Sunday, January 29, 2006

No Room for Error

Fairbanks has had it's longest month of sub zero temperatures in years. The average temperature for the month of January will be at about -20. We bottomed out on Friday the 27th with a -51, and had about five days in a row with lows below -40, a temperature where things really start to break down. At these temperatures you just want to call a time out. But, Alaskans are tough. The school buses keep going, even at -50 and most everyone heads to work.

Operating a car is particularly challenging at -40 or colder. The car seat is has hard as frozen block of ice. The tires are frozen in a lumpy state, so for the first mile or two, you're clumping down the road with club foot tires, usually not in tempo. That's the amusing part. Meanwhile, many mechanical things just break down.

On Wednesday my wife's Honda blew a gasket and dribbled oil all the way into town. At least whe was able to get it to the service center in time. It will take nearly a week to fix, so we're limited to my compact Toyota--still running strong at 10 years old. On Friday I took it in for an oil change and a new battery. I'd been planning all month to do that at the end of this week. That was a mistake. They worked on it when the car was still frozen, which damaged the engine block/battery heater devices that we had installed back in 2004. Everyone here plugs their vehicles in for a few hours before starting. It's easier on the engine, and it heats the oil and battery so the car will actually start when it's -30 or colder. But on Saturday, at -35, I couldn't start the car. After hours of trouble-shooting and heating up the new battery inside, we found that the electric cables were damaged--they pop like brittle twigs at those temperatures. So for now we have no cars. Hopefully that will be fixed by Monday.

Meanwhile our water shut off Friday night. Frozen pipes. We called the plumber who were on the way, but our sweet neighbor came over and asked if we had plugged in the heat tape that wraps around the water pipe. OHHHH, you have plug it in? Doh? Just saved us $200.

As for skiing. The week was a wash. I did get out for 45 frozen minutes on Monday. It was -21. Got through it and hoped for warmer weather. Tuesday it was -24 and I'd left my clothes in the car (which I do all the time). But even though I changed into them inside, the chill just sapped the heat from my body, so when I started there wasn't much to keep my feet and hands warm. I made about 3k and ended up doing the rest of my workouts indoors on the stationary cycle. I did run an easy 4 or 5 miles on Thursday (froze my toes about 1/2 way through) and another 3 on Saturday.

Kids have been cooped inside for a week now. At school the cut-off for outdoor recess is -20. Alaska kids are tough, but toughness has it's limits.

Monday, January 23, 2006

By a (Frozen) Nose

Ski racing has many similarities with running, and there is a strong crossover element between the sports, but they can be quite different. Sunday's "January Jaunt" 20k classic race happened to be a runners day. Fairbanks has been socked in its longest cold snap of the year for the past week, with temperatures bottoming out at -42 on Friday morning. In spite of the cold, however, the area received a couple inches of fresh snow (the first in more than 6 weeks) on Friday afternoon.

I woke up Sunday morning not sure if they'd even have the race (-20 is the cutoff here), at -15 I knew it would be a go, albeit marginal. But I was bouyed to see an extra 2-3 inches of snow on the ground. Good for a former Colorado boy who grew up skiing on soft dry snow. Those conditions would make all the difference on this chilly morning when 80% of sports loving America was watching NFL playoffs.

Spent too long getting all my gear together--some 25 pieces of clothing, waxes, boots, sport drink, food, skin cream for my face, and in case I aspirate some gunk mid-race, an asthma inahaler, which I'd carry in a fanny pack. Left the house 15 minutes behind schedule, which would mean I'd only have a half hour once I got there. With classic racing you should really arrive close to an hour ahead. Two miles out from home I realized I'd forgotten something important: my skis! Didn't get to Birch Hill until 10:40, barely enough time to grab my bib, hit the loo, and get my boots on. No time to test waxes--a MUST for classic races--and only got to the start line with enough time to do a couple 100 m stride outs. Forgot the skin cream, and didn't have enough time to ge my bib on properly (the elastic band kept popping off!), and I resigned to just having it flop around my chest for 20 cold kilometers.

With no warmup, I saw no sense in going hard, and the first 2 kilometers looked like the grim same old: skiing several minutes behind these guys, in no-man's land fending off skiers from behind.

Masters rival (Bad) Bob pulled away along with Bruce, one of the town's best classic skiers, and another racer in a 90s-dated, all-Alaska, ski suit. Bob and Bruce had beaten me handily, both by more than 2 minutes, last week on a 10k over much the same course but with fast hard-pack conditions where our skis just zinged over the snow. Sunday was nearly silent, with sound muted. Bruce 100 meters ahead in a guady pastel ski suit, that looked like a Monet sunset, and Bob wore his ubiquitous bright orange top--a burning haystack. I shouldn't be thinking like that in the middle of a 20k!

