Wednesday, 25 February 2015

One week to the start

.. but I am off for my usual few days training in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Today did some last minute shopping and came across some short strap on "crampons" for boots. Very handy for the stretches of the RR where we occasionally have it very icy - usually a logging track.

The long term forecast on goes 10 days ahead, and I have been tracking it for a while now. Kuusamo has been above or around 0C on several occasions in the last few days, and at present will get to 0C or even +1C on several days up to the start of the RR. The first afternoon of the RR is a forecast of 0C and snow, but then temperatures look like they drop quite quickly.

So it looks like my skintec skis will certainly come into their own for the last training sessions and the first couple of days. These have a waxless replaceable grip module with Mohair grip zones.

They claim that they "provide the feel of a perfectly waxed ski, but without the need for waxing" - quite a benefit if you have seen how good I am at waxing in conditions around zero.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Training week is over

The ankle held up although I did think after a couple of days I might need replacement knees. However, after a couple more days, the muscles have strengthened and fitness is improving.

Equipment has been sorted and updated. Technique has been "refreshed" and hopefully improved a bit.

I have one problem to solve still - how to stop my glasses fogging and freezing up.

Less than 4 weeks and I will be in Finland for final preparations, but at least I feel that provided I can maintain and improve fitness over the next few weeks, I should be OK. According to Polar Trainer - the app that takes my exercise using the heart rate and GPS data, I am now off the top of the red scale and should not be training for a day or two. Only improved fitness will enable me to do more without pushing up into the red all the time.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Weird Weather

Today was one of those weird weather days. I am here in Beitostolen in central Norway. This is January, and for the last few days even at 1000m we have only been a little under 0C.

Today was colder at -4C but for a while it rained. Now for those of us who wear glasses - I have prescription photo-chromics (which darken with UV exposure) because I can't see more than about 10cm without glasses. It is bad enough with snow on them; sleet is worse, and my breath freezing on them going uphill is also problematic, leaving me not able to see clearly. But freezing rain meant that every time I cleared them, I was almost blind again within a few seconds. Add to this, very flat lighting from being in the clouds, and it was very difficult to see where the track was, or even in what vague direction it went.

But not for one guy - there was a blind skier out on the tracks - skiing with a guide giving him instructions as to how the trail played out.

In the last few days I have completed an equipment upgrade - last was the poles. A long while back, an instructor suggested slightly shorter poles. At the time, they worked in giving me a better style, but a number of people, including an instructor this week, suggested I go back to 150cm (from 145cm). A quick test with my old 150s suggested that this makes sense. As all my poles have taking a beating over the years - I calculated that I do about half a million pole plants each time I do the RR, and this will be my fifth RR, and that doesn't count training. The handles on both pairs are showing signs of wear. So I now have a new pair of the latest Swix poles with interchangeable baskets, so you can have smaller ones for solid trails and larger ones for softer snow.

But I think the most unusual feature I discovered was on my new gloves (endorsed/branded by a top skier) - the thumbs have a special soft patch on for taking care of the drips off your nose. Nice to see something that is widely done (don't pretend you have never done it) actually designed in.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Training on snow

Well two days training now done.  The ankle is holding up OK - just have to be a bit careful on herringbone up and ploughing down until the lateral strength returns.

Each year I look at one component in a bit more detail. Last year it was nutrition. This year, prompted by someone asking me about skis, I decided to look into skis a bit more. Until now, I have basically told people what I am using them for and gone with the recommendation. But it occurred to me that when I say I am not a very good skier, but have skied the "Border to Border Ski", then perhaps they are overestimating how good I am.

I have four pairs of skis - two waxless and two waxed. Generally I use waxless in the Alps and waxed in Scandinavia, although I did buy one pair of these in Sweden. There is no doubt that traditional waxed skis prepared by someone who knows what they are doing, and worn by someone who really knows how to ski, will give the ultimate in performance. Until recently, waxless skis did not perform too well in cold conditions, and do not glide well - just listen to the noise they make as you go downhill in the tracks on waxless skis. In my own tests, I have generally found that the waxless ones take about 15% more effort, although they do gain a bit on the kick at the end of a long day compared to waxed skis when the kick wax is wearing off.

So this year, I am trying to optimise my skis. Waxless skis are a bit of a misnomer - if you are doing any significant skiing, you will still want to wax the glide zones with a glide wax. I took a long hard look at my waxless skis and discovered that they are wider than my waxed skis, and that my waxed skis are racing skis. Leaving aside the difference in type, this extra width results in better lateral stability. I also suspect that they "wander" less in the tracks because they are closer to the size of the track. My waxless skis are also "waisted" i.e. they are slightly wider in the front and rear glide zones than in the kick zone in the middle - the technical term is "sidecut" - so the Fischer racing skis are 41-44-44 and the waxless are 48-44-46 (Salomon are 41-44-43-44 and  51-48-46-49); this "waist" is meant to make them easier to turn.

