Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The venerable skimo tow rope
 I just raced in my third consecutive 5 Peaks at Breckenridge, probably the most low key team race in Colorado. The others all seem to attract larger crowds and more of the faster racers but this one is kind of quiet. I think that conflicts with European races and recovery from other long races before it are the factors that contribute most but who knows? Anyway, it has the vibe of a race at a smaller resort but you are at Breck. The race stays pretty high on the mountains and if the weather is bad it can put your cold weather race strategy to the test. More importantly though I think it is an excellent race to work out the kinks that team events add to your skimo repertoire. That is what Ill wade through here.

Expectation Management / Team Dynamics

Team racing has to be looked at differently than individual races. This is mainly because it is probably impossible for two racers to be the exact same speed. This means you have to accept that for the faster racer the team time will be less than you could get on your own. For the slower racer, you dont want to feel like you are just doing a team event at the speed of the slowest racer so why is the faster one paying an entry fee. Having been in both positions I know there can be stress and frustration for either party. Talking about expectations before hand is the most important part of addressing this. Obviously if you are just there to hang out this is easy but why didnt you just go tour for free? If you want to race, you should talk about what your race times are in other races hopefully ones you were both in and understand what the team dynamic will be. Id say that as a rule of thumb you may not want to race with anyone who is more than 30 minutes off your time in an individual race of similar length. For instance, my partner this year and I finished about 25 min apart at Taos which had about 6k vert compared to the 7k vert of this years 5 Peaks. He has been consistently about this much faster in the few races we have both been in. We agreed that our goal would be to "split the difference" in our theoretical individual finish times in the 5 peaks which seems to be a reasonable goal.

There are other things that factor into team dynamics such as the fact that now twice as many things can go wrong! Be mentally prepared so when something does happen you are ready to give some encouragement or help instead of secretly grind your teeth. We are not going to solve world hunger in a skimo race so we may as well just have fun!

Throughout the race, stay positive and communicate that to your partner! An occasional, "Nice work!" comment is probably a really good thing!

For the slower racer, here are a few important things to keep in mind. First, to keep the leader motivated, do everything you can to push yourself and at the same time aim for ZERO "errors" that slow down your team. Crashing on descents, bonking, losing a skin, etc slow the team down more than you realize. Be flawless. Ski in control even if you have to ratchet  it back a little, consume calories regularly and have flawless technique. Since you will probably be last into transitions, get those down to the fastest possible transitions. I set a goal of beating my stronger partner at the transition to keep things moving. And of course, push yourself but never redline it till near the end or the strategy dies.

For the faster racer, be encouraging and check that your partner is staying fueled. Know when you might need to slow things down a notch to keep your partner in the race. Also, be the navigator, know that your partner is doggedly doing their best and relying on you to find the most efficient path where choices exist. Also, on small downhills that you sometimes encounter on ascents remember you have a racer you are yanking down that little hill right behind you. keep moving when you hit the bottom!

One final thought. I think that the coolest team strategy would be to team up with someone you can consistently team up with on a given race over multiple years. Switching partners like I have had to do just to race doesnt give you any real performance feedback. Why do I think this is important? Well, most of the late season races are team races and it is tough to assess any season long performance gains if you keep racing with different partners. Also, I am a big fan of the bonds formed by shared suffering! Be deliberate about your suffering and you will reap rewards many never see!

Towing

Towing is probably the most important team strategy for "splitting the difference" in racer times and I think it is not well understood by the wider audience of skimo racers. I know I had no clue until this year on how to do it correctly and I have not come across anything online that details this strategy well.

Tow rope in action

No tow rope
The way Ive thought about towing in the past was wait till your partner dies and then start dragging them. It sucks. There is also some macho thing with guys at least where even if you have a tow rope you dont want to use it I guess at least in some cases. This is all silly and results in slower team times. If you want to push yourselves, you need to approach towing differently.

We were poised on the start line when Eva Hagan looked over and matter of factly asked why, if we were planning on towing, we were not already tethered. We kind of looked at her with stupid looks as the countdown hit "20 seconds" and then thankfully, at the last second (literally), took the advice of this super experienced racer! It opened my eyes to effectively using this strategy. One note, tethering at the start is supposedly against ISMF rules and if you are super serious about all of this and in a sanctioned race you cant tether within so many meters of the start. How many? Im too lazy to go look it up because that is never going to be an issue with me!

