Cold Weather Racing

Posted by David Kask on Jan 29 2004 at 04:00PM PST
From Andrew Gerlach's news letter and Making Cold Days Enjoyable: Nathan Schultz On the morning of the 2002 Snow Mountain Stampede, I squinted at my thermometer hoping it would somehow change its assessment of the -35ºF air. It did not yield, but somehow the race jury coerced their thermometer to read -5ºF and so the race was on. It had the potential to be a slow, uncomfortable, and even dangerous day, but with proper preparation and knowing a few secrets, it was almost as much fun as a sunny day in March. Waxing Secrets Making skis fast in the cold is simple, so it is a surprise to learn how few people know how to do it. First is proper base prep, followed by waxing, scraping, and finally, the key: brushing, brushing, and brushing. Cold snow is slow because the snow crystals are sharp and there is very little liquid water to lubricate them. It is very similar to skiing across tiny pieces of broken glass. As snow ages and gets warmer, the crystals become more rounded and the snow pack contains liquid water that serves as a lubricant. Imagine this as skiing across microscopic marbles with some oil on them. So when it is cold, the abrasive snow creates two problems - friction and durability. There are also some electrical issues, but we’re going to pretend those don’t exist because I’m not smart enough to explain them. The goal of base prep is to make the ski as flat and featureless as possible to reduce drag against those sharp crystals. Iron in several layers of cold glide wax. Any remnants of warmer wax will slow the ski significantly, so multiple layers are needed. The good news is this stuff is cheap. The bad news is that it is a pain to apply. Cold wax is very hard in order to prevent those sharp crystals from penetrating the ski base and also to give it extra durability. In order to achieve this hardness, the wax is made of a synthetic compound that has a melting point approaching that of the ski base itself. So, with a quality wax iron, carefully apply several layers of cold wax. Mom’s old clothes iron is not the best choice because it probably does not have a precise thermometer, and will therefore fluctuate as much as 50ºC. This is dangerous when you need to heat the wax within 20ºC of the base’s melting point. The iron should be just hot enough to melt the wax quickly. For those who are ignoring the advice about quality wax irons – that is probably somewhere between permanent press and linen, when the smoke turns deep black. Drip or grate the wax and melt it into the base, moving the iron very quickly in multiple passes. Each pass should take no longer than 10 seconds. Test for overheating with your hand – if it is too hot to touch, give it a rest. The wax is melted adequately once it has a smooth appearance and there is no evidence of the original drips. Let it cool to room temperature, but before it gets too brittle, remove as much as possible with a sharp plastic scraper. You may want eye protection for this step. Now the important part: brushing. Take a soft metal brush and brush until your arms cry for mercy. Then brush for five more minutes. The goal is to polish the base to a glass smooth finish so nothing drags on that abrasive snow. Be cautious with roto-brushes, as they can burn bases if used improperly. With skis brushed to a shiny polish, place them out in the cold for 15-30 minutes (or longer), or better yet, ski on them for 2-5km. This will contract the pores in the ski base and squeeze out additional wax. Then, lucky you, brush again and again and again. The more you brush, the faster your skis will be. This can make a 30% difference in ski speed. If you are classical skiing, you will need extra durability for your kick wax due to the abrasive snow. Begin with a clean kick zone after you have finished glide waxing. Rough the kick zone with 100-grit sandpaper, then apply a thick layer of cold kick wax. Using a torch, heat gun, or iron, melt this layer into the base and let it cool. After corking smooth, apply and cork many thin layers of the final choice of kick wax. Absolutely do not get any glide wax in your kick zone, when ironing or brushing, as it will greatly reduce durability and kick. Getting Dressed Now that you are exhausted from brushing, it’s time to get ready to actually go outside. Making cold days enjoyable begins with quality clothing. That 10-year-old long underwear may be fine most of the time, but it will not do the job like newer technical fabrics. And it also stinks. There are two key elements to consider: insulation and wind protection. The first layer should always be a quality long-underwear that wicks moisture away from your skin. Ideally, it should have some sort of micro-texture that traps insulating air pockets. This layer keeps the heat in while minimizing heat loss due to sweat evaporation. The second layer is often a ski suit that serves as an