Friday, February 17, 2012

The Skiing I Do

It has been a terrible winter, but, out of desperation, I have gotten out a few times. Four times to be exact and the best of them had me skiing on gravel some of the time. None of those times were on groomed trails. Snowmachine trail, river, creek, golf course, field, deer trail; that's where I ski.

That, along with the ubiquitous "where are the mountains," comments have me thinking about what to call the kind of skiing I do (when there is snow). First off when I say ski I always mean cross country skiing, there are no mountains around here. The only downhill skiing I do is down hills.

Based on the lack of skiers at Arrowhead and the excuses I hear the "real" Nordic skiers won't touch anything that isn't groomed or might damage their bases. I don't have any skis that aren't rock skis. I did cringe a little once when I did three miles of gravel logging road at Arrowhead in '08 (it had pretty good glide), but it's an unusual ski where I don't garf up the base. The real skiers also won't ski if the temperatures are low (like green wax condtions. Low temps are par for me (polar wax, except this year).

I would call what I do "backcountry" if that name hadn't been taken by the ski mountaineer/telemark/AT crowd (speaking of telemark, you don't need telemark skis to telemark. Not that I have any room to talk I can barely snowplow). Apparently these folks are the only ones who take their skis camping with them too.

I guess what I'd like to see is some kind of a resurgence in ski camping, touring, fun in the woods, rivers, and lakes. I'd like to see what happened to gravel road bike riding happen to cross-country skiing. A ski mode for the unmountainous, untracked Midwest with attendant discussions, events, and gear.

Maybe it's out there already and I just don't know about it. I hope so.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Yritän oppia suomea.

A number of people have asked me what my next event is going to be. I didn't want to say anything before it was a sure thing, but I will be going to Finland at the end of this month to compete in the Kaukopartiohiihto ski race. It's a sure thing now. I have my passport, plane tickets, and I'm even registered for the race.

It may sound strange to many of you globetrotters, but this is a pretty big event for me. It required me to leave home and actually talk with people to get this done. It will be just my second time out of the country (the last time was to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls) and my second time flying (commercially). Maybe that makes me sound like a sad pathetic loser, but I don't care: I'm going to Finland!

I'm not even going to complain about the weather.

Friday, February 10, 2012

AHU '12: Part 2

I forgot to mention that somewhere between Gateway and Ash River shelter I broke my chain. No big deal. I am a professional bicycle mechanic by day.

So anyway: After eating, refilling my Camelbak and bottle, and talking with some other racers I was on my way. In and out in 45 minutes: a new record! It was dark and I didn't know how far I was going to make it before I had to sleep. I was hoping to get to Myrtle Lake shelter or better yet Elbow Lake and then take a nap, maybe even give the shiv-a-biv a try. After the first couple of huge hills the trail flattened out and I was riding easily. I was leapfrogging with a couple of other cyclists, but it was clear to me that they were faster overall.

Time and miles have a strange way of passing in the dark. Every mile seems to take forever, but before you know it you're there. I think it has to do with being unable to focus on anything but the here and now. It's a feeling I look forward to. I crossed the Elephant Lake road then stopped at they Myrtle Lake shelter for a few minutes to eat and sit for a few minutes, then Highway 23. After that the hills started back up in earnest.

I've gotten to know this section of trail pretty well, even in the dark, these past few years. I knew there were hills and I knew there were more than I thought (if that makes any sense). Somewhere in here I ran across Nick Wethington whom I had driven up with. He had left Melgeorge's as I was arriving and I was surprised to see him. We talked for a minute, but I wanted to keep going and he needed to eat.

Before long I passed the meadow where I had had to refill my Camelbak the past two years. I was looking forward to arriving at Elbow Lake shelter. Although I wasn't really tired I decided I was going to take a nap when I got there. I figured I'd put on my down jacket and snooze for a while then, in an hour or so, I'd get up and move on. Just to prepare myself for the hills ahead. Yeah, right.

When I got to Elbow Lake around 2 AM there were already two people there. One person was just leaving. The other was Charlie Farrow. Charlie is something of a hero of mine so to find him here in his sleeping bag was something of a surprise. I had figured that he would be almost to the finish by that time. I stuck to my plan, laid out my pad and put on my jacket. I slept pretty well for not being in my bag. I napped for a while, but just wasn't getting any rest. I was too cold. Finally I gave up and pulled out my full sleeping bag. That was the end for me. There was no way I was going to leave soon.

