Keep the Dream Alive: February Part 1 – Crested Butte Alley Loop 42k

The month of January ended at the Colorado Elementary All State Honor Choir, an event that started with a mini bus full of 6 students, my wife, and the bus driver’s wife, pulling out of the school parking lot at 5:00 AM. Even at that hour, all six kids were singing on the way out of town! I tried to warn them that all-state music days can be draining and that they would be singing all day, but it was to no avail. And, somewhat to my surprise but totally to my happiness, I found that their energy and voices never dwindled. It was a long day, however, finishing with a fancy concert in the Broadmoor Hotel. On the bus ride home, they did sleep, but the physical toll of the trip took a little bit out of my wife Christie. She would be sick for the next couple of days, forced to miss work the next week. We have been so fortunate since we started working in how healthy we have been. I got pneumonia in my third week of teaching and then went the next 2.5 years before suffering a little flu bug that forced me to miss one day of work in April 2018. Christie has been the same way, so it was a little odd knowing one of us was at home while I was at work. Even Christie, always trying to be productive, seemed to view her sick day as a chance to catch up on stuff around the house. However, she REALLY was sick, and every time she tried to stand up and sweep the floor or put away a dish, she realized she needed to sit down!

Her condition wouldn’t bode well for our first race of the winter: the Alley Loop Marathon in Crested Butte, Colorado. I had signed us up back in November; I was in the 42k skate, and Christie would contest the 10k skate. At the time, both of those distances probably equally fit our ability, but given the warm weather of late and Christie’s recent illness, she was feeling a little out of sorts as we prepared to leave. Mostly, we were just excited to go and visit a brand new city – one that we had heard a lot about. I got us a room at a fancier hotel up on the downhill ski mountain; in fact, it was a bummer we didn’t get to the room earlier, as it would have been fun to take in some of the ammenities (we are frugal and child like and still get a kick out of stuff like the view from our room, the size of the pool and hot tub, and the free cookies in the lobby…don’t judge). Because I still had the Leadville Loppet on the calendar and had been gearing up for a possible spring road bike season or spring running race, I didn’t really taper at all for the Alley Loop. In fact, it ended up being one of my higher volume weeks!

S – am – 60 min – hardly slept from being home late for state honor choir

pm – 40 mile bike ride in just over 2 hours – nice day

M- AM – 60 min run

PM – 65 min indoor trainer – 4x(4H/1:30 E @ 140-150 HR) + 4x2H @ 160HR — anytime my HR gets above 130 on the bike, I’m pushing pretty hard. My legs are a bit weaker in power output, especially relative to my lung capacity, and my max HR is very low. Being at 140-150 indicates this was a hard session) Notes in journal: hard day; long day; waited at honor choir after school until 4:30.

T – AM – 60 min run

PM – 30 mile bike ride – ave 20 mph for last 20 miles

W – AM – 55 min run

PM – 1.5 hr bike easy

TH – 60 min run

PM – 1.5 hr bike

Fri – Am – 9 mile run

PM – 1hr 45 min bike – waxed skis outside in 65 degrees and sunny – haven’t skied in over 2 weeks! Hard to believe I will be racing tomorrow!

After the bike ride, I took a shower, packed a huge salad and rice dish into my travel bowl, which is really the size of a serving salad bowl for a family of 6, hopped in the car, and started down the road. Joanie and Zato, our two puppies came with as well, and were comfortably cuddling in the back by our gear. The ride was fun and full of conversation the entire way. We drove through a very curvy pass between Saguache and Gunnison, remarking how spectacular it must have looked in the daylight. It was so curvy that we were forced to drive under 15 mph on some of the turns (which is saying something when a crazy person like me is behind the wheel). Christie, who does the best job of ‘speaking’ on behalf of our puppies, had to speak for Zato, who kept trying to come up to the front on account of what seemed to be frustration at being thrown around from all of the turns.

