Tuesday, February 18, 2014

This cross country skier is back!

I have always loved cross country skiing. From my early beginnings, on wooden skis crossing Rush Lake to explore the mysteries of Heron Island, to my high school years, competing on my high school Nordic team although I didn't really know how to be an athlete, or didn't think I could be one, to my honeymoon and anniversaries at Gunflint Lodge, and early adult years getting to know the trails at Wild River State Park, skiing has been a part of me. But I never realized quite how much, until this winter.

Until the weekend after Christmas 2013, I had not skied for several years. This was a combination of my not making the time for it, a succession of winters with scant snowfall, and my having outgrown my old boots and having broken one of my fiberglass poles that had been with me since high school. I kept telling myself I would buy myself boots and poles if there was a winter when there was good snow, and I had time, etc. I see all of these now as nothing more than self defeating excuses.

As it turns out, this was a good winter for snow early on, and I received a sum of money on Christmas morning that would pay for boots. The day after Christmas I went to the nearest store, T & M Athletics in Willow River, who happened to have the exact boots and poles I needed. I am lucky to have a local store like that! I would have hit the trails that day, had it not been for a family Christmas gathering, and the Christmas Bird Count was the day after. I had promised my kids I would take them shopping to spend their Christmas dollars on Saturday, but not before I had a chance to try out my new boots and poles.

I was a bit awkward at first, and my skis could have used a fresh glide wax. But I skied a couple miles that first day back. I went back the next day, though it was below zero. I skied with a friend on New Year's Day. I started going to Banning State Park every chance I could get. I enjoyed seeing open water on the Kettle River when it was ten degrees below zero, I enjoyed gliding down slight inclines, I enjoyed finding the courage to ski down Skunk Cabbage hill and the Deadman's Trail both in the same day, without falling. But mostly I just enjoyed being out on the trails, my heart pounding and lungs bursting. Skiing.

In January I happened to hear about a ski race in Ashland, Wisconsin. 10 kilometers, flat course across Chequamegon Bay to Washburn, Wisconsin. I had a place to stay in Ashland, so I figured "Why not?" Yeah, why not ski my first, longest ever race in nearly thirty years?

The week before the race, I was home four days out of five with the kids and myself sharing a nasty stomach bug. The day of the race I decided I would not eat anything I would not want to see again hours later. But I felt pretty good.

The starting line was divided into areas where skiers were supposed to "seed" themselves by suggested times. I, not knowing what to expect for a time, hung out between the 45 minute and 1:15 signs. 

The start was like a freeway jam slowly freeing itself into motion. The first ten minutes of the race, I felt like I was inching along with the crowd, waiting for things to thin out. There were a couple bottlenecks where ice conditions forced everyone to merge into a small crossing area. I did not feel like I got up to speed until about the third kilometer. I started feeling confident. I started passing people. I was amazingly agile at changing lanes. With classic style cross country, there are a couple grooved tracks set in the snow. If you want to pass someone, you have to find an opportunity, and switch over to the passing lane. I only fell once while doing that. 

Even as the skiers along the course thinned out, I found myself pushing harder all the time and getting frustrated when I got caught behind slower skiers for any length of time. I though maybe it was good that I got behind people, to pace myself, but I realized two things: I felt good, and I felt competitive! I would push myself as long as I could, and pass people whenever the opportunity arose. 

There were rest stops set up every kilometer or so, with hot cider and water, maybe a bonfire, and maybe even live music, or a snow sculpture of a fire breathing dragon that breathed real fire. They go out of their way to make this race fun! That said, I only stopped at one rest stop, because I had this horrible gob of mucus in my throat and I needed water. Even so, I felt bad when I saw skiers passing me.

I had thought at first that the course would be a straight shot across the bay, with the lights of Washburn growing ever larger. Not so. The course, lit by thousands of candle luminaries, zigged and zagged in order to bring it up to 10 kilometers. Every time I rounded another bend I thought I was headed into the final stretch. The last hour of the race was a blur of dark, lights, staying on the trail, passing skiers, and thinking the next rest stop along the way was the finish line.

When the real finish line finally came into view, I was still amazingly not tired. In the last minute, I left the grooved track to pass a couple more skiers. Hey, I wasn't in this just to have a leisurely ski at this point. When I crossed the finish line, I was sprinting. So fast I missed the display that showed my time. 1:31:13. A bit longer than I thought, but hey, I finished! And I could have skied a lot harder, I felt so good!

Later at the apartment, I looked up my time and standing. Overall for skiers I placed 732nd out of 2266; I was in the top third of all skiers! That includes skate skiers, who are always faster! For women I placed 280th out of 1174; for my age class, 36th out of 180. Pretty darn good for a woman who had not skied in years until the weekend after Christmas. 

I will continue to ski this year as long as there is snow. This spring and summer I will run, keeping up fitness for skiing while training for a half marathon. Next winter, more ski races! Mora Vasaloppet 42k classic? We'll see. As long as it's fun. :)