Thursday, March 31, 2011

Being Schooled (learning to learn)

Start - Flathorn

Lesson 3: You just can't tell the weather in Alaska. In fact, you can't tell it anything!

A week before the race, forecasts called for a little snow leading up to and then clearing with temps in the low-20s on race day. This sounded about perfect to me even with the usual 10-degree drop or so on the remote sections of the course at night. Then, at the pre-race meeting, there was talk of epic snowfall and we watched the white stuff coming down all day Friday in Anchorage. We heard moans and groans from bikers at the local REI as they contemplated how much pushing would be required. We debated the need for snowshoes. Finally, word at the start was that much of the course hadn't seen any snow at all. The forecast was for clear skies the whole way which meant sunny days and frigid nights. I had no point of reference for any of this. I'd just experienced my first sub-zero temps, the sun was shining, I was freezing, and wearing more layers of clothing than I'd ever thrown on my body. Heading out, the weather and trail conditions, occupied my mind, but the course had plenty new experiences in store for me ahead.

The course goes roughly thus: along a road, through the woods, across a swamp, to a lake, another swamp, along a couple rivers and then a final swamp to the turnaround where you do it in reverse, with some variation at the end. Of course, its all frozen solid and covered in snow. But, as I learned, snow comes in seemingly endless varieties. While I lack the experience to discern subtle differences, it was easy enough to tell that the quality of snow was going to be a major factor in this race. The deep, fluffy stuff in the initial miles were wrecking havoc with bikers as they futilely attempted to ride only to slide off and have to push before trying again. The narrow trail alongside the road became quite crowded making it also difficult for the skiers who needed a bit more space. Those of us on foot faired a somewhat better and I passed quite a few if only to keep myself moving. Still, it was no simple stroll and I would have preferred a more even effort at the start of the race. It did, however, manage to warm me up and I was able to remove my gore-tex jacket top layer.

After about 3 miles alongside Ayreshire Rd., we cut across it and onto a different road. Wide and packed-down, it was better for everyone. The bikes took off immediately, disappearing down the road, for the most part, not to be seen again until heading in the opposite direction. The skiers pulled away more slowly, but they at least  looked to be skiing now as opposed to walking with planks on their feet. While, it was clear that the weather and conditions have different implications for each chosen mode of transport, the impact to those of us on foot seemed to be less dramatic overall. Hard pack or deep snow, sunny skies or brutal storm, I realized that my pace on this course was going to fall within a certain general range: slow. I decided to "run" along this road just because I could. I took it easy trying to conserve energy, but still felt I was moving at a better pace than my GPS seemed to let on. Of course, I had no idea at the time that this would constitute my sole sub-14 minute mile of the entire race. As we turned off the road and into the woods, I knew I had a lot to learn.

Lesson 4: The sled does what the sled wants.

The next section of the course consisted of rolling hills and seemingly endless moguls. The moguls would become a major source of frustration. They are created by snowmobiles, but, then, so are the trails. It was the very definition of a mixed blessing. It's strange how things that hurt in the early part of an ultra will dissipate as the hours drag on. I commonly experience certain foot and leg twinges early on. In this race, my hips would be added to that equation as the sled tugged and pulled at them in new and uncomfortable ways. I remember my gluteus feeling sore and numb in the initial miles. Later in the race I don't recall thinking about my butt at all. Perhaps because there were bigger things occupying my mind. The challenge of the moguls helped take my mind off some of these early pains.

Here's the problem with moguls. As I crested a mogul, the sled would still be dragging up the slope. Then as I headed down the other side, picking up a little speed, it would tug the sled up and over the peak. So the sled would get a nice tug as it headed down the mogul just as I started up the next mogul. The momentum of the sled picking up speed coming down as I slow down heading up would thrust forward the PVC poles attached at my sides. Momentarily free from the weight of the sled (or even slightly assisted by it's nudging my hips forward), I would get a couple of good steps in near the top of the mogul just as the sled would lose its momentum on the upslope and begin sliding back. My legs pushing uphill, 40lbs of sled pulling downhill in the opposite direction, the poles would yank back just as my hips pushed forward on the waste belt. It all became rather annoying.

Basically, that's all a very long-winded way of saying that the system had too much play. I eventually took to grabbing onto the poles as I headed over moguls in order to minimize the impact. I also used this technique heading down longer hills, though in that case the issue had more to do with lateral flexion and the sled's tendency to want to slide down alongside rather than behind me. I learned to try and head where I thought the sled would want to go rather than where I might have desired. I was starting to understand why many of the more experienced racers had sleds attached directly to their back with stiff poles. With some padding and a good dampening system the minor pressure on the back could more than be made up for by increased control. I spent a lot of time contemplating better sled designs. I also fantasized a bit about riding the sled and being towed by a pack of dogs like the mushers who were out practicing along this section.

