It was a casual start to the Winter Wilder, a 20-mile race that started at Kingsland High School. Runners broke from their pre-race meeting to the course.
It was a casual start to the Winter Wilder, a 20-mile race that started at Kingsland High School. Runners broke from their pre-race meeting to the course.
Editor's note: David Phillips writes about his experiences running the first ever Winter Wilder, a 20-mile run that is an extension of the Wilder Foot Races, which started in Spring Valley last May.

I jump out of my warm car at 8:50 a.m. Saturday to give Winter Wilder race organizer Dustin Harford my waiver form. The biting wind numbs my face as I think to myself, "what did I get myself into? I know it seemed like a good idea last fall, but what was I thinking?"

I go back to my car for a few more minutes of comfort and warmth before embarking on a 20-mile journey on gravel roads exploring the countryside north and east of Spring Valley. Just before the 9 a.m. starting time, I remind my wife - again - to meet me on the course for aid and I leave the car for the final time Saturday morning.

The 28 runners make a circle around Harford as he briefly goes over the few rules for this free, self-supported, low-key race. He finishes and says "let's go" as we make our way out of the Kingsland High School parking lot and down County Road 1 before taking a right turn on 240th Street.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the gravel roads since we had such a warm spell with rain the previous day, but they were in fine shape. There was only a little ice at some of the more protected areas, but they were mostly clear and firm.

The weather was a different story. The temperature was 18, which isn't bad for running. The problem was the wind, which was 25 or more miles per hour with gusts in the 30s. It isn't just the resistance; the wind chill was below zero, something that provided challenges to us as we were out in the elements for several hours.

The wind was with us at the start, which was nice, but we all knew that meant we would be running back into it at the end when we are already dragging as the miles pile up.

I tried to get some photographs - always a reporter - but it was difficult running in that weather and manipulating a camera in the cold. I finally decided to put the camera away and keep the gloves on so I can feel my hands.

After traveling down a hill on 141st Street and then climbing back up, we turned onto 270th Street going east. Just before it connected to Oriole Road, I met my wife for some water at mile 5.5. Since the wind had been at my back during that stretch, I was feeling pretty good.

I continued on as the road wound its way back into a more wooded area that was well protected, so much so that I unzipped my jacket for a while. As I came to the ridge over Dream Acres, I felt the wind again and zipped up before descending down the steep hill.

I turned onto County Road 8 and soon Eva Barr from Dream Acres came up beside me. She was out for a run with her dog. We ran together for a while before she turned back and I continued on to Nature Road, another road that was very protected in areas.

I was more than half way through, though, and had decided that I needed to walk the hills. I hadn't gone for a run longer than 10 miles since my marathon in October and my body was noticing that as I hit mile 11 of the route. Soon, my definition of a hill became more inclusive so that even slight increases were excuses to walk.

Just before getting back on Oriole Road, I met Harford, who - always a race director - was circling back to check on the runners to make sure everyone was doing OK.

I was fine, since I knew my wife would be just around the corner on Oriole Road waiting for me with more aid. Just as expected, she was there with more water, Gatorade and other goodies.

There are advantages to being the only local runner. That advantage turned out to be more beneficial than I imagined because the runners who carried their own aid had continuous problems with the liquids freezing.

I had stowed extra gear in the car, but didn't need anything. I had dressed just about right. I didn't want to overdress, get wet and then freeze when I hit the cold parts of the run, so I dressed more for 20-degree weather than subzero weather.

As I refueled, I had temptations of taking a ride back to town instead of running the last five miles. I've never quit a race, though, and I didn't really think I had a good enough reason to do so now.

So, I pressed on now into the wind. It didn't take me long to second guess my decision not to get into that warm car.

Eventually I met up with Jim Parry, a Stewartville teacher who has become well known for his event, Mr. Parry's Endurance Challenge, a challenge to his students, who would complete 24 hours of exercise over 10 weeks, and a challenge to himself as he would run for 24 continuous hours at the conclusion of the student challenge with a goal of going 100 miles.

