The forecast called for temperatures in the 40s. As the weekend approached, the weatherman started calling for one to two inches of rain. The freezing level was above the mountaintops. Conditions were perfect for skimo racing.
Ok. That’s a lie. As Taylor and I drove to Washington on Saturday and mountain biked in the rain, I thought strongly about bailing from the second Vertfest race at Alpental. Stupid me, I had preregistered for the race, which is for some reason the most expensive ninety minutes of skimo that I know of. I should have known better– when we raced here two years ago, it was also raining.
Still, there are only so many races in the PNW, so we decided to make a classic alpine maneuver and “go have a look”. Perhaps in terrible weather, and with much more attractive races beckoning from the rockies to those with flexible schedules, we might find ourselves the only ones there.
Well, Washingtonians are nuts. They all showed up. Toeing the start line with almost no warmup (to rainy), I was impressed by the number of speed suits present. With moderate motivation, I aimed for a top ten finish.
After the gun, the typical uphill run ensued. Stubbornly, I fell in with the lead group as the pack funneled across a stream crossing. Matt Reid of Canada took the lead on the first climb, and I fell into third behind Todd Kilcup of Seattle. Conditions were challenging, with a few inches of waterlogged snow atop a firm base.
I felt good halfway up the first climb, my fitness holding the pace comfortably. Then my pole snapped: it punched through the snow surface into a tree-hole, and cracked right in half. I was now trying to hold my own while looking like a man on broken crutches. I was partly inclined to ditch the pole, but figured that’d earn me a DQ. I was also momentarily inclined to drop from the race, but hey, it was an expensive race. If anything, the broken pole gave my ego permission to go no-holds-barred, because who’s going to fault you for blowing up after breaking a pole?
About twenty minutes into the climb, as I held, stumbling, onto third, Matt started to slow, and the main pack started making up ground. After some verbal encouragement failed to push the pace, I attacked into the lead and set the pace through the rest of the climb. With two boot-packs and some varied skinning behind us, Todd and I skied into the transition with a solid gap.
The skiing was terrifying. Poor visibility, saturated new snow, and fresh, morning-of wet slide debris made for exhausting downhill work. After a mix of moguls, debris, traversing, and groomer, I was happy to find myself with a good lead starting the second climb.
I was now determined to win. Todd had admitted that it was his first skimo race ever (he’s a strong dude!) and I’ve grown a bit tired of second place this season. Chugging along with my half-pole, I struggled up the second climb, cursing whichever well-meaning volunteer had set the very poor skintrack. Under intensifying rain, Todd steadily eroded my lead, and we transitioned into the last ski just seconds apart.
Skiing scared, but confident that I was faster on the descent, I hit the gas and made a second miserable lap down through knee-danger snow. Hitting the last pitch, I looked back to find myself alone and made a relaxed descent into the finish in 1:24, a minute or so ahead of Todd.
When I raced here two years ago, I managed a double skin failure as a result of poor technique and inexperience. I barely limped across the line in 16th after 1:56 of suffering. It felt great come back to stand on the podium and to round out this season with a win as proof of improvement.
This might be my last race of the 2016 season, but I’m psyched to maintain what feels like solid fitness and apply it to some less-formal goals. With plenty of strong locals off competing in the national championships instead of vertfest, I still have ground to cover if I want to race a longer and more competitive season next year. Still, the confidence remains: volume accumulates over years of effort, and volume makes for aerobic power.
I want to give a big thanks to everyone who’s been supporting me in my racing and adventures.
Taylor is my constant partner and the better half of my brain, and no one else could ever suffer so cheerfully through my ideas as she does.
Thanks to Icebreaker for coating me in merino head-to-toe, which is the only way to stay halfway comfortable while racing skimo in the rain.
Thanks also to Skimo.co and Free Range Equipment for excellence and support; it’s hard to imagine how people got by without the sport-specific expertise that they bring to their disciplines and gear.