Photo from Mount Royal, Frisco, Colorado.

"That is happiness; to be disolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." - Willa Cather

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Extreme Female Athletics: Case #1

A new generation of adventurous athletes is attempting feats that have previously only been done out of necessity. The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) begins today in Knik, Alaska, with athletes travelling by foot, bike or ski over distances from 350 to 1000 miles. This race, or the sled dog version of it, which I have heard about since my childhood, always seemed so far from my reality until I found myself living in “the polar vortex” this winter in Duluth, Minnesota, learning more and more about long distance running at extremely low temperatures.

Being a life-long student of the history of medicine, I found it particularly fascinating that the original Iditerod was run in 1925 when a group of a men, led by Norway's Gunnar Kassen, rode with sled dogs 480 km to Nome, Alaska to deliver the serum antidote to diphtheria, which was killing Nome’s Native American children. These children were being exposed to the European disease for the first time and there were no roads or trains to Nome and the few planes in Alaska were not functioning. After 5 days, the men arrived with the serum, the Siberian Husky, Balto leading the way. Despite what you may have learned in the animated film, it was actually a dog named Togo, who got them trough the hardest stretch.

Recently, a lot of attention has been given to the sport of “frigid ultra running in the snow” (seems like there should be a better name for this…) in Denmark due to Casper Wakefield setting an amazing course record at the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2013 and then Johnny Wolff Andersen lowering it again this year.

Then just last weekend, my Salomon team mate Christian Nørfelt ran the Ice Ultra in Lapland.

But almost totally under the radar, a little redhead waif of a girl came along, and annihilated the course record (by 7 hours) at the Arrowhead 135 in temperatures below -30 C. She is a little like Togo and, partly because she is one of my best friends and partly because I am a feminist who longs for balance in this world, I want to give her the attention she deserves. And maybe we could learn how to embrace cold runs rather than complain about them!

For some background, here is the location of the Arrowhead race:

Apparently International Falls is one of the top 10 coldest places on Earth (why the top 10 are not all within a millimeter of each other on Antarctica, I'm not sure).

 The interview
SLG (TBH) interviews Alicia Hudelson

1.  Why Arrowhead?  Because I didn't know if I could ever do it.  It has a lot in common with what I like about one kind of climbing--I hate to throw climbing terms at you, but it's similar to onsight trad climbing*.  In onsight trad climbing, you don't know exactly what's going to happen when you leave the ground.  You might have a good idea of whether or not you're prepared for the route, and you might feel confident or not confident, but you don't know for sure what the outcome will be, whether you'll fall, or whether you'll even make it to the top of the route.  Most races aren't like that.  You know that, barring major unforeseen injury, you'll finish; the only question is what your time will be and how you'll feel along the way.  But Arrowhead is different.  No matter how much experience you have, you'd never know at the start whether you're going to make it to the finish. 

*Onsight trad climbing is where you climb a route that you've never climbed before, with no information about the route other than what grade it gets, and you place your own gear into the rock as you go (then whoever climbs second takes it out when they come up).

2.  I understand this is your fourth time running Arrowhead. Why do you keep coming back?  At first, because I kept failing.  And then because, even though I had finished, (a) I LOVE the people aspect of this race, and (b) I felt like I had more to do there.  So, the people:  the racers at Arrowhead are probably my favorite bunch of people in the world.  I've made lifelong friends from the race.  There's nothing better than spending an entire weekend with those people, even if you do have to do a horribly hard race at the end of it:)  And the second reason, that I felt like I had more to do there, was just that I had finished once by taking it slow and steady, which was exactly what I needed to do to ensure I actually finished the thing at the time.  But now, I wanted to try it again to see what I could do if I tried to go faster.

3. How did you keep your hands and feet warm? My strategy is normally to use hand and foot warmers when running in below zero temperatures, but this seems a bit burdensome for such a long race. I decided to "Alicia it" for a 2 hour run at -22 C two days ago and my big toe still hurts from frostbite. I'm honestly worried I did permanent nerve damage*. Thoughts or suggestions?

