Wow, I haven't gotten crushed that hard in a race in a long time. Just fully WHIPPED!
Jenna and I drove out to Jackson yesterday for the "Wyoming Rando Roundup", my first real weekend of racing since I signed up for all of these races a few weeks ago. I don't have my own race setup yet, so Wade lent me his crazy carbon Alien 1.0 boots and SkiTrab skis, and some extremely short kicker skins (for flat stretches) that had showed up in the mail the day before I grabbed them.
"Yeah man," he said, "I'm a little surprised at how short they are! But I think they'll be fine." Oh, Wade.
There are two long races this weekend. The first, the "Grand Targhee Ski Mountaineering Championship", was at the Grand Targhee resort on the Idaho side of the Teton range. Perfect temperatures, 5,000 feet of vertical gain, 3 climbs and 3 descents. The second is the Jackson Hole Skimo Championship (race report here). I didn't have any illusions of getting top 10, but I was hoping for a strong, middle-of-the-pack result that would expose some flaws in my technique and equipment that I could work on for the next race.
I showed up an hour before the start, checked in and got dressed, chanting the long list of gear in my head like a prayer to the Gear Gods - "skins, skis, socks, beacon, shovel...", over and over, trying to drill it into my brain, hoping I hadn't forgotten anything. (Targhee didn't check ANY of the required items, so it turned out not to matter.)
Endurance races hurt. There's always a little voice inside you trying to give you an excuse to go slow. My demon was asking me how bad it would be if I had some little gear malfunction - an unsticky skin, say - that would allow me to slow down without losing face. The shorter the race, the stronger the demon's pull. The second things DO start to fuck up, though, you snap awake and realize how good you had it.
My demon would have his way with me this day. Getting my skis out of the car, I realized I'd taken one of Jenna's adjustable ski poles instead of mine. Jenna's poles can't extend as far as I like, so I was stuck with 125cm poles instead of the usual 135cm. Gah! No, you know what? This was good. The adversity could only make me stronger.
I started my warmup 20 minutes before the start, skinning up the first hill. Again, I noticed just how short Wade's new sexy skins were. By stretching skin's bungee tip attachment I could just get them back to my heel. Odd. I'll just lean forward and get more pressure on the tips, and they'll stick to the snow just fine. Right?
I transitioned, glided back to the start, and boom, it was game time.
The Wyoming Roundup start! Awesome turnout! Grand Targhee Resort SCARPA CAMP USA Dynafit La Sportiva Kate's Real FoodPosted by United States Ski Mountaineering Association on Saturday, January 10, 2015
I started on the left side of a large field and looked out over the faces to try and judge who looked strong. This is a mistake when you're lined up for your first race in a new sport, because EVERYONE looks strong. There are only a few choices for racing gear available in the US, so everyone, elite or not, was dressed in the same lycra suit wearing the same stupid-light boots and skis that I was wearing. There were a few bearded dudes, each of whom I thought might be Rob Krar. The guy next to me tapped me and said, "dude, you need to point farther left or you're gonna get mowed DOWN when we go." Yeah, right. Wait until you see my afterburners light.
The guy running the race yelled GO and we all took off, skinning like crazy up the hill. My heart rate hit 180 right away as I pushed out in the top third of the pack, fighting toward the funnel a quarter mile in where the course moved into a single skin track and I could relax and keep my position. I was feeling good, like the old 5k paddling days. This course is at lower altitude than A Basin, the resort I've been training at. I was breathing fine at the high heart rate. My skis started to slip backward on the steeper slope. I pushed on my extra-short little poles with my arms and got to the skin track right in front of Stevie Kremer, the top woman in the field.
(The line of racers before the switchbacks.)
The next section was all kick turns and switchbacks on uneven snow. This is where my day started to fall apart. Every time I moved over a bump that forced the tips of my skis up, they'd let go of the hill and slip back FAST. With the short skins I only had a few inches of goat fur in contact with the snow. I was skiing right up behind the guy in front of me, not lagging, but I could tell that Stevie smelled blood and wanted to crush me. Her ski tips were clacking against my tails like a shark nipping in at its prey. The hunger was palpable and frightening. I got my upper body into the mix, breathed heavy and kept moving.
