Rob's Blog Archive

January 27, 2013

Cold and Miserable










I step into my mudroom and hear raindrops hitting the roof.  Rain and 34 F.  “Wonderful,” I grumble out loud.  I’m not training for anything. I don’t need to run the dogs, but there’s still something that nudges me just enough.  And so just like all those miserable runs I did while preparing for Iditarod, I continue getting ready to run my dogs.

As a young adult, I had an annual ritual of taking a dip in a cold lake or stream.  From the first to the last, I hated it.  Give me a hot tub or hot spring anytime.  Still, I wanted to prove I could force myself into the cold water.

During the summer of ’81 and at the age of 25, this changed.  Friends and I had come down from climbing Monte Cristo Peak in the Cascades and we were getting close to the car.  Albert and Kurt decided to take a quick plunge in the river.  Previously, I would have joined them but this time, I just said no. 

I’m not sure why it happened then and there.  That particular river and drench wouldn’t have been too bad.  It was the middle of a major heat spell and we had climbed at a good pace, working hard the whole way.  Back in lowland forests, swimming in the river had the real possibility of feeling refreshing.  Still, my experiences were that that never happened, that I just swam or waded in cold water, forced my head under but then gleefully got out as fast as I could. 

Since the Monte Cristo climb, the closest I’ve come to “cold immersion” was in Hot Creek near Mammoth, California.  There, after having soaked for a sufficiently long time in the warm to hot areas of Hot Creek, I’d coast into cold water.  I did find that refreshing.  And, when I’m in the area, I’ll often make my way to Hot Creek.

Before it started raining, I had decided to run both teams on a route called Short Marshall Lake.  The route usually includes twelve miles of sledding and three on the ATV, but the road had been plowed for logging.  This meant that placing snowhooks that held at the normal spot for switching between ATV and sled would be tricky.   My plan was to do the switch half a mile further up the road.  I’d be trading a mile of sledding for a mile on the ATV, something I’d rather avoid, but I’d be adding a lot of safety.  I had also decided to do both runs at night.  That way, I’d avoid any logging trucks.

I didn’t rush my first hook-up as I had hoped that with time, the rain would turn to the snow that had been predicted.  It didn’t happen and we left the dogyard on the first run in a steady rain. 

I switched between the ATV and my sled about 200’ higher, just off of plowed road and on groomed trails.  We sledded over saturated warm snow which allowed the sled to glide easily, but it meant the dogs worked hard with every step.  Even though we were starting to get into shape and runs have been eighteen milers rather than fifteen, these would end up as the slowest sledding miles I’d done this season including my first sled runs on ungroomed fresh powder.  The run climbed to the outlet of Marshall Lake, about 500’ above where I live.  Even there, I saw only raindrops falling through the beam of my headlamp, no sign of snow.

Only my hands were cold when I arrived home from the first run.  My good Gore-Tex gear had worked well, but that didn’t keep water from seeping down my arms and into the mittens I wore, soaking them.   I could have wrung them out and worn them on the second run, but the reality of relatively warm temperatures meant I could also run with my neoprene gloves.  Not only could I Velcro my parka’s cuff around the wrist of these and avoid the inflow problem, whatever water entered the neoprene could be simply shaken out and the miniscule amount remaining would have no effect on the glove’s ability to insulate.  Neoprene got the call.

By the time I hooked up the second team, the snow in the dogyard clearly had developed the sheen from freezing rain.  My footsteps broke through this to softer snow underneath, so footing wasn’t an issue and the hook-up went easily.

Once again, the extra work during the run to move in wet snow slowed the dogs down a lot.  Even some of my hardest workers let up by the time we hit the high point at Marshall Lake.  Everybody clearly enjoyed running on the downhills, but speeds reflected fatigue. 

With only the thin neoprene, my hands had gotten a little cold while sledding.  Vertical arm circles about my shoulders as well as clenching on and off kept the cold from being uncomfortable like it had been on the first run. 

One of the other niceties of the neoprene gloves I have is my dexterity while wearing them gets close to being as good as bare handed.  Everything from opening locking carabineers to undoing snaps went easy.  The gloves came off for good when I gave Ghost his eyedrops and Sima his anti-inflammatory pill.  02:30.  I had chucked down a couple of microwaved mac and cheese dinners between the two runs, so all I really felt like was a cold beer and a hot bath.

The part of me that wants to repeat doing certain things just to show I can, like I did with swimming in mountain streams and lakes, is deep seated in my personality.  I’m sure part of why I ran the dogs, miserable weather and all, reflects this.  But there’s more to runs in miserable weather, or any challenging training run for that matter, than forcing myself into cold mountain streams.  If the self-control trip in being able to force myself into an icy stream is a one, the self-control trip of getting my butt out to train dogs when it’s nasty or conditions are difficult is a nine or ten.  This is true even on the relatively attenuated scale of a pair of back to back fifteen milers in shitty weather, though the factor may only be seven for these. 

Shortly after I started skijoring with Dawn and Tenaya, I asked one of the premier sprint racers in the country the following:  Did he prefer training dogs, racing them, or look at these as being two sides of the same coin.  I expected him to say two sides of the same coin or maybe racing, so I was almost in shock when, without hesitation, he said training.

Since then, I’ve accumulated more than 7,000 miles of sledding including over 1,500 during races.  Even from the start, however, there was never a question regarding which I enjoyed more and where I’d end up---it was always about adventure with my dogs.  And so, I guess that it isn’t really that strange that the sound of rain that I know is freezing on the ground doesn’t keep me off of my runners.

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