It might be time for a new pair of gloves…
With near-perfect conditions the past two weeks, the Tuesday Night Sprints at Weston Ski Track have been a pleasure. And by pleasure, I mean they’ve been blistering fast with plenty of suffering.
I went from the gun, pulled a small group clear almost immediately, and kept the pressure on. My skis were fast and I felt confident. I had gone clear with just one other skier hanging on. I proceeded to tow him around for the rest of the race. I punched it hard on the final hill, got a bit of gap, but then got caught in traffic passing other skiers on the tight hairpins. My legs were burning. I was till pretty tired from Craftsbury, but I thought I had it. It came down to a sprint and I lost by a toe.
I didn’t want a repeat of last week, so I planned for an intense race and to go solo. But at 10km, this race was much longer than any of the previous ones. An all-out sprint wasn’t possible. I lead the first lap, strung things out, then sat in the second lap. I attacked on the third lap, got a gap, but not much of one. I had over-drawn my account and was struggling. My skis were starting to feel slow — I hadn’t rewaxed them since last week — and each time I glance back, I could see the chase group working together to close up on me. So I kept pushing it, hoping to hold on for another few kilometers. I was gulping air, but no relief came. With the finish line in sight, I thought I was clear, but coming over the final rise, the chase group had suddenly closed in on me. I punched it over the hill, tucked for the descent and sprinted like hell to the line. I managed to keep my gap and take the victory, but it was a close one.
After a two year hiatus, the Boston Vassaloppet was back at Weston Ski Track.
We lined up for the delayed start: a mix of adult racers, fast juniors and new skiers, for 4 laps of the 2 km course. It was a bright sunny day with good stick wax conditions, but it was warming fast and the course was mostly flat, so kick was of minimal concern.
I wasn’t expecting much in terms of competition. I recognized all the threats, and I was thinking mostly of the workout and maybe some nice prizes for a victory. And of course…the tasty treats at the end.
I went out fast and pulled a small group clear on the first lap. By the second lap, I had whittled it down to just one other skier — a CSU junior who I knew was strong, but didn’t expect to hold on over the distance. By the third lap, my upper body was getting tired. I tried to remember the last time I did an Ercolina workout…and had to go back to some time before Mont-Sainte-Anne. The course was mostly double-poling and, with all my efforts going to running and striding, I had been focusing on anything but.
Coming through for the final lap, I heard Andy yell at the junior, “Don’t let the old guy do all the work. He could be your grandmother!” I pulled off and let the boy take a pull. I tried to get clear on the last hill, but it was too short and I was slipping too much. With a kilometer to go, he took up the pace. I was going anaerobic in my arms. We threaded our way through the traffic of lapped skiers. I was coming unglued. After pulling him around for 3 laps, he was now pulling me…and pulling my arms out of their sockets.
He gapped me going into the final downhill. I tried to close up and gained some ground, but there was no way I would pull him in before the line. So I coasted in for another second place. I was frustrated for a moment or two. The course wasn’t hard enough to be decisive to my advantage. I needed more hill and striding. This young skier — also a rower — towered over me, a mountain of upper body muscle. I suddenly felt old and washed up.
Then I saw how happy he was, posing for photos with a crown of elderflowers on his head. I congratulated him and reviewed the race, explained my strategy, where it had fallen apart, where he had done well, and what he could do better next time.
I skied a few more laps to cool down, then I ate 3 hot dogs, 2 semlor, some blabarsoppa and a bunch of coffee.
I love this race. Even if the competition isn’t very deep. Even if I’ve never managed to do better than second place.
Coming off of Jackson, I was looking forward to the Craftsbury Marathon, despite the week-long chatter and consternation about the weather report, trail conditions and wax call. I had prepped my skis with Swix KR 20 klister binder, ironed in, followed by Swix vG20, ironed in. I was ready to go if the call was for klister or hard wax for race day.
The morning of the race, it was clear and upper-20’s. The temperatures would go up, but not too much. I put on 2 layers of Swix VR 50, followed by 3 layers of VR 45. With the klister base, I was sure the wax job would last the full 50km, but I still squirreled away some emergency wax in case things got bad.
Similar to Jackson, I started out conservatively. I found the same group of guys from last week, and settled in for a long race. I was taking feeds every chance, grabbing drink and gels. I wasn’t going to bonk this year. By half-way, I had been running hot and had to back off. The third lap was tough. I fell coming down Elinor’s Hill, tweaked my right tricep which then started to twitch and show signs of cramping.
I took a big feed coming through with one lap to go. I made it down the hills without incident. I was feeling okay with just 10 km to go. Coming up Sam’s Run the final time, I could see a commotion at the top of the hill. It looked like a skier had gone down and wasn’t getting up. There were other skiers standing around him. I looked like he had injured a leg, which seemed strange to me because it’s rare to fall and injure yourself on an uphill like that.
