Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Frozen Tearsicles

The Iditarod Trail is an ephemeral thing, lasting for just one season each year. It is also essentially perpetual, renewed again the following winter after inevitable spring thaws. Unfortunately, the continuity of our own lives is never quite so certain and none of us knows exactly how many seasons we will have.

I arrived at the final checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Invitational to learn that my father had passed away the previous night. He'd been dealing with a number of health issues with significant degeneration over the past couple years, but I did get to spend time with him before departing for Alaska. He had just been released from the hospital and we were hopeful to see this as just another minor setback. It was, apparently, not to be.

Encouraged by my family to finish the race, I knew I would not be able to get much sleep at that point so I headed back out into the night. Walking the frozen trail, watching the northern lights and, eventually, falling asleep in my bivy beneath the star-filled Alaskan sky, I thought about my dad.

The next morning, I continued down the remainder of the final 50-mile stretch with a lifetime of memories as my companion. There were some difficult moments and one near-complete breakdown, but I'm glad that I was able to spend this time "with him" on the trail.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Well, it's been another winter of fits and starts. Since the "Fear and Loathing" race, I've had a setbacks on a number of fronts. With almost no training at all the rest of December and a single 50K race in January, I decided to go ahead with my plan to attempt a repeat at the Arrowhead 135.

It went well enough for the first 24 hours or so, toughing it through temps down into the -40s. Leaving the 72 mile checkpoint Tuesday afternoon my lungs weren't feeling great, but I managed to convince myself it was just the lack of sleep and it would work itself out if I could sneak in a bit of rest the next night. However, it didn't take long to realize that my hacking and coughing was not going to clear up so easily especially given that I only had a single hour on the cutoff time. After 2-1/2 miles I made the decision to turn back rather than risk a potentially more serious illness along with my plans for returning to the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile race less than 4 weeks hence.

Given my past history, friends of mine have always predicted that my first DNF would either be because I was dragged kicking-and-screaming from the course or carried off in a stretcher. In the end, it was actually a fairly easy decision. Every now and then I like to make the smart choice, but I don't generally make a habit of it. After around 90 ultra-marathons and 27 of them of 100 miles or longer, it was inevitable that I would eventually not finish one.

And now, since my main motivation for accepting those three letters was for a larger and more fulfilling goal, I am about to head north to Alaska. I don't feel at all prepared and trail conditions (though quite the opposite of what we experienced in Minnesota) are not looking great. Alaska experienced a significant melt down in January followed by a re-freeze the course is more ice and frozen ground than snow. However, the Iditarod trail is never the same any two given years anyways so one simply has to take it in stride.

Despite significant reservations, I'm looking forward to being out there on the trail, moving forward through the last great frontier. At least the time pressures won't be what they were at Arrowhead and I'm excited about returning to the "expedition mentality" that is an integral aspect of this event.

Updates will be infrequent, but available here:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fear and Loathing in the dead of night

The Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing 50K/50M is one of those classic ultrarunning events that's been on my "to do" list for some time. It's been around for around 30 years and follows the San Francisco 49 mile Scenic Drive as it winds it's way through the city. Running 50 miles on roads certainly doesn't sounds like it fits in my wheelhouse. However, I really love events that have a certain "organic" aspect to them and the idea of a long race that tours the city I've lived near most of my life, is simply irresistible. Now that I live in the San Francisco and the route goes right by my place, I had no excuse not to join the fun.

Well, I actually did have one excuse. I wanted to run the entire course, but I had some things I wanted to do in the afternoon and didn't want to kill my entire Sunday. Not only would it likely take at least 9 hours to run the course, but I would have to travel to and from the start at Twin Peaks which is about 5 miles from my house and an hour by public transit. So, rather than opting to just run the 50K route, I hit upon the somewhat crazy idea of starting my run in the middle of the night from home so I could finish there the following morning.

Leaving my house near Fort Mason right around midnight, it was interesting to be running such common paths while dark and empty. Coming out of the Presidio I saw a coyote running in the middle of the street with something in its mouth. Further on the path in a residential neighborhood heading towards Ocean Beach, I was surprised by a group of raccoons that came tumbling around a corner in the midst of a fight. A bit more wildlife than I expected especially since I wasn't even in the park.

The path along the beach and up and over The Great Highway was quite peaceful with nary a bit of traffic which would be impossible in the daylight. After that it was out and around Lake Merced and then on towards Golden Gate Park. The normally-crowded Sunset Blvd also devoid of vehicles in the wee hours of the a.m. However, once the route took me into the Park, the solitude turned from pleasant to creepy. Its one thing to not see another living thing that isn't scavenging for leftover morsels. It's quite another to be continuously haunted by the thought that that emptiness might just be an illusion and you may just wake someone sleeping in those bushes next to the path. I opted to run in the middle of the street instead.

