Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sonot 50K: On the Short Side of Epic in the 50+

I had a feeling that we might have a tight race Jim L, Dave E, and myself for the grizzled crown (50+) at this year's Sonot. In the past several years (well I missed last year due to having a cold) I've been able to pull away early, keep on hammering the hills, to win the "Old Guys" division fairly comfortably. But those two have upped their game in the past year, while mine hasn't quite been where it was in 2011-2013. Heading in I envisioned a possible tight pack through 25K and then climbing out of Black Gold and pulling away. Certainly, I didn't want a long slog 10K on the river--out there anything can happen, and it often comes down to a sprint and I don't have much of one of those in my racing tool kit. Better to have strong lead going onto the river with enough in the tank to hold on.

The lead group of eight or skiers jumped out quickly (well under 2:30 for the first km) and we congealed into a second, behind Bill P, originally a local now living in Anchorage, who was caught in no-man's land. Surprisingly Chris G-S was the one pushing the pace. By 2 or 3K we caught Bill and had a train of five. And so it would be.

After we caught Bill just tucked in and tried to relax, we went through 10K quick at under 27 minutes. Onto Fort Wainwright and firm ground I hung behind until the first turn on the hill. We slowed so decided to push it up a bit to see what we were all about. I pushed moderately hard and could not shake them over the next kilometer--so I knew I'd have my limits. On to White Bear I dropped back 10 or 15 sec on to get some Gu, but caught up by the top of the big hill (15K). They jockeyed some and I hung at the tail end of the group through 20K, and 30K. Finally onto Relay Loop after a caffeinated Gu and a little Coke out on the trail, courtesy of UAF asst. coach Christina, I felt energized and recovered and start. Bill, who's in his 30s, muttered something about us Old Guys a little as I passed. I was hoping to drop the other two Old Guys on Tower, a tactic which has worked in the past, well usually it's a matter of attrition, rather than any brilliant skiing on my part.

Meanwhile, I could see up and comer Shalane on the loops, maybe only a minute behind us. So I didn't want our pace to lag. We strung out, Dave seemed to be falling off some, but they all stayed in contact. So I tucked in on the downhills and cruised for a few more ks. Pace really flagged on the steep off-center hill by the biathlon range, so I jumped and tried to make one more push.

On the downhill switchbacks onto the Fort Wainrwright connector (2 kms of fun!), Bill and Chris went down on an icy turn. Then near the bottom of the ski slope Jim fell, but popped up quickly. So I had the lead of our little group. I pushed all the way to the river and to the 41K marker before turning over to Jim for a pull. However, the other guys came right back within a couple hundred meters. So were back to five. We passed through the final aid station at 43K, and I was feeling strong, tucked in right behind Chris who was doing the work, and Jim. However, I could see Shalane coming up from behind--hadn't been girled at the Sonot since 2007 when Bill's sister Kate won. However, that was a moot point, because Becca was up with the lead group and she wasn't coming back! All was good, I felt like I could hang and maybe latch onto Shalane if she passed us.

Then it happened. So quickly, and decisively. Jim went down (caught a tip in soft snow he said) right in front of me and I had no time to react, so I somersaulted over him--might have been a full blown flip--and landed on my back. Then then the pain set in. Massive cramps. My calves just seized up and I felt paralyzed from the knees down. I screamed in agony. AAAAGGGGGGGGGGGAAGGGGGGHHHHH! Clutched at my legs.

Jim got up and asked if I was OK. I just screamed some more. AAAAGGGGGGGGGGGAAGGGGGGHHHHH! A few seconds later Dave skied by and asked "Did you break your leg or was that just a cramp?"


Dave took off. Then Jim.

At some point Shalane skied by all of us. I don't remember, that was all a blur.

I was just a heap on the snow, with any semblance of a strong finish rapidly fading. I got up an started off slowly. Shalane had passed Chris and Bill who had avoided the mess. They looked to be 30 seconds up already, Dave was maybe 20 seconds ahead, Jim 15. It took another minute or two to get my wits and a rhythm back, but at least I was on my feet and moving. I set to work to cut the gap. My calves were tight, but no more cramping ensued. Running a bit low on energy but not bonking.

