Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Finally, a fast worlds night

With seasonable temps, light wind and the dang snow guns finally silent, a near record number of skiers showed up at Weston Tuesday night to race.  The course was expanded from about 1.5km to 1.8km, with two additional hairpin turns added. In addition to a longer course, the night's race would also increase from three to four laps, making for a 7.1km race. I was digging it.

I had heard the course was ice in the morning. The Weston Ski Track team worked hard to churn up a wonderful sugar granular surface that was FAST. I warmed up on my beat up Atomic rock skis with cheap green Fast Wax that I skied 50km on last weekend. They seemed quite quick, and I was eager to find out how much faster my Salomon race skis were going to be with expensive Toko HF red wax.

A few minutes before the race start, I swapped skis. I almost face planted. My race skis were slow! I had just enough time to do one lap. They were clearly slower almost everywhere on the course. That sucked. My rock skis have no edges left on them and don't corner well at all in scraped off areas. But they were going to have to come back out of the ski bag.

Lining up, I somehow found myself getting pushed too close to the front. That's odd, as usually the opposite happens, especially with such a huge group. I might have been in fourth row, with three per row. There were too many fast guys behind me, but all rows were filled, so I was stuck there. Before I knew it, we were moving.

The first bit is NASCAR start, neutral until we round a turn and pass a barrel. Then speed triples. That first rise is always a CF, poles getting stepped on, catching your skis on other poles, etc. I was more bold this time, not giving up turf. When things sorted out, I was with some pretty fast company. My friend and nemesis Brett was somewhere right behind me.

Things settle down a bit after the first lap. Over the next two laps, there was a bit of jockeying for positions on climbs and around the numerous 180 degree turns. I got cut off a couple times coming around the outside. Another Weston nemesis Marv got cut off a couple times on the inside by the same guy.  I was starting to worry a bit, as our pack of six had about a 10 second lead on the group Brett was skiing with. There were strong guys in his group too, and I didn't want that group to catch us. Marv and I could have come to the front to pick the pace up, but we couldn't get there.

I think it was near the end of the second lap, I poorly timed a pass along the outside when things bunched up. I had nowhere to go and caught one of Marv's poles with my ski. When your hauling ass on a fast golf course with 2" of ball bearing snow over ice, you go down hard.  F-bomb. I got up so quick that the chase group with Brett in it just behind us didn't have a chance to catch me. But now I was in no-man's land chasing to get back on the group I was skiing with. Drafting is a big deal when conditions are fast at Weston.

I was back with the group in the third lap and recovering. Brett was still 10 seconds back. Gotta remedy that, I thought So when we came through the start/finish for the fourth and final lap, I drilled it with all I had up the wide climb. I was not going to get cut off again. I didn't care so much if I got dropped in the finishing sprint, I just wanted to keep the pace of our group high and empty the tank during the last five minutes.

Nothing but hairpin turns with drag strip in between

I came around to the front of our group and prayed I wouldn't botch one of the turns. I still suck at them but I'm getting better. Amazingly, nobody attacked me on the next two rises. I figured they were recovering for the final sprint (or my attach to the front, he-he). I thought about capitulating the lead half way around, as I was dying, and I probably grew the gap to Brett's group by a safe margin. But what fun would there be in that? I was going the take this one all the way in.  I tucked briefly on the final dip before the rise to the finish. I've seen guys take themselves out in the sprint. I didn't want to be that guy tonight. I managed to hold off the others.

I had no idea what position we were coming in at. I thought maybe 20th. But no, 12th place with a time of 20:28, and 12% back from the winning time two weeks in a row now and in very different conditions. This is a pretty big improvement from last year.  That's what I like about the sport. Your fitness may stay constant or even decline, but you can continue to get faster as your technique improves. Turns out my starting position probably wasn't optimistic after all. I skied a bunch more laps with Arvid afterwards, getting in 26km for the night.

I suspect increased focus on core work is helping me here. I'm doing push-ups and sit-ups 2-3x per week now. I also have been using a balance board, although I haven't been spending as much time on it as I planned. Thinking of doing the Gatineau Loppet in a couple weeks, a world loppet that can be used as a qualifier for the American Birkie next year.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Beware the Wrath of Fat Bikers

There's been much spirited debate on Facebook and forums lately about winter trail use etiquette. Much of it centers around fat bikes, bicycles designed for travel on snow with super wide tires. Fat bikes have exploded onto the scene this winter. It seems most mountain bikers now have fat bikes, many on second or even third generation fat bikes. There are even winter fat bike races now. So what's all the etiquette hoopla about?

