"I'm not going to race Sugarloaf," I told Linnea, "I'm too sick."
"Ok," she said, "I'm going to go anyway." She used to work at Sugarloaf, and was volunteering at the race.
And with that, my fate was sealed. I can't sit around the house for a weekend, so I have to go with her. And if I go with her, I'm going to end up at a race that I'm already entered in. I can walk away from a race that's 4 hours away if I'm sick. I cannot walk away from a race that's happening right in front of me.
And based on how things went, I will not be learning my lesson any time soon. Sunday morning found me feeling the best I'd felt in 5 days, which was still not especially good. But good enough to think that this might work out after all.
The race was a 3-lapper with two defining features, a 2k climb about 1.5k into the lap and an extended section of hairy corners and downhills around the 8k mark. I decided that after doing 3 50ks with the "start extra slow, screw around a bit, start racing for real at the 20k mark" I would try to be serious and give it a real go from the gun. May as well try it when I'm sick, right?
The first 3k of the race were fast, too fast. I kept trying to convince myself that I wasn't going that hard, trying to take deep breaths and relax, but it was a 2k climb and I was in a pack going at about my 10k pace. I could see Blazar a few skiers ahead of me in line and since I beat him Tuesday nights, I figured I needed to at least go at his pace at the start of a 50k. Behind me was Dave Roberts, whom I skied 10k with at Rangeley, and after 5 minutes of steady climbing he says, "Hey Colin, want to pass these guys?"
This is bad. We're 3k in, I can barely hang with Blazar, and a guy I beat two weeks ago thinks we need to go faster. I am still sick. I should not be skiing. I hate this sport. Where's my bike.
We hit the top of the climb and Dave passed us, never to be seen again. Blazar pulled over and completely blew up. I pass him and then managed to blow up a little more slowly over the next few minutes. I remember thinking to myself, "crap, I just blew up 5k into a 50k race, I am such an idiot," only to ski past the 4k marker a few minutes later. Ouch.
The first time down the winding, rolling descent I found out just how sketchy it was, as I turned a corner to find a guy on the ground and another getting up with a broken pole. I was the 25th person down the hill, roughly, and it was already scary-fast with a big berm on the corner at the bottom. Can't wait to do that twice more...
After several k of mostly descending I was around the 10k mark and just rejoining a master who had dropped me on the climb. I skied with him until the lap ended, slowly recovering and deciding that I did not, in fact, need to drop out because I was sick. I just needed to not ski at an idiotically fast pace for the first 3k next time. Noted.
The next time up the climb I stuck with a different master who had come through and was skiing faster. It seemed like we were making good time, and I was certainly close to being in difficulty near the top -- but then I looked back.
Barely 30 seconds back was the red suit of Alex. I guess that answers the question of, "am I skiing fast enough?"
Freshly motivated by my fear of getting girled, I retook the lead from my traveling companion and upped the pace. Now off the long climb my mediocre fitness wasn't so much of a problem (I could use my core strength, not) and I really pushed it down the descent, which had turned into the typical scraped off/sugar piles mix that race downhills get. A few times I narrowly avoided joining the scenery, but by the bottom I had dropped the master and Alex was nowhere to be seen. I had another Gu passing through the 25k mark and got down to the business of lonely suffering, interrupted by lapping the occasional 30k tourer.
Two more gels and a world of hurt got me back to the 37k mark, at the top of the big climb for the last time. At the high point I looked back -- shit. I hadn't seen anyone behind me in nearly an hour, but somehow Alex's red Alpina suit was there again.
I kept pushing as hard as I could, which becomes embarrassingly not-hard in the closing kilometers of a marathon, checking frantically on the hills for the red suit. It seemed to be working, because I never saw it again. Soon I was lonely again, counting down the last kilometers.
Turning the corner onto the last significant climb, I saw something I hadn't seen in 15k -- someone in front of me skiing fast enough that I couldn't be lapping them. Fleeing Alex had paid off in another way, because I had finally caught someone. Two people, in fact. The reward for pushing hard for the last lap? Pushing even harder for the last two kilometers.
One of the guys was bonking, and I passed him with 1000m to go. The other I reeled much more slowly, finally catching him on the last corner and barely passing him down the final straight to take 21st place. Somehow, I managed to have a sprint finish in both of this year's marathons.
As for Alex -- she won the women's race, and that was her behind me on the 2nd lap. The red Alpina suit I'd fled on the third lap turned out to be a guy with the same sponsor as her -- so my final-lap panic was entirely unnecessary.