With 2K to go, I was only down by about 10 seconds to Dave, who was trying to keep in contact with Jim. Chris and Bill were another 8 or 10 seconds up on them. Shalane was gone gone gone. With 1K to go, by the bridge I kept pushing--weakly. Half K to go, the finish line in sight, bam, down went Jim. Again!

Dave hammered past, Jim got up looking wobbly. I gained and caught him with about 100 m to go. Passed him momentarily but he had just enough push to finish a half ski length ahead.

What a day!

I was exhausted and wanted to puke the blue juice they had been serving us out on the trail. It took a few minutes to gather my composure, physically and mentally. I could not believe that the race had ended that way.

Yes, I was disappointed, but this was also the most exciting of my seven Sonot finishes. Those guys put on a good race effort for the entire way. They never let me break away. Sometimes weird, unpredictable things happen out there on the trail, especially over that last 10K on the river. Yes, I do wish we'd have all stayed on our feet down that last stretch to see who had the most at the end, but nobody is at fault here.

Here are some closing quotations from the racers.

Chris (8th place male) had the race of his life. "I just wanted go hard from the beginning and see what I had."

Bill (9th), remarked "I've been trying to drop you old geezers and it isn't working!"

Dave (10th), "I thought you might really be hurt there, but when you said it was just a cramp, Boom! I had to go!"

Jim (11th), "Sorry about the fall out there. I almost never fall."

Me (12th) kudos all to your good races!

Just like what I said after Tour of Anchorage, will I be back next year? I don't know. I was thinking of dropping down to the 40K or doing something else entirely. We'll see.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Skiathon 2014

Another Skiathon another triangular patch.

Sunday at the UAF trails was about as perfect as you can get for a classic ski race. We've had a great week of weather and it was about 15 or 20 at the start and no more than 30 by the time we finished. Even though the past couple of afternoons have gotten above freezing there was no need for klister and the waxing was pretty easy.

I went with a binder layer ironed in, 3 layers of Swix VR40, and then a top coat of Star S5 Top Violet. Seemed to work pretty well. The glide wax was just LF4-6 mixed (to make LF5). Glide maybe an A- compared to the guys ahead and kick was an A for 80% of the race. Only over the last 4-5K did I slip some (and everyone was slipping by then). The only thing I would have done different was to add layer of moly-and LF4 as a base layer. The tracks were strewn with debris, particularly over much of the first 10-12K.

I was no match for Dash, as we sped out of the start. By the time we crossed Smith Lake (about 3.5 or 4K in) Dash was already 40 seconds up on us, and we'd see him no more.

Midnight Express felt fine, but climbing out of Big Whizzy was tough (for me on classics it's about 2X 3 or 3.5 minutes at threshold effort with a 30 second 'recovery' on semi-techical S turns), and by the top I was practically screaming for oxygen and mercy. No doubt the trickiest was the powerline off of T-Field, which was south-facing, almost slushy, and soft (my pole busted through twice). The home stretch through the single track and back across Smith Lake were solid--I just wanted to stay on my feet and not crash into a tree on those tricky downhill turns. We had a fast course this year and it was a good day for a workout.

Here are the top 5 men and women with a link to the overall results (20.3 km):

1. Dash Feierabrand 1:05:28
2. Me 1:09:09
3. Max Kaufman 1:11:27
4. Peter Delamere 1:13:31
5. Bruce Gard 1:13:55

1. Maria Bray 1:13:47
2. Dana Fjare 1:21:52
3. Julie Schwab 1:27:20
4. Laura Grage 1:33:25
5. Zoe Ratzlaff 1:45:19

I like this event, it has the feel of a true citizen's race. Young and old, fairly fast to just going out for morning-afternoon ski. Everyone gets the same patch and the offer of cookies at the finish. You can hang out and chat for a bit and see the other skiers finish. Nice way to start spring.