We finally arrived in Crested Butte, parked our car in the adjacent parking garage, and moved into our fancy hotel room. I wasn’t really nervous – more just excited and happy to …not be nervous I guess. Usually, before a race where I have high expectations for myself, I’m all business and just want to lay low and rest. I don’t really like talking to people or being around others – I just want to calm myself and stay relaxed. Going into this race, I didn’t really have any pressure to perform. I wanted to finish, I wanted to finish without stopping, and I was hoping to be under 3 hours so that I could get a ‘sub 3 hr’ bell. The sub-3 seemed like it would be very easy to do as long as there was no equipment malfunction, as normally a skier can easily beat their running time for a marathon. I ate my customary oatmeal evening snack, got an early morning high carb breakfast ready, and headed off to bed.

The race

I don’t know what it is about my memory, but once I start thinking back to a day, I can remember so many details from it – I won’t bore you with them. We got our packets, found a parking spot close to the start, and made our way, with our skis, to the Crested Butte Nordic center building, where already hundreds of citizens of all ages – and costumes (this was a huge costume party race as well) – were congregating and warming up. There was a very healthy contingent of serious Master’s level skiers and competitive recreational skiers who were not Master’s level, like myself. There was also a bunch of Division I collegiate teams. Due to the lack of snow, most everyone in the Rocky Mountain area had failed to host or compete at a meet, and the Alley Loop 21k would serve as a combination of New Mexico and some other school’s home meet. Wyoming, Air Force (didn’t realize they even had a nordic team!), Colorado, Montana State, Utah, Alaska-Anchorage – all of these teams in their cool warm-up gear, wax teams, wax trucks, and fleet of skis. It was cool to see firsthand. I would have enjoyed it even more and known what to really appreciate if I had seen all of the fanfare after reading the numerous books and diaries from cross country ski professionals, as I would do over the ensuing months. At this point in time, I s just watching athletes warm up – or so I thought. I didn’t realize that each athlete had 3, 4, maybe even 5 pairs of skis, all with a different base grind for different snow conditions, and all of those grinds with a different wax or wax ofcombination. They were testing out skis to try and see which ones would be the best. Of course, it is more complicated than just temperature. Snow temperature, snow quality, snow age – all of these come into play. Plus, what would it be like on other parts of the course, and at other times of the day? All of this played a role as well. I didn’t even realize that there were different types of skate skis – one for cold, hard packed conditions and one for warm, soft snow conditions. Each one has an appropriate flex and construction to allow for maximum glide. All I did was take the one type of wax I owned, my iron, which has no temperature setting and was probably last used by Laura Ingals Wilder, and waxed my skis with a couple of layers of blue. It was a big deal to me that I actually scraped and put a second layer on! (the more layers of wax, the better/faster). I did have enough wherewithall to realize how cool it would have been to be a part of a high level nordic team in college. It’s probably similar to cross country running, which I enjoyed as well, but there is a slightly different culture to skiing. And, the races are different as well – the aspect and mesmerizing rhythm of the different techniques, the mystique of the snow and the course, and the almost nerdy aspect and impact of wax is a combination brings more to the table then the simple blood and guts, exposed sport of running. Running is more instinctive; skiing has a bit more skill. Of course, being the dreamer that I am, I thought of what it would be like to have come by plane or bus all the way from Bozeman or Alaska with your friends and all of your skis. To stay in one place like West Yellowstone to be on snow and train and compete (such as New Mexico has to do in order to get in races and training on snow during each winter). I thought about how much I could learn from a coach – I already have picked up – and would pick up way more – as a self taught athlete from reading books on athletes’ lives, training, how to wax, technique, etc…..and then watching youtube videos during my breakfast or late night snacks on the same thing. Researching products and skis and finding out what makes one different from another and one a higher quality from the next. I learned a lot from my coaches in college by picking their brains and asking them “why” for everything. But once you are out of that realm, you realize even more how valuable and rare that time in life is. You basically are a professional athlete – food and travel is taken care of, you have high level coaches, high level competitions, state of the art facilities, access to weights, food, physical training, etc. I knew it when I was in college, but I didn’t fully realize how truly awesome it was. Well, I guess I did…I just didn’t realize how much I would still want to be a professional athlete as I continued to age. But, here we are.