Fat bikes are touted as go anywhere bikes. They roll well anywhere a regular mountain bike rolls, plus a whole bunch more places like beaches and on snow. But "snow" requires a qualifier. Fat bikes don't roll well over any ol' snow. When a major storm dumps a foot, not even most cars can roll through that. The snow must get packed enough to support the weight of a fat bike with rider before riding is enjoyable or even possible. Fat bikers contribute to grooming their favorite trails with snowshoes and homemade drags. Other recreational trail users help too, unknowingly.

Once new snow is packed, it needs time to set up. Riding too early on trails will chew them up. Non-snowshoed walkers will post hole a freshly groomed trail, making it a filling rattling experience once firmed up. A good thaw-freeze cycle will expedite the setting up process. But until that happens, trails are perceived as being "fragile" by the fat bikers. Anything that disturbs a freshly groomed trail curing to perfection will send the fat bikers into a tizzy.

It used to be that mountain bikers were the scourge of the earth when mountain biking first caught on in the 80's. To this day, mountain bikes are banned in many places in the Bay Area.  Cross country skies have long lamented how bikes destroy their tracks.  It now appears that regular mountain bikes with 2" wide tires are the scourge of winter trail riding. There's a perception that narrower tires destroy trail conditions and the riding experience of fat bikers.

I'm having trouble getting my head around this. IT'S FUCKING SNOW! It can be here today, gone tomorrow. Literally.  Frequent snow dumps keep renewing what's on the trail, and snowless spells will see bare Earth return or icy conditions necessitating studs.

The trails at virtually every place I ride are multi-user. That includes skiers, walkers, snowshoers, bicycles of any kind, even horses. Do fat bikers propose banning all activities but fat biking on snowy trails? Based on some of the vitriol on forums lately, you'd think this was the fat biker's mission. I'm not singling anybody out here. When I was in Michigan over the holidays, the same ranting was going on there about how douches with sub-4" wide tires were destroying the trails. Perhaps if trails must be in such a perfect state, fat bikes aren't all that they were cracked up to be. Sounds like to me too many folks are intoxicated on fat bike Kool-Aid. This elitist attitude will not serve the greater mountain biking community well. It will only leave some riders feeling alienated.

Anyway, I had to get this rant off my chest. Some comments made in the past week rubbed me the wrong way. Could have sworn I helped build a couple of the trails that I'm now told I'm not welcome on because my tires are too narrow. Remember when riding bikes in the snow used to be fun? Jeez, now we have all these rules to follow.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Enjoying good snow with great peeps

It seems most outdoorsy folks have adapted quite well to this erratic winter. It has alternated between mild and wet,  bitter cold and dry, with unreliable snow for winter sports in between. I've learned that if you become multi-disciplined, outdoor conditions are never an excuse to stay inside.

I focus on skate skiing this time of year, striving to obtain most of my weekly aerobic hours on skis. The last several weeks have been challenging. Weston offers a nice loop of machine-made snow, but you go out of your mind skiing circles for more than a couple hours. Jackson up in the White Mountains has maintained the best natural snow conditions of anywhere in the northeast. It's a long haul, but worth it if the roads aren't bad and you need a good endorphin fix.

Saturday I met Brett and Isaac up there.  Isaac has skied about twice as many times as I have this year and hasn't even touched a bike in almost two months. At least I'd be heading up somewhat fresh. Isaac already had 30k on his Garmin when he met up with Brett and I. Hmmm, he's going to ski another 50k with us? Dang, I'm not worthy.

It was bitter cold overnight. Temps were rising quickly in the morning. The snow was still squeaky, but very firm. Races were going on east of Rt 16, so we'd be skiing only the mountainous stuff west of Rt 16. That was fine by me! Despite the cold, dry snow, it skied quite quick. We first did an out-and-back on Ellis River. Of course, Isaac was well warmed up and put the screws to Brett and I on the rises.

Someday Isaac will have to teach me how to descend. He made Brett and I look like rank amateurs carving the switchbacks. Brett tried to stay on Isaac on one descent but lost it, nearly taking me out too, skiing right behind him. I made a note to never try to hold Isaac's ski on a descent.