At the end of the switchbacks, the skin track widened into a long, very steep uphill. Stevie moved out beside me and made her attack. As she passed, she said, "hey, I think your skin's bunching up a little in the back." Sure enough, the tail of the skin had folded over on itself, probably from my side slipping, and was starting to roll itself up the ski. Uh oh.
I thanked her, said "Nice work!" like an idiot and labored upward. I made it about 20 more feet before the left skin detached and I was forced to pull over. I took the ski off, wiped the ice off and breathed on it, whispering incantations into its gluey surface. Please stick... It worked! I put the ski back on and forged ahead. A few minutes later the next fuckup hit.
Halfway up the groomed hill the grade kicked back so far that my skins stopped sticking. I couldn't move. I tried to traverse out and back, but this was so slow that I switched to a herringbone and waddled up the hill, legs splayed out. Racers were streaming past, looking over, pitying me hard from within their own pain caves. I gave them hope, I'm sure. Finally, it was over and I was skinning along the flat toward the first transition. I ripped my skins and took off down the choppy iced-out hill.
Targhee's weather had been warm all week, and the snow had melted down into a cruddy mess of ice - the perfect surface for a first downhill run on borrowed race skis. I built up speed on a long traverse, then dumped it when the slope dropped out in a long ice sheet called "Lightning Trees". So terrifying! I did not class this section. I slid down sideways, got in maybe two turns and straight-lined once I hit the moderate grade at the bottom of the hill, trying to make up for the minutes I'd lost. Through some trees, to the transition area and then into the bootpack up a double black diamond chute called the "Toilet Bowl". My trail running muscles kicked into gear and, for another few minutes, I felt fast.
Two thirds of the way up the Toilet Bowl I knew that the day had turned from race to battle. The racers in front of me had kicked all of the warm, sugary snow off of the steep face, leaving no bootprints to step in. Fast turned slow on the bootpack of death. I climbed higher and spread eagled across the 50 degree dirt hill, pulling on roots to get higher, dumping snow and soil into my boots with each kick. After I went through the organizers diverted racers to a safer chute. Lucky me, pushing it on the last grains of snow.
At the top I found great skinning once again up to the next summit. We were in the cat skiing area now, so the next downhill was less choppy and more of an ice sheet. Resigned, I skidded down, sliding through turns, trying to stave off the two girls I knew were nuking down behind me.
At the bottom I transitioned too fast and got a bunch of snow on the skin glue. Ten minutes up the track my skin's flapping tail decided to fold completely and popped off. I pulled over, letting the ladies pass as I reattached the skin and tried again. Pop!
I had to finish this race. There was no way I was going to quit. I decided I would do what Wade had done in the last A-Basin race and bootpack for the remaining, what, 1000 feet of vert? Oh, baby Jesus. I moved off the skin track to protect whomever, if anyone, was behind me, and started laboring up through waist-deep powder.
But then, hope! A woman skinning up behind me yelled, "Do you need skins?" Don't fuck this up. Stay calm.
"Yeah! Do you have any extras?"
"I've got three pairs. You got any water?" We were bartering at our own Oregon Trail depot on the hills of Grand Targhee. I gave her some water and grabbed one of her pairs of skins. Luckily I picked the ultra-sticky full-coverage ones that fit my skis perfectly. On my third energy wave of the day I hammered to the top. My ski popped off once, just to screw with me, but I cranked it back on, made it to final transition and dropped into the last chute.
And I skied it well! My quads were so sore. I tucked the final mile, expecting another drop into some canyon, but the organizers took pity and let us finish on a long green run. I crossed the line close to last place among the men. One guy had finished behind me. As I waited to give the skins back to my guardian angel, I heard a couple of guys taking about the rookie they'd seen herringboning up the hill. Nice.
So concludes the tale of my first major ski mountaineering race. 5,000 feet of vert, roughly 2.5 hours. Tomorrow I head over to Jackson Hole for a much more serious race with 8,000 feet of vertical gain. My plan is to use some paracord to extend the tip attachment of the skins about a foot, bring some straps and hope for the best.