On to the race:

After establishing what would be my official xc ski warm-up routine (10 minutes of no pole skiing up a gradual hill, followed by a couple minutes of skiing with poles, finished with a couple more minutes of no pole skiing…..bathroom break….casually find a spot at the start), which I intentionally designed to be significantly less neurotic than my pre-race running warm-up, I started to move towards the starting area. One cool thing about the Alley Loop is that a portion of the race actually takes place on the streets – hence the name – Alley loop. Because of the low snowpack, the in town route had to be modified (the portion in town was very small — still a cool effect). The start of the race was on a long, straight, road. Well, at least it seemed long. I would quickly find out that it was not long at all. I positioned myself in the middle/back end of the group. There were a lot of skiers lined up; in fact, it was a bit claustrophobic. Being that my only experience in races was in running, and there, it was easy to move around people, I hadn’t even thought about how much was decided before the gun even goes off. Well, for those who haven’t ski raced before, let me clue you in on something: pretty much the whole race can be decided just by how you position yourself and go out in the first 400 meters. Even in a 42K, this is critical. Here is what happened to me. Positioned on the outside edge of a group that was probably 25 skiers wide and hundreds deep forward and back, when the gun went off, I quickly started to focus on simply remaining on the path (if I swerved to the right, I could end up on pavement and in the crowd!). I couldn’t see in front of me beyond the tips of my skis; if the person in front of me decided to stop, I would have just run right into him. Off we went – 100 meters in, Christie was standing on the side of the road with the puppies – I smiled as she excitedly shouted my name. My gut sort of had this “it’ll be a long time before I’m comfortably cuddled up on a couch with her” feeling. I sort of felt it in my running marathon, too. A desire to just run to the end of the block at mile 10, call it a day, hit up the Olive Garden, and take a nap. Part of it probably stems from the fact that I’m putting myself in these situations completely on my own terms. It’s not as if she has put any pressure on me to see what I can do in a 26 mile run or 50k skate ski race. In fact, nothing would probably thrill her more than if I only signed up for the 5k! And that isn’t to say she isn’t thrilled about my athletics, incredibly supportive, and excited to see me do well in a half or full marathon – but I think I tell myself that she is thinking something along the lines of, “Well, I guess if he likes it, I’ll support him 100%….but it sure doesn’t seem like something that is appealing to me….”

If that painted a poor picture of my wife (which it probably did), just know that it was more for dramatic effect. In the world of the everdayathlete, which I’m the ambassador for, my wife is my domestique (biking) sport psychologist, masseuse, obligatory hot girlfriend for posing at the awards stand, and coach (when she drives to meet me at a location and makes me feel like Lance Armstrong, who has a car that follows him around and gives him whatever he needs). Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to do many of the things I’ve done. Had I been married to pretty much anyone else, the everdayathlete movement would have likely been halted altogether!

After about 200 yards, the course took a sharp left turn and started a steep and long climb to get to the back ‘trail’ portion of the course. The group I was in practically came to a standstill. People were running up into other people, poles were clicking against other skis. It was hectic. It seemed to me that at least half of the group was working pretty hard to get up the hill at the pace we were going, and the other half, including me, was really starting to chomp at the bit. Actually, at this point, I was basically walking….was walking….even though it was a long race and I had no idea what lied in front of me, I knew that I was losing incredibly valuable time on the leaders. I hadn’t intended on starting out with them, but I was hoping to go at my own pace and see where that put me. Right now, I was going a snails pace…and it was starting to frustrate me.

