Friday, January 30, 2015

Seems Like Science: Protect ya neck

I had a revelation recently.

It was a cold evening - so cold, in fact, that it was even a bit chilly in the house. I had thrown on a lightweight shirt with a hood and thumb holes (this one, which I freakin' love), and was feeling pretty comfy in it. For some reason or other, I ended up pulling down the hood, and suddenly I was much less warm.

This got me thinking.

That whole thing about losing more heat through your head than anywhere else? Bunk. So why was I feeling the cold more?

I let it stew in my brain for a couple of days, and was finally hit with the answer as I zipped up the collar of my down vest one night to go for a walk. It may be old news to many of you, but for those who either haven't bothered to think about it or are just as obtuse as I am I'll spell it out for you.

It has almost nothing to do with keeping your head covered - it's all in your neck!

Let's take a look at a diagram of the major blood vessels that run through the area:

Ooh, science-y!

Now think about exactly how much flesh you have keeping those babies insulated, when compared to the rest of your body. Since they're so close to the surface, the blood in those veins and arteries is going to be much more influenced by the air temperature than those in your torso or legs.

The second factor that makes it so crucial to insulate those major blood vessels is their routing and flow. These are no back alleyways - those are huge expressways for transporting blood to and from your brain and heart. If that blood is getting chilled as it runs into your cranium and then again as it comes back into your chest cavity, you might as well be haemorrhaging pure heat!

The same principle applies to your wrists and ankles, as well, though to a lesser extent. While the veins and arteries in those areas are similarly close to the surface, your body's natural defense against cold will slow blood flow to them to preserve heat in order to keep your torso and head warm. Additionally, the blood returning to your torso does have to travel through meatier areas of the body before it reaches your heart, so the impact of the cooling is lessened by the increased distance from your core. Your hands and feet will get cold, of course, and I do recommend wearing gloves with long cuffs (to overlap your shirt or jacket) and good, warm socks that seal off your ankles, but it won't keep you from feeling chilled to the bone if you're still exposing your neck. As a matter of fact, keeping the blood that's flowing into your torso warm will delay the narrowing of the blood vessels that restricts flow to your extremities, so your toes and fingers will thank you for insulating your neck as well!

So what the hell does all this mean, apart from me looking like a dork wearing a hood and thumbies at every opportunity in winter?


I've talked in the past about how essential accessories are for winter running, and I'd specifically mentioned how much use I get out of those multifunctional tubes of fabric that can be headband, earband, balaclava, neck gaiter, or serve other purposes. Icebreaker calls them a chute, Chaos calls them "multi tubular headwear", Outdoor Research calls them an Ubertube and Arcteryx just goes with neck gaiter. There's also that company that doesn't make anything but tubes in various styles and fabrics. While I'd always thought that the best reason for wearing one in winter was to keep my head warm, I generally use them in such a way that they seal between my hat and the collar of my jacket, too - insulating those precious blood vessels that seem to have such influence over my perceived temperature.

Not just while running, either.

Of course, since I've previously discussed my love affair with merino wool, all of the ones I wear are made of this glorious material. They're lightweight, warm when wet, beautifully soft against my skin and dry quickly so they're ready to go for the next day's run or ride. You could do the same thing with a scarf, but the movement of running is likely to cause it to shift, and the trailing ends can be both a nuisance and a hazard.

Even in milder temperatures when I don't require full armageddon proofing, just wearing a top with a zip-up tall collar (like so many quarter- or half-zip running shirts) can make a profound difference in my warmth levels. The beautiful part being that if you start to overheat, you can simply zip down the collar a bit to expose your blood vessel-filled "radiator" to the outside air to cool you down.

As an aside, all of the above is a huge reason why I will never buy a cold weather coat that doesn't have a hood. While it's possible to use a gaiter or scarf to keep your neck warm, drafts can still be an issue: there is simply no substitute for an attached hood and chin-height (or higher) collar that completely seals your neck in an envelope of warmth when the mercury drops past the point when any sane being would go scurrying for the indoors.

