This Sunday the winter hunt for blog-worthy activities got taken to a whole new level with the Mad River Randonee Race. My buddy Justin (a veteran of many a western randonee race) was all like, "hey, want to do this hardcore rando race at Mad River?" and last time I did a crazy race with him and Linnea it was the Gunstock Winter Tri, which turned out just fine, plus I had new-used telemark gear to break in, so I was wicked into it.
It should be noted that prior to Gunstock, the other "bizarre winter event" Justin, Linnea and I did was the Jay Winter Challenge, which was effing brutal. If I didn't have the memory of a goldfish I might have been able to use this to realize how hard this randonee business is.
It might be hard, but there were still around a hundred people gathered at Mad River Glen for the start. Seriously, a hundred people thought this was a good idea. I was comforted by the size of the crowd; if I die in the woods, there will at least be some other people to go Donner Party on before I pass.
There were three divisions, Race, Recreation, and Heavy Metal. Obviously, since I'm a racer I should be in the Race division, so I signed up for that despite it being the most competitive. I was secretly hoping that it would be a bunch of fat alpine skiers and my advanced nordic technique of "go really hard for like an hour" would be more than they could handle. The fact that Justin is skinnier than me and has been known to run the odd marathon should have clued me in that this was not the case.
Anyhow, we all put our skis down for a Le Mans start and since I was in the "Race" division I got to put mine near the front, which of course didn't matter at all because I fumbled around like the rookie I was with my bindings and headed up the hill solidly in the back third of the pack.
This being Mad River, only a hundred yards up the hill the ski trail turned into a sidehill singletrack sort of deal and we bottlenecked immediately. I was sorely tempted to become "obnoxious guy behind you at a bottleneck," but I remembered that clown at Soho and held my tongue as we stood around looking at each other and generally not racing despite the fact that I signed up for the "Race" division.
Finally we started moving again and I noticed that the narrow skins Justin had loaned me had pretty good glide on a sidehill if I dug my edges in (since the only covered about the middle 50% of the base). I awesomely slid past some people who had wide skins and thought about how clever I was.
Soon we got back onto a proper wide trail and racing got started in earnest -- slow motion uphill walk-racing in a blizzard! I forgot to mention earlier that the weather was crazy -- 34 and snowing HARD when the race started. It looked like this:
(This picture was of course taken by Linnea, as I would never slow during a race to use a camera)
Other than my heavy-ish equipment I was pretty well suited to walking uphill, as it's only slightly more gross than cross country skiing uphill. I got my suffer on and quickly started moving up through the pack of fellow trudgers. Soon I was only two skiers behind Justin; it was safe to say I had mastered randonee racing in 15 short minutes. In fact so you should definitely quit reading this blog post and go sign up for a rando race, because you'll probably kick ass at it also. It's a fundamentally easy sport, I tell you.
Then we hit the mogul field.
At this point, my Garmin faithfully reports that it took me eight minutes to cover a tenth of a mile.
As you might imagine, this problem was not experienced by the majority of my competitors, who were running full-width skins and also may have had more than 15 minutes of skinning experience. The first time I slipped on an off-camber mogul face, I sighed, dug my poles in as hard as I could, and pushed over the top. It hurt like hell, but I haven't been doing pullups for nothing, right?
Then I slipped on the next mogul face, failed to catch myself in time, and fell down. The guy behind me realized that I was going nowhere fast and tacked across the slope in a different direction as I flopped around helplessly.
I looked down the hill and saw that I was, at least, so far ahead of Linnea that she was out of sight. So no matter how badly I was struggling, at least she wouldn't pass me.
Four minutes and six moguls later, she skinned past as I stood, gasping from my latest failure to double-pole up a sixty degree mogul face.
So that's why everyone else had wide skins.
Make no mistake -- with some experience I probably could have gone uphill in moguls many times faster. The problem was, the second my ski slipped my inclination was to put it on edge, after all, that's how to transition to a herringbone on xc skis. But on tele gear with narrow skins, that drops you from tenuous skin-to-snow contact to ZERO contact, which leads to you going straight the eff backwards because you're on a really steep incline.
I eventually made it out of the moguls, through a combination of sidestepping up and tricep-tearing poling, with a healthy respect for this randonee business. I congratulated myself for not crying in frustation (at least not so that anyone heard) and got back to trudging uphill.
I had lost so much ground that even trudging all-out for the next forty minutes, I only passed four people by the top of Mad River Glen. I caught Linnea right at the top and she took another picture:
This picture is of my back because hey it's a race I gotta go!!
