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Great Race Impressions | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 03/16/2009, by McKerrow
As I write, it's been 24 hours since I finished "The 33rd Annual Great Ski Race", a 30-km nordic ski event from Lake Tahoe to Truckee, CA. I'm expecting to be fully recovered soon. I didn't injure myself or have a heart attack or anything like that. It just turned out to be the most arduous 2 hours, 38 minutes of my life.
I knew it was going to be difficult. For starters, it marked my fifth time skate skiing ever. The first time was six weeks ago. I certainly could've used a lesson, but instead I got the gear and just went for it. Right off the bat I was amazed at how rapidly skating reduced me to a panting, slobbering, anaerobic mess. It felt like playing water polo. This shouldn't have surprised me, for I remembered those Winter Olympics announcers proclaiming that elite nordic racers have higher aerobic capacities than ... well, anybody. But you know, some things have to be experienced to be believed.
I'm new at living in a small mountain town, so I want to experience seasonal things like The Great Race. Plus, I heard the finish-line party was well worth the effort. It's a community event: elementary school kids do it, senior citizens do it, and everyone in between does it. "How hard can it be?" thought I.
So there I was on a cloudy Sunday morning, under wet gray clouds with 768 other participants. I dressed in a wool jersey and wool ski pants with a Camelback holding water, energy food, and a rain shell. Some people wore sexy costumes and some were dressed like me, but spandex suits were the norm. Most carried nothing more than a water bottle. Aid stations on the course had water and food for everyone, so I didn't need my backpack. But somehow skiing 30 km in rain and snow across a mountain range without a rain jacket disagreed with me on a deep level.
Based on my slightly exaggerated resume included with my registration, I started in the third of ten waves. I had a great view of the first wave. They started like rockets on greased lightning. When our start came I managed not to fall, break a pole, or make anyone else fall. That was a good start. The first kilometer went pretty well too, as I found my place in the middle of our wave. Smooth, steady effort was my goal. I sure was breathing hard though.
Three minutes later a distant gunshot started the fourth wave behind us. Then the climb began. It wasn't steep, but suddenly I went into oxygen debt and my peripheral vision darkened. Wow, that didn't take long! Better ease off the throttle and accept that I don't belong in the third wave. But even going easy taxes a beginner with sloppy technique like me.
Skate skiing is an activity wherein technique seriously counts. The fast people don't appear to be working hard at all, though that's an illusion. They simply aren't wasting energy. Their arms and legs move in perfect fluid synergy. I hear it takes many years to achieve such graceful efficiency. Apparently the entrants now passing me had put in those years. There were school kids, older folks, and younger folks, with males and females in equal numbers. Yet I was the only one with snot drooling down my face.
I'm a bicycle racer, not a ski racer. Bicycle racing is hard, but at least you get to sit on a seat. I've never actually stopped in a race. I've certainly crashed; hit trees, been crashed out, hit a curb, etc. But I've never stopped just to rest. Such things simply aren't done. Yet this climb was too much. Each stride pushed me to my threshold, and every bobble put me over it. My heart gave everything, and my lungs absorbed all oxygen available, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't too painful; it was just impossible. I staggered to the side and stood panting for a solid minute while the fourth and fifth wave kicked smoothly past. Then I could continue for a while.
The rain turned to snow. I was hazily aware that it was lovely. Relentlessly we ascended. I continued stopping to catch my breath despite going as slow as I could. My arms were dying, so I tried using my legs more. It didn't help.
After an eternity the aid station marking the summit materialized. I squeezed a gel packet and poured Gatorade down my chin. Thus refueled, I began descending. Oh, free speed! To glide at last! Unfortunately skate skis have no edges! I tried to relax, steer like usual, and not fear speed. Somehow I stayed upright and skated fast across a flat section, until another climb appeared. Heartbreaker! Now falling completely apart, I thought about walking. Instead I caught my breath and pushed on.
The snow became slush nearing Truckee, slowing everyone further. Soaking wet, I could barely lift my arms and my legs were screaming. I pushed on. Beer lay ahead. Dry clothes. A place to sit down....
Suddenly the finish appeared, at the bottom of the steepest descent yet! A high-speed wipeout was inevitable. I nearly slid across the line. I heard my name on the speakers and friends cheering from the crowd. They put a wristband on me for free beer and food but I could barely breathe, let alone consume. It took awhile to stop moaning with each exhale. I felt incredible though! What an absurd effort. Like a cyclocross race that lasts way longer, complete with a party at the finish. Now to eat & drink & cheer for the racers crashing across the finish line!
I love any good race, but this was special. It's a great local tradition embodying the best of nordic skiing culture. Plus it almost killed me! It's good to be humbled in friendly competition. My placing: 375 out of 670 finishers. Go wave three!