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.

1 comment:

Olga King said...

Man...I am not even sure why I read it, I am never running yet along racing) in so much gear and still cold! :) And Brooks as your sponsor? Way to go!