I Run Alaska

Running Adventures in the Last Frontier

Winter Running Gear: Balaclava vs. Baklava

This is my public service announcement, since so many seem to get the two confused.

Balaclava:

A balaclava will help keep your face and neck warm when running in the cold.

Baklava:

Baklava may be a tasty dessert, but it won’t help keep you warm.

Building My Sled for the Susitna 100

As part of my preparation for the Susitna 100 next month, I had to build a sled to haul my 15+ pounds of required gear. Much to my frustration, I had trouble finding much good information online on building a sled for winter running. I did find some decent information on building a pulk, but those are typically geared toward hikers and/or hunters pulling a much larger load, often travelling across unpacked snow. Some of the ideas are transferable, but many are not. I also spent a fair amount of time talking to other runners I know who have done this race, and asked them about how they built their sleds. I even went as far as scouring the intertubes for photos of runners pulling sleds, zooming in and gathering as much information as I could about their sled construction.

In the end, what I came up with was a pretty basic sled design. There are some people who get way more complicated with their sleds. Although their designs may be superior in some ways, my decisions on my sled design were guided by 2 principles:

  1. I wanted my sled to be as simple as possible, with the least likelihood of something breaking during the race.
  2. If something did break, what would be the easiest to repair out on the course?

I tried to do my best to take photos along the way, detailing as much as possible what went into building my sled. Hopefully this will help save someone some research time and staring at tiny pixelated photos like I did!

laying out the parts to build my sled for the Susitna 100

All the materials for building my sled laid out in my garage. As you can see, there’s not much to it:

  • 36″ cheap plastic kids sled. These typically come in 36″ and 48″ sizes. I figured the shorter size would mean less surface area in contact with the ground, so I went that route.
  • Padded tool belt. I spent a lot of time looking for backpacking belts, but since most modern backpacks are all one-piece, nobody sells just the waist belt anymore. I did manage to find a few specially-made belts, but they were quite expensive. I thought about looking for an old external frame backpack on Craigslist, just to take the waist belt from it, when I found this tool belt by accident at Lowes for $20 while shopping for the other parts for my sled.
  • 1/4″ nylon rope
  • 1/2″ PVC pipe. These will be used to form a rigid tow line, to keep the sled separated from me and prevent it from running into me when going down a hill. The rope will be threaded through the PVC, connecting the sled and the belt.
  • Cheap carabiners for attaching the rope to the belt

drilling holes around the perimeter of the sled

First up was drilling holes around the edge of the sled to thread the rope through. I wanted to thread the rope down each side of the sled to create tie-in points for securing my load.

cutting the PVC pipes down to size

Next was to cut the PVC pipes down to size. The ones I bought were 10′ long, and I cut them down to 6′. What I’ve read and heard from others is that a good rule of thumb is to have them be about the same length as your height. That way you’re sure not to kick them as you run. I also remember from my high school physics class that when dragging a load, the smaller the angle that you’re pulling from, the less force is required (and longer poles = smaller angle).

sanding the PVC smooth where I made my cuts

Next I sanded all the edges where I cut the PVC – I certainly don’t want a rough edge to fray the rope and eventually cause it to break!

attaching the rope to carabiners

Next I threaded the rope through the PVC, and tied one end to a carabiner.

my completed sled for the Susitna 100

Finally, I threaded the other end of the rope through the holes in the sled, and tied off each end at the back of the sled. I also attached the carabiners to the belt. You’ll notice that I’ve crossed the poles – from talking to others, this helps quite a bit with keeping the sled tracking nicely behind you as you run. Turning around is more difficult, but I shouldn’t have much need to do that during the race.

I tied the PVC pipes together to keep them from slapping together

One minor detail I added was drilling a small hole through both PVC pipes where they cross, and tying them together. This will hold them in place and prevent them from banging together – something I imagine that would get quite annoying over the course of 100 miles!

As luck would have it, I already had a big duffel bag that fit perfectly in my sled and was easy to secure in place. All that’s left now is to take it for a test drive run!