We hit the Hall/Maple climb next. I upped the pace a bit and held it to the top. I felt pretty good, although the snow got quite a bit slower near the top of the 1000ft climb. Looking at the Strava upload, I scored a couple KOMs out of that effort. Unfortunately, those efforts come with a cost. My legs were blubbery for a good while afterwards. The descent on Maple terrified me. The corduroy was rock hard, almost unedgeable. I didn't trust my ability to control my speed on it and was afraid the corduroy would catch a ski. Of course, Isaac was gone in a flash.

Clearing on Maple Mtn Loop

Brett and Isaac cresting Maple Mtn. Only icy area we found. It was extremely warm up here
two weekends ago and it gets a lot of sun exposure.

Another out and back on Ellis River nearly brought Brett and I to 50k for the day. Isaac cut off part way out, his tolerance of clueless people milling about long gone. He finished with with 66km and I think close to 5000ft of climbing. For those that don't ski, compare that to a mountainous double metric ride, Six-Gaps or maybe D2R2. Impressive.

I finished with 50km in 3.2hrs with 3700ft on the Garmin, one of my best skates of the season. Conditions were superb, especially when considering the recent dearth of snow. I even beat the snow for the drive back home.

Sunday I hooked up with Soups, Eiric and Dave for some riding on snow. There were mixed reports on Hollis snowmobile trail conditions. Some said good to go with skinnies (regular MTB bikes), another said the orchard area was soft. I figured with the temps just breaking above freezing on Saturday and then returning to deep freeze, the trails couldn't be anything but firm. Soups wanted to check out the trails on the east side of Rt 122, so that clinched it. We'd ride Hollis in windchills well below zero.

The parking lot was empty getting there at 9am. The sky was as brilliant blue as it gets. Very deceptive though. The wind stung. Heading up the orchard climb, we quickly found ourselves hike-a-biking. Three of us were on 29ers, Dave was on his 26" Yeti. Smaller diameter tires have smaller contact patch and sink in more. Dave was a bit concerned.

Soups, Eiric and Dave on summit of orchard hill. Joe English Hill and the
Uncanoonucs in distance.

Once we got in the woods, the riding was quite good. Nice and firm, but we still had to work the climbs. It was not going to be one of those crusty ice roller coaster rides, where KOMs effortlessly fall. Most of us cleaned the Bitch Hill, oh, I mean Birch Hill climb. We encountered another set of at least four MTB tracks on Birch Hill. Looked like all skinnies also. Had to have been that morning, as there was a dusting of snow overnight.

The descent to Rocky Pond was chewy. I quickly learned why my Kenda Klondike studded tires were half price. They suck. The rounded tread profile easily knifes into anything that is not set up super firm. I was all over the place, out of control. Soups, on 2.4" wide tires, was just gone.

Much of the rest of the ride alternated between firm and chewy snow. Sleds were starting to hit the trails and mince up the firm surface that set up overnight. That made it even more difficult with my rounded tires. Dave and I were the ballast on the ride. It didn't help matters that my legs refused to obey orders to put out Watts. Dave ran 16 miles the day before, so I don't know how he could even think about doing a group ride the next day.

We had planned to ride out into Brookline, but I sensed that would have taken too long and there would have been dissent in the group. I wanted to make sure Eiric and Soups had a chance to sample the east side trails before we were done. There are no shortage of hills in there. A few forced dismounts and calf stretching exercises. There were some nice roller coaster fast sections too.

A few grades of this east of Rt 122.

There were all manner of trail users out there, about as multi-use as you can get. Besides the snowmobilers and us bikers, there were walkers, mushers and skijorers. We even all got along. We passed several mushers with two-dog teams, mostly Siberian Huskies. Beautiful dogs. One of the mushers asked why were weren't on fat bikes, saying how awesome they were. A topic for another post.

Must have passed 4 or 5 teams like this.

The ride went much shorter than I planned, about 15-16mi in 2hrs with a couple thousand feet of climbing. It suited me and Dave fine. Hope Soups and Eiric didn't feel short-changed. Now I have to rest just as hard as I played this weekend. Tuesday night worlds coming up...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Worlds in a Blizzard

I sat on the fence until do-or-die time on whether to head down to Weston for the Tuesday night sprint race. I missed last week when it was pouring rain. Skiing 3.5hrs in the rain at Jackson the weekend before was enough for one week.

This time it wasn't rain, but snow. The area was in midst of winter storm warning, and greater Boston area was getting hammered. Ski racing in a blizzard wasn't the issue, it was getting there and back.

