We ventured to Northern Vermont for a different type of vacation ski experience and to participate in the National Master’s events (a 10km [actually 11km] freestyle and a 50km classic race), which included the most formidable classic-technique marathon in the country, the Craftsbury Marathon, a 50km race that is usually a point-to-point event, taking in some of far-Northern Vermont’s most scenic xc ski trails through dense forests and open farmland, as well as across frozen lakes and into small villages.
Craftsbury Outdoor Center (located outside of a small hamlet called “Craftsbury Common”) is well known on the East Coast as one of the best places for cross-country skiing, period. It has a wide variety of ski trails, literally over hill and dale. It is not western skiing at all – the hills are abrupt and quite often very steep, trails are often more uneven and twisty, and the skiing is generally quite a bit more challenging, in that the snow conditions vary throughout the countryside, depending on directional aspects and varying levels of humidity. East Coast skiers definitely have a more built-in hardiness when it comes to the varying conditions and hardships put in their way by Mother Nature -- more on this later.
The Craftsbury Outdoor Center (COC) was just a fantastic place to drop anchor and ski our butts off for over a week. They fed us well and we got a lot of peaceful downtime, at least when our little 18-month old, Mila, let us. The COC has functioned in various capacities as a sports camp of all sorts (running, rowing, xc skiing, mtn. biking, etc.) since its beginning in the 1910s. Now, it’s a commercial operation that caters to the more adventurous East Coaster, and we felt like we were at a rustic sports camp for adults…mostly senior citizen adults, for most of the early part of our stay. Closer to race day, the clientele changed demographics and we knew it was time to get ready for the races.
We flew to Manchester, NH because Southwest flies there. It was a good plan, but we had to drive ALL the way up most of New Hampshire, cross into Vermont over the Connecticut River at St. Johnsbury, VT, and then drive on very rural roads to our destination. It was a fun trip that took us through parts of the White Mountains of NH, where I had downhill ski raced on one trip back in college. I quickly recognized the part of I-91 that narrows down to one lane each direction to pass through what is called “Franconia Notch” where the Cannon Mountain ski area is located. It brought back memories of my one trip to ski in New England and the very challenging snow that people ski on there.
The first day on snow was great. They hadn’t had a great winter, but it was good enough and the COC had been doing a remarkable job in “farming” snow so that any thin area was covered well. The temps were stable and wintery, but not too cold. It was just about ideal and Dina and I had a great time while we pulled Mila around in a rented pulk – pretty tough on some of those steep Vermont hills, but at that low altitude, I felt really strong.
The next morning, we woke up to a torrential downpour of RAIN(!) and temps in the high-40s. How weird! By mid-day, the temperature had risen into the 50s and the rain just increased. We got out and skied a little bit anyway, but it was just sad to see what was happening, and we literally watched the snow disappear before our eyes. The COC crew got to work and harvested as much snow as they possibly could from any open area, mostly local corn fields. Literally hundreds of local Nordic skiers showed up during the day, and the next, to come lend a hand with shoveling and moving snow for the races. They were smart and focused on a primary 13-15 km loop. Miraculously, they salvaged the loop, despite a winter-time record-breaking 2.5 inches of rain that flooded much of New England as the snow melted so rapidly.
The next day of skiing was still depressing: extremely dirty snow with a LOT of tree debris and even mud and some pebbles. I actually skied right over someone’s discarded klister. They must have been having a horrible ski and just scraped it off like a big ball of slime and slung it right into the trail. It got all over my skate skis and I almost fell right on my face when I slid across it. It was a real mess to clean off of my skis and caused me to have to bail on our outing because my ski would no longer slide on the “snow.”
By this time, I was getting nervous about what kind of wax was going to work in those kinds of conditions, so I spent a good afternoon testing Rode klisters (they work the best in wet, miserable snow types). I had Dina try out some combinations too. I finally found something that worked EXTREMELY well – Tom Berg had given me a bunch of his old Rode klisters for those types of snow, which he said he would never bother with again anyway, so they were mine. I researched them and sure enough—they work like a charm if applied correctly. If I remember correctly, I had a base of Rode Neri, with a blend of Chola and Gialla mixed in layers over the top. Awesome!