Susitna 100 sled training

Update #1: Overall I was very happy with this setup after my first test run. However, it was quickly apparent that the carabiners allowed too much slack, and caused the sled to “bounce” back and forth too much for my liking. So I removed the carabiners, and just tied the ropes directly to loops on the belt. This helped a great deal. Also, after a few longer runs with the sled, the nylon rope had stretched out a fair amount, which was causing more bouncing. All I had to do was re-thread the ropes through the sled to tighten them back down, so it didn’t take long to remedy that problem. I imagine I’ll end up doing that at least once more before race day.

Update #2: Around New Years, I was discussing sleds with my cousin. His wife is also running the race with me, and he has been super excited about the sled construction part of this adventure. He literally fabricated her sled from scratch. When I told him about my sled design and how it had been doing on recent runs, his eyes lit up with ideas. Overall I’ve been pretty happy with how my sled has been working out, and I’m firmly in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp, so I didn’t want to mess with it too much. But one thing that had been in the back of my head was figuring out a way of attaching some sort of runners to the bottom to reduce surface area contact, and help it glide better across the snow. I had thought of buying an old pair of cross country skis and cutting those down for this purpose. My cousin still had some leftover runner material he used on his wife’s sled (some sort of high density plastic), and he offered to make some runners for me. Just a few hours later he texted me this photo of the finished product, and I couldn’t wait to try it out!

susitna 100 sled runners

The material he used is very lightweight, so it barely added any weight to the sled. I’ve only taken it out once since adding the runners, but it made a very noticeable difference in how easily it pulled behind me.

Preparing for the Susitna 100

For several years now, I’ve considered running the Susitna 100, but had just never taken that leap. Running a 100 miler in the middle of winter is a whole different beast than running one in the summer. There’s already plenty of things that can go wrong during a “normal” 100 miler – running one in the middle of the Alaskan winter adds even more to that list.

Well, this year I finally committed and signed up. Like many winter races in Alaska, you can choose to either run, bike or ski this event. There is also a 50k that I ran 2 years ago.

One of the first things that really smacks you across the face and makes you realize this is a whole other kind of race is the list of required gear:

  • Sleeping bag rated to -20°F
  • Closed cell foam sleeping pad
  • Bivy sack or tent
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Rear flashing light
  • Two-quart (64 oz) insulated water container
  • 1-day of food (3000 calories) in reserve
  • 15 lbs of gear at ALL times-including the finish line

That’s a LOT of gear to have to carry for 100 miles! It’s not so bad if you’re on a bike and can strap everything to the frame, a bit more difficult on skis, but especially difficult if you’re running! That would be a heavy and bulky backpack to run with, so most (if not all) runners opt to pull a sled. I actually just built my sled this past weekend and did my first long run with it. I’ll write another post soon that details all that.

One of the main things on that list I don’t have is the sleeping bag. Luckily, I have plenty of friends who are just as crazy (or crazier) than me, so I’ll be able to borrow one of those. It’s a good thing too, because sleeping bags rated to -20°F start around $120, and I don’t know when else I would ever use it. The other items I either already had or was able to find relatively cheaply. The insulated water container is an especially important piece of gear. Depending on how cold it ends up getting (some years it’s been -20 to -30, while others it’s +20 to 30), it can be very difficult to keep your water from freezing.

Also interesting is the requirement for a 3000 calorie reserve. From what I’ve heard, most people just go for the highest density calorie-to-weight ratio they can find, which usually means a small container of peanut butter. Not that I actually plan to do it, but I thought it would be really funny to find something obnoxious to use for those 3000 calories – like a Costco sheet cake, or a box of Krispy Kreme donuts. Any other good ideas?

One of the things that concerns me the most about this race is the potential for a big dump of snow, making the trails a mess. Pulling a sled over a packed trail isn’t too bad, but through several inches of fresh powder would be a lot of work. There is a 48 hour time limit on this race for a reason – depending on the conditions, it can turn into a really long slog.

However, I’m really looking forward to running this race with my cousin Sarah. This will be both of ours first winter 100 miler, and we decided to run it together. We’ve done a good number of long runs and races together already, including the Anchorage Run Fest 49k and a timed 24 hour race this past summer. It will be great to have some company out there, and hopefully we can work together to pull each other through our low points, which are always sure to come in a race of this length.

Overall, I’m excited for a new race and a new challenge!ice

Ice Ice Baby

vanilla-ice

No, not that kind of ice…

It may be well into November, but winter still hasn’t really hit in this part of Alaska yet. We got a few inches of early-season snow, with nothing since then. Instead, we’ve had several rounds of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw, leaving our sidewalks and trails covered in ice.

Still wanting to get outside and run, but not wanting to fall and hurt myself, I properly studded my shoes several weeks ago. I’ve tried numerous traction devices for running in the winter on snow and ice, and have found simply inserting screws into my shoes to be the most effective, and (better yet) the least expensive method. Even with studs in my shoes, things can get a bit perilous on glare ice, of which we currently have plenty. Over the years, I’ve learned to slow down and alter my foot fall a bit to ensure I stay vertical.

Another sneaky technique I’ve used for dealing with the ice is to run on the indoor track at The Dome. Back in October, they had a great deal on annual memberships. My dear wife, not wanting me to injure myself, got me a membership. My son has karate two nights a week, and his dojo just so happens to only be a few blocks away from the Dome. So I’ve been spending a lot of time lately running around in circles while my son learns the touch of death. No, it’s not the same as running outdoors, but it is nice not having to deal with the ice, and being able to just run in a t-shirt and shorts.

What are your tips and techniques for dealing with running on ice?

Getting My Running Mojo Back

So, it’s been a few months since I’ve really been running regularly. To be completely honest, it all started going downhill last fall when I DNF’d Pine to Palm 100. It was a tough course, to be sure, but I was well trained and ready for the 20,000 feet of climbing ahead of me. Instead, it was the heat that got to me. It got up to 100 degrees on the day of the race, and this Alaska boy just isn’t used to that kind of heat. The most insulting part was that both the weekend before and after the race, it was in the 70’s, which would have been entirely manageable.

The main problem it caused for me is that I just couldn’t keep my heart rate under control. Running on a flat section of trail, or even downhill, my heart rate was going crazy, which forced me to take regular walking breaks to get my breathing under control. I was trying every trick in the book to cool myself off at the aid stations. I poured ice water over my head, neck and back, tied a bandanna full of ice around my neck, but none of that was making a big enough of a difference for me.

I do feel good about the fact that I never quit, I kept pushing even when I felt like crap, but I was moving so slowly that I missed the cutoff at mile 42. This was my first DNF, and I took it pretty hard. I had trained all summer for this race, flown to Seattle and then drove all the way down to southern Oregon with Sharla, my awesome crew for the weekend. I had a lot invested in this race – physically, financially, and emotionally.

After returning home defeated, I told myself I would take it easy for a month or two, and not sign up for any races anytime soon. As we moved into winter, and still not having any races on my schedule, I found it easier and easier to make excuses not to go for a run. At this point, I was running once, maybe twice a week, for just a few miles at a time.

Then December hit, and my mother got sick and spent several weeks in the ICU before passing away on Christmas Eve. Needless to say, December was a very difficult month for me and my family, and I ran very little.

Around the first week of January, my wife kept telling me that I needed to “get my mojo back” and get back into running more regularly. So as a late Christmas present, she signed me for a 13 week running group put on by the local running store. The group meets twice a week – Thursday nights at The Dome for a track/speed workout, and a Saturday morning long run starting and ending at their store.

I’ll be honest, I was a little skeptical of the whole thing at first. I’ve never followed any sort of structured training program or done regular group runs like this. But I decided to go into it with an open mind and a smile on my face, and I’ve been very happy with the results. The track workouts have actually been a lot of fun. I’ve spent so much time focusing on longer races the past couple of years, that I have mostly neglected speed work, so it’s been fun doing some faster runs lately. So far the longest long run we’ve done has only been 75 minutes, but I’ve still really enjoyed the group atmosphere and camaraderie.

The past several weeks, I’ve been running 4-5 times per week. Last week was my birthday, and I even got out for a 34km “birthday run”, which was the farthest I’ve run in several months now. It’s all been feeling great, and at this point, I think I can safely say that I’ve got my mojo back!

got-my-mojo-back

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