Blitzing the Backcountry

Turn your winter fitness routine into a brand-new adventure

THIRTEEN MILES into the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry ski race that follows the historic mail route between Crested Butte and Aspen, my teammate and I come stumbling into the first checkpoint. Since midnight, in frigid, wee-hour winter conditions, we've been grinding uphill, following the weak beams of our headlamps. It's now 4:30 a.m. Nick has been patching blisters since mile two, and I've lost most of the feeling in my fingers. Looming before us is a thousand-foot climb to 12,303-foot Star Pass; on the other side, the first whiff of a downhill. Looking like two punch-drunk middleweights, we gorge on crumbly Fig Newtons. When I stick my CamelBak hose in my mouth, the frozen bite valve snaps off in my teeth. I'm having the time of my life. Seriously.


The arrival of winter used to mean a four-month endurance-sports hiatus, but a decade-long infatuation with summertime adventure races has created a demand for equivalent cold-weather tests. These new events—which often involve a combination of skiing, running, snowshoeing, and cycling, both on snow and off—exact the same physical demands as a marathon, with your stamina and skill getting pushed to the limit by harsh conditions. Dozens of winter multisport races now take place around the country, from the Iditasport 100, a sufferfest held each February near Anchorage, Alaska, to New Hampshire's Son of Inferno Pentathlon, held in April at Tuckerman Ravine.

Why submit yourself to such torture? For us, that question was answered when we emerged over Star Pass and were greeted by a mountain vista stretching 50 miles into the dawn: Because these events offer a chance to test your fitness in the kind of snow-laden wonderlands that chairlifts can't reach. In the pages that follow, we open the book on the preparation, nutrition, and equipment you'll need to succeed. Even if you never line up for a race, take our winter racing wisdom and apply it to almost any cold-weather outdoor activity. We promise winter's gonna seem a lot more like summer.

Yes, This Is For You

Don't worry, winter races come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some guidelines to help you find the perfect fit.

YES, THIS IS FOR YOU

DON'T WORRY. Winter races come in all shapes and sizes. HERE are SOME guidelines to help you FIND THE PERFECT FIT.

YOU ARE: a reasonably fit weekend warrior who's never tried a winter event.
YOU SHOULD: get your feet wet by participating on a team. Both the Mount Taylor Quad and the Son of Inferno (see right) offer team divisions, meaning you have to compete only in a single race leg (a 30-mile bike ride, say, or a 10-mile run). Generally speaking, you'll need to sustain one to two hours of aerobic activity. Prep at least eight weeks prior to the event by gradually increasing your weekend workouts until you're able to comfortably complete the actual race distance.
YOU ARE: a recreational athlete who works out three to four times a week and who has completed at least one half-marathon or triathlon.
YOU SHOULD: try a race solo. This requires sustaining aerobic output for three to six hours. Buttress your endurance beginning two months prior to the event by stacking several race disciplines into one workout (e.g. 45 minutes of snowshoeing, an hour bike ride, a half-hour ski). Slightly increase the duration of these workouts each week. Supplement with three hourlong weekday runs or rides.

YOU ARE: a serious endurance athlete with numerous summer and at least a few winter races under your belt.
YOU SHOULD: tackle the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse or the Iditasport 100. Be prepared for at least eight hours of aerobic output (we'll assume you already have an appropriate endurance-training regimen). You'll also need solid winter backcountry skills, such as identifying signs of hypothermia, being prepared for an emergency bivouac, and knowing how to fuel your body for sustained activity in cold, dark environments.

 

Go Wise, Go Fast

Expert advice to keep you strong in the cold

No group of athletes knows more about preparing for frigid endurance racing than the masochistic veterans of Alaska's annual Iditasport events, of which there are now four held each February, from the 100-mile Iditasport to the 1,100-mile Iditasport Impossible. Competitors race on bikes, skis, or feet over the same terrain as the Iditarod, routinely confronting 40-below-zero temperatures and 60-mile-per-hour winds. We rang up two former champions for their secrets on managing Arctic climes. Even if you limit your racing to the more temperate Lower 48, take these tips to heart.

