Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sugarloaf 50k Race Report

This post may be my last ski report of the season. Waterville Valley suspends regular operations for the season as of today but may open for two days next weekend. Then that's it. When I get back from Hawaii mid April, I have bike races lined up.

I made a late decision to do the 50km race at Sugarloaf. It clearly cuts into prime cycling training. It was a three day weekend for me (my company works 80 hours in 9 days and has every-other Friday off). It would have been nice to get in some big rides this weekend. But no, I had to squeeze the last bit of juice out of this epic winter by doing the season closing race. Skiing only once in the last two weeks added to the insanity of signing up. In fact, I've skied less than 50 hours so far this year. Seems like I've done a lot more than that.

I went up the night before with Dave P. We stayed at his wife's folks place in Hartland, ME. Dave and I were doing the 50k race, Beth was doing the 30k tour. They prepared a pasta feast for us skiers. Very yummy sauce, salad, fresh bread, even an icecream based desert. I cannot say no to stuff this good, even if I'm way past the full threshold. I think there was a sinister plan in there somewhere. The Woodbury's certainly know how to host athletes. The meal and room were much appreciated.

Now only if the race could go well, it would be a flawless weekend. Reports from Saturday were to expect some boiler plate on the course. Brett R. went up earlier in the weekend with his son for some Alpine skiing. He also went out on a Saturday morning surveillance lap of the course. The report scared me. With my Hawaiian trip only a week away, injury was not an option. We got to the venue plenty early. It hadn't snowed overnight. The course looked to be tilled up nicely, very coarse granular that sounded like gravel under your feet. But just an inch or two under that was solid ice. Crap. I just knew after the first lap all that wonderful granular was going to be scraped off the descents.

400ft climb up right side of image

I did a very minimal warmup before lining up. Much to my surprise, we were staged according to registering order. I registered just before it closed on, so I was in very nearly the last row. The gun goes off and we begin double poling across the bog. I saw only one skier tangle up and go down. Then we get into the trail. Immediately things grind to a halt. This sucked. I was stuck behind a long line of college team girls. Every little rise we came to saw the speed go to zero or close to it. At one point, things stopped, and a girl came up beside me and stopped with both her skies standing on one of my skies. I could not move. I was stuck behind this slow moving mass going up the 400ft climb. It was maddening. A few of the girls were even chatting, not too concerned there was actually a race going on. A couple others would not budge despite repeated calls to pass. About 75% of the way up the climb, I finally cleared this mess with a huge gap ahead of me. In fact, I don't think I could even see the next skier. That is how far back this group was in just the first 3-4km. I very quickly opened a gap behind me.

Beginning the hairball descents on lap one, I immediately knew there was going to be trouble on laps two and three. The course is 16.5km and we do three laps. I utterly suck on icy descents. I did not know the course at all. I unnecessarily braked a few times, got too much speed other times. The granular cover was still good, but by the time the rest of my field plus the 30k race and tour fields staged behind us came through, there was going to be ice.

Lap #1 was a breeze. Conditions were lightning fast despite plowing through deep loose granular. It probably didn't matter what wax or ski structure you used. I was able to press hard into the big climb the second time around. I passed a couple guys and had no interference from a chatty group plugging up the trail. It was my fastest time up the 400 footer and the only time in the whole race where I actually felt like I was working hard. Then came the descents. The steep straight-away with sweeping right hand turn caught me off guard. I had way too much speed going when I realized hockey ice is not a good surface to scrub speed off on. I went down hard, possibly at 30mph. Bruised sit bone and thumb jammed back wicked bad were the result. The two guys I worked so hard to pass came flying by. I was flustered now. In the next two minutes, I went down two more times around bare ice corners with a wee berm to hold your outside ski. I am completely clueless how to ski stuff like this. I think somebody like Colin R would crush the competition on this course though. I was now pissed and quite certain I would hang it up when (if) I made it to the finish area. Sustaining an injury that would wipe out a tropics vacation was not worth it.

I get back to the bog and reconsider my desire to quit despite my thumb throbbing so bad I could not squeeze gels with it. I figured I can't quit a race Dave was certain to finish. Descending is not one of his strong points either, but I figured I lost so much time on that descent he was surely just behind me. He beat me by several minutes at Rangeley last year. We're both improved this year, so it was up in the air who was going to finish first.

With two of three laps complete, I still felt fresh going into the wall climb the final time. This race just wasn't taking anything out of me. It seemed half the time I was putting the brakes on, not doing any work. I skied with about 50oz in my Camelbak again. I only took gel handups, of which I could only get half that crazy thick stuff out each time. I passed the two guys again that passed me when I was in crash mode. I flew past them in fact. I can put minutes on them in a single 400ft climb, yet give it back just like that on a descent. I really need to learn that trick. It could take 10-15 minutes off my race time easily.