So the next time you're heading outside and dreading winter's chill, do yourself a favour and wrap up that neck!

'Cause that's using your head!

Who knew the Wu Tang Clan could teach us about winter running?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Frosty Trail 3-hour - January 17th, 2015

No expectations for this one - just went out to see what the day held. I figured even half-assing it at my current size put me at approximately 97% of race weight ass.

All the pre-race faff was pretty standard issue: I did get around 6hrs of sleep, was up to scarf back a bagel at 6-ish, then actually went back to bed for a 30min nap because I wasn't feeling entirely human yet. Oh, the advantage of living a mere 25mins from the race site.

It was cold to start. Like "it hurts my nose to breathe this air" kind of cold. Down parka AND down pants (yes, those are a thing) for the ride up to Camp Heidelberg as I sipped my coffee, and then refusing to take either one of the above off until the last possible moment since it was only about 10c/50f even inside the Rehkopf building.

Pretty sunrise, though.

With temperatures predicted to get no higher than -8c/18f by the end of the race, it made apparel options simpler than I'd anticipated. I just threw on the warmest stuff I'd brought, added my straw from Ron Gehl, and left it at that.

But was still cold before even stepping outside.

There was no warm-up run - I did some dynamic stretching stuff inside but I was far from the only person hesitant to head out into the -12c/10f morning before we absolutely had to. There was literally a crowd of runners around the main door to the Rehkopf building when the race director was calling 1min left to the start. We grudgingly meandered out, lined up in a loose bunch (then turned around as we started in the opposite direction to Horror Hill), and set off like good little lemmings when Pat said go.

It only took me a month to actually add this pic of the start.

It was the usual conga line through the forest for the first lap, getting a feel for the snow conditions on the trail and warming up the legs. Things weren't too bad on either front; while pretty deep and soft in a few places, the whole course was actually runnable. For Frosty Trail the section of the course that goes down around the pond and up the HUGE STINKIN' HILL are cut out, though the hill with the stairs (!) remains. I walked up it and a couple of other steep bits, but had I been doing just a couple of laps (racing under an hour) I could have run the whole thing.

The winter aid station is in front of the building, which is also the starting line.

Through the woods and back up the hill, the pack started to spread out a bit as everyone found their pace. I came around the Rehkopf building to finish my first lap, and tried to let a girl whom I'd been just behind in the conga line go ahead as we headed back into the North woods by the building. She said she was slow, so I should go ahead. A little dubious about anyone really being slower than me, I plunged on ahead anyway.

Frosty? That's a downright snowy trail.
Credit for this photo & a couple of others to Christopher from Brant Death Racers.

It turned out that we were actually pretty well matched for pace, and ended up running together. As we chatted I learned that Lizzy is an 18 year old cross-country runner at Wilfrid Laurier University, and will be running the 50 miler at Sulphur Springs in May. She also conveniently wears a watch in a way that is visible while running - mine was buried under 3 layers of cuffs. I think I may have surprised her when I said at the end of our 4th lap that we should be pretty close to an hour: it was only a bit more than 2 minutes before the horn sounded to end the 1 hour race.

The sun would appear and disappear as we trotted along.
Photo from the race director's album.

Fortunately the people who'd been making us look really bad disappeared at this point - it's always nice to know that the folks who've been lapping you like you were standing still are only doing 1/3 of the running that you are. I pulled out a vanilla Hammer gel to nibble on as I ran and asked Lizzy is she'd actually been taking in any fluids or nutrition, since I hadn't seen her do so and I know XC races are usually short enough that none is required. She said she hadn't, and would stop for a drink at the end of the next lap as it's something she knows she's bad about.

Super stocked aid station with Tanker the Wonder Sherpa being a super awesome volunteer.

We carried on together for another lap, then Lizzy asked what the options were if one needed a washroom. I explained that you had either your selection of leafless flora to hide behind, or you could head into the Rehkopf building to use the facilities in there. She said she'd need to stop at the end of this loop (our 6th), and I could definitely get behind that idea - some rumblings in my belly indicated I was not going to get through this race without a pause to lose some weight.