BUILD MENTAL FORTITUDE. "Darkness and cold really affect the mind," says Rocky Reifenstuhl, a seven-time bike winner of the Iditasport 100. "You have to be at ease with it, knowing when your hands go numb, for example, what will it take and how long for them to come back." If your event will be run partially at night, get comfortable in dark, cold conditions. Winter camping offers good preparation.
GO BIG. To provide room for insulation layers and the swelling you'll discover in your hands and feet during long-haul contests, Reifenstuhl suggests you slip into boots and gloves that are a size larger than you normally wear. Large sizes also prevent pressure points and tight areas that restrict circulation to your extremities and lead to frostbite.

FATTEN UP. Mike Curiak's 15,000-calorie-per-day diet in last year's Iditasport Impossible included ten cans of Pringles, 45 Pop-Tarts, and 80 peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos. "In hot weather," he says, "liquid diets tend to work well. But our stomach reacts better to solid food in the cold because your blood is in your core." The message? No need to adopt a Gu-based diet. Eat what you like, particularly calorie-dense, carbohydrate-rich foods, and eat often.

KNOW YOUR PACE. Many first-time winter racers aren't exactly models of biomechanical efficiency (blame the studded bike tires, heavy skis, and awkward snowshoes). So you may be a hell of a lot slower than you think you'll be. Check previous years' finishing times and chat with experienced racers. Estimate your own time, and devote at least two days of training (and eating) for the same duration, using the same equipment.

GET HIGH. While sound fitness is essential to winter mountain racing, no amount of lowland training can fully guard against the serious physical impact of high altitude. If your event takes place over 7,000 feet, try to arrive at the location three days to a week prior to start time in order to acclimatize. If possible, plan one training day at race-course altitude.
 

What You Need to Go in the Snow

Winter racing equipment—and the way you modify it—is crucial to your performance. Here are eight cold-weather essentials.

HYDRATION: CamelBaks ($30-$105; 800-767-8725; www.camelbak.com) and their kin are a must, and you can prevent the dreaded tube-freeze by wrapping quarter-inch foam insulation, available in hardware stores, around the hose (as shown at left). Make sure the bladder is stored close to your body, ideally inside your jacket, to keep it warm. Always blow all the liquid back into the bladder when you finish drinking to prevent water from freezing inside the bite valve.

GLOVES: A combination of Outdoor Research's Gripper gloves and Modular mitts ($45; 888-467-4327; www.orgear.com) gives you three temperature-regulating options: Wear the Windstopper fleece gloves for steady climbing and moments when manual dexterity is a must, the mitt shells alone if the sun is shining but you need wind protection, or the whole combo on long downhills when you're not generating much heat.

BIVY SACK: Should your event require overnight emergency gear, weight watchers will want Mountain Hardwear's Conduit SL Bivy ($99; 800-953-8375; www.mountainhardwear.com), a waterproof sleeve that zips over a sleeping bag and weighs just over a pound.

BASE LAYER: No matter how diligently you shed layers, always bring a backup set of midweight polypropylene or wool long underwear to change into in an emergency.

HEAT: Grabber MYCOAL hand and toe warmers ($1.50 and $2; 800-423-1233; www.grabberwarmers.com) utilize a pouch filled with iron and other elements that, when exposed to oxygen, produce heat through oxidation. Stick them in your gloves or boots for seven hours of 100-degree warmth.

SKINS: Essential for any backcountry ski race involving long climbs, kicker skins are shorter and lighter than full-length climbing skins. Ascension Kicker Skins from Black Diamond ($49; 801-278-5533; www.blackdiamondequipment.com) cover the crucial middle third of your skis, where your body weight provides the most gripping power.

SKIS: With a proven scale pattern that climbs moderate grades and variable snow conditions with aplomb, Fischer's lightweight BCX Mountain Crown skis ($230; 603-224-2800; www.fischerskis.com) eliminate the need for messy, frustrating wax jobs and feature full-length metal edges that provide plenty of control for downhill finishes.

SNOWSHOES: Snowshoes have come a long way in the last ten years, but racing in them can still be awkward. The Atlas Dual-Tracs ($229; 888-482-8527; www.atlassnowshoe.com) use a lightweight, tapered aluminum frame big enough to keep you on top of the snow yet small enough to accommodate a runner's natural stride. (For a complete snowshoe roundup see next month's Review.)

Big-Time Bragging Rights

Test yourself. Take on a winter race like one of these.

