Saturday, March 6, 2010

Marathon Season: XC Ski Racing

February is a season of transition and culmination. It is the time in the winter when he cross country ski marathon season comes to pass and the winter of training comes to prove your fitness (or otherwise).

The season was particularly exciting as I helped out the Ely high school ski teams. Having witnessed the ski communities intimate support of their racers, I was moved as both Girls and Boys teams battle hard and narrow made state against their formidable opponents. A week later I went to the Minnesota State Cross Country meet to see them compete. Overcoming every expectation, the boys team emerged as champions ahead of the expected favorites. It was a story book season and a testament to perseverance and heart that the kids put into their racing.

With that inspiration I enter the race season myself beginning with the 58 km Mora Vasaloppet. I traditionally do this race every year and help out with the waxing service before hand. This year I was particularly unclear as to my fitness level and had a new approach to racing. I planned to go out slow take my time, stay relaxed, and build speed as the race wound down. And I did just that. I finished the race in a reasonable time of 2 hours 45 min. More importantly, for the speed that I was maintaining I felt perfectly comfortable throughout the race and not even the slightest sign of cramping. As the end of the race neared the end, I was able to tell my body to push hard as I jump skated the last hill and cruised into the finish feeling good.

Turning the corner for the finish of the Mora Vasaloppet

The next weekend I looked forward to a shorter fun race... Book Across The Bay in Ashland, WI. It is low stress 10 km race that takes one across Chequamegon Bay lit by the light of luminaries. As we drove furiously after work at the ski shop and arriving only 17 minutes before the race start I discovered to my dismay that I had forgotten my ski boots back at the ski shop. I frantically asked everyone I knew if they had extra boots of either classic or skate and found nothing. I was more than frustrated! It was suggested that I run the race or get the car and drive to the finish an spectate. Eight minutes before the start I lightened up and took a new attitude about the race.... I would turn it into a true adventure to be remembered. I ran and grabbed my skis and poles and found some twine in a garbage can. The clock was ticking..."5 minutes to race start" as I attempted to lashing my skis to my running shoes. The race started just as I had finished my extravagant twine work. I double poled through the masses and managed to fall on my face multiple times as I deemed the twine completely ineffective. I ripped it off and began running... I head to get in front of the crowds so I did have to maneuver so much. I quick threw down my skis and stood on them... nothing keeping me on them. The tracks were still clogged with skiers so I went ahead double poling in the skate lane literally surfing my skis to direct them and maintain balance. Soon enough I was ahead of the masses enough to find space in the tracks. I jumped in and found that I could really make time not having to surf my skis anymore. I pounded down the track passing folks left and right. Whenever coming up behind another skier in the track I had to ask them to jump out of my path and explain my story... "sorry I can't jump tracks, I'm double poling on my skis with running shoes on" I got some wild looks, some consternation, but mostly laughs and enthusiasm. I ended up finishing the race in this fashion in 46 minutes and as I hopped off my skis at the finish no one seemed to notice. It was a great adventure and a story that I will someday be able to tell my grand children.

The next weekend cam the race of all races, the largest in North America... the American Birkebeiner. The 51 km race from Cable to Hayward, WI is a nordic skiing cultural event and a yearly tradition I plan to never miss. The race also created considerable pressure as it is a seeded wave start and this was my last season to qualify for maintaining my 1st wave status. Yet once again I planned to use my previous strategy and take the race nice and easy off the start and build.

The morning of the race was shockingly balmy as I stripped down to my spandex and waiting to start. The race began with an explosion of skiers and I bided my time. The race turn out well for me as I climbed the hills with relative comfort, as I reached the final stretches of race crossing Hayward Lake I noted the time on my watch... I knew it was time to make myself feel more uncomfortable as a personal best time was within reach.

Climbing one of enumerable hills in the Birkebeiner

I gave a strong effort across the lake and burned into the finish coming in at 2hours and 38 minutes. I was happily surprised at my success and fitness level.

Charging for the home-stretch of the Birkebeiner

My last race of the season came the next weekend as we traveled North to Thunder Bay, Ontario for the 50 km Sleeping Giant Loppet. It was a new race for me and I had few expectations to be met. From the very beginning we knew the race would be warm as temperature had already been in the 40s the day previous. The race began in the sunlight and took the first 15 km fairly easy. I felt strong and upped my pace leading my pack of skiers and slowly surging ahead to catch others.

However when the afternoon sun reached it's peak the snow turn to sticky slush and at the same time the course began to climb. Despite the conditions I still felt strong and charge the hills as best as I could expect. However the last 10 km was flat and went excruciatingly slow. I finished in approximately 2 hours and 40 some odd minutes and was happy with my results.

The season came to abrupt close as the temperatures sky rocketed to full fledged spring feeling and the snow quickly melted away. It was a good race season for me and I was please with my racing. I was a bit shocked that I was in as good of shape as I was, and could only attribute it to long joyous skis in the BWCA! I look forward to the next season!

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