A Perfect Loaf

The Sugarloaf Nordic Marathon had been looming like a white whale over the end of the 2017 ski season.   Good conditions in late March can be as elusive as a giant fish in the south Pacific. Form and fitness can be fickle. And once the first signs of spring arrive, the doldrums aren’t far behind.

It takes an extra effort to close the final leagues, to have that prey in sight, to be ready to hurl the harpoon.

So it was not unexpected to find myself pondering why I persist in this sport, or any sport, year upon year. Why endure all the training, logistics and travel? Why deal with the equipment and expense? Why suffer needlessly and endlessly in deleterious conditions? If only for a few fleeting moments of brilliance when all the time and effort sunk becomes its own reward for rising above it? If only to prove that I was once a good athlete and could perhaps be one again, if only time weren’t against me?

This year’s edition of Sugarloaf already had a different feel to it. The mid-week Nor’easter had dumped 20 inches of fine, fresh powder on the course. Temps would remain cold, meaning no slow, sloppy snow. Waxing for cold, skate conditions was a simple, straightforward affair.

I was far from exhausted despite racing nearly every week and weekend since late December. Gone were the insomnia inducing fears of how I would cover the distance without cracking in the final kilometers. Confidence in my body and mental fortitude had grown.

Thus, as I lined up for the start of Sugarloaf beneath crystal blue skies and warm sun, I was calmed. I had eaten well and had a belly full of good coffee. Daresay, I was even looking forward to a 50km skate marathon (knowing full well the actual distance would be something shy of that number).

The race exploded from the gun.

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Rangeley Loppet 2017

Five kilometers past the edge of the civilized world  I was already suffering. My legs had felt blocked and wooden in the warm-up, which had been a challenge in the single-digit temperatures, and they felt no better on the gradual descent from the start line.  I strained to fill my lungs, my chest constricted by extra layers of windproof clothing.

The fast college boys were already pulling away. Up the trail, a thin line of a dozen or so skiers skated into the woods and vanished. There were a few guys caught in no-man’s land, struggling to catch the leaders while the gap widened.

I had tried that before and I knew it didn’t end well. Forty-five kilometers at 4ºF and predicted strong winds would make for a long day.

And I was playing the long game, following my strategy of a conservative start, though the signs from my body suggested I was already over the limit. I settled in behind my teammate, Frank, because I knew he would pace us smartly over the distance.

We took turns settings the tempo. At first, it was just the two of us. We caught a few guys and a few guys caught us and then we were a group of 5 or 6, working well together, but always a guy going a little too hard up the hill and a little too slow down it.

I realized my skis were fast.

By and by, my legs started to come around and my breathing evened out. Each time I started to suffer, I glanced at my heart rate monitor to make sure I was still sitting below threshold, and each time my heart rate hovered around 161 bpm.

On the climbs, my hands burned beneath the heavy gloves and I started to sweat. On the descents, it all froze up and my eyeballs watered and I was too skittish to blink. My skis were fast, despite the cold snow.  I was navigating the downhill elbows and doglegs mostly in control, though I’m not sure the skiers behind me would have agreed.

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Westonloppet

A little while back, I ruined an otherwise perfectly lovely Saturday afternoon by racing the “Westonloppet” at Leo J Martin Ski Track.

The brainchild of a sadistic actuary, the Westonloppet was a mad distortion of cycling’s Hour Record.  Skiers would race for TWO hours around 1.157 km loop. The skier covering the most distance quantified by lap count over that time period would be declared the winner.

To further complicate matters, it was a sunny day, with temperatures hovering around 31.5 degrees Fahrenheit, just cold enough for the snow guns to be blasting pappy, fondant granules of “snow” onto the course. In summary, it made for wet, slow snow that sucked at the skis.

The racers lined up–nearly 35 of them–which should have come as no small surprise because nordic Continue reading

Craftsbury 2017 or The Big One

The Craftsbury Marathon is the long game.

For weeks beforehand, you agonize over the trail conditions and the weather forecast. You question your fitness for a 50 km classic race. In the days leading up to the race, you struggle with travel logistics and advanced waxing schemes. You check a plethora of weather apps, consult teammates, wax gurus and the gods. You reach back through the years to the times when you had fast skis and good kick and try to cross-reference past results with future conditions. Some fellows keep notebooks and spreadsheets. Others, elaborate formulas, algorithms and fleets of test skis.

I write nothing down.

Whatever it is, I’m guaranteed to screw it up. So I take a less-is-more approach to waxing. Especially after last year, when I agonized over ski selection and picked a pair that were too stiff because I though they’d run klister a little bit faster and suffered needlessly in the final laps.

In 2017, I had developed a simple race strategy and waxing plan. I had two pairs of skis that were nearly identical and I had arrived early enough on Friday to do some testing and course recon. It had been snowing all afternoon so the conditions were different than the frozen granular I had been expecting. The test skis–Rex PowerGrip Purple covered with VR45–iced up pretty quickly on the fresh, ungroomed snow.

That was an omen I chose to ignore because the conditions were indeterminate. There would be more snow overnight and the race director described an all-night Pisten-Bully operation that would grind the new snow and the frozen deck into an unholy covered klister situation.

So I scraped the skis clean down to the chola binder, packed them away, and headed to the Village House for dinner. I ate a good meal of spaghetti and a little red wine. I was stretched out in bed by 7:30, well before my typical arrival time, digesting peacefully while reading David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard to distract myself from the wax call.

It snowed all night. Continue reading

Reflections

Late in 2016, I cruised the quiet single track of Trail 38 in Mont-Sainte-Anne, against the coming darkness. It was my last ski of the year.

In the aftermath of the Election, I’ve struggled for words and motivation, wondered if all the effort I make in sport — or writing about it — is worth it, or if I need to start putting my efforts to something more substantial and meaningful.

But I haven’t stopped and that inertia alone may be its own payback as things evolve and hopefully not devolve over the coming months.

I finished up the road season in New Haven and Boston.

After 15 years away, I raced a nearly full cyclocross program, spending perhaps as much time on the ground as on the bike.

I got on snow early and have carried that bike racing fitness into the new season. Seventeen hours in 5 days at MSA has just add to that base.

Winter is coming.

Winter is here.

 

2016 Salem Witches Cup

photo by Katie Busick

photo by Katie Busick

(Written in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

IN THE CENTER of one our New England towns, anchored on the one hand by the Salem Witch Museum, the brick facade of the old East Church cast in shadow, the windows staring vacant and hollow upon the world, and on the other hand by the venerable Hawthorne Hotel, resides the broad, grassy expanse of the old Salem Common.  The Common is circumscribed by Washington Park, a collection of streets facing the various points of the compass, composed of alternating degrees of rough and smooth paved road surface. A creaky wrought-iron fence of questionable integrity rings the inner plot of the Common, hewing in the souls, present and past, that might have gathered there in bygone days for events, which if worthily recounted, would form a narrative of no small interest and curiosity to the reader.

The aspect of this green space and the moniker of the bicycle race which had lead me, among numerous other New Englanders, to journey here, year upon year, to make numerous passes around the perimeter of the Common, had always evoked dark and sinister feelings drawing from the town’s dark yet well-known associations with the trials of several young and gentle women under suspicion and eventual execution, for being practitioners of witchcraft. Thus, the Salem Witches Cup had come to be a cornerstone of the racing season, migrating from cooler climes of the calendar and the complicit attraction of All Hallows’ Eve, to the balmier evenings of midsummer.

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