For new readers

To get an idea of what I'm trying to do and why I think it's possible, check out the following entries, they'll help get you up to speed.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Critical Gear

Gear plays an role of varying importance in endurance events.  I've watched teams of converse wearing, cotton clad, poorly equipped newbies grit their teeth and excel at a 6 hour adventure race, beating their lycra wearing, fully kitted, and more experienced brethren.  Sometimes, as in the above example, WILL, love of SUFFERING, fitness, and even maybe naivety weigh far more heavily on the outcome.  But as the temperatures drop and the miles pile on, gear sometimes becomes a far more critical factor, as it did in this year's frozen otter race.
after this years Frozen Otter finish,
carrying exactly what i started with

I've typically plan my gear strategy based on two rules - light is right and less is more. A trip or race is perfect if i really need every piece of non-required gear i choose to bring.  As for the required stuff? Meet the bare minimum and make it as feather-weight as possible.  I'll take enough to know that i'll be able to survive, just barely, but no more. When it comes to the Frozen Otter, I overdid it a bit (carried too much), but what is interesting is that the gear i used - that actually made it out of my pack - worked AMAZINGLY well.  And since i fielded so many questions leading up to the race about what to wear/what to pack, i thought a rundown of my system and the philosophy behind it might be useful.  One thing to note - on the race website it talked about it being an unsupported race.  As it turns out, racers were to be allowed to return to their at the half way point and pick up anything they wanted (food, changes of clothes, shoes, trekking poles) or drop off anything that was no longer useful (a wet pair of socks, sweated through base-layer, etc).  This was kind of a bummer for us so Grant and I decided to forgo the opportunity and plan as though the only support we'd have was water every 8 miles.  We packed.  We packed for - and ran - the race we thought we were signing up for, carrying or consuming everything we started with for 64 miles.  The race day temp was a low of 9 and a high of about 20, with strongish 20-25 mph winds developing after about midnight.

So how did we do it?  I'll start at the bottom.

FEET:  I wore a single pair of low cut swiftwick socks (i'd thought they were ankle high when i grabbed em!) inside Inov-8 GTX Roclite 288 'boots', sized a half size or so big.  I've used the swiftwick/inov-8 combination before and love it.  I carried two extra pairs of socks - dry-max and a thin Wigwams - but never had to use them.  I've learned from long AR that socks have different 'wear' points and if you do get blisters, changing into a different brand or thickness of sock can help a little bit (emphasis on little).  The shoes weigh a scant 288 grams (hey - like in the name!) per shoe - half the weight of most gore-tex trail runners - which makes a huge difference considering we were took approximately 70,000 steps with each foot.  I had gaiters on to keep the snow out (3-8 inches with a few bigger drifts) and although my feet did sweat a bit, my socks were only mildly damp by the end and my toes never got too cold.  I pre-taped my feet - duct-tape on the ball of the right foot and around the tip of one of my toes where i got hot spots in training runs.  It worked awesomely (duct tape has a low coefficient of friction and blisters are caused by shear forces), although i should have taped the ball of the left as well - by the end i had a small blister there - my only of the race and totally manageable.

LEGS:  I wore my winter running go-to getup on the bottom half.  Ibex wind-front merino wool boxer briefs under Craft storm tights.  The storm tights are awesome on their own - fleece lined, comfy fit, wind-proof front - but coupled with the ibex wind-front absolutely incredible.  The temperature range that this combo works for is HUGE - i stayed cool enough in the mild temps of this run, but used the same combination for much of the Arrowhead 135 last year which i rode by bike, in temps down to about minus 15.  And I've never had to use anything else on a training run, even in -20/-40 windchill jaunts - as long as i keep moving.  Without the boxers though, 'the boys' get pretty cold - uncomfortably so, even at single digit temps - so yeah, you may never pay more for a pair of underwear - but in my estimation having such a functional set-up is worth every penny.  Grant decided to pony up and try my system as well and found the same thing - a totally comfortable 64 mile mid-winter jaunt through eastern wisconsin.

TORSO:  I started with a nike SS (short sleeve) compression base-layer and SwiftWick Olefin arm warmers.  Over this i wore a nylon cycling wind vest with a fully vented back.  And of course i wore a backpack (which you shouldn't neglect in terms of warmth - you put off alot of heat through your back the pack keeps it there.....).  I was cold at the start (as planned) but perfect once we got moving.  I never had to shed or add anything during daylight and was comfortable.  After dark, around mile 28 or so, I threw on a lt. weight Icebreaker merino wool top over the baselayer/armwarmers and below the vest. Through the next 36 miles and 13 hours i never changed clothes again, but this is due in large part to the magic of what i wore on my head.