Lesson 5: Venting

The information on the Susitna 100 race website warns not only of the potential for extreme cold, but for wide variations in temperature as well. I don't know what the reading might have been mid-day with the sun reflecting off the snow, but by the time I reached the famous Nome Sign, I was feeling warm. Dealing with the cold is mainly a matter of having and using the right gear. Having no true field test, I had concerns a plenty about my gear, but a bigger concern was my propensity to sweat. Nothing is more dangerous in a race like this than working up a good sweat and then super-cooling that moisture close to your skin. I'm told its the fast path to hypothermia.

I'd been given both the advice to keep cool enough not to sweat as well as to just continue sweating in order to stay warm. Seemingly contrary, they are actually both excellent pieces of advice, but, once again, my lack of experience simply added them as two more items on my long list of things to figure out on the go. The one piece of advice I did take to heart was about layering. Following is the complete list of clothing that I wore for most of the race. (warning: blatant brand pimping to follow): smartwool toe socks (liners), smartwool socks (over), Brooks Adrenaline ASR shoes, Outdoor Research Gore-tex gaitors, Brooks Windbreif boxers, Brooks Infiniti tights, Brooks Wind Pants, Brooks Equilibrium baselayer, Brooks Run vest, Ultimate Direction Wasp hydration pack, Brooks HVAC 1/2-zip, Brooks microfleece, fleece Buff, Brooks fleece beenie. Seirus Thermalux liner gloves, Outdoor Research Meteor Mitts fleece liners. And that's just what I wore during the day! I had my Outdoor Research Mentor jacket strapped to my duffel with the Meteor Mitts, a Seirus facemask and a Mountain Hardware windstopper fleece hat and numerous changes of socks all inside. There was still more gear in the bag, but most went unused during the race. It seems like a long list written out like that, but being able to modify layers on the fly turned out to be critical.

Venting is a concept with which I'm familiar. In California it's almost never as cold as it looks outside. In fact, the times when it appears rain is eminent, can often be the warmest. So I have experience knowing when to expose my wrists, hands, neck, ears or head to cool myself down if I've overdressed for conditions. In Alaska, I was glad to discover the same principles to apply, only--like most things--to a greater extent. It was almost as if I could feel the heat draining from my body through the exposed parts of my skin. My first line of defense was, as usual, my wrists. Pulling up my fleece to expose the mid-weight layer was often enough. Next I would flip open the top of my fleece mittens to expose my liner gloves. After that I would expose a bit of ear beneath my hat or unzip my outer layer to let some air onto my neck. In the middle of the day it was warm enough, that I actually had my fleece around my waste, mittens tucked into my belt, shirt zipped down and face exposed. Of course, that didn't last long. 

I was reminded that it was still below freezing outside when my drink tube became exposed. I had followed Jill's advice to wear my pack below some layers, but it only took short contact with the elements to turn the water in the tube to ice.  Luckily, I had also followed her advice not to cover the tube with insulation allowing me to see where it had froze. With some careful chewing, I was able to break up the ice and get water flowing again. I think there are, at least, a few more lessons in there somewhere. However, for the time being, I was satisfied with the knowledge that I seemed to be figuring things out. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Being Schooled (first lessons)

All races, especially the very long ones, present learning opportunities. A race like Susitna is more akin to a post-graduate exam. With the added complication that you're expected to apply what you've learned immediately because not only finishing, but possibly even surviving may depend on it. With my limited time in the snow and a complete lack of experience with extreme cold temperatures, I have never felt less prepared before a race. Certainly, I did my homework and I was perhaps more comfortable with the distance than many, but in terms of first-hand knowledge of how my body and my gear would handle the conditions, it was going to be on-the-fly lessons of trial and (hopefully not too much) error.


Lesson 1: -10 is cold; -17 even colder

If I felt unprepared heading into this race, the emotion reached its pinnacle shortly before the start. Driving towards Point McKenzie the temperature gauge in the rear-view mirror of our rental car crept continuously lower. It hovered around 10-below as we parked the truck, jumped out and immediately headed up to the store for some breakfast. This wasn't simply a little colder than anything I had experienced before, it was significant. I had run in 75F temps just the previous weekend! I'm certain my nervousness sat visibly on my face as we ate. I was quite glad when it was time to head back to the truck for final preparations. Movement and action were a good distraction from the torment of my overactive imagination.

It didn't seem possible, but down at the truck it felt even colder than before. Attempting to sort myself out was proving most difficult. 9am seemed to be accelerating towards us. I skipped the idea of trying to wax my sled as I struggled with my gaiters having almost forgotten them until the last moment. Everything seemed slightly harder in the cold and I could feel a tiny panic creeping into my psyche as I watched people heading to the start line. I managed to pull it together, focusing on level breathing as I snapped into my sled and started up the hill. Strangely, I noticed that the hyperventilated pattern of my breaths actually made me feel better, even a tad warmer. Perhaps panic serves an added purpose in the extreme cold.

Much later in the race, I would hear a couple of locals talking about the weather at the start. Upon learning that it had been around -17, one of them said, "I thought so. I knew it was colder than -10. I could feel that stinging in my cheeks." Apparently, Alaskans learn to discern the subtle variations of what I would simply call "really damn cold!"

