Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Now in Oivanki ready for RR1 again

The last few days have been testing equipment. I discovered that I am quite hard on equipment and this was obvious when I had new bindings on the Skintecs - they now have racing bindings and it just goes to show the difference between touring bindings and racing bindings. The touring bindings grip the middle section of the NNN bar at the toe of the boot. The racing bindings grip the bar at either end. Thus, this is a batter grip, and it doesn't allow the lateral wear leading to the play that I ahd experienced. But as always, there is a downside - racing bindings will only lock down if all traces of snow and ice are removed - this makes them more time consuming putting skis back on after crossing a road, but this is something that you don't do when racing!

This was a real eye opener and I changed the bindings on my other skis as well. I finally switched to the new skins for the Skintec skis - I had been saving them for the RR rather than use them in training. They are supposed to last about 2,000 km, but mine are pretty worn at 1,000 km. I did discover that worn skins are better for skating, and even though they look badly worn, they still have a decent grip.

So now I am here; equipment all tested, a better build up training than normal - instead of a frantic 3-4 days, I have done 245km over 8 days, with today being almost a rest day - just a quick 11km this morning.

It turns out that the two Australians I met at Nordseter bus stop a couple of years ago liked the idea and have come along this year, and they told some other people. The RR generally gets spread around by word of mouth - someone hears about it from someone else, and so it goes on.

The conditions are good; the temperature not so great - it was +1C yesterday evening, although -1C this morning, later rising to 0C. With no wind, and the drier air here, it was quite pleasant outside in just a long sleeved shirt.

The forecast is generally for just below 0C and as I look outside now, it is gently snowing. In the UK, the kids would be going crazy over the thought of snow.

So I now look forward to the start and see if the improvements I have made work out.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Training now in Kuusamo

Today it snowed on and off. On the downside, this made it slower. However, with the well worn inserts in my Skintec skis, it was possible to skate - only about 300-500 metres at a stretch. But it does demonstrate that my balance is coming back and that an old dog can learn new tricks!

Finnair had removed every last liquid from my ski bag, including ones they have let pass many times before. One is a citrus base remover - non-flammable and non-pressurised. I guess they were just bored on a Friday might. They also swabbed both me and my carry on rucksack for explosives.

At least they didn't get my anti-icing spray - Jussi's father is driving up so we gave him all the stuff that we thought Finnair might steal based on past experience, so it was even more galling that they took stuff they have been happy with previously.

Finnair must be the least cross country ski friendly airline in existence - they have lost my bags more than every other airline put together - losing my bags on about 1 flight in 5, and now they are taking even safe liquids. Maybe I should put the citron base remover in a perfume bottle, as that is more or less what it is. Considering how many gallons of alcohol and perfume they carry on the plane to try and sell us, it is farcical.

Frequently cross country skiers are flying in to places where some of these things are not easy to get. If you arrive the evening of the RR briefing, you are not going to be able to replace anything Finnair take before you have to start skiing, and you will be 4 days into the RR before you see a shop (Ranua) so even getting the stuff is difficult. So it is the time and inconvenience that it costs that are the biggest annoyance.

Getting the bags here was hard enough - my ticket to Helsinki was Finnair, except the return leg was a codeshare with British Airways. So the outward flight had no baggage allowance, and I had to pay €15 per bag for 2 bags (€30); but the return flight, because it is a codeshare, you are under BA's baggage policy, which is one bag included and £60 (€85) if paid in advance (more if paid on the spot).

Thus you are between a rock and a hard place - BA charge you 5x or more than Finnair charges, but Finnair effectively take that amount out of the skier's bags (at least if you are a cross country skier). SAS seem to be better for baggage - you get one bag included, so with two of us we had one bag and one ski bag, and no excess charges (and they didn't raid my bags either).

Friday, 4 March 2016

RR1 2016 - coming soon to a trail near you

Well here we are again - another year, another RR.

Each year is different, and after two years of being injured in the run up to the RR, I have taken it very carefully. I had a week of training early on - back in mid-December in Norway, when snow was a bit thin on the ground. Fortunately where we were staying, there were a few kilometres of good tracks thanks to snow making, but the other tracks were challenging, being reminiscent of the RR in a warm year.

Having made good friends over the years on the RR, I have travelled to Finland a few days earlier than I normally do, with the intention of spreading my training over a longer period of time. What I learned in Norway was that some of the ankle muscles that were giving me a problem became better after about a week. However, regular running made them twinge again - it might be down to the fact that many of our local roads have a significant sideways slope on them.

The best intentions of the treadmill and the rowing machine, and even running club fell away as we have been replacing the kitchen, and I know better than to go away leaving a job unfinished. I keep thinking that as I get older, work will dry up, but instead find myself busier than ever, and it is interesting work.

So I find myself in Finland probably slightly less fit, but I have managed to lose weight, so I may yet be my lightest RR starting weight.

