Friday, March 31, 2017

I wasn't a Girl Guide..

..but you'd never know it from the way I pack for a day of trailrunning.

Straight talk here, folks: I'm clumsy and stubborn, and will go running by myself on singletrack trails in terrible weather where it would be difficult for help to get to me if I got into trouble.

Not ambulance-friendly, but so very pretty.

So, I pack along an emergency kit (apart from any traction aids, trekking poles or spare clothing I deem necessary for that particular expedition), and I'm going to show you what I keep in it. Yours might differ in appearance and the actual items you bring along, but if you're going for a trek through the woods on foot (or xc skis, or snowshoes) I highly encourage you to have one. If you make it small and light - my basic kit is under a pound - you'll have a much better chance of coming out of a nasty situation with just a great story to tell your friends if you have a few basic tools for your health and survival.

Say hello to my little friends.

Trail Running Emergency Kit

Loosely based on the Ten Essentials, I have tailored my kit to my own needs while on the trail. I don't need to worry about food & water, as those are already accounted for on any trip I take into the woods, whether it be an hour or a week. I'm more concerned here with the "what could go wrong" scenarios - specifically dealing with a situation that makes it difficult or impossible to get myself off the trail to safety. Note that I did not receive any compensation for any product mentioned below, nor do I get any commission from any of the links I've provided. I'm just trying to see you all safe here, folks - that's all the reward I need!

Just a few helpful items.

I already carry a headlamp if I'm going to be out near sunset (or before sunrise, though I can't ever remember that happening..), but batteries can be a fickle thing - even more so in cold weather. So, I carry a full change of batteries for my headlamp. I specifically pack lithium batteries for three reasons: they're lighter than alkaline batteries (which is a minor point); they actually contain more ampere-hours than alkalines (i.e.: will power my light longer), and most importantly they're a dry cell with no liquid electrolyte to freeze. If your headlamp dies on you on a cold run, the last thing you want is to fumble new batteries into it only to find it only produces a weak glow!

A small zipper baggie keeps them all together and protects from moisture

Now, having spare batteries is all well and good, but it's impossible to change your headlamp batteries by the light of your headlamp. So, I bring along a 10 gram solution that can even be considered a backup light source if my main light fails completely due to some kind of damage: a simple glow stick.

I got 3 of them for a dollar just after Hallowe'en.

I wouldn't want to try to run by the light of one of these things after dark, but it should provide just enough illumination that I could hike my way out carefully in a pinch, and would certainly give enough of a glow that I wouldn't be railing in frustration over being unable to get my spare batteries into my headlamp.

Navigation stuff

Being able to light the way is fine, but you also need to know where the heck you're going. When possible I do bring maps along, but not all of the trail systems that I run have published maps. I have a compass app on my phone, but if its battery is low or I'm trying to conserve it, a simple magnetic compass only weighs a couple of grams. I use one that's not liquid filled since I don't want it freezing up on me, and I add a couple of metres of biodegradable trail marking tape in case I go somewhere like Dryden Tract where the trails seem to be designed by M.C. Escher. Going in circles never helped anyone find their way to safety, and Tanker knows that if he finds red trail tape along a route, I'll be somewhere in that direction. I do not advocate using this in anything other than an emergency, though - take only photos and leave only footprints!

Hopefully no blood trails..

As I said before, I am a clumsy oaf. That means I'm at pretty high risk for some manner of damage when I'm out gallivanting in the forest, so I bring along some stuff to patch myself up. The Aventure Medical Kits Ultralight & Watertight .3 is a pretty good option since it's self contained in a sturdy, water-resistant pouch and has most of the things I'm likely to need. Apart from the list shown below, I add a couple of lengths of kinesiology tape that I can use to try to hold a damaged muscle or joint together long enough to get me off the trail, and I write my emergency contact information and health insurance information on the outside in case I am unconscious or unable to communicate.

I do carve it down so I'm only carrying 1 of each supplied item.

Of course, the medical kit only works if you have some idea of how to use it. I have taken numerous first aid courses throughout my life, and I strongly advise anyone - whether you spend a moment in the outdoors or not - to do so as well. They're often offered for a very low cost (sometimes even free - check with your employer or community centre to see if they provide a course), and everyone benefits when a majority of people have the training to handle emergency medical situations.

