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How to Survive a Freezing Ass Cold Race Day

Last weekend’s HITS sent some athletes running for heat. Here’s how to conquer a cold race day—and when to call it quits.

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According to the East Bay Times, 30 triathletes dropped out of last Saturday’s HITS Triathlon in Napa Valley, Calif. with symptoms of hypothermia. In addition to air temperatures hovering around 45 degrees at race start and water temperatures reportedly below 60 degrees, racers also faced intermittent rain during the half and full iron-distance events.

It’s not the first time athletes have faced freezing race days. Events have been held for decades in which competitors were forced to abandon due to hypothermic-like symptoms. Most famously, at last year’s Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, current Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf had to withdraw due to hypothermia along with eight other pros. Before she dropped out, Ryf donned rubber dishwashing gloves in an effort to combat the chill.

There was snow at Ironman Lake Tahoe in 2013, an event that had even colder conditions than the HITS event and had a DNF rate of 20 percent.

Even absent a swim and bike, in 2011 thousands of runners were evaluated for hypothermia at an uncharacteristically rainy LA Marathon—26 were taken to the hospital according to an LA Times story. One of those 26 also happened to be Triathlete’s own Editor–in-Chief Erin Beresini (read her account here). And a Tough Mudder in the mountains outside of Los Angeles the same year sent frozen participants streaming down the mountain looking for fire.

Though USA Triathlon—the organization sanctioning the HITS event—does not have any guidelines on when to cancel a swim due to low temperatures, the ITU does. In fact, the ITU directs organizers to cancel the swim when air temperatures go below 41 degrees, regardless of water temperature. The ITU also has a chart in their rulebook that gives a ratio of air to water temperatures that they believe are too dangerous to compete in—according to their chart, once the air goes below 45 degrees, an ITU swim will be cancelled if the water is also under 61 degrees. John Eickman, vice president of HIT, also says that he felt it was less the water temperature alone, but more the air temperature combined with fast descents and light rain that seemed to cause racers the most issues in Napa Valley.

Hypothermia or not, a cold day can make for a rough race, so what can the average triathlete do to prepare for a chilly tri (aside from rocking Ryf-inspired mitts)? We spoke to 2013 Norseman XTreme finisher, extreme endurance junkie and owner of Seattle-based Evergreen Endurance Coaching Jessica Kelley about her experiences in dealing with arctic conditions:

What is the most extreme event that you’ve raced?
Kelley: “Iditasport 200 in Alaska. After four days of sleep deprivation, I was literally falling asleep on my feet and was forced to bivvy on a frozen river as temps dropped to -30 degrees with windchill. I had a -20 degree sleeping bag, so it was survivable, but definitely not comfortable.”

Kelley’s tips for dealing with the cold temperatures:

  • “Do multiple training swims in water that is approximately the same temperature as the water [on race day]. Your body can physiologically adapt to swimming in very cold water, but the changes don’t happen overnight.”
  • “After one of your very cold training swims, hop on your bike and go for a hilly ride, preferably in cold and wet weather. Test your gear and your mental fortitude in the conditions you might encounter on race day. Confirm that you have enough layers to get warm and stay warm on the bike. On the flip side, you might learn that you don’t need as many layers as you think, because climbing hills tends to generate heat.”

What do you think is the most important piece of gear when racing a triathlon in cold conditions?
Kelley: “For me, it’s a great pair of gloves for the bike. The gloves need to be warm and toasty, but still allow enough dexterity so I can shift gears, brake, eat and drink. If your knees get cold as you ride, it’s not the end of the world. But if your hands don’t function because they are too cold or your gloves are too thick, it can make a difficult race feel impossible.”

For more tips, check out our recent story on cold-water training for chilly events.