Sunday, August 11, 2013

Back from RTP Iceland

Beat and I just returned to Reykjavik after a week of fun and scenic running across the highlands and along the southern coast of Iceland during the 2013 Racing the Planet Iceland event. With the exception of extremely crowded tents and resulting sleep deprivation, I loved every part of it and had a great experience. I plan to hammer out a race report with photos for my blog, but I thought I'd drop in a few gear and event notes before we return to California.

• The course was about 154 miles overall according to my measurements. Day one was 29 miles, day two 28, day three 27, day four 25, day five 39, and day six 0 (rest day) and day seven was 6 miles.

• My pace was surprisingly consistent, averaging right around 4 miles per hour every day. Running with the pack was tough and I felt I was wasting a lot of energy at anything higher than a 12-minute-mile, but I could walk efficiently and comfortably at 3.5 miles per hour. I tended to vary my movement between this and a 4.5-mile-per-hour shuffle. Speed was usually determined by the technicality of the terrain. There were relatively few long climbs and these always felt like rest breaks, because I walked them. Even downhill running was strenuous and challenging, which made it fun.

• Final results aren't in yet, but of the 270 starters, about 228 finished all six stages. About 80 women started the race and about 64 finished. After stage five I was in 75th position overall and 13th woman. It's better than I expected to end up in this field, actually. It was a highly runnable course with plenty of fast runners. The "hikers" had no advantages, except for perhaps our consistent speed over long distances. I don't know my positions in each stage but I'm fairly certain my best showing was during the "Long March" 39-mile stage.

• The weather was almost exactly what I expected, but the race officials kept commenting about how unseasonably bad it was. We had one day of sunshine and six days of clouds, four of those with varying levels of precipitation. Every day was windy, some with gusts I would estimate to be over 50 miles per hour. I was knocked off my feet once and pushed out of balance countless times. Temperatures ranged from 21 degrees overnight to daytime highs in the mid-50s. Windchills usually kept the air feeling quite brisk, and I'd say the "feels like" temperature was rarely above 40.

• My favorite piece of gear was my DriDucks "astronaut suit," named as such by a fellow competitor from Cleveland because it was billowing and light gray with U.S.A. flag patches on the shoulders. The FroggToggs brand is cheap and ugly and amazingly effective at keeping wind and rain from driving in that bone-chilling cold that I remember all too well from my Juneau days. The material never feels wet, and its lack of breathability holds in a nice warm microclimate of body heat. The one drawback is that this clothing is not durable. My jacket and pants are pretty tattered from the wind and lava rocks, and I don't think they'll be leaving Iceland. But I would certainly buy another set in the future.

• My daily meals were bland and monotonous. Breakfast was always two packets of coffee, one serving of peanut butter, and one granola bar. Mid-day calories were two candy bars, one granola bar, and one five-ounce package of gummy candy. Post-run was a single serving of Pringles and a bullion cube dissolved in hot water, and dinner was one freeze-dried meal and one hot chocolate. I thought it was going to be awful to eat this way but it wasn't that bad. I was always grateful for whatever I put in my mouth when my "ration" time came around, and I didn't crave fresh fruits and vegetables as much as I thought I would.

• I consumed 2,700 calories per day. This was slightly supplemented so it was probably a bit higher. Foods I picked up from fellow competitors during the race included one freeze-dried meal, one Honey Stinger waffle, two pieces of bread, two pieces of flat bread, and a chocolate bar. I gave away two servings of peanut butter, two granola bars, and finished the race with two candy bars and two granola bars.

• This food intake was surprisingly adequate to stay warm, energetic, and happy for 6.5 days. Ever since my four-day-long bonk during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational, I have been terrified of the prospect of being underfed in cold-weather endurance efforts. There was no way I was going into this event with its 2,000-calorie-per-day minimum. I thought 2,700 would be a sacrifice, but in this carb-loaded, quick-energy format with a hot meal to end the day, it remained effective and satisfying over the course of the race, even while running for seven-plus hours each day. This makes me think I eat too much in my day-to-day life.

• Before the race started, my pack weighed in at 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) without my RidgeRest sleeping pad and without any water (but with the clothes I wore on my body at the start of the race.) Still, ouch. But after asking around I found out this number was fairly comparable to others with much smaller packs.

