Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another January Double

Each ski season plays out different, mostly because it’s hard to have consistency when you have such extreme weather. However, it looks like I'll be doing a series of double race weekends through January and February, with a week off in between. Last weekend it was a 10K classic ski race on Saturday and a winter duathlon with 5K run-5K ski-5K run on Sunday. Weather was about 7-8 degrees F both days, with no wind.

Saturday was hectic, I also coach junior racers, including my son. Brought the wrong poles for him, and had to send Tamara back home to pick up the right ones while I helped with waxing skis. I tried to make up for it by baking pizza and a cake after we got home. That won a few points, but I'm still mud.

To the race. 10Ks are grinders anymore. At 50 you hammer all out from beginning to end and, with a max heart rate of 175 or so, still go a lot slower than you’d like. We had 15 second interval starts, and right behind me was the entire UAF varsity ski team. They all flew by within 4K. I was wobbling through the second half, got some low blood sugar thing going at about 7K, followed by that tunnel vision at 8K, but managed to hold on for 32:59 and 13th OA. The winner, Oyvind Watterdahl of Norway blitzed a 26:37, and their top six were all within a minute of him. My 50+ buddy Dave smoked in for top 10 and was 29:57. I basically got dusted. It was 100% effort, but a middling outcome. I'd have liked to have been a minute or so faster but that's racing.

Sunday I was quite tired, but arrived about an hour before the start. The scene was low-key (not that Saturday had a high stakes atmosphere). The roads and trails were 100% snow and ice packed. Max, who also beat me by 1.5 min on Saturday was there, he's more of a skier but I wanted a comfortable lead into the skate.

The 5K run started and finished at Birch Hill, wound around some nearby roads for a mile before dropping rapidly down a snow machine trail. Then you get ¾ mile of flat but the last mile is all uphill. Max stayed right with me until the trail flattened out, about 7 minutes in. I just focused on staying ahead and keeping it steady and pulled away on the flat. The last mile of the run portion included 250’ of climb. I got to the exchange in 19:27, took 1:35 (21:03) for transition, and then skied (skate technique) the approximately 5.9K ski portion in just under 18 (39:02). That felt good, if not a little frantic, and I knew that I had a several minute lead. The transition was 1:06 (40:08).

My goal was to run the last leg faster than the first, and even though I took some drink and a Gu to avoid any energy bonking, a negative split wasn’t going to happen. My legs were tight the whole way, and I ran 20:23 on the last leg, to finish in ~1:00:32. A new course record, old record 1:03:56 by Max in 2006.

I’ve been waiting for all these great endorsement offers from Nike and Fischer, but no calls yet. Actually, I’d prefer New Balance and Atomic. Someday maybe they’ll publish the results, but then again, it’s pretty embarrassing when a 50 yr old wins a race outright. Better hide those results!

Next up, I guess, is 8K snowshoe on the 7th and 10K freestyle on the 8th. Too short, too short, too short.

(Maybe my next blog output should be a winter wish list for racing. Don't know about everyone else, but our local ski race schedule isn't all that great if you're over 20 years old)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Frozen Chosen Do 20K at -20

Skiers and fans at US national cross country ski championships in Anchorage last week experienced and observed unprecedented cancellations and schedule changes due to the cold weather that gripped the city for two weeks. Too bad the cutoff is only -4 F, because if officials had opted to modify that a little bit, allowing racers to compete at -6 or so, they could have held the full schedule of races and the selection for various US travel teams would have been more fair.

Here in Fairbanks most skiers scoff at the -4 rule, which was established by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and adopted by the US some 20 or 25 years ago. We race down to -20 and some take a perverse pride in facing the cold head-on, rather than hiding out indoors. No matter how you cut it, however, -20 is taking it right down to the limit.

On Sunday we raced the Chest Medicine 20K Classic, the second of three in the local club’s “Distance Series.” Fairbanks’ cold snap has been brutal, with two weeks of lows averaging in the -40s, and even at Birch Hills’ inversion-generated banana belt it hasn’t gotten above -15 in that time. Forecasters predicted highs of 0 or maybe in the single digits below for Sunday, but that was just a dream. The official thermometer at the stadium complex at 9 AM was -20.2.

I expected a delayed start, maybe starting at noon instead of 11 AM, figuring that we’d pick up a few degrees once the sun got above the horizon. Not so. The club’s website stated that the race Will Go On at the schedule time. At that point I was ticked, figuring that the decision was an outcome from the frustration of not being able to hold a full schedule of races at Nationals last week. Fine, we're tough in Fairbanks. Maybe even a little stupid for living here. But wouldn’t -12 to -15 be better than -20?

The race itself wasn't too bad. About 40 people competed, mostly geezers in the 50+ age groups. We must lose our sense in middle age. Most skiers were dressed with all sorts of layers, a few in lycra race suits. I was among of the, ahem, lighter dressed. Under my race suit I had extra thick arctic tights, wind briefs, and running-half tights; on top 4 layers of polypro, my top, and I borrowed my wife’s insulated Swix vest. That was a smart move because my core stayed warm, but I didn't build up sweat from skiing in a jacket. I lost track of how many hats I had, ear muffs, balaclava, and I duct-taped my cheeks and nose to prevent frostbite. The attire and duct tape worked great.

