Monday, March 23, 2009

The Oosik Was a Classic!

Downtown Talkeetna

Talkeetna, the host town for the past 5 years or so, has the reputation as a “drinking town with a climbing problem” and is famous for its funky ambiance and rustic appeal as a gateway to millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness. Talkeetna is a perfect venue for the Oosik, which has been described by the race directors, the Mannix brothers, as a Big Party--preceded by a little ski race.

The course has been different every year, often tracks are set just days before the race, mostly on snow machine trails or the Susitna River. They claim 50K and 25K races, but there is huge variation. The race website promised ‘substantially longer than 50K’ for the long race, and the rumor was 54K. Moments before we started, however, race founder and 1992 Olympian Adam Verrier hollered out that we’d actually be skiing 43K.

I guess that piqued Dave’s interest, because when Verrier said GO! Dave went right with the leaders. As I suspected all that whining about being over-tired and undertrained was verbal Rope-a-Dope; he didn’t have me fooled for a second. Nevertheless, I was surprised because the guys up front were no slouches.

In addition to the likes of Verrier, that group included last year’s NCAA champion, this year’s runner up, and two top 5 finishers from NCAAs, the runner up of this year’s Tour of Anchorage, plus a national champion or two was in the mix.

I poled like mad by the time we hit the river, but by the first kilometer the 15 or 16 skiers up front were steadily pulling away like a cycling peleton in pursuit of a prime. They had 20-30 seconds on me so I took a quick glance back to see that I was leading a single file group of a dozen or more skiers! Rather than pull them along at my expense I stepped aside to let them by. Local skier/runners Mike Kramer and Harald Aas—both recent Equinox Marathon winners strode by. Oops! Guess who’d been hammering early?

Mike kindly let me into the line, about 7th or 8th into the group and we continued to double pole, north and up the river. Jesse, a 20-something former state champ and NCAA All-American picked up our group after he fell off the lead pack. He was casually taking a pee off the side of the trail. He was wearing his “Only in Alaska” race suit, which seemed rather fitting.

Perhaps I wasn’t in over my head to be in with this group, but it was close. I just settled in through the first aid station (8.5K), where fortunately no one tried to break away. In fact everyone paused long enough to grab a drink or two. We circled back to the south and east and hit 10K in 36 minutes, so this wouldn’t be a rocket fast day, but at 15 degrees the snow was perfect, and in spite of the pesky north wind, the cloudless day was perfect.

By the time we hit the first of the wooded sections, a K or two later, our train whittled down to seven skiers including myself. Young Harald (a Norwegian still in his 20s) took up most of the lead work. Also in the group was Jens, another 50 year old skier from Homer by way of Sweden. I beat him handily, by 4-5 minutes, at the Besh Cup 10Ks last month in Fairbanks and by 11 minutes at the Tour of Anchorage just two weeks ago. But here he was, looking strong and determined. Those races were past on vastly different types of terrain, and I could tell that Jens would be a force on this day.

Staying with them wasn’t taxing, but at the same time they weren’t slowing me down; it was moderate to high-end steady. A solid marathon pace. Dropping off was not an option, nor was trying to break away. These guys were my new best friends.

The course was flat and it was almost all double poling or kick-double poling. Every few minutes I’d break into a stride for 20 or 30 second just to give my arms and shoulders a break. At the next aid station we all stopped again took some drinks. No one wanted to lead, so we waited a couple seconds. Seven gentlemen. So polite.

Finally, Harald shook his head and took charge again, instantly we all followed in his wake as he scrambled up a short steep hill and back into the woods. Suddenly it was my turn to lead for a bit, so I took us for 4-5 minutes before dropping back to the back of the group.

The third aid station came up quick, only 20 minutes after the second one. Again, we took our time getting a drink or some food. Again, no one wanted to take off. And we waited. For a good 10 seconds we shuffled our feet, not looking at anyone directly. Once again, it was Harald who took off and we jumped right in line. I was third in the group behind a retro-looking guy who was wearing a t-neck and slightly baggy pants with wools socks half way up to his knees, while the rest of us were wearing lycra ski suits. He took a long pull of 6 or 7 minutes, and it was my turn.

View of Denali from the Oosik trail

Just then we skied into a vast open boggy area interspersed with scattered little spruce trees. Although the wind was in our face, averaging 10-15 miles an hour, the thing that took our breath away wasn’t that, or my attempt at holding a good pace, it was the vista. With Mt McKinley (20,300), Foraker (17,000) and Hunter (14,000) looming to our north—giant mounds of granite, snow covered and in full view. From its base just above sea level to its top in the realm of jet streams, McKinley is the tallest mountain in the world. But we don’t get full views all that often. Words like awesome or spectacular cannot do that view any justice.