• Our 50-liter GoLite Jam backpacks were among the largest in the field. The large majority of the group had 30-liter packs and the fast runners usually cram minimal stuff into 20-liter packs. I'm not swayed by minimalism for the sake of minimalism, and I was actually really happy with my pack. I watched my tentmates struggle to cram their stuff into their packs each morning while Beat and I could pack up in under five minutes flat. I had one spot of chaffing on my lower back after the single "warm" day, and only slight collar bone soreness. Except for suddenly gaining 30 pounds, it was as comfortable as wearing a small hydration pack. And it was fairly effective at holding off the elements, including rain, graupel, and sharp volcanic sand.

• Iceland is so cool. I am a northerner at heart at felt at home in this stark, gloomy landscape. I'd love to return for a more intimate exploratory backpacking trip, with the solitude I feel this landscape merits. Someday.

Okay, this is going long. Race report soon. 
Friday, August 02, 2013

Jill loves the Northlands

We arrived in Reykjavik on Friday afternoon, and are in the midst of a whirlwind of last-minute preparations before we leave for our weeklong trek on Saturday afternoon. I sadly don't even have a new photo yet to add to this post, but I wanted to post a quick update of my whereabouts, mostly for my mom, who I may or may not have time to call tomorrow. 

This week we'll be participating in Racing the Planet Iceland, which can be tracked over the week with photos and news updates at this link. The course is 250 kilometers over six stages, mostly self supported (the race organization provides water and group tents.) The course (as yet unrevealed. We don't find out the route until the pre-race meeting on Saturday) seems to follow relatively flat terrain (I think the highest we'll be is about 3,500 feet, and this is the elevation we start at.) Still, I expect a fair amount of highly technical terrain, over tundra and boulder fields of volcanic rocks, so the whole "running" thing is going to be iffy, especially with a 27-pound pack. 

Gear is always a huge focus for folks in these events, and there's definite bragging rights for managing the lightest pack with all the mandatory gear. I care far more about avoiding hypothermia than I do about a few extra pounds, so my pack is equipped with the question, "If I were backpacking self-supported for a week in Juneau in September, what would I bring?" The forecast for the highlands, where we're starting the race on Sunday, is 6 degrees C for a high, 0 for a low. Add any sort of precip, and I'm mentally preparing for hours of low-level hypothermia even with all the gear I brought. 

 The only concession I made in my big pack is probably not enough calories, which is actually often not a psychological disadvantage for me personally during an endurance event. I have enough fuel to get through the day, although at a deficit, but I feel hopeful that it's enough to get by without feeling emotional distress about hunger. I ended up not changing much about my food rations; it's ~2,700 calories per day with one freeze-dried meal, and probably 70 or even 75 percent carbs. My body has never been efficient at burning fat as an energy fuel; I'm convinced that body fat works almost as well as dietary fat, for me at least. But I need carbs in order to not feel too bonky/hangry. I hope. For the record, 2,700 calories is probably fewer than I eat on a normal day without running 30 miles through near-freezing cold and wind and rain. But I do want to experiment with fuel efficiency and this kind of event is a good, safe environment in which to try. 

As for my conditioning, I feel undertrained. The rough early-summer races and knee injury seemed to prevent me from ever getting my endurance training off the ground. This will be another case of "let's see what I can do with what I have." Of course, Iceland is just a warm-up for PTL. If it goes badly, I will likely have to reassess my chances with a more realistic outlook. As it is, I have serious doubts about PTL, so in my imagination I am doing everything in my power to make sure Iceland goes well.

But beyond all that silly race stuff, I am so happy to be here. As I write at 10:27 Reykjavik time (12:27 a.m. in Zurich, 3:27 p.m. in California), the sun hasn't yet set. It's 11 degrees Celsius on a warm summer evening and the low-angle sun is casting a thick, rich light over the city. Behind these buildings seems to be nothing but stark mountains and boulder-strewn green valleys, and ahead, the coastal cliffs and north Pacific. Iceland feels close to home, and I'm really looking forward to a week of trekking in the Interior highlands and along the rugged coast. 
Thursday, August 01, 2013


 We're packing up to leave for Iceland early Friday morning, so I'm making a vacationy photo-dump blog post for the sake of continuity (which is something I value highly in my nearly-eight-year-old journal/blog.) Our visit to Zurich was pretty awesome. I could see myself living here, even if the Swiss do adhere to a lot of rules that my unrefined American manners occasionally stumble over, and even if you can't find an iced drink to save your life, and even if they seem a bit stingy with the coffee ... Switzerland is a beautiful and remarkably clean region, and these incredible mountains are right at their fingertips.