insulator with some wind protection. The third and possibly even fourth layers should be breathable windproof shells that may provide insulation as well. In a race situation where you might remove your third layer to race in a ski suit, it is often smart to provide some extra wind protection. Absolutely mandatory for the men out there is a wind brief, unless you enjoy spending your post-race time curled in a ball, whimpering in pain. For women, wearing two sport bras or a little bit of strategic duct tape will usually keep delicate parts from freezing. One unique product, made by Craft, adds a stretch windproof panel to the front of the long underwear tops and bottoms. A low-tech version of these can be created by applying duct tape over the first layer. Be sure to allow for movement as duct tape is not very flexible. And if you’re hairy, be prepared for the worst afterwards. Take special care of problem areas: toes, fingers, and ears, along with any exposed skin on the face. First, eliminate exposed skin as much as possible. Earmuffs, a heavy-weight hat and a scarf or muffler around the neck are a minimum. A balaclava and hat are a better option, covering most of the face and neck with only eyes, nose, and mouth exposed. Cover any exposed skin with a greasy lotion such as Dermatone or Vaseline. This helps as a windbreak and provides some insulation. As a bonus, it gives you that greasy sheen of your teen years again. You can also cover problem areas, such as where the wind comes off your glasses, with athletic tape. Quality eyewear with good coverage is vital. Those with contacts should consider having a prescription insert created as contacts can freeze to the eye and they often pop out in extreme cold. That leaves the hands and feet. Boot covers are a blessing and keep toes toasty even in the coldest conditions. For the hands, a quality XC-specific cold weather glove, lobster-mitt or mitten is also a necessity. These gloves should have some sort of breathable, windproof material and a fair amount of insulation but they should also fit in your pole strap without impeding circulation. If you have poor circulation, chemical warmers may help. It is possible to burn yourself if you put them directly against skin, so they are better between layers such as between your boot and your boot covers. One final hint: avoid equipment containing metal parts that might contact your skin, such as eyewear or zippers. Out in the Cold Finally, it’s time to go outside. Be sure to plan ahead to minimize time spent standing around. If you are warming up for a race or testing skis, you may want to have a parka and some extra overmitts so that you stay warm while standing around before the start. Your body needs time to adapt to the cold air, so warm up slowly, whether you are racing or not. If you are racing, you may want to change into dry clothes just before the start. If you want fast skis, brush them one final time, just before you start. This will speed them up dramatically by removing static buildup and any remaining wax you missed in the previous 4 hours of brushing. While skiing, pay attention to your extremities for danger signs and watch people around you for white spots on their skin. If you start to get dangerously cold, stop immediately and cover the affected part until it warms slightly. Be creative and use whatever you can find to shield cold parts. Recently I was caught unexpectedly in a freezing rain while running. I raided an outhouse and shoved two rolls of toilet paper in my tights. I looked like the Michelin Man, but I was quite a bit happier. Keep wind exposure to a minimum on downhills by tucking. If your hands are cold, do like they do on MTV and grab your butt. This will keep them out of the wind and warm them slightly. Look straight down at your feet so the top of your head catches the wind instead of your face. Be sure to glance up occasionally so you can avoid frozen racers, trees, and other unpleasant obstacles. Your furnace will be burning hotly to keep you warm, so you will need extra calories and fluid. Make sure that you use hot water, and it is generally OK to mix a sport drink a little bit thicker than normal. Unless you enjoy popsicles while skiing, protect your water bottle or bladder from freezing. Ultimate and several other companies make winter-specific packs that have special insulation, but it helps to protect these by stretching a jacket over them or turning your bottle upside-down in your holder so that the tip does not freeze. And finally, when you finish your race or workout, get into dry clothes and begin hydrating immediately. If you follow all of this advice and have the proper equipment, you should not have any frozen parts. If something did get frozen out there, get medical attention and make sure that you warm the part slowly so as to avoid permanent damage. Nathan Schultz ****************


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