With a full stomach and a fading endorphin buzz, I'm in a writing mood. Settle in for an essay. When I was a kid, my dad wasn't into athletic activities. I never got into stick and ball sports. In fact, later I learned I utterly sucked at them. It could be because my dad never "played catch" with me to develop these parts of my brain. I suspect though, I have a very low kinesthetic IQ. This means I don't have as intricate wiring in my motor cortex as most folks do. It's a catch-22 problem. It's quite possible my dad never played catch with me because I couldn't learn to catch a ball. My dad was and to this day is an avid sportsman. He hunts or fishes almost daily. I went hunting and fishing with my dad many times growing up, but trouncing through the woods or sitting in a boat doesn't exactly build the fine motor skill skate skiing requires.
Fast forward to January 2003. My friend "Skogs" from work convinced me and Steve Gauthier to try out skate skis at Waterville valley. I was already an accomplished MTBer, having won a couple expert field races. I was looking for alternative ways to stay fit over winter, but skate skiing seemed over the top skill-wise. I was very hesitant to head there with Skogs, as he is Norwegian and has been skiing since he was three years old. I remember the day clearly. Conditions were kind of crusty. We rented equipment, got a lesson, then ventured out on our own. I spent more time on the ground cussing than actually moving. I could not figure out the motive force behind those crazy things. Having classic skied a couple times in my life, I was constantly searching for the fish scales for kick. It was no minor miracle that I went back a second time. I fared only slightly better. Going back a third time that winter, I started to get it. I bought skis, poles and boots.
The summer of 2003 I met Brett Rutledge at a hillclimb race. Some how we got on the subject of skate skiing and I mentioned I "skied." We skied a few times that following winter when he convinced me to try a race. This was no ordinary race, this was the infamous Lake Placid Loppet. So here's the deal. Brett had years of skiing with some coaching under his belt. I hadn't even a season's worth yet. Brett had done Lake Placid before and knew what a spanker it was. In fact, in the 1980 winter Olympics, the Russians protested one of the hills in the course because it was too steep. To this day that hill is called "Russian Hill." Brett talked me, a total newbie, into doing this 50km marathon with thousands of feet of climbing. Lake Placid is recognized as being one of the hardest marathons in North America.
The short story is I finished DFL in my category, and nearly DFL for all men and women categories. Brett fractured his ankle in a crash about half way through the race, then finished a full second lap, and still finished half an hour faster than me. I suppose I've spanked Brett on many a hillclimb, so maybe this was payback of sorts. I'm lucky I wasn't indelibly scarred.
Fast forward to this week. I continue to learn about the nuances of skis. I've learned that my best racing skis are ill spec'd for my weight. One of my readers, Matt Kmiec, weighed in on this via personal email and just so happened to have a set of skis that might be perfectly suited for me. I had Friday off and decided to swing over to Keene to check out the skis. Like my race skis, they are RS:11s, the last year Atomic made them before coming out with the World Cup model. They are soft flex, very soft in the tips in fact, and had a custom cold grind structure. We met at Granite Gorge, a small alpine/nordic ski area just north of Keene. Only a few km were marginally groomed for skate, but there was a bit of climbing in it to get a good feel for ski behavior. I first did a loop on my stiff race RS:11s. Then a lap with Matt's RS:11s. Wow. Matt's skis were considerably faster. They were much easier to V2 on the uneven, rutted terrain. I didn't catch the tips as much. Gliding, I felt planted. With my stiff RS:11s, I always felt like I had springs under my feet. I expected Matt's skis to be just like my softer training RS:11s, but they weren't. They are probably even softer, but maybe just in the tips and not under the foot. I bought the skis.
Today I took my new skis up to Waterville Valley for some skiing with the gang. It was wicked cold starting out and it got colder as the day progressed. The trails were nicely groomed, very firm, but sandpaper slow some of the time. Brett and Jody were going to be a few minutes late and suggested Dave and I do a pond loop but no climbing to tire us out. I said we should do some hills waiting for him to get there so I wouldn't drop him so bad when the four of us head out together. He warned me that he'll be on his brand new top-of-the-line RCSs. Ooooweeee. I just love this trash talkin' stuff. What I didn't tell Brett is that I would also be on some brand new to me RS:11s. Thus I had a secret experiment planned.
The four of us start out on the south end, the first time skiing it this season. The big climbs are not here, but there are numerous steep little buggers. We hit Jennings Peak first, then Drakes to Upper Fletchers. Part way up Upper Fletchers, Brett and I did a heartrate check. He was 156bpm. He asked me and I said 156. He thought I was repeating his number, as I'm always much higher while skiing with him. Not so much on the bike, as we're pretty close there. Now sometimes your HR runs low and you're suffering. This was not the case. My HR was low and I felt comfortable. Hmmmm, were the skis responsible? I have made leaps in technique improvement this season, so no doubt that is a factor. We were both on new equipment. Maybe his skis/wax were wrong for the day. Starting out, he was quite confident they were fast though. Maybe I was just having an exceptional day. Who knows. There's no way to control an experiment of this sort. But it got me thinking.
After some more putting the hurts on each other around Criterion, we started climbing that beastly blip at the bottom of Lower Snows. At the top we compared HRs again. He was 156bpm, I was 152bpm. Now that has never happened before. I recall skiing with Brett a few years ago where he hovered in the 130's going up Livermore when I stayed in the 170's desperately trying to stay with him. Our relative fitness on the bike has changed little over the last few years, yet something dramatically has changed on skis. Maybe I'm finally starting to get it. I still didn't tell Brett I was on new skis. My new skis looked just like my other two pair. I'll probably get a WTF call when he reads this. Brett has always been able to put the screws to me on skis. He still can in areas where technique matters most. But I think I've reached parity on the climbs now.
I'm convinced I've been skiing on too stiff of skis until now. I'm sure improved technique is a factor. I've been trying to work Andy Milne's clinic feedback into my skiing. Stiff skis are easier to control on many surfaces when you lack good balance. I've been using stiff skis as a crutch to make up for bad technique. My new skis may be too soft on really hard surfaces, but I still have my beat up training RS:11s that are slightly stiffer to fall back on. Building fitness when I first took up cycling was far easier than learning skate technique. Remember my comment on kinesthetic IQ?
Brett, Dave and I stuck together for most of the ski. I logged 41.9km, 1265m vertical (over 4100ft) in 3:04 skiing time. Jody ended up buing some new skis today and is looking to make strides in his technique. When you have this much fun, you don't even notice temps dropping into single digits with sub-zero windchills. I enjoy these ski epics as much as the long dubious training value rides I do in the summer.
Next up is the Lake Placid Loppet in two weeks. Brett signed up for the 25km. Dave was going to do Lake Placid but now says some chainsaw class is more important that day. Dude, the ice storm trees on your property will eventually rot anyway! I've been on the fence for which distance to do. I could do quite well in the 25km I think, but a little voice says I need to redeem myself in the 50k. All my training has been for long distance. It would be nice to finish in the upper third, having the dubious honor of DFL a few years ago.