Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Training for pain

Dan V. asked a really good question today: What's my game plan for training for a minus 40 or minus 50-degree cold snap that could hit during the Iditarod Invitational? The truth is, I haven't really worked it out yet. I can buy all the gear in the world “rated” to these temperatures. But until I actually experience the danger cold, it’s impossible to know how my body will react.

Like at least 98 percent of Americans, I will never see those temperatures in the place where I live. Juneau is in the Alaska tropics. Only on rare occasions does it even drop below 0 here. The coldest temperature I have ever ridden a bicycle in was minus 18 degrees, pushing minus 30 degrees with the stiff gale windchill. It was brutal. I had to stop three times in a 150-minute ride to run up and down the highway just to warm up my feet. But I wasn’t wonderfully prepared back then. I think I was still in my cotton sock phase. And, when all was said and done, it wasn’t really all that bad.

At least once this winter, I hope to hop a ferry to seek cold-weather experience in the Yukon Territory. Maybe repeat pieces of my toasty August bicycle tour of the Golden Circle, only in January. There’s a couple of problems with this plan. First, taking a couple of days off work and buying ferry tickets means I’ll have to plan the trip weeks in advance. I may not get the cold snap I’m hoping for. I may get another toasty warm front that gives me Juneau-esque temperatures. And I will not likely be able to coordinate such a trip on a whim. I can just imagine approaching my boss with the request ... “But the weather is supposed to be terrible this weekend.”

Another concern is the border gate. I’m worried that I’ll plan the trip, pack all my gear, ride the ferry to Skagway, approach the gate that's a mere five miles outside of town, and be deemed so crazy or incompetent by the guards that they won’t let me into Canada. I can just imagine approaching the frost-coated building on a bicycle, requesting access to a remote road that leads to a 3,000-foot mountain pass, in the winter no less, with all of the earnestness I can muster ... "But the weather is supposed to be terrible this weekend."

Other suggestions I've heard is to simulate danger cold by going out biking in 25-degree weather wearing nothing more than a short-sleeved bicycle jersey and shorts. But this seems idiotic to me. I already know what hypothermia feels like. The idea is to avoid it.

There are a few things I know: It's better to keep moving through the danger cold. Stopping to bivy in the cold isn't the best idea, unless you find yourself in trouble. If that trouble is the cold, though, bivying might not be enough. You need to start a fire, eat food, drink water, eat food, and run in circles with whatever energy you can muster to generate warmth.

I've heard matches won't strike in the danger cold. But I haven't heard negative reports about cigarette lighters.

I need to practice changing a flat with gloves on. Mittens I imagine are nearly impossible, but touching a metal rim with bare hands is out of the question.

Gas stoves are likely not to work at all when the temps drop really low. Liquid stoves will withstand colder temperatures, but tend to be worse in the wind, and all the effort to set them up and light them may discourage use. Snow will melt inside the bladder of a camelbak next to the body, but very slowly. So drinking water can become an issue. I continue to consider solutions.

There's an obvious advantage to experience in this department. Racers from Fairbanks continue to shine in the Iditarod Invitational. Anchorage people also tear up the trail. I can't say I've ever heard of anyone from Juneau in the race. But if someone from California can survive it, well, so can I.



  1. Have you researched the Arrowhead 100 (or is it 150) from a few years back. That race DID have those conditions and more, and racers dropped like flies. I think there is a thread on MTBR with the details...might be worth a search.

    I think there is a NOLS book out there about Winter Camping...might be worth a look. Then again, there is no replacement for actually doing it. Maybe Geoff and you could take a few overnights where you hike up high and see what works. I know for me - I'm amazed how much harder everything was to do winter camping versus summer. Cooking especially - get that dialed and I think you've won a major part of the battle.

    It's a cool process you're going through. Now I understand why expeditions to the Himalaya and such (which I think is on par with Iditasport in some regards) take a year to plan...time is of the essence and there is so much to do, especially if you want to plan for 90% or so of possible issues (I don't think it's possible to cover everything...you need a little luck). I suspect some go in hoping it won't get super cold, but to me that's dangerous.

    Maybe read "To Build a Fire." No fires under tree boughs, darn-it!

  2. One other thought I learned at NOLS. Just developing systems that you have practiced a half-dozen times at least...exactly what you plan to do once you stop, once you flat, how to bed down, how to cook, etc....that are simple, meticulous and effective is key. I think that would be a HUGE confidence boost going in.

  3. Could you find a large industrial size freezer and convince them to let you set up a trainer inside? I'm not sure if this would be cold enough to be worthwhile, but just a thought. You could also set up a big-ass fan to simulate wind-chill.

