Thursday, February 2, 2012

X-C ski marathon - something new

I learned how to cross-country ski when I was young, and I've always enjoyed it.  It's not something I got good at or sought out, but it was fun whenever I got the chance.  I certainly wouldn't live in a snowy climate just for that (John, you don't have to worry), but since I'm here...

The folks up in Craftsbury Common, VT put on a X-C ski marathon last weekend.  Hey, something to try!  I signed up for the "recreational class" which is supposedly the less-stressful category, but in reality that only meant I had 10 fewer minutes before the cutoff time partway through the event.  Most people didn't think twice about the cutoff - they were either smokin' fast (well, anyone who has good technique is fast compared to me) or they signed up for the half-marathon and didn't have to race hard if they didn't want to.

Me, I can (almost) never resist the longest-distance category of any event.  What can I say, endurance sports suit me way more than speed stuff.  On the other hand, skiing for 26 miles... I can't recall ever doing that before.  And in my trial run at Pine Ridge I calculated that I might not have quite enough speed for the race cutoff time.  Depending on whether it was an actual "marathon" or more like the "50k" distance suggested on the website.

On the bright side, the race was 4 laps and the cutoff time was 1 pm for starting the final lap (3:45 after my start), so I could push hard for a lap and see if I had any real chance of making it.

The weather threatened to be the dark side.  Not race day - Saturday was always forecast to be good skiing temps, some sun, low wind.  It was Friday that was the concern.  Rain, warming up, sleet, maybe some snow if we're lucky.  I drove up from Albany in the rain.  About 20 miles south of Montpelier it suddenly turned into big flying flakes of snow...  The race was originally a point-to-point course, but the race people couldn't prep that many miles of trails without much snow to work with.

Mom came with me to Craftsbury Common on Saturday morning and we found plenty of snow around, and the X-C trails looked to be in decent shape.  There was a bit of ice in a couple low spots in the fields, but somehow they had turned the trails into something that a bunch of skiers could slide over multiple times and never hit grass or rocks.  I was impressed.

It was great fun watching the men, women, and high school groups start, and then I got to line up in an actual X-C ski starting area, complete with many parallel groves pointing toward the starting line.  Very cool, it reminded me of the Winter Olympics (hee).  The rec class wasn't at all aggressive about getting close to the front, but eventually some of us inched closer so it didn't look like the whole lot of us was afraid to even get moving.  Looking around at each other, I imagined we were each promising not to run anyone else over if they happened to fall right out of the blocks.

I should have brought my little camera for Mom to play with, because X-C skiing is quite the photogenic sport.  Lots of colorful outfits - it reminded me of orienteering.  Is it a northern European thing?  I would have loved a photo for this post but I certainly wasn't thinking about cameras on race morning.

Holy cow, that's one of the longer lead-ups to a race start than I've written in a while, pardon me for going on.

OK - go!

We were off and skiing.  We chugged up the hill, across a field and into the woods.  The trail was amazingly wide, with at least 2 ski tracks the whole time except on the bigger downhills where it was left open so we could snowplow more easily.  The first 2 kilometers went slightly down, slightly up, over and over.  I held my own on the uphills, especially since I was using waxless skis and they were sticking really well.  On the downhills I was more cautious than most, plus I didn't get as much run-out speed because the skis weren't gliding as fast (which was totally fine with me).  On the flats I lost ground because I'm just not very good at this.

I went back and forth with a couple older guys, managed to mostly stay out of the way of the faster downhillers, and somehow avoided a man who had lost his balance and fell on one of the descents.  Whee!

At 2 kilometers we came out into a big white field and some long, lovely switchbacks down to the woods below.  Very nice.  There were a couple "spotters" watching, I guess to help anyone that lost it around the wide corners.  Back in the woods, it was a gentle trail slightly uphill near a creek.  There were signs marking every kilometer, which I greatly appreciated.  Not something you see every time you race on trails in the woods.

One last little uphill and immediately back down, then we crossed the creek on a bridge.  The next kilometer is one steady climb up the other side of the valley.  I passed a couple groups of high school kids who had stopped to take a break and eat a snack.  The kids were doing only one lap, but hey, why push them to be competitive at this young stage in their lives?  Ultrarunners in the making  :)

I was floored to see the lead men zoom past us at this point - wow, they are incredibly quick, even with a 15 minute head-start.  I stayed to the right and marveled at their speed and ability to make it look easy.

