken kneecap. We’ve heard of injured knees and injured hips from wintertime running.”
Trail running is most definitely a year-round sport in Central Oregon. But it can be challenging to find snow- and ice-free trails and track down the right gear to stay safe and warm during the depths of a High Desert winter.
Bassett — who competes on the Bend Banditos pro trail running team — recommends avoiding trails on the west side of Bend, which tends to stay snowier and icier than the east side. Areas east of town such as Horse Butte, Swamp Wells and the Badlands are good options for wintertime trail runners. Near Redmond, the Maston area and Smith Rock State Park are also popular places to log miles on trails that stay relatively dry through the winter.
“Smith Rock is the best place to get really long, hilly run training in this time of year,” Bassett says. “It’s definitely the trail-runner training playground. And Maston and the Badlands have been pretty awesome.”
For those who live in Bend and do not want to drive more than a few miles to their trail-running destinations, there are options.
Last week I ventured out on a trail run on the South Canyon section of the Deschutes River Trail, the area where Bassett took his fall. The east side of the loop was a virtual ice-skating rink after a series of freeze-thaw cycles, so I aborted that plan and looped around the trails closer to the Old Mill District for a 5-mile run. I found areas of dirt and grass on which to run in lieu of the paved paths.
On Tuesday I went for a 7-mile out-and-back run on the First Street Rapids Trail that follows the Deschutes River in northwest Bend. Much of the trail was clear, though I encountered some sections of packed snow. At certain areas where a dusting of snow sat on top of ice, I forced myself to stop and walk. Trail runners can find places on the west side of Bend to run, but they would be wise to stop in icy areas.
“The trail can be good and then all of a sudden there’s a section that’s shaded all the time and it just turns into pure ice,” Bassett says. “You just have to be overly cautious. It’s not worth the risk of falling on the ice because it can mess you up.”
In east Bend, the Larkspur Trail — which stretches from the Bend Senior Center north to Pilot Butte — has had noticeably less snow and ice than trails in west Bend.
“If it snows half an inch over ice, the whole trail could have a dusting of snow then there’s a sheet of black ice underneath that you can’t see,” Bassett warns. “Colder temperatures, in general, usually provides better traction. When it starts getting close to that freezing point or right above, things start to get a little slick. If you’re going to run in the snow, get out there when it’s fresh and cold, before it melts again.”
On east-side trails, such as Horse Butte, runners might need to take measures to avoid the mud that turns up often in the afternoons during a freeze-thaw cycle. Running in the morning before the trails begin to thaw is often the best way to miss the mud.
For runners who plan to run on snowy and icy trails or roads, one option is to insert screws in the soles of their shoes for added traction. FootZone offers a couple of options to insert screws in runners’ old shoes to give them more confidence in sketchy conditions.
“It just gives you a little bit more traction, to where if you do need to stop or if you are turning on a sheet of ice, it’ll keep you upright,” Bassett says. “It’s not something you’d want to necessarily run with all the time in the winter, but when you know you have no other alternative and you’re going to be out on ice and snow, it’s just good to have.”
Aside from footwear, clothing can be a tricky prospect for wintertime runners in Central Oregon. The old “dress in layers” mantra that might work for skiing and hiking does not really apply to running. When you’re out on a run and you start to peel those layers, where will you put them?
Bassett says to dress as if the temperature is 20 degrees higher than it actually is.
“Once you get going and your body temperature heats up, it’s almost like it’s 20 degrees warmer outside,” he says. “But when it is windy and you have a wind chill factor, that changes things. You always want to make sure your head’s covered and your hands are taken care of.”
A beanie and gloves — often necessary at the start of a cold run — can be removed and placed in pockets if a runner becomes too warm.
“For me, I need to make sure that my core is warm, so I always have like a vest and then a thicker shirt underneath, depending on how cold it is,” Bassett says.
“Just being prepared for the conditions is the biggest thing.”