Well boys and girls, the Lake Placid Loppet ain't no Weston sprint race. I had serious reservations about going back after being physically and emotionally crushed by this event in 2004. It was my first ski race, and frankly, I had no business being there. I not only finished DFL in my category back then, I was nearly DFL for all categories. I signed up for the 50km race this year, hoping to show an improvement over five years ago. Brett Rutledge came up with his family. He opted for the 25km freestyle (skate technique) race this time. At least we wouldn't be going head to head.
I didn't really have a goal, as I'm not very results oriented. Remember, the process of staying fit and learning new skills is an ends in itself for me. Brett is more results oriented. He really wanted to break 1:30 for the 25k and finish on the podium. Given decent conditions, I had no doubt he'd break 1:30. Brett gave me a goal too. He said I should shoot for 3:10 in the 50k. Like you can really plan that out. I was going to start no harder than my long Waterville Valley training sessions and let the chips fall where they may.
The forecast was funky. Bitter cold overnight with lows near 0F, then rising rapidly in the morning to high 30's with rain in the afternoon. How do you dress and wax for that? Pretty nutty stuff. It was already in single digits when I got to my motel last night. At 8am when I went to grab a coffee, it was +2F. I did not stress over this race and slept well in fact. But now I was starting to freak. 50km on sandpaper snow? When I left for the venue at 9am, the temp had risen to a whopping +7F at the motel in Lake Placid. When I got out of my car at the Van Hoevenberg Sports Complex five minutes away, it felt mild. That's strange. Apparently the air aloft was much warmer. The sports complex sits a lot higher than Lake Placid. Brett said it was +20F already. Maybe my wax would be ok after all. Than I ran into Charlie Casey, a formidable hill climber on the bike, who measured the snow temperature. Just under the surface it was below zero. Hmmm...
The 50k and 25k freestyle skiers went off at 10am and 10:15. I did negligible warmup. I was not going to start hard enough to need a big warmup, unlike Weston. I placed myself in third row with 10-15 people per row (the Olympic stadium is very wide). I thought I was the only Fred in the group with a Camelbak until I spotted a kid in the front row with one too. Just two of us out of upwards of 60 guys lined up. The gun goes off and the frenzy begins. I surmise that anybody attempting the 50k at Lake Placid is pretty good (unlike me in 2004). There was no tripping on poles as we funneled into the first bottleneck. Most of the trails here are very wide.
The course immediately begins climbing. You do a wall, loose 2/3 of it. Repeat often. Eventually you hit the high point of the course and the reverse order occurs. You drop a wall, climb 2/3 of it. There is no hiding in the pack here. The climbs are heinously steep and this splits things up very quickly. Unfortunately, some of the descents are just as steep with very sharp right-angle turns at the bottom. This is the Lake Placid trademark. The course quickly gets rutted and bermed up. First lap isn't too bad. After hundreds of skiers have been through, it is rough second time around for us 50k skiers. We do the 25km course twice.
With frequent snow this year, the course was in mint condition. There was zero ice. Just perfect corduroy to start. The glide was maybe a tad slow to start, but as the temps continued to rise, my skies kept getting faster. There was no sandpaper snow as I feared. In fact, these were the best conditions of any ski marathon I've done. Ideal.
I passed about 9-10 skiers in the first 10k of the race. I never felt held up, and in fact, it maybe was a good thing I started in third row to keep me from going out too hard. Maybe I started a little too slow, but at least passing somebody every kilometer makes you feel good about yourself, even if they are slow. There were spectators around the course. Russian Hill seemed so easy that I had to ask somebody as I crested it if it was Russian Hill. Beanbender at Waterville is way harder than Russian Hill, yet Russian Hill has a huge reputation of being a mean monster.
The course comes through the stadium at the 15km mark the opposite way we started, then goes out the other side for another 10km of rolling hills before completing a 25km lap at the stadium. At 20km, I felt really good. I saw no one in front of me, nobody in back. I was in my own little endorphin time-trial world feeling good about myself. When I came through the stadium again to begin my second lap at 25km into the race, I didn't feel so good. At least none of the 25km skiers staged 15 minutes behind me passed me. This means I must have had a good first 25k. They only have 25k to do, so that means they get to kill themselves and go a lot faster than us 50k racers should go. Our race doesn't really start until the 25k mark.
