Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How an "expert" builds a pulk

**There'll be a Tuscobia write-up sometime later this week. I managed to do the 75 miles in just over 29 hours with only minor troubles, but I really want to give it a more thorough treatment than I can right now.**

Lately it seems like folks have been asking me for a lot of advice on these winter races, especially the Arrowhead. It's something of a surprise as I don't really consider myself an "expert" on these things. I suppose I've been doing it for several years and had some success on both the bike and on skis, but folks seem to forget that I've failed just as many times as I've succeeded. As it stands I'm happy to answer as many questions as I can, but it should be remembered that I am not an expert or an elite athlete (as some have suggested), just a guy who kind of likes doing this stuff.

In any case, one thing I've been asked about is my sled. Here is how I built one on short notice when my old one had a zipper blow out. It's quick and dirty, but it got the job done for Tuscobia this year. I hope to make a nicer one before Arrowhead.

Step one: find a sled. A simple plastic toboggan seems to work best. Lots of room, light, durable, and cheap. Get it home however you like.

Step two: enlarge the existing rope attachment points to fit your rope. I used 9mm dynamic rope (stretchy) so that it would pull more smoothly and be stronger than I'd ever need it to be. Use what you like. It's not a big deal.

Step Three: Tie your rope in to the sled using a figure 8 follow-through. Other knots, like a bowline, would probably work fine (it isn't like you'll be hanging from it), but I can be a knot snob.

Step Four (no photo): feed your rope through a rigid tube of your choice. I used an old fiberglass ski pole, but others have used PVC pipe with some success. I like the ski pole because I know it won't weaken in the cold and it has a narrower inside diameter to more closely fit the rope. About two meters seems to be a good length for the poles.

Step Five: once you've threaded your rope tie a loop in the other end using a figure 8 on a bight (again other knots would probably work fine). I pull the rope tight and try to get some stretch out of it when I do this. It helps to keep the pulling system rigid and keep the sled from overtaking me on the downhills.

Step Six: toss a large duffel bag full of your gear in and strap it down. The strapping down could take a whole other blog post, but you could just tie it in with more rope. I have used parachute cord in the past, but on this sled I riveted nylon straps with buckles in to the sled. One downside to just tossing the duffel in is that snow can pack in around the sides.

Step Seven (no photo): attach to a waist belt with carabiners. I use a reversed fanny pack with loops sewn into the sides, but there are other options. I cross the poles and then strap them together where they cross. This makes for a directionally stable sled which is nice on downhills.

Step Eight: walk 75 miles with it. This isn't my ideal sled, but it was done on short notice and took less time than writing this blog post (about an hour).

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Looking back on Arrowhead '06

Yesterday I was reading a blog that reminded me of the 2007 Arrowhead which led to me looking back on the race from that year (the line from blog to '07 AHU is not straight so I won't bother with it.) For those of you who don't know that was the year I made some serious mistakes and I had to be rescued on snowmobile. I suffered some pretty serious frostbite and, while it wasn't as bad as it could have been, my toes are still not quite right. Granted, it was a tough year with a combination of bad snow conditions and a serious cold (-35f), but it was nothing I wasn't aware was possible.

After that disappointment I was in quite a funk for a while and as a result I've never written about it or analyzed what I did wrong (although I did learn some things from it). The AHU blog from that year (especially the "To bivy or not to bivy" and "Drink water don't ration it" entries) makes some pretty heavy points about the race and it really got me thinking I needed to re-think what happened. Here's a rough outline of what I did wrong that year:

What I did wrong:

-My cycling shoes were not warm enough or roomy enough for the conditions.
--I had gotten frostbite the year before ('06) using the same shoes, but rationalized it as "not that bad." Any frostbite is too much, don't think otherwise.
--I tried to use heat packs in my shoes, but without any room to breathe in the shoes they didn't work.

-Not enough water
--My thermoses froze shut from spilled water freezing on the cap threads (I managed to force one open, but on the other I broke the cap trying to get it off and never did get it open cutting my water supply in half).
--I didn't drink because it was too tough to get in to the thermos in my pannier bags (even when not frozen shut).
--I didn't eat for the same reason. It was hard to get to the food. That and not drinking probably caused a lack of appetite
--Because I didn't eat or drink I had a pretty epic bonk about 50 miles in. I didn't have the energy to ride the bike and eventually couldn't even swing my leg over the top tube.

-I was in a hurry.
--I was trying to break 24 hours and stuck to it even though conditions dictated otherwise.
--This contributed to not eating and drinking along with not stopping at the Gateway store.

-I didn't stop at Gateway store 35 miles in.
--As a result I didn't warm myself up, eat, fix and refill my thermoses. All of which would have been possible at the Gateway store. I probably could have bought warmer boots there too (it's that kind of store.)

-I never expected or intended to use my stove.
--I had never tested my lightweight alcohol stove in cold temps (sub-freezing. I have since and the stove does not work well in those temperatures.)
--I hadn't practiced with the stove.
--I didn't melt snow to drink.

-I got lost.
--The Arrowhead trail is pretty straightforward and I didn't figure I could get off course...and I didn't, but I didn't know where I was on course. I thought I was ~5 miles from Melgeorge's (halfway/75 miles) when I was actually ~20 miles out.
--Because I thought I was closer than I was I kept moving rather than stopping to camp. I thought that at worst I had 2 hours of walking. In reality it would have been more like 8.

What I did right:
-said "no" when asked by a snowmobiler if I was okay. I got on the snowmachine and dropped from race. None of this would have been necessary if I had done just one or two of the major points above right.

The number one thing I can do to keep these things from happening this year as I attempt to run the Arrowhead is to practice with my gear. To that end I slept outside last night and, while the 6f temperatures aren't what I expect at Arrowhead, I got some good practice with my (much better) stove.

Me, proving my stove works with a hot cup of coffee.