The ridgeline from Mad River to Sugarbush North was deep and my classic race poles were totally useless. Luckily there were plentiful trees, so I was able to conquer most of the steeper pitches by skinning until I slipped, then lunging to the side and grabbing a tree branch. Cling to tree, regain balance, reset skins, and then lunge for the next tree up the hill. Repeat until incline has been cleared.
The downside of this was that it wasn't very speedy and left me covered in snow. But, I only had to take my skis off twice, and I was never so frustrated that I broke my poles over my knees, which after the mogul field was a very real possibility.
After nearly two hours and 2600 vertical feet, I reached the near-top of Sugarbush North and got ready for the "fun part." I whipped off my skins while keeping my skis on my feet (the only pro move Justin had time to teach me) and passed a few suckers who were doing sissy stuff like putting on more clothing.
The descent started off bombing down a blue trail in dense fog, so I got my first alpine turns of the year in as I went as fast as I dared given the abysmal visibility. The fog started to clear, so I went faster, and my quads started to burn a bit. Hrm.
Then some ski patrol guy waved us off onto a steeper trail without snowmaking, and I was confronted with ice and rocks and the odd mogul. Super G turns became GS turns. GS turns became edge-to-edge traverses. Edge-to-edge traverses became stopping, leaning over my poles, and whimpering as my quads burned. The folks I had passed at the top zoomed by. "This is my first day on alpine skis this year!" I yelled as they disappeared down the hill.
So the fun part turned out to be just as painful as the non-fun part, which I guess makes the whole race one big non-fun part. I suffered my way though a few more minutes of traversing down to the bottom, then headed into the Slide Brook Basin for climb #2.
The first uphill had a bunch of people stopped, re-applying skins, so I surrendered to the groupthink and got out mine as well. This was completely the wrong choice, as there was another downhill lurking. Protip: if you see herringbone tracks up a hill in a randonee race, don't put your skins on. The leaders know the course -- do whatever they did.
Soon though we headed uphill for reals, but we were on a nice wide trail, snowcat groomed, about the width of a cross country ski trail. No moguls. Steep as hell, but I wasn't slipping so long as my skis were flat. My competitors' randonee smarts were no match for the fact that I could go faster just by working really hard. Really, really hard. Skinning is like classic skiing with 1% of the normal glide; but if you really get into it you can glide a tiny bit. So I got totally into it, especially on the shallower hills, gliding six or even eight inches per stride.
The second climb is a mere 1900 vertical feet or so, and right when I was nearing a super-hard bonk I crossed under the Slide Brook Chair. A helpful ski patroller told me it was only 150 vertical feet to the summit. It turns out he was a lying bastard (it was 350 vertical feet) but that lie was enough to get me there. I'd been skiing alone for half an hour, but I saw two people ahead of me in the woods at the very top.
They were taking off their skis when I came out of the woods, so I scoffed heartily and used my one pro move to yank my skins off quickly and stuffed them frantically in my jacket. It's a race, goddamit!
The second and final descent was a lot easier than the first, I didn't even have to stop to take a break. Which isn't to say it was without horrible quad-burning, but the knowledge that I would soon be able to stop this madness went a long way to toughing it out. I followed the pointing ski patrollers and assumed I would be done at any minute.
Then some crazy ski patrol lady pointed me up a hill, and before I could say "seriously??" like the valley girl I am, I found myself skating all-out up that hill. Because there was someone herring-boning slowly about 100 yards up it -- and all my long races end in sprints.
I threw down the meanest, awkwardest, V1-on-tele-skis the randonee scene has ever seen, I was snorting, panting, stumbling in a full-on anaerobic rush to get to the top first. It was the ugliest thing I did in a three-hour race filled with ugly moves on randonee gear -- but it also the highlight of the whole thing, finally getting to use something I actually train for. The ridiculousness of "racing" for a bottom-half finish against a lady who was casually walking didn't even cross my mind, I went flying past her a few yards from the top, it's a small miracle I didn't yell "eat it!!" as I thrashed past, tucked straight down the last hill, crossed the line and lay down.
I went in the lodge and lay down some more. Then I lay down at the awards ceremony. In fact, wanting to lie down has been a dominant theme of how I've felt since then.
Justin the rando hero finished in a solid 13th place; I ended up 29th overall (19/22 in the race division, ouch) a whopping 38 minutes behind him. Linnea was a further 33 minutes behind me, which pleased me, but she wasn't nearly as disabled by the whole ordeal, which is quite annoying.
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