Thursday, 22 October 2015

Another year, another RR

The cutting of the odds to 2/1 for a white Christmas in the UK reminded me that it is time to sign up for the next RR (2016). For the first time in 3 years, it is October and I am not injured. I even managed to complete a half marathon (Brussels) at the start of the month and achieve my aims

  1. Not injuring myself, or making the minor ankle problem worse
  2. Finishing ahead of my daughter; if she keeps up her training, this will be the last time I manage to beat her
  3. Finishing in a reasonable time considering my fitness is only 90-95%
One of the advantages of being a geek is that I keep records of times, body weight etc and can thus compare against previous years to see how I compare. It is always interesting to get a perspective.

My first RR (2010) was hard - I wasn't quite sure what to expect. For some reasons, the falls I had hurt, one of my legs swelled significantly, probably through poor technique. But each year I find a few improvements I can make. I once looked up how much you deteriorate with age, and if you are not a serious athlete, then it is in the range of 03% to 0.7% - at least for running. Over the last two decades I have managed, on average, to keep my long weekly run to about the same sort of time - better when I am fitter, not so good when I take time off or are coming back from injury.

So looking at some of the areas I have improved over the years:

Muscles - I both run and ski now with compression socks - after suffering with shin splints, I find these have prevented a recurrence, and I now longer have problems skiing either. I also discovered that I am not the only one wearing them on the RR either. For more extreme conditions e.g. a competitive half marathon, I also may wear compression shorts to support across the front of the thighs. This is where I had a muscle problem last year, which was probably triggered by having to adapt my technique when my skis were icing up. This also shows the delicate interactions between you, technique, equipment and conditions.

Clothing - I more or less got this right from the outset - several layers, all breathable, seem to be the optimum. Northern Finland has an oddity - look at the top of tall chimneys e.g. the power stations and you will see the smoke is more or less horizontal from the chimney, indicating a strong wind. Normally, the wind at ground level would be 2/3 of that, but you are barely aware of wind at ground level most of the time. I suspect that the forest provides shelter, but even where it is more exposed, the wind is less than I would expect (but then I do live in one of the windier areas in England). I have some good layers that I would normally wear as an outer layer when not raining in the UK because they are wind proof, but have found that they trap the moisture too much when skiing.

Skis and equipment - on this I am definitely not an expert. In the hands of an expert, well waxed skis are the solution most of the time. On the RR, there is a waxing service available at most of the overnight stops, and I always make use of this. However, when the temperature creeps above 0C, it gets a little trickier - first the softer waxes, and then klijster. Last year, I tried the Atomic Skintec skis and found they worked fine. I had a few issues on a couple of days with them icing, but that was my fault; you live and learn, and I will make sure I have good anti-icing next time.

Nutrition - unlike a lot of people, I find it hard to eat much at the rest stops (and even eating a big breakfast and evening meal is hard - exercise tends to reduce my appetite instead of increasing it). After much experimentation, I have found gels that don't freeze easily, and nutrition bars that don't either freeze and break your teeth (yes, one year, someone broke a tooth on chocolate at -30C), or "suck" all the moisture out of your mouth. I also found a tube of wine gums good for a small amount of sugar, and sticks of liquorice (a Finnish favourite) good when you want a bigger sugar hit.

Which finally brings me to the hardest point - technique. I hope I have improved over the years. After the first year, I have somehow learned how to fall without hurting myself, a skill that has avoided broken bones on a couple of occasions in falls last year on the street. I have got better at pacing myself. Fitness and weight also have a bearing. I need more lateral strength in my ankles and better balance - I envy those who can effortlessly skate on skis - I am just too slow at transferring my weight from one ski to another in tricky situations. So this is the thing I need to work on this winter in preparation - technique, fitness, balance and losing a bit more weight would also help.

So with only 140 days to go to the start of the RR, I need to move my training up a gear. Losing 7kg is ideal, although even 2kg would make a significant difference. My sailing club is getting a gig - for rowing - which should help with upper body strength (for double poling), and I will have to look at ways of strengthening the ankles.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

2015 RR after event review

After a few weeks I take time to reflect and see what I have learned.

It was a gamble with the Atomic Redster Skintec skis - one of the most expensive skis in the range. I had the waxed skis to fall back on. When I bought them, I had no idea what the conditions would be on this year's RR, but after last year's warm one, I wanted a better option for warmer conditions. Last year people had success with "zero" skis and similar types, but these were not so good when the temperature reached +10C.

This year there were a number of people with the Skintecs, and equivalents from other manufacturers. My own experience was that apart from the problem with icing - I will make sure that I get some good anti-icing spray for next time, they turned out to be everything I expected them to be, and I have to thank the guys at Sport Beitostolen in Norway for introducing me to them. More than that, every single piece of equipment I bought from Sport Beitostolen did exactly what they said it would do. It is very rare that you find a shop where the people are experts and use the equipment they sell themselves so that they know precisely what it will do and its limitations.