I left 30 minutes earlier than usual. It takes me less than 45 minutes to get to Weston from Merrimack, NH normally. I plan to get there 30 minutes before the race, so I had a whole hour of margin. It wasn't even snowing in Merrimack. This was purely a coastal storm. I should be fine, right?

I didn't reach snow until almost reaching Rt 128. 128 was a parking lot. I'll be fine, I thought, it's just a bottleneck from people getting on. Nope. I continued to crawl at 3-5mph for much of an hour. F-bombs! I could have worked and accomplish great things instead of pissing more of my life away in a car.

There was so much stop time, I actually could take my shoes off and lace up my skate boots. Yeah, I finished changing while on the road. At least that would be out of the way if I did in fact make it to Weston before 7pm.

I got there in time to barely get two laps in around the 0.95mi course. Not much of a warmup. It was snowing hard, and all the snow guns were going for good measure. Yippee, this was going to be a full-on power slog.

I lined up in 4th or 5th row and got the best start ever. Going up the first hill sucked with everybody bunching up and poles punching in to your knees. The normal lead pack drifted away after that and I was left leading the chase group. How can this be? I don't belong up here. There were way too many fast dudes and gals behind me.

Sure enough, as we started to complete the first lap, I imploded. Seemed like 10 skiers came around and there was nothing I could do about it. It's not like you drop in behind them and get pulled along in the mashed potatoes conditions.

I managed to stop the hemorrhaging of positions in the second lap and recovered a bit. I tried unsuccessfully to picked up a spot a couple times. Poorly timed and burned a match or two each time. No shortage of tactical errors in this race.

Coming into the finish, Tim, Mark, Marv and I were sprinting for the line and nearly overtook Robert. Very close. I was able to hold off Marv but not overtake Tim or Mark. It was surely my most taxing effort in many months. All of us hung from our poles for a good minute, gasping, trying not to fall over, before moving to scoring booth.  I needed that fix. Good stuff.

I finished 16th overall, further back than 10th two weeks prior, but only 12.7% back from the winner. That might be the least back ever for me at Weston. When I first started doing these crazy races, I was regularly 20% back.

I skied a few more laps in the natural and man-made blizzard before bonking hard. That was unexpected. Only an hour of skiing and I was hallucinating from glucose deficit. The course was getting really shitty to skate anyway, so I called it a night.

Pulling layers off in my car, I ripped about half of the hairs in my eyebrows out because they were frozen to my balaclava! Sweet! I had a small granola bar and partial Gatorade in the car to help with bonk recovery and to hold me over until I got home for a late supper.  The try-to-beat-the-storm traffic was surely cleared now, right?

Yep. But not the freakin snow plows!! On both 128 and 3, I got caught behind echelons that had just started ahead of me. 18mph all the way to Rt 3, then wouldn't you believe it, a different set on Rt 3 all the way to Billerica. Why does it take 9 plows to clear 3 lanes of highway? To piss the Hill Junkie off, I'm sure.

Interestingly, by the time I got to Lowell, there was no snow. It was like a switch turned off the snow storm. At least I wouldn't be shoveling my driveway again. And it also meant I could ride the packed trails from work on Wednesday.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

When Mother Nature gives you dry trails, you ride. When Mother Nature gives you snow, you ski the shit out of it.

With this week's ski race at Trapp cancelled and next weekend's Lake Placid Loppet postponed until March, I sought out riding opportunities on my off-Friday. Most of Massachusetts was snow free, and if you went far enough south, you could find dry trails with zero ice. Reports from the ground said Goat Hill at Uxbridge was in primo condition. That worked for me, having ridden there a few times now. Living on the NH/MA state line, it's a pretty quick jaunt down 495.

I was a bit skeptical heading into the woods. It's mid-January after all, so there has to be frost in the ground, right? And when temps rise above freezing, that frost turns into a layer of quagmire that can't drain through the frost barrier. My concerns were quickly allayed. The trails were firm and dry. In fact, a couple places I kicked into the soil, I could find no frost. I started thinking my planned 3hr ride would have to be extended.

I've yet to ride with anybody down there, let alone locals with inside trail knowledge. I glean tracks from Strava and hit areas that most others seem to work into their loops. I have no idea what most trails or areas are called, unless they are identified with specific Strava segments.