Finally, we crested the hill. We started rocketing down a series of shorter up and down hills. The trail was much narrower at this point, which meant we were pretty much all just double poling. I still hadn’t even skated and we were 15 minutes into the race! At every uphill in the first 5k, we would come to complete stop. All it took was for one guy to go up slowly and everyone else was held up. At one point, I remember a guy trying to be frisky and get around a slower racer climbing up a 20 meter climb. There was really only room for one skier width wise. The frisky guy got up on the slower gentlemen and before you knew it, both of them were on the ground, and a pile up of two or three more behind them quickly were tangled as well. Another, clearly more experienced racer, commented, “just settle down guys, we can’t pass here anyway,” as if to suggest that he was also frustrated, but acting on the impatience only made it worse.

I took his words, and my created meaning of them, to heart, and comforted myself by reminding my soul that this still was a three loop race and hopefully, there would be opportunity for me to pass some people. About 35 minutes into the first loop, there was a little more breathing room. I still was not going my desired pace, especially on uphills, but I really couldn’t get around people easily. For the next 15 minutes, I used up a ton of energy trying to get around clumps of slower skiers. In total, I probably only passed about 15. As we climbed the steepest hill to the highest point of the course (a fact that I was completely unaware of obviously, since I had never skied here or been able to scope out the course….I would discover this information for the second and third laps), I found myself riding up on a large man who was probably a year or two older than I was, and probably considered himself to be a pretty valuable member to the everdayathlete club. He had a sort of official ski racing suit on, the big sunglasses – the whole bit. He was not skiing poorly, but his 6’5, 200 pound frame was not manuevering up the hills with as much ease as my much smaller, runner physique.

My ski caught his pole and threw off his rhythm. I felt bad as he turned around and sort of gave me a “watch it” look. I slowed way down, started to ski uphill without poles (good technique work, right? ….remember my last post Keep the Dream Alive: January where I talked about not being able to do this at all? And here I was, doing it….in a race! What other choice did I have?). I slowed down to give him a lead, but as soon as I started doing a V1, which I obviously wanted to be doing the entire time, I caught right back up to him. In that moment I realized that my climbing ability must be pretty decent. Granted, I was not with the leaders, but up until this point, no one had passed me going up a hill. The exception to this was a wave of collegiate skiers who were only doing the 21k – man was that cool to see them weave through us slowpokes! In that moment I made the decision to put my first born child on skis at the same time they learn how to walk.

I caught back up and got my ski stuck on his pole again. At this, the man turned around and said, “What the F —” you can fill in the blanks there. He also turned around and blindly stabbed his pole in my direction – the nordic gods somehow prevented that from ending badly, as his pole was shoved in the general direction of my groin. He also added, “If you want to pass, you need to double poll.”

Ohhhhh!

I was learning. It wasn’t what I would call ‘best practice’ as we like to say in the teaching world, but I now knew that if I wanted to pass someone, I need to make a really hard effort to double pole past them. In some ways, I guess this made sense, but it seemed like a dumb strategy when 100 skiers are single file in front of you, locked into a pace that is too slow.

Anyway, he showed some gentlemanly courtesy by letting me go by at the top of the hill. To be honest, I think he was a bit winded, which probably was responsible for his language and short tempered retaliation, and also justified his stopping to let me by at the top of the hill. In all seriousness, I felt really bad and I knew I was in the wrong, but at the same time – we are all just racers out here trying to do our best, and thus, there is no place for what he said or did.

He would get his revenge in seconds, however, as the peloton cruised down a long and fast downhill. I’m a great downhill skier – on downhill skis with metal edges. Flying down a hill on xc skis is still a bit baffling to me, and when I try to make sharp turns, my step turns aren’t sharp enough and putting down an edge causes me to fall.

