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. 

13 comments:

  1. I don't have any expertise on the subject of preparing for 1049 like you and Mike C. but it seems to me that biking to McGrath (again) would be excellent preparation for biking to Nome. Don't you do a boatload of walking anyway? And isn't pushing a loaded bike quite different than hauling a BeaterSled? I just don't see how you can leave Snoots behind. Your circumstances have changed.

    On a different subject, a vision of your feet and pale legs, sans ankles or any other definition, is firmly engrained in this long time reader's mind. Honest and informative reporting for sure but please find an excuse one day to include a picture of your pigs, ankles included, for some fair and balanced reporting. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Come up here to train! We have sloggy snow to your heart's content.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Peripheral edema like that is often due to under-fueling and putting the body in a ketotic state for too long.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Aucilla — it's true biking to McGrath would be fine preparation for the 1,000-mile ride, but even Curiak agrees that walking would be even better. The first 350 miles of the Iditarod are often good trail, but beyond that, one must be prepared to push their bike a lot — some years for as much as 100 miles straight, and usually for at least 1/3 of the total distance.

    In 2008 I was in no way prepared for bike walking. The push over Rainy Pass took me 27 hours. It could have gone much, much faster.

    Sled-dragging is different, and arguably easier than pushing a bike. But psychologically, the two can be quite similar. And this sport is all about the mind game; it's one of the reasons I love it.

    But yes, cycling versus walking. I spend way more time thinking about this than I should. It's not quite as simple as "you obviously prefer biking to than running." In this type of winter racing, the lines between the two activities are not nearly as black-and-white, but the two are still very different experiences. It's a question of whether I want to harness that experience despite its more extreme difficulties, or take the more comfortable, likely more enjoyable route. I'm genuinely torn. But since the decision back in April 2013 was to walk, for now I'm sticking with that.

    Mary — I'd love to train up in your neck of the woods. Who knows? Maybe I can plan a January sled-dragging road trip. ;)

    Lynda — that's an interesting insight. However, I've had other extended periods of extreme underfueling (Racing the Planet Nepal 2011, when I was sick, and PTL 2013, when I just didn't have enough food) without experiencing this level of edema. However, my feet were similarly swollen after this year's Homer Epic 100K, which was over in 19 hours. For whatever reason, winter racing specifically seems to affect my body in more pronounced ways. It seems like I can get away with under-eating, over-hydrating, and other "ultra-mistakes" in the summer, and still bash my way through. But in winter racing, any and all mistakes have quick and harsh consequences. In cases such as this edema, I don't fully understand why.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jill,

    Listen to the calls of Snoots !
    And if not, just ask yourself "isn't biking so much more fun then running ?".
    Well, I don't know, but (as a biker) I like your bike blogs more then your 'running' blogs.
    But I keep on reading anyway :-D
    Whatever your decision is; have fun this winter !

    I hope to do the Iditarod one day, but it's so hard to combine with 'working' life :-(

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oops,

    Just read your comments above this post :-D
    Whatever you do, keep updating the blog with your adventures and pics, I, and many others, love them.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jill,
    We will be in and out over Christmas break so if you need a place to do laundry, hang out, or stay let us know.
    Corrine

    ReplyDelete
  8. With my recent acquisition of a fat bike, I have started to research areas to snow bike. Washington has tons, many groomed trails within an our drive from Seattle. The Methow valley XC system is now accessible to fat bikes and it is supposed to be awesome.
    In California, Tahoe Donner apparently allows fat bikes and I'm sue there is lots of backcountry jeep roads around Tahoe. How about Hwy 120 through Yosemite? It is a NP so probably not, but it is open to bikes in summer so why not winter?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Snoots? Did you get yet another bike?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Corrine — it would be great to see you over Christmas break. We'll be around Dec. 23-Jan. 1, spending several nights in the Whites and possibly Tolovana in there. I'll stay in touch.

    Jan — looking forward to reading about your explorations. I really would love to come up and ride in the area. There are some potential trails near Tahoe that I've been meaning to check out as well. There's no snow biking in Yosemite. I looked into it. For whatever reason snowmobiles are not allowed on Highway 120 in the winter and it's basically not traveled at all (a ranger told me to bring snowshoes and a map and compass.) Glacier Point has a groomed ski path, about 12 miles long, but bikes are explicitly not allowed even though it's a paved road in the summer. '

    Danni — Yes, Beat actually bought the most amazing snow bike ever. It's the one bike to rule them all, and it's true that it's kind of a crime not to ride it in Alaska this winter. But I figure there are years to come to enjoy this bike, and I should stay the course with sled-dragging. We'll see.

    ReplyDelete
  11. In California, you can find some snowmobile trails and even people running dog sleds north of Truckee just off Highway 89. About 30 minutes from where 89 crosses 80. Hobart Mills will be on your right. Keep going and eventually you will see a parking lot on the left with snowmobiles and maybe dogs. It is a paved road that is groomed and packed for snow machines. About 2 miles out there is a left turn onto a dirt road that also is used by snowmachines. The paved road goes to Webber Lake and the dirt crosses a creek and roughly parallels it. I haven't been there in a few years but there used to be 20 or more miles that you could ride. I think Treasure Mountain Road was also used by snowmobiles starting from about the same spot. Hope that helps you get Snoots out in the snow.

    ReplyDelete
  12. In California, you can find some snowmobile trails and even people running dog sleds north of Truckee just off Highway 89. About 30 minutes from where 89 crosses 80. Hobart Mills will be on your right. Keep going and eventually you will see a parking lot on the left with snowmobiles and maybe dogs. It is a paved road that is groomed and packed for snow machines. About 2 miles out there is a left turn onto a dirt road that also is used by snowmachines. The paved road goes to Webber Lake and the dirt crosses a creek and roughly parallels it. I haven't been there in a few years but there used to be 20 or more miles that you could ride. I think Treasure Mountain Road was also used by snowmobiles starting from about the same spot. Hope that helps you get Snoots out in the snow.

    ReplyDelete
  13. http://www.royalgorge.com/snowbike

    ReplyDelete