At the top we found the "feed station" - I like that name.  I grabbed a cup of Heed from an enthusiastic volunteer and discovered it had been warmed up for us.  That was great, offsetting the thought of drinking Heed for the next couple hours (I'm not so much a fan, but I'm trying to branch out and be more flexible in what I'll eat at aid stations, at least in shorter races).

There was another big field after the aid station, this one with a large ice patch at the bottom of a downhill section.  A volunteer informed everyone about it as we glided down, and it wasn't hard to go around.  The trail continued its icy ways across the field, not the most pleasant part of the course, but really the only bad spot so I wasn't complaining.

Soon we were back in the snowy woods, and I was back to snowplowing carefully down the hill, staying to the side so the fast guys could pass me even faster now.  Kilometer 6 passed partway down, and #7 was near the bottom where we crossed back over the creek.  This part was a bit icy but again not too big a deal.

Another kilometer of mostly flat skiing along the creek, then it was time to get back to work.  I attacked the uphills and even occasionally felt like a "real" skier as I wasn't losing quite as much ground to each person passing me.  As much as I'm more of a downhill runner, I'm pretty sure I'm more of an uphill skier.  Not sure how that works.  Maybe with practice that would change.

I even passed a couple rec skiers on the way up, so that was cool.  I was more concerned with finishing the loop to see how much time had passed and whether I might have a shot at the full 4 loops vs. getting pulled after 3.  Every little downhill break was welcome so I could catch my breath for the next climb.  I wasn't sure how long I could keep this up, but I figured I should give it my best shot.  In the meantime I was having great fun with it all.

After a couple more kilometers the trail passed near the starting trail and I knew we were getting close.  Kilometer 10 happened on a little downhill right before the last little climb.  Out in a field, we skied near a road and a couple buildings, then there was the start/finish area.  One hour 7 minutes - nice!  I needed to average 1:15 for the first 3 loops in order to start the 4th one.  OK, there is hope.

Mom was there to cheer me on - Hi Mom!!  Oops, there was a bit of ice right where I needed to cross over to the left to keep going on another lap - don't fall here in front of everyone  :)

The high school kids were in the finish corral and it looked like they were having a fun day.  I think I would have enjoyed that as a kid too.

I climbed the hill and got a drink at the 2nd feed station.  As I got back in the woods I decided I should try eating a little since I might actually be going the full distance today.  I got a piece of chocolate from my waist pack - one of the benefits of winter sports is the ability to carry chocolate without worrying about it melting.  My hands were warming up nicely and eventually I took my gloves off for good.  The weather was awesome - in the 20's and occasionally the sun would pop out for a bit.

I watched a woman on the downhills keeping one ski in the track and using the other ski as a brake.  That seemed like a great idea, and I got really attached to it by the end of the race.  The right ski in the track would take care of the steering so I didn't have to work so hard at that.  The left ski would allow me to break and not just slide faster and faster in the track with no control.  Awesome, thank you for the great idea ma'am!

The other technique I saw a lot of was the double-poling head bob.  People would do this to gain speed on the downhills (I understand that part), but also to propel themselves on the flats and even on the gentler uphills.  I watched them bending at the waist to push off while keeping their legs together, and I tried emulating their form.  Here's what happened when I tried it:

(my arms) - "What the heck are you doing?  We're already tired and you have many miles left to ski.  We're not trained for this!  Are you kidding me?"

(my legs) - "Um, we can help - we're just hanging out down here, ready to do something.  Hello.  Anytime now."

So I switched back to my standard glide-push-glide-push on alternating sides.  I never could get the hang of the skating technique either.  I think I'll stick with what I know.

I focused on using my legs as much as possible, especially on the uphills, knowing that my arms and shoulders were really, really (really) not ready for this... at least I've had a bit of experience with trekking poles in ultra running, but not since Hardrock have I actually trained for it.