Armed with a bit more understanding of skis, I found myself a ski technician who understood what I was looking for, and the fact that most of the RR event is on softer snow trails set by a snowmobile. We had more or less settled on a performance touring ski - around 48 at the widest, not quite as stiff as a racing ski, when he showed me the latest in waxless ski technology that he had been trying out himself. Last year, on some days, people had generally done well with the latest "zero skis" - a waxless ski designed for conditions around 0C +- a couple of degrees. Waxless technology has been advancing  - there are removable "skins" that you can fit to waxed skis for some conditions. In the hands of an expert skier they are no doubt very good, but I had doubts whether they would stand the abuse of a non-expert skier like myself.

So enter the Atomic redster skintec skis. These have a removable skin panel in the kick zone, and come with two sets - one for warmer temperatures and one for colder temperatures. A little key and a few seconds is all it takes to change them over. Other than that, their geometry is basically that of the racing skis, but I was told they would have better lateral stability. The only drawback is the glide performance would not be quite as good as waxed skis.

So I bought them and took them out for a spin. What a revelation! Kick performance is as good as well waxed skis with the right kick wax on. The kick performance did not alter significantly as I moved from a well machine groomed track into tracks with snow blown into them or onto softer snow in places. Only once in the first few hundred metres did I feel a "snatch" - just as though a ski had suddenly stuck. This happens (at least to me) with waxed skis, but I know that it caught a very experienced friend of mine out on a "zero" ski last year resulting in a broken collar bone. Subsequently I had no more "snatches" - it may just have been as they were acclimatising to the temperature. Skiing a trail I had skied only a few hours earlier, I could not detect much loss of glide performance. In any case, because of my weight, if I am following someone in a track, I often have to shed speed in order to stop running into them.

So on first testing, I may have found the closest I can to the universal perfect ski for me and what I do. There will always be conditions where my other skis will be better, and I will certainly be taking waxed skis to the RR. But there are quite a few sections and conditions where I will be giving these new skis a thorough test.

Both pairs of boots I have with me have the stitching going in the same place on the left foot. So I have some nice new boots - Alfa - a Norwegian specialist company that makes hiking, skiing and expedition boots. Of particular note to anyone who skied the RR in 2014 they remain dry whilst skiing on ice with water on top of it.

One of the good things about a training week is that you can test things out, find out the capabilities and limitations of equipment, break new boots in etc. I also have to remind myself that most of the places I train (usually Norway) the average speed I do is typically less than I will manage on the RR, and that I should not look at the times too critically. 

I now have had another day on these skis in variable snow conditions - wind blown snow into the tracks and then later a warm wet snow falling such that it was hard to see where you are going. I have also had chance to read up on the technology a bit more - the narrower module is for better glide and the wider module for better kick. Testing yesterday on a variety of trails in Beitostolen showed me that compared to waxed skis, with the narrower kick module, there was little loss in glide. But the kick uphill was superb. I have a simple, but crude test - when going uphill in prepared trails, if I can stay in the tracks until they end, then the grip is good. My technique is not so great, so that I would frequently step out earlier, and with non-optimal waxing, on occasions much earlier. Looking at everyone else's tracks I am frequently not alone. Yesterday, there were not even many occasions when I had to resort to herringbone.

I can see why some top skiers are starting to use them for training. They take out a lot of the variability in performance due to waxing, enabling you to see how your own performance compares.

I have also found a suitable backpack for skiing - nice and light and narrow, designed to keep airflow across your back. The downside is that because it is slightly bigger than my belt pack, one is tempted to carry more, so self-discipline is more important - do I really need to carry this 60-90km each day in my pack "just in case"!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

No backing out

Today the official confirmation arrived. I have already paid, booked the flights and everything else, so there is no backing out.

This set me thinking why I do it. It is simple - every year I ski the RR, it is another year I can avoid thinking of myself as "old". They say that age is a state of mind. It is also a "state of body" and so anyone who can ski 450km in 7 days is not old, regardless of the age on their papers!

Next week I am training in Norway and I will be looking at skis. This was prompted by someone asking my advice. When I was skiing the RR for the first time, I went into the ski shop in Kuusamo and told them what I was doing, that I was not very good, and they sold me skis. A couple of years later I bought a similar pair in Helsinki. But prompted by the question, I began to wonder a bit more about skis. Am I really skiing on the best skis? So I looked them up and found that both are racing skis for up to intermediate skiers. Thus, they are narrow and parallel. This means they glide well. But also they are probably intended for well (heavy machine) groomed tracks.

This set me thinking. At times, because I am heavy, I feel the tracks sinking below me. Much of the RR is prepared by snowmobile rather than the heavy machines, and is prepare for the first time, compared to being groomed on a regular basis over the winter and thus well compacted. Also, not having much opportunity to train, I do have a bit of a problem with lateral stability with the ankles, especially on the sections with soft snow and, as Jon described it last year, "skiing over a ploughed field".

