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.

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Rangeley Loppet 2017

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.

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Westonloppet

A little while back, I ruined an otherwise perfectly lovely Saturday afternoon by racing the “Westonloppet” at Leo J Martin Ski Track.

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 Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Rollerski fail


This is what my left elbow looks like after taking a superman on a fast downhill.

The skis did not want to track straight and with increased speed, became unstable. The right ski cut inside and sent me flying. 

I was at least able to land clean on my hands, with the pole grips taking most of the impact and skid. But the rest of the body followed thereafter. Knee. Hip. Elbow. That was the worst mostly because it looks like it went clear through the skin to whatever is beneath it. 

I got up and finished the roll. 

Fantom Ski Season

photo courtesy of Alex Jospe


I’ve written about the Craftsbury Marathon but there has been more — not a whole lot more — due to this challenging Northeast winter.

Mont-Sainte-Anne

The annual holiday camp at Mont-Sainte-Anne was a success, redeemed at the last minute by a heavy storm and nearly continuous snowfall for the next five days. I skied mostly classic because the classic conditions were so good and most of the early season races are classic technique. I did some really long skis. I did the training race, and did respectably. I finally figured out how to descend in classic tracks without losing control. Plus, I managed not to fall and separate my ribs this year, which made a huge difference coming into the competition season…

Leo J Martin Ski Track

The return to the Boston area was marred by lack of snow — natural or otherwise — at Weston. There was barely a kilometer of poorly groomed manmade stuff, typical to what we would have in early December, which meant for limited terrain and crowded conditions as the high school and EMBK skiers spread across the track, stopped or fell at inopportune locations. Throwing down high-speed intervals in that crowd made for some creative skiing but not dissimilar from a typical Tuesday Night Race. Eventually cold temperatures and even a little natural snow allowed the loop to expend to nearly 2.5 km, but that still felt woefully short. The new operators still have a lot to learn about grooming and snow making. A marginal year could have been much better.

Geschmossel

On MLK day, I drove up to Bretton Woods to ski the Geschmossel on a thin, abbreviated course. We drove through falling snow, heavy at times, and into an welcomed winterscape in the shadow of Mt. Washington. Despite the additional snow, the recommendation was still to use your “rock” skis. Since my race skis are essentially rock skis at this point, it was an easy decision. As was waxing. Since most of the long, steep hills had been removed, I applied a very thin layer of VR40 kick wax which left my skis fast with just enough grip for the few times I needed it.

Three strange things happened in this race.

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The Season So Far

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It’s been a forgettable, slightly regrettable ski season so far.

The preparation had been exceptional. I was on snow in November. I had weekend trips to Trapp’s and Bob Green’s. I had long distance runs on no chow and felt strong all the way through.

Then I had a little fall at MSA. On the second day, coming back from the morning ski, I hit a damp patch of snow. My skis stopped. I kept going. I fell hard, stuck the landing, and compressed the right side of my body. My rib cage shifted way out of alignment. I felt the muscles and tendons straining. Something somewhere popped. It knocked the wind out of me. I lay in the snow for several minutes, afraid to move.

Eventually I got up, skied back in, and kept skiing the rest of the camp. But it was really sore. I might have broken some ribs. At least separated them. So I popped lots of ibuprofen and kept going. I did the CSU training race, but I had no aerobic capacity, and suffered for it.

I got sick right after coming back from Quebec. It’s become an annual tradition — train really hard, feel great, then collapse from too much, too fast.  I was sick for a week. I could feel the virus in all my old injuries: shoulder, hips, knee, back.  Coughing with strained ribs was brutal.

It was all enough to disrupt my fitness and technique.

In the Weston Tuesday Night races, I couldn’t get comfortable. I had no high-end. I didn’t feel connected to the snow. I even crashed on the final lap.

Along the way, I realized I had outgrown my ski boots.  All the long-distance running had caused my feet to lengthen out and now they were crammed into boots that were suddenly a size too small. New boots meant tweaks and adjustments, finding and refining technique.

At the Bogburn, under extremely fast and icy conditions, I crashed hard on my right shoulder…the same side I had injured at MSA. I felt something snap when I hit the snow. I was pretty sure I had separated my shoulder. I skied through the rest of the race. It was Romeo’s 10th birthday, and I was racing in his memory. So I was going to finish, no matter what.  Fortunately, the crack I heard was just me breaking through the layer of ice crust, and not tendons snapping.

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I had more problems at Weston Tuesday Nights. I was getting dropped by the guys I had skied away from the year before. I was getting sloppy and making mistakes.

I talked about calling the season off, hanging up the skis, and taking a prolonged recovery. Just one more race…

At the White Mountain Classic in Jackson, I skied brilliantly the first time up the Wave, then collapsed aerobically, and hobbled my way in, skiing alone the last 20 km. I couldn’t produce any power from my upper body. If I cranked too hard, my entire right side would flare up.

I won my age group — but that was only because there was really no competition and not because I had a stellar race.

I was becoming less sure about Craftsbury. I wasn’t in any condition to do a 50km marathon.

But I kept going. Because that’s what I’ve always done and, at this point, it’s all I know to do.

I raced Craftsbury, which was a brutally cold race of attrition. Craftsbury is its own story. But I finished it, and that was enough.

I was starting to pack things in after Craftsbury.

Later, as my body would start to improve, I came to understand that I had strained all the muscles responsible for lifting my rib cage so my lungs could expand while taking in air. My aerobic capacity was dramatically reduced. In addition, the strained muscles had thrown of my balance and equilibrium, degrading  my technique, making me even less efficient.

It was tricky to understand because the acute pain had cleared up much faster than the slow, strained muscles — I felt normal, but my body wasn’t at 100%.

For an athlete — especially one who still retains distant memories of elite performances — it is demoralizing to be struggling against your body. I spent sleepless nights trying to understand the root cause and searching for the formula to recover the level of high performance.

It wasn’t anything particular in my preparation or training. It was an unfortunate accident that interrupted everything…and created a ripple-through effect. I’m still dealing with the sense that I will lose the season because of it. I have to change how I think about success this season. It’s not about the results — even though I’ve won 2 of my last 4 races — but rather the feeling that I’m not getting the best out of my efforts. And I’m not quite there yet.

But there is still time.

And I’ll keep going.