Saturday, January 30, 2010

Full System Test

Today (Saturday), my training called for a 3hr trail run, on snow if possible. The twist is that I was to test my bivouac skills: setup the sleeping bag in the bivy sack, getchanged, maybe a quick nap, cook a hot meal. I've done those things before, but always in the safety of my back yard.

So this morning, my alarm clock woke me up at 4Am. I grab my iPhone and look at the temperature up in Barrie, where I have to go if I want snow: -27C (-17F). WTF? I turn the light off and go back to bed. I start thinking: "This is exactly what you need. Any moron can setup camp at -3. What's hard is doing it in the cold." Well, in my book, anything below -20C (-5F). I get up, get ready, pack up the car and drive to Barrie. When I get to the trail head, my car thermometer indeed shows -27C. Damn.

Here's what I wore:

Head: I wrapped my head with my buff, wore my Merino toque, my neoprene-like (probably more like compressed fleece) mask and tried my ski goggles (clear lens). After a while, my breath got into the goggles thru the top of the mask and they started icing up. I have to figure this out. Probably have to make sure that the goggles are not on top of the neoprene.

Upper body: merino base, merino zip medium jacket, hydration vest, half-zip fleece. There was no wind so I didn't wear the shell. I was actually pretty comfortable. Only problem is that my valve froze within an hour because I just let it loose under the fleece. Unfroze it under my armpit. It has to be right against the base layer or it freezes. At the end, I was a bit warm but not too bad.

Hands: That was hard. While running, liner polypro gloves and thin goretex-type wind-breaking gloves. That was fine until I stopped running and then my fingers would freeze. I put my overmits on top of the gloves, sometimes even my fleece mitts and overmitts, until they unfroze and then my hands would be sweating like crazy. When I bivied, I wished I had some down gloves. When I setup the bivy sack, mat and sleeping bag, I thought my fingers were going to fall off.

Lower body: Wind proof underwear, thick thights, almost fleece-like and nylon pants. No complaints.

Feet: Injinji socks, thick wool socks, oversized La Sportiva Crosslites, overshoes, Microspikes. That worked really well. My feet were toasty while I was moving. After the bivouac though, when I cooked, my feet were just freezing. By then it was about 9:00 and it was warmer but running shoes are just not sufficient when you are not moving. I should have cooked before I slept.

Run: I started around 6:45. After the first 30 minutes, I was done in. I thought that maybe I should just not do the race. I had nothing. I was comfy, but I had no energy. My legs felt empty. It slowly got better until everything eventually felt fine. It was VERY cold. The fogging of the goggles and the glasses when I wear the neoprene mask will need to be addressed. I might cut a big hole for breathing so that the air all gets out that way. There are small holes but some of the air escapes at the top and fogs the glasses. With the goggles I will try to keep them off the mask. I'm just afraid that the exposed skin will freeze.

On the way back, around 8:45, I bivied at a lookout area, away from the snowmobile trail. The temp by then was probably in the -20, -22C range. Some of the stuff needs some dexterity and my gloves were just not warm enough for this. I tried to take a picture but my camera was frozen. Basically, I brought my tent footprint which weighs like nothing, and I setup my bivy on that. I changed my base no problem, but changing socks proved impossible, even after I took everything out of the bag. I'm going to bring regular socks but even that might be difficult. I just sat outside, quickly changed socks and got back in, bringing my shoes and hydration vest with me. I forgot to bring a pee-bottle but that wasn't an issue today. I think I actually might have slept. I wasn't quite toasty, but it was ok. I think that I was actually overdressed in there. Finally got out, got dressed and repacked everything. That was not easy. I was fucking freezing. My fleece was frozen solid and I had a hard time getting back in it. I have to fit it over the hydration vest and it just was hell to do it. My fingers were in pain when I stuffed my bag in it's stuff bag. I could not roll my bivy sack tight enough to put it back in it's perfect little bag. I lost the elastic that kept my mat rolled. Anyway, I got it done.