Iditasport 100
February 9
Sheep Mountain, Alaska


THE RACE: "CAUTION: Weather can be extremely cold!" reads the race Web site. That's your first hint that this is a serious undertaking. Up until the starting gun, you can choose between a bike, skis, or snowshoes to take you 100 miles alongside the 10,000-foot Talkeetna Mountains. Even surrounded by fellow competitors, most first-timers from the Lower 48 will find it the most pristine wilderness environment they've ever experienced. HIGHLIGHT: Finishing. No other winter race in America offers a more formidable challenge. CRUCIAL GEAR CHOICE: Bikers have the advantage. Arm your frame with aggressive, studded treads—try Nokian's Extreme 296 ($112; www.nokian.com). And run your tires soft.THE LOWDOWN: Entry fee $250; 907-345-4505; www.iditasport.com.
The Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon
February 16
Grants, New Mexico


THE RACE: The "Quad" entails a 13-mile road ride, five-mile run, two-mile ski, and one-mile snowshoe from the town of Grants to the top of Mount Taylor, an 11,301-foot extinct volcano in west-central New Mexico. After a 4,800-foot ascent, and a brief medical check on top, you reverse the entire course and head downhill back to town. HIGHLIGHT: Hopping on your bike for the final leg of the race, a fast 13-mile descent to the finish line. CRUCIAL GEAR CHOICE: Climbing skins are essential for the last mile of the cross-country ski climb, dubbed Heartbreak Hill. THE LOWDOWN: Entry fee: $75 ($55 before Feb. 1); 800-748-2142; www.mttaylorquad.org.

The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse
March 29-31
Crested Butte, Colorado


THE RACE: Starting at midnight from Crested Butte, 100 teams of two ski 39 miles over two 12,000-foot passes and through some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the state en route to the summit of Aspen Mountain. From there, it's a glorious 3,000-foot drop on groomed runs to the finish line. HIGHLIGHT: Besides the guarantee you'll never race in a more beautiful winter setting, the finish line fiesta at Aspen's base area is well worth the 40-mile grind. CRUCIAL GEAR CHOICE: Most participants prefer lightweight cross-country skis with climbing scales and a metal edge (see left). THE LOWDOWN: $100; 970-349-1019; www.elkmountaintraverse.org.

Son of Inferno Pentathlon
April 20
Glen, New Hampshire


THE RACE: Run seven winding miles, kayak six miles of Class I and II rapids, and pedal the 18-mile climb to Pinkham Notch at the base of Mount Washington. Okay, now stomp up 4,000 feet to the top of the most storied backcountry ski slope in America: Tuckerman Ravine. Finally, slap on your skis for the 2,000-foot drop to the finish line. HIGHLIGHT: Nine soloists completed last year's inaugural event. Start training now and you could own a course record. CRUCIAL GEAR CHOICE: A helmet, for skiing Tuck's 50-degree headwall. THE LOWDOWN: $100 individual, $500 team; 603-356-0131; www.friendsoftuckerman.org.

The Zest Part of Waking Up Is Green Tea in Your Cup

After autumn maliciously robs the warmth and daylight from your morning workouts, there's only one thing left to lure you out from under the down comforter: a steaming cup of high-octane java. Well, sorry, but we're taking that away as well—wise athletes should switch to green tea. Why? Like your beloved French roast, it packs a caffeine punch. But more important, the brew's overall health benefits continue to emerge. Preliminary research published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition shows that polyphenols similar to those found in green tea help post-workout muscle recovery. Still leery? Here's a highlight reel of green tea's recent accolades.

2001 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Green tea's polyphenolic compounds (antioxidants) are shown to help prevent cardiovascular disease.

2001 International Journal of Oncology: A University of Alabama study declares that drinking green tea inhibits growth of skin-cancer tumors.

2000 National University of Singapore: Scientists find that green tea plays a key role in delaying the onset of stomach, colon, and rectal cancers.

1999 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: A Swiss study finds that consuming green-tea extract caused subjects to burn 3.5 percent more calories per day—equivalent to about one and a half Oreo cookies.

1999 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Research shows that green tea lessens the severity of rheumatoid arthritis.