 For workouts, Beat and I went for a couple of runs from our hotel to the Uetliberg, a small 2,850-foot peak with a panoramic viewing tower at the top. On Monday it was cool and rainy, and I'd been so busy traipsing around the city that I neglected to eat lunch or even snack before our 5 p.m. run. I was thinking it would be this short, after-work thing, but it was still 8 miles with 2,000 feet of climbing on some steep terrain. I bonked early and hard, to the point where I was weaving a bit on the switchbacks, and wavering more dramatically on the slippery staircase up the wind-blasted tower. It was a tough run for me, and of course Beat was full of energy and laughing at me the whole way up. Deserved.

 We went back to the Uetliberg on Wednesday evening, and it was another hot, sweaty day. Just before our run, I met with a friend, Gabi, for afternoon drinks (more ApfelSchorle for me. No ice, sigh.) Gabi is a mountain runner that I met through Beat at the Tor des Geants. She's also the only person I know in Zurich, and I just happened to see her on the street when I was walking to the train station on Tuesday morning. During our visit, I started to tell Gabi the story of how Beat and I met at the Swan Crest 100 in Montana when I realized it was July 31, and this was the day Beat and I acknowledge as our anniversary. Later, and Beat and I were running up the steep side of the Uetliberg, the realization popped into my head again. "Hey, Love, guess what? It's our third anniversary!"

 So, after the run, we celebrated with a visit to the Thermalbad in our hotel building, which is apparently a famous spa in Zurich. The lower level is built into centuries-old stone vaults with hypnotic lighting effects and various saunas and jet pools. Then there's a roof pool with panoramic views of the city. We visited this pool right at sunset, with clear air, rich light, and alpenglow on the snowy peaks in the distance after the sun went down. Unfortunately I did not bring my camera. This picture is from the following afternoon, when went back for a lunchtime soak on our 24-hour access pass.

 August 1 is a national holiday in Switzerland. It's just like the Fourth of July in the United States; our morning pastries were adorned with little Swiss flags on toothpicks. Because it's a holiday, the Google office was empty and Beat finished up his work and took the afternoon to meet his uncle for a hike in Baden. It was yet another extremely hot day, in the mid-90s, and my body temperature was already jacked up from the mid-day spa visit. Beat's uncle guided us up this extremely narrow ridge that had some decent exposure to sheer drops. I felt severely overheated, to a level where I was concerned about heat stroke. But I poured the rest of Beat's sparkling water over my neck and this seemed to take my temperature down a few degrees — at least until we ran out of water about two hours into the hike. Beat's uncle walks even faster than Beat does, something I didn't think was possible, and we just kept marching along this breezeless, hot ridge. I was pretty grumpy. It's funny, because of all of the runs I did this week, the only one that didn't put me deep into the pain cave was the big mountain I time-trialed in Lungern. All the easy runs were hard; the hard run was easy. I guess life works out that way sometimes.

 There were good views along the three-hour ridge walk, which of course ended in a restaurant where Beat and his uncle ordered cider and I begged for water. My experiences in Europe have largely shown me that restaurants are pretty stingy with fluid in general, but this worker was very nice and filled up my bladder for me.

Our walk ended in Dielsdorf, adorned with yet another castle tower that has been standing since the 13th century. "The only buildings this old in the United States are Anasazi ruins," I said to Beat, but of course old stuff here is just not a big deal. We took the train back to Zurich and caught the fireworks over the lake in the evening. Fun holiday. The Zurich leg of this trip was really just supposed to be a business-related stop for Beat. I of course am pretty happy with how it worked out.

I'm going to keep all of these memories close to the surface when I'm cold and hungry in Iceland next week. The hot hot heat and the lap of luxury ... these things are good to experience sometimes, too.