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.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Tales From The Frozen Trail: Sleep

Anyone who's ever done a 100-miler knows that sleep can be a constant combatant. The rule of thumb for most is to just push through it perhaps sneaking a brief catnap. However, when participating in events that continue for multiple days on end, sleep becomes not just a necessity, but a crucial aspect of the plan.

In the races I'd completed in the Alps the previous two years (Tor des Geants and Le Petite Trot du Leon), we basically got by with as little sleep as possible. 2-3 hours a night with an additional 20-30 minute nap trailside during the day allowed us to keep shuffling along and finish in a state of utter exhaustion. While these events occasionally delved into remote mountains, they were far from wilderness adventures. Also, we were generally travelled in teams or were near other participants the entire time.

By its very nature, the Iditarod Trail Invitational includes a significant factor of objective risk. Simply being in that environment in the middle of winter requires maintaining one's wits. Skimping on sleep is not just a bad idea, it can be downright life-threatening, especially for someone new to the trail. With that said, it was pretty unlikely that I would be able to plan and execute my sleep schedule ahead of time.

Looking sleepy early on, but it quickly faded at nightfall

First Night

After meeting my trail savior, Cookie, we travelled together for a little while, crossing Flathorn Lake and the barren Dismal Swamp. Cookie opted to take his night's bivy at the far end of the swamp where there was a small bit of woods offering shelter just before the famous "Wall of Death" descent onto the Susitna River. This was an excellent plan and there were a number of other racers, including my buddy Beat, already nestled warmly in their bags at this spot. I decided to keep going.

I knew even then that this was not the best strategy. I also knew that there was no way I would be able to sleep if I stopped at that time on the first night. It was the middle of the night and I am almost always most tired just before dawn. The weather was still relatively mild and I was feeling good so I continued down onto the river. I figured I'd catch a bit of sleep later on if necessary then hopefully push to the first checkpoint at The Skwentna Roadhouse.

I was enjoying the nice night on the expansive river. I remembered this section well from Susitna. Still, I managed to follow some bike tracks the wrong way back across river before realizing they were actually a shortcut coming from the other direction. It's at this point that I realized I was going to need to stop and rest soon. However, one of the rules of the trail is not to sleep on the river. It's exposed, generally the coldest spot around and, especially in these early miles, is travelled by fast-moving snow-machines. I was approaching the confluence of the Susitna and Yetna rivers where I hoped I might find some bit of snowy protection alongside the river.

Shortly after turning onto the Yetna, I noticed two sleds with bags spread out next to them which I recognized as Tim and Laureen Hewitt, two of the most experienced foot racers in the event. If they had decided this spot was good enough then who was I to argue. I stopped a little ways past and setup my first bivy on the Iditarod trail. I managed maybe an hour's real sleep before sunrise. With the sun came other racers passing by and I even recognized Beat's voice. I made a sleepy, stumbling attempt to get my sled packed and head back out on the river.

Chilly morning after the first night

Night 2

I think the story of my sleeping during the Iditarod is ultimately one of timing. Regardless of my lack of sleepiness that first night, I would've been better off stopping earlier where the other racers were camped. As it was, I got maybe an hour of sleep, took too much time getting going in the morning and really didn't cover much distance through the night. I knew I'd be between checkpoints the second night, but there was a private cabin owner who opened her door to racers about 10 miles or so before the 3rd checkpoint. Leaving Yetna Station in the afternoon, I figured I'd be able to make it to the cabin. The problem was that I had no idea where the cabin was.

In the relatively early miles along the river, there are many cabins along the banks. Relative to the more remote trails in the latter part of the race, the rivers are bustling with activity and life. To put this in perspective this basically means that you'd see a plane fly overhead or some snow-machines drive by once or twice an hour during the day. At night, it was basically empty, just me following snow-machine tracks along the white expanse of the frozen river. By the second night, I'd basically fallen into a gap between a handful of racers behind me and everyone else in front of me so I travelled alone. This would remain mostly unchanged for the duration of the event.

The rivers don't offer much variety in scenery and can become a bit monotonous especially when sleepiness begins to creep in after dark. At one point I came to an offshoot in the tracks that led towards what looked to be a collection of cabins and/or lodges. There was a sign about food and fuel, but nothing indicating that the cabin we could use was in that direction. It was a significant detour so I continued along the river. As I went on, becoming more and more tired, I became convinced that I had passed the cabin. Eventually, staring at the snow-machine tracks beneath my headlamp became almost unbearable. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open so I started scanning the banks for a good place to set up a bivy. Eventually, I gave up looking for a good place and settled for an acceptable one.