Which would be a big help, anyway..

We both wandered inside when we reached the building, with me wincing a bit at the stairs up to the main floor. Unfortunately, all of this happened while Tanker was helping out the Optimist Club volunteers inside with some odds and ends - my hand bottle was empty and I'd hoped he could fill it while I was in the john. Business was taken care of, then back out into the cold just as we came up to the halfway point, my bottle still empty. I asked one of the volunteers at the aid station to pass along a message to Tank to fill it for me when he got back out so I could pick it up the next time I was through. It was actually kind of nice to run without the bottle for a bit, or walk as the case may be.

Photo from Lizzy's Instgram - can you imagine having to stare at my butt for 3 hours?
Around this time the weather started to warm up a touch, and the sunshine had helped increase the moisture content in the snow enough that it was starting to pack down a bit. There were still some rather deep and loose sections - notably where we made our entry and exit to the main (South) woods loop - but overall conditions were improving as I got my bottle back (full - thanks babe!) at the end of my 7th lap.

Photo from after the race of the North woods loop.

It actually worked out really well for me, as the trail seemed to improve at approximately the same rate my legs started to break down. There were a couple of exceptions: the spot where we entered & exited the main woods section and one or two other places remained really dicey throughout the day. However, Lizzy and I put in another loop before the 2 hour mark, clocking very even splits of just under 15mins per 2km lap. It was looking like I might actually crack 24km at Frosty Trail for the first time, assuming I didn't deteriorate too much. In the interest of keeping myself moving at a decent pace, I tore open a salted caramel Gu and proceeded to nibble on it as we rolled around the course.


We continued running in circles as the sun disappeared again and the wind began to gust. My legs definitely had a lot to say about my longest runs since Horror Hill having been just over an hour and three quarters, and my ankles were taking a beating on the uneven trail surfaces. I'd even had to flail around a bit in some of the softer spots to keep from taking a brief snow nap, and now the packed-down sections were starting to wear away to reveal chunky, footprinted ice underneath. Before two and a half hours were up, I'd finished another bottle and dropped it at the aid station for Tanker to re-fill while we headed out again - I was happy to have my hands free to keep myself upright for a bit.

At least we had a tailwind on the uphill for once.

As we came through our 11th lap with 17mins until the finish, Lizzy let me know we actually had time to take it a bit easy as we wouldn't make another loop after our 12th. I was more than happy to do so, as I was really feeling the fatigue now and knew I was getting sloppy. I picked up my re-filled bottle from the aid station and did a bit more walking than we had hitherto. Of course, it couldn't work out evenly - we still had a few minutes when we got back up to the Rehkopf building, and I don't stop running until the horn sounds. I figured we might make another 500m to the first set of flags, but it was slow going through the North woods section and as we emerged Lizzy let me know we had under a minute left. I sprinted down the snow-covered grassy hill at some ridiculous pace, but couldn't quite make the driveway again before the finish.


Official distance: 24.35km
1.05km PR - 3rd woman overall

It was definitely a different experience for me having company throughout the entire race. While I'm used to having a bit of a chat or friendly word with people due to the endless loops at Horror Hill & Frosty Trail, I always train alone so it was pretty unique to have conversation for a full 3 hours. I'm convinced that Lizzy could have easily outstripped my distance if she hadn't decided to stick in behind me (though my butt does give lots of drafting area) and we certainly weren't talking every single moment, but it did make the time pass quickly to have some distraction along the way. For instance, it wasn't until I got inside and took off my earband and hat that I discovered I'd been carrying some extra weight for awhile.

Chunks of ice built up in my braids.
Slightly nastier when you realise it's all sweat.
It was a fun morning with the best conditions I think I could have asked for given the snow depth and consistency, and I was pretty pleased with my performance overall. A PR on a well-known course is always nice, but the consistent lap times throughout the race are even more heartening. I had my phone in my pocket while I ran, too, resulting in another of the stupidest endomondo maps in history!