I was glad to finally be leaving the park and heading up towards UCSF Medical, but looking at the route to the "start" had me a wee concerned. The official race began at 7:00am. It wasn't even 5 yet and I was only a few miles from the base of the final climb up Twin Peaks. It was around 5:30am when I arrived at Portola Drive. It was Sunday and I imagined myself cowering in a doorway for the next hour. Then I noticed the Starbucks across the street with a light on and someone going in the door. I hustled across and smiled as I headed inside. A much better venue to spend my waiting time.

Despite overnight temps in the 30s, I hadn't really been cold for the entire run. Taking over an hour break and then heading back out took care of that. I cowered at the top of the hill with everyone else anxiously awaiting the start. It was good to get caught up with old friends though once we were underway, the extra miles on my legs kept me far in the back of the pack. No problem. I was still enjoying running solo as the morning came upon us and we headed mostly downhill through Dolores Hights to Cesar Chavez and towards the bay.

I knew the night was taking a toll when I was running along the Embarcadero and needed to use a bathroom. I stopped at one of the little public stalls, but then read the sign reading "vacant", uttered a "damn it" to myself and ran on. It was about 1/2 mile before I realized that my brain had translated that to "occupied". Of course, every other one I came upon either was occupied or out of order. Figures.

Just as I was really starting to feel the fatigue, I was lucky enough to hook up with another runner, Billy McCarty, who is a really interesting guy and helped pass the time as we wound our way through the shopping district, Japan Town, China Town and then up to Coit Tower before descending down to Fisherman's Warf and then back towards home.

I finished up about 11 hours after I started with my GPS registering around 48 miles for the full 49-mile Scenic Drive. I'm not sure if I'd do it again, certainly not in the same fashion. However, it was probably the most fun I've ever had running that many miles on road. My legs definitely felt like they do after a normal 50 miler, but my feet hurt much, much more.

In the end, the goal was accomplished. I got in some solid miles and made it back home in time for a nap before the start of the 49ers game :-)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Trail: The Real Story

Tales about gear choices, what I ate and where I slept are all well and good, but not what I imagine most people really want to know about a week spent dragging sled along the Iditarod Trail. The questions are myriad: Are you alone the whole time?, Do you get bored? Aren't you scared? What do you think about? Don't you go crazy? How do you keep it together? Ultimately, they boil done to this: Just what the heck do you do out there dragging a sled across the snow all day?

The simple, if slightly apocryphal, answer is that I've never had trouble being alone. Spending quiet time living in my own head while out on the trail enjoying nature's beauty is one of the best things there is. The full truth, however, is that it does get a bit weird out there (or inside there) at times.

It started with music.

I don't run with headphones except on the rare occasion where I am relegated to the treadmill. However, for this event I brought an MP3 player loaded with both music and audio books along with a portable charger. I was especially interested to see how the audio books would work out, but I wanted to save those until later in the race. Slogging in the middle of a wide expanse of the Yentna River on a sunny afternoon, my mind started taking a wrong turn. In some ways, the early miles were toughest. With too few miles behind, any thought of the vast distances ahead would quickly become disheartening. Once I had a few days under my belt, I could try to find some sort of routine, but in this first full day on the trail, I was struggling just to keep focused on the immediate.

I put on my headphones and tried to find some fitting music for the stillness and beauty that surrounded me. I tested a few options, but nothing really seemed to match my mood. I tried some motivational music then something pensive then upbeat. For some reason, nothing resonated. Nothing seemed appropriate. I put it on random play for a bit until an odd thought hit me. Maybe I should try something wholly inappropriate. What music would one least expect to fit into a romp along the frozen Alaskan wilderness?

So, that was it, bopping along the Iditarod Trail to C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)". It may not fit the mood you'd expect to accompany an adventure of this sort, but it certainly got me moving. In fact, I was pretty much "bustin' moves" across the trail when a bunch of snow-machines came whirring by bringing me back both to my senses and a sense of where I was. The dance music stayed on, but I kept the actual dancing a bit more contained as I marched my way into Yentna Station.

As the third night deepened and my long, difficult trek towards Winterlake Lodge began, I once again turned to the Dance/Electronica genre. I'd finished off some audio-book content during the day, but as the sun went down, I held my own little dance party on the tundra with my trekking poles as my partner. I listened to that album on repeat making it through three full rotations before reaching my destination. As the hours crept on and the checkpoint seemed no closer I began to dread the start of each new song. There was no more dancing, but the music became like a lifeline and I desperately wanted not to finish another set before arriving at the cabin.

Looking back, I'm not sure why that seemed so important at the time, but when my battery drained before finishing the album again, it seemed actually seemed worse. I stopped in a little stand of trees and just knelt beside my sled. It was probably the forth or fifth time that I assured myself the checkpoint must be just ahead. I contemplated just setting up camp there, but my experience spending a night just a half mile before a cabin the previous night drove me forward. The silence dragged on in those final miles to the lodge.

