WritingsThoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.
Wasatch Powder Keg 2014
I’m sitting in the Salt Lake City airport , waiting for a flight to Denver. My heart rate is chugging along at 86 bpm, and I’ve just downed 1400 calories in under 15 minutes. In spite of my bulging gut, I feel lean and worn in a deeply satisfying way that I have seldom been able to access. It’s 6:00 pm, and I’m waiting for my flight home from the 2014 Wasatch Powder Keg (ISMF North American Skimo Championships).
With recent local success racing at Mt Bachelor, I was ready to have my ego destroyed at the Powderkeg. The race is the longest-running skimo event in the US, and this year it was chosen to be the North American Championships. That meant that in addition to the strong Wasatch crowd, a pack of Canadians, Coloradans and other far-flung speed suit types would be coming to downsize my opinion of my own fitness. Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump in and tangle with much better racers in three different race formats; sprint, individual, and teams races against the best on the continent.
The first event was Friday’s sprint race. I’d never done a sprint, and fresh off the plane from sea level, I was nervous to start with such acute suffering.
A whopping 54 men and women turned out for a whuppin’. The course began with a flat 40-yard sprint into paired crossing skintracks which crossed uphill to a booter and a second flat skin before a gated descent to the finish.
The first round was run time-trial style, with one racer starting on course every 30 seconds. The top 12 men then went on to two heats of 6 running the course simultaneously, with a 6-man final. The 6 fastest women went straight to a final round.
I made a few run-throughs of the course before the race, but they didn’t prepare me for the total lung-busting effort of the sprint format. Running on skis is not something that I’ve trained, but that wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t running for long. Buy the time I was half-way through the booter, tunnel-vision hypoxia was starting to take over, and I was glad to finally ski the icy gates to the finish in 4:47, blissfully missing out on the semis by 15 seconds.
Ultimately, Jason Dorais went negative-splits for three laps to rein in the North American Sprint Championship.
The next day brought the individual race (6500′, 10 mi), bright and early with a 7:30 am start. Joined by Ethan Linck, teased over from Gothic, CO, I lined up near the back of the start corral. The race began anticlimactically as Chad’s start gun failed to fire and he instead yelled GO! to the eighty-eight speed suits. The course began gradually with wide cat tracks and groomers before narrowing into a skintrack. The leaders disappeared from sight half way up the first climb, and local packs started to form up. Throughout the first climb I could look back and see Ethan chasing my tails 15 s back while I in turn rode the quick turnover of a La Sportiva lady athlete in front of me.
The fun began right from the start with a steep, brushy, and sugary booter, a euro-style run down the ridge, and some steep skiing through a little chute full of soft snow. Two more climbs and quick ski down a cat track led to Brighton’s backside and the hot sun. Here I ran into the recreational pack as my energy started to flag in the sun. The hot climb out of the back side was my low-point, and I struggled to keep up a non-slogging pace.
When I again reached the ridge and Brighton’s boundary, I decided to make up my lost time with some Kamikaze skiing. After skiing half the descent with a boot only partially latched, I peeled down a cat track and made a hard left into the woods where a course marshal was adding extra flags. In the woods, all appearance o course marking stopped. A woman in front of me cursed aloud before taking off to my left. In seconds I found myself off course and at the parking lot. I skated to near the start where I was directed to climb back up and towards my left to regain the last climb.
When I reached the final climb, I was a bit demoralized, finding that my detour and extra vertical had lost me several places that I had worked to keep through the race. Fighting some cramping and the warming sun, I reached the final boot pack and quick skinner before dropping into the last descent.
After a quick techy bump run below Millicent and a skate up a small hill, the last ski opened into a wide groomer. I cut my frustration loose and tucked the last pitches, passing three people like a crazy-man before a photo-finish skate gained me a fourth pass just before the line, crossing in 2:41:16. (results)
Ethan and I lounged in the sun before heading home to get horizontal and prepare for the third day of racing.
With an inconveniently scheduled daylight savings time added to my jet-lag, I woke for the technical teams race (8600′, 15 mi) at what felt like 3 o’clock in the morning. I was uncertain about how well I could perform after a hard individual race the day before, but as Ethan and I chatted it over in the car, we came up with a comforting plan: 1) go slow to go fast, and 2) don’t get last.
31 teams lined up for a surprisingly good turnout, and the fun began right from the start with a groomer that just grew steeper and steeper right to the limit of traction. This was followed closely by total switchbacking chaos up an icy bumped face before low-angle civility returned. Ethan and I feathered out pace and chased the honorable Andrew McLean and Courtney Phillips to the first decent. The second climb brought the Euro-feel, as the pack climbed together up the face of Mt Millicent towards the technical ropes section. Making steep switchbacks and booting towards the via-ferrata, a Life-Flight helicopter hovered overhead, giving a true european flair to the scene. It felt pretty badass to be in the mix up that climb.
The via ferrata section successfully demonstrated that not everyone knows how to use an ascender, and we found ourselves enjoying the sun in a stand-still traffic jam. It was a beautiful Wasatch morning, so no one seemed to mind. Up the ropes to the Gas-X and then down the ridge we chased the fixed lines before skiing off into a course that kept handing out diverse challenges, from downhill skinning to steep climbs, icy skin tracks, and tricky skiing.
We were able to keep moving throughout the lengthy course despite some frustrations with gear and challenging skinning, and thugging through miles of skiing we eventually found ourselves on the final climb, chasing a team that we had pursued all day. Climbing through the trees, I turned up the pace a bit and started to reel them in. Then Ethan’s ski fell off. Again we started in behind them and pulled out onto the final cat track climb just 20 m back. Silently, and without discussion, I turned up the pace and reeled them in, passing the team and dropping another 20 m ahead of them. Ethan came along for the ride, and after his smoothest transition of the day, we were able to ski out into the final descent just seconds ahead.
Down though worst, most frozen chunder of the day and then pointed down groomers we pulled for the finish with the team close behind. The course ended with a skate along the length of the parking lot, and with a fresh wax job, I found myself waiting near the finish and watching Ethan get chased by a pair of matching suits, who were gaining fast. I hollered at him to hustle and we stepped across the line just two seconds ahead, redeeming our slow day with a piece of real racing for the finish. (results)
I didn’t win anything during this trip to Utah, and that’s fine. It felt good and right to go mix it up with the best on the continent and see what it felt like to raec two different race formats and to race three days in a row. As I’ve been finding myself saying all season, I’m happy with my effort and performance given my lack of overall preparation, acclimatization, and fitness.
Some things will have to change for future racing; Racers wear speed suits for a reason; Racing at 10,000′ and sleeping at sea level isn’t a recipe for success; Fueling is an ongoing experiment; And technique always leaves room for improvement. Still, with five more races under my belt this season, I’ve learned a lot about the sport, and I can see the potential for a lot of improvement. It’s encouraging that many of the best in the field are in their 30s and 40s– we’re relatively young and have the time to build an endurance, speed, and technical base to come back and do some damage in the future.
This amazing race exemplifies the beauty and challenges of this silly sport. I’m glad to have come and I know I’ll be back!
Support Mountain Lessons by checking out the gear below! Your support keeps this running!