Full details of the whole 12-and-a-bit laps here.

My legs didn't even feel that bad, really, so I decided to forego a post-race massage. I was a bit disappointed that the traditional post-race chili had been replaced by pasta, so the only hot thing I could get into me after the chilly morning of running was a cup of coffee. After changing into dry clothing, a snack of some fruit & veggies (plus some GF cookies I'd brought with me), and collecting my gift certificate for my 3rd place finish, it was off to the Taco Farm in Waterloo to treat myself and my sweetheart to a bowl of tortilla soup and the world's most incredible tacos.

It's the least I can do for a guy who selflessly volunteered for over 4 hours in the cold!

Next race on the schedule isn't until April, so I've taken things pretty easy this week and even took Sunday completely off running (did a hike and a swim only). I am pleased to note that my legs have bounced back really quickly without too much soreness - advantage of running on nice, cushy snow. The ankle-rolling left my peroneals very tender for a few days, but it doesn't seem there has been any lasting damage.

Holy crap; did I actually just make it through an entire Frosty Trail without any injuries?

Look out, folks - I'm pretty sure that's one of the seven signs.

Friday, January 16, 2015

At least I'm well insulated

I told myself I wasn't going to stray as far from race weight this year.

Apparently, despite reduced Christmas baking and some half-hearted efforts at avoiding over-indulgence during the holidays, I lied.

Nonetheless, I will sally forth into the woods tomorrow to see exactly how difficult it is to haul my big fat ass around for 3 hours. That's right, it's Frosty Trail time once more!

I've been carbo loading for a full month.

As always, the goal is to get in more than a half marathon (21.1km / 13.1mi). While I may be much chubbier than I'd prefer, at least for once I'm not actually injured! No freshly broken toe like last year, no lingering hamstring injury like 2013, and despite some really horrifically cold and nasty conditions I've managed 3 weeks of 50+km of run training since mid-December. With a reasonable taper and a bit of sleep this week, I should be in decent shape except for the anvil tied to my ass.

It's made of cookies.

Well, plus the fact I haven't run more than 10 miles in ages. But, y'know, when has that ever stopped me from doing something stupid?

The real challenges will be the weather and trail conditions. While it's supposed to shape up to be a fairly nice day, the temperature is predicted to be around -12c/10f at start time. I can dress for that (as a matter of fact that's the same as it was for my last "long" run - 15.6km on trail last Saturday, and my water bottle valve froze on me at the 7k mark), but then it's supposed to climb to near the freezing point as the day wears on.

I'm packing EVERYTHING

While I can fairly easily drop a jacket if I'm getting too warm, I'll have to think carefully about which pants or tights I want to wear, especially with that bloody gusty wind. It also depends hugely on what the trail will be like, as I've had problems in the past keeping warm when I was forced to walk too much by shifting, uncertain footing. Speaking of which..

Both recent history and near-future prediction.

The packed, deeply footprinted snow on my local sidewalks and roadways has been enough to put my precious little chicken ankles in great peril lately - the trails (as of last Saturday) are even worse. I have no idea what it will be like up at Camp Heidelberg to begin with, nor how the conditions will evolve as the morning wears on and the combination of rising temperatures and the endless loops of running feet take their toll on the existing snow. It's almost certain to be better than last year's ice-crusted wreckfest, but the extra pounds I'm carrying will make me more susceptible to injury if I put a foot wrong. Since this is me we're talking about - a girl who can manage to break a toe while stretching in a stinkin' hot tub - I don't like my odds.

I'm also hoping things don't get too slushy - the last time I ran in slush was the night of the freezing rain storm (Jan 3rd), and by the end of that particular 1h45m slog my left big toe had gone a bit white from being constantly soaked and windblown. While the frostbite didn't get so bad as to blister, it's been very cold-sensitive since and I worry what might happen if it's exposed to similar conditions again before the tissues have fully recovered.

Still, nothing else for it but to try. After all, it's just a nice little stroll in the woods, right?

Off I go!

Crossing my fingers that I emerge (mostly) upright and undamaged, especially having just signed up to run a 25k in April at a bloody ski hill.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The first step is the hardest

I'm incredibly happy I'm not one of those poor souls whose New Year's resolution was to start running. 

From the 63kph/39mph winds on New Year's Day to the freezing rain that turned the world into a treacherous world of ice and slush last Saturday to the biting, incessant cold and wind that have settled in this week, it has been an utterly miserable time to be lacing up and heading out the door.

This is before I even leave the house!

If the frigid temperatures weren't enough of a deterrent (since you can dress for that), the actual running conditions have been abominable. The chunky, footprinted ice that threatens a sprained ankle with every step and leaves your hips sore for days; the energy-sucking snow that feels like churning your way through thick mud; the slippery roads & sidewalks that turn traction into a mere fantasy.

How did the Beeb get footage of Saturday's run?

Then there is the blinding snow that feels like sandpaper on your eyeballs, the powerful, gusting wind that seems to halt all forward progress, and the constant challenge of trying to find a safe route to run so you won't be struck by a falling tree, injure yourself somewhere inaccessible by emergency services, end up stranded by the early sunset, or be hit by a car (again). I ended up running a 10 miler as eleven loops 'round a 3-block section of my neighbourhood on Saturday evening just because it was the only thing that looked like a decently safe option in the freezing rain. 

Nobody said you have to be happy about it.

"All right, K - we get the point. It sucks!" I hear you say "so how in the heck do you actually persuade yourself to go outside in that?" Well, truth be told I actually presume most of you simply thought to yourselves "wow, this chick really whines a lot" and stopped reading. For those of you still with me, though, the answer is simple:


Have them. Know them. Imprint them on your very soul.

Whether it's an upcoming race or some other kind of challenge, the only thing that can make you step out the front door and go for a run is your own drive to succeed. Noone else can make you lace up and get it done, no matter how many times we're told that a running partner is a great motivator - unless that partner is actually a family member that lives with you, they're not going to pry you out of bed (or stand between your bed and you to keep you from diving face-first onto it) and kick you out the door.

I run in the evenings from Monday to Thursday. Between September and March, this means I run in the dark after a long day at work, having to stare down my warm, cozy bed and resist its siren song as I change into the endless layers of clothing required to avoid hypothermia and frostbite when the Ice Viking stands astride my town. It's not easy to convince myself to leave the warmth of home to pant and sweat my way through a run that may not even take as long as it did to get ready - I whinge, I procrastinate, and I swear a lot.

Then I go do the damn thing, because I know it's the only way to be ready for the Frosty Trail 3-hour next week. I go because I want to chalk up another workout in the 100 runs in 100 days challenge. I go because I know that I'll generally feel better once I start moving, and may even enjoy myself once I get out there. Failing that, I go because I can learn something from even the most horrible run.

Even if it's just "how much it actually sucks"

Without a goal in sight, I likely would have spent a lot more time on the couch this week - the immediate gratification of a cozy, relaxing evening is so much more tempting than the vague, eventual reward of fitness. If you don't know with rock-solid certainty why you're forcing yourself to brave the bone-chilling horror that is "outside" right now (or even the brain-stabbing boredom of the treadmill), you're much less likely to take that deep breath, square your shoulders and get the hell after it.

The couch is so much more inviting.

So I say to you - find yourself a goal. It can be a race, a frequency challenge (like the Slowtwitch 100 runs in 100 days), wanting to run no less than a certain mileage per week, or something else like a rivalry with a friend. Noone else needs to understand it or validate it: just find something you can latch on to, that will be the spark to light your fire on the darkest, coldest night.

Then go forth and own it. I've got your back!

That being said, it's my night off.


If you think I'm leaving the house again once I get home from work for anything short of the whole place burning down, you'll be sorely disappointed.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Is it the future yet?

Totally ran out of time this week, so I'll just wish you all a very Happy New Year - hope 2015 is filled with joy and success, whatever that may mean to you!