My running season ended in September with the Wasatch Front 100, and I resigned myself to a winter of weight lifting and sporadic winter trail running. It takes a LOT of motivation to run around in the cold in deep snow, so I tend to hibernate athletically until March. After a week implementing this, our herding dog Pretzel's bottled up energy was red-lining - watching him yip, vibrate, whimper and drag his leash around in that sad and hopeful way, Jenna and I gave in and committed to a winter outdoors.
The winning sport? Ski mountaineering, baby! From a recent New York Times piece, Ski mountaineering, also known as Skimo,
Alpine touring or skinning, this is skiing much as it was before chairlifts: you propel yourself up the mountain before swooshing back down.
(The Wall Street Journal jumped on board with some good press the following week.) Resort skiing is fun, but skins let you bust your own tracks up any mountain within a couple hours of a road - or farther, if you're willing to snow-camp or stay in one of the ski huts peppering the Rockies.
Unlike trail running, Skimo's gear-heavy. I've never owned skis and was stunned at the range of boots, bindings and articles saying things like "If I could only own FIVE pairs of skis - oh god, so difficult - these would be those five."
And, good news for me, there's a racing version of Skimo. After a couple times on the new gear, I did my first race at A Basin on my heavy gear up at altitude, got my ass handed to me and had a blast. Trudging up the ski slope, my legs felt thick and leaden - my hip flexors screamed and froze coming over each lip. It hurts SO good. I wore a flappy jacket, cinched a belt around my waist so that the skins wouldn't fall out on the downhills, and overheated my way through the race. (My friends Jason, Joe and Fred were all wearing jorts.)
This isn't fully out of the blue. I started doing real endurance races back in college. I've always liked it long (yuk yuk), but spent the first ten years of my athletic life as a sprint kayaker. The longer of the two kayak events, the 1000m, is intensely aerobic, sure, but it's still a sprint.
Kayaking gave me a huge base of training that I've coasted on for years. It's helped less and less as the races got longer, from ~11 hour Ironman triathlons to 30+ hour canoe races like the Texas Water Safari. I'd get PRETTY good at these sports, pushing it to maybe 80% of the level serious training would put me at, then pull back before committing the time. It's fun to finish massive endurance races, but I haven't felt the pull to train really hard that I felt with kayaking when I was young.
That changed this past January, when Jenna and I decided to move to Boulder, CO. I was so, so happy driving out here. In the car with the woman I'd fallen in love with, driving through roadcuts through enormous mountains.
We found a house next to one of the best trailheads in Boulder, and I started running more for fun, just getting out and pushing myself around the Sanitas loop. I signed up for a couple of 100 mile races. Trail running just doesn't feel like training. I wanted to climb mountains! I didn't think about mileage, just about linking together objectives. I love the solitude, the views, the difficulty up above 8k feet, and how wonderful it is to hit trails right out of my door. I had some great results in 2014, and want to see how strong I can get this next year.
Skimo racing is pushing those same buttons. Who'da thought. The sport's small in the US, but the athletes are strong, typically with years of background in trail running, climbing and backcountry skiing.
After that first race, I spent the next few weeks touring around and practicing with Jenna and other friends, waking up early and getting in a bunch of ski days. The next race on the same course was two weeks later.
On race day, I woke up at 4am and got to A Basin at 6, early enough to try out a demo race setup. The Dynafit folks set me up with some stupid-light PDG skis and boots, which feel like running shoes. The skis look like little sticks underfoot. It's absurd little this stuff weighs.
The gun went off and I took off right behind the leaders, jogging forward on the skins for a few hundred yards before backing off into that skinning powerhike. I had longer poles this time and was able to get my arms into the mix. I dropped my glasses out of the front of my jacket, and just stopped in front of another athlete to get them. She almost slow-mo crashed into me, but recovered without speaking. You can't really talk during these things, unlike 100 milers, where everyone high-fives their way through the day.
Huge push halfway up the ski slope, flailed down on my skinny skis and then up the damned hill again. I tossed out some "Nice work!" comments, trail running style, but most folks had their heads down and didn't want to talk. It was over in about 49 minutes, 9 minutes and 20 places faster than last time! Being bad at a sport is dangerous and encourages addiction. You improve really fast at first, forcing you to sign up for a bunch more races - by the time your progress slows down to single-second gains, you're firmly hooked.
This last race felt much, much better on fast gear. I'm really fired up for winter, and Pretzel's sane again. I haven't felt excitement for racing like this since back in kayaking, a couple of years before the end, before it became a job.
I put together a pretty heavy racing calendar for this first season, but the goal, as with the trail running, is to get out into the mountains with Jenna and learn more about this incredible, beautiful part of the world. Here's to mountain living!