Blackstone River Valley

I first worked my way out to the nice rock ledge overlooking the Blackstone River valley. A couple serious anaerobic efforts can be put in along the way on steep grades. Then it is off to a couple lengthy loops away from the river. No idea what first is called, but it is fabulous, flowing singletrack. The second is called Puddin Loop in Strava, although it is off a dead-end road called Puddon Rd. The 5mi loop teaches carving skills in tight quarters. Very dense young forest there. The trail weaves up and down the large, domed hill many times before the loop is closed.

On loop west of Quaker St.

A mile or two of road brings me back over the river to the valley. A loop in the northern portion of the state park meanders over tillings of some sort with some fairly narrow plank bridges several feet over water. Lots of fun-factor.

The best is saved for last, the Goat Hill trails. Last time I ran out of time (and energy) to ride both sides. This time I climbed north and south sides, taking the circuitous descents down each side. There are some A and B lines here. I did not do any big rock moves. I'm a wuss.

Final descent on Goat Hill. Notice how disgustingly dirty I got (lol).

I cut out West Hill across Rt 122 this time. There are other trail sections that can be worked into the loop too, easily bringing the total up to 45+ miles if one desires, and with no more than 2-3 miles of pavement. I finished with 36.6mi in 4.2hrs moving time with 3700ft of climbing. My bike was actually cleaner finishing the ride than before I started. That is how dry the trails were.  I was thoroughly torched from numerous deep digs during the ride.

What was supposed to be a rain/snow event on Saturday turned into a major snow dump. We got a solid 6" of heavy, wet snow at our house. Nothing like complimenting the prior day's lower body workout with some solid core work shoveling the driveway.

Solid 6" of new snow on Seavey Hill in Pelham, NH.

The fat bikers were all giddy with the new snow. I don't know. 4mph slogs breaking trail, while really good outdoor exercise, seems like a means to an ends, rather than an ends in itself. I'd rather ski it than ride it. You go much faster and you are doing something very different with your body and mind. Nordic skiing is arguably more aerobically intense too, as it is weight bearing and you use all of your major muscle groups, not just a couple. Skiing can build your cardio base while bringing some balance back to your body.

I no doubt will take advantage of the fat biker's efforts. Come deep freeze time, they will have nicely packed the trails for my skinny tired MTB...

Anyway, Brett and I wanted to hit Jackson in upstate NH, but he had an evening commitment and the roads would still be highly suspect early Sunday morning. We decided to go the safe route, pick the low hanging fruit, ski Weston near Boston. Monotonous, no doubt, but ski time to drive time for both of us would be excellent. I can get to Weston in about 35-40 minutes.

Intensity at Weston isn't imposed upon you. You have to want it and work for it. Jackson gives you 20-30% grades in the mountains, Weston gives you rolling golf course. Starting out at 9am, wet, sticky snow was falling. The course was freshly groomed but still saturated with moisture. I used warm HF wax with warm structure. Not sure it helped much.

We could take "hot" laps with no obstructions. I guess most Weston visitors are not early risers. But by 10:30, the place became a mob scene, making hot laps challenging. Put a couple hundred kids, newbies and competitive skiers on a sub-mile circuit adds another whole dimension to technical terrain.  During the ski, I did six near race-pace laps and another three laps without poles, which destroyed my glutes. The light snow stopped within an hour, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped a degree or two by the end. The course speed improved. I was working less hard as I got tired but lap times stayed the same. That is always nice.

Brett, recovering from a cold, had enough after 20 laps. I skied another 7 laps with Marv, who had just gotten there. I finished with nearly 41km in 2.5hrs moving time and a surprising 2900ft of climbing on the Garmin 510. I guess if you climb 25-30ft a hundred times, it adds up. A high value workout for sure, although I wouldn't want to ski that many laps there very often. It's not too often I ski more than 25 miles at over 10mph average, especially with continuous punchy climbs. Fun stuff.

I got home to see my neighbor shoveling her driveway. Her husband is away with their truck with the plow on it this weekend. So guess what? Yeah, Cathy and I helped shovel out another large drive way right after skiing. Wonder how my body is going to feel for Tuesday Night Worlds at Weston?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Winter's over, time to put the fat bikes and skis away

The Nordic ski season started early and robustly this season. I skied more times and at more places before New Year's than ever before. Now the long range forecast is looking like a protracted snow drought. I was looking forward to 30k and 50k races the next two weekends, but both are looking very unlikely right now.