Though I recharged my battery, that would be the last time I spent listening to music for a long while. I would, however, make some of my own out there on the trail later on.

On Books

If my music choices seem a bit questionable then consider my book selection. It was right around dusk when I decided to test out some spoken word content. As the sun went down, I put my headphones on and sampled a selection of Vincent Price reading the poems and short-stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Choosing "The Master of Macabre" may seem a bit dark and uninspiring especially relative to my musical selections. However, the intrigue and plot twists of Poe's tales kept me engaged. Besides, I've been a fan since I was young; I'd read most of the stories, but not for some time so it was a nice little dose of reminiscence  along with my entertainment.

The only downside of this particular audio book collection was that it wasn't very well organized. Some tracks covered multiple stories and/or poems while others stories spanned multiple tracks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the time listening to "The Gold-Bug" and "The Fall of The House of Usher". There was occasional talk-back and I did make a rather futile effort to recite along with poetry favorites "The Bells" and "Annabel Lee" when following some of the stories became difficult. My only wish was that it had been easier to scan back and catch any bits I missed when my mind ran off on its own.

My second foray into audio books out on the trail was even more epic. I saved my longer selection for the longest unsupported section of trail in the race and it turned out to be nothing less than brilliant. Homer's classic The Odyssey was another favorite from my youth and I listened to the entire recording between the Rohn and Nikolai checkpoints. I knew the framework of the story, but the details stood vague in my memory. It was a bit like listening to an old friend recalling a story I hadn't heard in years. I so enjoyed it that it left me with a bit of lingering sadness once it was over.

Things that go bump in my head.

When not listening to music or stories, my mind worked on its own to keep my head filled. Most of the time I spent just trying to enjoy the moments either letting my thoughts wander or directing them towards one meaningless train or another. Sometimes, my mind would just seem to decide on its own where to go. And, occasionally, it got a bit odd.

It was only the second morning and I was on my way to Skwentna. I had just taken a caffeine pill to wake me up when it started. It just popped into my head as some random syllables at first. Then I started playing with the consonants and making non-sensical rhymes. Finally, I found myself chanting it out loud.


Meaningless. Over and over. Rearranging the order, altering the intonations, it went on for the better part of two hours. This simple chant, repeated in my head followed me, off and on, throughout the remainder of the race. It would disappear and then reappear in my mind. I would think that I had lost it and then it would return out of nowhere. I would sometimes struggle to recall the original order even though it didn't matter as I would just as quickly change it once I remembered, deciding that I preferred another sequence. I would play games in my head where the final "nee-dul" would try to sneak in early and then the other syllables would rebel and try to keep it from vocalizing at all. Epic battles were held.

Strange though this little incantation was, it kept me occupied and moving along the trail for countless hours even helping me through a few rough patches along the way. Some how it managed to wend its way into my psyche. Even now as I write this, I can hear its echoes.

Funny things

Traveling up and down the Happy River steps, things went in different direction. I mentioned before how much I really enjoyed this section. Perhaps it was the variety of the hills, perhaps the contrast to the bad night I'd had before or maybe it was just that it felt a little like being in a wooded Christmas-y setting. I'm quite certain that must be the origin of my starting to sing carols. It started with the chorus of "Jingle Bell Rock", but it was "Winter Wonderland" that really got me going. It was just the bridge and chorus from the actual song (or at least something approximating it):
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man,
but you can do the job while you're in town! 
Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, (sang as: "dum dum da dum")
The plans that we've made, ("da dum dum da dum")
Walking in a winter wonderland.
However, after singing it a few times, it began to warp into something completely different and even bizarre. The words took on a rather perverse and even pornographic bent. A strong desire not to incriminate myself keeps me from writing the entire lyrics to my "F*#king in a Winter Wonderland" XXX-mas charol here on this blog, but needless to say, it provided endless hours of entertainment as I marched up and ran down those hills. Nothing helps the hours go by like laughing at oneself. And, for me, there is apparently no better way to do this than to just let the twisted side of my personality run bat-ass crazy, free.

This became even more evident as I headed out for two long days in the wild. Holiday jingles just weren't going to cut it for the vast barrenness of the Farewell Burn. So, what else was there to do than to start composing limericks? It started simply by playing with names. In the end, I covered most of my close friends and work colleagues composing poems running the gamut from just silly to downright raunchy. Again, I'm not going to fill this blog with the perverse language that occupied my brain after 5 days out on the frozen trail.

I will share one of the most tame one's since it is very timely given the subject's recent stint in the desert (or was when I started writing this).

