Monday, November 2, 2009

Mohair Skin Overview: Part 2 of Buy Your Way to Success

Mohair skins are faster, lighter and more compact than synthetic skins. If you’re looking to race competitively mohair skins should be considered necessary equipment. But like all other race specific equipment mohair skins can be tough to find in the US. I thought I’d compile an overview of all the mohair skins (that I know of) that are available out there.

Black Diamond and Marker offer mohair skins and also skins made of a mohair/nylon mix. I’ll skip those as they aren’t really race specific. Also, each manufacturer mentioned below makes skins with various mohair/nylon percentages designed for backcountry skiing. The idea being that the more nylon added to the blend the more durable the skin will be. Mohair skins are often described as quick to wear out. I haven’t kept track of the mileage and vertical I’ve put on two different pair of mohair skins, but it’s quite a bit. They are far from worn out.

A lot of people ask me "What is mohair, anyway?" My friend Ryan (pictured above) once asked me, "When they make mohair skins, does the Mo die?" No. The Mo is an Angora goat. The goat gets shorn for its fleece, not slaughtered.

I find racers seek out Colltex more than any other brand. I haven't yet skied a pair of these so I can't say definitively whether they are the fastest of the fast, but I do have a pair on order so I'll be able to do a review in the winter. Colltex markets the baby-blue "Special" (above) as their race specific skin.

Colltex's other 100% mohair skin is the red "Extreme." Colltex doesn't describe why they see this as non-race skin. I've talked to some people that have skied both of these two Colltex skins. They have said that the Extreme is their skin of choice for cold to very cold conditions while the Special is the skin for moderately cold to warm conditions. ROI distribution distributes the Swiss Colltex skins in North America, but finding them in stores is next to impossible. To my knowledge the Special model isn't brought in to North America at all. Here's the Colltex site. And the site of their North American distributor, ROI.

Pomoca skins are another famous race specific skin that a lot of racers seem to be into. I have never seen Pomoca skins sold in the US, but I have spoken to some Americans who have picked up a pair abroad. The reviews are always positive. Like Colltex, Pomoca produce another 100% mohair skin that they don't market towards racing. From reading the description of the two skins on their site it seems as if their "Race" skins are less densely packed with hair as compared to the "Touring" skin. Here's Pomoca's site.

I have an old pair of Dynafit skins that look identical to the ones that Pomoca produce. It's possible that Pomoca manufactured them for Dynafit. For what it's worth theses old, black Dynafit skins that I have are stellar. The hairs are remarkably short. The glue is so thin, perhaps a few hundredths of a millimeter, that along with the thin backing and short hairs, the whole skin becomes eye-poppingly compact and a bit lighter (105g for one) than any other race skin I've been able to weigh.

Thankfully Dynafit skins are easier to come by. Dynafit "Race Ready" skins feel and look as if they have far fewer hairs packed onto the skin. I imagine that makes the skin glide better. While the hairs are short and sparse the backing and glue are a bit bulkier and stiffer than the other race skins. Notably, they are slightly stiffer to handle than other race skins. Not frustratingly so, but some people have a stiff/supple preference which is usually related to air temperature. I don't have a pair of current Dynafit skins cut to race dimensions so I can't compare weight. Dynafit here.

Camp skins are definitely the most pleasant surprise I've come across. In high moisture snow, spring melt/freeze and warmer days during the winter these have proven faster than most. I was skeptical when I first purchased them because the hairs are a bit longer and are more densely packed. Plus the glue is a bit thicker (still 1/10 as thick as a typical Black Diamond skin). Surprisingly, they're only 10 grams heavier than my old Dynafit skins. And they're easy for Americans to get a hold of. Check em out.

We can't forget Ski Trab. I don't have any first-hand reviews of these, but if Trab puts their name on them odds are that they are high quality product. Info here.

Mohair skins come in all the attachment and width options that we're used to getting here in the US with synthetic skins. But the option of buying by the meter off a roll is huge benefit that isn't common in North America. You simply order the length you need in the width you need. It's less expensive without all the packaging and the tip and tail attachments which would get cut off a race skin anyhow.