Getting a bit more esoteric here..
So far most of the things I've detailed are pretty common-sense items, but these might come a little out of left field. I keep a spare shoelace on hand because I won't be able to run - or even hike properly - if one of mine breaks and I'm unable to tie it back together again. The adjustable strap can serve multiple purposes: if my headlamp strap breaks it can act as a temporary replacement; it can be employed as a tourniquet, or secure a couple of branches to act as a splint on a damaged limb. Unfortunately I don't think Backcountry Research makes this ultralight version anymore, but Zpacks has something similar.


If you've been active outside and then stop, you're likely to get cold. If you're dressed for running in anything other than hot, summery weather, you're almost certainly under-dressed for standing/sitting still in the outdoors. Thus, I keep a stash of warming products in my emergency kit, because hypothermia really sucks.

Starting on the left is an emergency blanket, a.k.a. a "space blanket". This particular one is sized for up to 2 people, which means I can wrap more of my body in it than one of the 1-person size. It's the usual silver on one side but blaze orange on the other, so it's more visible in the woods if rescuers are looking for me. It can also be used to rig an emergency shelter if I'm stuck out overnight.

The chemical hand warmers are pretty self-explanatory. I was brought back from a hypothermic state at the inaugural Steaming Nostril in 2013 by slapping a couple of these on my chest, enabling me to finish the race. These can also be used if I just find myself under-dressed when I'm out running - popping one or two in my sports bra can make a huge difference if the temperature drops suddenly on me or if I get unexpectedly soaked.

On the right we have a zipper baggie with a box of waterproof matches and a couple of firelighters. If I really am stuck out in the woods somewhere in cold weather, the space blanket and hand warmers aren't going to cut it. A flint and steel sounds like it has more survivalist cred, but if I'm cold and tired and scared I'm not looking to piss around with a method that can be difficult even in the best circumstances. The firelighters will help even wet wood catch, and then I can use the space blanket to reflect the heat of the fire so its warmth surrounds me. I hope never to find myself in a situation where I need these, but they do provide peace of mind when I'm traipsing snow-covered singletrack in solitary silence.

Tools for the job.

I carry a Leatherman Micra mostly as part of my medical kit, but it serves other functions as well. The scissors will cut open the hand warmers, space blanket or glow stick packaging if my fingers are unable, and the screwdrivers, small blade and tweezers can handle some minor repairs on the trail. It's a fairly robustly built little thing that's lightweight while actually being a useful size.

That's not candy.

These are a bit of a frill, but small and light enough that I bring them anyway. Sometimes called "coin tissues", they're highly compressed cloths in blister packages that will - with the addition of a bit of water - expand into about a 10" x 10" sturdy towelette for wiping anything and everything. I picked up some packs of 10 for about 50 cents each at a local surplus store, and just cut off two from one end of the package. If I drop my phone in a pile of snow or a mud puddle, these will clean it up. If I fall in the mud I can do an initial clean-up to see if there are any wounds that need attention. They're also a backup plan in case my digestive tract is having a rough day and I've already used up the zipper baggie full of toilet paper that I'm pretty sure every single trail runner already carries. It's only a matter of time..

Just put your lips together and blow..

A whistle should be part of every single emergency kit. Its sound carries further in the woods than a human voice and is much more sustainable - you will grow hoarse and unable to yell for help long before you are incapable of blowing a whistle loudly. Three sharp blasts is a universal distress signal that will alert anyone in earshot that you need help. The Fox 40 Classic is a near-perfect emergency whistle as its pealess design has no moving parts to fail, it will work perfectly in the rain or sub-freezing temperatures, it is quite loud (estimated 115db) and both cheap and plentiful. I attach mine on a length of lightweight cord to the zipper on my kit so it's easily located if I need to signal for help in a hurry, and won't fall out and be lost if I'm fumbling around with cold hands.

One bag to hold them all..

To contain all of these wonderful items, you might choose a zipper baggie, but I go with the Eagle Creek Specter Quarter Cube. The lightweight ripstop nylon is a bit more durable than a baggie while still providing a bit of water resistance, and it's sufficiently translucent that I can still spot most items inside it. The bright red colour means it should be hard to misplace, while the webbing handle on top means I can easily hang it by my hydration packs to grab quickly, or hang it off a branch if I desire in the woods. I write my name, emergency contact and health insurance info on the back in case I'm found unconscious or unable to communicate.