There once was a girl named Jill
Who rode her bike up a hill
Again and again
She just wouldn't come in
Even when she took a bad spill

Things went pretty sharply downhill from there as you may imagine. For example, Beat's name is actually pronounced "BEH-awe-t" but most people tend to say it like "beet" which happens to rhyme with "meat". I'll let your imagination fill in the details. As for my imagination, it ran wild as I repeated these little inventions out loud, using a variety of voices. Occasionally, I would send myself straight into fits of maniacal laughter. So much so that I would have to stop to keep myself from stumbling off trail or falling over. Had someone seen me out there, I'm certain they would conclude that I had escaped the asylum and would eventually be found as a frozen corpse with a perma-grin stuck on my face.

But, of course, there was nobody out there to see.


For two full days, I don't think I saw a single living thing that wasn't rooted to the ground beneath the snow.

The emotional stuff

Up until now, I've written primarily about my thoughts, but little about the feelings accompanying them. One of the reasons for undertaking challenges such as this is to experience a breadth and depth of emotions beyond what may hit you in the course of a normal week. Many people may assume that a certain amount of fear might accompany a journey that involves wondering over remote mountains, through empty woods and across frozen lakes in the dead of winter. However, I can't really say it was any significant part of the experience except in minor moments when crossing some glare ice or a snow-ridge over a river. It certainly wasn't as integral to the experience as was the case back in my rock-climbing days.

There were times, such as heading up Rainy Pass in the dark with snow blowing in my face, where I was filled with a sense of urgency. It wasn't the feeling of being in a full on emergency, but more just being impressed with the immediacy of my situation. In such inhospitable environments, you're made acutely aware of the need to keep moving and not make mistakes. People often describe a rush of "feeling alive" directly after some life-threatening event or upon completing an adrenaline-filled challenge. While not with the same intensity, an aspect of that feeling stuck with me as a sort-of driving force, prodding me forward along the trail.

As the days went on and I became comfortable with the long hours alone pulling sled across snow (or at lease became comfortable with the discomfort), the range and intensity of my emotions varied. Despite the fact that I travelled by myself for nearly the entire race, I didn't feel lonely. I've never had trouble being alone and, at times in my life, have even felt almost too comfortable with it.  However, I can't claim to have been completely untouched by the isolation. No matter the distance of the event, as finishing became a conceivable, everything seems to become accentuated. Somehow my psyche always seems to be "set" for the particular duration of my undertaking such that the final miles, hours or days are often the most difficult, the most rewarding and always beset with strong emotions.

Nikolai was the last stop before the final 50 mile stretch. Arriving there is pretty much knowing that you are going to finish the race. After two full days alone, I can't say that this fact was forefront in my mind. I'd had a fuel failure during my attempt to melt snow earlier in the day and was considering giving it another go when a sign indicating 10 miles spurred me on. Those miles did not pass quickly, especially after dark as the wind swept up the trail while crossing what seemed an endless series of small lakes. I'd donned my outer layers and goggles for protection, but was having a terrible time keeping them properly together on my face. My frustration grew as I'd adjust my goggles and my hat would slip. I'd fix my hat and my balaclava would become misaligned. Eventually, I just couldn't take it any more.

I snapped. I ripped the goggles from my face and threw them to the ground, screaming at them, my voice cracking. "WHY CAN'T YOU JUST DO WHAT I SAY!"

I collapsed onto my poles, hanging my head. After finally catching my breath I propped myself onto my feet and looked up at the perfectly clear night sky. A billion stars met my gaze. And, there, foremost among them, just above the horizon, shone the Big Dipper, the symbol of the very land across which I was traveling.  I stood there in the center of the frozen lake, tears in my eyes, repeating to myself "look where you are, just look where you are."

Finishing before you're done

The race ends in McGrath, but in some ways, making it to Nikolai felt like the biggest accomplishment. At that point, I knew I would finish even with one last, very long, day ahead. Having been on the trail for nearly a full week, there was a part of me that just wanted to stop and revel in "being out there' before it was all over. What better place to do so than in this tiny village populated with people whose ancestors have called this land home for 1000s of years? One of the negatives of these types of events is that, while you get to spend a long time covering a vast range of amazing locales, there still isn't much time for pause and reflection in situ. So it was, with a certain ambivalence, that I headed out for my final slog an hour before dawn.

As the sun rose over the Kuskokwim, my spirits were up. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. I could feel the many miles on my legs, but I was happy to be moving. Despite my growing weary of the river travel earlier in the race, I was happy for the wide expanse and obvious trail allowing my mind to wander. As I approached more "civilized" locales, and as the dogsled race began to approach from behind, there was increased activity along the river. This wasn't to say it was busy. I was still pretty much completely alone taking the time to amuse my addled brain with a Braveheart yell of "Freedom!"

The day was uneventful and dusk arrived before I knew it. I tried to pick up the pace hoping to get off the river before dark. I was rewarded coming upon a "10 mile" sign as I headed into the woods and then the 8 mile hand-written one specifically for our race that could not have been 2 miles from the previous one. Little did I know they were both bald-faced lies.

