The wrong way to train, and a nordic adventure

So it's been a while since I wrote anything of consequence here, mainly because my ski season crumbled to pieces due to inadequate training preparation. I did some races and basically found out that my body doesn't clear lactic acid at all, and I'm not getting faster, I'm getting slower. So there wasn't much to report, at least not much I felt like talking about.

I did learn some things about training that should have been obvious in retrospect -- namely, that piling lots of intensity work on top of a mediocre base affects you a lot faster and harder than you'd expect. I raced cross all fall, and I was living in Florida last summer, so I didn't exactly get the base miles in. During cross season I was racing twice per weekend and riding once per week -- a VERY race-heavy schedule, but with 4 days off per week it seemed to work out.

Then ski season started and I tried to change that to 2 races per weekend and 3 training days, with 2 of them being hard days. I figured that 5-7 hours a week of training wasn't really that much, even if it was mostly intense. It didn't work. In retrospect, I was at my fastest the 3rd week of January, and I've just been slowing down since then.

My theory is that without adequate base training, my body just couldn't use the interval training, and instead it just broke down. I know, it's revolutionary! It's the kind of thing that everyone kind of knows about, but I know I never would've thought it would happen to me doing 3-4 hard sessions per week, with 2 days off. I thought (like most people, I'd guess) that overtraining was something that happened by doing two-a-days like a maniac for weeks on end, not by training hard for an hour a night.

Anyway, I took some time off, got sent to New York for a bit, so now I'm back into racing. The season's a wash but whatever, it's still fun to suffer in the cold. I think. This past weekend was the "Great Glen to Bretton Woods Nordic Adventure," which was pretty high on the suffer factor.

So a 50k classic race would've been difficult, even if it wasn't the ole' "Nordic Adventure." Now add in 2000+ feet of climbing and 18k without tracks, and you've really got a recipe for pain. And it only costs $85!

Ok, so about 200 people or so lined up in front of me. This was part of the plan, I didn't want to get excited early and go too hard. So instead I steadily passed people for 5k to start the race, and made sure anyone really fast was far away from me. That went pretty well. At around 6k the course leaves the Great Glen trail system and heads into the woods on a "trail" that is half snowmobile packed and half snowshoe packed. There's no opportunity to pass for five minutes, you have to sidestep up a ledge, cross a river, and a bunch of other things that you'd never expect to do on race skis. Things got kind of backed up in here so I was able to just hang out for a bit since I couldn't pass anyone.

After that we opened up onto the Dolly Copp trails, which seemed wide by comparison, just wide enough for two side-by-side, rock solid tracks to be set. The tracks were rock solid because it was in the upper 30s before, and now they had a slight dusting of powder in them. My kick was pretty terrible, along with everyone else who wasn't using a klister binder, so I started abusing my arms to climb. Which is always a good idea when you have 42k to go and you have the upper body strength of a 3rd grader.

Strangely enough I started feeling a lot less peppy around the 10k mark, probably because that's about how long most of my training sessions have gone for this year. I passed some fools on an insanely fast descent and then gave the places back at the bottom eating a PowerGel at the first feed station at 14k. Then began the first big climb... 2k or so, 400-500 vertical feet? It was sunny. I was hot, my wax wasn't working, and I was too stubborn to rewax, so I was dragging myself uphill with my arms some more. Only 35k to go...

Near the top the sun went away and the snow changed back to something more powdery. My decision to not wax warmer looked a lot better, I started kicking again and passing some people. There was a nice long descent to the next feed station at 19k, and I was moving pretty well. I got to the bottom, crossed a dirty and rocky snowmobile trail (a true hallmark of this race) and noticed that my arms seemed strangely tired... almost like they didn't recover from my previous efforts. Gee, wasn't I just mentioning this was a problem with my fitness this year? Luckily I was down to 31k left.

The next section of trail started out rolling again and I was still slipping. I decided that I had to do something about it, so I stopped to wax warmer. I lost about 8 places and 4 minutes but then I was kicking with a vengeance -- so of course it started snowing, and my wax started dragging. I'd like to play this up like it was a huge problem, but it really wasn't. Part of the race is variable conditions, and I'm sure everyone out there either had too much kick or too little at different parts of the course. So for the next 30k I had good kick and decent glide. But it wasn't perfect, so that's clearly what was holding me back...

