My how time flies. I first did the Rangeley Loppet in 2005 when it was held on the old course. Can barely remember what that course was like. That was back when I still struggled with asthma, and that particularly year, it was brutally cold and I struggled mightily with asthma.
The race was moved to the new trail system near Saddleback Mountain shortly after that. The new venue is much more fun to race. I raced the Rangeley Loppet most years since 2005. It's been a good test of progress in the skate technique.
24 hours before the race, the director pushed start times back one hour to give the temperature more time to rise. Forecasts varied, but overnight lows were expected to dip well below zero Fahrenheit. I had mixed feelings on that. Starting at 11am meant I would get back home late and make for a long day. Plus I could have driven over the morning of and not needed an expensive room. On the plus side, maybe I wouldn't freeze my ass off and skis would be a little faster. I did wax for very cold conditions though, so if it warmed too much, my skis could actually get slower.
I don't really warm up much for endurance events. As a fast twitcher, it doesn't seem to do me much good. Sure, the start can be a mad sprint to the narrow trail, but the race isn't decided there. There's another 2.5-3hrs to go after that. The course was packed rock-hard powder. How can powder be rock-hard? Simple. It is snow that has not been transformed by a thaw cycle, repeatedly groomed, with recurring sub-zero nights to set it up. It was cold and squeaky, but you could almost call it fast.
How I waxed:
- Toko Moly/Toko HF Blue mix, scrape and brush.
- Toko HF Blue, scrape and brush.
- Star FC, brush (a cold temp pure fluoro, applied with high heat wearing respirator).
All 25k and 50k skaters go off in one big wave. There must have been at least 10 starting lanes. I lined up third row from the front behind Brett Rutledge, my training partner and nemesis in ski racing. There were no crashes in front of me as we blasted down the narrow first kilometer. The first little rise always drives things to a screeching halt. Poles and skis invariably get stepped on. Have to be so protective of your gear.
After we pop out on what Google shows as a road, things sort out and string out. This is where drafting becomes a big deal. Speeds are around 20kph and there can be headwind there. Brett is about 5 skiers up in the same gruppetto.
Then the first non-trivial climb hits us, a wee bump really, a 100ft rise under the powerlines. Some drift back, others advance. The trail is pretty narrow there, so it is very difficult to advance. You have to skate over the classic tracks and hope you don't catch a tip in the deep bank at the edge of the trail. I managed to bridge up to Brett. It is not uncommon for me to be with Brett or even pass him early in a marathon, but his slow twitch efficiency always gets the best of me before the end.
We drop back down at high speed with an abrupt 90deg turn at the bottom. Brett and I both need to improve in this particular scenario. Wouldn't you know it, Brett loses it and I couldn't avoid him. I stacked pretty hard and drove my knee into the trail. Don't even think it left a mark in the trail, but it sure registered in my brain. Ouch! Just like driving knee into ice. The whole gruppetto we were with passed and dropped us. We were gaining nicely on two other rivals Kurt and Robert, but now they were gone.
The course gets progressively hillier after that. The next two climbs are over 300ft each. Never terribly steep, but lots of little dips and tight turns meant constant changes in tempo and intensity. Fun, but it beats you down after a while.
Finally, about half way around the 25k circuit, a 300ft plummet is reached. Most years I easily exceed 50kph bombing down it. It is long and mostly straight. This year, I barely broke 40kph in a full tuck. Guess the snow wasn't very fast after all.
Crossing the start-finish line, two guys peeled off to finish their 25k race. That left us with five guys I think, me, Brett, Kurt and two others. I was getting tired. Any time Brett led up a climb, I'd get gapped. I was being very careful to not go full throttle in these bursts, as that leads to cramping. I'm getting a little better cornering at speed, but I still scrub speed into the steepest, fastest turns instead of stepping through them. I was counting on closing small gaps in the technical descents.
Every endurance race I've done I find myself in a deep, dark place at some point in the race. This was particularly true in this race. I was struggling mightily to stay with Brett and Kurt, getting gapped on every rise, taking risks on the descent to bridge back up to them. My glutes were turning into jelly and I was sure my hip flexors were about to cramp. Why do I do this again? Am I having fun yet? I should have just gone to Waterville Valley and skied a recreational 50k. Yeah, that would have been more fun. And a lot less money. And less time in the car. I'm killing myself for what, 5th or 6th place out of 10? This is stupid. This was going through my head for the longest time.
Then on one of the descents, I'm trying in vain to bridge back up to Brett. I come into a high speed sweeping turn where I knew Brett would scrub speed. Yeah, I'll totally get back a few seconds there. Nope. Epic fail. Must have let my weight get too far back on my skies and totally lost it. Already in a dark place, now I was ready to just abandon this stupid race. I hadn't crashed at Rangeley in years, and now twice in one race. It wasn't even icy!
Now Brett and Kurt were pretty much out of site. I bet I lost 30 seconds getting going again and I was skiing in no man's land. Brett had somebody to work with and I had little hope to catch them with only 10km to go in the race.
But pick away at that gap I did. Don't know where the resolve was coming from. Maybe I just wanted the pain to be over. Somewhere around the start-finish (which we pass twice per lap), a made contact with 4km to go. I've never beaten Brett in a Marathon, and Kurt beat both of us here last year. How was this going to play out? My mind was getting back into the race.
I came up with a plan. I sensed Kurt was starting to fade on the climbs. There was only one minor climb left in those last 4k, about 2k from the finish. I needed to punch that and hopefully drop Kurt. Brett was still skiing strong, so I knew he was going to hang on.
At first, Brett asked to come around on the climb. Crap. How is my plan going to work if I'm going so slow that I'm being passed? With a steep punch toward the top, I felt if I dug really deep, I could pick it up a notch. Brett obliged. It worked. We gapped Kurt.
Now we come into a mostly downhill sequence of chicanes. I can barely step these at speed and was hoping to go fast enough that Brett would have no chance of coming around me. It worked. With less than 1km to go, Brett is still right on me. There is a steep wall, maybe only 30ft rise, 200m from the finishing stadium. Now my adrenaline was going. If I just don't screw this up, trust my fast twitch, I might be able to hold Brett off. It worked, again.
We both hung on our poles gasping loudly for a good while after crossing the finish. Don't think I've ever sprinted so hard. Usually I finish Rangeley without another skier in sight and just stroll in. I would never have been able to push that hard if Brett wasn't right there. We crossed the line in 2:42, a best for both of us on that course, and it certainly was not the fastest conditions we've been on.
I was surprised to see Brett and I took 3rd and 2nd place respectively. I've never podiumed a marathon before, so that felt pretty good. And to think 30 minutes from the finish I wanted to abandon the race.
There's many good days left to this ski season, but my thoughts now shift toward Arizona. I'm heading there with Isaac next week to ride the awesome desert trails around Tucson. The skiing has been fabulous, but I miss tires on dirt. The snow will still be here when we come back.