Go Wise, Go Fast

Expert advice to keep you strong in the cold

Dec 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

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.