So when I am in Norway, I am going to look into whether I might do better with a slightly wider ski, with a modest waist - thus spreading my weight better, better lateral stability and a slight amount of flex for turning more easily. The downside may be that they are slightly slower, but I guess there is only one way to find out.

There is always the option of renting a pair as an experiment, to at least confirm the principles of what I am looking for.

Monday, 12 January 2015

RR1 2015 getting closer and maps of Finland

I am definitely stupid. This Saturday, as I set off for my run, I sort of jumped over a rock at the end of my drive, like I have done for nearly 20 years, except this time a sudden gust of wind (we had extremely strong winds at the moment in the UK) knocked me off balance and I caught my foot and went headfirst down the pavement and into the gutter. Thankfully I only took the skin off my knees and hands and no muscle damage.

A quick dash back inside to clean the dirt out of the wounds and back out to try for my 16km run. This is my normal Saturday run, expect of course whilst I have been recovering from my ankle injury, I have not been up to long runs, and this was my first attempt back at the distance.

In order to be ready for March, I am training on the treadmill, out on a run, or on the rowing machine most days. The main objectives are to build up endurance and lose at least some of the weight gained by being injured. I even drank very little alcohol over Christmas to avoid weight gain. As work is not too hectic, I also booked myself a week on a last minute trip to Beitostolen in Norway for a week of training. The plan is to spend the two weeks until then just rebuilding ankle strength and general fitness, and then use Norway to get my skiing into gear. I will then have a month back to keep fitness up before 4 days in Kuusamo training prior to RR1.

After spending a long time last year trying to find out if the Garmin detailed maps of Finland would work on my Garmin handheld, a question no-one appeared to be able to answer, I had given up. But then late last year, I discovered that in Finland, map data had been released publicly, and as Finland is at the leading edge of a lot of software development, some public spirited guys there had converted them to work.

The site is and is in Finnish. But with a bit of knowledge and Google Translate, I managed to get them into Garmin Mapsource. They do not show any detail in Mapsource until you zoom in to detail of 7 mile (10km) resolution or better.

I have identified the set that covers the RR route and a short distance either side (in case you get lost). These are

MTK-S423        MTK Suomi v2.1b        3.80 MB
MTK-S424        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.11 MB
MTK-S434        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.29 MB
MTK-S441        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.87 MB
MTK-S442        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.35 MB
MTK-S443        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.54 MB
MTK-S444        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.53 MB
MTK-S511        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.08 MB
MTK-S512        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.97 MB
MTK-S514        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.66 MB
MTK-S521        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.54 MB
MTK-S522        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.42 MB
MTK-S523        MTK Suomi v2.1b        6.06 MB
MTK-S524        MTK Suomi v2.1b        6.19 MB
MTK-S541        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.70 MB
MTK-S542        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.19 MB
MTK-T411        MTK Suomi v2.1b        511 KB
MTK-T413        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.58 MB
MTK-T414        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.72 MB
MTK-T431        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.28 MB
MTK-T513        MTK Suomi v2.1b        6.58 MB

MTK-T531        MTK Suomi v2.1b        3.78 MB

I probably hold the record for deviating from the planned route - last year it was when I was at the back and snowmobile tracks had obliterated the ski trail and I tried to follow the route as much as I could from memory. Except that last year, it had been changed at that point because the lake was not frozen. The previous year, I had got caught at the same point in a whiteout as dusk was falling and so with a headtorch could not see anything. The GPS (without detailed maps) proved my saviour as I was able to use it to navigate using the waypoints I had entered.

On the subject of maps, Nokia always had the best maps for a phone because you could download a whole country in advance. But Nokia's maps have now been relaunched as "Here" as a beta which can be downloaded, and is well worth it as a backup.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

And now for RR 2015 ...

After all the problems with injury last year, I carefully paced myself through the summer and had just got back to full fitness by the end of September ...

and then ...

... did a stupid thing - did not notice an uneven pavement in Brussels and turned my ankle over, went flying head first, rucksack flying over my head. The good news - I didn't break anything - I believe that because I am not very good at skiing, I have learnt to fall forwards safely, and so just ripped clothes and a few grazes. However, I did badly twist my ankle and walking hard for best part of a month and even now I still can't run.

Still, as I learned from last year, I still have time to recover and get back in shape. I just hope is not as bad as when I did 17 years ago, also in Brussels, when it was many months and the best part of a year to full recovery (if it ever did, because that is the ankle that usually swells a little when skiing anyway).

I will just have to improve upper body strength more so that I can double pole better! Where there's a will, there's a way!

It is a small world. In a week in Brussels, I met the PhD supervisor for one of this year's RR1 skiers from the US and a Finn who used to work for one of the RR1 regulars. It never ceases to amaze me how closely connected we all are.