After a few hours of sleep I got up to pee. Charlie asked if I was going. I said I was going to pee. He may or may not have said something at this point like, "I'm staying until the sun is up." I may have said something like "Good idea, wait for the hills to go away." Who knows we were all tired, maybe it was a dream.

When I opened my eyes again there was light in the East. I started to get up. Charlie jumped up like he had just realized this was a race. We packed up. I gave my toilet paper to another guy who had camped out with us and we were off. Charlie dropped me immediately.

Hills, hills, hills. Sometime in the night a groomer had been through. There were only a few tire tracks in the soft trail in front of me. As I was going up my tires started to dig in and I'd lose momentum. Then I'd push. After a couple of those I dropped my tire pressure down to about 6 psi. I was back to riding the hills. I took some pleasure in riding over the footprints of cyclists who had walked before me.

My 24 hour goal was gone and my backup goal of 30 hours was unlikely. I sat for a few minutes and refilled my water at the Teepee checkpoint then climbed the final hill, Wakemup. From there on it was flat.

The trail was rougher, but harder and I pumped my tires back up to 8 psi or so. I was finally able to use the middle ring and push a little harder. It's true though, after wanting the hills to stop it is only a little while in the spruce bog before you want something other than flat. I made myself some cold coffee at the final shelter and rode in to the finish. No big deal.

As I've said before it was a bit of a let down. In 2006 when I finished it was my greatest achievement to date. Now it was old hat. Next year skiing or maybe someone is selling a Conundrum.

Monday, February 06, 2012

AHU '12: another perspective Part 1

If the last post was how I felt (emotionally, etc.) at Arrowhead this one is about how the race went pedal-by-pedal. Hopefully it is a little more positive or at least neutral than the last one.

At the start I lined up with the skiers, just because I wanted to see who they were and what gear they were carrying. Lots of mid size backpacks (~35L). Not too many sleds this year. I guess that's passe now. Looking over the skiers got me started at the back of the biker pack. Did I mention that I was biking this year? Maybe you missed it. A lot of people did.

The first nine miles or so to the first shelter (old turnaround) were pretty uneventful. Fast smooth well packed trail. Bikers spread out a little, but not much. My legs felt slow. I felt like I should be passing other riders, pushing towards the front, but I held off. It's a long race.

Two of the skiers passed me early on. The first one was carrying a tiny pack and Wassberging (V2) along like nobody's business . The pack wasn't much larger than 20L. I wondered how he got all of the required gear in there. Likely he had nothing more than the required gear. No warmer gloves, jacket, etc.. What would he do in a more severe year? Likely not ski, I think.

After the turn onto the real Arrowhead trail I managed to distance myself from some of the other riders. I don't like doing endurance events with others nearby. I end up feeling too competitive and racing too early. The trail softened up and got pretty rough at this point. This part of the trail has less traffic and more grass and willows were poking through. This is also where the trail first passes through bog-land. Without snow and cold there would be no trail.

It was slow going, but I made sure not to push myself. Any time I noticed my heart rate creeping up (when I could hear it in my ears) I made sure to drop down to a lower gear and spin more. In spite of the flat trail I was spending much of my time in the granny gear.

We came to Highway 53 (mile ~18) fairly quickly I wasn't sure of the time, but it was nothing compared to how long it took to walk last year. Soon we came to a mile or so of logging road, then back onto the trail, and to the second shelter. I stopped for a few minutes to take a photo of the second place skier, Mike Ziegle, who was resting and eat some of my secret formula (cheese and sausage). Then I was off to the Gateway store.

On the way I saw the familiar landmarks: the trail junctions, the hills, the shelter, and finally what I call the "friendly tree" a lone white pine amongst the spruces that pokes up just before the Gateway store (I don't know why it's the "friendly tree". When you ski or walk the Arrowhead I guess it's good to have friends).

I didn't stop at the Gateway store. As I was coming in I saw that fast skier coming back out. He had backed off to a comfortable Mogren skate (V2a) at this point. I was really missing my skis.

