Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rangeley Loppet 2014

If figures, we finally get a winter of epic proportions and I develop a ski related injury. I've teetered on the verge of ankle problems ever since I had to retire my black and yellow Salomon skate boots. I loved those things to death. Literally. Then I bought new Salomon's. They hurt my ankles. A season later I bought a pair of Atomic skate boots. The fit was virtually identical. They hurt my ankles slightly less.

As I get older, I'm noticing my feet pronate more. They do this inside Nordic boots. This combined with questionable skate technique puts a lot of stress on the inside of my ankles. I often get blisters just below the medial malleolus (big bump on inside of ankle) when first breaking out the rollerskis in the fall. That calluses over and things seem fine for a while.

Then I get on snow and the discomfort goes further. I was doing ok until several weeks ago I skied 41km at Weston. I counted 104 hairpin left-hand turns that day, where I had to edge my right ski to make the fast, sharp turns. At the end of that session, I had intense pain, and skiing twice a week since has not allowed it to heal.

After quite a bit of poking around on the web, I'm pretty sure I'm getting what is commonly called "skater's ankle," a condition that hockey players and figure skaters are more likely to get. The way I think of it, you develop an internal blister, actually a bursa, where one doesn't belong and it becomes inflamed. This can be very painful. Professionals get custom fitted boots. I'm presently stuck with Pilot bindings, severely limiting my boot choices. I intend to remedy this limitation next season by buying new skis with the NIS/NNN binding system. I once owned a pair of boots that never bothered my ankles, so I'm hopeful there are still some others out there. In the mean time, I've been donut-padding my right ankle to provide a small amount of relief. The pain can be so severe that I have ended many ski sessions early because of it. Relief is immediate, as soon as I stop skating. I have zero discomfort running or on the bike. Those sports don't wrap a laterally rigid cuff around your ankle.

Stop-gap ankle measures

Ankle woes weren't the only thing holding me back from signing up for the Rangeley Loppet. I've been working crazy hours lately. Not just hours, but high stress hours. I've been working six days a week and sometimes over 12hrs a day. At the end of the day, I'm just mentally wrecked. It has been extremely challenging to train right now, not just because time is limited, but because my motivation has been so low.

I kind of think of it like the Battenkill road race. You're hanging on at the back of the pack, just barely. You almost get dropped going over a hill and fight to stay on. Then you hit another hill before you can even catch your breath. Repeat over and over. That's what the last few months have felt like for me, always on the verge of getting dropped. I was finding it really hard to commit to Rangeley. It was a day and a half time commitment, and I just wasn't in a racing mood. I had no motivation. But my ski buddy Brett was persistent that I join him, maybe so he could have the opportunity to thrash me after I beat him by 10 seconds at Waterville a couple weeks ago. I capitulated and registered.

Since I didn't really plan on aggressively racing Rangeley, I did not rest much during the week. My lunch workouts are precious to me, my only release mechanism. Monday/Thursday I ran. Tuesday I hammered on the MTB off-road for 1.7hrs, a very satisfying, but punishing workout. Wednesday I skate skied at White Farm in Concord, my fastest average skate of the season, although conditions were icy and I didn't work very hard. I did rest Friday though, a rare true rest day for me.

Race day morning Brett and I awoke to email stating the race will be delayed until the temperature rises above -4F (-20C). Dang, how cold was it outside? It was forecast to be around +10F (-12C) by race start. I didn't think I had adequate clothes for that kind of cold. The wind was blowing snow around too. Brett was unphased, having just done the Birkie in similar conditions. My motivation plummeted further.

The Rangeley start is always a pretty big CF. The entire 25k and 50k skate fields go off in one big wave. The course whittles down to two-wide almost immediately, slightly downhill. The there are some abrupt narrow bridges and uphill pinch points where everything grinds to a halt. Poles get stepped on and broken. I really didn't want to fight for position in this melee, so I lined up further back than I normally do here, third row. This meant I would be 45 back or so, since I'm not one of the stronger double polers.

I survived the initial couple kilometers, but I saw broken pole pieces on the track. I know Weston skier Robert was one to lose a pole. Pretty much race over at that point.

The course heads out on a long straightaway after that, where the snow was more of an icy granular and fast. I was getting sucked along quite nicely when I noticed Brett was just ahead of me. How can that be, when he started a row ahead of me? We were quite far back from the front of the race, and the pace was pretty easy. I wasn't even breathing yet. Maybe I should race a little more seriously than I planned after all.