The whole kit and caboodle.

As I stated in the opening, all of this kit together weighs in at less than a pound - 0.92lb or 14.67oz, to be exact. I wouldn't carry the extra weight while racing, but training is all about getting stronger, so why not train a bit heavy when it could make such a huge difference to your safety?

As packaged, this kit slips easily in the main compartment of any of my hydration packs, one of which I will certainly be using if I'm going for a run of 90mins or more. I also carry the same kit even when just out hiking in the woods with Tanker, because there's always a chance one of us could be hurt or the weather could turn on us. None of the contents are very expensive or difficult to source, and of course you can tailor it to your own circumstances by adding, subtracting or substituting items that are best suited to the kind of outdoor activity you prefer. It doesn't hurt to be prepared!

Even as signs of spring begin to appear..

There's one other item that you may have spotted above that I haven't discussed yet, mostly because I don't always carry it and I do consider it a frill. However, I've had to use it a couple of times and will generally carry it if I'll be out for 3 hours or more.

I love multifunctional gear

This puppy is a combination light and powerbank, with enough juice to give my phone a full charge. I like to take a lot of photos if I'm out running somewhere pretty, and that drains my phone's battery fairly quickly - especially in cold weather. I was caught out once on very technical trails as fog and darkness were descending - my headlamp stupidly forgotten, and before I started carrying my emergency kit. I had hoped to use my phone's flashlight to guide me out, but I'd also needed it for navigation, as I had gotten a bit lost. The combination of having taken a bunch of photos, messaging with Tanker (who was out hiking), plus trying to use Trailforks and Google Maps to find my way back to our car meant that I had no battery power left to use for light. This gadget would have helped with both of those problems, since I can plus my phone in to the standard USB port in its base to charge it, and it's also a really bright light on its own!

These photos do it no justice at all

On the left is the low power white setting, which is still brighter than my headlamp. The centre photo is the high power white, which will light up an entire area.

If, say, you just happen to want to have a bit of a brew up in the woods in the dark.

It also has both a constant and strobing red, plus an SOS pattern flashing red setting. You cycle through the modes by the simple expedient of pressing the textured rubber-sealed button on the end, which gives a very positive response and doesn't seem to turn on accidentally very easily. One final press from SOS mode turns it off, and a blue LED will flash to show you how much battery life is left. The whole unit is IP68 waterproof rated and will withstand being dropped from about 2m/6' off the ground without issue. There are more specs available here, though the brand name is different than the one I have. For under $25, this is something I'm delighted to have available to use - it may make my glow stick a bit redundant, but I can easily plug my phone in with the provided USB cable and stick it in the pocket of my hydration vest to charge, which will take about 30-45mins depending on how much I've drained it.

It's fairly lightweight, too.

So my entire emergency kit including the powerbank and cord comes to 551g (or 1.21lbs / 1lb 3.4oz) - just over the weight of half a litre (a bit more than one pint) of water.

While none of these items are a substitute for a bit of sense and good judgement, even the best-planned outdoor adventures sometimes go awry. Hopefully I've given you enough reasons to start packing along a few supplies that could help get you out of a nasty situation, if not actually save your life. Yes, I make Tanker the Wonder Sherpa carry his own emergency kit when he's out hiking while I run - I want him back safely, and I'm sure there's someone who wants you back, too! I'm also very keen on keeping myself healthy enough that I can continue to venture into the woods to find the pretty places you just can't see by road.

Even if it's all covered in ice.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Building blocks and re-purposed socks

My last long run of meteorological winter was on Saturday afternoon, and after a couple of bitterly cold outings in the days beforehand all of my warm socks that are long enough to meet up with the bottom of my tights were in the laundry. If you have long legs (I'm about a 32" inseam standing at 5'8"), you know the battle of trying to keep your ankles from getting frostbitten in standard running kit. There seems to be a dearth of crew-height wool socks suitable for running, too, which just makes things all the more challenging.

The struggle is real.

Since I was heading out to do a nearly 40km point-to-point run on a trail I'd never experienced before, with temperatures around the freezing mark and rain or snow predicted, I wasn't leaving my poor ankles undefended. Even my gaiters couldn't quite bridge the gap reliably, so I was left scrambling to figure out a fix - with my left ankle being damaged I was keener than ever to keep things warm to promote mobility and prevent further injury, but I'm really fussy about my running socks 'cause blisters suck. Finally I remembered that Tank had a pair of warm, wooly hiking socks with holes in the soles and asked if he minded if I stole them, with the caveat that they'd be totally wrecked for him to ever wear again. He said he didn't mind, so I grabbed them and had at them with my sewing shears.

I cut right along the lower edge of the heel seam, hoping it would help keep them from unraveling too much either while I ran or in the wash. Then I pulled them on over my socks and tights, facing backwards so the heel of the sock settled over the top of my arch.

Dorky appearance aside, this would help keep the tendons that run down the top of my feet extra warm as well. I threw on my gaiters and shoes, then took these puppies out for a spin on the Elora Cataract Trailway.

All sealed up.

Starting from the East end

There was snow falling, as promised.
All of the sections with coniferous trees were snow covered as well, sometimes with ice underneath.

There were pretty little streams running under the trail.

And wide open, windy spaces as well.

Over four hours later - with a stop in Orton to meet up with Tanker for a water re-supply, warmer gloves and a jacket - I arrived at Belwood Lake Conservation Area (home of the Belwood Tri - one of our favourites, now sadly defunct again) in failing light and turned off the trail toward Fergus. 39km for the day, and my ankles were lovely and toasty!

Belwood Lake was not.

Getting changed in the Fergus Tim Hortons bathroom - such a glamorous life!

The ankle warmers had worked perfectly - the gentle elastic held them up nicely and I had no chafing or discomfort. The gaiters kept them in place on this run, but they stay put just as well without because of the heel portion of the sock can be tucked under the tongue of your shoe to hold it in place.

I've since washed them (or rather I should say Tanker has - he really is a Wonder Sherpa!) on delicate cycle & hung up to dry with no ill effects. They shed a few bits, but are structurally perfect. The natural antimicrobial properties of the wool keeps them from smelling bad, so they can be used multiple times in between washes without instigating chemical or biological warfare on your household. I'd been meaning to make myself a pair of these for awhile, and I'm happy I finally did!

Bonus: you can use the foot portions that you cut off as emergency mittens
Though in this case they may have extra breathability..

Meanwhile, that run on the Elora Cataract Trailway was the start of my final 6-day block of training during the Slowtwitch 2016-2017 100 runs in 100 days challenge. The leaderboard may change a bit as people log their final runs as this is actually the 100th day, but my totals will remain the same since I don't train on Fridays.

As of 3pm I've dropped to 47th place, but I don't really care.
It's about the work, not beating anyone else.

99 days from December 15th to March 23rd saw me run 90 times for a total of 947.45km in 101 hours, 32 minutes and 34 seconds. I've been participating in the 100 in 100 challenge for several years now, but I believe this is the first time I've ever managed more than 85 runs and it's certainly the most mileage I've ever put in during the winter. From Saturday's trek on the rail trail to last night was my biggest 6-day block ever: 91.8km / 57.0mi, putting me at 799.5km for the year so far. Since I'm already over 276km for March, I do believe I'll top 300k for a month for the first time as well. These will - I hope - be the foundation for a successful finish at the Sulphur Springs 100k.

Yes, I did two doubles in the last week, too.

I did, however, do some more damage to my poor left ankle on Wednesday. While doing my usual pre-run dynamic warmup at my office prior to a post-work trot, I managed to bang the damn thing off my desk chair. It feels fine when running, but gives eye-popping flashes of pain at other times, especially when using the clutch in our car. So, I might even take Saturday off as well, depending on how things feel. I've not taken more than a single day off running since January 12th, so I suspect an extra rest day won't be the death of the fitness I've built.

If I can just avoid the temptation of the trails..

So now that I've shared my little trick to staying warm in wintry conditions, let's bring on the spring!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Let me eat cake

I got myself into a bit of trouble over the winter nutritionally, but I'm eating my way back out of it.

In the last few months, I've been trying to cut down on my sugar intake. I don't think anyone can convincingly argue that sugar is really good for you, and it is increasingly suspect as the culprit in numerous health issues. I'd still eat some directly before, during or after a hard workout, but I tried to reduce as much as possible outside those times. I didn't totally cut out other carbohydrate sources - I'd still have a sweet potato with almond butter & cinnamon for breakfast (SO GOOD), pasta for dinner once a week, make pad thai on Mondays, have rice with fish and veggies a couple of times a week - but I kept my portions very moderate in an effort to strip off some of the Christmas pudding. I'd make Tanker a bowl of pasta but eat mine out of a mug; he'd have a dinner plate of pad thai and I'd have a dessert plateful.

I fell into two traps - one external, and one internal. The external one was in listening once again to all the dietary advice out there for both athletes and non-athletes alike to eschew carbohydrates in favour of more protein and fat. Whether you're calling it Paleo, Primal, or just low carb, there has been a huge push in recent years to reduce people's intake of sugars and starches in the name of health and weight loss. Many elite endurance athletes have made successful transitions to a low carbohydrate intake with no loss of performance, so how bad could it be? So, in an effort to curb my voracious appetite, I'd eat bushels of vegetables and a fair bot of meat, adding nuts, coconut and avocado for healthy fat sources.

Roast chicken, zucchini, onion, garlic & mushrooms - a delicious low-carb dinner.

The internal trap that snared me was thinking that winter equates to the off season. I tapered a bit after Christmas for the RUN4RKIDS 8-hour in early January, then had to take a few days off afterward for recovery from both the race and emergency dental surgery. I was rebuilding distance as the Frosty Trail 3-hour came 'round later that month, and didn't even take a single day off post-race because I didn't feel I needed it. I generally figure that it takes me 1 week to recover completely (enough for another hard effort) for every hour of racing, so that would mean I was finally back on my feet from RUN4RKIDS by March 4th - less than 2 weeks ago. 

By that time I'd run over 400km since the 8-hour. As of Wednesday I passed 700km for the year so far, and my average for the last month has been over 75km per week. This actually represents about the largest training block I've ever put in. The idea that I "didn't need" the extra calories a slice or two of bread would provide sounds patently ridiculous when put in that perspective, which I finally gained just a few weeks ago.

Just a few kilometers here and there..

I was tired. So freakin' tired. I had just finished that 72.5km week and was ready to lay down dead, before I even started adding back any cycling or swimming to my training. All I was doing is running, walking a bit, and my usual strength work - I was even getting more sleep than usual, but nothing was helping. I decided I needed a recovery week, so that's where the 66.8km bar fits in - I was just too shagged out to do any more.

Throughout all this, though, my weight was increasing. Despite being hungry around the clock and running more than I have since the build for Dirty Girls last year, my clothes were getting tighter and the scale was moving the wrong way. I was chubby, cranky (I have no idea how Tanker put up with me!), cold, hungry and utterly disheartened.

I really do like carrots, though..

Finally it dawned on me - I was in almost the exact same place I'd been in 2011. Having just figured out that gluten and I couldn't be friends (it's not me - it's definitely you) and hearing all about the wonderful results people were getting with Paleo, I decided to give it a try while training for my first half iron distance triathlon. I had the same result the last time: weight gain, fatigue, irregular hormonal cycles, and utter bafflement as to why this wasn't working the way everyone said it should.

Then I remembered some stuff I had read back then, about how females may actually suppress their thyroid function by reducing carbohydrate intake too much. I did some quick searching for "hypothyroid symptoms" and immediately knew I was on to something. The fatigue; feeling cold all the time; muscle soreness/failure to recover from workouts; weight gain; heavy, painful & irregular menstruation (yeah, TMI - sorry guys!); crappy memory and even worse mood...even the outer third of my eyebrows being nearly non-existent and the weird hoarseness (without having a sniffle to explain it) to which I'd awoken the day after a very long, hard was all there on the list.


Having finally put two and two together, I started adding back carbohydrates and dialing back the fat intake. I started on Monday, February 20th with a couple of simple things - a small bowl of oatmeal, a bit more pad thai for dinner - and by the very next day I felt like a brand new person! Enough that I was able to energetically run on my lunch, ride the trainer after work, then hit the pool before a late dinner.