I was ready to "kick it in" and get this thing done, but the course went up a long and gradual climb so it was more slow slogging. Biding time and dreaming of a long night's sleep in a warm house, my mental strength began to waver. This is when the trail made a sharp turn and headed in the direction of a single red light in the distance. Like the proverbial dangling carrot, the light never seemed to come any closer. Furthermore, I could't tell whether it lay just a little ways in front of me or atop a distance hillside. It seemed to be wavering back and forth taunting me, or so I imagined. It so played with my psyche that I simply refused to look up as I ground my way up the trail, mumbling nonsense under my breath.

After what seemed an eternity, the trail finally came to a "T" at a road. An actual road! Right at the intersection was a hand-written sign lying that the finish was only 2 miles away. Of course, they could have included an arrow indicating which direction to go. It was probably obvious, but in my addled state, I ran back and forth, up and down the road looking at the less than specific track on my GPS. Eventually, I noticed what looked to be some tracks in, of course, the direction of the red light. When I finally passed that blasted thing (some sort of radio tower or something), started to run.

I ran on, but after more than a mile ticked off my GPS, still was not anyplace resembling a town. I slowed back to a walk. As I passed the 2 mile mark, I let a bit of frustration into my head, frustration that eventually turned to resignation. Upon finally reaching the edge of town, I dragged on expecting the finish anytime soon, but the dragging just seemed to continue. It's always the case that the last mile is the longest (especially when its much longer than a mile). Finally, just as I began to entertain images of not being able to find the finish and setting up bivy in the middle of the road, there it was.

I stood for a while in front of the house in silent contemplation. How fitting that this race where I'd spent nearly every moment on the trail alone would be finished in the wee hours of the morning, everyone else nuzzled quietly inside, sleeping.

I gathered my things from my sled one last time and headed in to prepare to join them.


The next morning I awoke to see Beat off on his long, long continued journey to Nome, completely unimaginable in my state of mind at the time.

One of the best things about the Iditarod Trail Invitational was spending the next few days in McGrath. After most races, even the week-long events I'd done in Europe, the aftermath is basically crash, burn and move on home. After the ITI it was an enjoyable time spent with like-minded people, sharing tales of the trail, spectating the main event of the dogsled race and immersing oneself in the culture of small town in remote Alaska in the winter. I don't ever remember having a more enjoyable post-race experience.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Teeter Effect

Once more this year, work and life put running and writing in the back seat. People often talk about finding balance in life, but that state can be reached in multiple fashions. The fine, level balance of maintaining equilibrium--all things in proper measure and perspective--will never be my own. However, finding an even rhythm as things swing up or down is a more feasible goal.

Summer has come and gone with two long events under my belt, but even less training and fewer overall miles than in any recent years. I've scrapped my plans for one last 100-miler before the winter season. I'll try to kick my training at least up into maintenance mode while I await and plan for the coming cold. I've a pretty big winter planned so lets see if I can get myself focused in the next month or so. Time to totter.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Tail: Food Glorious Food

Health food need not apply!

On top of the mound of gear piled on my sled, the other essential component to survival out there on the trail is, of course, food. You can always melt snow for water in a pinch, but for as many as 90 miles between checkpoints the only possible food source was what I carried.  Early on there were lodges where a real meal could be purchased. Food preferences by those spending time out in the remote areas of Alaska tend towards the heavy side. While this is great for calorie intake, it isn't necessarily what one would normally choose to consume during an endurance event.

Yentna Station around mile 60
That said, I did enjoy the giant cheeseburger and fries at Yentna Station. It was excellent even if it did sit in my stomach like a lump for the rest of the afternoon. Then, the next morning, reaching the Skwentna Roadhouse (mile 90), I downed a pile of biscuits and gravy along with a large sweet roll. I was fortunate that my stomach only made minor grumbles about these heavy meals. I met an Italian racer at Skwentna who was having a great deal of trouble with his stomach early on. He was a fast guy who would otherwise have been well ahead of me. The good news is that, in a race this long, there's plenty of time to deal with issues such as these. He went on to finish the full 1000 mile race.

Skwentna Roadhouse, mile 90
These early checkpoints are working lodges with paying customers so there's no guarantee what they'll have available especially for those of us on foot at the back of the race. Even so, one of my favorite moments early in the race was a short stop at Shell Lake Cabins. It's not an official checkpoint, but racers are allowed to stop in or even rent one of the cabins. The bowl of soup and can of Coke I purchased there along with a piece of homemade smoked salmon given to me by a native woman at the bar all helped fuel me through one of the most difficult nights.