Going into the powerline climb, things really bogged down and it was so hard to pass. There were a lot of college girls, who ski really well, but don't necessarily go uphill very well. Masters cycling base has value. Beginning the drop from this climb, there was a sharp right hand turn. Those in front of me scrubbed a lot of speed and I was forced to do the same. One of the girls skied up on my left pole just as I was whipping around the turn. My tip must have been mid-foot under her ski just as I was bringing my arm forward. The jolt was pretty horrific. Damn near pulled my shoulder out of socket. What did give was my grip. I had just mounted the grips on my new V2 poles with hot-melt glue a week earlier. The grip pulled off the pole. When I regained my balance, I had a grip in my hand with no pole attached. Son of a bitch! I had to stop, turn around, ski uphill into torrent of skiers coming around that turn to retrieve my pole, hoping it wasn't broken. It wasn't. Putting those tight grips on properly aligned was no trivial matter in my basement. Now I had to do it with heavy gloves on in a ski race. I sort of got things put together and pushed off. I lost better part of a minute. Brett was now long gone. I was pissed and skied like I meant it after that.

Fortunately the next climb, the big one, was groomed really wide so I could pass all those college girls again quite easily. It took most of the rest of lap one to catch Brett again. Even though I didn't use any fancy wax for my skis, they seemed quite fast despite the really cold conditions. I used some Swix LF3 powder, the first time I used it.

Beginning the second lap, Brett noticed I was back with him. It is unusual that I be with him in a 50k race mid-race. He usually gets a better start and grows the lead from there. But he capitulated the lead, having me set pace for a while. We agreed to work together. Brett was ahead of his Birkie nemesis Kurt at the time and wanted to keep things that way.

I carried a large water bottle with me so I knew what I was drinking (HEED, evil stuff) and so I would drink enough. Brett had to stop at the top of the big climb to take a HEED feed. I slowed and waited for him. We were pretty much alone on the course at that point and I figured if we worked together, I cold get done with the race sooner.

On the big descent, I noticed I could no longer stay in Brett's draft. Crap. My skis were getting slow and his were not. Perhaps my LF3 wax was not very durable. Brett used a cold pure fluoro and had his skis professionally waxed the week before for a cold Birkie. He put many seconds on me simply by tucking down the hill. Think of it this way. You and your friend are on singlespeed bikes. You have just one gear, and when you go down a steep hill, neither of you can pedal fast enough to increase your speed. You just spin out. Now say your tires are half inflated and your friends are full. You are drafting your friend. Even though your friend is providing drafting benefit, your soft tires will eventually spit you out of his draft. You can't pedal to get back on, because your are going too fast and have only one gear. That was the situation I was in. When we got to the bottom, I had to claw my way back up to Brett, burning matches.

Coming though the start/finish for our third and final lap, Brett's nemesis Kurt caught us, and at no small speed differential either. He was moving. That sucked for me, as the 1km gradual descent from the start was coming up. Brett latched on to Curt, realizing he was a much more promising pacing partner. I was unceremoniously dropped.

On the long, icy straight-away, Brett and Kurt put huge time on me. Bye-bye. That kind of ended my motivation to race right there. Plus, my ankle was absolutely killing me. My form went to shit because of it. I could not come down on my right leg without it killing. I was committed to finishing at this point, with less than a lap to go.

On the long climb, I could see Brett and Kurt not far up. I knew full well that if I buried myself to catch them, I'd promptly be dropped on the descent again anyway with my slowing skis. No point. I just kept a steady hard tempo pace going, trying to block out that a 130 pound girl just dropped me on the descent. My skis must have really slowed down. They were not like that at the start.

The modified course from last year was going to be a full 50km, finally, and I could tell that despite my ski and ankle woes, I was going to have a very good average pace. I crossed the line in 2:53:19, less than a minute and a half back from Brett. That was clearly my fastest pace marathon in not the fastest conditions. I could at least come away from this race feeling pretty good about that.

I wasted no time getting into dry clothes so I could devour a thousand calories of soup, kielbasa, cookies and brownies. The volunteers always have a feast waiting for us after the race, second to none. I've done the Rangeley Loppet many times now, and it is always a smoothly run event. This year I wondered if I even want to do more ski marathons, given that it isn't the way most people relax when stressed with work and life. But I'll probably be back...


Anonymous said...

Love the lingo: burning matches and so forth. Had slow ski woes as well, so I could easily relate.

Bill Holland

Anonymous said...

Heard Curt had Swix LF6 on. Nothing special.