Monday, March 26, 2012

Sonot 2012: Sliding Into Spring

Okay, so maybe just maybe I was sandbagging a little when I said the Sonot was just a box to check. It's not the Tour of Anchorage or a big time race by any means (Town Races here are usually more competitive) but for me it's one of the more important events of the season.

First a summary of how it all went down and then a tally whacking at how it shakes out compared to my previous efforts at this event. This one is longer than most race reports, just because it is. Gets into the gory details.

One thing about this race, there is always something funky that throws you off your game. Primarily, however, the Sonot Kkazoot (Athabaskan for Spring Glide/Slide) 50K is just plain tough.

Nevertheless, if it's not the cold, it's poor ice on the river (so they move the entire race up on the hill), or fresh snow, and the course itself makes it one of the most difficult Loppets out there.

We actually lucked out this year because it was bitter cold all week (teens and twenties below zero in the mornings) but race day was a comfortable +15 F. Nevertheless, with an inch or so of fresh snow on top of the frozen layer that never had quite "set" into fast kkazoot conditions this years race was slow. Lead times (and mine) were about 15 min slower than last year (although we were skiing 1.5K longer this time).

I lined up not feeling all that great. After a solid Tour of Anchorage I came down with a cold in the middle of the month. I had been looking forward to the Skiathon 20K classic race last week but that was the nadir of the cold, not to mention teens below zero that day. So I DNS'd (my 4th or so non-start of the year, easily a personal record). Still was a bit congested and felt sort of blah under the gray skies and light snowfall on Saturday.

I wasn't even 100% sure of my tactic (although I had a couple scenarios). Just go by how it feels I figured.

Usually the top skiers, national class college and post college level, take off fast and everyone follows. This time was different.

Course profile (a bit exaggerated, but that's Bad Bob for you).

I hit it quick and knocked poles a few times with a couple of J2 skiers, doing the 20K, and found myself up in the top 10 or so. Then Tyson (2009 winner, and frequent dominator of local races) went by at about a half K. We were almost a full K into it when UAF's Lex Trienen double poled past--staying in the tracks--okay I was going way too fast. By the first bridge I was maybe 20th at the back of a peleton that had all the leaders from both races, and I could tell that the gap behind me was growing. Nothing to do but relax and hang with this group for as long as reasonable.

I stuck it out for 4K before succumbing to the reality that I had no business even tagging along, attempting to draft. So I settled into my own rhythm, mostly V2 alternate. The going was not 100% smooth, as the river snow was both soft and sort of wavy. Did a head check and the second peleton was a good 20 or 30 seconds behind. Per usual, off in my own private no-man's land on the Chena. (Last year at least I got to share it with UAF's Marit Rjabov).

By the time we hit the base of Birch Hill Ski area at 10K (30 min) for me, the lead group had broken up, and three or four guys were in sight about 30-40 sec up on the the new connector while a couple of youngsters from the chase group had already passed and a few more were reeling me in. Uh oh, I blew it. Went out too hard for the first 10K.

However, I settled in with those guys and the new connector was almost cake--easy compared to heading straight up the ski slope. So instead of 350 ft climb in 1K it's stretched out to about 2K. A huge difference. By the time we got onto White Bear a nice train seven skiers had coalesced and I was only about 10 seconds back, so by the deep hole and climb out at the far end of White Bear loop I was back onto them.

The most disconcerting thing was that I was as old as three of them combined, mostly 18-20 yr olds. Felt good and settled for the long haul and not trying to expend any extra energy. By Moilainen's Meadow (~20K) it was almost like they were slowing me down, and by 25 and 30K that was definitely the case. Thing is, the trail is all single track and passing people with even a small amount of fresh snow is never easy Plus, I don't think the youngsters were too thrilled with a 50-something in their midst, let alone one trying to shake things up. So I just had to bide my time.

The Sonot is definitely a race of attrition. The fastest/strongest skier does not always win (or in my case place decent), it's who can maintain through the numerous climbs coming out of White Bear through Outhouse Loop (roughly from 22K to about 33K) without expending too much ATP/glycogen reserves. You need something left on Tower Loop and the long stretch on the river.