Up the first substantial climb Bob fell back from the leaders--he skis with an imacculate and powerful classical stride--but it looked like he was struggling. Could I be catching him? Within a k I was right on his tail, and he stepped aside. I said HIYA HIYA! (Scando-speak for GO GO!). I think he just said "Hey there." I expected him to blast buy again at any moment, but he didn't. And for some reason, Bruce and the Alaska skier were not pulling away. I'd gain on steeper and long climbs, but would fall back on the crest as they used their powerful upper body strength to double pole away. So they'd hit the downhill with more momentum. But on the outrun, I'd gain a few ticks by holding my tuck just a little longer. On this hilly course, the pattern would repeat itself another dozen times or more.

Hit the 10k about 30 seconds back in a very slow 40 minutes (we were all low 31 to high 33 last week), feeling quite suprised to have them in sight. Over the next 5k, I gained a little more with each hill climb, and by 16k I pulled up right behind them. It became a tactical 3-man race, with the Alaska skier setting the pace. Bruce would try to pass him on some of the uphills only to be held off. Both were so much bigger and stronger, but on this day's soft slow snow, my runner physique had the advantage.

I could have just cruised behind them and finished a solid 3rd--in what would be my best ski race in a decade. With about 1.5 k to go, at the base of one of the longest climbs on the course (about 1.5 to to 2 minutes of moderate-almost steep climb) I decided to make a bold move. The course finishes on a half k of flat terrain. They would eat me up on that. So I bolted at the base of the hill, knowing full well that this was going to hurt bad.

My legs and lungs were out of gas near the top, and I slowed to a walk for a few strides. But they were a good 50 meters back already, with only a k to go, I figured I pretty much had it. This last k may have been the most painful of my running-skiing career, which includes about 500 or 600 races over 30 years. On the last stitchback I coughed and spit, but right into my balaclava, which was over my mouth....No choice but to pull that below my chin. My face instantly froze. My throat tighened and I almost gagged--my biggest fear is to choke up, and have a severe asthma attack. Into the stadium I skied frantically--my form (never as good as Bruce's smooth and powerful stride) had already fallen apart on the hill and it was getting worse by the second). I double polled, gasped, and my face hurt as if someone was pinching it. Around the last turn I had at least 70 meters on Bruce. I'd win for sure.. I thought. Crossed the line and collapsed. Bruce came in just a few seconds later.

I couldn't talk, could barely breathe, and had a knife-like pain over my lower face. This was the closest I've ever come to crying at the end of a race. And it wasn't from emotion. It hurt.

Stood up and former Olympic ski coach John Estle saw that I had white patches on my face. He put his and on them for a minute or two, as if to keep my face from falling off. I got inside as soon as I could and just sat there in a daze for several minutes until other skiers trickled in. The frostbite wasn't bad.

47 year old skier has beens aren't supposed to win races! What happened? Well like runners, skiers can always come up with a ton of excuses for why things didn't go their way...however skiing's toolbox of explanations is much deeper and tiered. Whereas in running you have your fitness and mental approach, the day's conditions, the course, and sometimes a shoe issue...and that's about it. Skiing has those factors and more. Weather and snow can make a huge difference not to mention waxes and skis.

On this day, despite being poorly prepared at the start, the conditions all fell into my favor. These are my positive exuses for an unlikely win (no EPO required): Lighter skiers generally do better on soft snow. My competitors were 30-50 pounds heavier. If a couple of the other lighter runner/cyclist skiers had show up (let alone the UAF squad, who were racing in Minnesota)...the outcome may have been quite different. My conditioning and turnover as a runner were able to compensate for their more powerful and fluid strides. Even though we were at only 800-1000 feet above sea level, the feel was much like the racing at 9,000 feet in Colorado. Lung power helped rule the day. Bruce put it as a day for "those bird leg runners with big lungs." At cold temperatures, waxing is less of an issue, but I was lucky to hit it without need for an adjustment. I sometimes complain about the hilly courses at Birch Hill (this had 32 meters per kilometer of climb), which requires too much anaerobic chutzpah for a skinny distance runner. But with slow snow, it became more of an aerobic fest at my best distance. Finally skis. My skis are soft--usually too soft for my liking--and on the new snow they were near perfect.