I did risk life and limb to get a big ski in this past Saturday. Due to the mild weather and rain, most Nordic centers closed, but not Jackson Ski Touring Center. I had long wanted to ski there, hearing nothing but good things about their grooming and sprawling trail system. The only hindrance is location. It is hard to get to. I went there during the worst possible driving conditions imaginable: freezing rain. I just kind of pretended that somehow the trails would be nice even though the roads were all black ice and there were accidents everywhere. I was in a pretty foul mood heading up solo, taking so long. No sane person would consider joining me. I could have gone to Weston, skied two hours, drove home, showered and be cozy, dry and warm in less time it took me just to drive to Jackson.

It was raining steadily when I got there. There was standing water on the golf course trails. The freshly minted corduroy ranged from frozen rock hard to super crispy. I wasted how many hours to try to ski this crap, I said to myself?

The parking lot and Nordic center were essentially empty. I talked with the nice staff about what I should attempt. A good chunk of what I wanted to ski had been groomed that morning. I didn't know if that was good or bad, given it was raining and freezing. The descents could be death luge runs. They told me four others were out on the Ellis trail system. Four. A slow day indeed.

I kitted up. I didn't have any rain specific XC ski gear, just winter cycling clothing. I thought I could catch a relatively dry part of the day before heavy rain moved in, but no, it was going to be steady drizzle at a minimum before the really heavy stuff moved in in less than three hours. It sucks heading out into the rain, knowing that shortly you are going to be soaked, and the only way you are going to avoid hypothermia is to go hard.

Tree branches were hanging low with ice buildup. It was pretty, but not how I wanted to experience Jackson my first time there. I could feel my boots getting wet before I even crossed the golf course, with a couple inches of water over the trail in places. At least I waxed with yellow HF and used a yellow structure tool to maximize glide in such wet conditions.

When I got on the Ellis River Trail, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the skiing was. The corduroy had a crispy, edgeable texture to it, and most importantly, it was fast. Maybe all was not lost. I immediately headed towards the Hall Trail, which gains more than 1000ft from the village. Parts of it were not groomed that morning, but it did not matter. So little traffic was on it the day before.

As I hit the steep lollipop loop at the top, the temperature rose dramatically, like 15F in 200ft vertical. My glasses had to come off and stay off.  So that's where the warm air was, aloft! There was no ice on the trees up there. The snow also turned into mashed potatoes and was very slow. Usually just the opposite happens, it is colder and icier up top. My fears of icy descents were quickly put to rest.

I cautiously bombed back down to the Ellis River Trail and continued heading up along the river. Some sweet V2 cruising there. It was along there I encountered the one and only person I saw all day away from the village. He too, on classic skis, was amazed to having such good conditions all to himself.

I reached a point where recent grooming stopped and the snow became very soft and difficult to skate. I turned around and began effortless V2-alternate cruising back downstream. I had climbed a couple thousand feet total by this point, ate my one and only granola bar, and was almost out of water. I took only one water bottle, as I didn't expect to last more than 90 minutes in the rain. Most of the time it was a light to moderate drizzle, but there were intermittent downpours too. My boots had long filled with water. Strangely, my feet did not freeze.  All my clothing layers were totally saturated. I gave up wringing my gloves out. My hands were so numb I had trouble putting the gloves back on each time. I did think though, that I could go up Hall Trail one more time on my way back. After all, it was all downhill back to a warm shower from the summit.

I didn't have nearly the snap as the first time up. I think the mashed potato line dropped a little in altitude also. Then I started seeing things I didn't see the first time. What? I don't remember skiing over that icy waterfall thingy before. I didn't think there was any turn that could be missed. Guess I was pretty intoxicated on endorphins.  I kept going. All the trails have to go back to the Nordic center anyway, right?

I did not take a paper map with me, as the rain would have dissolved it quickly. Even though there were maps at all intersections and good signage, I was now far from any maps. The trail went up a lot before going down. With heavy overcast, I had no sense of direction, and I couldn't figure out how to put my new Garmin 510 into compass mode. Out of water, bonking, risk of hypothermia, I continued on anyway. Little did I know, I was continuing onto a closed trail...