Anyone know why most of these companies make their race specific skin powder blue? And if anyone out there has experience with the skins I haven't been on, I'd love some more reviews.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Share a Workout #1

I thought a shot like this of Gloriana Pellissier might help us all stay inspired through the final weeks without snow.

A while back I asked racers to submit workouts so that we all might learn from one another. Taking the first steps toward taking ski mountaineering racing seriously is daunting. There is a lot to learn and a lot of training to be done. Worst of all, if you don’t have an experienced racing mentor to guide you, you’re essentially inventing the training on your own. Sort of fun, but probably not very effective.

Tucker and Molly of Reno, Nevada kindly submitted this workout to share. Tucker, Molly, I appreciate your sharing very much so I know other knowledge hungry racers out there thank you as well. Tucker and Molly were the first people I met through racing. I met them at my very first race back in March of 2006. It’s always good to be racing alongside Tucker and Molly. Even if I’m racing against them I feel like I’ve got some friends on my side.

The workout:

2 x 4 min level 3 intervals with 4 min rest and then 2 x 8 min intervals, the first 6 min of each level 3 and the last 2 min of each of these level 4 with 6 min rest. 6 x 10 sec plyos and hill bounding drills.

For reference the "levels" referred to above are based on percentages of your maximum heart rate.
Level one 65%-75%, level two, 75%-85%, level three 85%-90%, level four 90-95% and level five 95-100%.

VO2 Max and Lactate Threshold

Some smart people told me I could get far more out of my training if I had some data on myself. Specifically, if I knew my maximum heart rate, my Lactate Threshold and my VO2 max I could tailor my workouts to train more effectively.

My town does not have a record store. My town has one bookstore. My town has one supermarket. My town does have at least one very educated Exercise Physiologist running state of the art equipment to test athletes’ VO2 max and Lactate Threshold. Definitely one of the few times I have gone in search of something and been able to say, "Oh, we have that right here in Mammoth."

Sue's friend Rita, the aforementioned Exercise Physiologist, does exactly this kind of testing at Sierra Park Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Therapy here in Mammoth Lakes. I made an appointment with Rita and we sat down for an hour and spoke about the demands and characteristics of ski mountaineering racing. Rita gave me some options and I elected to have two separate tests done; Lactate Threshold and VO2 max.

I did my Lactate Threshold test first. Lactate Threshold refers to the point at which an athlete can no longer clear out the lactate that it is produced in his muscles. The test was actually pretty tough. Rita had me warm up on a treadmill for ten minutes. Based on that warm up speed of my choosing Rita calculated a speed to begin the test at. It’s starts fairly comfortably and the increases in workload seemed rather civilized. But after a while on that treadmill it got pretty frickin hard.

Every four minutes my workload was increased by upping the pace or incline on the treadmill. At the end of four minutes I would put my feet to the side of the treadmill and Rita would prick my finger and take a blood sample. She would touch the small drop of blood on my finger to a stick which was inserted into a pocket size meter that looks just like the ones Diabetics use. This would measure the amount of lactate in my blood measured in millimoles per liter of blood. Then it’s back on the treadmill after about 30 seconds of a break for the finger prick. The welcome back comes in the form of an greater workload. This was repeated for over an hour! Initially my blood lactate content was going up .2 millimoles with each new workload. Rita continues increasing the workload until she sees blood lactate content go up 1.1 millimoles over the last measurement. By the time that came around I had been on the treadmill for nearly an hour and my legs were on fire (incidentally, Rita informed me that the burning sensation we feel in our muscles is not from lactate). Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end. In order to assess how well my body clears out lactate Rita continued the test for several more workloads, thankfully at one workload level beneath highest one, the one that produced the blood lactate spike.

Though blood lactate levels and heart rate are not directly linked, heart rate can be a good indicator of where an athlete is at relative to his or her lactate threshold. I hope to do a full interview with Rita soon and she can clarify some of the specifics. The idea then, is that with a heart rate monitor an athlete can know how close he or she is to her own lactate threshold.
A week later I was back at S.P.O.R.T. for my VO2 max test. It was shorter by a long way, under 12 minutes in length. But it’s no more pleasant. This time I had to breathe through a tube shoved in my mouth with a clamp over my nose. I got to wear that really cool looking head gear. It's about as fun to wear as it looks. This test measures the volume of oxygen a person inspires per minute, per kilogram of body weight. After a short warm up I’m on the treadmill with the contraption on my head. Each minute the pace or the incline of the treadmill goes up. I think I survived 11 workloads before I couldn’t run anymore. Fortunately that marks the end of the test.

