In the morning, weighed down by our heavy packs, my son and I skied down the twisting path through the woods from Andy’s cabin to the car. The sky was a dull gray, promising snow. We climbed into the car and made the short drive to the Strafford Nordic Center.
At the Nordic Center, the wind was up and blowing across the fields. I was tired. More than four hours to go until my race. We picked up bibs for the Bill Koch race. We took the kids on course tours. We waxed their skis. I borrowed a pair of poles because I had forgotten my son’s skate poles at home. I watched my son race. He was tired from chopping wood the day before and struggled on the final hill, but finished respectably. He should have been happy with his race. But he was not.
I waited until the last possible minute to prepare for my race. It had started to snow by then. I drank a tepid cup of coffee from the concession. I sat in my car with the heat and seat warmers running full force against the chill that the wind had blown into my bones. Then I went to warm up.
I tested out skis. I had one pair with a warm grind, HF yellow and Jetream yellow. The other pair had a cold/universal grind, HF red and Jetstream red. I tried out the warm pair. Then I tried out the cold pair. Then I put one on each foot. I couldn’t tell the difference between them. The right ski always felt faster, no matter which ski it was.
I skied a couple laps of the course with Frank and Andy. The snow was thick and soft and churned up from all the earlier races. I felt sluggish during the warm up, even after some surges, but I was pretty confident that I would be okay once the race started. There were three hills on the course: a short steep one, a long grinder, and one a little longer but not as steep as the first. I thought about where I would push hard, and where I could recover, where I might be able to pass if it came to that. The loop was 2.2km. We would do four laps which meant twelve hills. I knew those hills were going to hurt by the last lap.
I couldn’t decide which skis to use. In the end, I chose the HF Red/Jet red because it was a longer ski and I figured it would float a little more easily over the deep snow. Plus it was the ski I had been using all season for Tuesday night races and it had performed well, so I was a little superstitious about switching, despite the conditions.
We lined up for the start with a bunch of Dartmouth and UVM kids. Not what I was expecting from a “low key family-oriented race”. It was fast from the start. I survived the mass start confusion despite getting off the line more slowly than I would have liked. I worked my way toward the front. I felt sloppy and ineffecient. On the first hill, I went way into the red zone. My leg muscles burned. My shoulders ached. I could see a front group of three skiers starting to go clear already and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep pace. I knew the initial agony would pass, so I settled into the small chase group for the first lap.
On the second lap, I went to the front of the goup and started to push the pace. I was feeling like I had gone clear but I was too afraid to look back. At this point, I was the fourth man on the course. I was well over my limit but confident I could hold myself there for the balance of the race. People were cheering for me and I couldn’t let them down. Especially the Bill Koch skiers whom I had coached all year. Especially my son who yelled, “Go, Pop!” as I skied by, his voice betraying excitement and astonishment at seeing me so near to the front of the race. I got a lot of extra energy from that.
But pushing through the deep snow was taking its toll. A skier in a red race suit slipped past me on the downhill and started to ease away. There was nowhere to recover on the course. The descents were slow, only a few precious seconds to tuck and let the heart rate come down a bit, then back to a V2 Alt or no-pole skate. I survived the climbs and found a good rhythm on the flats, but felt like I was falling apart the entire time. I glanced at my watch for a fleeting moment and my heart rate registered 179. My breath was coming in deep, slow lungfuls. My mouth hung open and a trail of saliva dangled from my lower lip, dancing on each exhaled breath.
With 500 meters to go, two skiers caught me up. Maybe they had been there all along, sitting on and waiting to make their move. Maybe I had slowed enough over the final hill and they had closed in on me.
As I rounded the final turn, I could hear my son yelling,”Sprint, Pop! Spriiiiint!”
I dumped what little I had left into my skis and crossed the line so close to the skier next to me that I wasn’t sure who had taken the spot. It didn’t really matter. I wound up in 7th place.
We all congratulated each other, weakly raising our arms to bump hands, then leaning heavily on our poles to catch our breath. I was nauseous. I was exhausted. Worse than any of the marathons I had done so far this season. Later, I would look at my heart rate data and discover that I had spent the 25 minutes of the race over 175 bpm.
After the race, people came up to me to tell me how smooth and in-control I had looked. It meant a lot to me to hear that, especially when I knew I had been far, far over the limit. A year ago, my form would have crumbled under an effort like that and I would have blown up, or lost ground, or just crashed.
“I knew you’d have a good race,” Andy said while we skied our cool down. “Anytime you feel bad during warm up, you have a good race.”
And it had been a good race. And I was happy about it.
Full results for the 2013 Silver Fox Trot can be found here.