At mile 120 or 130 or so, we received our first drop bag at Winterlake Lodge. However, with all the support early in the race, I didn't really need to re-fuel much as I still had a fairly hefty food supply on my sled. I started with around 10 full pounds of food and had only tapped a few of my trail snacks by that point. That would change as we headed further away from even the minimal bits of civilization found along the big frozen rivers. Another drop bag was available at Rohn, mile 210 just at the edge of the Farewell Burn. I probably should have utilized more of that one as from that point on there's only the generosity of the Petruska family as support for the remaining 140 miles of trail. Unfortunately, the items I most wanted at this point in the race were more plentiful in my initial drop. So it goes.

Gummy Bears Galore!

The question of what one eats during a race like the Iditarod is a common one. My food choices were driven by 3 essential factors:
  1. Calorie density - The need to pack as many calories into as little weight as possible. I found myself scouring food labels for items with maximal calorie per weight.
  2. Edible while frozen - While it was possible to carry a few items unfrozen inside my clothing layers, the vast majority of my food was on the sled and therefore exposed to sub-freezing temps.
  3. Quickly digestible - Food that digests quickly, gets converted into energy quickly which keeps the body generating heat; continually fueling the fires is essential.
What these 3 add up to pretty much amounts to a whole lot of junk food. Oh, I tried to have a few more "nutritious" items in my bag such as fruit leather and turkey jerky, but anyone seeing me in the checkout line when I purchased this stuff would never believe I was preparing for an athletic endeavor. While moving, my primary consumption consisted of Peanut M&Ms and Gummy Bears. Frozen Snickers were another favorite, but not as convenient to just grab and toss in the maw whenever the fancy struck. I also really enjoyed Pringles later in the race, but had some problems with them burning my mouth. Constantly sucking on foods to defrost them eventually took its toll. Tiny little abrasions along my tongue had formed and would come alive whenever I ate something salty. Not that I let it stop me.

Meeting with other racers two days before the start, I'd heard a lot of tips. One of the best was the idea of using a climbing chalk bag attached to your harness for snacks. This was nothing short of brilliant. As I mentioned above, food pretty much translates to warmth out there and keeping a steady flow of fuel coming in is the best way to keep a consistent furnace going. As the race went on, I made a concerted effort to stop and take "lunch" or "dinner" breaks. I got into a rhythm of moving for 4 hours at a time. I would find a convenient spot to stop, throw on my big jacket and sit on my sled for a 10 minutes or so while eating a slightly larger "meal". This allowed me to take in a few extra calories, as well as give my fatiguing legs a small bit of respite. It also helped provide a bit of "normalcy" to days on end dragging sled.

Mancakes! (photo courtesy of Tony Covarrubias)
Finally, no tale of food during the Iditarod Trail Invitational would be complete without mention of the famous Mancakes. The ITI really is a wilderness event. However, one of the things that makes it so special beyond just the remoteness is the amazing people you meet and the hospitality they show you. Nobody represents this fact more than Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze. Not only do they house all of the racers at the finish for days at a time, but they supply them with a seemingly unending array of food. Mancakes are a sort of amazing giant, berry-filled pancake that must have been specifically designed for calorie-deprived racers having just traversed 350 miles of frozen trail. I could probably write an entire post about the few days I spent after the finish of the race and I will definitely try to cover it in later writing. However, nothing I can say will fully express what it is like being able to hang out with other racers after the finish and being taken care of the way that Peter and Tracy do.

Quite frankly, the warmth and hospitality received at the finish is one of the reasons I don't feel inclined to follow this guy:

Beat as he heads out from Peter and Tracy's house for another 650 miles!  My race was just a warm-up for him.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Trail: Gear

Whenever someone hear's that I do races in Alaska during the winter, invariably, the assumption is that I must be impervious to freezing. In truth, I certainly do fair better at endurance events in the cold than in the heat, but success in an event like the Iditarod Trail Invitational has very little to do with physical acclimatization. Surviving in the extremes of winter weather has much more to do equipment; having (and properly using) the right gear is much more critical to success than how your body handles the conditions.

Participants all geared up and preparing for the start

First, a word for my sponsor...

Brooks is a running company. Perhaps the only "pure" running company left among major sports shoe and apparel manufacturers. You won't find a pull-down menu for a list of other sports on their website. Running is all they do. I've been proud to be included in their Inspire Daily program for the past 5 years even as my passions have strayed further and further afield of the mainstream running community.

The Iditarod Trail Invitation is not a running race. Towing a 50-pound sled of equipment 350 miles across the frozen Alaskan tundra, there were very few places where my pace even remotely resembled a run. However, just about everyone who attempts the race on foot opts for some form of weatherized running shoe. Beyond that, the brands of clothing and gear comprising most people's kit would be more familiar to those with a mountaineering rather than a running background.

Brooks makes some wonderful clothing for running in most conditions, but they aren't a winter apparel company and certainly they don't design for the possibility of temps down to -40 fahrenheit.  WIth that said, layering is a very important principle to grasp for these types of races and for me that meant my base-layers pretty much all sported the logo of my favorite running company. I actually wore up to 11 pieces of Brooks gear on my body at one time depending on conditions.