Now, about cooking. I almost talked myself into not doing it, but I decided to go ahead. Lesson 1: bring matches because lighters don't like -20C. I just could not make my spiffy butane lighter work. Worked fine yesterday when I tried it. Anyway, I had matches and I lit the stove on the first try. Yeah me. Boiled water (I didn't melt snow) and used it to cook a meal-in-a-pouch (rice and chicken). I'm always surprised by how good some of those are. The water didn't take very long to boil, maybe because I used the wind shield that came with the Whisperlite, but my feet, after getting into the cooled off shoes when I got out of the sleeping bag, were just freezing. Had some coffee from my thermos while I was waiting. Bliss. One the pouch it said to wait 9 to 10 minutes. Yeah, right! Ate half the pouch (yes, I had cutlery), packed up quick and got the hell out of Dodge, wearing the snowshoes this time. The side of the trail had a few inches of fresh powder and it was nice. By then I didn't need the mask, which was a relief. I used the buff for a while and then nothing. The sled is definitely harder to pull in soft snow, but easier than trying to run in the powder without the snowshoes, probably because the snowshoes compress the snow and beats a path for the sled. Does that even make sense?

Total bivy time: nearly 1.5 hours. Felt like 45 minutes to me, I couldn't believe it when I looked at my watch. Messing with the gear takes TONS of time. Got to the car after an hour, temperature around -17C. Total moving time, 3hrs on the nose.

The SPOT tracking feature worked quite well, although it seemed to have lost the signal for a while after the bivouac, but it recoved when I got to the car. Maybe it flipped over in the bag. Click here to see the map.

I'm happy with my gear. It's fine IF I don't stop for too long. The down booties might actually have been warmer than the running shoes, so maybe I should wear that if I have to stop for a while. Fogging is an issue if I wear the face mask, or even if I make one with the buff (although not as bad). I will definitely try to sleep and eat big meals at the aid stations, but at least, I know I can handle myself if I find myself in a pickle between aid stations, which are about 20 miles apart. I need warmer gloves though.

The sled is HEAVY. Problem is, I'm not sure what I can do without. The day before the race, having a good idea of the weather, I might be able to get rid of a few items but I'm not sure how much difference it's going to make. Also, I am so sick of hearing the two lengths of PVC tubes hit each others! I'm going to bring some of the insulation tape I used on the bladder tube and stick some where they intersect. Also, I need to insulate the belt's inside surface. It got cold around my hips, specially where the is some metal.

As for my mental health, I am FREAKIN OUT. I'm leaving in 10 days. This race is like a black hole in my future and I'm getting close to it's event horizon. The race is always on my mind. Right now, I can't see anything passed it. I'm not sure my family is aware of how deeply down the rabbit hole I am at the moment. How could they know? This is way more intense than any of my prior races.  Let's do it already!

Monday, January 25, 2010


It seems like I have a "Taper" post before every race. It's such a mental turning point. This is where your number of weekly hours of training start going down instead of up. This time, it was a hard cycle because it's the first time I've had to deal with an injury that prevented me from running. Still, thanks to good advice and many sessions on the dreaded elliptical machine, I got lucky and I the issue was resolved in time although it forced me to ramp up pretty fast. Should I have trained more hours? Probably. Could I? Probably not without falling apart. I'm no spring chicken anymore and we had to ramp up training for Susitna because the race is more than a month (5 weeks) earlier than my original target race, the "Rock and Ice Ultra". Plus, the distance is 100 miles non-stop (kinda) instead of 135km in 3 stages. I'm just happy I was able to pull it off.

One good thing about the earlier date is that I've been able to train on snow, even though I sometimes had to drive a bit. After yesterday and today's rain, I'm not sure where I'm going to find snow cover. Hopefully, the cold will come back and we will bet some snow before the weekend. If I still had over a month of hard training to do on snow, I'd be worried. El Nino sucks.

This week I had a small setback, with a possible case of PF on the left foot. I say possible because other than the location (inside arch, to the back almost on the heel) the pain feels more like a bruise than PF. Anyway, we cut back a bit on the sort runs and I was able to complete my back to back runs of 3hr and 4hr without any problem. The discomfort has mostly subsided and I'm not worried. Training time will go down steadily, until the race. I've never had so many rest days. Feels weird.