Anthems and Cross Country Skiers

I didn't take in as much of the Arctic Winter Games as I wanted, but I was at the cross country ski venue for four days at Birch Hill last week. FAST's Jesse Mayo skiing as a U18 ("Junior") had a very good week of it, taking a Bronze ulu in with a third place finish in the 5K freestyle, just missed another Bronze by about 2 seconds in the 10K classic, but bounced back to help his team win Silver in the 3X3K relay.

It was great to see the athletes from so many different nations and cultures. The skiing was domintated by Alaska, Russia Yamal, and Sampi, but all participants showed grit and determination and it looked like they were having fun.

I stayed for the awards following the relay, which was really interesting. We heard the same three anthems twice. I find anthems, and how people respond to them, to be rather interesting symbols of a nation's psyche. That's the point isn't it? To capture part of a nation's soul in poetry and song.

The story behind the Star Spangled Banner of course is well known, we learned it in 1st and 2nd grade, later to learn that the Francis Scott Key's poem from 1814 was put to a men's social club drinking song, written some 50 years earlier! Impossible to sing. We only hear the first verse, but you get the message of the flag and freedom, and the fight (sacrifice) that it sometimes takes to hold that freedom. One verse I'd never heard about until doing a search was the Civil War version by Oliver Wendell Holmes:

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

Next up Russia. Like the USA's their music is powerful, but much newer at just 70 years old. They have revised, just in the past 15 years, the words to replace the Stalin era. So Soviet music as the background for modern era words.

Russia – our sacred homeland,
Russia – our beloved country.
A mighty will, great glory –
These are your heritage for all time!


Be glorious, our free Motherland,
Age-old union of fraternal peoples,
Ancestor-given wisdom of the people!
Be glorious, our country! We are proud of you!

The Sampi song, written around the turn of the 19th-20th century, was quite different, with an almost lullaby tune, focusing on nature and beauty.

Far up North 'neath Ursa Major
Gently rises Saamiland.
Mountain upon mountain.
Lake upon lake.
Peaks, ridges and plateaus
Rising up to the skies.
Gurgling rivers, sighing forests.
Iron capes pointing sharp
Out towards the stormy sea.

But if you scroll down to the last verses of the translation they too talk of struggle against the enemy. Oops. Hope they're not talking about my Finnish Ancestors! (although Finland didn't even get its own independence until 1917).

Saamiland's people
With unbending strength
Defeated killing enemies, bad trades,
Sly and evil thieves.
Hail thee, tough Saami kin!
Hail thee, root of freedom!
Never was there battle,
Never brother's blood was spilt
Amongst the peaceful Saami kin

All said, job well done to the organizers, volunteers, and athletes who were in Fairbanks last week for the Arctic Winter Games. It was a great event.

These Old Boots

You hear of teams taking on the personality of their coaches, how about equipment taking on characteristics of their owners?

If that's the case I'm a lot like my boots (although a lot older of course). Mine are about 5 years old which in ski boot time, especially here where you might ski 100-120 days a year, is getting on in years.

I had some pictures of those old boots, scarred, holes on the sides from pole stabs, a replacement zipper, and cuff held together with duct tape and was going to show that as an analogy of my state of skiing. Pretty old, and tattered and barely held together. That might well be the case, but heck with it. Got a new pair of Atomics for 25% off retail the other week and I'm not looking back!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chena River to Ridge: The 25.9 mile JV Race

Most years I like to mix things up and do something different, otherwise the same old same old thing gets so redunant that I want to just pick up my Fischer Carbonlites and throw them in a pile to burn. Or at least sell them off at a ski swap. But that would make things too easy to my rivals, so I keep looking for ways to keep it interesting. I'd been thinking of doing the Chena River to Ridge race, the 25 mile short version, for the past month but didn't want to commit to the entry until I had returned from Tour of Anchorage. Would the weather be decent, like above zero for the most part, no 3 foot blizzard? Do I even feel up for it, coming just a week off my main event of the year (even if I was less than jazzed about it, and the race was shorted by a half)?

I checked in on the Endurance North/Race website on Wednesday morning and it looked like they were booked up, so I just planned on doing a long 3 hour ski at Birch Hill on Saturday. I emailed some friends on Friday and found that there was still and opening or two for the Chena River to Ridge, so what the heck.

