I Run Alaska

Running Adventures in the Last Frontier

Adding a Cover to My Sled for Susitna 100

These past couple of weeks, we’ve had several good dumps of snow in the Anchorage area. This has meant lots of long runs dragging my sled through deep snow. Aside from this being really hard work, I also quickly learned that I needed a cover for my sled before race day. My sled was taking on tons of snow, adding unnecessary weight and soaking my non-waterproof duffel bag. Something needed to be done – so I headed to Jo-Anns for some DIY supplies. I picked up some rip-stop nylon and a heavy-duty zipper.

The rip-stop nylon serves several purposes:

  1. As the name implies, it’s resistant to ripping or tearing, something I certainly don’t want happening during the race.
  2. It’s reasonably water resistant.
  3. It’s a slick material that actively sheds snow.

First, I filled my sled with gear before draping the material over it to figure out where to cut it. After making a first rough-cut of the material, I marked and cut a slit down the center where I wanted the zipper to go. I then handed my project off to my wife, who was able to make relatively quick work of the zipper on her sewing machine.

I then headed back out to the garage to add grommets around the edge of the material where it would connect to the sled. Next I threaded the rope back down the sides of the sled, this time through the grommets. Finally, I used zip ties for extra strength, and to help wrap the material around the edge of the sled so there would be nowhere for snow to get in.

After several long runs with the new cover, I can confirm that it’s doing a great job!

How to Keep Your Water From Freezing When Running in the Winter

frozen hydration pack

Don’t let this happen to you!

These past few months, I’ve been running lots of miles outdoors in the cold while training for the Susitna 100 next month. These past few weeks it has been especially cold in the Anchorage area, and on race day, there is always the potential for it to get down to -20 to -30°F. Keeping your water from freezing when running for hours in these kinds of temperatures is a very important skill. I’m not going to last very long in a winter 100 miler if my water is frozen solid, and there are only aid stations every 15-20 miles.

Throughout my years of running in the winter in Alaska, I’ve picked up a number of tricks and techniques to keep my water from freezing. Personally I prefer wearing a hydration pack with a bladder. As long as you can keep the tube from freezing, overall I think it’s an easier method of carrying water in the winter and keeping it from freezing. Below are my tips and tricks, whether you prefer a hydration pack or carrying bottles.

  • Start with warm water. Obviously you don’t want to burn yourself (especially if you’re wearing a hydration pack), but the warmer the water starts out, the longer it will take to freeze.
  • Add drink mix and some salt to your water to lower the freezing temperature. In reality, we’re probably only talking about 1 or 2 degrees, but every little bit helps.
  • If you’re using a hydration pack:
    • Blow the water out of the tube back into the bladder after taking a drink. From my experience, the 2 places most likely to freeze up on a hydration pack are the tube itself, and the bite valve. This will help with both.
    • If possible, wear the pack under at least one layer of clothing to provide a heat barrier. If nothing else, tuck the end of the tube down the front of your shirt or jacket so it isn’t exposed.
    • Another option to the above is using a product called a tube garage that insulates the end of your tube and bite valve. There’s even space to tuck a hand warmer in there for extra heat.
  • If you’re using bottles:
    • Carry the bottles upside down. Similar to what I described above with hydration packs, a bottle’s bite valve will be the first place to freeze. Carrying the bottle upside down will keep the water in constant contact with the inside of the bite valve, making it take longer to freeze.
    • Carry the bottles under a layer of clothing. You want to keep the water close to your body and protected from the elements.
    • Consider putting a hand warmer in your bottle. My cousin swears by this method. She puts a hand warmer into a ziploc bag and drops it into her water bottle. Those things can last for upwards of 8 hours.

Anything I’m missing? What are your go-to methods for keeping your water from freezing in the winter?

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.

Update #3: after a long run in fresh deep snow, my sled was taking on tons of snow, adding unnecessary weight and soaking my non-waterproof duffel bag. So I added a cover, which has worked out fabulously.

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

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