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!
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