Off the main tracks and nestled in soft snow, I actually slept fairly well. I awoke at first light and managed a relatively efficient sled packing before getting underway. I probably could have used a little more sleep, but I wanted to make the Skwentna Roadhouse for breakfast so I could get a full day of travel towards the checkpoint after that. I was on trail for maybe 1/2 mile before encountering the sign directing towards the rest cabin. So, the first night I went to sleep too late, the second just a bit too early.

The Long Night

I was determined to spend the next night in a cabin. Winterlake Lodge would be our first drop bag location so it was set in my mind. Unfortunately, for some reason, I also had a distance of 120 miles set in my mind. The Lodge was around 130. The day went well, the night did not. It dragged on. I kept checking the GPS over and over. It felt as though rather than my destination coming closer, my pace was just continually slowing.

When I left Skwentna, I had imagined making the next checkpoint by midnight. I later re-assessed that estimate to 1am. Both those times came and went before I was anywhere near my destination. The waypoint on the GPS was labeled Finger Lake which is where the lodge is located. It seemed to be just a couple miles ahead, but the trail wasn't going in that direction. Inexperience paid its tolls here as I slowed more and more. Stopping multiple times, but continuing to push towards that dot on my GPS.

Eventually, I went past it as the GPS track is really more an approximation and a tool to keep from getting completely lost than an exact path to follow. I didn't know how much further to the lodge, but I knew it was close. By the time I rolled in it was somewhere between 3 and 4 am in the morning. Other racers were already preparing to head out as I prepared to sleep. I'd wasted a lot of time on the trail moving at a crawl. The only saving grace was that I had my pick of bunks as everyone but Loreen Hewitt had left the cabin by the time I crawled into my sack.

I didn't want to shift my patterns to be much later in the day so I knew I was only going to get a few hours sleep. From that point on, I resolved that if I wasn't within an hour of a cabin by 11pm, I would bivy on trail.

During the long night.

A Good Night ... sortof

As bad as my night drag to Finger Lake was, my day heading to Rainy Pass Lodge more than made up for it. Not only did I have a great time along the Happy River section which is traditionally one of the most challenging bits of trail, I also made excellent time. Late afternoon I passed the Hewitts napping trail-side when the thought of sleep was nowhere in my mind. As an aside, I must mention that being anywhere near "the master" Tim Hewitt on the trail was a privilege offered only because he was not just tackling the full 1000 mile trail (again), but also doing so self-supported, carrying all of his gear and food for the entire trip!

At any rate, by nightfall, I was prepared to put my new rule about not pushing through the unknown miles to a checkpoint into play. I was pleasantly surprised to see the distance on my GPS to the checkpoint marked so close when it was still relatively early. I was even more pleasantly surprised when I could see a light in the distance right where the lodge was supposed to be. It was late enough, but not so late that I wouldn't be able to get a good amount of sleep. I planned an early start for the next morning as the rule was to get started up and over Rainy Pass before sunrise. We were about to head into the true wilderness sections of the course. Having bad timing and losing one's wits in "out there" was not just problematic, it was potentially life-threatening.

Rainy Pass Lodge is a fully-functioning lodge on the edge of the Alaskan Wilderness. However, our cabin was a small, primitive structure reminiscent of an alpine emergency shelter. One consequence of making such good time over the section leading to the cabin was that I caught up to the bulk of people ahead of me. The cabin was overflowing with bike and foot racers. Every bunk was occupied, people were sleeping in chairs and on the floor. I thought about staying outside, but the toasty fire burning in the stove was just far too inviting. I pulled my sleeping bundle into the cabin and slide it underneath one of the beds where someone was sleeping.

Lying on the hard wooden floor of a cabin packed with people beneath a bed with 3 inches of space above one's head is not a formula for a restful night of sleep. I would say that I tossed-and-turned, but there wasn't enough room for that so I just sort of twisted and slide through a couple restless hours. Luckily, I didn't have to wait too long for a bunk to open up. Even though I'd caught up, I was still clearly just "off the back of the peleton."

All in all, it was a good night and allowed me to execute on the pre-dawn start up the pass.

Heading up Rainy Pass in the snow...Tim Hewitt up ahead.

The Rohn Sanctuary

Going up and over Rainy Pass is one of the major highlights of the Iditarod Trail. This is where you truly head "into the wild" as the remote mountain pass is perilous even for travel by plane. There is so much I can (and will) share about this section, but it will have to wait for later posts. This is about sleep. As beautiful and remote as this part of the trail was, the last thing I wanted was to spend the night in it.