So, the way to tow right is to definitely START the race towing and tow throughout the race whenever the route allows for it. The trick here is to keep gentle tension on the tow rope. This allows the slower skier to go just a little faster without hitting the wall and doesnt kill the slightly faster skier. The reason to do it from the start is that if you dont you will build up a deficit later in the race and end up dragging the slower skier. I can heartily recommend against that! Gently towing from the start meant that kept being passed in the first half hour of the race but I was able to keep my breathing below panting while going faster than I could have alone. There were 4 real ascents in the race and by the last half of the second ascent we were chasing down teams. More importantly we had the leg strength left to pass a lot of teams on the descents and the energy to keep making speedy transitions. In the final bit of nordic rollers before the finish we even go tto almost catch one more team, battling it out to the end ewhich was super fun. I didnt have it in me to overtake them but that was a super fun finish and we would not have made it to that point in that time if we hadnt used this strategy. For the leader this means you will be going slower than top speed. Dont strain too hard because you are putting more energy into the race earlier than you realize. Find that happy medium!

I hope this makes sense- try it out at a team race and I think you will like it, I know it will be my approach from now on.

So, it you are convinced you should tow, how do you tow? Some race packs have a built in tow strap like CAMP's Rapid packs.Others dont. If your pack has a built in strap, you will need to add a carabiner to the far end. A small wiregate or even a non load bearing biner work. I like the wiregate because it is a little easier to operate with gloves. If your pack doesnt have a tow strap you can easily make one like the picture at the top of this article shows. You can either clip the strap to a part of your pack or wear a light climbing harness and clip it to the load loop or waist belt on the rear.

If you make your own tow strap, use 1/4 inch bungee or braid 3 smaller bungees. You want stretch but not an awful lot. Make the whole thing no less than 8 feet long but 10 may be better if you are tall. Experiment with your partner. Make sure you practice kick turns! That can be tough if the follower is not choreographing their movements with the leader. Speaking of which, the follower should if at all possible ski "in step" with the leader matching their stride for a smooth pull.

The follower / towee should ideally have a harness and clip the strap to the belay loop. In a pinch you can clip to a hip belt of a pack but the harness is a better option.

When the team hits a descent or terrain that is too tricky for towing the towee just unclips the biner and lets the leader know they are unclipped. The leader wraps the strap around their waist a few times and clips the biner off to a pack strap or something handy. When it is time to tow again, just reverse the process.

Speaking of untowable terrain, always unclip for downhills. Duh! Just had to say it 'cause of the lawyers... Regarding ascents, if you get in some really tight kick turns towing doesnt help at all and gets in the way of poles. However, kick turns with longer sections between them can be easily towed, the follower just needs to closely match the stride of the leader in the turns. Boot packs are probably best untethered to ensure better balance but you should experiment with this one.

Bottom line, you definitely want to try towing before you do it in a race if you can. If not, just roll with it, you will get better each time and your team time will improve as you tow better!

Other Techniques

Teams can create efficiencies through the "many hands make light work" mantra. When one person needs something from a pack, you can often have your teammate extract it on the move. You should also be constantly checking each other out for gear issues. I noticed my partner had his heel elevator still in the flipped up position and he was skinning on his heel U spring- sooner or later that would have been a bad surprise. I called it and fixed it faster than he could have done so since we were on a steep section.

Another great team strategy is carrying the slower partner's skis on boot packs. You can carry them in your hand for easy booters and most packs have the ability to strap a second set of skis to them. Using this feature will definitely require some team practice if you want it to be efficient in a race. By the way, if you hand carry skis, dont drop them! I have seen that and it sucks to be that guy.
One style of partner help- carrying skis
Something that is not a very good strategy in typical skimo races but works great in longer venues like the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse is to put more gear in the stronger person's pack and if necessary throw the slower racer's pack on top of your own. Just lengthen the shoulder straps and toss it on- its pretty quick to do and stable to ski with.

Conclusion

Team races are a lot of fun! To get the most enjoyment you can out of them try this stuff out and see what you think. As always, if you have additional ideas or think Im off base, let me know. I hope you have a blast in your next team race and put some of these suggestions to good use.

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