He talked about his bad luck this year with heat, foot problems and other trials for which only another runner could show empathy. Others would say, "why don't you just stop running?" That thought wouldn't occur to those of us afflicted with a running addiction.

Parry decided to walk a bit and I descended the hill to Masonic Park, where a surprise was waiting at mile 15.5. Chris Skogen, who organizes the Almanzo 100 bike race, which turned into a weekend event that includes other endurance bicycle races and now the Wilder Foot Races, was there with what was referred to as the "trail magic" wayside. He and his friend had built a fire and stocked a tent with various kinds of liquid aid, including whiskey, or so he said. I wasn't about to take him up on that offer in case he wasn't joking.

I stuck to the standard rehydration liquid, water, and enjoyed the company, the shelter from the wind and the last comfort on the journey as I knew a massive hill was waiting for me to get out of the park. Not only that, once I got to the top of the hill, the wind would be relentless the rest of the way in.

I probably walked as much as I ran those last four miles. I'd rather face hills than that kind of wind, which stung the small open area on my face. Like many others, I had a mask to protect much of my face, only pulling it up when the wind whipped my exposed face.

As I turned to the south, I had to keep checking the overlap between my mask and hat because it felt like there was a hole. I couldn't find one, though, so it must have just been the wind blowing right through the fabric, freezing my right ear.

Once I saw the Spring Valley water tower, I knew I was close and got a little extra incentive to run for longer stretches.

At mile 19, I passed one runner with icicles in his beard who seemed to be staggering a bit. I asked if he was OK and his response was "I only have a mile to go." Still, he didn't look good, but there was little I could do, so I pressed on.

It turned out that Jim Mason, who I know from the Rochester Track Club, had seen him, too, and took his truck back to pick him up after he finished. He was one of the few who didn't finish the journey as Harford said most everyone made it.

"Overall, the gravel and the wind were fast out there, and things went pretty smoothly for the most part," he said after the run on his blog. "I hope you all stayed warm for most of the run and enjoyed getting some fresh air on the gravel roads in Spring Valley."

Going back west on 240th Street was brutal, but I knew the end was near. Once I got to County Road 1, I sprinted, or at least what seemed like a sprint or was as near as I could get to a semi-speedy run, to the finish line.

The finish line, like the starting line, was an imaginary line in the parking lot. The course wasn't marked. Runners had to rely on a route sheet to make their way. There was no clock at the finish as race times were reported to Harford on the honor system.

My finishing time of three hours and 33 minutes was faster than my time on the Perley 30k I ran last May during the Wilder Foot Races. The course was the same, but we started from the high school instead of Highway 63, cutting the distance down from the approximately 21 miles last spring.

I didn't stand around and think about that, though. My wife was there for me again and she took me home to a hot shower, another advantage of being a local runner.

Then I headed down to the VFW Hall where chicken and chili were being served by Mark and Kathy Simpson of the A&W along with Julie Mlinar from the Spring Valley Tourism Committee. The food definitely hit the spot.

The setting fit the mood of the race. There was no awards ceremony and I never heard anyone even ask who won. Instead, we shared stories of the battle with the elements and talked about running and life.

I learned that there were a few people who had never run this far before. What a way to get introduced to long distance running.

I also learned why one guy pulled a sled on wheels the entire distance. He was training for the Arrowhead 135, a 135-mile self-supported race through Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota in the dead of winter.

The Winter Wilder is enough of a challenge for me. As the warm food and warm air soaked in, I felt satisfied with my accomplishment. It's hard to explain to a non-runner, but there is a joy in tackling something like this even if you are limping into the finish.

Harford thanked the runners for coming out and said he was impressed that 28 people showed up in less than ideal conditions. He admitted he is a man of few words and allowed us to go back to conversations and war stories.

However, following the race, he posted on his blog an explanation of why we enjoy what we do: "I'm always reminded when I run on the gravel down in southeastern Minnesota why I love running; because it is simple. You put one foot in front of the other and ultimately it doesn't matter how fast or slow you are, just that you are outdoors exploring new places, and moving."