This is a win that I'll savor for a long time. It took luck, and a bit of Sisu! (Finnish for guts and resovle in the face of adversity) because I know that a repeat will be real tough.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Dressing Up for a Cold Run

How do you survive a two hour run in sub zero (-18 C or colder) weather and sometimes even enjoy it? Enjoy? Well maybe make that live long enough to tell your story? Back in college we’d wear cotton thermal long underwear (the kind that looked like you came out of a waffle press) beneath cotton sweats, and if it was real bad a nylon parka and pants. Breathability was an option. We’d wear cotton socks on our feet and on our hands. When it got to single digits or less I was a wimp and would wear downhill ski mitts, which were warm. Too warm. The only smart wear we’d have would be a wool hat or balaclava. In those days we’d get back feeling cold with layers of clothing soaked in sweat.

Twenty five years later we have treadmills, myriad health club options, and for the hearty, high-tech gear. Assuming that you want to go outside for a cold run, here are suggestions for attire that will keep you warm and safe enough to complete a run when in sub-zero conditions.

Let’s start where it counts. You have to keep your core and key areas warm. For men wind briefs are almost mandatory. While women must bear the pain of childbirth, they have no idea what it’s like to have a frozen or thawing member. We don’t even want to think about frostbite. Polypropylene with a nylon shield. Wear it.

You can also wear vests that have a densely woven nylon windshield to protect your torso. My vest is made of Drytex, which wicks away moisture. It’s all good. While you won’t win any style awards with windbriefs and a vest, it would be enough to get you through a run in the low 30s (0 C).

Over the shorts I usually wear a thigh-length Speedo spandex swimsuit. This adds an extra layer for my thighs and hips. When it’s really cold, say less than -10 or -15 F (-26 to -29 C), I add polypropylene long underwear pants. And anytime it’s in the low single digits or below I’ll wear two layers of polypropylene shirts. Dressed with these you could go out and run comfortably at +15 F (-9 C).

To handle colder temperatures I wear Arctic Tights by Hind. These have a wool-polypro blend on the inside, and lycra on the outside. Along with the windbriefs and spandex swimsuit, these are good down to about zero. Below that your knees and quads get stiff and cold. The extra layer of polypro can fend off the cold, but it does feel a bit restrictive (nothing bulky like the snowsuits our mothers packed us into to play in the snow when we were kids—two steps and you fall into a snow drift hoping to be rescued by an attentive dad. You remember, “Dad? DAD? DAAAD? I can’t move…” With the tights and a nylon shell you could handle a run at about 0 F.

Sometimes instead of the long underwear I’ll put on standard nylon wind pants made for running. But if it’s really cold, like -20 F, or the run will be long, I go for the full monty, that is briefs, spandex swimsuit, polypro long underwear, tights, and nylon overpants.

Up top I typically wear add one more layer of core protection—a nylon vest that has a more or less fishnet back—underneath a double layered breathable jacket.

Now that we’ve covered the trunk and limbs, what about the extremities? Feet first. I now wear wool-polypro blend socks. My feet don’t get wet and they don’t get cold. One layer is fine. I don’t use expensive ice shoes, or push screws through the soles, but often will fit “shoe chains” that over the shoe to prevent any untimely slipping in front of a car, semi, or grizzly bear (actually the bears hibernate during winter). Ironically, when it gets very cold, say -10 or colder, traction gets better. Many things start to grind to a halt at extremely cold temperatures.

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For my hands I wear “lobster claw” cross country ski mitts. These are well insulated, light, and breathable. And most importantly they don’t get soaked with sweat. If it’s extreme, I’ll put on a pair of polypro glove liners. Cold hands are not a problem with these.

Finally, I also layer my head. First I put on lightweight cross country ski ear muffs. Then, if it’s more than a few degrees below zero, a polypro balaclava, and then either wool or polyester running hat. Finally, I’m dressed and ready for a run.

Running in such cold conditions can still be tough. My eye’s frost up every few minutes and I have to take off a glove and wipe them clean. Probably clear-lens sports glasses would prevent that. As great as this gear is, the layers do slow you down, and your muscles just don’t work very well at sub zero. The slipping and sliding tends to make your joints ache a bit more. But if you’re dressed right, you can get through a long run safely.

For more on hard core running in the cold: This Running Times article, by Fairbanks runner Matias Saari, profiles the winter training adventures of five serious marathoners as they prepare for Boston. Running Club North posts this piece on the challenges of winter running in the north country.

Photos by Mikko Sayre