Those klisters are weird. They also smell like pine tar and horse liniment. One funny moment was when Denny showed up (over 4 hrs after he was scheduled to arrive due to having a disastrous trip) in the middle of the night – he walked into the room where I was now staying alone (while Dina and Mila stayed in the room next door) and smelled the combination of klisters and all of the wet clothes from the weather, which I had apparently gotten accustomed to. He let out an exasperated gasp that woke me up and I then had to explain about the weird klisters, etc. He didn’t believe me and replied, “…that ain’t ALL klister!” The next day, I had to make him sniff the bottom of my skis to prove my point, but he still thought it was weird. All that klister finally killed his senses too, because he got used to it after only one day. When we all got home, we opened our bags and that musty aroma came rushing back to remind us of the ordeal we all went through there.
So by Wednesday, unfortunately, or depending on how you looked at it, the temperature began dropping dramatically and some light snow fell. The next day was Thursday, the day of the 11km freestyle race. That changed everything and I didn’t have time to keep testing classic skis, as it was time to prepare for the skate race. I had to figure out which type of skate ski I was going to use for the race: a stiff, cold snow ski, or a softer, warmer (and wetter) snow ski. It was a toss-up because the course was getting more firm and crusty by the minute, but it still had an unbelievable amount of moisture in it from the rain and the new snow. It just wasn’t intuitive to us there – lots of humidity with cold temperatures and aggressively crystalline wet snow – just something we’d never really seen.
Denny and I scrapped thinking about the classic race and went out to test skate skis. We both had trouble deciding and it was especially hard for him because he had a pair of untested “warm/wet” snow skis that just didn’t have any racing miles. I told him that I felt the drag of the wet snow, despite the cold temps and hard (more like crusty/icy) trail conditions and that I was going to go with my soft, “plus” base skis. I knew I would give up the control and responsiveness of my hard-flex cold snow skis, but I would get some better glide out of my “plus” skis. He was on the fence, but gave into the logic and decided on his “plus” base skis too. Dina only has one “good” pair of skate skis, so I waxed those up, put structure into them, and we called it good. She said, “whatever!”
Before the race on Thursday, they were calling for a big storm to come in. Denny and I went out to ski and warm up on our “other” skis, the ones we decided not to use. We went between skiing easy and making some pretty good efforts for warm up, and I felt like my cold-snow stiff skis were gliding well and also that Denny’s were too. He seemed to be skiing quite well, so we were confident, but wondering if we had made the right choice.
Lots of New England and mid-Atlantic (i.e. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) skiers were there, even for a Thursday race. We found a young lady who worked at the COC who volunteered to watch Mila for the 40 minutes or so that Dina and would both be away, and Mila got to watch us and everyone else race and had a good time picking the little Toko course flags up out of the snow (we consequently had a few of them in our room the rest of the trip). That worked out well.
Denny and I were in the same wave, which consisted of the M0 – M3 groups (M0 is 25-29 “pre-masters” and M3 are the 40-44 group), so we fit right in the latter half. I tentatively found a front row start position, as no one was overly aggressive about being in the front right away. Lots of “pro” sponsored skiers were in the group, so I could see why most guys seemed to hang back in the 2nd through 5th rows. I felt a little like a sitting duck in the front, but decided that I didn’t have to take off like a bolt of lightning, even though the start went straight up a stiff little hill right off the bat. Denny opted for the far side of the 3rd row, so we never really even saw each other during the race. Dina’s wave would take off some 15 minutes later, so I knew I would get back quite a bit before her to take Mila.
I felt pretty relaxed at the start and figured I didn’t have to kill myself since it was only a warm-up event for Saturday’s marathon. The gun went off and I was cautious not to get stepped on up the steep starting hill. I quickly found a group not far from the front runners that seemed about my speed, if not a little quicker. I really had to stretch out my technique to get everything I could out of it at that quick low-altitude pace. Everyone was so fast and had solid technique, so it was a booger right from the start. The course was a real mixture of technical turns, twists, and short, sharp hills and false flats that required a sort of double-time level of effort. It was fast with the frozen-rain base, but also sort of ground up sugary consistency from the Pisten-Bully tillers and traffic.