Coming out of the canyon at the end of the pass, night was falling and temperatures were dropping fast. I felt as though I was making a narrow escape from an growing ice box. I turned onto the river just as things went dark and my headlamp died out. Not wanting to stop and deal with changing batteries I tried to use my somewhat awkward Knuckle Lights which didn't really work with my big gloves. Luckily, the river section didn't last too long and I turned into the woods leading to Rohn.

Rohn really is just as described "just a spot on the map" with a cabin and an airstrip. I knew that it mainly exists for the dogsled race, but seeing the sign with instructions to "slow down" still gave me quite a laugh. The cabin is also for the dogsledders so our race had a canvas tent setup nearby. As I came in Beat and a couple others were heading out. There's limited space in the tent so people are kicked out as new people show up. These guys were going to bivy further up trail, but I was lucky as I knew there was a nice gap between me and the next batch of racers behind.

There were two other people in the tent with room for four. It was primitive, but with a wood-burning stove and a sleeping area lined with pine boughs it both smelled and felt like absolute heavan. Climbing into my warm bag, I thought about how easy it would be to simply end the race right here. With the longest unsupported section ahead, it wasn't a thought I could afford to dwell upon. I tried to focused on the 200 miles already behind me and the incredible sense of coziness as I drifted off for the night.

Heading out onto scary ice and into The Burn the next morning


I made an early, dark, cold and somewhat scary start out of Rohn, crossing a slick and creaky frozen river in the pre-dawn hours while my mind was barely out of dreamland. This was the beginning of the section leading into the Farewell Burn. "The Burn" is a desolate section of trail traversing land that was ravaged by Alaska's largest wildfire in the late 1970s. It's also the longest stretch we would cover without a checkpoint, 80+ miles of lonely wilderness trail. The only life I would encounter on this entire section consisted of a few planes flying overhead at random intervals.

A shelter cabin was available about 50 miles after leaving Rohn and about 1 mile off trail. Even though I'd left before first light, I doubted I would be able to make it that far given the miles I already had on my legs. I was hours away when night fell so began looking for any sort of protection in which to set my bivy. Despite the decades since the fire, the woods were relatively small and sparse. I settled for a minimal stand of scraggly trees, bedding down just beneath the sign indicating 10 miles to the cabin.

The snow was a bit soft and uncomfortable as some tree-roots made for an uneven bivy-hole. However, I slept quickly and deeply. It was a lucky thing too since I would learn much later from some racers who were up ahead at the time that a pack of wolves was moving down trail in my direction in the middle of the night. As it was, I didn't wake until nearly light and I had to drag myself out of the bag. Not only was I sleeping well, but it was also the coldest morning of the race. Mild by Farewell Burn standards, -12F is still not all that conducive to crawling out of a warm sleeping bag.

Night in The Burn

Morning in The Burn

Last Night

On the far side of The Burn was Nokolai, an Athabaskan village that would be our last stop before the final stretch. In the village racers were welcomed into the home of Nick and Olene Petruska. It's impossible to explain how it felt to be invited into the warmth of someone's house after so many long and lonely hours on the trail. On top of that, this was the first time that I could allow myself to consider that I was actually going to finish. Suffice it to say that even thinking about it now, wells me up a bit inside.

After wandering the village following my GPS in order to find the house at the far side of the airstrip, I snuck in quietly as it was late. The main room was empty upon my entering, but a clothes line near the fire lined with racer garments indicated that others were inside. I didn't know what rooms were available for sleeping racers and I didn't want to disturb anyone so I just setup in the living room. Apparently, the Petruska's had a new puppy who, upon seeing me bounded in my direction to the edge of his leash. He then proceeded to whine while I tried to sleep as I had placed my bag just outside his reach on the floor.Eventually Nick got up to quiet the pup and welcome me before I drifted off to sleep.

A couple hours later the other racers inside, including Beat, got up to head out and I moved into a bunk bed in what must have been a child's room at one time. I slept peacefully for a few more hours before rising. There was a computer in the living room where I logged in and briefly posted a facebook update before Nick was up offering to make me breakfast. I drank coffee while Nick searched around for bacon and I insisted he not go to any trouble. In the end, the simple matter of toast and egg never tasted so good. The hospitality he showed made heading out onto the trail both difficult and encouraging at the same time.

The Petruska's humble home.

No Sleep till...

I headed out onto the trail after a bit more wandering (and retrieving a dropped trekking pole from the night before). It was a 50 mile stretch to McGrath and the finish, but I was going to make it in a single push no matter what. The finish line was ahead and, for once, sleep could wait.

The final stretch on a frosty morning.