  4. I don't think butane lighters will work well in cold weather.

    You are right about hypothermia not being a good way to practice. It isn't the temperature differential that's the problem. It's the temperature. For example, materials get brittle in those cold temperatures. There is physical pain from the cold, as if your head was clamped in a vise. Wind chill doesn't simulate those things at all.

    The coldest I've ever experienced is -40F, but I've no intention of ever trying anything below 0F on a bicycle, and maybe not even that. I've camped out a few times around -20F, but that was when I was younger and had better circulation. As others have suggested, you have to be deliberate about everything you do.

    Good luck! I hope to hear how it goes.

  5. Matches don't work, lighters will work. But only if you keep it warm inside an interior pocket.

  6. I did read the stories from the Arrowhead 135, I believe it was last year's race. Temperatures started near -40. The reason many of those racers dropped out like flies is because they were ill-prepared or just a little lax about the cold. Many let themselves get dehydrated, bonked, became frustrated when the first checkpoint was further away than they anticipated, and their body temperatures plummeted.(Some people don't realize how much a difference the cold makes in how fast you can move.) At least that's the way I understand it. Doug was actually there, though, so he probably has a better idea of what happened.

    But I know you have to be vigilent about your food intake, hydration and body temperature. Can't let anything slide just because you think there's a checkpoint around the corner. That's the advice of all experienced races ... you have to be self-sufficient from the beginning of the race on.

  7. I've never done much winter camping. But enough to know it can be more effort than rest ... I don't plan on camping "out" unless I have to. Of course I will bivy down if the situation calls for it - storms or fatigue - and practice bivying down quite a bit so I know what I'm doing. Otherwise, I don't plan to do any sort of cooking (of food). I aim to try to make it to checkpoints to sleep, where, even if there's no heat, there is usually at least shelter, and company.

  8. Jill,

    When i was in college i worked in at a food storage Wharehouse on weekends. The Freezer area was divided into 2 sections. One was -20 and the other was -7. The colder side had ice cream etc...
    Anyway, the first day in there was a 4 hour stint. I felt that vice like pain others talk about...i thought it inhuman to make us work in there. Some people would quit on the spot. But after a few weeks we learned how to dress just a little better and just understood how differently our bodies worked in the cold. Within a month or 2 we always put our bid in to work our shifts in the freezer. Everything was done at a slower pace and it wasnt hot !!! and the air was fresher.

    The point of this story.......you need to get out in the cold. Probably one of the best things you can do for training...you can handle it but you need to experience first IMO.

    BTW. Love your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I went to McGrath last year and we had a few cold snaps and I can tell you with certainty that cigarette lighters and any fuel will freeze. You have a few seconds to light up. The yahoo I was I took out my huge cigarette lighter and thought I wonder if anyone is as smart as me while I dawdled, warmed my fingers and unpacked my fuel. Then I unpacked my stove. Went to bed without food or water because lighter and fuel froze solid!!!. So Set up stove first. Put in fuel and quicly take out lighter from the pocket under you arms or between your legs and then if you are lucky you will get the stove or fire lit. If you can start a fire without a good supply of fuel and fire lighter (withou burning yourself) you are smarter than me.

    Franz Nel
    Last yahoo into McGraath 2007 14 days

  10. Jill, I am butting in about one more thing you've said. Your talk about using body heat to keep water unfrozen makes me nervous. You've explained how what your doing is different from camping, so maybe what I say doesn't apply. But if you're in a situation where you're trying to -retain- body heat, you don't want to be using it to keep water from freezing.

    Thirty-five years ago I did an overnight canoe trip down Sugar Creek, Indiana, in a canvas-hulled canoe. It was probably no colder than 25F, certainly no colder than 20F. I knew from previous bad experience how important it was to keep water unfrozen for drinking, so I brought a bota-full into my sleeping bag with me to keep warm at night. That was a big mistake. It was a thick, down-filled bag that I've used on my -20F campouts, but that didn't help. My body lost heat to that water all night, and I was not at all comfortable. But I needed to have something to drink the next day.

    These days my biggest challenge is to keep my MP3 player warm enough to keep the batteries working on my winter bike rides in SW Michigan. In colder weather I put it in an inside pocket of my jacket, but it's surprising how poorly that works. I'm plenty warm, but those layers of my clothing are cool, probably because I leave things loose for ventillation. It may not apply to the way you'll need to dress in subzero temperatures.

    It's an interesting problem. I imagine people have figured out how to deal with it, but it's something you want to get right.

    --The Spokesrider

  11. I can't image riding when it gets that cold but I'm am going to try it this winter. Don't know what your made of until you try.


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