Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ouch! Grinding to Crash at USSA Distance Nationals

Well, it's been a great winter with about a dozen ski and five snowshoe races. Except for two classic races early in the season, all others went well and several were beyond expectation.

I came into the USA distance nationals 20 years older than the next entrant, but bouyed by two recent solid finishes at the Tour of Anchorage (26th overall, 3rd masters) and Sonot Kkazhoot last weekend (8th overall and 2nd masters by just a few secs). In my races against top NCAA or USST level skiers I'd been in the 18% to 20% back range, which seemed be good enough to at least line up and not feel too bad about it.

The plan for Friday's 30 K pursuit to hang near some of the 20 and under skiers in the 15 K classic and maybe pick off a few of them on the skate leg. The course was tough, with about 100 ft of uphill per kilometer, but conditions were perfect with temps in the 20s at the start and firm but slightly icy snow.

My race was a disaster from the start. I had globbed on too much klister (a thin binder would have probably been sufficient) but it was too late to change anything. Within 500 m I was falling behind even the back of the pack, and up the steep 150 ft climb on South Tower I was both slow and having difficulty keeping a rhythm. It got worse with each lap; and by the 2nd lap my calves were cramping each time up South Tower. Guess that 6 days from a 43 K race was not enough recovery time.

Most people at this point would have dropped out, but I have never dropped out of a race and so as long as my body could move I kept going. Perhaps this was foolish (as was signing up in the first place). Anyway, even though I was having the worst of worst days, 13 minutes behind the leaders and several minutes behind the next to last skier, the Fairbanks faithful (and one Coloradoan!) were screaming their lungs out every time I came through the stadium. If the leaders and other skiers got half as much noise, they should be happy about crowd support.

After a slow and wobbly transition where I drank about 12 oz of sport drink, I made my way through the stadium and proceeded to skate. That was at least somewhat better than the classic portion. But I was bleary and by the 7th lap my triceps started cramping. Kept it going, with a lot of help from those willing to watch and cheer during my disasterous race--felt a bit lonely and exposed out there.

The numbers aren't pretty. 1:46:40, nearly 25 minutes out from the awesome Ivan Babikov. Based on comparative performances with some of these top skiers through the year I was a good 7 minutes off pace. Instead of 18 to 20% back it was 28 or 29%. Like I said, OUCH!

What can I say, but Thanks Fairbanks for the encouragement. I'm glad I didn't drop out or give up.

Will take an easy few weeks of rest, do some fun skiing, and then it's off to running.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Sonot Kkazhoot: Nothing To Sneeze At

Although the name is unique, and the event totally obscure, this rough and tumble cross country ski race is a great local happening, usually coinciding close to the vernal equinox. The race was founded by local skier, Bad Bob Baker, in the late 1980s, and it literally translates to "spring slide" in Athapaskan.

Wow, what a day, Saturday! Temps at race time were about 6 degrees F at the start, and probably warmed up to the mid-teens by afternoon. The race was shortened by 7 k because they eliminated the river section because of a late February thaw that left the river with sketchy ice conditions. Usually skiers have 22k on the river and lowlands, and then 28k on rugged trails at Birch Hill. To accomodate the change the entire 43+ km course was at the Birch Hill ski center, roughly 2.5 loops of the all the trails. Lots of hills to contend with--averaging 100 ft or more of climb per kilometer of distance (i.e., 30+ meters per km, or 160 ft/mile; i.e., i.e., it's all up and down!).

I figured it would be a low key, local affair, what with AK state 30K championships down on the Kenai Peninsula and the US distance nationals here next week. And even entertained visions of a top 5 finish. But we had a couple of Norwegian ringers, including a top 10 skier for the men, fresh off a top 4 at the Under 23 World's last month...not to mention some hungry competition from a couple of Anchorage skiers.

We lined up pretty cramped up at the modified start/finish line (20 skiers within 20 yards). With a kilometer, the leaders (9-10), including a Norwegian woman who went to college here a few years back and netted a couple of NCAA titles along the way, took it out too fast for me, so I settled into the 2nd pack of 6 or so. Our group skied pretty frantically for 7-8km before settling into a rhythm on some of the flatter-rolling (one of two easy sections on the trail system) sections of White Bear Loop. The pack broke up at about 15km, and masters skier Jim Lokken and I were on our own for nearly 20km. We picked up a couple fast starters along toward the end, including Dave Edic, just returning from three top 10s and a bronze for 50-54 AG at World Masters in Idaho (with 3 USA masters medals in the mix). We caught him at about 32 km and before pulling way at 36 on a monster climb half way through White Bear. An added bonus was catching the top woman, Sigrid Aas, just with about 2.5 km to go.

I pushed pretty hard and led through most of that last 17km (maybe 12 or 13 of those clicks), but could never shake Jim, so when it came time to sprint with 200 m to go, the cupboard was bare and he got me by 4 sec. Oh well, it was still a good day. Finished in 2:14:27 for 8th OA.

Norwegian dude, Petter Eliassen went 1:57:55, to win easily over local and AK citizen racers about 6 min back.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tour of Anchorage (way late!)

Almost three weeks late with this, but I went to Anchorage with my family and 12 or 13 other kids (ages 10 to 15) to do the Tour of Anchorage on the first weekend of March. The kids did 25k and three of us coaches did the 50. It was a crazy weekend--try waxing 20 or 25 pairs of skis (kids, some parents, plus our own) in a hotel vending room, while the kids are running amok. Add to the mix another 15 or so high schoolers from our town.

Anyway after all those histrionics on Saturday, race day went really well. The course starts at Service High School at the base of the Chugach Mountains, has some serious climbs and scary drops on the Spencer Loop 5 throuh 10K and then gets onto a connected bike/trail system that takes you to the coast, which you follow for about 15k before climbing back onto some ski trails on a peninsula by the airport.

The Chester Creek trail (km 10 through about 33) was chaos, as we had to pass through hundreds of slower skiers from the 40k, some of whom had a hard time standing on their skis. I took on wipe out, when several people in front of me also fell, but got right back with the pack I was with. The snow was the consistency of sugar.

The lead women caught our train of 4 (3 of us battling for the 45-49 crown) at about 25k. We stuck together until Earthquake Park (~36k) when things started to break up. I tried to shake them for a couple ks, but the 3 ladies and Jim stuck right with me and I ended up getting dropped just before 40k. Was near contact (20-30 sec back) until 47.5, when they hammered it and left me flailing and trying to pass 25 and 40k skiers without taking anyone, self-included, out of the action.

Probably my best race of the year--covered the distance in 2:29 (4:48/mile) for 26th place (1st was a US Olympian who did 2:07) and 2nd in age group (Jim was a min ahead).

The kids did well too. All finished and some got age group awards.