Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter 2011-12: Some Cold Facts

I'm not a meteorologist and only had a one week introduction 30 years ago this year at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Moreover, I'm limiting any analysis only to the time that we have lived in Fairbanks. All that I can say that yes, this has been one cold (I say bitter) winter season!

All that I know is that there has been a high pressure system in the high Arctic that has persisted for weeks now, locking us a cycle of cold and colder. We always get these systems and they can persist for a couple weeks, but we're now into the fifth week of this cold snap.

Here is a graph of the temps this winter. We had about two weeks (16 days actually) of very cold temperatures in November (mean daily temperature of -20.7 F), typically a very cold month, and then a three week relative warming trend in December (averaging 13.1 F, with most days above zero), immediately followed by the this cold slap from hell. It started in earnest on December 24 and the daily temperature average has been -21.0 through January 24.

We did have two days of respite, when some cloud cover helped alleviate the freeze and we actually enjoyed some above zero. At this point, if you believe in the seven day forecast there is no end in sight.

I also decided to see how this year has stacked up to other years since we came here (2004). Sure enough this is a bad one.

*note that 2011 only goes through the 24th of January, so we have another week of counting cold days.

So if you consider that a daily mean (high and low averaged for each day) of -20 is damn cold, and -30 is miserably damn cold then 2011 is indeed the coldest winter since 2004. We had that bad cold snap in 2008, but 2011 has had more under -20, and by the end of the month there will be more sub 30 days.

Finally, but I don't have quantified date for this, our beloved temperature inversions have not been consistent this year particularly in the last month. Frequently (if not usually) it can be -20 or -40 in the valley where Fairbanks proper sits, but 15 to 25 degrees warmer in the hills outlying town. Makes a big difference! Well this year we've hardly had inversions. In fact if anything it's often been a couple degrees colder at 800 to 1200 ft in elevation, compared to 450 feet in town.

I guess La Nina is not our friend.

Later I'll tally up February, which is usually not bad but who knows this year.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Skate Race in January!

Alaskans can be a strange but hearty bunch. Last weekend's Besh Cup races--established as qualifiers for nordic skiing Junior Olympics--were in Homer at the relatively new trails on Lookout Mountain. They have about 5K of very tough (almost all up an down) trails and that's about it. No lodge, no wax room, no electricity except at the timing hut.

The lodge was a school bus, idling all day. Wax rooms were at the motel or under a tent (for the lucky ones) or just a bench out on the ridge. One team did have a heated trailer and generator. The hosts also put up a couple of yurts as changing rooms and of course the ever-popular giant gong for entertainment, lending that other worldly aura.

Anyway, two days out there in single digit weather (usually breezy) can kind of wear you down. But other than hearing the occassional "geez it would be nice if they built something here," nobody seemed to complain. They just bundle up and bear with it, and wind chill or not 6 above sure beats 35 below in Fairbanks.

The FAST kids skied well--Erich had an amazing skate race, 5th overall against a good field--and the three J2s on the team are still in the hunt for Arctic Winter Games, although they are going to have to have a big weekend to make it.

I jumped into Sunday's skate race. Two years ago, still injured, I skied the trails classic and have looked forward to returning someday to race. That was a tough course. I've been saying that I wish it would be 15K but after the fact hmmm 10K was plenty, thank you. I haven't seen the technical data but I wouldn't doubt if it's out of USSA, certainly FIS, compliance.

You get 150 meters of flat at the start, a nice (not really) curvy 200 meter hill climb, before dropping down into the gully for 300-400 meters. Then a big bully of a hill climb, must be 600 meters or more. Finally you get a bit of rest on about 1.2 K or rolling terrain before returning to the stadium and the Euro-style bridge, and down into another hole. The climb out is steeper but not as long as the first climb, maybe 400 or 500 meters, followed by some crazy S-turns (3 or 4 in succession), and yet another half K or more of climbing; and then you have to do it again!

Due to my disasterous classic race in Anchorage in late 2010 I had a pretty low seed and was only about the 15th out of the gates--from of a field of about 70--in the interval start (15 sec) format. In a way that was beneficial and I was able to ski my own race the entire way. Passed most of those who started ahead of me, all but one or two I think, and no one passed from behind. That's usually a sign of a good race.

The plan was to ski Lap 1 at Level 3 (threshold) but to push the transitions, and to stay fast but in control on the technical (turny) downhills. I only succeeded at one of three--and even the downhill parts didn't feel great.

