By Kevin Williams, Tribune staff reporter
Published December 10, 2004

Admit it, you always wonder what those fools are doing.
Be it a runner, cyclist, golfer or snow-frustrated roller skier, when it gets cold, there they are, shoulders fully up around their ears, manic grin in place, waging a solo battle against the hardscrabble tundra of wintertime Chicago.
For me, it began more than two decades ago, as a bicycle racer who believed the stationary bicycle to be a direct offspring of medieval torture devices. This led me outside to pedal, even on days when strangers would say, with audible concern, "You're going to freeze to death," and routes were planned around five-minute hand-warming stops. When it snowed, the bicycle got knobby tires and the pace slowed a bit. When it was extremely cold, another layer went atop the pile, like logs on a fire, but the beat went on as I pedaled toward summer, one mile at a time. I'd love to say that sanity has arrived with time, but it's still cold, and I'm still riding.
The people at BikeWinter (www.bikewinter.org) know what we're talking about. As the group's chairman, Bob Matter, once said about winter riding, "There's a sense of accomplishment, that you've beaten the odds." But he admitted that pedaling in the rain or snow certainly isn't as pleasant as sitting in a warm SUV, driving somewhere.
But consider this: Winter means there are fewer people in the way. Some ride, some run, some paddle the waterways for as long as they can. Others take paddle in hand and hit the platform tennis court. Winter opens up the sporting world for many intrepid souls.
For instance, it might be hard to get a tee time at Cog Hill in Lemont when it's 80 degrees and sunny. But on Jan. 2, grab those clubs and sashay on over to the Eskimo Open. The wintertime golf tourney (also at Pine Meadow in Mundelein and St. Andrews in West Chicago) has been an annual occurrence since 1963, when there were 16 golfers. That number dwindled to 10 once it was determined that the television at the Glenwoodie Golf Club in fact could not pick up the Bears/Giants football championship game.
Compare this to 2004 when, without a Bears playoff game in sight, 133 people teed off on three of Cog Hill's four courses, two of which stay open all winter long. It was "30 degrees, snowed hard all day," according to the event's semi-official history.
"Construction workers go out and work in that weather, so why shouldn't they go out and play in that weather all winter long?" asks Nick Mokelke, general manager at Cog Hill. "We aren't only open for the Eskimo Open; we keep two courses open all year long."
Mokelke remembers having as much as a foot of snow cover. Aha, you might think . . . just play an orange ball. But as the man himself says, "If the ball is buried in six inches of snow, it doesn't matter what color the ball is."
But they keep on whacking away. People have tried anchoring a ribbon to their ball with a little screw, to make it easier to find in the snow. One chilly duffer assembled different golf balls, froze them (of course it was a guy), then hit them to see which one would bounce the farthest. "During the Open, if there's snow on the ground, we modify the rules a bit to say that if they're a club length within the hole, we say they're in," says Mokelke. "Or people would be out there all day."
Now don't you feel like a wuss for running inside as soon as it gets below 50 degrees?
And speaking of running: Unlike cycling types, runners don't generate their own wind chill. And as proof that there's always someone crazier than you are, Beth Onines, program director at the Chicago Area Runners Association, always wonders how cyclists can ride in the cold "with the wind chill, going as fast as they do." Of course, she makes this observation as she's outside herself, running in the cold.
CARA runs a winter training program that includes tips for hardcores such as how to layer, and the use of ice joggers, a little cleated device that slips over a running shoe to provide additional traction. And on anything longer than a 10-mile run, runners should wear their water bottles under their jackets, so that they don't freeze. Onines found this out the hard way, one very cold day.
"Just put on the right amount of layers," says Onines. "All this high-tech material has made it easy for runners to run all year long, just by wearing the right clothing. Now you don't have to look like a teddy bear."
Like cyclists and other winter athletes, extreme cold runners have the "no exposed skin" rule. Vaseline petroleum jelly becomes a more-than-serviceable layer--just do it, as Nike urges during ads in which people are always sweating, never freezing their hindquarters off. Wussies.