I have been staying with Jussi just north of Helsinki for a few days, and have go three days skiing in. I am advised that I have managed to get some of the nest weather recently for it as well. The first day, Tuukka - another RR regular joined us.

Having other people observe your skiing is helpful. Both observed that they thought my ski poles were too short, especially for double poling. Those of you who have followed my saga over the years may remember that I started with 150cm, on the advice of one trainer, then dropped to 145cm and last year I returned to 150cm.

So the following day, we were skiing where there is a rental shop, so I rented a pair of 155cm poles. My height is 182cm, and above the poles, it recommended 150cm poles for a height of 181cm, so the rental guys thought I was on the right length of pole. However, I rented some 155s and off I went. On the level, it was hard to tell - certainly no feeling that they were any worse. They were clearly much better when double poling, and generally an improvement also going uphill. And longer poles help on the odd occasions I try my balance with a few skating steps.

So new poles it was, and at this time of year, the ski season is winding down, so I got new poles at a good discount. Generally the more you pay, the lighter they are. As a skier with not the greatest balance, I probably stress mine more than a good skier would, and a broken pole in the middle of nowhere is not a great experience, so I pretty much bought the best.

But it also set me thinking of the Dave Brailsford approach. For those of you who don't know, he was, until recently, the head coach of British cycling and the Sky Team that took British riders to Tour de France wins. So he knows a thing or two about how to succeed. Part of his philosophy is to make hundreds of tiny improvements; each by itself may have little significance but several hundred 0.001% improvements start to add up.

I had previously calculated that I plant each pole about quarter of a million times on the RR (half a million in total). So I started thinking - what does a lighter pole mean? Well suppose it is 1g lighter - then over the 7 days and 450km, this equates to 250kg less that you lift each time as you bring your pole forward. This is 1 ton per 4g, and it is not unreasonable to see a difference of 100g between mid range and top range poles. 100g equates to 25 tons of effort extra on each arm over 7 days - an average of 3.5 tons per day.

When you look at it like this, that is a significant effort, and I now understand that what may seem trivial, when you look at it over a longer period of time, can be very significant.

Although other people had also told me that they thought I should use longer poles, and in any case I can always use the others I brought with me, I was heartened to chance upon another skier taking his daily exercise in Helsinki - none other than a fellow RR skier who I hadn't seen for a couple of years - Tor-Frederic. Tor is about my height, a little younger, and although a better skier (he is a Finn) not hugely faster than me, and I have skied alongside him many kilometres over the years. So I was quite encouraged when checking his poles that he is skiing with 160cm poles.

Another point was made to me by my fellow skiers - I have actually improved, and I might now have improved some of my techniques (very definitely NOT all of them) where a different pole length may be now better for me than the standard advice, which is typically given to novice and gentle recreational skiers.

There is one other thing that has changed - my eyesight. What, you may well think, has my eyesight got to do with skiing? Well, I have been wearing variofocals, where you have to look through the upper part of the lens to get the distance in focus. But as the difference between distance and reading prescriptions has got greater, the distance vision gets more and more limited. So I recently had a pair of glasses made with only distance vision. Thus, I now have to look more through the centre of the lens, so my head is now being held higher. As a result, my body angle has changed a little, and as a result longer poles may be a better fit for my revised "stance".

Of course, now I am an "expert" (NO, not really, just know slightly more than I did before) I am now more critical of the poles - despite being "large" on the hand grips, these were very tight with thin gloves, and would be impossible with thicker gloves when it is colder. Also, the baskets were very small, and had a lovely two dimensional curve - great on well prepared tracks, but not big enough for the softer non-compacted snow more common on the RR. So I had a good lesson from Jussi in how to change them. You need a heat gun, a pair of welding or heat resistant gloves and special Swix ski basket glue. You carefully play the heat over the basket and end of the stick until it loosens the bond and you can pull the old basket off. Then you melt new glue on, push up the new basket and align it with the grip before it cools and sets. The point to watch is that poles have different diameters - we measured 10mm at the top of the old basket, but when it was off, a 10mm replacement was too big and the actual end of the pole was 9mm and we needed a 9mm basket. How they are labelled (or not in many cases) leaves you not being sure exactly what will fit until you are half way through the job.

Still it is all done, and I now have a custom set of ski poles for the RR - make me feel like a pro, but not like one if you have ever seen me ski.

Naturally we have all been watching the weather forecast evolve for some time now, and each day the forecast gets a bit warmer and we have been debating waxed, zero or skins for our ski choice.

So far, I have probably defied my family's expectations that I will return with yet another set of skis, but a set of zero skis may be calling to me. For those who don't know what these are, they are skis that only work around 0C plus or minus a degree or so. Six years ago, I wondered why anybody would want, or would want to spend the money on, more than one pair of skis. As someone who has bought 4 sets of skis since my first RR, I don't think I can argue that case any more.

So I am now sat in the departure lounge at Helsinki waiting for the late flight to Kuusamo for my final training. That is where I will also do some comparative testing in the conditions we expect for the RR.

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: