This one is long. And I feel it needs pictures. Maybe I’ll update the post later.
I will openly admit it. I am nervous. Tomorrow I will participate in my first cross country ski race. Looking at the results from last year, I am preparing myself to finish last.
But the good news is, I won’t be finishing alone. How does that work? Well, not only am I finishing last, there is a good chance I will be finishing with people who are skiing twice the distance.
And I’m left to wonder just what have I gotten myself into.
It’s a challenge. A challenge of the mind. A challenge of the body. The big question will be: Which gives out first – the mind or the body? I have pre-run the course a couple times. I know exactly what to expect. And it isn’t pretty. But I also know my inner competitor will kick in at some point. That inner beast will help me kick my way to the top of the hills, and push me to accelerate across the finish line. In all the years I’ve been competing the inner competitor has always risen to the challenge. I have yet to tap out. I have finished every challenge I have started. And I have no intention of letting this one be any different.
And yet I don’t remember ever finishing last in an individual event. Sure, I’ve been on teams that bombed out hockey tournaments with the first eliminated and zero wins. But that’s a group effort at misery. The individual “failure” will be new to me.
And then I raced.
Race day went almost nothing as expected. First, it was about 30 degrees warmer at race start than it usually is. For a race involving snow, this is not a good thing. But I left my skis with Igor at the ski shop for a few days for a good race prep. The man knows his wax and knows how to track the weather. The skis performed flawlessly.
I believe the highlight of the day was when my daughter decided she wanted to do the kids 1k event. And she did it and did it well. There were only three kids skiing the “classic” style (As opposed to skate skiing.) And she finished second in that group.
The sign up for the kids race was right in front of the map of courses. During that sign up is when I knew my day was not going to go as planned. They had changed the course for the 17k. Instead of one loop of the 30k with a little extra at the end it was two laps of a smaller loop. This means two things: 1) I would get to hear the crowd and see people at the half way point. 2) The last section of climbing wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I would have to climb the first hills twice. I don’t like those first hills so much. The climbing is steep and rather difficult. The downhill is thankfully short, but incredibly steep. The good news? The last 2 miles back to the start/finish/half are all down hill. And the snow was fast. GPS data puts me right at 1:30/mile on the downhill parts. On skis that don’t have metal edges.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took two short warm-ups. The first to check the wax on the skis. The second to get the muscles and heart moving, and to actually practice skiing. I watched the start of the 30k. That’s when I realized I really had no idea what I was in for. See, no one told me race protocol dictates one is to stay in the cut ski track at the start and use a “double pole” technique out of the starting area. I hadn’t practiced that. Thankfully, there’s isn’t much to it.
After the 30k racers cleared the start, us 17k racers lined up. My various running events have taught me a rather common courtesy: If you know you aren’t competing for the top 10 don’t start in front. So I found a nice spot about three people back behind some older folks. Like, AARP members older. The idea there was something else I know from running – don’t start too fast in a long distance event.
The start went much as I figured it would – apart from the double pole. Pole out, then skate. One person fell on the transition. I was sure that was my fate. But I somehow managed to escape. As far as I know no one else went down at that point.
And then I heard it. Cowbells.
No, not quite like the SNL skit: http://youtu.be/BjsUf_oIgp0
Like the kind you can hear echoing across a snow covered meadow during a race. Like the thoroughbred to the starting gate, my horse wanted to go. It was there, the inner competitor. But it was early. Really early. Not even a half mile into the eleven mile event. And it was all I could do to keep it reigned in and under control. Had I gone all out at that point I know I would have caught the leaders of the group. I also know it would be less than a mile before the whole group caught and passed me as we hit the first uphill section. At that point I would be left at the back of the pack.
Not long after that the group of racers spread out. I fell in behind a couple of people that were about the same pace as me. And we skied. We climbed. At the top I backed off and let them go well ahead. I figured there were even odds I was going to wipe out on this hill and there was no point taking someone else out with me. And I never caught them again. And there was more climbing. Followed by the long, fast down hill.
And I fell.
Thankfully, there was no one in sight. I was able to pop back up and get back into my groove and keep on trucking. A quick mile or so had me entering the base area. And there were people. Most of them were ignoring me. I could hear the announcers voice, but not what he was saying. I could hear the drills at the demo huts waxing skis. I could hear the people at the aide stations telling racers which was water and which was gatorade. Out the corner of my eye I noticed my daughters ski pants. Dang those are bright. But everyone was quiet. Not even paying attention. As I was almost past, I heard the cheers and the little cowbells my wife had bought for the kids. I briefly saw and heard some friends that were in the area who said they may stop by. And then they were gone.
At that point I looked at my watch. Could that be right? 36 minutes to the half? That’s a solid 10 minutes faster than I had hoped and 15 minutes faster than I expected. But I kept on trucking. This section was as flat as it gets and I was enjoying myself. Focusing on technique and breathing, similar to the half way point in a long run. The real climbing started again. The only difference this time was being passed by people working on their 2nd lap of the 30k. I’m not exactly sure what the etiquette for that might be on a narrow ski path, but they said “on your left” and I happily yielded. At one point I even pulled off and glided to a near stop to let a few guys by. They actually said thank you, so I felt good about that. Near a very narrow part one of the passing skiers got tangled with one of the being-passed skiers and went down. Two of us were nearby and skied in to help gather hats, water bottles, and get this guy back on his feet. You don’t see much of that in other sports. Again, I felt good to be part of that. Especially since I didn’t cause the take down.
More climbing. I feel myself getting slower. I’m looking forward to the rolling hills section so I can get my momentum back up. That comes and goes. It was less joyful than I had hoped. One more climb. And I can feel the wheels coming off. The legs don’t want to. The mind isn’t sure what to do. And there’s another group ready to pass. I’m nearly stopped. So I do what comes naturally. I pull to the side and cheer them on as they move through. I see a smile and a thumbs up. And it’s back to my inner struggles. I’m still not sure I came to a full stop, but with the climb, I must have. I know it’s not far to the middle aide station, I just can’t see or hear it from where I am. That’s my goal. Make it there.
Gatorade has never tasted so good. I chose to stop to drink. I’m not sure I could have managed a cup and my ski poles in motion. I make sure to thank the guys staffing the pit stop and shoot off down the long steep section. No falling this time. The GPS data says I wasn’t quite as fast as the first lap, but that’s fine. I’m still moving. A few more rolling hills. Some turns. On a downhill section I’m passed by a group of 3-4 guys in college ski team gear. They are finishing their 30k. I can hear the announcer at the finish. We’re getting close. I can hear the announcer talking through the finish of the first place 30k college kids. I work through the start/finish aide station and start to kick. I pause momentarily looking for my friends and family. They aren’t there. In fact, the crowd has mostly gone. Without cowbells I start to kick it in. I can hear the announcer mention my name. Something about a strong finish. And I cross the line. I don’t mind saying it was rather anti-climactic. It was a small event with almost no crowd. The ski conditions were good, so the crowd went skiing. I managed to stop my watch. That’s when I noticed the time. 1:17 and change. A good 15 minutes ahead of my optimistic finish time and a good 30 minutes ahead of my expected finish time. No wonder my cheering section wasn’t there. I wasn’t supposed to be there yet.
And that’s when the day got really fun. My wife had my jacket. If I didn’t keep moving I was going to get cold. But I just didn’t have enough in me to ski more. So I jumped in at the aide station and started cheering for finishers and handing out drinks. The colder I got, the more I cheered. But the skiers were getting farther apart. The cold was coming. At that point I started really noticing who was around me and who was working the station. I was surrounded by ski patrolers and a couple resort workers. At that point I noticed one of the resort workers had been calling me by name. This was the lady that helped me fill out the paperwork to drop the skis off for the race prep. And she remembered me. One of the ski patrolers noticed by my posture that I was getting cold and offered me a jacket. And life was good.
Conclusion: The day was a success. My race was a success. The people in the cross country ski community simply rock.
To top it all off, I didn’t finish last. I was the 2nd to last male finisher in the 17k. But I was only 20 minutes off the leaders.
This was my first ski race. I doubt it will be my last.
Until next time, don’t let the fat man catch you!