Yesterday I went to Creemore for a fun run organized by the people who bring us the "Creemore Vertical Challenge", Pierre and Lee Anne. The course was a 7-ish km loop with about 3km on roads and 4km on trails. Of the 3km on roads, one was on an actual paved road with sandy shoulder. NO ice or snow. No need to tell you that pulling Sancho under those conditions was quite the challenge. The trails were also challenging with two major (and steep) elevation changes and water features. Pulling Sancho out while on my hands and knees was a different kind of training. Thank you Microspikes.

After my second loop, quite a few people lapped me, that's how slow I was. Still, I managed 3 loops in almost exacly 4 hours and I still felt fine after so I'm happy with how it went. Stupidly, I forgot to take pictures so I got nothing to post here. We all had a great time. It's always nice to talk to like-minded spirits who don't think you are out of your mind. Quite the mental recharge.

So here I am, not even 3 weeks from my first 100 miler. Do I feel like I can run 100 miles? Most of the times. Do I think I can? Definitely. I have little aches and pains that I know will bother me at some point in the race, but who doesn't? Never try to complain about your boo-boo to an ultra runner, they will always have something horrible to show you. Yesterday, someone was telling me how she ran with duct tape in her pack in case she breaks an ankle and she needs to tape it together to finish the race. Not get to the next aid station, finish the race. Personally, I don't think even McGyver can "fix" a broken ankle with duct tape, but the thing is, she believed it. Crazy person! You know who you are...

18 days, 21 hours and 17 minutes to go.

Monday, January 18, 2010

North Simcoe Rail Trail

Last week was my biggest training week, in hours, ever with a total of 11 hours of running. Even if I count weeks where I ran an ultra, this is the second highest ever, my biggest week being the week I ran Haliburton. Mileage-wise, I didn't even come close since most of the running has been slow shuffling on snow pulling a 30lb sled.

All the snow is now gone in Toronto, so in desperation I got up at 2Am (again) on Sunday and drove up to Barrie to run on the North Simcoe Rail Trail. As the name implies, this is a converted rail track. The trail is flat as a pancake. It offers about 45 to 50km of uninterrupted trail. There's a section I didn't run, but to get to it you have to run on the side of the road for a while and I didn't want to do that.

Fuzzy picture of Sancho, ready to go

Running in the dark was actually easier because you don't see the infinite straight trail ahead of you and also because you don't live in fear of being killed by a kid trying to control his snowmobile driving at 100km/hr.

Starting to get some light

So I ran for 7 hours between 4 and 11AM, covering between somewhere between 45 and 50km. Following my coach Derrick's advice, I'm still doing a 20 min run/5 min walk ratio. Between 9 and 10AM, I had a rough patch and I wasn't sure I could do it; that maybe 15/5 or maybe even 15/10 would be better. By 10AM though, I felt a bit better and didn't have any problem maintaining the routine. Can I do that for 100 miles?

I now feel really comfortable with my equipment. The Katoohla Microspike are great. I ran most of the run in them and didn't feel any hot spots. Things might be different on hard ice (I could really feel them under my feet when I crossed the roads), but on on hard packed snow there was no problem and they improved traction quite a bit. I replaced my old Zipka+ lamp (35 lumens) with a Tikka XP2 (60 lumens). Wow! It's like I'm wearing an anti-aircraft projector on my head. The diffusor is really nice and makes the beam less harsh.

Nutrition will be the hardest part of that race. After 5 hours, I was sick of everything: Macademia nuts, cashews, chocolate-covered caramels (bad idea), Granola bars, gels, Cliff Bloks. Even drinking water was a chore. The only thing I really enjoyed is coffee. I brought a thermos with hot coffee and at 3 strategic points, when I really felt shitty, I stopped and had a cup of joe. Bliss. I'm bringing coffee during the race. I'm trying to eat about 250 to 300 calories per hour and that feels like a lot of food.

I'm really happy with the sled. I've added a short loop of bungee cord between my belt and the carabiners attached to the nylon rope and that did a good job of softening the jarring that I felt last week. I got the sled kit from the race, but it is very similar to my sled and I will bring all my customized parts.

