Surviving Sub-Zero Marathons (and other chilly encounters)

By: CXC Team Member, Andy Brown 

The 2013-2014 polar vortex taught me several, quite literally, painful lessons about what works and what doesn’t when the temperatures really bottom out. Everyone is an individual and has a different internal furnace and circulation, but these are the things that have worked for me.

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1. A light hat and a buff are basically mandatory when things are 5 degrees or colder. If things get really cold, a single buff is generally too thin and I like to switch to a thin balaclava. Balaclavas are shaped to fit your neck better and don’t bunch up quite as bad as two buffs. You don’t need much of a hat when it’s doubled up with a buff/balaclava and too thick of a hat will just make you sweat.

2. Breathing cold air, especially during hard exertions can hurt your lungs. The worst my lungs ever felt was after a 10k at zero degrees in which I wore a headband. Keeping your throat warm with a buff or balaclava really can help to prevent this. If it is truly arctic conditions the AirTrim breathing masks are the best solution. They look dangerously uncool, but it beats permanently damaging lung tissue.

3. Glasses are a no brainer and a must for cold conditions. They not only keep your corneas from freezing, but protect a fairly large portion of your face. Plus who likes getting snow in their eyes?

4. For the parts of your face not protected by your buff of glasses, Dermatone/vaseline and Warm Skin are great. For many people they are enough to keep frostbite at bay. If you have gotten frostbite before, I highly recommend moleskin at least on your cheeks. It looks weird but really does work. Put it on dry skin before any lotion to ensure it sticks. You can generally find it in the footcare/orthotic section of a store.

5. If you are prone to cold feet, boot covers are great. I generally don’t race in them, but they are nice for keeping your feet warm before the race. Don’t go crazy trying to jam extra socks in your ski boots, you’ll just restrict circulation.

6. For gloves it’s all about windstopper. Having normal size windproof gloves beat bulky mitts all the time. If you really get cold hands, Toko has sweet overmitts that block the wind and go on over your pole straps so they don’t mess up your strap adjustment. Also be careful at feeds not to splash liquid your gloves or you’ll freeze a finger or two.

7. To keep the rest of your body warm, windproof baselayers are great and can eliminate extra clothes that otherwise will make you feel bound up and inflexible. Craft makes several nice models. If all you have are normal long underwear adding duct tape to the front for the knees and over the groin makes a huge difference. It is under the suit and no one will notice

8. For guys, windbriefs. You want two layers of wind stopping material somewhere in your layers, especially for skate races. Ignore this rule at your own peril (and maybe that of your future offspring). An extra buff can also be stuffed down there in an emergency.

9. Feeding during a race in cold conditions can be problematic. I’ve poured boiling water into a drink bottle at the start of the Vasaloppet, only to have it turn into a solid block of ice by 30k. Energy gels also become impossible to eat if they freeze. For the most part I no longer bother trying to keep a bottle with me when it’s below zero. Instead I depend on aid stations and team support along the trail to give me warm fluids. I still carry energy gels, but I tape them inside my waistband where they stay warm enough to eat.

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