The forecast was for 6-10 inches of snow during the race.
I haven't done a skate race longer than 50 minutes all year.
And yet, before the race I had convinced myself that a skate 50k in a snowstorm was going to be fun -- or at least, epic. Was I right? Let's find out!
It was snowing hard when we got up, and it took over 2 hours to make the 74 mile drive to the race start over the most frost-heaved road in Maine. Linnea somehow managed to sleep on the way despite the car being periodically airborne, which shows you how laid back she is about ski racing. Parking was full, so we got sent two miles up the road, theoretically to return via shuttle -- although the shuttle never really appeared and we fortunately got a ride down with Alex's boyfriend Ed.
To make a long preamble short, I ended up skiing exactly 50 yards to the start line to warm up, and I was basically the last person to make it into wave one... although at least I made it!
(Race promoting tip: If you have a wave start, you need signs announcing this at registration, instead of a few people with paper trying to direct surprised and confused traffic at the start line)
So my warmup consisted of, as usual, the first 3-5k of the race, skiing at a laughably low heart rate, occasionally double poling around people.
Eventually the gaps started opening up and I had enough space to get things rolling at "race" pace, jumping from group to group through the gradual climbs. I got to the point where there was a several hundred yard gap to the next group, but I could see two Alpina team suits in it -- meaning that Alex was up there.
A k or two of honest work got me within reach of the group, but as I closed on it one of the Alpina suits fell off the back. It turned out to be Alex, who immediately told me that she wanted to drop out.
I know I'm not elite, but I was a little offended that being passed by me is apparently a sign one should drop out.
Given that we had 40+ k remaining, I decided to slow it down and ski with Alex for a bit. I figured that the insult of me dangling in front of her for a while would be enough to get her motivated to race more and whine less. I'm not gonna say I was the sole reason that she didn't drop out, but I'd like to think I contributed.
Another benefit of skiing with Alex is that you never know when you're going to see an awesome crash. We were heading down one of the longer descents on the course and there was a pretty large dip in trail, in flat light of course-- I hit it and pitched forward a bit, stumbling awkwardly. I regained my balance and looked back just in time to see Alex attempting poke her eyes out with her ski tips as she bounced her head off the snow.
I didn't just laugh, I forced myself to laugh loudly, to make sure she could hear me over the sound of her brain rattling around her head.
Alas, it was soon time for us to go our separate ways, as a large group was catching us from behind and there were a scant 30k remaining. I pulled away on a hill, and set out alone.
Back at full throttle, the first few kilometers flew by and soon I came through to finish the first lap in 1:33. I was picking people off steadily and feeling good, cruising down the hills no-pole skating and thinking about how I could definitely keep this pace up for 25 more kilometers. Yeah, another hour or so of this pace, no problem. I feel fine right now.
And just like always, the switch from "fun ski adventure" to "nordic death race" came quickly and brutally. I caught Dave Roberts around the 30k mark -- on his way to winning the 50+ category -- and decided it might be time for a little rest. I ate another Gu and drafted him for a bit. Next time the course pitched upward, he seemed to be skiing quite quickly. My quick rise up the standings was over, but the agony was just beginning.
There's no hiding in a 50k. I haven't done the specific strength training for skiing, especially the upper-body part of it, and it was time to pay the price. First to go were my arms -- they became heavier and feebler, until it was debatable whether or not I was pushing off at all. I was putting my poles ahead of me, and then skiing past them, but I'm not sure they were actually propelling me.
After a while I tried to dispatch Dave, leading up a long climb. Five minutes of agony netted me a 10 second lead and a sudden sense of dread -- there were still 10k to go and I had reached a full-body pain cave I've never experienced on a bike. To maintain the gap to finish would require a 30-minute stay in the cave.
I was hungry, maybe even bonky, but I couldn't find my last gel in my water bottle carrier. Had I lost it? Did I even start with 4?? I panicked and stopped -- on a downhill of all places -- to dig for it. By the time I got it out Dave and another master were past, and it took me another 2k to regain their tails.
I suffered in silence behind them up the last big climb. Near the top Dave started to open up a gap so I had to thrash around the other master on the edge of the trail to get back and close the gap.
Entering the last 3k I realized everything was set up for me to win in a sprint. Winning meaningless sprint finishes is basically what I do on skis. The problem was, drafting a guy twice my age for 5k and then sprinting past him for 40th place is a truly cheesy maneuver. I decided on the more honorable approach, and took the lead.
Once again I was able to gradually pull myself away at the expense of extreme muscle pain. I went at the absolute limit for the last 10 minutes -- and yet my heart rate barely broke 170 (my max is 195 or so). My muscles were just that dead. I could feel my calf threatening to cramp every fourth push off, but when I looked back I had a ten second gap.
There are markers every kilometer but I swear the last ones are stretched out. Getting from the 49k mark to the finish took hours, and just when I thought I was finally done, I saw a CSU suit through the trees. It was Jon Peterson, one of the Tuesday night crew.
I was planning on being just happy to finish near him, but when I came out of the woods there was Linnea screaming at the top of her lungs, and a group of college guys who had already finished. There was no escape. I had to go for it.
Afterward, we staggered back to a hotel and then to Saddleback for some tele skiing in the foot of new snow.
Not exactly the best recovery, but what's more fun than falling into a stream bed covered by 4 feet of windblown snow?