On Friday night, we ordered Indian food and I got the Chicken Vindaloo. Real spicy. There was a lot of leftovers, so since the kids were away pretty much all weekend I ate that for lunch AND dinner on Saturday. I'm telling you about this because during the run, I came to regret that enthusiasm. It's the first time that I had to stop and take care of intestinal distress. More than once. Morals of the story: don't eat too much spicy food the day(s) before a long run; bring toilet paper.

My right Achilles is still bothering me but this is nothing new. My only fear is if I have to stop for a nap. On my way home from Barrie, I stopped at Mickey D for a QP+cheese and chocolate shake and my first few steps getting out of the car were pretty harsh.

So I'm ready. My countdown says 25 days to the race. I suspect this was the peak of my training volume (Derrick?). It should be all downhill from here, letting my body rebuild so that I can feel like I can run forever when I'm on that starting line.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Flights Are Booked

I looked at the flights to Anchorage this morning on and the prices were the lowest I had seen, around $650Can for a 1-stopover flight, including all the taxes and fees. I can't imagine they would go much lower. I looked at what the prices would be if I flew in 3 weeks instead of 4, and the prices were up by $200 for the 1-stop flights so I decided to take the plunge. I don't want more than one hop, because that increases the chances of losing my luggage or even a missing a connection and I don't want that.

So this is it. I'm all in.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I'm Registered

I guess I really was out of excuses.

It's done.

Out Of Excuses

This has been a solid week of training. I'm finally over my injury. Last week, I mixed running with some elliptical and finished on a high note with a 5+ hr trail run pulling Sancho the pulk. Yes a run, not a walk. I managed to cover about 32km, about 20 miles, during that run. Doesn't sound like a lot but all the eating, walk breaks, changing into snowshoes/Microspikes, fighting with the equipment tends to bring down your average.

Another thing I did last weekend was try my bivy sack and -30C sleeping bag. Temperature were going to be between -15C and -20C, so I figured that would be a good time to try so Saturday night I stuck my sleeping pad and sleeping bag in the bivy sac, set them up in the back yard and went to bed around 11pm. I had set my watch to wake me up at 3am, so I could get a few hours of darkness during my long run.

Lessons learned: The sleeping pad is a must. I rolled off of it a couple of times and you immediately feel the cold. Other than that, I was warm and cozy with some very crisp air in my face. I got the Integral Design Micro Bivy and it doesn't have a zipper to close the opening. I might put a velcro there to force it shut. I found myself staring at the stars a few times and although it was pretty, the cold wind made my face a bit cold.

The long run was fine. I started running around 5am, so I got a few hours of darkness. My pulk was quite heavy, about 20 pounds. I also wore my Nathan hydration vest. I have used insulation foam tape to try to prevent the water from freezing in the tube. That worked fine but the drinking valve is an issue. I made it a little cover but on one occasion where I didn't drink for maybe 20 minutes, it froze and getting it to go again took a while. Keeping the mouth piece in my clothes prevented the problem, but I'm not sure I can trust the bladder system 100%. Something to think about.

The run was uneventful, mixing it up a bit between running shoes, snowshoes and Microspikes. The temperature was nice starting at around -15C and going up to -8C by the time I was done. I was able to keep the sweating at a minimum and I was surprised by how little I drank. There was no sign of dehydration and at my last pee break before I left, my urine was still nice and clear.

So, I'm running out of excuses for not signing up. Yes I do have aches and pains, but that's to be expected. We've established that my knee is ok. I'm pretty sure my body can run 100 miles. The big question is, can I? As Patton said: ""You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up." We shall see.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Afraid, again

In a bit more than a month, I'm supposed to leave for Anchorage to run the Susitna 100. I have a confession to make: I'm scared shitless.

Traditionally, a month before a race is a low point for me. This time, I'm hitting a new low because you know what? I SHOULD be afraid.