With the steep climbs--much like running up Ester Dome (or any trail with 10 - 12% grade)--the line between threshold, vo2 max, and oxygen debt is quite thin especially after you get into your 50s! Anyway, I felt tired up that first hill, and sloppy on the downhill. Then the long hill climb was just brutal. Nevertheless I was reeling them in easily, and my skis were faster than anyone's. (thanks Tyson for the good stone grind last month!).

On the positive side, even though I was winded by 2K I'd already moved up and was catching guys who started 1.5 or 2 minutes ahead. A good sign indeed.

The craziest thing was that on the S turns they had volunteers out there shoveling snow to prevent icing. This was a mistake. I was able to hit those sections fast (semi-tuck) on the warm up. But when they kept piling snow on the curves during the race we had ankle deep ruts on the first lap, and by the second lap these were shin deep. I got through fine but the second time through, I just barely made it through with out falling.

I heard that there were huge pile ups amongst the thick of the pack, those who had started 5 or 10 minutes behind me. I was completely spent by the last half K, and probably lost 20 seconds because I had nothing left.

My splits were roughly 17:20 and 18:05 (or 17:15/18:10). 35:25, 36th Overall and 1st masters. Woot! First race in six weeks and an actual skate race in January.

Even though we've had a rough winter here and I haven't been exactly happy about some of the scheduling things this season, we sure do have it good in Fairbanks with excellent facilities, community, and trails. I like what they're trying to do in Homer (with much smaller community support) and look forward to the day they have some infrastructure built there--and maybe some more moderate trail sections.

The Junior races were fun to watch, saw a lot of good skiing out there and it was just a great weekend to be in Alaska.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

State of the Season

Now three and a half weeks into I what think has been the longest cold snap since we've been here, this ski season is shaping up to be a wash. Hopefully February and March will be decent. The good news is that it was too cold to have the 10K freestyle race this weekend at Birch Hill. I was afraid it was going to creep up to about -20.5 and someone would then blow on the thermometer to make it -20.1 and they'd say, okay the race is on!

I've skied five times in two weeks now, kind of like the old days in Colorado when we usually had to drive 1.5 to 2 hr to get to some trails.
Still beats New England and much of the rest of the Lower 48 (Colorado included) this year because we know that this will pass and should have another two or three months of season left. By April that's kind of a mixed blessing.

So last week I did the best I could (two good workouts on the snow) and actually did a lot of running. 32 miles, plus a 1 hr snowshoe run (6 miles) on Sunday. And I got in some decent quality on the indoor track and treadmill. I almost never run hard on either. The weird thing is, I felt good on those workouts and recovered right away. I'm starting to look forward to running season.

On Saturday we did a 5.2K tempo on the UAF track, with splits of 6:22 (HR 136), 6:05 (HR 153), 6:03 (HR 158), and 1:31 (final 400)--and that's weaving through traffic and much of it in lane 2 or 3. And yesterday (Monday) I jumped on the treadmill and after a 20 min warm up started doing reps of 2 or 3 min ranging from 5:35/mile pace to 5:50. Felt good. Feel even better today. I think I could run about 17:30 for 5K on warmer (+40s instead of -40s) and on dry pavement. Go figure.

Lamenting not getting in any long skis--3 hr or so--in prep for Tour of Anchorage or the Sonot, but when it's -23 to -47 out what can you do?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Brain Freeze 8.5K Snowshoe Race a No Brainer

With temps at brisk and cheery -19 F when I got up on Saturday morning I knew they'd have the 20K freestyle race at Birch Hill no matter whatbut I didn't even bother to scrape the LF4 off my (classic)skis. Postpone the race for a better day? Delay the start? Don't even think about it.

Instead of prepping for skiing, I rumaged around looking for snowshoes and neoprene shoe covers. This was also a protest against the decision to host only Distance Series freestyle race of the year in January with no contingencies. There were actually a lot of no shows. Twenty six hearty sould lined up; 24 of them did classic. I haven't talked to those who skated but it couldn't have been fun.

This was my first snowshoe race in three years; in fact, my last race was exactly three years ago also at Moose Mountain. With the knee injury and more coaching responsibility now, I haven't had the opportunity to get back on snowshoes.

They had to change the course because of last year's forest fire up above the Moose Mountain ski area. The start and finish were the same, but the middle 5K or so was altered. We had some great views of the White Mountains and hills.