As I was about halfway down the descent, I could feel my speed gaining faster than was comfortable. Up ahead, a swooping left turn awaited. I couldn’t see around the turn, so I knew it was much too sharp for me to navigate. I started to look for an escape. What was I going to crash into?! I did a few useless step turns and prepared to go face first into the embankment. I prayed that the snow would be soft and powdery. Had it been a crusty, hard surface, I probably would have broken my skis and/or my legs. Instead, I went straight into the turn and disappeared into a mound of snow. My face planted into the snow as well – I basically did a belly flop into the drift. It must have looked like one of those old cartoons where the character runs into a pile of straw and just disappears. I had gone about 10 feet off of the trail at least, so I wasn’t in anyone’s way. I lifted myself up, just in time to see all of the people I had spent the last 30 minutes arduously passing, including the pole stabber. I also noticed how a couple of ladies who looked like they could have graduated from college when my mom was in kindergarten (that is a gentle way of stating their age, don’t you think?), easily stepped turn around the curve that I had made look like the Big Coulouir at Big Sky, Montana.

For a moment I sat in the snow and felt like crying. Here I was, at an event – I finally had registered for a race – something I had put on the calendar months ago and gotten excited for. I had trained for it – probably not in the best way possible with all of the biking, no skiing (I couldn’t help it….it was 65 degrees out everyday). I had waxed my own skis – probably ruined my skis because I didn’t have an iron with temperature gauges to prevent me from destroying the pores in my base. I had gotten the hotel room – that was actually the one thing that I sort of had ‘won’ at this point….I have a great reputation for finding hotel rooms that are incredibly sketchy…my wife is….a saint. The self pity continued as I thought through all of the other things: being stuck behind slow people, suffering in the slow, slushy snow, not even getting to do the original ‘Alley loop’ course through the alleys, getting sworn at by some guy, and now, crashing off the course like the biggest noob in the world. I was embarrassed, distraught, and feeling hopeless. Surely the 3 hour bell, which seemed like the easiest goal to achieve, was out of the question now, right? And what about CHristie? I thought about how she was out on the course now, too. Was she having the same problems I was? I knew she wouldn’t get to the point on the course with this hill, but she probably got scared going down something, too. And she was under the weather. Oh, all of the things going on. I pulled myself together, got back on the course, and let gravity slide me down the slope. I didn’t feel like racing, but I was going to finish.

One thing I had going for me in the race was the brutal conditions. Hot weather had turned the snow into a slow slew of mush. While this made for miserable skiing, it benefited the aerobic engines like myself. I may not have gotten the wax right (or maybe I did), but in this type of weather, it seemed like no one did, leaving the outcome more up to ones ability to sit and push at an aerobic state for close to 3 hours. This, I knew, was probably my best strength. I started to impart positive self talk into my mantra. For being accused most of my life for being overanalytical and a worrier (both of which I definitely am), I’ve figured out how to use those traits to my benefit (analyzing technique and training but also the effects of certain mental approaches on my own performance as well is one example…worrying….well, I guess the fact that I’ve had to overcome anxiety to get myself to the line has made me very mentally tough because I know that I can talk myself through just about anything), I actually have a surprising amount of secret positive self talk. The majority of the conversations going on with myself, especially in a performance setting revolve around, “you can do this.” I was reminding myself of how, even though I lacked racing experience in this sport, no one in this race had the same overall fitness as me. In fact, I told myself that it was likely no one trained as much as I did, period, in this race, and that included the collegians who weren’t full-time teachers. If I could teach all day, conduct an honor choir after school, and sandwich a 10 mile run and 40 mile bike ride on either end of it, I could toughen up and compete for this measily 2 hours and 30 minutes.

My strength and mojo were back. The gaps between people started to lengthen, making it easy for me to pass people, unlike at the start of the race. Right before entering the finish line area to start the second lap, we hit a gradual uphill. This was my bread and butter. I don’t have the technique to fly on the flats and downhills (yet), but my climbing was alright, and the majority of the speed depended more on aerobic and anaerobic threshold fitness, which was my strength. I knew that I could push as hard as I wanted on this entire 4 minute stretch, and, even though we were at 9,000 feet, I would not redline. Heck, I’d done this at 10,200 feet at Wolf Creek and been fine.