Despite skiing as aggressively as I could, I felt like I was more or less struggling to hang on until we hit a long, fairly steep hill that was about 1,200 meters in length. At that point, I had relegated myself to the back of the group I was with, which was really the “main” pack. It was about 8 or 9 guys and I was just focusing on not getting dropped. At the long hill, I noticed our tempo slow just a notch and suddenly the first two guys in our group were pulling away. Gaps started forming and I didn’t really feel too badly, so I started to go around the guys in front of me until I was on the front chasing those two who had attacked in front. Near the top, I caught the 2nd guy and we went over together and I was pretty pumped up. I didn’t notice it until we were at the top, but my heart rate had gone out the roof and I was still working at 100% power level – at our altitude, I would have had to back off. It stayed that way until I just ran out of gas in the sprint finale.
That guy and I worked together but couldn’t catch the first guy who split off our group. He dangled tantalizingly close, but never seemed to lose ground. I took over the pulling after a while because I could hear some guys working their way back up and didn’t want to deal with the group again going into the finish. It was a little too late and a little group caught us. I backed off to catch my breath and got passed by two or three guys. I stayed behind until the top of a particularly steep hill, and then I punched it and got a little gap. I worked my butt off until the 1km to go mark, when I could hear someone behind. Over the last steep hill, two guys were tussling behind me and one made his move to pass over the top. I gave it everything I had to get on him, but he was in an all-out punch on a grinder false-flat. I could hear others behind and just had to focus on giving it 100% and not fall flat on my face because my muscles were quivering and twitching like crazy and I wasn’t used to that. At the end of the false flat, the guy breathing down my neck finally caught me and inched around me as I agonized toward the finish line. It was a fun race, but that type of finish is frustrating. I just mistimed my effort and it cost me. But, I was really psyched about the race and had a blast mixing it up out there with a different group.
Minutes passed and I wondered what the heck had happened to Denny. I realized at some point that he had taken just about as much time to race the course as we had taken to just warm up and ski it for practice earlier, even talking quite a bit. Sure enough, when he came in he had the most perplexed and frustrated look on his face. His skis were just horrible and were completely white and fuzzy looking when he took them off. They didn’t hold any wax and the bases looked really bad. He had indeed taken the same amount of time that we had to just warm up on the course. So, the race was a complete bust for him and he was bummed but a good sport about it. We talked it over and he knew he needed to get those skis fixed…which I think are currently at a shop in Boulder, where the techs said they were the most sad thing they had ever seen and admonished him for just ordering skis from any old online shop.
Dina’s race went well, but she got hit by the very sudden blizzard that came up about one minute after Denny finished. Holy crap, that was amazing and it snowed about 3 inches in one hour. In all, it snowed about 5 inches that compressed down to a wet consistency.
We went to the awards, where they provided wine and cheeses and Dina and I both won some very nice glazed pottery bowls.
The next day, we just went out for an easy ski, but I felt hosed. We had all signed up for the “Dash for Cash” sprints that night, but the temperature had dropped into the negative numbers and I had a lot of ski waxing to figure out and get done in a very frigid little wax shed. It took way too long because these clowns from California kept trying to get us all to leave so they could apply their toxic magic flouro dust. I had banked on skiing on one particular pair of skis for the wet conditions, but with the new snow and the arctic temperatures, I was faced with having to change my ski selection to my stiffer, colder snow skis. Plus, the entire kick wax / klister scenarios had changed, and gotten even more complicated.
Everyone had different ideas and I had my own too. I ended up following the Swix recommendation, which was not intuitive at all, so I was extremely conservative with how I applied it. Despite the cold temperatures, they called for using a very warm klister applied in layers over the Swix KR-20 ice klister. We just weren’t sure what to do and so I applied a very thin layer of the warm klister with a cold hard wax over that. On Dina’s skis, I was much more liberal with the warm snow klister and ironed in 3 different layers.
Well, she was the only one of us three who had good kick.
