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
skiers tend to be attracted to feats of strength and extended endurance insanity such as this. The rules were simple: ski continuous laps and keep count of the number of times you get passed by the leader. After 2 hours, the lapped lap count would be subtracted and a finishing order established. Prizes would be awarded, war stories recounted and wax strategies questioned extensively.
I had been designated as the “leader” and graciously accepted the dossard emblazoned with an X, composed entirely of duct tape, such that I would be readily identifiable to the other skiers. It was also my charge to keep track of the lap count which, fortunately, I was able to do automatically on my Polar V800 watch. The downside to all this glory was that I had to finish the race, otherwise the accounting of it would fall apart.
The race began without aplomb. No need to go out too fast. We had plenty of time to sort things out. I quickly approached and then passed my threshold and, feeling only mildly discomforted, held myself there as much as possible. I was pretty sure I would not be able to sustain it for the entire race, but was willing to try. After 15 minutes, we were skiing in a small group of three, but there were comments about the sustainability of the pace and already complaints about sore backs. After 20 minutes, I was skiing on my own.
I settled into rhythm from there, sitting just below my threshold, descending into the pain tunnel, switching mostly between v2 and v2alt. The watch buzzed reassuringly each time a came through the start/finish. The course was nearly flat by nordic standards: minimal climbing to peg the heart rate, very little descending for recovery, which meant that I was able to ski very very close to my limit without risk of going over it.
I could tell you it was all a blur from there but the truth is, I remember every exquisite detail, even if I had long since given up on counting the laps. My skis were gliding well, even in the wet slop, even up the hills. I cheered on my competitors as I navigated around them. I felt the pelletized snow striking my face and scalp. My sunglasses started to glaze over. The setting sun exploded in the hazy halo of the snow guns, blinding me for extended periods and making me feel as though I was no longer connected to the earth.
More than I few times I had to remind myself that going faster didn’t mean finishing sooner. My legs and arms were getting tired. I was drinking and sucking down gels, hanging close to my limit, half-expecting the bottom to drop out.
As the sun set and the fatigue started to creep in, the snow got faster and I pushed a little harder, harder still, into the finish.
I crossed the line a final time to turn over 32 laps, roughly 38 km. I has spend 15 minutes in zone 5, just slight about threshold, and 1:45 in zone 4, just below threshold.
I was exhausted.
But I had proven to myself just how hard I could ski for two hours, even though it would take me days to recover from it.