The big one.
Of epic proportions in every dimension: The longest distance. The most varied terrain. The longest drive. The most complex waxing.
We members of the Brotherhood — Frank, Andy and I — had decided to arrive the day before to preview the new 16km loop and to test waxes. We had started calling our little group ‘the Brotherhood’ a few years ago in Mont-Saint-Anne, where we followed a psuedo-monastic daily regimen of eat-ski-eat-sleep-ski-eat-beer. We’d taken vows of hypoxia and carbo loading, prayed to snow gods and bent prostrate subsequent to all-out efforts in Tuesday Night races. We were reverant, if not fanatical.
The drive up was uneventful. The weather was clear. As we pushed further north, through Franconia Notch and into vastness of northern New Hampshire and Vermont, the ground gradually brightened and whitened with snow. But it was all hard-glazed, indicating the rain that had fallen and frozen at the taper of the last storm. Perhaps that were pockets of powder still there, windswept and collected on the lee side of fields and trails. Perhaps it would turn softer and powdery by the time we reached Craftsbury, leaving us with glorious hard wax conditions.
The forecast predicted rising temps from below freezing climbing throughout the morning, above freezing coincident with the final lap of the marathon. Overcast skies. Low wind. We checked the weather reports every hour, strategized about wax combinations, hedges, longevity tricks, panic plans and then repeated the process with each subsequent update.
We finally arrived at the Outdoor Center in mid-afternoon to find a few inches of fresh powder on top of the crust we had seen along the drive up. On the trails, it had been churned, ground, bullied and packed into firm, consistent tracks. We tested the kilster-hard wax combination from Jackson. The Swix KN44 Nero that Andy had discovered, that Frank still had on his test skis, the combo which had proven resilient and durable, albeit a bit slow on my skis, covered with VR45. On the other ski, straight VR45.
It was hard to tell the skis apart. Both had bomber kick on the steep uphill out of the field. Both glided smoothly with each stride over the top and felt fast on the descent to Duck Pond. I had dialed in my wax pocket and went much shorter than Jackson and felt much better with the results all the way up Sam’s Run. We stopped to check for wear and icing at the road crossing before Dante’s Loop and again after the long series of plunging s-turns on the return down Ruthie’s Run.
By the end of the lap, we had made the decision to go with the covered klister. No penalty in speed, insurance against rising temperatures and more likely to last the entire 50 km.
After the ski, dinner at the Village House with the CSU gang. More talk of wax and weather reports over lasagna and beer. Then we retired early. We had two beds between the three of us. It was a small miracle that we slept between the snoring, farting, multiple trips to bathroom, stumbling and tripping over gear in the dark and the tick-tick-tick of the radiators each time the heat came on.
Morning arrived and it was all business. Oatmeal. Coffee. Lay out the race clothes. Pack up the bags. It was race time.
It was also the anniversary of Romeo’s passing. Thirteen years to the day — a continuous series of marathons for me, each with their own climbs and descents, slipping wax and struggles for momentum. I wrote his name on my arm in black sharpie, like I had done for each race, each year, over and over again, and thanked the skiing and the Brotherhood for seeing me through this far.
At the race venue, it was colder than predicted. We prepped the skis with the nero klister-hardwax combo we had previewed the day before. Once the skis were ready, we set them aside and warmed up for 20 minutes. We didn’t need much of warm up with 50 km and something around 3 hours to race but Frank still insisted on picking up the pace with a double-pole effort.
On the start line, with one minute to go, I was still fussing with my boot laces. Then the race was underway. We climbed through the stadium, out into the fields, down the corkscrew and up and out. The pace was reasonable as the skiers stretched out in a long, thin file along the trail. I was breathing smoothly. I was relaxed. Five minutes in, I was still below threshold.
The race was splitting up. The younger faster skiers were pulling clear. Small gaps were opening up. I pushed a little harder to stay in contact, but not so hard to close up the gaps every time. Thurston was behind me. I could feel him skiing on my tails. At one point he breathlessly urged, “We have to close that gap!” and I looked back at him, stepped aside to the next track and let him pull through. I had no business trying to close gaps this early.
On the flats the guys were double-poling and pulling away. My arms were already tired and there was no way I was going to do this for another 45km. I was patient. I was able to close up on the uphills, but lost my rhythm in the group as skiers slipped and stepped halfway out of the track to herringbone up the steeper parts. I redlined it, lost ground there but regained it on the descents that followed which confirmed I had quick skis.
It went like that for the all of the first lap. Pushing a little too hard, not quite recovering enough, knowing all the while I wouldn’t last the full race at that pace. I was paying the price for a season of bike racing instead of rollerski double-poling and ercolina workouts. My arms were tired even just swinging them and when I could stride, I skied mostly from my legs.
Half-way through the second lap, I let go of the group and backed off. The sun had punched through the clouds and its heat hit me and my hands felt hot and swollen. I needed to refuel and wanted to avoid a bonk and dying a thousand deaths on the finale. I took extra time to drink. I grabbed a handful of gummies and ate them on the descent through Viviana’s Field.
By the end of the second lap, I was picking up slower skiers who had cracked from going out too hard or whose wax was no longer kicking. But I was getting caught, too. Having recovered a bit, I latched onto a passing NWVE skier and settled into the final lap but I crashed going down Elinore’s Hill and lost the splinter group and was on my own the race of the race. A few more skiers passed me and I picked up the effort to go with them, but didn’t manage to go any faster. In past editions of Craftsbury, the last few kilometers were always brutal with the final stair case climbs, arms cramping, legs blown out, resources fully depleted. I was feeling it more in the muscles of my upper body, a lack of endurance more than anything else. With no fear of bonking, with no cramping, the last few kilometers were almost enjoyable.
I crossed the line in 2:47, in 21st place, 2nd in my age group. There’s a guy from Quebec who keeps beating me. I saw him as he passed me in the last few k’s and smoothly double-poled away into the distance.
Frank finished shortly behind me, taking the win for his age group.
I put on my warm-ups and went back out on-course to cheer Andy as the came up and over the final hill, third in his age group.
The Brotherhood reunited and rounded out the virtual podium, all satisfied with the efforts and happy with the skis.
Post-race chili in the Outdoor Center, war stories with each other and with strangers now united through mutual adversity and suffering. Just the long drive home to follow, cradled in sweet fatigue.
There would be other races soon, but for now I was happy to have this one behind me, and relieved of the effort, I welcomed the stillness and calm.