"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Month in the Life of #sleddogintraining

And I thought training for UTMB was intense.

On February 4th, two months from now, I will set off on foot pulling a sled with all my provisions on it for the 304mile (490km) Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU). Very roughly, every 18 hours, I will pass a checkpoint aid-station, where they will give me a meal (one meal, they note, don't get greedy) and boiling water. At three of those eight checkpoints, I will have a precious drop bag, which will have the treasures I chose to put in it. Spare batteries, new socks, food for the next 36-48 hours. I'd like to pack spare brains and feet, but I haven't found any online at a reasonable price yet.

No, that's not the racing pulk. Just a training option. Oh, but for a hill to toboggan down, though!


On the one hand, the event is very simple. Follow the trail of the Yukon Quest sled dog race northwest out of Whitehorse, Yukon, towards Dawson City, until I reach the finish line (before Dawson City). Watch for wooden stakes in the ground (snow), though sometimes these infrequent markers are taken by vandals or pulled out by the wind or buried in new snow. Walking and pulling, maximising forward motion, minimising sleep, until I see that finish line.

Though I have the benefit of having grown up in Canada, regularly spending winters exposed to -30C or worse, and having even camped in it a few times, the MYAU poses a million new challenges I've never had to face.

The scariest thing about this race is that I don't know what I don't know. I don't know what I need to learn. In reading and researching, there have been a zillion "Aha!" "Really?!" and "Good to know!" moments.

DIY spa: 30kph wind exfoliating skin with airborne sand
Training still includes base running, because (1) it keeps up my fitness and (2) it's fun and (3) the endorphin hit keeps me sane. However, the chief fitness adaptation I need to make is the ability to walk for 18-20 hours a day, pulling a sled through snow. The load through the hammies, tibialis anterior, and feet is markedly different to running. I have been doing a mix of two types of pull.

My beach pull uses a 14.5kg metal sled like you see bodybuilders use in gyms. It's hard to pull any faster than a 15 min/k pace and I could not physically run for more than several metres with it without going totally anaerobic. I have done this for up to 5 hours so far - the high tide line and winds affect the sand quality on any given day, making it slightly easier or much harder. The view is generally beautiful, being alongside the Indian Ocean and I get a reprieve from the incessant flies in the bush, but it's tempered by hard pulling and a constant wind in my ears, blowing stinging sand at me. My skin swells up after hours of salt air until my fingers are so puffy I can barely bend them.

My kids, safety strapped in.
My gravel trail pull uses a converted kids' bike trailer on wheels. To that, I have added 30kg in weights. It's much easier to pull, so I can average speeds on "flattish" gravel terrain of closer to 11 min/k. I could even break into a run with this in good compacted terrain, but I don't, since it's the walking adaptation I need.

My sense is that the beach pull method is slightly harder than the Yukon will be and the wheeled pull is slightly easier.

Because of the long pulling walks needed, training time has gone through the roof. Peak training for UTMB saw me at about 15 hours/week. Last week, my training took 22 hours. Whilst I'm still cautious about an overtraining niggle developing, I know the low intensity stuff mitigates some of the risk. That said, my feet keep trying to morph into hawk claws due to tightness. Ever had a foot massage? I mean, a REAL foot massage? I should go under general anaesthetic for that. A frozen water bottle rolled under the foot works a treat, too. Just writing that made me go get my bottle.

My weekly strength training session in the gym has me on bigger weights with reps - deadlift, bench press, leg press, chest press, and the like, with all sorts of abdominal and low back work thrown in. We're making sure I maintain the upper body and core strength that keeps me upright, not slumped, at the long ultras. And making sure particularly that my hammies and hips are bombproof.

Surprisingly, I haven't found the long 8 hour pulls boring. I continue to enjoy the peace of nature. Well, except for the flies. It's fly season in Western Australia. Literally 30-50 flies around my head at any time, with 2 or 3 being on my face. A deep breath and I'll take one up the nose or down the throat. One ingestion per outing is pretty standard. I've finally ordered a head net, which will bring much internal peace on my future walks. You can mostly outrun them, but you can't outwalk them. To this point, I've tried to use them as a mental training tool :)

Reading (researching) and buying have become my secondary occupations. I just finished "Yukon Alone: The World's Toughest Adventure Race" by John Balzar. A fantastic, engaging read about the Yukon Quest sled dog race that runs 1,000 miles along the trail we capitalise on for the MYAU. I read it for information on the weather and the trail, and to glean any tips I could on surviving unscathed in the Yukon in winter, where temperatures average -25C and can drop to -50C or worse. I was hoping to get into the mind of a sled dog, but that might entail developing a love of frozen fish and raw moose meat, too.

11.5hr walk/run/scramble session in the Stirling Range; November. The jacket is protection from harsh bush not cold.




























Breakfast reading is the relaxing "Hypothermia Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue, and Treatment" by Giesbrecht and Wilkerson. I found this gem in a bookstore in Colorado a few months back. I'm now also onto Mark Hines' "The Yukon Arctic Ultra: Ultra Marathon Adventure Racing Across Canada's Frozen North." This one is specifically about my race, so essential reading.

Yes, I used to carry a flask :)
I've learned that if I swallow whole frozen M&Ms, I will get frostbite in my throat and require evacuation. That the dry air requires my body to humidify it before it hits my lungs, increasing my need for water. 6 litres per day might be required. Heat lost by evaporation to humidify inhaled air means more calories needed. 6,000 to 8,000 per day might be required. I've learned that melting ice is more efficient than melting snow, but it's best to avoid either, given how long it takes. Every stop requires more clothing layers to be put on immediately, to avoid getting a chill. If I want to take my mind off it all with a big swig of whiskey from a cold flask, I will be reminded that alcohol is a great conductor and stays liquid well below freezing, so it will freeze my lips, tongue, and back of throat. This could be lethal. Yes, lethal. I've learned that it's better to stay still when immersed in cold water, as thrashing about increases convection - the water next to my skin will be warmed by me and if I move, I will displace it with colder water. I know that I have to rotate food stocks regularly, planning what I want to eat and placing it on my chest as a "microwave" to thaw it first so I don't break a tooth.

Batteries work poorly in cold and will either fail or lose their charge very quickly. So my headlamp must have an external battery pack on a cord strung down to my chest. Any other electronics such as a GPS device or camera could similarly fail unless kept against my chest. My chest is going to be a crowded place!

Sleep deprivation is a big part of this race. If I want to travel the distance quicker, I'll sleep less. Sleep dep decreases attention, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. Things I might need to survive in the sub-Arctic. I know multi-day sleep dep from the Bibbulmun FKT, but I wasn't in extreme cold at the same time, where one bad decision can be fatal. Many racers seem to experience minor hallucinations (trees look like animals kinda thing) but a few have experienced full-on delirium. I read a story of a man on the trail who imagined his friend appeared in front of him and directed him to a lodge nearby. The man checked himself in to the nicest room for a proper rest. He was later found by another competitor, fast asleep in the snow near his team of dogs.

For the first 8hr trailer pull, I chose a more groomed trail
Every time I think I have most of the gear arranged, I come up with additions to the list. Just yesterday I placed an order for a waterproof map case (mine is worn out and hard to read through), stormproof matches, and an insulated hydration bladder with insulated hose. Trying to choose a bivy (after I got over the bivy vs tent week-long debate) took me about 8 more hours of research, reading specs and reviews, watching videos of the set-up for each one I considered. It was mentally exhausting! But at least at the end of it I felt confident in my choice.

I'm excited for this race, but maintain deep respect for it. I look forward to the challenge of maintaining strength and endurance over 5-8 days pulling in the snow, isolated much of each day in wilderness, all the while having to make ongoing critical decisions that will see me succeed or fail.

The next two weeks will have me continue my reading, gear collecting, and adding multi-day pulls in the bush with my camping gear instead of weights for company.