Since then, I've been able to increase my training again, I'm no longer constantly freezing or starving, and the stubborn pudge is finally starting to fall away. Both the scale and the fit of my clothing are showing definite improvement - as of last night there is much less of me poking out from the edges of my swimsuit - and I have much better energy both during and outside of training. I'm also much, much less miserable to be around! My experience is far from unique: searching will yield numerous pages of other women's stories of failure to thrive on reduced carbohydrate intake, and a few brave scientists are finally publishing material about the effect of your sex (and thus your hormone levels) on your dietary needs. There is also new research being done that indicates the Female Athlete Triad (TL;DR: restricting calories resulting in lack of menstrual cycle & bone loss) - traditionally associated with disordered eating and very low body fat levels - may actually have more to do with the body's perception of energy availability regardless of body composition. Since "fat burns in a carbohydrate flame", my poor body may have felt that I was so severely lacking in calories it needed to halt all non-essential metabolic functions.

Muffins to the rescue!

I still wish to keep my consumption of sugar to a minimal level (contrary to the first pic in this post, and really the title as well..), so simply buying a bag of cookies isn't the way I intend to solve this. I'm still trying to restrict simple sugars to before, during and after training, but I've started baking again - the cranberry orange pumpkin seed muffins seen above were last weekend's fuel, and I'll probably celebrate St. Paddy's Day by baking a loaf of soda bread this evening. You may note that there was a drop in run mileage last week (from 84.4km to 79.5km), but that was due to trail conditions being a sketchy mess of frozen and thawed, claggy mud under the snow that fell last week. I was on the trails moving for just as long; I simply didn't make it as far.

The sunshine was super pretty, even though it was cold as hell.

Lest you think I may have impaired my fat burning abilities (which admittedly are highly valuable for ultrarunning, where you're moving at moderate effort for hours longer than your carbohydrate stores and GI tract can provide), Sunday's run was actually 2h20m of trail running & hiking done on nothing but water - I'd had a bagel with a fried duck egg and peameal bacon for breakfast, all washed down with a cup of coffee about 90mins beforehand, but took in no calories along the way.

The hiking because of stuff like this.

I still had sufficient energy in the last half-hour to run sustained on the paved Downtown Trail and CNR Spurline Trail in Guelph after leaving GORBA, too, so I certainly wasn't bonking. That tells me that a couple of weeks of increased carbohydrate intake haven't ruined my ability to use fat as fuel; it's just giving me my life back!


So the lesson here is that what works for one person may not be what works for you. I'm not interested in being told I was doing Paleo/Primal/low carb "wrong" - there's increasing research being published indicating it's a poor option for endurance athletes, and I am pretty solid in my conviction (having tried reducing CHO twice to highly detrimental effect) that a higher carbohydrate approach is the best approach for me personally. If you'd like to take your own nutrition in another direction, I'm not here to say you're wrong; we're all an experiment of one, and I wish you success in finding the best way to fulfill your own dietary needs! If you're not seeing the results you want from a low carb approach, though - especially if you're female - you owe it to yourself to consider that protein and fat may not be the saviours they're touted to be for you.

One last note about weight loss for athletes: I recently read something that really resonated with me, because I have been known to restrict calories as much as possible while attempting to reach race weight. This is a quote from a fellow who is currently experimenting with a pure "calories in/calories out" approach to weight loss by eating nothing but burgers, pizza, ice cream, cake and doughnuts:

"For weight loss, I used to have the mindset of trying to get away with as few calories as possible. This project has changed my mindset to try and get in as many calories as I can while still losing weight. The difference is remarkable just in terms of daily energy and workout energy" - Rob Gray 

So if you're going hard on the trails all day, maybe give yourself the leeway to do a little hard at the dinner table as well.

Who wants to say no to homemade chocolate chip zucchini bread anyway?

Don't get me wrong - vegetables are still the number one mainstay of my nutrition, with my sweet potato breakfast, morning snack of carrots & cucumbers, daily afternoon salad and copious vegetables with dinner. But, I'm really enjoying having french toast and bagels again for weekend brunches, not to mention my homemade goodies. Speaking of which, I'm going home to do some baking!