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.
We completed the first lap of around 22km in just over an hour.
On the second lap, the fresher guys, the guys who had maybe been sitting on, started to turn the screws. I went up there with him, took a couple hard pulls, immediately regretted it, and backed off. But the damage had been done by then. We had lost a few skiers from our group and, further up the trail, we had in sight a few of those guys who had gone out too fast, too soon and were now in the death zone and coming back to us.
Leading us down the fast descent, I found myself on a patch of ice and couldn’t recover, so I ditched into the soft snow rather than overshoot the trail and go into the woods. I was up and skiing again before the group passed me. No harm done, unlike previous years when my ski had caught a branch on the side of the trail and the branch had gone through the hole in my hole ski and I had to remove the ski to disentangle it.
The real racing started just after that. With 15 km to go, our group started to split up. I hesitated, looked at Frank so admitted to being at his limit, then responded slowly and started to pull back up to the lead skier. I ate my second gel, losing some time in the process, but then rallied up and over the next hill, and, tucked in on the descent with my skis gliding fast, caught back to the lead skier.
I found another gear. We were driving hard up the hills. I was just trying to stay smooth. I stopped looking at my heart rate monitor. Knowing the numbers was useless at this point. I was feeling stronger. I was starting to think I could pass the guy setting the pace, but each time I started to swing around, it was a little too much, so I just stayed on his tails and waited for the right moment.
That moment came at the top of the final, long climb. We all slowed to take one last feed with maybe 7 or 8 km to go, and I took the lead for the descent and let my skis run.
I glanced back. I had a gap and I was pulling away. I figured the group would catch me up by the bottom, but my skis were faster than theirs and I realized I had a chance to go clear, so I went harder. But I was already pretty close to my limit and any hard effort immediately resulted in heavy arms. My legs were shot from the descent but nothing was cramping up, so far.
So I backed off the effort a little bit, focused on the glide and finesse, and emptied myself of ever last little bit of strength I had. There was one skier left chasing me and I couldn’t tell if he was closing or if I had secured my position so I kept going as hard as I could.
I’ve had two distinct experiences in the end-game of a ski marathon. Usually, I’m shattered, the arms and legs cramping up, a forced march to the finish and wondering why I do this sport at all.
Other times, I’ve paced perfectly and have gas in the tank and enough mental strength to race the last few kilometers. Those are the rare exceptions, something I’m trying to get better at making happen.
Rangeley this year had fallen into that sweet second category.
There is no better experience than to feel strong, to have the body be willing, in the last quarter of a race like that.
I sprinted up the final hill and all the way to the line.
Distance: 40.36 km as measured by Polar V800
Avg HR: 157
Max HR: 174
Avg Speed: 19.8 km/h
Max Speed: 44.5 km/h
Calories: 1502 kcal
Place: 1st age group, 18th overall
Skis: Fischer RCS Carbonlite Skate 192cm, stiff, Caldwell Sport TB2n grind
Wax: Toko HF Blue, Toko Jetstream Red top coat, fine linear rill