Friday, November 15, 2013

Tis the season

There are 101 more days until the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which means winter training has officially begun. As of today, my plan is still to attempt the 350-mile distance on foot. But with that beautiful Snoots snow bike parked in my living room, I reserve the right to waffle on that decision for the next 100 days. I mean, just looking at this bike, with its shiny titanium, muscular fork, and shredder tires that make the Fatback look like a toy ... well ... it's fair to say temptation will probably taunt me daily. But for many reasons that I have mulled over since 2011, the goal is finishing on foot. That's the dream. And if I ever want to take the Snoots to Nome, there's arguably no better preparation than walking to McGrath. As Mike Curiak told me, "You already know how to ride a bike." Pushing a bike — and doing so with purpose and happy legs and no blisters — is the key to success. Just ask any biker who entered the 2012 race.

So how does one train for a 350-mile trek through the snow while living in the San Francisco Bay Area? That's a great question; if you know an answer, please let me in on the secret. Short of actual snow, the best surface to train on is soft sand, which I do not have convenient access to (it's at least an hour of driving to the nearest beaches that aren't disgusting swampy South Bay reclamation areas.) In lieu of that, I'm of the opinion that steep climbs are the best way to build the necessary muscle strength for the combined resistance of soft snow and a loaded sled. There is, of course, running while pulling a car tire. While it's not a bad idea to increase the workload on flat surfaces, I'm not convinced that tire-pulling is necessary training. Most of the 14 or so people in the world who like to run these sorts of races will disagree that it's not important, but I haven't yet had a physical issue with not specially training to pull a sled. It's just a lot more work, but doesn't seem to impact my upper body in significant ways. No, when it comes to winter racing, my major issue is feet. To illustrate, I present a photo of my 2012 Susitna feet:

Major feet fail
Bursting-at-the-seems edema, intensely prickly and painful maceration, and heat blisters(!!) from boiling my poor cankles in their own juices. What causes this? I have a few theories:

• A major electrolyte imbalance. I'm fairly certain I experienced a moderate case of hyponatremia during the 2011 Susitna 100. During the second night, I felt out-of-sorts, disoriented, and confused. I attributed that to fatigue because, well, it was the second night — and it was 20 below. But then I started to pee frequently — as in needing to stop every five to ten minutes. This went on for about an hour, and after that I felt considerably better. I've since learned that extreme cold can present a higher risk of hyponatremia, similar to extreme heat. I've resolved to be more cognizant of water and sodium intake, because dry air makes me feel consistently thirsty regardless of temperature, and during the winter I tend to overdo it on fluids because dehydration will increase the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Ah, the fun of it all.

• Vapor barrier socks. A great idea if you're pedaling a bike and not doing much with your feet; a terrible idea if you're running (or walking) and sweating up a storm. My feet became so deeply macerated that every step felt like hot coals littered with hypodermic needles. This has happened to me as recently as March, during the Homer Epic 100K, which I ran without vapor barrier socks. Gortex shoes and gaitors could also be a factor in holding in moisture, but the balance between breathing and insulation is a difficult one to strike. Basically, I have to figure out how to keep the feet dry without freezing my toes off. I can't depend on the damaged nerves in my formerly frostbitten toes to tip me off when things get dire, so I'll still have to err on the side of more insulation layers. My hope is to have a chance to stop, check my toes, and change into dry socks on reasonably frequent basis. It's not super fun to sit in the snow and strip down to bare feet when it's below zero, but a quick sock change could do wonders in avoiding Susitna feet.

• Too much ibuprofen — which I took because my feet hurt — but before I became a runner I didn't make a habit of tracking my intake. Now I do.

I'm convinced that "Susitna feet" will be the most likely obstacle to finishing the ITI, and therefore must be my number one priority in avoiding. After that, my priorities are: good decisions regarding weather, sleep management, calorie intake, gear adjustments (I need to avoid wearing too much. I always wear too much), snowshoe use (if I want to avoid overusing the snowshoes, I need to build up stronger ankles and arches), navigation, and a host of obstacles and annoyances that I can't even anticipate. When I take all of this into account, the actual walking part of this thing doesn't sound so hard. The legs will likely be fine regardless; they haven't let me down yet. Still, I intend to train them up as well as I can this winter, by running up all the steep trails I can find, and mountain biking. Why mountain biking? Well, if I run all the time I will probably end up injured. I don't need speed, at all, just endurance. Mountain biking keeps things fun, mixes up workloads, and still provides solid endurance building. Plus, winter will be over before I know it, and I need a good biking base for summer.

I plan to keep track of all of the "training" I do this winter through Strava — which, despite its more annoying competitive side, is a great program to track and record total hours, hours on my feet, and overall effort. I don't necessarily like using my GPS watch every time I go outside, but I'm going to try that this season and see if having a comprehensive record helps with motivation and direction. Right now, I feel like I'm in good shape to start more focused winter training. After I crashed in the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, my right knee developed a sharp pain that slowly diminished over the next ten days. For a while I was worried about it, but the pain has faded to the extent that I'm more convinced it was just a deep bruise or some other minor tissue damage. And beyond that, I feel great. Physically, Frog Hollow was a walk in the park and then I rested for a week. I'm still babying the knee, but no longer concerned.

I still need to decide which pieces of gear I'm going to use, and what I still need to acquire. Beat and I are planning a Christmas trip to Fairbanks, where I'll have more of a chance to sort it all out. Beat has continued to make refinements to his sled, pole, and harness designs. He's put so much thought and time into these sleds that I joked about opening up a business. He said he'd "sponsor" me if I made a logo for him, and this is what I came up with:


Note: This is just a joke. Beat is not actually launching a sled-making business. But he does have quite a bit of high molecular weight polyethylene laying around the house, so, hmmm ...

Beat, of course, has the whole thousand miles on the north route to Nome to tackle this year. Recently I've heard more chatter about those bumper stickers that are so popular with runners — you know, the ones that read "26.2, 13.1, 100.2, or even 0.0" for distances that runners (or non-runners) like to race. Since I was designing graphics, I thought I should make a sticker design for Beat as well:


He reasoned that no one would get it, except for maybe a few dog sled enthusiasts and people from Alaska (1,049 is the often-cited number for the total distance of the Iditarod Trail.) Ah, well. It's an obscure endeavor, this sport — and I love it.