Lesson 2: Misery loves company, but fear demands it

I've stated before how I often enjoy being alone late in these sorts of events, living in my own mental world, finding random sources of motivation to move me towards that final destination. At the end of this race, I'd be in a whole other universe, but at the start it was a different story. Seeing the rows of racers--first bikes, then skiers and, finally, those of us on foot--gave me my first bit of calm. There's something reassuring in knowing that at least a handful or two of other people are willing to undertake a challenge most would consider somewhere between inane and insane. Even though I knew many of those around me had significantly more experience with these conditions, it stood as a visual demonstration that it could be done.

I relaxed and tried to take in the scene. Other than a few aggressive looking bikers up front, everyone seemed fairly casual. In a race that may take some almost two full days to complete, the start is far too early a place to begin to panic. There was time and enough for that to come. I took pictures, watched the front bikes take off followed by a jumble of various racers behind them. I was enjoying it so much that I had to remind myself at one point that I was supposed to be a part of this spectacle. I fell in about midway into the "runners" (at this point anyways) and took a look around as we headed uphill. I marveled at what an amazing place this was to be. To think, we hadn't even gone anywhere yet!

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Parable....of sorts

The young initiate, returning from his journey, arrived in the remote village from which he'd left. Dropping his rucksack, he sat down before his master.]

   How were your travels? Did you see all you wanted to see? Was it as everything you had hoped?
   Then tell me of your long walk, what you learned and your plans for the future.
   Well, I first traveled to the jungle to view the very heart of nature itself. It is a warm and bountiful place, teaming with all manner of varied life. Some so seemingly alien and bizarre as to make one wonder in awe at the uniqueness of our own. Pondering the path we've ascended through the millennia from that swamp can provide many a lesson.
   Next, I crossed the desert. Hot and dry, it seemed both desolate and uninhabitable. Yet, there too I found life. Hiding under every unturned stone, clinging to bits of moisture, thriving in the shadows, it has adapted to a world beneath the unforgiving sun. I learned that life can endure even the harshest of conditions. Study there too, would be filled with enlightened discovery.
   I then climbed the mountains to survey the full array of the land. What a marvel our planet is when seen from on high. From grassy planes, to deep forests to sand-swept beaches reaching into the sea, one could fill multiple lifetimes with lessons studying the variety it has to offer.
   Finally, I headed North into the tundra. It was cold and bleak, a vast, quiet land most inhospitable to life. I discovered that survival there is tenuous, but possible. The feeling of being alone in such a harsh environment can run so deep that often one's own mind poses as much danger as the threat of freezing.
  And, what of the cities?
   Ah, the cities! They are truly a wonder to behold, the height of human achievement. Such comfort and security have they made that one can certainly understand the allure. Despite the ignorance and poverty that exists in the world, what people have built when they come together gives such hope. And, yet, I cannot escape the conclusion that most would be better off were they to spent more time visiting the jungles, deserts and mountains of the world, heeding the lessons those wild places have to teach.
   Very true. But why not the tundra?
   I do not think most people are prepared to survive there.
   Because it is too cold?
   No, because it is too lonely. I think they would be frightened by the sound of their own thoughts.
   So this is where you wish to establish your school?

[Surprised as always at the astuteness of his master, the initiated paused before answering for he had only just come to this conclusion himself]
   Yes...I will place it deep within the frozen north. The desire to reach such a desolate place may attract very few students, but the journey itself--with one's inner voice as sole companion--will be all the lesson they require. For travel across that land offers learning with every step.


I realize this page is supposed to be occupied by a race report rather than the above little story that will undoubtedly have some of my friends uttering "wtf?" I wrote the above in the days following the Susitna 100 as way to entertain myself as I tried to organize my thoughts and searched for a theme to my report. I hit on the idea of a series of lessons. Beyond simply being one of the longest and most arduous physical challenges I've yet undertaken, the race was also one of the greatest learning experiences I've had during such an adventure.

Ultimately all learning is self-learning. If we fail to relate and apply a lesson to our own lives then I'm not sure it can really be called a lesson learned.  With 8 lessons and less than 40 miles described so far, I think I'm learning something equally important about my writing. While I've still managed to finish every race I've begun, I'm close to posting a DNF on (yet another) race report. I believe the problem lies in my approach. If I've learned anything about finishing 100-milers it's not to try and take on the whole thing in a go. Breaking it into shorter section, at least mentally, makes covering such full distance much more manageable. It also provides points for reflection and adjustment. 

One of the reason for taking so long to finish race reports is that I tend to want it all complete, edited and perfected before I share; I'm a bit compulsive that way. However, that's not how the races are run. The other reason is that I like to savor the telling, reliving the journey as I write. Clearly, these two goals, taken together, can work against ever getting the thing done. So, I'm going to meter out this report over the coming weeks starting with the parts I've already written. Either lesson by lesson or section by section, posting it in parts will, I think, work as incentive. Once I hit that "publish" button I'll have to face myself standing there, in the middle of the page, out on some frozen river, waiting to finish.