This race was going to be really cool, no pun intended?! It was the furthest distance I’ve ever raced, and the furthest I’ve ever traveled on just my feet, and I really was worried first about just finishing. Then, I was hoping to finish in a “decent” time, I was estimating 3, to 3 1/2 hours. At the start people were talking about last years times and saying that the fastest skiers were finishing in 2 hours, and the course average was around 2 1/2 hours?! SO, slightly panicky I slid towards the starting line and waited for the count down to start…
I’d skied some of the course on Friday when I got there, just to check it out, and see what the conditions were like. First, the elevation of the mesa is 10,500 ft. That’s about 2,000 feet higher than where I normally ski, and the trails on the Mesa are a lot narrower and twisty and rolling. At Devil’s Thumb, they are wider, straighter, but steeper. So, I was feeling at a definite disadvantage after my pre-ski. BUT, the scenery is stunning! BIG, HUGE, BEAUTIFUL BLUE SKY, EVERYWHERE! Full of Ponderosa, Red, and Spruce pine trees on top, and HUGE aspen glens ringing the edge of the mesa. AND they have 4 to 6 feet of snow on top of the mesa! So, I was determined to enjoy myself, cut myself some slack and say “just finish!”
The pre-race talk described the course as a kidney bean-shaped loop that we would repeat. The difference being that we would turn around at the half-way point, which was the start-finish line, and retrace our steps back out and around. This meant a pretty continuous undulating climb from the start to about mile 9, then an undulating downhill from 9 to 13, turning around at 13 and climbing back out to mile 17, then an undulating descent back to the finish.
The race starts, there are about 55 of us in the pack. The group was pretty evenly split between marathon and half-marathon skiers, and I quickly (accidentally) found myself in the upper half, in a group of about six skiers who seemed to be able catch and pass each other pretty easily, but never actually break away from each other. We weren’t the “elites,” but we were pushing ourselves as best we could.
Miles one, two, and three were pretty hectic. Lots of jumping and moving about, skiers catching our collective breaths. Taking in the scenery and the surroundings, but also staying tuned to the task, a nordic Marathon. The track was steadily climbing, and we were shifting from groom trail, to groomed forest roads, moving in and out of the shade, hitting faster and slower skiing snow in what felt to be a very random order. Gliding, the essential part of cross-country skiing, was problematic at best. Finally, into mile four our first “downhill” unveiled itself, and some actual skiing took place. The trail was wide, the snow really fast, and a tempo line formed. Three of us had nestled together, two others a bit ahead, with one just behind. The forest closed in and spruce tress provided markers for our quickening cadence. Left turn followed left turn, and soon we were reversing our course on a gentle rise to mile five and our fist aid station set up between five and six. I started to fall in my trio, and was soon passed by our back marker. I still can’t recall if it was the conditions, or my conditioning, I felt good, but wasn’t demonstrating it.
I was about thirty seconds behind at the aid station, and decided to take my time with water and gel. I didn’t need to rush it down, the trail wasn’t going anywhere. Having caught my breath, getting hydrated and nourished, pushing off with my poles seemed a little easier, and the pace was on again. It was a relief to be skiing alone. Something about falling into a rhythm with the other skiers had bothered me, but I only noticed it now that I was alone. The bulk, 98% of my skiing, running, cycling is solo, so the pace is always mine, and I never worry about passing or getting passed. If either happens, it just does. A half mile into this next leg, which so far had been tight, and sheltered, a larger opening revealed the other skiers were bunched together. One more set of undulating turns, and the trees parted, giving me the illusion of closing the gap. The track started to uncoil again, and with one more left-hand corner, we found the flat section we’d been pushing for, and yes I was back with my group! We traveled like this, getting back in sync over the next three miles. As the course flattened, there was more space for scenery. The snow was getting fast as the sun warmed it up, and openings allowed us to breath more easily. Maybe only psychologicially, but there was more room. Tempo resumed, passing ensued, sun came higher and sky become bluer!
As we approached mile 9, I knew we would be entering the narrowest, twistiest, most technical section. I didn’t want to be at the back of this group as I knew I was the stronger climber, and any descent speed would be negated by the tight turns, so I made a move to get around the closest three. I made a clear pass of the first, and started to go wide for the second pass, and BAM!!! I caught an edge of my right ski, and face-planted as hard as I ever have! I wouldn’t notice until Sunday night when I got home the black eye, and I wouldn’t feel the symptoms of a concussion until Monday night. And honestly, I still don’t feel great tonight. But, the Oakley’s didn’t break, the poles were on one piece (though my left ribs and shoulder don’t feel too great); I popped up as the person I just passed flew by?! She did ask if I was alright, but I replied “yeah…” and resumed my chase. Out of breath, having had the wind knocked out of me, and I just pumped and pumped as best I could. I passed her one more time and nearly passed another skier before the trees, but as soon as I could, I let her retake me as my cadence was really off, and I didn’t want to hold her up. There just wouldn’t be any passing in the next 3 miles.
We skied the trees, and I felt them getting further ahead, and I just wanted to lose as little time as possible. I just kept grinding it out, “pole-pole, ski, ski… pole-pole, ski, ski… until we hit the mid-way point. I actually skied into the second aid station on their heels, and we actually had reeled in another skier. Things were looking up?! I switched my skies left to right to get my better waxed surface underfoot. Took a full gel and breathed between gulps of water. I was wasting minutes and watched the three ski off… It didn’t matter. I just wanted to finish the next 13 miles. The funny thing is, we’d just finished the first HALF in 01:17:45… I was about a minute and 30 seconds AHEAD of my planned pace, and despite the crash, felt like a could keep skiing at that pace. SO, I just calmed myself, got myself situated and heading out, started thinking “isn’t there supposed to be a Wall that I have to push through at some point?!” Crap…
Narrows… short, quick steps! Not the easiest with my long legs and arms. Pole-pole, ski, ski… Pole-pole, ski, ski… “Wait, I’m catching those three, aren’t I?!” “Yeah?” “No…” “Maybe!” Soon enough, maybe with a mile to go in the trees I’m on the heels of the first skier, and he is really struggling! But, he’s a big guy, I can’t squeeze past him in this, and he isn’t relenting. I keep pushing him, but no, he won’t give. The uphills are too short and the turns too narrow to really gain an advantage… UNTIL, WAIT! THAT hill! “Yeah…” we hit a long one, maybe 30 feet long, but really steep, and he just doesn’t have it! I double my steps up and quickly slide past before the trail narrows, and I see the next skier another 30 feet ahead! I few more turns in the trees and we crest one last hill, and as the trees open onto a short downhill I break into a big stride and easily start putting distance on another skier!
We’re now near mile 17, I know I have A LOT of skiing to do, but I also know that I have a lot of OPEN, FLAT track in front of my, AND that when I get to mile 21, there will be another aid station, AND the track will begin to tilt downhill toward the finish! If I can just keep my arms working for three more miles, I can finish strong on my legs! I begin to add a set of ski-strides to each pole cadence to rest my upper body for the climbs, so I ski on… “pole-pole, ski-ski, ski-ski… pole-pole, ski-ski, ski-ski…” I can feel the conservation as I stride out, but the hills regardless of how short, feel more and more brutal each time I face one! I’m definitely feeling the elevation, and I’m now really not liking the time lost, and the feeling in my shoulder after the crash. Miles 18 and 19 are mercifully gentle, rolling and wide. Mile 20 makes up for it. Shorts, steep, twisty, blind… I’m trying to recall what I saw and felt an hour and a half before, as I first traveled through, but not much looks familiar. Then the super sharp turn left, then right! Mercifully, the cow bells ring our for the last aid station! I’ve been skiing alone for the 20 minutes. I haven’t seen anyone in front or behind in any of the long stretches. Big gulp of water, second gulp. Full gel back, only six miles… only six. Easy. 36 minutes I calculate. I can do this.
I push-off. Legs working. Lungs working. Arms and abs… “come on!” You’ve got this. Straight, slight downhill for half a mile, really gain speed. Sharp right, start to climb, sharp right, another straight. Out of the trees, flatter, flatter.
Pump the legs, stride out, that’s your forte, it has always been your legs! Glide, glide, trust your balance, stride and glide… slight left, open, wide, flat trail. Push, PUSH! Slight climb, see the trees, keep pushing, the downhill starts in the trees! Sharp left, now on a forest road, downhill(!), four miles to go! Push, push! Picking up speed, tuck, skate, skate, skate! Watch the right-hand turn, quick steps, quick steps. Flat again, another short rise (crap!) Break through another narrow section of trees, still climbing (fuck!). Turning left, descending (?), yes! Push, twisty downhill, tuck, push, tuck, push! Steep right-hand sweeper! GO, GO, GO!!! Gaining speed, but see the bottom and the turn and climb to the finish! Mile 25 and I’m careening through a sharp left-hand, and having to use my shortest, quickest most coordinated climbing technique, to get my momentum back; and even though I’m under a half-mile away from the finish, I know I have everything to lose if I don’t put EVERYTHING into it!? Kick! Kick! Pole-Pole! Keep kicking until the glide returns. “There it is!” The line! I can see it! “I’m going to finish this fucking thing!” The course flattens out, I can sprint, I can glide, and I can go through the finish line picking up speed! SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, I FINISHED!!!
02:35:12… 35 minutes faster than I targeted. 5 minute 50 second miles, about 1 minute and 10 seconds faster than I intended.
One of the coolest things I’ve ever done…