The biggest benefit for me was that included in the cost of the tests is an eight week training outline designed by Rita. The total cost of the two tests was $220. Are you kidding? I can’t imagine more bang for the buck. An athlete gains an awful lot of information for $220. And to have a personalized, optimized training plan constructed just for me is something I would have expected to pay twice as much for on its own. The training outline, by the way, is not vague. It describes exactly what I need to be doing each and every day. Every workout is broken down to exactly what my heart rate should be at any given point, what my perceived level of exertion should be, how long I need to be warming up and cooling down... I could go on. In summary, I’m stoked.

Most colleges and universities offer such testing. Or perhaps your local hospital has a Rita and all the technology just like my tiny town does.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Race Boots

I imagine post after post about training might be getting a bit dry. For randonee racers fitness should be the focus this time of year, but in second place should be sorting out your equipment. I thought a breakdown of all the boots specific to racing would be helpful for people unfamiliar with some of these harder to find pieces.

The La Sportiva Stratos will be left out of the review as it wont be available this year.

In the beginning there was the Scarpa F1
This was Scarpa's first boot intended for racing. Now they have two additional models that are even more specific to racing (described below). But the original F1 makes a great backcountry boot that can quickly convert to race mode and back to recreational backcountry skiing mode by removing the tongue and power strap. At $689 it's also the least expensive of all racing boots currently being manufactured. 1350g.

For those used to "regular" AT boots the F1 will feel short and soft. With practice people find it's not long until the boot begins to feel normal and enables the skier to attack 95% of the terrain they would while wearing their stiffest boot. Aside from being lighter than a standard AT boot, the F1 has two major advantages that make it a great choice for racing. One, the large lever on the rear of the boot enables the skier to switch from walk to ski mode while it simultaneously tightens the cuff around your leg. It makes transitions faster and smoother. Two, the boot has bellows in the forefoot just like a telemark boot, but yes, it's an AT boot. The bellows allow the boot to walk in a much more natural fashion. When skinning on low angle terrain a skier can keep the ball of his foot on the ski much like a nordic skier does in classic technique. Thus, the skier is able to generate more power. When one must briefly skin downhill the bellows allow far more control compared to a boot that doesn't flex because the skier can keep the ball of the foot on the ski. Walking around in F1s is great. The bellows and the paltry weight make the boot feel more like a sneaker than a ski boot. The original F1 is a great choice for people who do some racing, but would still like to use the boot on their other randonee set ups.

The Scarpa F1 Race
Scarpa took notice that close to every racer on the F1 ripped out the tongue, tossed the power strap, replaced the two buckles with something lighter and ground the rubber off the area of the sole underneath the arch of the foot. Two years ago they introduced the F1 Race. It has all the those time consuming race modifications pre built-in. Or rather built-out. It costs a bit more at $799, but it's quite light at 1120g. It skis a bit stronger than an original F1 with the tongue removed as the F1 Race has a mini tongue attached the cuff to stiffen things up a bit and spread out the contact area on the skier's shin.

The F1 Carbon
Scarpa's third entry into the racing world is the F1 Carbon. At $1,500 it reflects the price of carbon and the price of racing on the lightest/strongest equipment. I own an F1 and I race it with no tongue. Really the only complaint I have about the boot is it's downhill performance. The carbon cuff addresses that, and retains everything that makes the F1 and F1 Race so great. Keeping the lower half of the boot in it's original Pebax material makes the boot more durable compared to an all carbon boot. I haven't skied this boot, but based on appearances it should ski quite aggressively. 840g.