Treat Your Dogs to Something Plush

Standing room only: (from top) footbeds from Dr. Scholl's, Fastech, and Superfeet, and a custom orthotic

FORGET FOR A MOMENT the flimsy Dr. Scholl's Air Pillos your grandmother used to tame her golf-ball-size bunions: Corrective shoe inserts have evolved into serious equipment. Footwear manufacturers' mass-market attempts at fit are limited to a length-and-width approach, but our feet come in three unique dimensions. Add the fact that roughly 70 percent of athletes have a minor foot malady (high arch, forefoot varus, etc.) and you glimpse a miserable picture: thousands of active adults suffering stoically through shinsplints, knee pain, stress fractures, and yes, bunions, all thanks to ill-fitting shoes. Luckily, the aftermarket-insole business has stepped in, designing a slew of new inserts to meet the demands of outdoor sports, ranging from $8 off-the-shelf cushions you cut to fit inside your shoes to $500 orthotics prescribed by an orthopedist. Hoping to eliminate confusion, and to help you find the perfect fit, we've broken down the four major insert types to let you know what's available, what you need, and how to shoehorn it into your sport—and your budget.
 

 
FIELD TEST FOOTBEDS
 
Type Brands Description What you get Works best for Limitations
 
Cushioning/Sizing Insoles
$8-$24
Dr. Scholl's, Spenco, Sorbothane, Sof Sole, Vasque A relatively flat insert with foam cushioning material, no heel cup, and a limited amount of arch support. A replacement for your cheap original insole that provides more cushioning and can help perfect a shoe's fit by taking up excess space. People who just can't part with a favorite, worn-out pair of sneakers, or who just want a tighter fit. These insoles will do nothing to eliminate arch problems.
Preform Footbeds
$20-$90
Fastech Labs, Superfeet, Montrail, Foot Fitness, Footworx, Spenco A footbed with three-dimensional support, including a solid heel cup and a firm, rising arch. The cup keeps your heel in place and absorbs shock; the rising midsole supports your arch. Can be made for specific activities, like cycling, running, and skiing. Athletes in all sports looking for a first line of defense against minor foot pain, shinsplints, and back pain. They're mass-produced like shoes, so they might fail to address your specific needs.
Custom Molded Insoles
$55-$235
Superfeet, Foot Fitness, Fastech, Labs, Rocket 7 Like preforms but built with moldable material such as cork and carbon fiber; constructed in the store by a trained fitter using a toaster oven (really). A custom-tailored insole that mates perfectly with the specific cant of your arch, heel, and ball and secures your foot in the neutral position. Frustrated runners who still experience pain (hot spots, plantar fasciitis) after trying preforms; cyclists and skiers looking for a performance enhancing fit. Quality can vary depending on the experience and knowledge of the shop's custom fitter.
Orthotics
$250-$500
N/A: prescribed by orthopedists and podiatrists and assembled in a lab A footbed fashioned by a licensed doctor who is affiliated (ideally) with a professional association (e.g. the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine). A damn expensive footbed that ensures (no matter what kind of foot you have) it will eliminate your fitting problems and capture your foot in a neutral position. Those with large disposable incomes or a four-star medicine plan who can't find comfort any other way; athletes who make their money competing. Unless you've actually got two left feet, there shouldn't be any.
 

 


Four Common Foot Problems, Deciphered

Most likely, your feet don't rest in a perfectly neutral position, causing a variety of minor—and common—problems. Rudimentary self-inspection for the first two problems is easy if not pretty: Closely examine the insole of a well-worn pair of running shoes. For forefoot varus and valgus, you'll need to consult a podiatrist to find out where you stand.

Fallen arch: Imprint covers the entire sole. Your fate: Discomfort in the middle of your sole (as well as potentially aching knees and hips) and excessive pronation (ankles roll to the inside).

High arch: There's barely an imprint between the heel and ball of foot. Your fate: Trouble with shock absorption, leading to knee pain and shinsplints; numbness in fourth and fifth toes.

Rigid forefoot varus: The foot will rest much deeper on the inside, as the foot is canted in that direction. Your fate: Strains and soreness on the inside of the leg; inefficient, "figure eight" cycling pedal stroke.

Rigid forefoot valgus: Weight of the forefoot is concentrated on the outside of the foot, causing a deeper outside impact. Your fate: Kinetic chain problems for cyclists, and potential strains and soreness on the outside of the leg for runners and hikers.

 

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