With a start an hour later (noon) and almost double the elevation, temps were an acceptable -11 at the start (compared to -14/-15 at Birch Hill). With snowshoeing, you also don't feel quite as cold as skiing, so -10 or -11 isn't so bad, maybe about like skiing at -5 or -6.

However, my face froze over the first mile (climbing up a snowmachine trail about 300 feet in elevation), but by the second and third mile--single track, winding back and forth through the soot-covered trees in the burn area--I warmed up and caught a second wind. Snowshoeing is not exactly a skill event, but there is a knack to rounding turns and shifting gears and this was a technical course. I haven't put on snowshoes since early 2009 and felt rusty and awkward on the transitions. Also, hadn't done much race effort training for three weeks, so the pace and seemingly relentless climb for the first 18 or 20 minutes were killer.

I fell back to 5th after 1.5 miles, but bided my time and moved up after about 20 minutes. Fell four times, almost crashing into trees on a couple of those. Closed fast on the downhill (6:00 or so for the last mile), averaged heart rate of 156, which unlike the the terrain, looked level throughout the 52 minute effort.

I really enjoyed the event, and the company. Snowshoe racing is a great alternative to skiing on days when ski conditions are not good. I just wish they'd have more races weekends when there weren't ski races. Darn, this will probably be my last snowshoe race of the year, as all the remaining local races conflict with ski events/weekends. At least the Sonot will be freestyle. This year. Hopefully things will warm up a bit by late March.

Friday, January 06, 2012

January Angst and Other First World Problems

Hands down January is my least favorite month of the year.

Every winter here has its challenges; if the lack of light doesn’t get you the low temperatures often will. We have gained almost 40 minutes of daylight already since the solstice two and a half weeks ago but any difference is almost imperceptible. The light issue will change quickly now that we are gaining five or six minutes of light per day. Hooray for that.

Our weather this entire winter (starting back in October/November) has been sort of flipped around. We were blessed with some good early snow—thin cover but fine skiing—by late October but then it got cold and colder in November with record-breaking lows. Great. Got a reprieve for about three weeks of December, but just in time for winter break the temps fell off the charts.

Officially, the cold snap over the past two weeks or so hasn’t been anything extraordinary, but what has been unique has been the duration without much of a break, combined with lack of diurnal variation. Most aggravating has been little or no inversion.

We get spoiled here, because it is often 15 to 25 degrees warmer in the hills (say above 800 feet) than in the valley (which is at 450 feet). We’ve had maybe three days so far in the -40s and most of the time it’s been in the -20s and -30s in town (nothing unusual there). However, this year at Birch Hill, Moose Mountain, and where we live, the temperatures have been the same as in town. Waiting impatiently for a break, or an inversion, that lasts a few weeks!

Weather talk is just a lead-in to my real subject. Tomorrow (January 7) is the January Jaunt 20K freestyle ski race. This is sort of a joke. We have not had temperatures warm enough to practice skating (you need at least about -5 or warmer to be able to have enough glide for a decent skate workout) for more than two weeks. Forecasts are calling for -20 in the hills tonight and highs of -5 to -20. We might just make it, but my best guess is that it will be -10 or -15 at the start of the race. The last two weeks of December and first two weeks of January are almost always the coldest of the year. Why schedule a freestyle race in the midst of that?

Just do classic, will be the response of those who make the decisions, but the schedule is already heavily biased towards classic. It just wasn’t a good idea and hopefully some people will realize that.

Once again, the Gundeloppet in December should have been freestyle —it was a perfect day for skating!--and the January Jaunt 20K slated for Saturday should be classic. Schedule the damn races for the conditions we are likely to be facing. It’s that simple.

I’m not quite done with this rant. All this said with the weather, lack of gainful long-term employment opportunities for my wife, and some other things (this year's crappy local race schedule notwithstanding), for the first time since moving here we’re actually beginning to think about life outside of this community.

I can’t see leaving before the kids are done with high school, but after that it will be open season. I’ve thought about New England, but they hardly have winter anymore. The upper Midwest still gets winter and the cost of living is good, but been there/lived there and that region is kind of depressed. If we want to keep skiing (would like to be in a place where you can ski 100 days a year or more) that leaves the Rockies, Sierras, or Pacific Northwest. That would mean the end of this blog, although Anchorage or Kenai at least have relatively reliable skiing.

BC is nice. In a perfect world, that's where I'd go.

We have a few years to think about options and maybe we’ll think differently by spring time. A two week vacation each year to someplace with actual daylight and sun would help. We always travel to Colorado during summer when it's too hot there.