If you're running Arrowhead, as opposed to biking or skiing, keeping your feet warm is not really a problem; you just have to keep the wind and snow off your feet.   I used my regular Hokas and just glued a windproof cover over them.  My feet were nice and toasty the whole time.

Hands are a little trickier to keep warm.  I had three layers:  liner gloves, big heavy mittens, and chemical hand warmers.  The basic key is to never take your liner gloves off, ever.  And when it's really cold (say, below -20), you don't even want to take your mittens off for longer than absolutely necessary.  That means planning out any tasks you have to do, like changing clothes or getting food out of your sled, in advance, so you can do them as quickly as possible.  And sometimes it means abandoning ship in the middle of the task because your fingers are just too cold and you need to warm them up before you can try again.

*my toe still isn't entirely normal and it is over 1 month later! I don't think Arrowhead is for me!

4. What was the number one thing that contributed to you running it 7 hours faster this year than in 2012?

I trained completely differently this time. Having anemia from November onwards was actually a huge blessing in disguise.  Since I felt awful when I tried to run, I did all my training as race-specific "runs" where I would go out and mostly power walk with a little jogging thrown in. I didn't enjoy it (I like running, not walking or jogging) but it was perfect for Arrowhead because that's exactly what you're doing in the race. I also did a lot of training with either a tire or a heavy sled, anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds. I did double runs maybe once a week and two back to back long runs.  Because I wasn't doing much actual running, I didn't do that many miles per week; I didn't have the time to do 70 miles at walking pace. I think i hit 60 miles one week but mostly they were closer to 40. But as far as time on my feet, it was a lot. And because I'd trained for walking, I found the walking aspect of the race much less tiring than last time. Finally, I did a prerace long run with my sled packed exactly how it would be during the race, so I got to fine tune all the lessons you need for minimum stopping and faffing during the race.

5. Were you still anemic going into the race? How did that affect your race preparation, diet and race performance?

After i found out in late November that I was anemic, I went all out to try to fix it.  I was eating beef every day, taking iron supplements, and getting tons of vitamin c to help with the iron absorption.  And it appears to have worked; I think my anemia was gone by the race. I got my blood retested a week after the race and all my numbers were back to normal. Now I can do some actual running again! 
6. You dropped out of the race in 2010 and 2011… what happened?
in 2010 (lots of nausea leading to getting way too cold) and 2011 (super burnt out legs that winter).
7. Ok- so your iPod broke immediately after the start (my understanding is it likely would have broken at some point since mine says "battery low" after 5 minutes at -30 C or below). What did you think about or do to distract yourself?

My ipod (it's a shuffle) does keep on trucking in pretty much any temperature, although I guess I tend to keep it inside my mitten.  I had two of them so I was excited for 20+ hours of music.  After the headphones broke right away, I was extremely disturbed by the prospect of having to stay awake for 2 nights with no music, so I tried not to think about it for fear of psyching myself out.  I did lots of sightseeing (see answer #4), singing, and talking to myself.  I remembered that back in 2009 when I ran the Superior Hiking Trail, I had entertained myself for a good few hours by making up a pretend court case and then arguing both sides of it (FYI to your readers who don't know me, I'm a lawyer) so I tried to do that but I couldn't get the mental focus going this time.  I'll have to try harder next time!

8. Which part of your body was coldest during the race (I hope not the "hoohaw")?
My forearms are always the coldest part of my body in cold weather runs.  I was wearing arm warmers at Arrowhead but even that wasn't good enough.  My mittens have little arm gaiters on them so I tried to keep them pulled up as high as I could, and that helped, but they were never quite warm enough.

