Song of the Witches Cup

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Photo credit: Katie Busick

Last year’s Salem Witches Cup race report was an homage to Hawthorne. This year, I picked up the spirit of Shakespeare’s witches, from Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1.

Song of the Witches Cup

Round the Salem green we go:
Into corners we must not slow.
Fighting hard for position
Laps and laps to fifty-one.
Sweating, turn, to brake or not,
Sprint again to have a shot.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Lungs will burn and Red Bull bubble.

Scrape of pedal, squeal of brake,
In the corners, risks to take;
Eye of tiger, shift of cog,
Lap plus lap becomes a slog.
Lungs alight and legs a’sting,
Elbows flick and prime bell rings.
All for a prize not worth the trouble,
Pushed too hard, now on the bubble.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Lungs to burn and Red Bull bubble.

Squeal of brake, scrape of pedal,
Do I even have the mettle?
Click of shift and whir of chain,
Round the corner once again.
Ever faster, tires grip;
Next time round I’m sure to slip.
Elbows bump and rub and grind,
Tires cross, no doors to find.
Ten laps remain in the race,
Two riders flee o’er the pace.
Chase them down to no avail,
Drop in speed, we start to flail.
Into the sprint, a turn of speed,
Stuffed again, I cannot fulfill the deed.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Lungs to burn and Red Bull bubble.

Across the line, I’m out-spun,
Bottle’s empty, the race is run.

 

 

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Beverly Dreams

The night before the Grand Prix of Beverly I dreamt I was flying. I had gone over the edge of a cliff during a mountain bike race and was plummeting to an inevitable death thousands of feet in the valley below when I realized there was another option: to fly.

I summoned up the willpower and, instead of the typical weak, anemic response, I was suddenly rocketing skyward. I shot past the edge of the cliff, turned a loop, and landed gently on my feet to the astonishment of onlookers.

In the car ride to Beverly, I told my wife about the dream and she said that it meant I was “unblocked” and I was ready do something special.

I had been patiently building cycling fitness, having skipped the Boston Marathon and gone straight onto the bike after the ski season. But my form seemed slow in coming. I had done a few Masters races with little to show, apart from finishing. I had abandoned the longer Pro/1/2 road races due to insufficient mileage in my legs. I had survived New England Crit week with solid bottom-of-the-top-25 finishes. But no stand-out performances thus far.

My best years were growing evermore hazy and mythical. I was beginning to doubt I had ever been a “real” bike racer.

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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