Time and kilometers and other skiers passed.  At the feed station on the 2nd lap I stopped to tighten up the laces in my right boot.  Pushing hard without a tight enough boot created a small heel blister, but it didn't slow me down nor translate into any issues with my running shoes this week.  The only loss was a couple minutes fiddling with the laces while wondering if I would need that time back later.

I got lapped a couple more times by the leaders, and the lead women started steaming by as well.  Go ladies!  My only fumble was unfortunately in front of one of them, as I tried to cross the creek area between the ski tracks to see if it was less icy - that didn't work so I moved back into the right track, just as a woman came up behind me in that very spot.  Oops, so sorry!  She managed to get around - the fast folks are also quite nimble, I noticed.

Up the long undulating hill, back to the start/finish, Hi Mom!, total elapsed time of 2:17.  I had pushed hard for 2 laps and now I had a good cushion.  I had 1:28 to complete lap #3, and I was pretty sure I still had it in me.  If nothing else, I was still climbing the hills strong.  And I had a good idea what pace I would need, plus kilometer markers to work with.  It was great to be able to relax and slow down just a tad and mostly not have to fret.

In lap 3, the first 2 kilometers of the loop were getting harder - the hills were getting bigger.  It was also psychological, in that you go down and up and down and up and back and forth but you're still on the same hillside and it doesn't seem like you're going anywhere.  At least once you cross the creek it's a long uphill to the feed station, that's progress.  Then coming back, the last 3 kilometers are mostly aimed at the finish line even though it wanders a bit.  Just gotta get to the field at kilometer #2 and it all gets better from there.

The trails were emptying out too, although I was still getting passed occasionally by people on their last lap.  Even the "slower" folks had great form and were good to try to emulate.  The high point was sometimes being able to keep up for a while on the uphills  :)  At least my endurance is still intact.

The far side feed station folks were great, still handing out water and Heed.  I tried a granola bar and that hit the spot.  Granola bars and chocolate and Heed got me through it in fine fashion.

It was fun passing kilometer markers and calculating how many minutes/km I needed to average to make the cutoff time.  Especially on the downhill sections...

Finally I was pretty sure I would make it in plenty of time and I really could relax and enjoy the rest of the "race".  Mom was waiting at the shed cheering for me having made the cutoff and I yelled something about "1 more lap" and "thanks for waiting!" - seriously, thanks for being there and waiting all morning for me, Mom!

With less than 10 minutes to spare I chose the "Lap" option instead of the "Finish" lanes once again.  The clipboard people wanted to verify that I was indeed going out on one more lap - heck yeah!  I worked hard for that.  The announcer called my name as an acknowledgement - apparently he knew he wouldn't still be there when I got back, which was fine with me.  When I looked over and smiled, he commented "Just pace yourself" which really made me and Mom laugh!

The last lap was calm and wonderful.  My heel blister was the only question, and it didn't get any worse so I kept on keeping on.  I didn't see a single skier that lap.  I also didn't see a sweep, so that was encouraging.  It would have been funny to be DFL, but I don't have a lot of patience for sweepers; also I ski better when I'm not closely watched.

There was still one wonderful, helpful guy waiting at the far side feed station.  As I ate a granola bar I learned he is from Bulgaria and used to race, now he likes to help at races.  I thanked him profusely and started down the last hill.  Sunshine, still decent snow (amazing), and a beautiful day.

Ha, I could still run up the hills.  I just chose not to run up ALL of them this time.

And I finished in under 5 hours - that wasn't a goal, just a happy ending  :)  And I wasn't even last - one more guy came in behind me (trailed by the sweep dude).

Most of the finish line area was taken down, but the clipboard lady was still there to take down my name and time.  It has been quite a while since I've finished a race near the very back of the pack, but I did finish so that's all that matters.  I had a lot of fun and will consider doing it again!

Thanks again to Mom, and also to the Craftsbury ski folks who put on a well-organized race and managed to make it work even under less-than-ideal snow conditions.  The post-race meal was excellent too.

My shoulders took a well-deserved vacation for a couple hours after the race but were soon in normal working order so driving wasn't a problem.  Surprisingly, my legs were sore for several days - I must have gotten a good workout on slightly different muscles.

Next up - visitors coming to Albany tomorrow and the Big Red Freakout, sweet!

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