Saturday, January 03, 2009

Reality check

Date: Jan. 1 and 2
Mileage: 35.3 and 16.0
January mileage: 51.3
Temperature upon departure: -2 and 6

For much of December, daytime temperatures were in the single digits or teens. I developed a complacency in my bicycle preparation routine, piling on the same layers day after day. The clothing that I wear for 10-15 degrees and dry is very similar to what I wear when it's 35-40 degrees and raining, so in many ways, I haven't mixed up my routine for months.

Then, on New Years Day, the temperature dropped another 15 degrees. I didn't really notice at first. On went the polypro base layer, the single fleece pullover, the softshell coat and pants, the single balaclava, mittens and two-sock VB system. I pedaled off into the bright bluebird day, thinking I could squeeze in five hours of solid riding, and plenty of snowbiking, before it was time to attend a birthday party at 4 p.m. The snow was squeaky and hardpacked; the roads were nearly clear of traffic. Conditions were ideal, save for a pretty strong east wind ... but you can't have everything. I was loving life.

Then, about 12 miles from home, I first noticed a familiar burning numbness in my backside. The unpleasant sensation starts in my butt cheeks and eventually works its way down my thighs until it's wrapped itself around my entire upper leg. I've never found a cure for cold butt syndrome. My legs are the hardest-working parts on my body. When those go cold, they're the most difficult to bring back - even by sprinting and climbing. I was an hour into a five-hour ride. The development was discouraging. "Well," I thought. "Maybe it won't get any worse."

I veered off onto the foot trails - rideable, but cut deep, narrow and seriously technical. My pace slowed considerably. My balaclava froze and clumped up against my chin. I couldn't pull it over my nose. I stopped to thaw my eyelashes. My mittens were chunky and hard - they're insulated with goose down, and I had worn and sweated in those same mittens every day for about a week straight. The insulation had likely been wet when I left the house, and now it was frozen. I was an hour and a half into a planned five-hour ride. Those developments were very discouraging.

I stopped at another point on the trail to take a picture. The camera wouldn't work. I used a trick I figured out in the race last year - I pulled the battery out and stuck it in my mouth for a few seconds. It's probably not a great technique if you are trying to avoid zinc poisoning, but it works wonders for coaxing a frozen camera to snap a few shots. Stopping, however, was a terrible idea. By the time I got back on the bike, I was shivering.

I decided to find my way out of the foot trail maze and ride on the road for a while, where I could amp up the speed and hopefully generate some heat. The shivering became more pronounced, so I jumped off the bike and ran. I ran for several minutes and tried to ride again, but I swerved and fumbled and eventually steered right into a tree. One thing dropping core temperatures cause is loss of dexterity. I jumped off the bike and ran some more. I was beginning to feel a little frightened. In my complacency that caused me to underdress, I was also doing something else I almost never do - traveling without any extra layers or chemical heat packs.

I made it to the Glacier Visitor Center and tried to go into the heated bathroom. It was locked. %$#! New Years Day. While I stood there, I pulled out my thermometer, which was still nestled in a coat pocket. 11 below zero. That was the temperature inside my coat. -11F. And of course, temperatures can be worse. But underprepared for the cold is underprepared for the cold. I tried again to pull my balaclava over my face, but it was a block of ice. My mittens were in close to the same condition. I briefly scanned the smooth trail on the lake, the sparkling blue glacier, the frozen waterfall and handful of people braving the cold to experience the beautiful day. I was going to enjoy none if it. I was going to have to go home.

It was still 15 miles with more headwind and shadows, as the midday sun sank behind the mountains. I was uncomfortable and of course angry with myself, but mostly just uncomfortable. I was beginning to feel that deep, sleepy tired that comes with cold. About halfway home, I pulled off the highway and made my way to the wetlands, looking for a spot in the sun. I stopped to cram down some slushy water and two peanut butter cups. I've learned that a little water and some high-calorie, mostly-sugary food does wonders for helping the body warm itself. With the sun and the sugar, I began to feel a little better even as I stood still. In the distance, I could see Wal-mart. There were cars in the parking lot and it appeared to be one of the few places open. I thought about going inside to buy some heat packs, but then decided, "No. Can't do that out on the trail." I had to see how well I could help myself warm up should I ever require that kind of knowledge, heaven forbid. I got back on the bike, greedily eyed the heated big box store as I pedaled by, and gave the effort everything I had.

I did begin to feel better. I can't say I was ever comfortable, but I managed to halt the drop in core temperature, and the sleepy tired began to wear off. I had my hands clenched in fists inside my mittens, so there wasn't much braking or shifting going on. I thawed out my mask enough to at least get it up over my half-frozen nose. I almost had to laugh at my situation - cold butt, frozen face, rigid fingers and burning legs ... about the only warm parts of my body were my feet, usually the first to go. But my feet were the only place where I was actually prepared for the cold.

I arrived home about three and a half hours after I left, crusted in ice and walking like a mummy. "You cut your ride short, huh?" Geoff asked me as I walked in the door. "Yeah," I said, "but that was about the most valuable learning experience I could have asked for."

I'm never leaving the house again with anything less than a moon suit. And I had really hoped to pack lighter for the Iditarod race this year. Dang it.

The New Years Day ride did admittedly instill quite a bit of fear. It was hard to coax myself out the door today, with temperatures still hovering just above zero, and falling snow to add to the winter fun. I overdressed, put on a real face mask and goggles, grabbed a bunch of extra layers to pack with me, and even put the pogies on my bike. (I know - it's idiotic not to use pogies in subzero temperatures. But I've come to regard pogies in the same way I regard my waterproof overboots: Wonderful when they're needed, but pretty annoying any other time.) I pushed my bike up the Dan Moller Trail and rode down. It was great fun, and I never got cold. Lessons learned the hard way are lessons learned well.