Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Backpack or sled?

Group shot at the start of our Glacier Point run. Martina skied and laughed at our poor mode of snow travel as she glided past.
Our training trip to Yosemite gave me a chance to test out a system to use in the Homer Epic 100K, a race that I haven't really started training for yet (still doing more biking than running) and that seems like a long time off but in reality is less than eight weeks from now. I have almost as much fun mulling the strategy of these types of races as I do running them (mainly because winter races are so dependent on weather and quickly changing trail conditions, that any rigid strategy is bound to fail. Creating multifaceted strategies based on a large number of possible outcomes is a fun challenge.) But I'm still undecided on one fundamental aspect of the Homer Epic — how to carry my gear.

Beat on the freshly groomed ski trail. Conditions would have been perfect if it wasn't 50 degrees out, turning the snow to slush.
One thing I knew was that I don't love pulling a sled. In the past, pulling sleds in the range of 30 to 40 pounds absolutely prevented me from running in all but the best trail conditions or fairly steep descents. I'm just not strong enough; the anchor clamps down and I end up expending double the energy for perhaps 25 percent more speed. It's not sustainable at all. I'm effectively locked in at 3 to 3.5 mph, with an energy expenditure and muscle strain that feels more like 6 mph would on dirt trails.

I looked out over this vista and all I could think of was summer ... and miles and miles of wilderness trails.
I just assumed I'd want to carry a pack in the Homer Epic, so on Saturday I loaded up a Salomon pack with the gear I'd likely carry in the race. The rules require a few common-sense pieces of clothing that I'd carry either way — a big down coat and windproof pants to keep me warm in case I am injured on the trail and have to stop or slow way down. And of course I'll need several changeable trail layers — hats, gloves, mittens, extra socks, etc. The race support includes water only, and even then there are only three checkpoints in a hundred kilometers, so I packed two liters of water and 2,500 calories, although for the race I will probably carry 3,000 or even 3,500. (And honestly believe even this is on the hungry side. I'm a big eater in the cold and bonk quickly when I slow the consumption.) Then there was my safety gear, GPS and camera, foot-fix stuff, headlamps and batteries, knife and duct tape, and med kit. And to top it off, trekking poles and snowshoes strapped to the outside. The final weight was startling. I couldn't weigh it at the start, but my guess would be 17 to 20 pounds. Which makes sense, because it was all of my Susitna gear, minus the emergency calories and sleeping bag bundle.

Yosemite Valley doesn't see much direct sunlight in January
I did not like running with a 20-pound pack. It rubbed on my shoulders to the point that my collarbone felt bruised, and felt more awkward and tedious than my heavier sled ever did in Fairbanks. I ran a fair percentage of the first 11 miles out to Glacier Point, but lost my steam after that. The stats from my GPS were 22.5 miles, 3,245 feet of climbing, 5:43 trail time. The Homer Epic is 62 miles with 6,470 feet of climbing, and has a 24 hour cut-off. Last year's two finishers on foot, who are both faster snow runners than me (and much faster than me off the snow), finished in 21:30 and 23:10 respectively. Finishing the Homer Epic is far from a given; it's going to be tight and it's going to be tough.

Group leaving Glacier Point.
Obviously I will need to do more training with that pack if I am going to carry it. And of course I can look for ways to lighten the load, but most of this gear has been mulled extensively over multiple excursions. Even if the warm gear weren't required, I'd still carry it. I'd rather stay alive in the event I can't move, than move slightly faster when I can. The snowshoes are the most expendable item, but even those I'm quite attached to. If I don't wear them the entire race because of marginal conditions, I'll probably still wear them for half of the race just to ease the strain on my undertrained ankles and knees (because I can't train by running on snow.) Beat has suggested he might make a small sled with the same design as his large Nome sled. I'd still carry my water on my back, so presumably I could get my total sled weight below 15 pounds. This might be the best option.

Ditched the pack as soon as we stopped. Photo by Beat.
Either way, it's been fun to scheme for my only winter race this year. I really do wish I had a full 100-miler to look forward to, but the simultaneous newness and nostalgia of the Homer Epic is motivation enough. Now to get to more consistent training. Ah, training. The best snow race training I can do here in the Bay area is hard jogs up steep, sustained climbs. I have all those snow bike tours I want to do in Alaska, so I should keep riding my bikes, too.