The Norwegian boots made by Alfa were the most comfortable ones I have ever had, and were good at keeping the slush and meltwater out when we had warmer conditions. I was also surprised at how much more comfortable the lighter Swix ski poles were, and the narrow small rucksack was definitely and improvement over the belt bag, and I managed to avoid carrying too much more - the main additional weight was the alternate Skintec inserts, which proved to be a good idea on a couple of occasions.

I contemplated the possibility of using a handwarmer to help clear ice off the skis - yesterday in a shop in Brussels I discovered a small rechargeable battery powered one about the width of the skis, so I went back and bought it. It reaches a temperature of 40C and lasts for a couple of hours and charges from USB. So if I tape some bubble wrap together to make an insulating pouch, I can thaw a pair of inserts in my backpack whilst skiing on a spare set. Of course, de-icer in the first place to prevent icing is the best idea.

And a simple switch on/off handwarmer is a handy thing to have in extreme cold. It can even be charged from my solar charger. This leads to some interesting possibilities - cross country skis with solar cells on the top to heat the grip area to prevent icing (call it a non-iSki!!).

Looking forward to next year, I can cut my skis down to just two pairs - the Atomic Redster Skintecs and a pair of waxed skis as a standby; poles will now be just two pairs of 150cm poles - the 145cm may have improved my technique at one point, but I am now better back on 150cm. Boots will be the Alfas, with one spare pair. I will stick to my normal habit of using the professional waxing service - obviously just glide wax on the Skintecs.

With all this, I have now reached as far as I can get in improving equipment and matching it to my capabilities, so I really have to up my capabilities, which means finding ways and means of strengthening certain muscles. Revisiting roller skis is something I will look at again.

So for now, it is a question of keeping as much fitness as I can until late summer when I start my campaign for next year's RR and hope to avoid injury.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

RR day 7 - making it to the end

This year we have a new route for the last day. The first part is the same route we had to use last  year, due to lack of snow, but they have now added 34km beyond this to take us down to the Tornio river some 35km north of Tornio.

My plan is to take the bus to the first bus rendezvous point - I have skied that bit before, and see if I can very gently ski the remainder with my leg strapped up. At least this way, I should not keep everyone waiting at the end, as the buses will wait, rather than do a shuttle back and forwards to the hotel.

First the bus drops our bags off at the hotel. Super Liisa cannot ski today - she put her shoulder joint out whist doing a warm up exercise and it took several people to put it back in and strap it up. I walk quickly to the Apoteek (chemist) to see if I can get strapping for my thigh. No, they don't have anything that big, but send me on to the physio centre round the corner. They do not have anything that big.

In the end, I manage to improvise by using a calf strap. A bit tight, but it works. I also discover now why my ski trousers zip all the way up or down the sides - so you can get at strapping easily. It is a beautiful day for skiing - nice conditions, blue skies. At one point after adjusting the strapping, I suddenly find I have much more control of my skis again - clearly that muscle has been weak all along.

It is a beautiful day

Keen to welcome us, at one rest stop they have erected covered shelter and have benches for us to sit on whilst we eat.

Alongside these trails in various locations are new wooden huts - some are in clusters and are a lean-to type shelter with fire area in front - presumably in the summer for sleeping out overnight, or even in the winter if you have a good sleeping bag. I am not quite sure of the purpose of these huts.

I have seen similar ones housing ecologically sound toilets, but this one is a bit larger.

Another couple of good lessons - find suitable thigh strapping (I have various ankle straps, knee straps and a calf strap - almost all actually unused, but just in case) and find exercises to strengthen the muscle. Also, take care to allow longer to come back from injury.

Today's trail:

The grey line running down the river is the border between Sweden (on the left) and Finland (on the right).

So I have completed it again, and at least finished on a high. Injury and lack of daylight caused me to lose about 50km, which was very frustrating. But looking back there were a lot of people who skipped more because of the conditions.

And for anyone who is interested in the effort it takes:

This shows the training around Kuusamo, and allowing for some recovery before starting the RR. But after that it is off the scale and it also shows it takes a week afterwards to fully recover just from the physical effort. In theory, I need to get myself significantly fitter in order that this level of effort is not so hard and does not go off the scale.

RR day 6 - disaster strikes

Everyone is so keen that some of them ski off before the trail is set. Here you can see the snowmobile and sledge used to set the trail at Hosio - at the bottom of the bank is a frozen river.

The morning goes well and I manage quite a good speed. It is a long 20km or so to our first stop. Shortly after leaving this stop, it starts snowing, and after a couple of kilometers I start to feel pain across the front of my right thigh. I switch to double poling to rest it and then wonder if maybe it is some muscle cramp, so stop for energy gel and a sugary snack. This eases it a bit. I am concerned that  despite all the people at the rest behind me, no-one has caught me up and passed me, especially on the icy dips and bumps over the tree roots where I usually slow down noticeably.