Speaking of Wolf Creek – the conditions at Alley Loop were terrible and slow. But, at the time, they felt great, because most of what I knew was the soft, rarely groomed patch of snow at Wolf Creek. My training grounds was a 4k loop that was groomed whenever possible by a downhill ski resort. They never packed it, and most of the time, it was like skiing on a pillow. You really had to work for every inch. Combined with the fact that you were pretty much always climbing or descending, and you were at 10,200 feet, Wolf Creek makes everything seem like a breeze.

Starting the second lap, I saw Christie. I shouted at her, “I fell into the snow,” as if the snow covering me wasn’t enough of an indication. I headed out for the next lap – I couldn’t really fathom that I had two more to go. It seemed like the first one had contained enough drama for two races. I wondered if the distance was measured right. My time up on the clock was over an hour – three times that meant over three hours. No bell, I thought. Oh well, we are racing for pride. I kept catching and passing people. Around one of the few flat sections, I hopped into the classic trail and started to double pole. I saw the pole stabbing guy ahead and I wanted to make sure I used good etiquette. I put in several strong double poles and flew by him. I didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t trying to make any statement – simply taking his advice. I kept moving up the field. I must have past about 30 people on this lap. There was plenty of room to work, and I wasn’t needing to hold back on any of the hills. In fact, as we approached the far end of the course and the long uphill, I started to actually dread the exertion that would be required to summit it.

I pressed into it, made it to the top, and started down. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really accelerate down the downhills the same as other skiers probably could, as my confidence on the turn was lowest of anyone in the field. I snowplowed until I was sure I would be fine, and then turned my skis open to glide the rest of the way. There was a big rut on the turn, and I remembered reading some article about whether or not you should stay in the rut or try to avoid it. I couldn’t remember ‘how’ you ‘avoided’ the rut, and it didn’t seem like an option to me, so I just flew up on it like a dirt biker taking a sharp turn. I approached the gradual uphill and was still passing people, though some were in other races. As I approached the final lap, I was feeling a bit tired. Also a bit hot. On the third lap, I sort of found the group I probably was supposed to be with the entire time. We stayed in our order, moving up the field as a threesome, all the way until the steep uphill, when I gained a significant lead on them.

As I approached the final finishing area, I made the turn to do the final 1k. As I did, I glanced at the clock at the adjacent finishing line. It said 3:03, I think. My heart sank a little. I really had raced a great last two laps. Had I not had the disastrous first lap, just think. Heck, if I had just started the race farther up at the front….

I came across the line, happy to be done. I hadn’t stopped at all, except for my fall, obviously. I didn’t even stop to get a drink or food along the way. That seemed unnecessary, as I didn’t even take anything in my running marathon – surely I didn’t need anything for this.

Then, a nice old lady draped a silver bell around my neck. I tried to protest, “I don’t think I beat three hours.” “Oh that time isn’t for your race – you were under – congratulations.”

Hmmmmm. Well, I wonder what my time really was. That was a little extra surprise I wasn’t expecting.

 

Turns out, my time was 2:43, just over 30 minutes from the winner. The course was incredibly difficult. Many had dropped out. The winning time was over 15 minutes slower than the previous years’ time, just to give an indication. Hearing the time made me feel much better about my performance, but also made me wonder even more what could have been. I’m sure I lost 3 minutes sitting in the snow bank alone. I probably lost another 10-15 just being stuck in traffic for the better part of the first 15k. Could I have been in the top 10? Probably not. I mean, I think I would have fallen even if I had been by the leaders! That was on me anyway! But, I think I could have been around 2:30 for sure, which would have been an even more respectable time considering the level of competition.

Overall, it was a good race and a good experience.

We hung around for the free soup, a delicious sweet potato tomato basil combination that was to die for. I went back for seconds. We hung around for awards, and afterwards, we just hung around the city of Crested Butte to let the puppies run free. We found a park that was fenced in. Our dogs love snow, but they don’t get much of it in Alamosa, and they relished in the opportunity to play tag and chase each other around. Christie and I read books and fell asleep on a blanket in the park. I couldn’t sleep too much, though. I’m not a good napper. And besides, there was a new dream stoked in the fire of my head – nordic skiing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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