After all of the waxing and freezing, we got ready to go watch Dina do the Dash for Cash sprints in front of the Nordic center. It was moved from the little local town “common” due to the loss of snow, so it was closer to where we were staying. That’s a good thing because it was like -10*F and hard to stay outside for very long just being a spectator and having a baby in tow.
We watched the first few pro guys and gals go off, and HOLY CRAP! -- did they ever go fast! It was weird seeing that much speed on skis. Dina had a good run of it and got a big mention from the Bulgarian girl doing the announcing over the loud speaker. It was quite fun to watch. Dina also advanced to the heats in her age group, but they were taking a long time, it was frigid and getting colder by the minute, it was late, and she wanted to make it to the chow hall for dinner, so she bagged the rest of the race and an assured prize.
When we woke up the next morning, it was COLD! REALLY COLD!!! The temperature on the tree outside of our dorm/barracks/lodge was reading about -22*F. And, it didn’t seem to be rising while we got ready for the event. But, they announced that the race would go off without delay. We all wore extra everything, and had even gone to the little Nordic gift shop the day before to buy extra balaclavas…good call!
Denny and I applied our hard kick wax over the klister, opting to go colder than recommended because we were certain they hadn’t expected it to be this cold. We figured that anything would grip on the arctic snow. Were we ever wrong!
We both started in the first wave, but now we were in a huge group, so I opted to start further back this time. 50km is a long race, especially in those conditions on that tough loop, so I wanted to be conservative for the early parts. I was feeling pretty good early and found a good group that seemed to be right about my level, and my skis felt quite fast. But when we hit the first series of steep climbs, I was slipping badly and had to get out of the tracks to get any purchase at all. I got gapped, but easily strided back up when the gradient lessened. This was the pattern of my race for the entire first 25km. It really took a toll on me and going through on the 2nd of 4 laps, I was not feeling that great. We went up that first steep hill after the start/finish and I was slipping horribly and just instantly made the decision to throw in the towel. I kept skiing, but was frustrated and tired despite skiing with guys who were not any better than me. I just had to resign myself to skiing as best I could to even finish because things weren’t good as far as my kick was concerned. In summary, I had completely hit the wall at the 25km point and still had 25km to go…not good.
The next 25km were miserable. I just hacked, clawed and cried my way through. I was so exhausted by the finish and had considered giving up entirely several times, but am glad I didn’t. I did get passed by something like 85 people, including what I can only best describe as a lot of senior citizens and members of the opposite sex. That’s something I’m not *ahem* entirely accustomed to.
Dina was waiting with Mila at the finish and gave me a lot of good cheers. I wanted to sit down and cry, but it was only a balmy -4*F in the sun and I was so cold, tired, stiff and bonked that I had to keep myself moving to get into our room and get some sustenance in me. It was a while later that Denny came in looking just about as bad as I did and felt just about the same. We got our butts kicked by the elements and the competition that day, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, Dina had a fantastic event. She skied the 25km and had perfect kick and glide the entire time. She was careful about letting me know what a great time she’d had until I was sufficiently over my grief. At one point on the course, I was lapping around some skiers and catching up to her and remarked at how much better she was kicking uphill than I was and noticed how long it took to catch her, really only after the hill was over. She cheered me on like crazy and that kept me moving.
So, we learned some valuable lessons about klister, once again (remember our McCall MWC long classic race story?). From now on, I’m going to do a lot more asking questions and getting a lot of opinions, and even getting someone who knows better about those complicated scenarios to do it for me (which a lot of racers do, I’ve come to know…). At least I got it right with Dina’s skis…she still remarks at how great her skis were that day…so close! She says that was her favorite classic race so far.
Denny packed up and left the next morning. I was resolved to just watching Mila the next day while Dina skied, but the temperatures had helped the lakes to refreeze, so they had gotten out there to groom them. We both went out for an amazing ski on the lakes and a few more of the connector trails that we hadn’t been able to ski earlier in the week due to the loss of snow. Wow, that was just amazing. We got to see what New England skiing was all about.
See all of our photos at: http://picasaweb.google.com/SWNSKIboard/MasterSNationals2010CraftsburyVT#