A brief, heavy snow squall moved through. It dumped just enough saturated soggy snow on the course to really take the speed down in some areas (not on the scraped off ice though). It made things really tricky, as you'd alternate between granular (fast) and soggy snow (like glue) instantaneously. It made it almost impossible to maintain fore/aft balance in places. Many others I talked to after the race experienced this. You could barely see the new snow pellets, but you sure could tell when you skied on it.

Beginning the hairy descents for the third time, my mantra was "don't crash, think Hawaii." I crashed again anyway. At least this time I knew where all the bad areas were and scrubbed speed before getting to them. There was no edge to be had on any of the steep stuff. I even managed to pick off another guy dusting himself off around one of the meanies. I saw several others go down, even on the first lap. This was easily the nastiest conditions I've raced on. I think Sugarloaf did the best they could given recent weather and lack of snowfall. Send a hundred-plus skiers around a few times, that sugary stuff has nowhere to go but pushed out of the way, leaving boiler plate exposed.

Hickup in lap three might be crash impact related

So I managed to hold off several skiers I passed in the last lap to the finish. I finished in 3:02hrs and change, my fastest 50k marathon yet. Next year I would like to get below 3hrs. I should have been able to do it here today. This course is way easier than Lake Placid, yet I was only 4 minutes faster. The conditions were "too" fast in that it made control dicy, thus having to ski defensively at reduced speed. The third lap soggy dump didn't help either. The 50k race had nearly 4000ft of climbing in it. Didn't seem like it, but all those rollers add up. That was the easiest 50k race so far for me. No bonking, no cramping, still going strong after three hours. I've felt more trashed after some of my Waterville ski sessions. Two PR's today, fastest 50k, and the most crashes by far in any race. There's irony in there somewhere.

Dave finished about 5 minutes behind me. He too has skied only once in the last two weeks and a handful of times in the last couple months really. Beth finished her 30k tour strong, amazingly having skate skied only once this year. Brett finished solidly at 4th overall in the 30km race. I think we all agreed that we'll do it again next year. Many thanks to the Colby crew for staffing this race. I finally met Luke, who manned the first feed station.


Luke S said...

So it was you dropping essentially full gel packets a few yards down the trail.

We talked about it later, and its pretty clear that Sugarloaf tried hard with the grooming-maybe too hard. In their efforts to create a perfectly groomed course they groomed it again in the morning, tilling up the loose granular without giving the track enough time to really set up. If they had done the second grooming really early in the morning, like 4am, the course would have had the cold early morning hours to set up, and could have been hard fast granular that didn't get so scraped off.

On those downhills, its especially important to keep your weight forward, and your feet under you at all times. If you try and edge and your feed come out from under your center of mass, you'll go down. Small, quick movements are the key to surviving those icy corners, that and sliding turns. (Which can also end in disaster.)

Hill Junkie said...

My right thumb is 2x normal size today and completely useless. Don't think I broke anything, but it appears to be one of those injuries that will takes weeks to completely heal.

Grooming is certainly an art. There are so many variables to consider, such as type of snow crystal, how much moisture is in it, the temperature and forecast.

I've had similar feedback on my sucky descending skill before. Being told what you're doing wrong and actually having faith that doing it the right way won't result in immediate death are two very different things. I would love to get a half-day skills clinnic that focused just on descending techniques. My friend Brett is interested in this too. Ironically, we both seem to do quite well on alpine skis. Something to work on next winter I guess.

Luke, you mentioned you might be mountain biking in Concord area this summer. I know areas north of there very well if you ever want to hook up. These are Great Brook, Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro SF or even Beaver Brook in Hollis, NH. Lowell is three miles from my house. NEMBA has built some great stuff in there, nothing too scary.

Luke S said...

Downhills are similar in many ways to what I've heard about mtn biking. If you aren't confident, and are tentative, you will fall and get hurt, whereas if you go for it with confidence you're less likely to crash and burn.

Alex said...

So if you never actually get around to learning how to control yourself going down a hill, don't be ashamed to snowplow. It pays to scrub speed if you wouldn't otherwise make the corner. If the snowplowing just isn't doing it for you, you can also bail to a seated position, and slide on your butt until you're going slow enough to feel in control again. It looks really stupid, but on an icy, dangerous downhill when you have a tropical vacation coming up, well, its better to look stupid than to destroy yourself.

The best way to get better at going down hills on xc skis is to bomb every downhill you see during training - it won't raise your overall intensity, but it will improve your cornering and agility at speed. Kind of tough to do at Weston, but setting speed records down Tripoli is not for the faint of heart :)

The other option to slow yourself down (if there is room) is to throw in a couple alpine-style turns, essentially hockey-stops. It looks less stupid than snowplowing or butt-sliding.

Good luck healing that thumb.