The snow gets thicker, and eventually I have the problem with the skis icing. I stop and clear them several times and eventually Eric (the pilot) passes me and I notice the snowmobile. This means that everyone else has quit on this section and I am now last. When I get to the next rest stop, the snowmobile pulls in and I ask for a lift, as having skied on a bad leg for at least 10km I don't really want to make it worse.

It is decided that the rest stop guys will give me a lift to the next point where the bus is. After they pack up, we drive 10km down a narrow lane with the snow ploughed to both sides, occasionally having to pull laden branches out of the way. The driver tells me that the road was only cleared yesterday, specially for them to get access to provide our rest stop. It is little bits of information like this that show you how much goes on behind the scenes to make the Rajalte Rajalla Hiihto possible, and how much of the communities along the way are behind us.

This is the first time in five times that I have had to miss a few kilometres through injury, and another little indication that I am not getting any younger. Looking on the bright side, I can at least look for exercises to strengthen those particular muscles for next year.

Today's shortened track i.e. what I actually skied:

RR day 5 - the "shortest" day

Well the shortest day is only some 49km. We start this day with a group photo outside the hotel before skiing off. Our usual route takes us up alongside the zoo. Today is gale force winds and at times we are exposed for a kilometre or two and you really do start to get the impression of how bleak and isolated it is. I live in Somerset, one of the largest and least populated counties in England. Ranua commune is about the same size, but has about 1% of the population - about twice the population of my village (Brent Knoll).

Today's skiing is about covering the distance with minimum effort to allow the body to recover as much as possible.

The friendly polar bear is at Ruona (the upward kink in the track on the map above). Half of us are bused back to the village hall there and the rest of us stay in the old school at Hosio. Sleeping bags are the order of the day (or should I say night) here.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

RR day 4 - the longest day

Again, the conditions were changeable - ice, snow, sleet, rain. I made it down the narrow steep slope with only a very minor fall, and was well pleased with myself. However, I really do need to work on my technical skiing - mostly to get the leg and ankle muscles to control the skis better - probably some skating would help - it would certainly improve my balance.

Between the two rest stops with the coaches, I did not see a single skier - the few slower ones behind me were left behind, or took the coach, and the faster ones were all well in front. It was slower and harder going than I had hoped. The general consensus was that the second rest stop had to be cleared by 2pm if you wanted to pass the last stop/checkpoint before the course was closed for safety as night falls. I did make it through here just by that time - the hot soup was definitely a nice reviver.

I occasionally caught up a Finnish lady skiing ahead of me - she would be pulling out of a rest stop as I arrived, but eventually she was out of reach. Suddenly as the temperature dropped as the sun was lowering late afternoon, the track got icy and I found I was able to double pole along at some 12-13km and sustain it for a long time. I overhauled the deficit to the lady in front and passed her, but she then caught on to the same trick and followed me closely all the way into the final checkpoint. However, with the sun having gone below the horizon (it takes about an hour and a half before it is dark at this latitude and time of year), we were too late to be let through for the final few kilometres.

Today's track:

The real finish point is just above the "n" in Ranua.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

RR day 3 - even more challenging conditions.

A good an uneventful moring, except for having to ski with my older, shorter (145cm) poles. Even though I only changed back up to 150cm poles after 3 years with shorter poles, it goes to show that the shorter poles did the job of getting me to hold them better and not getting tangled up in them, but 150cm is definitely the right length, and I could finally see how much more I am getting out of that extra length.

A little after the lunch stop, the sky turned dark, the wind picked up and it began to snow. Before long, the track was hard to find - even obliterated in places. Sometimes, you were skiing by trying to feel for the tracks (something I have had experience of before).

Towards the end, my skis started to ice up. The first time, I just scraped the ice off the skintec kick zone. Later on, the whole skis felt leaden and stuck to the ground. Checking the skis, even the glide zone was sticking. So to make the last couple of kilometers, drastic measures were called for. Knowing that I have a brand new set of the two stripe skintec modules (carried with me now, after yesterday's incident), and that these have some mileage on the clock (400km), I decided to experiment, and after clearing the snow and as much of the ice as I could, put a layer of liquid glide wax from end to end of the skis, including on the skintec grip zone. The skis were completely transformed, not only gliding well, but also the kick performing well. It was good to get good glide and predictable behaviour Just in time, as the final part of the day is to use the drag lift to get to the centre on the top of the mountain.

This provided some useful learning.
  1. I did not expect the glide zone to ice up. But if faced with these conditions again after skiing some distance, I will be quicker to brush on some liquid glide wax.
  2. I will track down some proper anti-icing for the waxless skis. But in the meantime, I now know that liquid glide wax is at least a potential problem solver in extreme conditions.
  3. In these extreme conditions, it makes sense to periodically check the skintec modules for icing. Also, test out if anti-icing will keep the keyhole free of ice to be able to quickly change modules.
I will have to investigate other means of de-icing - will some of these thermal hand warmers provide a means of thawing them out? If the air temperature is above zero, then swapping the modules out with spares from time to time would allow the modules not in contact with the tracks to thaw out.

Here is today's route: