Saturday, 30 June 2012

Keeping Warm When Racing

So, bit of an unusual outcome for NAV4 at Terrex Swift with a DNF due to injury.  Overall a positive experience with a great route set by Dave Johnson, it’s just a shame we didn’t do it justice.

A steady start and efficient pace on the paddle and bike sections, we cleared the Malham trek and Kilnsey abseil with the intention of a strong finish on Day Two. Unfortunately, the harsh cobbles of Whernside didn’t agree with Pete’s ankle, and so a very reluctant phone call was made to race HQ which resulted in us being whisked back to base and an ‘early bath’. They say, ‘Honour is the better part of valour’ .... and the early finish gives rise to some interesting review issues. Hmmn...

Expedition racing is all about highs and lows and ‘the journey’; reading various blogs will often have you thinking people were in different races, which in some ways they can be, given the timescale and distances involved. Once again, one of the most prevalent issues at Swift was the many people that suffered with cold and hyperthermia.  Although there was an unexpected wet and breezy night section it was not at all extreme, and anyone who got into difficulty in these conditions really needs to take stock and sort themselves their gear, and their team mates out!  Granted we were expecting a relatively warm and mild night but it worries me that so many aren’t learning the lesson or applying a little thought into what they need to do in order to survive, enjoy and complete an Exped race.

Terrex Swift was just a Two Day race; Terrex Sting will be five days, and in some ways more as the prologue will make it feel longer.  Our NAV4 / Distant Horizons team decided to travel light and fast at Swift, forgoing our traditional tented sleep and to test the ability to race for 48 hours without anything more than a couple of power snoozes, using our bothy bag. However, this won’t be our strategy for five days racing at Sting!

The other topic of conversation seemed to be our relatively light sacs, and even lighter kit bags, but we were warm and cosy because we were all wearing good layers of thermal clothing. I’m a firm believer in the ‘less is more’ approach and it simply isn’t necessary to have a full change of clothes and foot wear for each stage of a race. There are many reasons for this; primarily it leads to unnecessary changing and inevitable faffing at transition, secondly there is more gear for the hard working event support teams to move (time and money on the entry fee) and less washing to do when you get home!

So, does having less gear mean you get cold?  No, because I wear and carry plenty of good clothes and equipment.

Some (very) Common Mistakes

Inappropriate Gear – 'Simply not having another layers available'

The gear you wear to run around your local park in is not suitable for trekking in the mountains. Get Real! You need many more layers; full length leg and arm wear, you will not be going at your normal running speed but that of a tired and cold person, and probably a tired, cold and sleepy team mate. The  media are very good at selling us base layers and skinny lightweight waterproof shells; after all, that is what most of us need most of the time.  However, the clue is in the title – ‘baselayer’ and ‘shell’.  Don’t be guilty of a lack of  ‘IMP’Important Mid-layer Performance.

Mandatoritis – ‘Just taking the bare minimum that the rules specify, or ... even worse trying to under cut it!'  

Race organisers only specify the absolute minimum on a kit list so as to keep the teams safe and alive. This list is also aimed at not burdening elite fast and competent teams unnecessarily.  But, most of us are not elite teams and so carrying an extra base layer or  mid layer fleece, over trousers, woolly hat and gloves and a pasty won’t make a huge difference to our speed, but it will help you finish (which I assume is your overall objective?)

As a race organiser myself, I’ve often seen people packing just the minimum according to the race rules, and trying to under cut this in some bizarre macho ritual.  Why do they do this?  Take what you need to be warm at toasty, and be realistic as to how long the stage will take and the pace you will be doing. Taking the bare minimum as specified in the race rules means a lack of forethought.

Carrying on Coldy Regardless - 'Not Stopping to put additional warm layers on'

No-one wants to stop and slow their team down, but ‘I’ll be OK’ ... really means ‘I’m getting steadily colder’.  If you’ve got a team mate who appears under dressed and getting slower they need to put more clothes on. This is the early stages of hyperthermia; the body will be burning energy trying to keep you warm, and not have so much to propel them forward. So in the long run it’s a waste of time and energy.  One of the biggest factor is this:
Premature Jacketation –  ‘ Putting a waterproof jacket on over a tee-shirt and then getting progressively colder ‘cos you don’t want to stop and put a mid-layer on’.  We’ve all done it – you set off in a tee-shirt, it starts to rain so you put your waterproof shell on. Initially you are Ok, warm and going well, but later you slow down (or have a puncture) and its still raining. You get colder, your base layer and shell aren't coping but the magazine reviews were great and they cost you a lot of money, ‘but you’re Ok if you keep going...’  er, no.

Wrong! – add a mid layer before you get cold. Stop, get your sac off, get your mid-layer ready, then jacket off, mid-layer on, jacket back on – wahey – all done in a few seconds and possibly on the move if on foot and a team mate helps you.   Still cold? – put your over trousers on – assuming you’ve already got your wooly hat at gloves on.   And eat some more food....and then keep moving

Poor Transition Technique

Effective transitions are an advanced skill but not rocket science, but could fill a blog of their own. Again common mistakes often seen: coming in saturated wearing light weight shell and base layer, stripping off to put dry base layer on, wet lightweight shell goes back on so that within minutes the dry base layer is damp and meanwhile you’ve lost a lot of body heat doing it. Overall gain - ten minutes lost and you are no warmer. The better option would be to add a good mid-layer over the damp base layer quickly, get the heavier weight waterproof on, a dry hat and then get back out there with hot food inside you. Don a Synthetic ‘Belay Jacket’ whilst you do so, and maybe insulated over trousers as well. 

'Downitits'  - it might be trendy it might be sexy, but ...

Do Not rely on Down insulated garments in a multiday wet weather race, even if they are shelled with a water repellent treatment.  Down is useless when it is wet.

Wet but Warm - Good Gear Works

Experienced racers will only change clothes when necessary, and not just because they can. Good outdoor clothing is designed to be warm when wet and will dry quickly once the rain stops, or you come out of the river and get moving, especially with the appropriate layers added and adjusted. Seven days in the same quality base layer is not unusual.

So .... I could go on but I won't - much of this is common sense and some experience. It’s taken me a long while to write this, not least because I’ve been busy since Swift with our NAV4 Adventure Dawn to Dusk 100km ultra, and supporting a 170km cyclosportive, and organising an evening fell race, all of which were done in poor weather, either very wet and windy, or claggy and wet. Thus, these thoughts above are drawn from these experiences and observations (with thanks to AndyM and Fi at D2D) and a lifetime of experience.

The Dawn to Dusk had people running for 15 hours in very wet conditions and yet no-one was cold – why? Because they all wore the right combination of layers.

Please Remember Two Things :
1) There is no such thing as bad weather – just inappropriate clothing
2) Conditions at Terrex Swift were not extreme ... be prepared for much worse at Sting!

Joe Faulkner
NAV4 Adventure