Waxed up with Six LF4/LF3 cold powder and drove out on the sketchy Chena Hot Springs road: 99-100% ice pack for 25 miles. "Racing" per se wasn't really in my plan. Looking at the list it appeared that my friend Jim and I would be at or near the front, so maybe we could ski together. First time on these trails, and I haven't even really toured much since moving to Alaska a decade ago. Other than good endurance workout and the opportunity to take in some scenery, my biggest goal was not to take a wrong turn and end up in Circle or something.

We took the lead right out of the parking lot and onto the narrow snowmachine trail, jockeying back and forth with bikes and a runner for the first several miles. Not much beyond Colorado Creek Cabin we passed the bikes on the long incline from mile 6 to 9. The trail was good, and I could even stride out some without too much side slipping. Kick wax (Toko binder with four layers of Swix Green) was perfect, good glide and just the right mount of bite to make it up the ridge (almost 2000 feet above the valley floor from where we had started). The pace was pretty easy, and we were not making any speed records; averaging about 10 minutes a mile for the first 10 or 11 miles. The only hitch was that the zipper on my right boot kept dropping and icing up, and my big toe on that foot was rubbing, and I knew I'd have blister. These issues would come back 12-15 miles later.

Once we got to near the ridge top, we were able to glide along pretty well, more like 6-8 min miles on average, while we wound along the contour of the ridge and made our way to the aid station, which was a hoot. A couple crusty older guys (well my age at least) who had set up a camp with pots and food and burners. I took in some hot (too hot!) Tang and a Gu, and after a 2-3 min pit stop we were off on the descent. And the pace quickened, both because of the terrain and the effort. Still I was within myself and having fun.

Two moderate climbs of a few minutes each over the last ridge and then we'd have smooth sailing. Or so I thought.

I took one more Gu at about 2:30 into the race (~20 miles), and then it all started to unravel. I wanted a drink, but unlike earlier on when we slowed down and waited for each other, Jim was forging ahead and not looking back. Meanwhile, both boots had unzipped on the miles of descent and were now too frozen to zip up again. So I kept pushing, just 5 or 6 seconds back, figure I'd catch him at the crest. Poof, he double poled over the top and was 100 yards ahead by time I had reached the same spot!

Oh, so I guess this IS a race after all.

I made my way down those switch backs but with wobbly boots had to go kind of easy on the turns, and even hit the end of a fallen tree on one banked turn--caught my shoulder as I skidded around. Luckily it missed my face and was just glancing blow. I got to the bottom of the descent (~22.5 miles) and was a little bleary and getting weary. The longest I ever ski or run is 3 hours (Equinox was 3:17 last year), and I was heading into the zone where I don't often tread. Only 3 Gus downed and about a quart of fluid. I stopped and finished off my Tang-Heed mixture and then trudged slowly back. Probably 8-9 minute miles at that point, not a total bonk, but I didn't have the energy, nor the desire to push beyond that. I could see Jim's tracks and he was marathon skating. I tried some, but with my boots in disarray and toe hurting more I figured it wasn't worth the effort.

At times I was just hoping that I was still on the right trail--the course has the minimum of signs and no flagging. But I knew I was going in the right direction and paralleling the highway. With a slight headwind too, this was the most unpleasant section of the course and it seemed to take an eternity.

My Garmin said 25.9 miles when I finished. 3:34. I went straight to the medical tent to take off those boots and socks (now packed with ice and snow), but beyond losing the skin off the bottom of that one toe I was fine. Got a little assistance with that. It will affect my running for a few days, but skiing seems fine.

Overall they have good little event going there. It's really nice to get away from Birch Hill. I'd like to see a little more signage and maybe one more aid station on that loop, but these events are put on by the hard core--21st century Sourdoughs--who do 100 milers to warm up for the 300 to 1000 mile wilderness treks. I'll stick to the JV event, but next time (and I'd like to come back) there will be no slowing down in the first half, and I'll fix that pesky boot problem.