New this year is Dynafit's DyNA
It even looks fast. Like the F1 Carbon only the cuff is carbon. Making the lower shell out of plastic allows it to be flexible (where it needs to be) and durable. The forefoot is designed to flex, but it is not a full bellow like the F1. It has only 5mm of travel. A friend who has skied the boot tells me that you can't really feel the flex even though you can see the boot moving. Since it is a true race boot the walk/ski mode lever also tightens the cuff. The DyNA also has a pair of fittings in the toe that allow the skier to slide their foot into the binding's toe unit until the boot's fittings mate with the binding. I have tried that feature out on another Dynafit boot and it really does work. That could save a racer the frustration of not being able to line up their boot when they're breathing hard. This boot is likely to ski better downhill than the F1 and F1 race, but it will be interesting to compare it to the F1 Carbon to see which of the two is strongest on the downhill. $1,400. 920g.

Pierre Gignoux XP444
"Who?" you may be asking. Pierre Gignoux is a former ski mountaineering racing champion turned equipment manufacturer. He has two boot models, a boot liner, a gaiter for the boots and a really cool binding heel unit that weighs 50g. His products are outstanding. Virtually every top racer in the world is on his boots.

The XP 444 by Pierre Gignoux is by far the lightest boot on the market at 444g. That's the shell only. If you include Pierre's 140g liner, which is sold separately, the boot comes to 584g. Not surprisingly, that liner is also the lightest on the market. How are these boots so much lighter? Primarily it's the fact that they are 100% carbon. But Pierre is also using a lighter sole than anyone else. The 444 is also the first boot to ever use dynafit fittings that aren't metal. They too, are carbon- Dynafit receiving holes shaped right into the carbon. Should be interesting to see how those hold up. Reviews I have heard from owners are that nothing comes even close for downhill power. The boot does not flex in the forefoot, which is actually better than a flexing boot on steeper skin tracks. The ski/walk mode lever will tighten the cuff for one-movement transitions. Weighing about two thirds of anything else reviewed here prompts one to ask, "Is there a downside?" Yes. First, carbon fiber may be the stiffest and lightest material out there, but it's also brittle. Many racers have expressed frustration about the XP's propensity to crack. I haven't yet heard of any catastrophic failures, more about rock punctures and quasi-repairable stress fractures. The only other negative is the price 1,300 Euro for the shell plus 100 Euro for the liner comes to $2,060.

My new theory is that the idle rich would make the best ski mountaineering racers. They have the money to buy all the best equipment. They have the money to hire personal trainers and nutritionists. They can afford to travel to whichever races they please. And with all that time on their hands they can train at unbelievable quantities. I foresee the world champions of the future arriving to their races in private helicopters.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Talent Myth

The following essay is something that inspired me. It was something I always believed true, but was never able to articulate. Here is Scott Semple's "The Talent Myth."

“My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”

A friend and training mentor once told me, “The secret of the pros is that they train in secret.” For a while that made sense. It seemed that where performance is highly optimized — and where optimization is highly coveted — it would make sense that methodology would be closely guarded.

But secret methodology is the province of world-class athletes; not of participants; nor of enthusiasts. Most people — if sufficiently motivated, and if unencumbered by lame excuses that they assign to genetics — want to know the secret that distinguishes the pros from themselves. The real “secret” of the fit, the fast and the “talented” is no secret at all; it’s a much harder pill (than genetics) to swallow. And no one will accept it because of what it demands: real commitment in the form of regular, consistent, indefinite practice. And real practice demands devotion.

THE PROS TRAIN. And they train consistently and indefinitely. In other words, they commit.

People love to say that they don’t train (or practice or study…) They think it makes their mediocre performance more impressive. Or they use a hero as an example, saying he or she doesn’t practice either. But the truth is that anyone who becomes really world-class good at anything has devoted a large part of their lives to that thing — often to the exclusion of all else. They may not call it “training” or “practice;” the actual labels are irrelevant. It’s the time spent that counts.

“Practice” and “training” are not timelines and diet plans — although those are effective parts of it. Real training means committing to the process: showing up at the keyboard or behind the lens or in the ring or on the rope, and doing it religiously, even when you’re tired, even when you’ve got nothing to say, even when it’s too cold, too hot, too hard.

People wish they had talent. They see it as a practice-free ticket to crowd-stunning skill. But talent doesn’t exist. “Talent” doesn’t get results; practice and devotion do.