The list of Brooks gear either on my body or on my sled consisted of the following (items worn for the entire race are marked with a *)
  • Adenaline GTX* shoes (1-1/2 sizes larger than normal to accommodate two pairs of socks)
  • Equilibrium Windbrief Boxer*
  • Utopia Thermal Tight*
  • Essential Run Wind Pant*
  • Silver Bullet Pant
  • ID Elite Long Sleeve*
  • Nightlife Essential Run Vest II*
  • HVAC Synergy LS 1/2 Zip*
  • Brooks Micro-fleece (this is very old and I wish they would make them again)
  • Silver Bullet Jacket
  • Utopia 2 in 1 Mitten (liner and shell)
  • Wanganui Fleece Hat 
  • Brooks Balaclava
For the most part, my Brooks gear faired very well. It was often supplemented or replaced with more "serious" winter clothing when temps dropped down below zero (which wasn't too often this year). My trusty Adrenaline's held up for the full 350 miles and I loved all of my base-layer clothes. The super-light Utopia fleece inner-mitten was a particular favorite during the "warmer" parts of the race (i.e. when it got up into the teens).

However, next time, there will be a few items I'll replace with more winter-specific gear. The Essential Run Wind Pant is simply not durable enough. It also requires me to carry a separate fully-waterproof rain pant in case things get wet. Also, the Silver Bullet pant is a bit heavy for the amount of insulation it provides. I will probably replace these 3 pants with a more durable rain pant and a light-weight down pant. I probably won't use the Silver Bullet Jacket again either as I prefer fleece. Unless Brooks decides to offer a micro-fleece again, I will need to go with another brand as I'm not sure my current one has another winter left in it. Also, I didn't use the light-weight balaclava as I preferred the versatility of the Buff when conditions didn't require my full face mask. Other than that, I will stick with all my running gear for winter "sled-dragging" events.

It's good to have many gear options. This was a case were my face was cold, but my body was not.

I suppose I could go on, iterating the rest of the non-Brooks clothing I used as well as all the other gear and brands. I will try to at least go touch upon most of my essential items and how well they served me, but I prefer telling stories to making lists. So, I'll try to share a few tales related to my gear. There's a tendency to develop a certain relationship with some of your key pieces of equipment out there. Sometimes you love it. Sometimes, not so much. Sometimes, you'd swear the gear feels the same way back and is intent on letting just what it thinks.

I'll start at the bottom. I mentioned in an earlier post that I started the race wearing my Kahtoola microspikes and left them on too long. My toes hurt after this. It didn't become a problem, but it was enough of a concern at such an early point in the event that I think it drove me to make some bad decisions later on. Instead of allowing my evaluation of the trail conditions dictate my footwear choices, I became reluctant to go with anything other than just bare shoes. I spent quite a bit of time in some mushy snow debating with myself whether I should don my snowshoes while moving became more and more difficult.

Much later in the race, heading into the Farewell Burn it was very icy. I made it up one gradual ice slope without spikes and then on the next took a hard fall banging my knee and messing up one of my trekking poles that was already in tenuous working order. Then, again, after taking the spikes off, I hit a small ice patch, slipped and landed with my hand in a puddle of overflow. The only saving grace was that I had just donned my big Outdoor Research Meteor Mitt shells which kept me from getting wet. The spikes really do work great especially in any sort of slippery conditions, but I just can't wear them for long periods of time without feeling some toe pinch.

I would probably ditch the spikes and just use snowshoes if I could. The Atlas Race models are great shoes: super lightweight, good flotation, and easy movement on both flat and moderately graded climbs. However, they are designed for racing which means for leaving on your feet. The bindings are pretty secure, but are not designed for easy on-and-off, at least not for me. I can barely fit the size 12 shoes I use for winter racing into these even with an extender for the heel strap. Going up Rainy pass I became so frustrated trying to get them on that I just strapped them back on my sled and didn't touch them again until hitting a patch of super-soft "sugar snow" in the final stretch. At that point I discovered that part of the binding was actually broken.

Next year I will definitely look for a different system. If I could find a pair of snowshoes that are easy-on/easy-off and reasonably lightweight then I think I would go with that alone. Not everything on my feet faired poorly. As I said, the Gore-Tex on my Adrenalines kept them dry and my sock choices kept them warm. I always tend to carry too many pairs of socks for these types of events, but I'm sure if I ever accidentally get wet feet I won't regret it. I generally go with a 2-pair system using either Injinji or Smartwool base-layer socks and thicker Smartwool socks on top. However, my friend Beat turned me on to using fleece socks and I am absolutely sold. Not only are the Acorn socks I used light and warm, they feel like soft, cushy goodness on your feet.