ColdAvenger - like a jacket really warm jacket you wear on your face
HEAD:  There is a fair bit of disagreement among people about the 'conventional widsom' that you lose more heat through your head.  Having read all i can on the subject, i come down on the side feels this is, at least as stated - a myth.  Heat loss is proportional to surface area and its not as if your body is dumping more heat up..... after all, we're 98.6 degrees through and through.  Regardless, the head is the thing that is often uncovered and so represents the biggest patch of skin/tissue with which to regulate heat.  I covered mine with a light fleece convertible beanie/balaclava from Loki for the entire race.  At night I added a ColdAvenger Pro face mask.  I effectively used this piece to regulate my temperature as my body started to slowly deteriorate (lose its ability to thermoregulate itself...) during the last half of the race.  Grant (also using a CA mask) and I would get cold - really cold - every time we stopped to fill water at a CP or eat/drink on the trail.  Solution - pull up the mask so that we were breathing into it.  Almost immediately our core temp increased (we were now breathing in significantly warmer air!) and our toes and fingers got warm again.  The masks are really very effective and while not cheap, they present very unique way of controlling body temperature that, at least in my opinion, is possibly more effective than traditional layering options.

OTHER GEAR (and stuff we carried but didn't use):

  • Headlamps - we both used Fenix HL 20 headlamps. these are pretty damn light and only require one AA battery.  Grant brought alkaline batteries by mistake (lithium last way longer in the cold) and i was a bit worried - but both lights started and finished on a single battery (without any noticeable loss in brightness) despite over 12 hours of continuous use.  
  • Pack: Grant and I both used 18 liter inov-8 packs - super light with pockets on the hip belt for easy on-the-go access to food.  
  • Water Strategy:  Grant and I both carried a total of about a liter of water in two bottles a piece.  I had one attached to a shoulder strap for on-trail access. The other was an double walled stainless steel bottle (Hydroflask).  Through the middle of the race we'd crush a packet of ramen, pour it into this bottle, and fill with hot water at the CPs.  an hour later (or less) we'd have piping hot ramen soup to drink... so tasty compared to race food!  We didn't want to mess with bladders/hoses and the possibility of freezing.  we made sure to hydrate at each CP to ensure that our meager water would get us through but had no problem, always arriving at the next CP with at least some water left.  The only thing that didn't work well was that both of Grant's bottles were in mesh pouches on the back of his pack so we had to virtually stop to get at them (yeah, only for a few seconds... but still). 
  • Food:  We ate standard race food for the first 16 or so miles, then more and more regular food as we slowed down (and lost the appetite for GU's).  The ramen trick came into play through the middle of the race.  we also ate crushed chips (pringles), hard candy (cinnamon disks), and fought the sleepmonsters with Power to Go Energy mix - a favorite secret weapon of mine that is unfortunately rather hard to come by (unless you come do one of my ENDraces....).
  • First Aid:  a first aid kit was required but it didn't specify what needed to be included.  Mine was comprised of duct-tape wound around a small pill bottle containing a dozen or so vitamin I (ibuprofen).  Years of expeditions and a handful of long adventure races has taught me that this is what i use, so why take anything extra?  We each ended up taking 3 vit. I's at about mile 40.
  • Poles: I used poles from about mile 12.  my poles of choice were the Black Diamond Z-poles - super light and up to task.  Some people don't like poles but i love em - i can let my arms do some (even a small fraction) of the work, getting my whole body involved can help get warm if needed, and balance during that 'stumbly phase' late in the race (or in our case for the last 8 or so hours) is greatly improved.  
  • Shelter: this was required, otherwise we wouldn't have taken it.  I borrowed a UL montbell bivvy sack, Grant borrowed my Thermo-lite 2.0 bivvy by Adventure Medical Kits - a 5 oz reusable space-blanket bivvy that is very functional and most importantly, super cheap.  i highly recommend it. 
  • Extra stuff:  The only things we carried (that weren't required gear) that we didn't use were Mont-bell Therma-Wrap jacket and pants.  I refer to this as my super suit.  It is ultralight (9 oz jacket, 7 pants), for a pound you've got synthetically insulated outer-layers that can, coupled with a ultralight bivvy, allow you to survive a night at below.  And if you're able to keep moving - even at a pretty desperate crawl, i'd put the survival rating down significantly lower.  Note - by survival i mean just that - don't expect to by a super suit and go sit outside at negative digit temps and be toasty warm...
Alright -thats it!  This was a very exhaustive post but i wanted to be thorough - getting it right with gear takes years of trial and error, which i've had.  i mostly hit it right this time so wanted to take the time to share!  Keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you.... so make sure you test your systems prior to a big race or trip, particularly if its an important or risky one!  

Cheers - Andy

Note - i decided not to include links directly to these items as i'm not trying to sell anything....but i've tried to include enough information so that its super easy to track down each of the pieces mentioned so that those who are interested in learning more can do so.

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