I ended up with a group of 3 other people skiing into a stiff headwind on the powerline and rail trail section to the 29k mark. I tried to lead this group briefly since they seemed to be going slowly, but once I was out in front I figured out how windy it actually was, and quickly fell back to the end of the group after a 3 minute pull. Since we weren't bikers, one guy ended up leading into the wind for probably 7k. He asked the guy in 2nd if he wanted to take a turn, the guy said "not really" and that was it! I was surprised. No one's making me ski 7k into the damn wind. I thought about taking a pull, but my arms were freaking shot and once we were down on the rail trail it was all double poling. I could barely stay on the back of the group with the draft, so a turn at the front wasn't going to work out.

After the 29k feed station (only 21k to go!) the race really hits its "piece de resistance" or "coup d'etat" or "some other french phrase for difficult section." From 29k to 38k the trail climbs Jefferson notch, a 1600 foot elevation gain. It's on a forest service road, so the gradient isn't that terrible, but it's a popular snowmobile trail. So there were no tracks, really, just piles of sugary ice and rocks churned up by snow machines. Bad glide, bad kick, 9k, big hill. Not fun.

I started out after fueling with more power gels and a brownie about 50 yards behind some people, and I dangled there for about 15 minutes of steady but kickable climbing. I'd done this once before so I knew it was incredibly long, so I talked myself out of picking up the pace to catch up with them. This was important because after about 25 minutes of constant striding my legs, back and arms had reached new heights of pain -- there's just no way to train for that much striding when you ski at freaking Weston. Even my calves and feet were getting in on the pain, since due to the lack of tracks the footing was terrible and you could never relax your ankles.

Out of nowhere, Liam Cassidy passed me like I was standing still. I had been looking back (always a sign things are going well) about once every 2 minutes for quite some time and never saw him, and then suddenly he went tearing by me on the steepest, longest grade so far, so steep that I was reduced to walking. While I struggled, I watched him pass another 3 people in front of me and go out of sight having made up at least a minute on me in about 180 seconds. It was really impressive.

I passed the 35k mark after maybe 40 minutes of climbing. I was now walking almost every steep section, and my whole body had been soaking in lactic acid for what seemed like hours. Realizing the top was nowhere close, I made a decision that ultimately turned around my race -- I ate my 5th Powergel of the day while walking up a steep climb. It's amazing the effect, both physically and psychologically, those things have on you. It only took a few minutes to make up the time I'd lost on the people around me, and then I was passing people for the first time in an hour. I made up 3 places in the next 3k to the crest of the hill, and was rewarded with a beautiful sight -- the 38k feed station, and no less than six people with numbers crowded around it.

I'd just eaten a gel, and it's 12k downhill to the finish (we're at 3000 feet at this point), so I didn't see any reason to stop. Everyone else was feeding like they had just climbed 1600 feet. I downed a powerade as fast as I could and skied through, but not before seeing Liam come wandering out of a heated tent holding his skis. I love this guy. He probably made up 10 minutes, AT LEAST, on the climb against me, and then he gives it all back by taking his skis off and going in a tent at the top. That's a man who races for fun, not for places.

But I race for places, so I was heading down the backside of Jefferson notch. Somehow, losing 1600 feet requires a lot of double-poling, so it wasn't really that restful, but a welcome rest for my legs. It was snowing pretty hard over here so the tracks were really slow -- the fastest way down was through the ice and rocks left by the snowmobiles. Not exactly relaxing, but I did pass two more people that way. One of them stepped out into the sled track with me once I caught him and we traveled together the rest of the way. The two of us passed Ken Kimball -- whom I owed for pulling me 7k earlier -- and a Michigan Tech coach -- in town for NCAA's this week -- quite easily. Even though my skis felt slow in the new snow, a lot of people were having a lot more trouble than me.

In the past the race has ended with a long, gradual downhill section along the river, so I was planning on just hanging onto my traveling companion until the end and then winning the sprint. So, I was a little surprised to see the course take a left onto "Coronary Hills" with about 3k to go. My legs hadn't taken a kick in about 8k, so of course my hamstring immediately cramped up on the hill and I almost fell down. My fellow racer announced that he was "pretty pissed" as we dragged up the hill.

