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.

It was still snowing in the morning when we headed over to the Outdoor Center, early so we could start testing wax.

I prepped one pair of skis. Based on all the new snow, it would be hard wax. There was some debate over hard wax binder versus klister binder, but I usually run a very thin layer of chola for marathon distances, even if the day calls for hard wax. I made a sandwich of VR45 and VR40, with a generous pocket of 45 under the toe, and a top layer of 40 for speed. In testing, the skis kicked well but felt a little slow. But everybody was complaining of slow skis in the fresh snow.

I debated adding another layer of 40 but didn’t want to make the wax any thicker so I just corked it smoother, then dropped my skis at the start line, ditched my clothes, took another piss (that would be 5 but who was counting?) and jogged back to the start, ready for 4 laps of 12.5 km.

The race start was uneventful.

I started to put my strategy into action. Step 1: go easy from the start. In the past, I’ve gone out way too hard to keep up with the lead group and always paid for it by the end of the race. Step 2: pick up the pace at half-way. Step 3: burn any remaining matches on the last lap.

From the start, I let gaps open up. I backed off when my gut told me to bridge up to the next group. I went easier when I felt I should have been going harder. It was an odd feeling, like I had already given up on the race, but I told myself it was just good pacing.  I settled into a little group, comfortable with the pace, working but not too hard.

It was all going quite well, until the first descent when it became painful clear that my skis were running slow. In the fresh snow, they caught and almost spun me around. I was having to double-pole just to keep speed and got dropped by the little group. Dropped. On the downhill.

On the flats after Eleanor’s Hill, I was able to catch back up to my group and by the end of the first lap, we had re-joined the main group — not the lead pack. That consisted of Kris Freeman and Tad Eliot, the former double-poling the race on skate skis.

Despite the dragging skis, the first part of my plan had paid off.

I was hoping that my skis would get better as the course got skied in. The second time down Eleanor’s, I got dropped again. I was working hard just to sit on the group slow burning matches when I should have been recovering. Like riding a bike with a dragging brake or slow puncture, it’s an exponential hit to overcome the drag.

So I eased up again, let myself recover by going painfully slow and accepted the fact that, barring a sudden change in temperatures or conditions, it was going to be a slog to the finish. The words of my teammate Alex mocked me, “A four-lap race is just three opportunities to drop out.”

Lap 3 was the tough one, a liminal zone between a race and a training ski. I was having trouble on the ascents, too. My skis, which has been kicking quite reliably, started to catch early, throwing off my rhythm and causing me to slip, making me go even slower. I was working to limit the damage at this point. I got caught by a few skiers, and unable to keep up with them without redlining, I let let them go. Fortunately, I was in no danger of bonking.

On the final lap, I started to pick up the pace. It was a calculated risk of output versus remaining energy reserves. I found a sweet spot. Not fast, but still racing. I started to pick up skiers in front of me, and hold off any chasing from behind. I was getting tired, but not the crippling fatigue or mental anguish that usually constitutes Craftsbury.

I finished in 3:04, 19th overall, less than a minute off the age group winner, who was the next skier up the trail. It was bittersweet. I had largely skied the race per my strategy, but the skis weren’t up to the job. I finished tired, pretty much emptied out, and with no cramps or crashes–though it would have taken a concerted effort to crash on the slow descents.

What would I do differently next time?

I would have added that second layer of VR40 in test, then modified if they didn’t feel faster.

I had a second pair of skis. I would have set those up with a similar, but more speed-focused wax job. Or maybe something completed different. Lot’s of people were trying Rode Multigrade, but I never like experimenting with wax on race day.

I would have stopped during the race and scraped off some of the wax, though I’m not sure if that would have helped or if it would have been a net greater loss of time.

Ultimately, I think the culprit was too much/too thick wax, especially in the toe pocket.

Which reminds me: thin to win.

Next year…

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