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Harsh winter leads to resilience

Frazzled by winter’s deep freeze? Longing for the spring melt, now that snow piles at the curb are too steep to see around?

It turns out that some cold weather-related suffering helps make Western New Yorkers stronger – and happier.

A University at Buffalo psychology professor says grueling winters can teach people how to cope and have more fun than those unfortunate souls who have been spared February’s long frozen hug.

People who soldier through some hard times – some, but not too many – register the highest levels of life satisfaction, according to a survey by UB’s Mark Seery.

“The people who have had no experience with negative life experiences, they’re not the best off,” said Seery. “There can be a silver lining (to tough times). It develops over time, it doesn’t happen right away.”

Seery, who has studied people who are affected by different levels of adversity, found that relatively small doses of hardship – like a harsh winter, a natural disaster or the death of a loved one – can work like a vaccine. As long as the hard times aren’t too overwhelming, they can help the next tough time go by less painfully.

Having creative outlets helps, too. It can be beneficial, for example, to take a spin on an ice bike at the rink downtown. Or cross-country ski. Or go sledding at Chestnut Ridge. Or sign up for the March 7 Shamrock Run through the Old First Ward. Or, on Saturday, pose for a selfie on a motorcycle made of ice at RiverWorks.

As long as the activity is fun, it counts as coping. Such strategies allow people to take control of what might otherwise be a rotten situation. Having a sense of control in the midst of unpleasantness makes people feel better and, said Seery, “merits additional investigation.”

While Seery hasn’t taken up any winter sports himself, about once a week he replaces his indoor workouts with shoveling his Lancaster sidewalk.

“Shoveling can be strangely satisfying,” he said. “That’s actually more satisfying than staring at the wall on the treadmill.”

For Manny Lezama, the freezing temperatures provide an opportunity to practice his ice-sculpting craft and bring the joy of it to the public with a new winter festival he has helped organize.

The “Madd Tiki Winter Luau,” will be held from 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the RiverWorks rinks on Ganson Street. Admission is $10. An ice-carving competition will pit six carvers working on 300-pound blocks of ice against each other. Spectators can vote on their favorite sculptures and the winners will get dinner and an overnight stay at Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More.

“We just need to start doing stuff,” said Lezama. “We have such a beautiful city with such beautiful snow. We need to start taking advantage of it.”

Lezama’s ice-sculpting feats have included carving a stove for TV chef Rachael Ray, a grand piano filled with shrimp and, a 5,000-pound Brooklyn Bridge for Russell Salvatore’s 80th birthday celebration two years ago.

For Saturday’s event, Lezama carved an ice motorcycle for people to sit on as they pose for selfies and a beer “luge” for those who want a drink after the brew has taken its own special iced toboggan run.

“When I put my chain saw in my hand, everything comes to life,” said Lezama, who wants to organize three ice fests next year, including one with ice tic-tac-toe and slides for children. “To me, bringing this out to Buffalo – it’s almost like a thank-you to the people cooped inside their homes.”

Campus WheelWorks also has tried to get people to enjoy the cold by organizing gatherings for different sports on different evenings for the past several years.

Runners meet on Mondays, downhill skiers carpool to Ellicottville on Tuesdays, cross-country skiers head out on Thursdays, and riders on fat-tire bikes take to the snow on Saturdays. Manager Alex Davies has seen crowds swell over the years – with 50 downhill skiers and as many as 25 taking part in the other activities.

This winter has been one of the best since Dave Ruhland started an annual tradition out of adding food coloring to water, filling skinny balloons and freezing them into curls that he layers into a rainbow-hued “Iceman” on the lawn of his Town of Tonawanda apartment at 2719 Sheridan Drive.

Building his ice art helps Ruhland enjoy winter cold spells.

“When you’re miserable, you’ve got to do the exact opposite of how you feel. You get the seasonal (affective) disorder. You know those tendencies are coming on you and everybody else,” he said. “It makes me love winter. I love winter now, whereas before I used to despise it.”

But the snow and cold may have put the annual Shamrock Run, now only a week away, out of people’s minds. Instead of the usual sellout of 5,500 runners, just 4,000 have paid the $30 sign-up fee for the 4.97-mile run on March 7 through South Buffalo’s waterfront neighborhood, and the beer tent finale.

“By the time you get to the Shamrock Run you know you’re close to spring,” said Laura Kelly, race director. Weather for the race is famously, uncomfortably unpredictable: sometimes snow, sometimes freezing rain.

A couple of years ago, the course was changed five minutes before the start time because Ganson Street’s telephone poles swayed in the 70 mph winds.

Yet, the race’s difficulty is part of what local runners like. When organizers moved the race course away from the waterfront and its icy breeze, people complained that it wasn’t as hard as usual. Fans appreciate the run for its brutality – and its closeness to winter’s end.

People, said Kelly, “look forward to getting out of the house and doing something that’s tough, local, rooted and they also know, ‘I will be rewarded with, first beer and then, spring.’ ”