Several of the guys attempted to stretch things out a few times and a couple of others did drop off. I made one move. In the stadium after the Black Loops I took a quick drink and skied ahead, hoping to drop them on Blue Loop. But that didn't net much, and my legs were starting to tie up so I tucked back in before the steep climb out. There were five of us left.

Benji, the only other skier over 30 in the train, started putting the hurt on us on Outhouse and Relay, and the two teenagers remaining dropped off the pace. So now it was Benji, me and Dash. I was borderline cramping up in my quads and my arms were tight, but I was able keep contact. He pushed hard and I just tried to hang and get some feed or drink every few Ks. We really flew down the hill on the connector and the pace was torrid on the flat coming back to the river.

Then it hit, a double cramp. My left quad knotted up and my right triceps was spazzing, as if someone was shooting a 100 volt current through it. I'd never had an arm go out on me in race! I figured this was it, and I was about to pay for that early effort and having the audacity to try to stick with skiers so much younger, fitter, better, more able than me. I thought I could hear Estle cackling away, from somewhere (it's usually Finland or New England this time of year): Sayre, What an Idiot!

They had 8 or 10 sec on me and I wanted to keep in contact, but I just had to slow up and finish off my electrolyte drink that I'd been carrying. I settled into a modifed V2 alternate, rapid tempo but light on effort, and hoped not to blow up on the river. They had about 18 or 20 sec when we hit the river at 41K. Benji was doing most of the leading, but he was V1 skating, which means he was probably hurting too.
Pat was about 20 sec back.

Just hold on and keep moving, seeking the smoothest part of the trail. The Ks slipped by, not fast enough, and I gained just a few seconds with 4 or 5K to go. But at 47K they were only up by about 10. I caught them with about 1.3K to go and tried hard to pick up the tempo but the effort made me dizzy and more naseous. Someone, Dash, was right on my tail and with 300 to go I tried to find another gear but almost did a face plant instead. He accelerated and all I could do was to try to stay on my feet.

2:48:17, 10th, and I felt like keeling over.

I felt sick all day, but ate a fair amount to refuel. I think it's the Gatorade. Too much sugar. At Tour of Anchorage they had G2 and that's what I had in my water bottle. It's much easier on the stomach. And on Sunday, per usual for post Sonot, I was totally completely wiped out like recovering from the flu. I'm usually tired from Tour of Anchorage, but that's from the drive home and long day. Sonot recovery is a whole different level.

Going out with that lead group was bodacious, something I rarely try anymore. In hindsight, hanging with the 2nd train out on the river might have saved some energy to move up in the middle of the race, but in the end I don't think it would have made much if any difference. With the fresh snow it was a hard day to make a break from our mid-race train. There must have been five or six breakaway attempts from 25 to 35K and every one was matched. Again, the Sonot is a race of attrition, not speed and power.

Here's the skinny on previous Sonots. I may well be old, and indeed an idiot, but percent-wise this was my best.

2006 - 2:41:40 9th (17.4%)/winner Kjtetil Dammen
2007 - 3:06:44 9th (17.8%)/winner Trond Flagstad
2008 - 2:14:25 8th (14.0%)/winner Petter Eliassen
2009 - 2:39:59 6th (18.4%)/winner Tyson Flarharty
2011 - 2:34:12 13th (15.4%)/winner Eric Soederstroem
2012 - 2:48:17 10th (13.3%)/winner Lex Trienen

(2008 and 2009 were short course 43K at Birch Hill)

NCSF, the Bakers, and sponsors for putting on this event.
Great aid stations by local schools Lathrop, West Valley, and Tanana, and North Pole at the finish.
Good grooming this year, and it's going to get better with the Pistin Bully.
Hanneman's for the soup and bread at the awards.

It was the 25th Sonot, my 6th, and one more branded wood chip; I have no idea what to do with those things. I've had three stacked up like pancakes on a coffee table and the others sitting in a sock drawer.


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