I'll give the event an A.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Tour of Anchorage "50K" and I was supposed to Retire after this

Unlike most of the northern (and many southern) tier states, Anchorage has had a lack of snow this winter. What snow they have had since early January has been washed away by rain or melted from warm temperatures.

This year's Tour of Anchorage (TOA) was part of the National Masters Championships, so I signed up for th 50K--typically my favorite event and usually my best. Whereas in running I'm sort of a jack of all trades, in skiing I'm a distance/marathon skate specialist. Not good for much else, if that.

However, in the weeks and days preceeding there was some doubt as to whether they'd even have the races. In early-mid February there was practically no snow on the trails, or so we heard. But by late month they got some snow and were able to pull it off. Barely.

We drpve down Friday afternoon/evening and I got up Saturday morning, only to find that the 50K was shortened to 26K because there were standing puddles and bare spots on the lower portions of the course. This was disappointing because on this course, good things don't usually start happening to me until 35K along the Coastal Trail. That's where my early pacing pays off and I sometimes catch 10 or 15 skiers.

With a narrow trail (single lane mosty) for the first half of the course, I knew tactics would become very important. I'd have to ski fairly agressive, but it was also very icy underneath and the last thing I needed was a fall or broken equipment.

Temps were high teens to low 20s, with an icy hardpack for snow. The start was fast (wave start, 50 per wave), and I managed to stay on my feet through the rolling-winding 5K Service-Hillside trail section with its short ups and fast hairpin turns. The climb up the Spencer Loop is always frustrating because, I'm generally strongest at the hills, but the trail is too narrow to pass many skiers, so I generally just tuck in and wait. I was with a group of five others, when four of them put on a little gap (5-6 seconds) while I was stuck behind this rather tall (6'2" or 6' 3") guy who was just off the pace--I stayed there until the final pitch before getting around. That hesitation and those few seconds would cost up to 45 seconds by the end of the race.

Once down the screaming fast downhills by Hillside and onto the gentle Campbell Creek bike path those skiers were just ahead 5-10 seconds at 10-12K. Not quite close enough to draft off. So I skied almost as hard as I could to keep in contact, but never closed that gap. By 15K they were 30 sec up. So I from about 8K to 21 or 22K it was alone, no rest, no drafting. Just forge ahead keep pushing.

We also had slow snow at about 15-18K and I fell into a funk, was kind of flailing, just hoping to hang on. My skis kept wanting me to do the splits--couldn't hold my edges on the icy trails, or what's left of them.

Finally, between 21 and 22K a group of three, including two who had started in Wave 2, plus local masters skier Jim L, and the woman who would end up 2nd overall, caught me. So I hung onto their fast tempo but also was able to regroup. With 1.5K to go the trail widened for a bit, so I decided to move and skated around them. I was pulling away, with them about 30 m back. I kept digging, but then my lungs just seized. I've never had this sensation. It wasn't quite hypoxia, like running a fast 5K or 3K, and not at bonking like in a marathon. Maybe a bit like an asthma attack, but I wasn't wheezing and my lungs were not congested. It just felt like my lungs were being squished like a sponge and I couldn't breathe properly. I held it off for about a minute but with 1K, I slowed down, for 10 seconds and let the three skiers go by, before settling into a drafting again. We wound through the woods and had couple short climbs before the final There were no results when we left the race venue yesterday morning, but they did not post anything online until this morning, almost 24 hours after we had crossed the line.

26K, 1:14:17 49th place, 1st in age class by just 9 seconds ahead of Dave Edic, fresh off his two month European and North American tour! My second Masters Nationals win (also 2009 in a true 50K also at TOA).

It was not a pretty race for me, but it's over.

Now about that retirement. I don't know. In the weeks preceeding this weekend I wasn't exactly enjoying things and I figured this might be it for competitive 50Ks. Hang it up and leave it to the experts here who really know what they're doing--not some out of state poser, non-Alaskan, or any other pejorative you care to throw in there--unlike me.

But, now that the race was shortened in half, what do I do (or not) for next year? Who knows. I have 9 or 10 monts to figure it out.