Carrying about 50oz of Gatorade with me, I was not taking any water from feed stops every 5k on the course. The only way I passed some guys was because they kept stopping to take feeds. Sure, the added weight slows me down too, and this can be a far bigger penalty on skis than a bike. Rolling resistance is negligible on a bike compared to sliding resistance on skis. But I knew what I was drinking. I took Gu feeds at the 15k, 25k and 35k stops without actually stopping. They had the tops ripped off already.
Going into the hill section on lap two, my legs started to tremble on the really steep bits. I felt my speed dropping by the minute. I kept looking over my shoulder. Nobody. Then I see another rabbit ahead, pass him, then nobody front or back. Several of the descents are so hairy they have spotters there with radios. Injuries are common. Brett fractured his ankle in 2004. In the first lap, twice I narrowly avoid skiers that went down right in front of me at high speed. I went over 30mph on some of the descents. On my second lap, I wasn't nearly as nimble. On one drop, I got a little too far back on my skies, startly flailing violently trying to get them back under me like a cartoon character, only to land on my ass anyway. I was over a lip in a blind spot and thought for sure the skier I just passed would cream me. It was so steep I had trouble getting up. Bummed me out, as the race had gone perfectly until that point. I lost no more than 15sec, so no biggie.
After getting over Russian Hill the second time, I started to bonk. This was one of those bonks that comes on so fast that you hallucinate. Perhaps I did not eat enough Gu's. I felt so awful, that I not only lost my will to race, I lost my will to live. Put a bullet in me now. The 10-15k I still had to go seemed insurmountable.
Race started at about the 2.5km mark (warmup). HR did not work right first 5k or so. GPS's tend to undermeasure distance over tight, winding courses.
As I approached the stadium around the 40km mark, a skier I had passed much earlier flew by me. I really suck at descents. This bothered me. Brett was now spectating at the finish and told me he won his race category. Now I had to get this pesky guy that just passed me. Nobody had passed me until now. He quickly put 100m on me by double poling in the tracks. They looked pretty icy. The temp had risen well above freezing now, so the the skate lane was getting just a tad tacky. I noticed my new nemesis floundered on the ups. I caught up to him. I knew there were some pretty big climbs in the last 10k, so I had to put good distance on him there. I was in no condition to sprint this one out, and I'd lose that battle anyway. I passed him on the next rise, then he dangled just seconds behind me. You know that saying "out of sight, out of mind?" I had to get out of this guy's sight. I killed my self trying. It's amazing how something stupid like this can shock you out of a hallucinogenic bonk state. The only deal was, I did shake him off my tail, but now I was having severe cramping spasms all around my upper thighs with 3km to go. I couldn't do squat on the hills. I was quite certain I endured these minutes of unspeakable pain for naught. Finally I hear the stadium announcer and figured I was safe for whatever silly position we were going for. I finished in 3:06:32 with 30 seconds margin to my nemesis, who happened to be in a different age group. That was good for 4th place in the 45-49 men, 18th place overall men and woman 50k freestyle. I got girled by one woman. Barometric altimeter said there was over 4000ft of climbing in the course. [Results]
This was my best ski marathon to date. I took 42 minutes off my time from 2004! I hit everything right in this race. I have the right skis now, I lucked out with the right wax for such a funky temperature range, I dressed very light and it was just right, I fueled correctly before and during the race (maybe another Gu might've helped). The only bobble was crashing myself in lap two. I don't have exact lap times, as I buried my Garmin in my Camelbak and they didn't have a visible clock at the start/finish for racers to see. Best I can tell from the data, my splits were about 1:30 for the first lap and 1:36 for the second. Looking at the HR/Elevation plot, you can see where I faded fast at 40km. Then I get passed, became motivated to do something about it. HR stayed nice and high for the rest of the race. Brett kicked butt in the 25k race, winning the 45-49 age group by two minutes. Nicely done.
Not sure I'll do another 50k this season. I may do the 10k TT at Dartmouth in two weeks. Mostly kids will be there, but a few of us old farts might crash their party. Still plan to do the Ski to the Clouds race at Mt Washington in March. And of course, I may hit another Weston race or two. It's about time to start riding again.
I'll leave you with a photo from the drive home. I found a new way to Lake Placid that is much quicker. It goes over Rochester and Middlebury Gaps, part of the 6-Gaps of Vermont ride. The mountains are every bit as beautiful in the winter as they are in the summer. You see a lot more without the tree cover. The drive over on Friday was especially nice with at least 100 mile visibility.
Top of Rochester Gap, looking east