A Perfect Loaf

The Sugarloaf Nordic Marathon had been looming like a white whale over the end of the 2017 ski season.   Good conditions in late March can be as elusive as a giant fish in the south Pacific. Form and fitness can be fickle. And once the first signs of spring arrive, the doldrums aren’t far behind.

It takes an extra effort to close the final leagues, to have that prey in sight, to be ready to hurl the harpoon.

So it was not unexpected to find myself pondering why I persist in this sport, or any sport, year upon year. Why endure all the training, logistics and travel? Why deal with the equipment and expense? Why suffer needlessly and endlessly in deleterious conditions? If only for a few fleeting moments of brilliance when all the time and effort sunk becomes its own reward for rising above it? If only to prove that I was once a good athlete and could perhaps be one again, if only time weren’t against me?

This year’s edition of Sugarloaf already had a different feel to it. The mid-week Nor’easter had dumped 20 inches of fine, fresh powder on the course. Temps would remain cold, meaning no slow, sloppy snow. Waxing for cold, skate conditions was a simple, straightforward affair.

I was far from exhausted despite racing nearly every week and weekend since late December. Gone were the insomnia inducing fears of how I would cover the distance without cracking in the final kilometers. Confidence in my body and mental fortitude had grown.

Thus, as I lined up for the start of Sugarloaf beneath crystal blue skies and warm sun, I was calmed. I had eaten well and had a belly full of good coffee. Daresay, I was even looking forward to a 50km skate marathon (knowing full well the actual distance would be something shy of that number).

The race exploded from the gun.

Kris Freeman, former Olympian and all-around strong man, immediately went clear, dragging with him a select few of the more ambitious younger skiers. I backed off immediately, knowing that I would only sabotage my own race by going out too fast. I wasn’t fully warmed up yet and I knew what pace I could sustain for a two hour race, and this pace wasn’t it. I let the gap open up while I led a small pack up the first series of climbs, feeling like I was already going too fast and trying to slow down.

Then Ari attacked, trying to bridge across to the stragglers from Freeman’s group, and the rest of our little group pursued, while I drifted to the back and wondered why he was going so hard so soon.

This was a struggle for me because I still compete with a bike racer’s mentality — if you’re not in the front group, if you don’t make the splits, your race is over. But unlike bike racing, where sitting in a group is a substantial advantage and opportune for recovery, in skiing you still have to match most of the effort to keep pace and you almost never get back the energy you put into bridging to a faster group.

I glanced at my heart-rate monitor. I was already burning matches. So I backed off even further. I was pretty sure the pace they were setting was unsustainable and eventually, it would all come back together.  That proved out to be the case sooner than I expected.

They hammered up the hills, pulling away while I kept myself under control. Over the crests of the hills, onto the flats and downhills, I put a little bit more power into my kick and let myself glide a bit longer, tucked small and tight, and far more easily that I would have anticipated, closed right back up to them.

By the second lap, we had settled into a rhythm, me yo-yoing off the back but never in danger of getting dropped. By the start of the third lap, I could tell the group was getting tired. The pace slowed. I still felt fresh.

I had been saving myself for the final lap, where I planned to attack hard on the first climbs, but the lull in the pace indicated an opportunity. With half the lap remaining, I picked up the pace on one the ascents, maintained my speed on the flat thereafter, and continued to the top of the next rise. It wasn’t a full-on attack, just a slight increase in the pace to something a little less comfortable. There was disarray behind me as the little group went to pieces.

I sensed I had a gap and attacked down the hill, through the twists and chicanes, gliding and carrying all my speed and spending very little extra energy to do so.

Coming through the stadium with a final lap to go, I sucked down one more gel and took a look back. Dave was closing in on me, so I eased up and let him reconnect rather than having to hold him off the rest of the race. I led us up the series of climbs to top of the course. I could hear Dave’s skis on the snow, his quick pace, and it felt like he was strong and he was just waiting for the right moment to go.

I pulled off at the feed zone and let Dave take the lead down the hill. My skis were flying, just like they’d been at Rangeley, and I was scrubbing speed. I figured that if I were going to get clear of Dave, it would on a descent.

I wasn’t thinking about whether or not I would crack. I wasn’t worried that if he attacked, I wouldn’t be able to hang with him. I wasn’t worried about whether or not I would be able to sustain my attack. I was only concerned about where and how I was going to make my move. Each bend in the trail, slight uphill or twisting descent was a chance to go.

But the opportunities were dwindling. Not enough room to pass on one hill. Legs too tired on another. No downhill to follow. In my head, there was a voice telling me to go. You’re strong enough to do it. What are you waiting for? Time’s running out. There was always the voice that  knew when to attack, but this time, it knew the body was strong enough, if only I would trust it.

And so it came down to the final hill, the long grinder up to the bridge, and that’s where I attacked.

I had dropped back a couple ski lengths, then surged, v2 up the appetizer and kept going on the false flat that followed. I was immediately paying the price of that effort. The remainder of the hill stretched out before me, seeming to grow longer and taller with each stride.

The seconds slowed and I was able to consider each movement in detail and ponder the after-effects, make minute adjustments and refinements, replay the wisdom of the move.

I had attacked. I had a gap. But I was suffering. I was pretty empty at this point in the race. I was slowing with each stride. I was flailing. But I only had to make it to the top of the hill. And if I was hurting, Dave was hurting too, at least as much. More perhaps, because he had to close the gap. I didn’t look back. I knew if he was coming, there was nothing more I could do. I refocused and poured every once of remaining energy into quickening my stride, holding my form together, and breathing.

The race was to the top of the hill. From there, just a few rollers, then into the stadium and to finish.

And that’s when I felt the brilliance, the spark and flash of light the comes from asking my body to do something it did not seem willing to do. And having that body respond to the call. That feeling building through the slow-motion realization that all the pieces are falling into place. The countless hours of training, in the cold and wet. The intervals. The extra intervals. The planning and process. Analyzing performance data and training logs. Strategizing in the car on the way to the races. Recounting the play-by-play with teammates afterwards.

It was all was paying back in the final minutes and meters. It didn’t matter that I was racing for 6th place or an age group win. Just that I was still able to achieve this feeling  of pure performance.

Around the final turn onto the bridge, I was stepping in slow motion. My arms and legs were leaden. My breathing was ragged. I was starting to taste the morning’s coffee in the back of my throat. I was on the verge of collapse. Any more elevation and I would have been finished.

And then I was at the top, onto the flat section of the bridge. A couple deep breaths, and I started hammering again, all the way to the finish, sprinting through the stadium, around the final sweeping right-hand turn to the finishing chute, and all the way to the line.

I crossed the line, slumped onto my poles. I was done. Emptied to a point of perfection, like a hollow sticky tube of klister. I could have fallen to the ground like all those World Cup skiers but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get up again.

I’ve spent entire seasons and even years pursuing days like this where everything clicks and you find yourself in that elusive space many call “the zone”. In my more recent years as a competitor, this experience has seemed relegated to the past. Sure, I’d been able to put in an effort or two in the relatively anonymity of a longer event, but the follow-through was always missing and the end result left the sense of what could have been rather than what was or would be.

At the end of it all, when the skis are packed away, the clothing changed, the prizes collected, the belly calmed and re-filled with food, and a long car ride back home, this is why I persist.

My white whale is not a journey of revenge — not anymore, at least.


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