Some winter types straddle the seasons. A runner and a cross-country skier, Bob Richards of Villa Park has winter all sewn up. He's run for 40 years, and skied for 30. He finds skiing to be a "state of mind, while running is something I can actually do any time, any where," says the trim 55-year-old. "[But] the excitement of the first ski, which this year was on Thanksgiving, is tough to replicate on foot."
The dedicated souls at BikeWinter know all about states of mind. Pictures on the group's Web site actually make cycling through a foot of snow look like fun. And never mind the group's Santa Rampage, where cyclists dressed as Santa spread a bit of holiday cheer.
But finally, we shouldn't forget about the folks who actually should be out there in the winter, such as cross-country skiers. Richards has skied in the American Birkebiner cross-country ski marathon race 24 times. He's suffered broken poles, frostbite on three or four fingers, frustration and euphoria. He's skied back and forth along a short, narrow strip of freshly fallen snow in his backyard. And winter is his time of the year. As he wrote during a recent e-mail exchange, "I think I'm hallucinating. The rooftops are snow-covered."
"Being outside in winter is just part of who I am," says Richards. "I can't deny the first five minutes are rough, but the payoff is huge. You can have a glow all winter while others complain about the cold."
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Cool places to chill for winter activities
Paddlemania: Paddling and kayaking are an excellent way to enjoy the winter (as long as the water isn't solid . . . duh). These souls don't have much in the way of organized events, but two sites for information are www.illinoispaddling.org, and www.prairiestatecanoeists.org. Chicagoland Canoe Base also is a hub. They can be contacted at 773-777-1489 or www.chicagolandcanoebase.com.
Tennis, anyone? Paddle tennis (technically platform tennis) was actually created with winter in mind. Most of the area platform tennis courts are under the aegis of country and tennis clubs. But here are a few of the "public" (suburban park districts require fees for usage permits) courts: Winnetka Ice Arena and Paddle Tennis Facility, Winnetka, 847-501-2060. Katherine Legge Memorial Park (new facility spawning much excitement), Hinsdale, 630-789-7090.
Tee it up: The Eskimo Open will take place on Jan. 2. Call each participating course for start times and special rules. Pine Meadow Golf Course, Mundelein, 847-566-4653. Cog Hill Golf Course, Lemont, 630-264-4455. St. Andrews Golf Course, West Chicago, 630-231-3100. The Chicago Park District's golfing facilities are also open year-round. Information can be had at 312-742-7529 or www.cpdgolf.com.
Spin your wheels: Cyclists have all sorts of fun things from which to choose, including the Santa Rampage at noon Dec. 18, kicking off from the Twisted Spoke, 501 N. Ogden Ave. Much more information on other scheduled activities is available at www.bikewinter.org. A good place to find out about how to dress and deal with winter riding is www.icebike.com.
Outrun the cold: The Chicago Area Runners Association has a wealth of information on races and training, 312-666-9836 or www.cararuns.org. The Rudolph Ramble will be held on Sunday, at Cannon Drive and Fullerton Parkway. For registration or information, call 773-404-2372 or visit www.caprievents.com. Starting at 3 p.m. Dec. 18 is the Pub Run, a 4-mile jaunt from Menard Avenue and Oakton Street in Skokie, sure to be full of cheer. Visit www.nileswestoaktonrunnersclub.com for information.
Schuss, schuss: Cross-country skiers are completely weather-dependent. You can strap on your skis and make tracks in the fields at any Chicago Park District facility, though Sydney R. Marovitz (Waveland) Golf Course, 3600 N. Recreation Drive, is a favorite for urban cross-country ski bums. The Cook County Forest Preserve District has a number of fine ski trails, favorites being Camp Sagawau in Lemont, and Bemis Woods in Western Springs. For more information call 800-870-3666 or visit www.fpdcc.com.