I was pretty good on food and water. I wasn't cold. I wasn't in any kind of trouble so I just went on. At this point I still had the idea that I might go the whole way without support. On I went into the hills. I was happy to be riding most of them, but I knew that wouldn't last. I was spending a lot of time in the middle ring which made me happy. I figured I had passed a lot of people at the Gateway store and my competitive spirit got a little boost. The distance between landmarks got longer as I ventured into territory I hadn't seen in the light since 2006. I crossed Ash River Trail then Homan Road and Sheep Ranch Road. Then up the hill to Ash River shelter.

The Ash River shelter is one of my favorite spots on the trail. It is hidden from the main trail and located on a little spur to the left. Most racers miss it and don't even know it is there. I only know because Pierre pointed it out to me when we rode together in 2006. I spent the night there with Scott Wagner in 2008 on my first attempt to ski; the year I earned the Myrtle the Turtle award. I took a little break and ate some more cheese and sausage.

I rolled on into the real hills and had to start pushing some. I wasn't going really fast, but I felt okay. I knew there were only about 25 miles left to Melgeorge's resort on Elephant Lake. I can't think of any good landmarks in this section. I have seen it in the dark too many times and there aren't any road crossings or "friendly trees" that I know of. Just lots of rolling hills.

Black Duck shelter came soon enough. I was hungry for some "real" food a this point and so I fired up the stove and cooked up some freeze dried Teriyaki Chicken. Since I had the stove going I melted some snow just for fun and to make sure I didn't run out before Melgeorge's, 15 miles away. Mike Ziegle stopped for a few minutes and I talked with him about skiing. He was carrying a more normal sized pack and mentioned that if he made it to Elephant Lake he would double his miles for the year. I guess I gave up on skiing too soon. Other skiers might have training and technique on their side, but I have (relative) youth and stupidity on mine. The weather and the trail were holding for the skiers.

It was dusk as I left Black Duck shelter and soon enough I needed my headlights. More and bigger hills were to be had, but I managed to gear down and ride most. Landmarks were: the hill where it was too cold to wax my skis, the hill with the suicide turn at the bottom, the first 5 miles to Melgeorge's sign, the second 5 miles to Melgeorge's sign, and ski jump hill. Then suddenly I was out on the lake rolling easily towards the resort. I knew I could have just checked in and kept going, but the lure of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich (American quesadilla) was just too much. So much for my goal of going unsupported.

In the next installment: What happened at Elbow Lake shelter?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained: Arrowhead 2012

The night before Arrowhead found me at the only Chinese restaurant in International Falls. I had just opened my fortune cookie and it seemed prophetic:

The only problem was that I wasn't facing defeat. I was taking the easy way out, not risking anything, by biking the race. I had planned on and trained for skiing all summer and fall only to be stymied by a lack of snow in December and January. It seemed like there was no other choice but to bike, but in the back of my mind I knew better. There was more I could have done. Days when I could have gotten out on roller skis, days when I could have skied on the river or on the golf course.

Even more prophetic was the back of the fortune cookie:

If ever there were a sign from the "master" this was it (I don't know about the numbers, maybe I should have played some roulette at the finish line casino).

The race was, in a word, uneventful. It was warm, too warm for Arrowhead. That took away some of the challenge, some of the cache of the race. It would be wrong to say that the race was easy. It wasn't, it was a hard ride and I was surprised by how difficult biking was, but it was too easy for my satisfaction. I never pushed myself to the edge of what I could do and pushing myself is why I go to races like this.

My goals for the race were not well defined. I had visions of doing the race in under 24 hours or at least under 30. Then I had ideas of touring the race, taking photos and not stopping to rest and refuel at any of the checkpoints. Those two goals didn't mesh well with each other and at different points during the race one or the other was ascendant. I didn't manage to accomplish either one. It was an unsatisfying way to race.

As the skiers and runners finished the race I couldn't help but feel somehow left out. Like they had had the full Arrowhead experience that I had denied myself.

All that said I did have a good time. It was great to see old friends and inspiring performances. Especially from Jason Buffington, Casey Krueger (who showed what a real skier can do), Lisa Paulos, Roberto Marron and Alica Hudelson. Those last three embody courage as the fortune cookie defines it. I will be back, just not on the bike.