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Chicagoans who are loving this winter? Yes, they exist

February 17, 2014|By Tracy Swartz, @tracyswartz | RedEye

While you spent this winter languishing under the covers, clearing your social calendar of anything but Netflix or Facebooking screen grabs of Chicago's relentless snow and subzero temperatures, Erika Henning slipped into her favorite North Face jacket and ski mask and hit the slopes—errr, trails.

Henning, of Lakeview, actually prefers running in the snow and slush to the sunshine and heat of summer. This season's below-freezing temps remind her of growing up in southwest Minnesota, where wind chills of 20-below are the norm in winter.

Henning said this year is the first time she's had to break out her Minnesota running gear, including shoe spikes to battle ice, since moving to Chicago four years ago.

"[This winter] has been kind of fun in a way, because it feels like home," said Henning, 34.

Most Chicagoans would probably not describe this winter as "fun" or even "kind of fun." It is the fifth snowiest, with more than 66 inches to date, according to the National Weather Service, and among the Top 5 percent for chilliness since 1871 as of Monday afternoon, according to the Tribune Weather Center.

Besides the annoyance of sliding over ice-covered sidewalks and abandoning vacation plans because of flight cancellations, the record cold may bring other complications, including seasonal affective disorder—a form of depression that typically accompanies change in weather.

About 6 percent of Americans are affected by a severe form of seasonal affective disorder, experts say. Symptoms include a decrease in energy and an increase in hopelessness, and doctors recommend light therapy and/or medications to battle the mood change.

"The thought is that with the loss of sunlight … some patients' biological cycles become disrupted," said Dr. Pedro Dago, who specializes in depression and bipolar disorder at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "Folks tend to have trouble getting started in the morning."

And then there are those on the other end of the spectrum, like Victoria Troncoso, who are cool with this unyielding winter.

Troncoso, 18, said this winter doesn't seem to be as bad as the one three years ago, when a record blizzard that dumped 21.2 inches of snow was the biggest Chicago snowstorm ever in the month of February.

She said she prefers winter to summer and has enjoyed taking strolls this year.

"When it's sunny out, it's nice to go out and walk," said Troncoso, of Cicero. "I prefer there to be less snow because it's easier to get around, but if it's going to happen, might as well enjoy it."

For Patrick Gazley of Lincoln Park, this winter has presented a unique challenge. Gazley, 28, began a fundraising project in November that requires him to go for a weekly swim, no matter the weather.

When he proposed this goal to raise money for Ripple Africa, a charity that aims to improve education and health care in Malawi, he had no idea this would be one of Chicago's worst winters and swimming in Lake Michigan would be near impossible.

In early February, when the temperature dipped to 18 degrees with a windchill of 4 degrees, Gazley donned running pants, two pairs of gloves, a hat, three synthetic shirts, a fleece and a windbreaker for his three-mile run run from Oz Park to the lakefront.

Then he jumped into the water near Belmont Harbor wearing—wait for it—just Under Armour underwear.

"I am going into the water without basically any clothing on," Gazley said.

The "swim" lasts less than 30 seconds. When he emerges, Gazley said, he feels calm and tranquil. "The point is that I am doing something that is really shocking and challenging but once you do it, you realize … it's a beautiful thing."

Though he's had to search for points on Lake Michigan that he can even dip a toe in, the brutal Chicago winter has helped Gazley, too. He said he's earned some sympathy points from friends and family and those interested in donating to his cause.

Gazley said he's raised $1,500 so far toward his goal of $6,000, with three and a half months to go.

"This whole polar vortex thing, it's a good marketing ploy for us. It's probably helping us [raise money]," Gazley said. "It's a good talking point."

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