What an sublime moment to be skiing hard through that bog. To borrow from REM singing about seven Chinese brothers, We were seven Alaskan brothers, double poling away, swallowing up the trail and view of the big mountains. You can’t top that. It was one of those rare, fleeting and magical moments in life where you just want a freeze frame, to enjoy it a little longer. Energized, I pulled for an extra K and dropped back. Everyone said, good pull! We were more than half way through and all was good.

Soon we turned around and started our 20K trek back to the river and Talkeetna. We came upon an aid station, and the band broke up. Mr. Big Butt (whom we later named) a somewhat paunchy skier who had done no pulling, skipped the aid station and skied away while the rest of us stopped. Heading down the river valley with a slight decline and with the wind at our back the pace picked up immediately. The racing was beginning and we strung out. Wool Socks dropped off, and Harald powered off in pursuit of Big Butt.

Fissures were showing as Jens and Jesse started pulling away too, about 20 or 30 meters ahead of Kramer and myself. I was feeling the burn, but with 18K or so to go didn’t want to push too hard. I let Kramer pass but tried to keep in contact. We were now back-tracking and passing some of the slower 50K skiers on their way out. The trail was winding through the woods and it took a lot of concentration to keep close.

In hindsight I should have grabbed a Gu before the next aid station but was so focused on keeping contact with the group. We dropped down the same short hill we had climbed a half hour earlier and the aid station was right there. For some reason they had no sport drink, only water. If I’d been thinking, I’d have grabbed a water and my Gu, some water and been gone, to make a little break from the group—to get ahead a bit and to let them catch me.

But I just waited my turn, got a drink and tucked in behind them. A couple Ks later, however, I could feel the blood sugar dropping, with 35-40 minutes of skiing ahead. I was only 10 to 15 m behind Jesse and Jens, and another 70 m behind Harald and Mike who were really making a push. Tough decision, but I took the Gu. Fumbling around my seams, I had to slow and dig one out. By the time I got going they were 100 meters up, and the competition was effectively over for me.

I kept a steady pace through the final aid station, with 8.5 K to go, took a last drink, when I dropped onto the river I was momentarily buoyed by the fact that they had congealed back into a group of four, some 30 to 40 seconds up. I was hoping that maybe one or two would drop off and I could muster the reserves to catch up—I also knew Dave was up there and couldn’t be holding that blistering pace forever—and thought that if I could rein in these guys I might get close to Dave.

I was right about that, but alas, it was not to be.

The final stretch

Within a K or two down the river, I could see that Jesse was pulling far out of sight; and that Harald, Mike, and Jens were now a minute ahead. I wasn’t quite bonking, but the energy was waning and my arms were getting weary from all the double poling. Passing the 25K skiers was getting more difficult. The river section was double tracked, with one track somewhat washed out. The other set was in better shape, but the sides were soft and my poles kept punching through, so I took the lesser tracks.

I did pick up a couple bonking skiers in the stretch and no one got me from behind, including the lead women who weren’t far back.

More excitement was up ahead. Last year’s NCAA champ Marius Korthauer won in 2:07:14, followed by Black Forest countryman Raphael Wunderle and American Dylan Watts--who remarkably had missed the start by several minutes, made up the gap by half-way, and stayed with the leaders until the final push. In the nine year history of the race, Korthauer is the only non-Norwegian to win.

I skied weakly off the river and onto the airstrip, and saw Dave check his watch. It looked like he’d been in for 10 or 15 minutes. Actually it was less than 3. Harald and Kramer had passed him with 1/2K to go, and Jens was right on his tail, just 4 seconds back at the finish. So us 50 yr olds took places 20, 21, and 22 with 2:34:54, 2:34:58, and 2:37:44 for me. A solid day for some old men.

No age group triple crown for me, but I’m happy with the effort. I raced as hard and was in a good position for most of the race but just didn’t have quite enough in tank to bring it home. My only (mild) disappointment is that I couldn’t stay with that group till the end. I’d have given big bucks, well maybe my rock skis, to be near where Jens was, and to see the look on Dave’s face!

The party is why I came and that alone was worth the trip. The old Sheldon Hangar (named for a famous Bush pilot) has been converted to a community/performing arts center. They served us beer and brats and pizza while old and new ski videos played on the giant screen. Then Verrier, a natural showman with a booming dude voice (he has more of that surfer look and demeanor than your average Nordic nerd), whipped through the entire awards (acknowledgments, top 3 overall for the two races, and 100 or so door prizes) rather entertainingly I might add, in less than a half hour.

Then he said let’s rip it up, roll up the tables, put away the chairs and strike up the band for rockin’ and dancing. Dave, Kramer, and I even got dragged out to the dance floor for a half an hour or so. Meanwhile, we just milled about, socialized with other skiers, or watched the continuous stream of videos from Olympics past, World Cup, or technique demos from the Norwegian team. At 11 we finally pulled ourselves away from the fun and found our lodging at Latitude 62. We were exhausted on the return, but Wow, that was one of the best road trips ever!


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