9. Can you describe the scenery? Is there a most beautiful place on the course and what does it look like?
The first 18 miles of the course are largely exposed flatlands with short pine trees and wide open views.  After mile 18 you get into denser woods, with taller trees, more curves, and a few hills.  What I think is the most beautiful section is just after the Gateway checkpoint at mile 36--it's lined with tall pine trees and the light is beautiful there since I was there at sunset.  I've never seen miles 40ish to 72 in the daylight, but as far as I can tell, they're similar to miles 36 to 40 but with a few swamp crossings and open areas.  Coming out of mile 72 is where the big hills start, including one that is so huge and rocky that it looks like it could be straight out of Colorado (okay, not quite, but you know what I mean).  You can see the trail going up it and it just looks like a huge vertical wall.  The trail gets flatter and more open again from miles 79 to 95ish, but then there is another long section of tough, steep hills--though it's worth it to walk up the big hills since for each one you generally get to sled down an equal hill!  There is one "mountain" at mile 112 but after that it's all flat and swampy/boggy til the finish.

10. Did anyone take any pictures of you while you were racing? Could we see one of them?

Photo Credit (for both): Burgess Eberhardt.

11. Besides this race, what is the most hard core thing you have ever done?

I did a thru-run of the Superior Hiking Trail (205 miles) in 2009.  In 2008, Divesh (her lovely Indian husband) and I did the 47 mile rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon in the middle of July on a whim once, before we were really ultrarunners.  That didn't go overly well but we both made it and survived.  He and I also went climbing on Mt. Whitney for 3 days with one can of lentil soup, one flour tortilla, and a little trail mix as the sum total of food for both of us.  Again, it didn't go overly well but we both made it and survived--there seems to be a theme here...

12. Is racing long distances at sub-zero temps going to be your new niche? Are you going to run the Iditerod (ITI)? Susitna? Yukon Ultra? Which one attracts you the most and why?
New niche, probably not.  In some ways I feel like it should be because I feel like I finally have the concept down.  And I do love the idea of doing the ITI mostly because I would love to go over Rainy Pass in the middle of a race.  But in general I prefer running a bit faster to the sled-dragging events, and I think 50 miles is a good distance for me because keeping food down isn't as crucial for that length.
13. And you knew it was coming... what is your next goal?

My next big goal is the Bob Graham Round, in the UK.  It's in the Lake District and it isn't a race but rather a set course that people try to do in under 24 hours (it's 42 peaks and approximately 65 miles).  I lived in northern England for 5 years but didn't do much running at the time, so I like to go back to visit and tick off races/events that I never managed to do when I lived there.  This year my friend Nick is doing the Bob Graham Round and offered to let me tag along with him so that I wouldn't have to do the navigation!  Can't turn down an offer like that... We're doing our attempt on June 6, so I have plenty of time to get in shape for big hills, which is easy to do with the north Georgia mountains only an hour and a half away from me.

Alicia Hudleson takes first female at Tuscobia 135 in 47:59, taking 7 hours off the old record.

Alicia tells this story and a lot more really well here on her blog about running and climbing.

Speaking of extreme female sports, did any of you watch the female Ski Cross in Sochi? This sport strikes me as insanely dangerous. They fall with such hard impact at such fast speeds. And it is about half of the 20 something gals every single race. Anna Woerner's fall here was particularly gruesome and I understand she needs knee surgery now.

But this one is even more insane - and entirely real.

And this is just good music from various northern places :-)

From Finland (in Finnish) From Norway (in English) And my favorite song by Alaska in Winter - Close Your Eyes- We are Blind


maria said...

Cool (ha!) interview, ladies! SLG, I'm guessing you were using regular (not goretex) trail running shoes on your recent cold run? Waterproof shoes (and extra big is extra warm) are substantially warmer.

sea legs girl said...

Hi Maria.I had not looked into Gortex shoes, but should have. That is a good point. I was wearing Salomon Sense Ultras. If I were to get more into running in the cold, I should probably get specific Goretex shoes for it-- good suggestion.

Robyn said...

Great interview! I loved reading Alicia's Arrowhead race report on her blog. Your interview filled in some of the gaps.

This was the first year I followed the AH135 results live (since I knew some people doing it), and it was so exciting! Congratulations, Alicia!