But really, after a 9k climb, it just wasn't that bad. Two more minutes of pain and we hit the top, then a descent onto the golf course and more double poling in fresh snow. My arms have NEVER hurt that much, or been as useless, as they were at this point, but the guy I was racing against was content to wait behind me as we slowed to a crawl with 500m to go. I kept expecting a finishing burst from him, but when it didn't come with 200m to go I upped the pain one last time to pull away for a glorious 35th place finish.

...And then spent the next 2 hours in the fetal position or lying down in the lodge. And then lay down on the floor at dinner. And it's Wednesday, and my hamstring is still sore.

Can't wait till next year.


Ari said…
Hey man,

I stumbled across your blog (long story, I was googling something else, &c.) and saw this race report and said to myself "let's see if someone else had as much 'fun' at that race as I did HMM?"

Well, I started reading and as I went along it sounded more and more familiar. I'm out in the Midwest now and use this race whenever people complain about hard races (don't get me wrong, marathon races in the Midwest are far superior to the east, but nothing was that hard) to tell them "hey—how about a 1600 foot climb from 31k to 40k?"

But as I got to reading about the feed station at the top of Jefferson Notch (in your report)—where I spent five minutes eating food, and I *never* stop at feeds—I thought it sounded familiar. One of my memories from that race, and believe me the no-track-barely-any-kick slog up the road has been completely selectively erased from my mind, was of someone coming by me on the downhill and saying "hey it's faster out of the tracks."

Yup, that was you. Thanks for the tip, and thanks for leading most of the rest of the way (yeah, it was mostly downhill, but we did get to school some old dudes). And as for the sprint; I was not particularly lucid at that point. What I meant to say was "I skied the 50 at Rangeley yesterday, I don't have a sprint in me, so go ahead." What probably came out was "flahienisadbf." Believe me, there was no way I was going to beat you in that. I'm surprised I finished. In under four hours. At least the winner—a pretty damn good skier—didn't crack three.

Now, as to why I did both those races. a) I was living in Farmington, Maine, so halfway between them. 2) I knew some of the coaches in town and wanted to race/get beat by them. d) If New England was going to have three marathons that year and have two on the same goddamn weekend (really stupid), hell, I was going to call their bluff and do them. I was sick for the next week. Note to self—don't ski two marathons in a weekend.

I wish they'd take this race and: a) cut some trails along Dolly Copp and the power lines and b) cut a trail up along Jefferson Notch—no need for it to be more than 6 or 8 feet wide, and hold it again with real tracks. With some bomber kick (some luck and/or good snow conditions) it would be a wicked fun race. I'd fly in for the weekend, as long as it didn't conflict with Birkie, of course.
Colin R said…

They wouldn't have to cut a trail up Jeff Notch, they could just close it to snowmobiles. But maybe around here that would be harder than cutting a trail :)

So you had just raced 100k that weekend, no wonder you wanted to sprint even less than I did!
Ari said…
Yeah, cutting a trail might not be fun. The problem is that even if you close the road to sleds you still have that nasty mix of snow, ice and gasoline and who knows how to wax for that. Having hiking trails which doubled as ski trails paralleling the roads over Jeff. Notch and Dolly Copp would be nice in the summer, too. But I don't see this happening any time soon. (Going down from the Notch on the south side you might could even use the road to the Boundary Line hiking trail to the old B&M railroad grade from the Cog Base to Bretton Woods.)

And about that sprint...that was by far the hardest bonk I've ever had. I hit the wall pretty hard in the Mroa Vasaloppet (58k freestyle) this year after about 52 flat km and lost several places near the end of that race. Still, when a pack broke apart I was able to push for a minute or so before my body emphatically said no. (I need to work on telling my body to shut up.) In any case, I knew at GG2BW that there was no way I was going to be able to push any harder than the 50k pace; I just didn't want to fall over by the side of the trail! And I learned my lesson, don't race two 50k races in a weekend, or if you do, eat a lot of food in the second one. (There was one woman I passed at the base feed who must have skied the race before and was gorging herself before the climb. I scoffed at her when I went by. She passed me about 2 km later.)

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