The Gearwhore Edition: Cold-Weather Racing

It’s that time of year again. The time when I dig out my boxed up hats, gloves, snow boots, and full-length down coat. The time when I mournfully put away my bikinis and sundresses. The time when the box is freezing for the 6am WOD. And the time when racing becomes a whole lot more…painful.

Gone are the days of racing in spandex shorts and a sports bra. The days of beanies, smart wool, compression gear, and yes–wetsuits, have arrived.

F*ck.

Nothing reminded me of this more than the Midwest Super Spartan this past week. The weather was eerily reminscent of World’s Toughest Mudder weather last year, and bite of the wind at 7am brought back vivid memories. I brought option after option of what to wear, and in the end, ended up OVERdressing. I was dying of heat 2 miles in, and looked forward to that last water obstacle solely to cool myself off.

But as I prepare for the rapidly approaching WTM (assuming I’m going), I remember that, most of the time, being overly warm is NOT the problem. And oddly enough, I’ve done more cold-weather races than I have warm weather races. Several races/challenges spring to mind that I can classify as “cold as f*ck”: WTM 2011, Indiana Tough Mudder, SERE D.C., Winter Death Race, etc.

I’d like to say that I have a system figured out–that I KNOW how to dress and prepare myself for the cold weather. I’ve fumbled my way through trial and error, I’ve underdressed, I’ve occasionally overdressed, but I’m still learning. So I bring to you, in NFL-style, my Matt Ryans and Tony Romos/Mark Sanchezes/Michael Vicks. (Is Matt Ryan the most underrated? I used to think it was Flacco, but not so sure anymore)

Overrated: UA Cold-Weather Compression Gear
Don’t get me wrong, I love Under Armour. Hell, my workout wardrobe is about 90% UA. But while everyone speaks of UA ColdGear like the holy grail of cold weather obstacle racing, it’s been pretty much a disappointment for me. While the compression is nice for movement, once it gets wet, there’s no warmth left. And it doesn’t dry as quickly as I’d like.

Underrated: Wool

S.E.R.E. Urban: Chicago
Specifically, smart wool and bio-merino wool. I have an I/O Bio-Merino wool top that I swear by–super light, quick-drying, and EXTREMELY warm. It made me die of heat at the Ultrabeast (til I went sportsbra style), and again at the Super Spartan. However, it’s easily packable so if you need to take it off, storing it in a pack isn’t a problem. It’s not tight-fitting like compression (as you can see from the pics), but I’ve never found it to be inhibiting while racing.

Overrated: Neoprene Socks
When I was preparing for WTM last year, everyone spoke of neoprene socks like they were the holy grail. I dunno–I wore neoprene socks for the entire race, and I still narrowly avoided frostbite on several toes. While they do insulate, they also keep your feet wet, which spells T-R-E-N-C-H-F-O-O-T. And blisters. Horrifying blisters. Not to mention how much room they take up in your shoes (so make sure to size up your racing shoes if you are wearing them).

Underrated: Injinji Toe Socks & Smartwool socks
After WTM, I traded the neoprene socks for a base of injinji with smart wool over. While toesocks are a pain in the royal ass to get on, they are the best blister prevention I’ve found. However, they are not warm enough for cold weather races on their own–hence, the smartwool topper. Both quick drying, but let’s be honest–your feet are never going to be completely dry in one of these races.

Overrated: Gloves
If you can find me a pair of gloves that works to keep your hands warm while wet, I will be forever indebted. I’ve tried pretty much everything: neoprene, sealskinz, wool, ski gloves, waterproof, Seirus All-weather, etc. When wet, NOTHING keeps the heat in (though Seirus is the best of the worst). On the other hand, if you aren’t going to have wet hands (think Winter Death Race), down-filled ski gloves are EXCELLENT. I stayed pretty toasty at the WDR with some cheapo ski gloves.

Underrated: Beanies
Everyone knows you lose some ridiculous percentage of your body heat through your head. So keep that noggin covered, all. I may look like a man (and have been mistaken for a man on the course while wearing a beanie), but at least it prevents THAT HAIR from letting loose (see, e.g., Ultrabeast pics)

Overrated: Waterproof boots/shoes
As many before me have said, shitty at keeping the water out, EXCELLENT at keeping it in. The only exception to this would be the Winter DR–since most of the water is frozen and you are only in the snow, waterproof boots are an excellent choice (especially with the snowshoe component this upcoming year). That being said, don’t wear them if you have to go take a dip in the pond under the ice 😉

Underrated: Snowboard/ski pants with vents

This one is unique to the Winter DR as well–I would laugh if I saw some of you all out at WTM in a pair of ski pants. But for the snow, uninsulated ski pants do the trick well. And the vents are fantastic if, say, you have to do 3,000 burpees (and everyone wondered why I was in a sports bra…). As I think I’ve said before, I was pretty toasty (and downright hot) at the WDR.

Overrated: Handwarmers
They get wet, they stop working. End of story. That being said, shake a couple before the race (if it’s only a few hours long), and they’ll be nice and toasty by the time you are done.

Underrated: Windbreakers
This one I owe to the indubitable Joel Gat. While I was freezing my ass off last year at WTM, he was toasty in a Gore-tex windbreaker. Yes, even through the water. And when I thought I was going to go the way of Steiner at S.E.R.E. D.C. in January and Joel gave me that windbreaker, I was toasty to no end. It’s simple: wind + wet = death. So while it may feel weird (and super-unflattering) to swim and crawl through mud in a windbreaker, I’m a believer.

Overrated: Putting on an extra layer of fat
Ok, ok, this may work. But vanity would get the best of me.

Underrated: Neoprene vest/hood combo
Yes, wetsuits are great, and I sure as hell will be wearing one at WTM this year. But the key is keeping your core warm, so if you are going to have a layer of neoprene, concentrate it mostly around your core, neck and head. And that neoprene hood serves as great insulation when you get zapped by the Arctic Enema (is that what they are calling it now? It’s been forever)

Overrated: Dry Suits
Sure, I imagine they work. But they are also incredibly expensive and you risk puncturing a hole in that spendy investment.

Underrated: Aquaphor
Every list I make always comes back to Aquaphor. This time, it’s not about chafing–it’s about windburn. I suffered from slight windburn this past weekend at the Super Spartan, but I’ll never forget the “face on fire I’m going to die” feeling after WTM last year. So lube up the face and the lips with regularity, or prepare to bathe in a vat of aloe gel.

Overrated: Booze
Unfortunately, “beer blanket” does not work here.

Underrated: Hot liquids
I kept a thermos of hot water in my tent during WTM. It was a godsend. As was the hot chicken broth at the aid stations, but that’s another story.

Overrated: Cleaning up post-race
That shower hose on-site is only going to make you colder. Bring clean towels, wipe yourself down, and save the shower for when you can sit in it for over a half hour.

Underrated: Down coats
For after the race. After WTM last year I threw on my full-length sleeping bag coat and felt my body temperature slowly come back to normal. Bring lots of dry, warm clothes for after any cold weather race.

And, for the record, no one is paying me off here for these views. I wish I was that important. So UA, don’t come after me, mmmmkay?

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