Not all my gear worked out just right.

Other than my lightweight shell pants that tore around the crotch (and were brilliantly repaired with some Tyvek Tape), most of my clothing worked out well. However, none of it was truly tested in the extreme cold. The second morning in The Burn was, maybe, down to about -12F when I put on my thick pants, but they didn't last long as both I and the day warmed up quickly.  Up top I wore as many as 5 layers with my trusty Outdoor Research Gore-Tex Pro shell on the outside when necessary. The thing is bomb-proof and has pit-zips that go all the way from arms to waist. It's an excellent feature, but one you need to be careful of if you're in the habit of stuffing other gear inside your jacket!

The gear choices up top didn't quite work out as well. My Mountain Hardware Windstopper fleece cap performed great when it was too cold or windy for the lighter Brooks cap (or after it escaped out the back of my jacket pit-zips). If the wind kicked up harder, I needed to protect my face and I'd used the Seirus Ultra Clava in past, but seemed to have endless fitting issues during the ITI. Part of the problem was my own. My face tends to stay relatively warm, but my prodigious nose is fairly susceptible to frost burn so I tend to constantly adjust my face protection, pulling it down, putting it back on, etc.. I had an even bigger issue with my goggles, I simply couldn't keep them from frosting over or staying on straight. I even had a full-on melt-down with them at one point. I've been told by those more experienced that the best solution is a fur ruff sewn into the hood of my jacket. One racer gave me the scoop that if you don't want to buy a new, trapped-animal fur you can often find an old, used fur or jacket with a fur ruff. I may need start hitting up the thrift shops.

My final bit of gear failure were my trekking poles. The Black Diamond Ultra-Distance Z-Poles are a mouthful to say, but are absolutely fabulous for rough trails. Super-lightweight and easy to fold and stow, they've become a mainstay in my kit when fast-packing or trail-running in Europe. They are adequate for use in the snow, but aren't the most sturdy poles. I actually went into the race with one pole in only semi-working order which was a bad idea. My ice-slide on The Burn left me with one working pole for the remainder of the race. There's a rhythm I tend to develop with my poles and losing one was a bit of a mental setback as well as a physical one. I will probably buy another pair of these poles if I can find them on discount. However, I was again given some advice from a race veteran. The added length of cross-country ski poles supposedly gives a bit more "kick" when dragging a sled. I'll be looking into that during my preparation leading up to next year's race.

Finally, no report on gear use would be complete without talking about my sled. There is a sort of love-hate relationship you develop with your sled out there. Since it carries all your emergency equipment, food and extra clothing, your life basically depends on that piece of gear working right. At times, its like an anchor holding you back, at others its literally races you downhill. I used a 4' race pulk from Northern Sled Works made of extremely lightweight and durable UHMW. This is about the best you can buy for this type of event, in my opinion. Some races acquire the material themselves and construct their own. This was attached to my body via a harness acquired from via a custom-made pole system constructed by my buddy Beat. The harness needed some adjustment, but I liked the versatility. There aren't a lot of climbs in the ITI, but a chest-harness makes pulling uphill a breeze.

There was a lot more gear on my sled that I didn't mention above and there's a non-exhaustive list below. The one thing I do hope to do next season is to spend more time training with my full gear setup in conditions closer approximating those of the race. For me, this means deciding if I want to sign up for the Arrowhead 135 again as a "training race". It wasn't my favorite race back when I did it and it is only a month before the ITI. However, it would be the best full test of gear and my own preparation.

Looking back at my sled loaded with gear along the final stretch of the Kuskokwim River 

List of (some) gear not mentioned above
  • Marmot  Cwm Membrain -40F sleeping bag
  • Therm-a-rest Ridgerest SOlite sleeping pad
  • REI Minimalist bivy sack
  • MSR Wisperlite stove
  • MSR canister of white fuel
  • Waterproof matches
  • Firestarter
  • Wistle
  • Red flashing light for sled
  • Reflective tape for sled
  • Fenix HP20 Headlamp
  • Black Diamond Storm headlamp
  • Petzl E+Lite emergency backup headlamp
  • Medical kit
  • Blister kit
  • 2 Toms Sportsheild foot powder
  • Julbo Sunglasses
  • Bungee cords to hold bag on sled
  • Eagle Creek No Matter What duffel XL
  • Leatherman Juice multi-tool
  • Duct Tape
Along with all of this (and whatever I missed), my sled was loaded with plenty of food, but that is a subject for another post. I never weighed it fully loaded, but when I had to fly back to Anchorage from the finish I did have to way my duffel which contained nearly all of my gear minus my food and it was well over 40lbs. I am guessing that the full thing was upwards of 50. I'd like to target a bit lower weight without sacrificing safety or too much comfort the next time I attempt this race.
Summer's not yet officially over, but I need to start planning my winter season soon.