When the trail started going down, it got narrow, and it was chocked full of exposed boulders and open drainages. I utterly could not ski it. Super steep. I crashed three times. If I were smart, I would have taken my skis off right there, hiked back up, and took the long way back the way I came. A least I knew were it went, and it was almost all downhill. But no. I'm stupid, and it's been a while since I've found myself in a boondoggle. I think it took me 20 minutes to clear a half-mile section of trail that I thought to myself should have been closed. Later I learned it was. There was nothing to indicate this out there though.

Once I cleared that section, nice wide-open descending resumed. It hadn't been groomed in a couple days, but the crispy surface made for descent control. Now I was scared, as my internal compass said I was heading away from the village, not descending toward it. Worst case, I thought, I could hitch a ride if I had to. I had no idea where I was going to pop out.

I came up to a tree that had fallen across the trail. I tried to go around it off the ungroomed surface. I immediately punched in to my knees. That sucked. I couldn't move in the dense saturated snow. Eventually I popped out at a parking area. Where is this? There was a map there. Son of a bitch! I was as far from the Nordic center as you could get on skis. This was more than half way out to Pinkham Notch on Rt 16. I was totally bonked, dehydrated and getting very cold. I also knew I was not going to beat the heavy rain back. It was about 10km back to the village from there, and there were a couple good climbs along the way.

The initial section of trail is called the High Water Trail. It had not been groomed in a while either, and it looks like high water had made a good chunk of it ungroomable. I had to take my skis off and hike for a bit. Yeah, just like any good boondoggle on the bike involves hike-a-bike, so too does a ski boondoggle. Hike-a-ski. Lot of exposed dirt, rocks and ice in that section.  Once past it, I was back on the Ellis River Trail.

Sure enough, the heavy rain moved in with about 5km to go. It poured mightily. I was in a hallucinatory bonk state. A sobering thought was that if I broke a leg in those conditions, I'd probably be dead in an hour. There was nobody out there. I had seen only one person in the last three hours. I could no longer go hard enough to keep my core warm. Ice was still building on the trees, so the temp in the valley was still at or just below freezing.

When I got back to the Nordic center, I think I was was the last person to come back in. They were vacuuming the carpets and getting ready to close up. My hands were so numb I had to use my teeth to take my GPS and gloves off. I'll tell you, that was the best hot shower I've ever experienced.

I skied 51.2km in 3.6hrs with about 4800ft of climbing. Starting out, I thought I'd be good for 90 minutes tops in the rain, and I certainly didn't plan to ski more than 40km. I got a superb workout in.  I like Jackson. The grooming was excellent for such a shitty day. Waterville would never have groomed on a day like that with extremely light turn-out. I'll definitely go back. Wish it wasn't so hard to get to. Will we get more snow?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Another season of craziness begins

I hit the first ski race in the Weston training series Tuesday night. It quite possibly was the coldest Tuesday night race on record. Temperatures likely dipped into the single digits by 7pm. The wind was howling. And for good measure, all of the snow guns were going full blast.  When it is that cold out, the guns can make snow at an incredible rate. It comes out like sleet, driven by the machine and high winds. It couldn't be avoided on much of the course. Good times.

After warming up three laps, we got quick race instructions, then lined up. We'd be doing three laps, which was nearly 5km by my GPS. These short ones hurt harder. The course was a total mixed bag. There were a couple sections of ball bearing granular over boiler plate, some random small glazed ice patches, ankle deep mashed potatoes, and a whole bunch of in between. Overall, the course was not very fast. The deep snow making areas took a lot of power to muscle through.

Continuing last year's format, the race is broken up into two fields, since a single field was getting too big. My two-year finishing average is about 18% back overall, so that stages me just ahead of the midpoint of the first field. I was reluctant to stage where I belonged, as I feared my own all-out flailing on portions of the course. I wanted to hide in the back.  The course was groomed pretty wide, and I found only some of the icy patches warming up. You don't always get to pick your line when going full throttle during the race.

Several skiers failed to keep the P-tex side down. Part way into the first lap, a guy went down right in front of Marvin and I around a turn. That caused an immediate gap that hurt badly to close back up. A little while later, another kid found one of the icy patches I discovered warming up, and he splayed out right next to me. Now I was getting paranoid.

On lap two, Victor came around. Or at least I'm pretty sure it was him. Most skiers left very little skin exposed. You have to go by size and technique.  Alex (again, I think) popped into the mix too. Impeccable form gave her away. I'd do ok if I could hang with these two for another lap and a half, I told myself. Several others were clinging on, and each time we took the Mt Weston bypass, there were multiple attempts to gain positions. I held my spot, coming scary close to the hurl threshold. Yeah, that's why I put up with having my eyes shot-blasted out of my skull by snow guns. I wanted the intensity that only a competitive environment can push you into.