But as we approached, I could see it was much worse. The skiers were doing chest compressions and CPR. I knew some of those skiers who were also doctors. I stopped on the side of the trail. I wasn’t sure what to do. I just stood there in shock. I could see what was happening. The skier had turned dark purple. It didn’t look good. I lost all motivation to race.
Then my race partner snapped me out of it. “We have to go,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. I’m a school teacher. I can’t watch this. We have to go.”
We started skiing again. Slow. The race gone out of me. But after a few hundred yards, the magnitude of what was happening caught up with me. I doubled over, sobbing uncontrollably. I always have a hard time at this point in a long race, when the embedded grief of my lost boy Romeo comes up. But this was much worse. I yelled. I swore. I cried. I drove the poles hard into the ground. And I kept going. Because there was nothing else I could do.
I finished strong. But the results didn’t matter. I sat on the ground and cried for awhile afterward. A short time later, it was confirmed that the skier had passed away.
His name was Torin Tucker. He was a junior at Dartmouth and had finished second in Jackson the week before. I had stood next to him on the starting line. I didn’t see much of him. He had skied clear with the leaders and was skiing in 3rd place when he collapsed. The skiers around him stopped immediately and tried to resuscitate him. And many others stopped too, as they skied by, and then continued on when it was clear there was nothing else to do.
An event like this defies explanation. Even if, at some point, somebody will be able to describe what occurred biologically to cause a young guy in his prime to collapse and die on the side of the trail, it won’t be good enough for his family and friends.
The winter can’t conquer me.
I had low expectations for Jackson this year, especially after last year’s race. I hadn’t made much of my distance training this fall. I had missed all the early season races. I was having confidence issues. The temperature didn’t help — 0 F that morning with wind chill minus 15. The warm-up didn’t help — my skis were slipping like mad up Yodel, despite thinking I had nailed the wax job. And the start snuck on me — I was still stripping off clothing with 2 minutes to go.
As a result, I started out easy, especially up Yodel. I found a rhythm on the hill. I was getting my wax to work. I was passing people. And I wasn’t blowing up, like I usually do. By the top, I had the lead group in sight. By the foot of the Wave, I was on their tail. I was suffering. Instead of trying to close the gap, I backed off. And I didn’t blow up and was able to stay there, tailing off the back of the group.
Eventually, I ended up in a small group, off the front of the race, but still moving along. I was skiing with guys I had never been able to keep up with before. I had a few mishaps. I caught a ski going over a foot bridge and had to untangle myself. I got blown over by the wind in the fields, coming through the last feed. But I closed back each time. Coming down Yodel, into the finale, I caught my kick zone on some of the frozen corduroy and did a Superman. I got back up, but lost a place because of it. And I lost my hat on the final descent. I was not going to stop for it (though I did ski back after to try to find it).
I finished 14th overall and 2nd in my age group. It was my best classic race ever. Full results here.
Unfortunately, due to illnesses and some missing skiers, CSU men were unable to keep the title. The women delivered, however, with a tie.
Swix KR 30, ironed in, super thin.
Swix VR 40, ironed in.
Swix VR 30, 5-6 layers.
SkiGo Blue top layer, to prevent icing.
Sprint #3 was the Charlie Foxtrot edition, with another skier getting all up in my stuff. He took the inside line on the first downhill turn — when there wasn’t a line to be taken. Knocked into me hard, but I stayed up. I picked up the pace and he skied up on my poles for the rest of the lap. On the final lap, I was coming around him up Mt. Weston, and he stepped on my ski. I spun out. He attacked. I couldn’t bring him back in and settled for second. I takes a lot to rile me up, after so many years competing. This did it.
Sprint #4 was back to normal. Fast conditions. Well groomed course. During the warm-up, I was feeling pretty tired from racing Jackson just the Sunday before. But I felt better and better the more I skied. I attacked from the start. Not so much an attack as picking up the pace. It strung out. And I kept stretching the elastic. I snapped near the end of the first lap and I punched it hard. I was riding the edge of blowing up and being under control. Once I had a little lead, I got it under control, but I was still nervous with 3 laps to go. I could check the gap coming out of the hairpin turns, but the chase group was always closing in on me, so I went even harder. It was only after the race that I realized I hadn’t been accounting for the compression through the turn. I had already lost speed through the turn and was just picking it back up; they had yet to do so.
I crossed the line alone, with a healthy lead, spent. And happy. That high lasted all night. The next morning, I was already picking apart the race, wondering how I could have increased my lead further, how I could have gone faster.