I had no problems with asthma during the race or dry coughing afterwards, and today I feel fine. No lingering ill effects. Guess I'm no longer angry about having to race in such cold, but realistically, they could have delayed things and I think everybody involved--volunteers and racers especially--would have appreciated a few extra degrees at the start.

The race itself was more or less fun. Dave Edic powered away from the field by 2 or 3K and never looked back. He took the win in 1:10:58 (which is a really good time for a 51 yr old on that course at 14 to 20 below zero), followed by Max Kaufman (a youngster in his 30s) in 1:13:26, I slogged in with 1:15:31, chased from about 7K on by Bad Bob Baker who timed 1:16:41, with Ken Leary's 1:19 finish, four of the top five were from the local class of '58 (actually Dave's a couple weeks older). More than half the field were men 50-59. Davya Flaharty won the women's with a fine 1:22, and was 6th overall.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Great US Nationals Freeze Out

Key for the chart:
Green = good conditions
Yellow = skiing is 'marginal' but a go
Orange = proceed with caution
Red = find a different outdoor activity or stay home

For the third time in four days the 2009 US national championships for cross country skiing have been frozen out in Anchorage. At this point we don't even know what's ahead in the schedule, what races are planned for today or tomorrow, or even if more races will be held this week.

Is this good for the sport? Does the -4 F (-20 C) temperature rule even make sense? Well, living in Fairbanks for five years (and in my case North Dakota and Northern Minnesota for another five, not to mention decades in the Rockies) here is some unabashed expert opinion.

To answer the first question, No this can't be good for Nordic skiing in North America. It's an obscure sport to begin with and people like order. This is chaos.

As for the somewhat arbitrary -4 cutoff, there is no doubt an increased risk of frost bite as temps dip below zero, and heavy exercise in frigid temps does result in some respiratory distress. But, from experience and observation, there is nothing magical about -4. Here in Fairbanks, where the population is a little out of whack anyway, adults race down to -20 F, and kids will still compete to -10 F in the local Town Race Series.

In my years here, I've seen an heard of a couple mild cases of frostbite, and I've gotten a little on my cheek at a couple races. Regarding respiratory distress--and I'm going purely on personal experience here--as a lifetime asthmatic, I have been able to race down to -20 F without too much trouble. I once did a race at -26 F in Minnesota, and at that temp I was gagging on my on saliva and mucous. Not a good experience. I do have some bad days when it's really cold, but usually if I use the inhaler, pace myself, and don't go out too fast it's fine. Short races (10K and under) are actually tougher at that temperature.

Back in Colorado one year I developed a lingering dry hack for several weeks after racing at -10, but my worst experience from upper respiratory problems due to intense excercise was actually from running indoor track, at 70 degrees.

No doubt top level racers and coaches are concerned about upper respiratory infection--well I've caught exactly one winter cold since moving here in 2004, and I do a dozen ski races and four or five snowshoe races a year. Granted, elite skiers train and race on the edge of illness throughout much of the winter. To be that good you have to push your body to the extreme. To catch a cold or flu at this time of year can ruin an entire season for an athlete. But if there is any scientific evidence that says such setbacks are more likely at -6 compared to -3, I'd sure like to see it.

So what's a safe cutoff? That could be worth some studies, but I'd venture to guess that they could race down to -8 or even -10 without undue health risks, and they certainly could be going at it with the -6s and -7s they've had in Anchorage this week.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Freeze MoFo!

We've been arrested and are in lock down. The prosecuting officials, judge, and jury have conspired to create a massive and immobile Arctic high pressure system which has brought frigid temps into Interior Alaska and beyond. The sentence for Fairbanks and nearby areas: two or three weeks of -30s, -40s, and maybe some -50s.

I'm still getting out some (call it cold weather work release), but it's definitely a challenge. First thing to think about is how to dress for these conditions without freezing all sorts of skin and body parts.

Pictured is my wardrobe for a snowshoe run at -30 F.

From toes to head, the list includes:
wool socks
chemical foot warmers
neoprene foot covers (for snowshoe running at least)
wind briefs
lycra half tights
wool lined and extra thick "arctic tights"
xc ski pants with windbreaker front panel
3 polypropelene shirts
windbreaker vest over the first polypro shirt, beneath the other two
xc ski parka, double layered and breathable
xc ski gloves (lobster claw)
chemical hand warmers
neoprene face mask
ear muffs
2 wool-polypro hats

On New Year's Eve I snowshoe ran for about 5 miles, which took about 55 or 60 min including a couple stops to take some pictures of the trail and scenery. I never got cold, but wasn't over-dressed either. I was feeling the chill after 30 or 40 minutes. At this temperature it's more of a slog/slow jog and I don't even think about speedwork or tempos. At -10 or -15 I might do eight or ten pick ups of 20 to 30 seconds, just to keep the legs from getting too stale. But at -30 it's all about survival and keeping your feet moving so that you can get back for some hot chocolate. Or wine.

Now a lot of people would think that we're crazy to live under such conditions, let alone go outside to train. But rather than thinking that you're a prisoner to the elements, you learn to adapt to if not embrace the silence and the beauty.