Was Picasso gifted from birth with the talent to become an artistic genius? Or was he gifted with the tenacity to become a genius at anything? As he wobbled down the street on his first bicycle, did his mother see her son’s uncommon ability, or his uncommon focus and determination? What led her to predict that he would be great? Was he out-of-the-womb a brilliant finger-painter? Or was he just stubborn?

Scott has many excellent pieces like this on his website.

Friday, September 18, 2009

My Horrible Friend

About this time last year I spotted these switchbacks on the northern aspect of McGee Mountain. I knew as soon as I laid eyes on that road that it was exactly the training terrain I had been looking for: maximum vertical over the least linear distance. Obviously one could take "most vertical gain over least distance" to its end, which would be a sheer face. But I was looking for the steepest trail that could be run. I haven’t yet found something that equals these switchbacks. 2,200 vertical feet in under 3 miles.

Last year I trained here nearly everyday. Not having any formal education in workout theory I reasoned that since I was training for a sport that took place moving uphill I should only train going uphill. That idea certainly made me tough, but all the smart folks I talk to say that I wasn’t getting the most out of my workouts.

I had only been back to the road up McGee Mountain once this year. Going back to ski walk there this morning felt good. It was like visiting an old friend. Last year that horrible road and I became very close. I trained there no less than three times a week from the beginning of September to the end of December. I ran on that thing in the blaring sunshine, in 40 mile per hour winds, in the rain and in the snow. I visited him to suffer and in return he gave me strength. Even though I will see him less this year he will always be my favorite place to train.

Today’s workout designed by Sue Burak for my cardiac pleasure was a series of four 7 minute intervals at 75 - 85% max heart rate. The intervals were done moving uphill and the one minute rests in between were done walking downhill.

Having a hill like this is the ideal terrain to prepare for ski mountaineering races. Learn from my mistakes, don’t use such a hill everyday. But certainly make use of the hill you find, it will be the best terrain to run your intervals on and it will provide the best dry land simulation of our sport.

Train hard, but smart.
The first races are 16 weeks away.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rollerskiing! Spandex!

It was a long week at the store I work at. It was busy with the holiday weekend and on my "Friday" I went home completely drained. I wasn't able to workout three days this week so I was amped for some training.

Today Sue was kind enough to let me borrow her rollerskis and boots yet again. I'm still acquiring my own rollerski set up, but I'm not far from finally owning my own rig. Rollerskiing seems to me the ultimate summer time sport for rando racers. Plus you can get away with wearing spandex! Everyone knows we can't get enough skintight clothing.

I had worked fairly hard over the previous two days, running some hill intervals and doing some ski walking intervals on a fairly steep trail, so today was supposed to be an easy to moderate roll.

As per usual it was an easy jaunt for Sue and an absolute beatdown for me. I'd like to say it's because she's on the faster roller skis. On the bright side we got some pictures of ourselves to evaluate form.

We worked on double pole technique today. If you're unfamiliar it's a technique where your legs remain motionless and you use your poles to roll yourself along. It works nearly every muscle in the upper body, but focuses especially on the abs and triceps. Dynafit has stated that racers often produce 50% of their uphill force with their poles. Obviously double pole workouts will be a boon to poling power.

As far as technique, here are the key points. Keep your head up and your body in a forward fall. Your torso can move up a bit, but should not become upright. As you pole think about locking your torso to your arms. Compress your upper body toward the ground, but not so far that it becomes parallel to the ground. Arms should be close by your sides to keep the poles pushing straight back. My upper body looks fairly good in this photo.
My leg positioning could use some work. Hips should be over the ankles and knees should be over the toes. My knees need to come forward a smidge and my hips need to come forward quite a bit. As for the photo up top... yikes. Those knock knees are downright grotesque. The other glaring error is that my arms need to be in next to my body.

Sue could also move her knees and hips forward in this photo. If you haven't taken rapid fire continuous photos or video of yourself skiing, you're missing out. The first few times I saw myself on video I dropped my jaw. "I ski like that!?" The things that need to change about our technique never seem to feel significant until we see images of ourselves. Images of ourselves seem to make a special connection. Suddenly we begin to work on improving our habits. If you're not up for seeing photos of yourself looking like a gaper, don't worry- I'm a master at it. And I put my photos on the internet.