On the third lap, another kid came around me. I hoped he wouldn't fade and then let a gap open from Victor and Alex, as I didn't have any more gap closing reserve left in me. On the finishing grade however, he must have found a patch of ice and took himself out. That kind of sucks 50m from the line. I narrowly missed that one too.

Not sure where I ended up, but I probably did ok relative to my peer group. I was pretty happy to escape unscathed, but do really need to work on my cornering. I skied for several more laps afterwards, since I could finally feel my fingers again. Finished with about 21km in 1:20hrs. Hopefully Weston can make and stockpile a bunch of snow this week. None in forecast, and it looks like more warm rain again this weekend. I don't do trainers. Weston is my primary midweek cardio workout.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New favorite ski area?

I've heard high praise of Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME for a couple years now. Saturday I decided it was time to check them out. Waterville Valley used to be my go-to place when Mike Seager ran the place. It wasn't too long of a drive, trail fees were reasonable, and the grooming was among the best in the business. But that all changed when new ownership took over Waterville Valley. Quality of grooming went down dramatically, while prices went up. I can't tell you how many times in the last two years I've been disappointed going there. So that had me searching for alternatives.

Of course, the temperature approached record lows all over Saturday morning. Most Nordic ski areas were reporting temps well down into the negative teens. That's not windchill. The good news was temps were supposed to warm dramatically later in the day, maybe into the positive teens. A heat wave! I waited to time my ski with the last three hours of daylight so I wouldn't freeze the teeth out of my mouth gasping for air and have snow with something that resembled glide.

There were a lot of people there. Maybe almost as many as Great Brook on a nice day. The trails cover 5000 acres though, so I hoped I wouldn't have to contend with traffic on the trails. I was surprised the trail pass was only $13. That helps make up for the steep tolls on I-95 heading up there...

Heading out, I was surprised to see most of the trails are one-way only and clearly marked. Signage is excellent, and there are maps at all major intersections. The trails are laid out in a textbook "stacked" trail system. This means loops are cascaded. You can do a main inner loop, or append loops that branch off from main loop and come back to main loop near point where you branched off. Then some of the branches have more branch loops that can be added. The direction is set up so that you can pretty much ski the whole trail system by taking all lefts. You just keep stacking loops on loops until you get back to where you started. Very easy to navigate, very easy to do as little or much as you want. This is how most trail systems should be laid out.

Oak Hill Trail, I think. Heavy ice still on trees from a week ago.

Skiing new terrain is no different than ridding new singletrack for the first time. There's that added element of discovery, the oh-shits, didn't expect reducing radius turn on that decent kind of stuff. Yeah, one of the descents, I think on Gloucester Hill Run, had an orange safety net around the bottom outside of the turn. Steep drop and big trees over the edge. Thought I was going into the net the first time down. That loop was so much fun I had to go around a second time.

The trails were not congested at all. When everybody is moving in the same direction, passing other users is greatly reduced. I liked the mix of big sky, open field skiing with steeply corrugated, woods skiing.

The grooming was the best I've skied in a long time. It was like what Waterville used to do. Perfect corduroy, well packed, nice and wide so you could haul-ass in all-out V2 anywhere you wanted without fear of catching a ski tip on the edge. All trails were single-tracked for classic skiing too, and there were probably twice as many classic skiers out as skaters.

The dry, cold air was raising havoc with my throat and teeth. I think I started slightly dehydrated and quickly went through my one water bottle. Hard to stay hydrated when indoor humidities drop to single-digits.  I had to grab a Gatorade from my car to keep me going for the last 40 minutes. Even now, six hours later, my teeth are still aching. Never had that happen before. Going all the way back to Fat Doug days, I still like to fill a 32oz cup with ice and then top it off with Mountain Dew. I crunch all of the ice before it melts. That does not bother my teeth. But breathing cold, dry air for better part of three hours today did.

I finished with 40km in 2.8hrs with 2500ft of climbing just as the sun was setting. The snow was very cold and squeaky and pretty slow in some areas, but probably my best ski of the season so far. Definitely have to go back. The trails and terrain at Pineland Farms are very similar to my favorite trail to ski in Michigan, the VASA trail near Traverse City. The trails at these places just flow...