I'm afraid for many good, and some not so good, reasons:
  • I'm afraid that my training wasn't sufficient. I got an annoying knee/itb/hamstring injury that has kept me from running much for about a month. I did some long efforts, up to 5 hours, but at a very slow pace. Is that enough? 
  • I'm afraid that I'm biting more than I can chew. Even if physically I'm ready (after all, I still have a solid base), do I have what it takes to keep moving forward for that long, probably somewhere around 40 hours? Is this a good choice for my first 100 miler?
  • I'm afraid because the aid stations are so far apart. In Haliburton, the longuest distance between aid station was about 10k, if that. At Susitna, the first aid station is at mile 22. The next one at mile 41. I'm so happy I got that SPOT.
  • I'm afraid because I don't know if I can get going again if I have to stop to sleep. If I let my body shut down while I get an hour of zzz's, it's going to be hell to get going again.
  • I'm afraid of the pain. You know what I mean. 50 miles hurt. I can't imagine what 100 will feel like.
  • I'm afraid because of all the moving parts. Basically, you are pulling your aid station in your pulk, but you have to make an effort to use it. As I get more and more tired, will I be able to keep making the right decisions?  You know how sometimes, during a race, you get a small rock in your shoe and you can't be bothered to stop to take it out until it's too late and you have a blister? I can't let that happen. If I've got cold feet, I have to do something about it. Same if I get too hot and start sweating. I want to come back home with all my digits.
  • I'm afraid I won't finish. Better men (and women) than me have DNF'd. I've finished all the races I've started. Will this be the one I don't finish? It's not the money. Most of the money was spent on stuff I can use in the future. It's just that a crazy effort like this requires a huge mental investment and from up there, it's a long way down.
  • I'm afraid because of you all. I guess about 5 people read this blog occasionally. I don't want to write about how I didn't finish. Plus, I told my mom.
I think this is it. These are the things I'm most afraid of.

Obviously, this is why I'm doing it. I'm not sure that ultra running has made me a better person. Anyone who has read various bulletin boards where semi-elite and elite runners cut up back of the pack runners, or even question whether they should be allowed to run marathons, know that runners, good ones included, can still be assholes. The one thing that ultra running has done is allow me to experience something few people get to experience (in a positive way): my absolute physical and mental limit. In a 5k race, you briefly encounter it. In a marathon, you dance with it for a while. In an ultra, you have to experience it in totality. You go to the edge, stare down the abyss and hang on for dear life. Drink enough but not too much. Eat enough but not too much. Puke. Cry. Sing. Sleep, maybe. Analyze the color of your piss. Run as much, as fast as you think you should. Repeat until done.

I've flirted with disaster at Haliburton. To this day, I'm not sure what I did wrong. My mood turned dark at 35 miles and I had a hard time shaking it off at around mile 45. It took me by surprize and still today, I go back to that trail and I remember, but I don't understand what happened. It's so vivid. This time, my goal is to not go to the dark place, even during rough patches. This will be my biggest challenge.

So this weekend, I decide. I have a long workout on Sunday, between 5 and 6 hours. This time, I should be running most of it. I will be trying my entire arsenal: running shoes (La Sportiva Crosslites), Microspikes (Kahtoola) and snowshoes (Dions) pulling my trusty Sancho-the-pulk. Play with nutrition. I might test my stove skills for good measure. After that, I'll know.

I'm afraid. So what?

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year

My family and I just came back from a week vacation down in Turks and Caicos. Highly recommended location. The beaches are just amazing. Other than my daily workouts and about an hour of catamaran a day, I did absolutely nothing. Well, I ate. I haven't jumped on the scale yet but I have a feeling the number will be larger than before the trip. No biggie. For me, losing weight is an effect of running, not necessarily an end in itself although I do enjoy that particular side effect.

I had a very succesful week of training, a total of about 6:30h, most of it running. Yes, running. I did do some elliptical work, but I ran the rest on a treadmill. I had planned to do elliptical work exclusively, but the machines available in the gym were not what I had hoped and decided to try running a bit. Then a bit more. The last few workouts were done running exclusively. No pain at all, at any time so as long as I don't do anything crazy, I might be out of the woods.

As happy as I am that I can now run, with barely a month to go, I can't help but to feel that my volume should be way bigger than this if I am to finish the Susitna 100. Takes about 3 or 4 weeks for training to "take effect" so I guess I have about 2 weeks of effective training to do. I have a couple of pretty big weekends in my immediate future. The rest will be mental. In this race, mental will be key.

This should be a great year and I wish everyone the best.

Don't think about it, just keep moving forward.