Or how I learned to love a really long race and survived Vail.
Tess and Aral came along on this weekend expedition, we left late Friday afternoon after making last minute reservations at a Hotel in Edwards, taking the dogs to be boarded and cramming the Subaru full of baby necessities. The drive there promised to be enjoyable as the forecast was for light snow along the way and it was Tess’ first time to drive along the Collegiates. Some of the peaks were lost in the snow, but occasionally I’d be able to point to the left and say “There’s Princeton”.
We checked in and got situated in the room and I drove back to Vail to get my number. Showing up at the registration encampment about 10 minutes late I was sure I was SOL, but someone came to the door, let me in and gave me my number. I went back to the hotel room and continued to hydrate in preparation for the race.
Race morning everyone got up early, grabbed a cup of Joe and then headed over to Lion’ Head. The crowd was impressive even though it was only 7:00 AM. Wait a minute, pretty much everyone here is racing. I felt a little overwhelmed by the number of competitors, this wasn’t your average event. I skied a couple of warm up laps up and down the first major hill and recognized a bunch of faces which made me feel a little more at home with the number of people lining up. By 7:15 the gear checks started and then people started to line up at the start.
I was mid pack at the start and was surprised by the fact that there were a) people behind me and b) that I was occasionally passing other competitors on the first climb. The peist was wide enough and fast enough that the start didn’t really cause anyone to stack up, I don’t think I banged poles with anyone or had to worry about tipping someone else’s tails.
After a big set of switch backs the course headed up into the an Aspen grove along skin tracks. There was a little bottlenecking in this part, but I made a conscience decision not to try and pass anyone in the powder. Every time someone passed where I could see them I could tell that they were exhorting themselves tremendously and for the most part they were only picking up one or two spots in the line. I had extra breath and so I decided to meet people near me.
Near the top of the first climb we got back onto groomers and this allowed me to stretch my legs and work my lungs a little harder than back on the skin trail. I passed a few people and eventually caught up to a guy wearing a race suit. I asked him who he had to kill to get his suit and and he chuckled and we spent the remainder of the climb chatting. Simon Kricka it turns out was on his second rando race and we had a lot in common including our pace.
At the summit Simon transitioned faster than I did, but just barely. He just let go on the down hill and I tried to keep up without posting a yard sale on my way down. The first half of this descent was easy and fast and I rode my tails pretty hard. Then this big bowl we had been skiing narrowed into a steep and rutted bit of ice clinging to a grove of quakies. Everyone around me seemed to be having difficulty with this part and I felt taxed making my way through this bit.
Finally at the bottom we crossed a stream and re-skinned. The course map I had seen made me think the next bit was going to be a lot of short rolling hills. Boy was I mistaken, it turns out that the course climbed up along another creek from an elevation (I estimate) somewhere below the start to the first aid station. It wasn’t steep, but it was steady. Worse, while climbing I torpedoed my left ski tip and really cranked on my bad foot. Tendons more or less jumped the track for a moment and I was in some serious pain there for a while. I gritted my teeth and worked on climbing.
At the turn off for the elite course there was a guy with a cow bell and this came as a huge relief to me. I think I was stuck in a thought loop of dread about my foot and I was seriously concerned I wouldn’t finish. Clong, clong, clong, and I felt like I woke up a bit and could stop thinking about all the potential pain and loss and focus back on what I was about. In the next portion I passed two other racers and caught back up with Simon, who I skied behind until we made the aid-station at the bottom of China Bowl.
I paused briefly at the aid station to refill my water bottle, noted that the cups they had set out were from a vodka sponsor and filled with clear liquid and then hit the skin track again. At one point I was hot on the heals of Leigh Caswell whom I had met on the first climb, but as the climb up China Bowl steepened and heated up I started to bonk very badly. Elite racers began eating up the distance between me and the top of the Bowl and so I periodically pulled over to let them pass.
There was no second wind and I was feeling very bad and a little nauseous, I pulled off my shirt and my jacket and began trying to get some calories into my system. The sun felt great on my bare arms, I bet it was in the upper thirties. One foot in front of the other I climbed the hill hydrating, sucking down Stinger gels, and trying not to vomit.
Near the top the calories I had been forcing seemed to be starting their magic. A light breeze was chilling me quickly, and so I dawned my jacket again and worked on getting blood to my fingers. But the little bit of sugar in those gels was really starting to help. I skinned off at the summit and then realized that there was a pretty significant traverse ahead. I ended up ripping and reapplying skins twice more before I was officially in the zone for the descent.
Holy cow, the course designer was a sadist. Right after skiing up China Bowl the first descent was through a mogul field. My legs were already rubber, and the bumps weren’t laid out so that you could ski them fast and hope to maintain your knees. I hit them harder than I probably should have, mostly because there was a guy on tele-boards threatening to kick my butt (with more style than I could muster to boot) and descended for all I was worth. Out of the mogul field and under the lift for some irregular mashed potatoes and ski tracks and then down along a cat-track for a bit, lots of people directing me where I needed to go and telling me that I was almost there.
Booyah! I’m thinking to myself as I skate along the cat track burning every last bit of energy left to me. And then, there at the bottom of a very steep and muddy hill, were a couple of people looking like they wanted me to climb something. Ok, skis in pack, poles in hands, one foot in front of the other. Simon and I think Leigh pulled into the transition right behind me. I thought to myself that this really must be it. If I had only one ticket to burn on this race now was the time to burn it. I clomped my way to the top of the boot pack feeling more and more rush from the effort, my brain chemistry going haywire. Near the top I think Scott Yule yelled out some encouragement to me from the lift, someone did anyway and believe me it was appreciated.
I navigated around some youngens on their way to a freestyle event and hit the final descent pushing my quads well beyond what they had to give. I was doing battle with the beast the only way I know how and I found myself laughing it the face of exhaustion, age and injury. The GS course was a thrill, the blue lines painted in the snow were fun to follow and I went screaming around the flags skating on the straightaways.
Over the finish line my legs were so done that I just sat down, still laughing and feeling very erratic and wasted. But, and thanks to lots of folks for this, happy. Tess and Aral came through the fence and helped me sit down and recover a bit. Super race, met some very wonderful people, and I wasn’t last this time.