The Leadville Loppet is my favorite race of all-time – possibly running and cycling included. It was the second ever race I did back in 2018, so it carries some nostalgia for me in addition to being an excellent, high quality, local event. Now, after skiing the trails for 4 months straight, it has a more home court advantage feel to it as well. In the fall, I had very high hopes from a performance perspective for this race, but my main goal going into it was simply to enjoy the trails, pushing myself, and most importantly, enjoy the soup buffet after. If there is a question as to whether or not this race is the best race, there is no question that it has the best food situation post race. It’s not even close. Next year, I’ll snap some pictures of what we have going on.
Here is the journal entry from the Leadville Loppet race day:
Week seven started on Sunday actually with the Owl Creek Chase, the 21k classic race. We lucked out and head pretty good driving conditions on the way home. The roads were wet, almost like it had rained. Traveling from Aspen to Glenwood was a little slower, but after a long weekend of racing, and the disappointment of some of the rewards/prizes at Owl Creek, it was fun to just mozie on home with Christie and talk about dreams, what we saw out the window, and comment on random coffee shops and restaurants that we fancied on someday visiting. There was a coffee shop connected to an ice cream shop with an awesome name – it escapes me now….I guess next time I’m headed up to Aspen we will actually have to stop at it.
Once we got on I-70, it was smooth sailing all the way until the turn to go back to Leadville on highway 24. We took the Minturn route, which we almost never are on. The road is curvy, steep, and slow going, but apparently, from a mileage perspective, it is much slower. Every time I drive it, I think about how great of a bike ride it would be, but only at 5 am in August when there are no cars.
We got stuck behind a plow as we started to head up towards Red Cliff. It slowed us down a bit, and by the time we were climbing around Red Cliff, we had to slow down because the falling snow (and snow from the previous storms) made the road even more hairy than it usually is. As we approached the Red Cliff bridge, always a spine tingling affair, I commented to Christie about how if you look up ahead at the bridge, it can make your stomach flip. You really have to only focus on the road right in front of you and take it one step at a time. The bridge doesn’t even look like it should be there it rises so high above the canyone and river below.
When we got back to Leadville, I decided to do a cool down skate ski. Unfortunately, there was a layer of 4 inches on top of the exercise loop at CMC. For the 80 minute session, I just imagined skiing in a race on the world cup where snow was falling. My skis were still moving fast enough where it wasn’t miserable. Once I got into the right mindset, things were actually kind of fun. Usually, the thing that keeps me going is when I mentally escape into another place, imagining myself as a professional athlete. When I’m in the woods, I imagine that I’m a Norwegian skier on an easy day, escaping the pressures by doing a few loops in the Sjosuen woods.
One thing I have learned, and come to embrace about skiing (and by embrace I guess I mean forge a more ‘positive’ attitude or acceptance towards) is the reality that in the sport, there is a lot more variables which can force a competitor to just “deal with” things. For example, take the weather. Falling snow, harsh winds, brutal cold – sometimes combinations of all three – don’t halt a race. Likewise, warm, slushy snow, impossible wax conditions, slow skis, slippery skis, lack of grip, etc., can all create a scenario of an utterly miserable skiing experience. But, everyone has to deal with it. It is a little bit like running, – everyone has to face a hard headwind on a midwest April outdoor track meet I guess. If a cross country course is saturated in rain, muddy, and ‘tough,’ everyone has to deal with it. But from my experience, in running, the effect of these things is a bit less dramatic. In a 5k on the outdoor track, you can survive pretty much anything for 15-17 minutes. In fact, often times performance is not even ruined all that much. But in a 50k skate race during a blizzard, times can stretch 30-50% worse than fast conditions.
Even in my extremely short racing career, I’ve already experienced a pretty wide gamut of conditions. In them, I was frustrated (during the bad) and elated (during the good). During the perfect days, I was naive to just how awesome but rare they were – when everything worked. And during the rough storms, I didn’t really embrace the fact that this is just part of the sport. In a 50k at the Snow Mountain Stampede back in 2018, snow was falling so fast and so hard, and the conditions became so slow that only 11 males finished the race. I was 11th. It took me just a hair under 4 hours. It was not an enjoyable race at all. I had absolutely no glide (i didn’t have the right skis and I didn’t wax them properly or even brush them at all. I didn’t even know that brushing was a thing to be honest!).
On this topic, this week would be for me a great week to focus on training in powder. I found out on Monday that the big groomer responsible for taking care of the Mineral Belt was broken. That left all of the grooming duties – CMC and the Mineral Belt – under the control of the CMC groomers. They had been great, I thought, all year, so I wasn’t too worried. Even if I couldn’t get on the mineral belt much, I’d still be able to ski on CMC’s trails. I was a little nervous about the upcoming race on Saturday, however, since 30 inches of fresh powder just sitting on the belt ungroomed would probably not magically firm up enough to allow for excellent double poling.
Monday, no grooming. I did a 30 minute skate, then a 55 minute run. In the afternoon, another 90 minute skate on groomed snow. The only saving grace was that the exercise loop was somehow really fast. People had skied on it enough to change the consistency of the snow. But, there was no firmness. I couldn’t put any force into my poles at all. AGain, I remained positive in my training outlook: this was just a good opportunity to train and work on lower body skate technique. I’d spent a lot of time hammering away on the cemented mineral belt, double poling and classic skiing. Now was my chance to work on skate skiing in the soft stuff.
Tuesday, we had conferences. That meant being at school until 8 PM. I strategically scheduled some meetings to allow for an afternoon workout, but I needed to be up early to ensure a good ski. 1.5 hour skate on CMC’s powder trails in the morning was followed by a 50 minute run in between conferences. Then, coming home to eat a huge a meal and go to bed a little later than normal.
Wednesday was rough to approach. I felt like I hadn’t even left school. As I drove into town, I noticed that the Mineral Belt had the appearance of just being groomed. It looked pretty narrow – must have been the small CMC groomer. I figured he only did one pass. Looked pretty, probably was crap. I was right. It was barely skiable. Poles were punching through everywhere. I eeked out an 80 minute skate, half of it back on my CMC loop, which I had discovered had a roughly 200 meter gradual uphill section which was considerably firmer than the rest of the trail. In the afternoon, I tried to classic ski, but it was awful, so I switched back to skate for a total of 1 hour and 45 minutes of skiing.
At this point, I was starting to get nervous and stressed out about Saturday. I was envisioning the CMC groomers going out on Friday night for a single pass over the race route, leaving it looking fine but no where near race firm. This wouldn’t probably effect the skate skiers that much, and since the classic field was typically weak, those striding might not care that much either. The only person who would be dramatically effected by a lackluster grooming job would be me, since I was intending on approaching the race like a Visma classic – 98% double poling. I had even debated just double poling the entire race, lacing up skate skis, and truly going for it.
In my mind, even though this race was a lowkey affair with deservedly more attention going to the tremendous post race potluck, blueberry soup, and community involvement, there was something at stake for me. This was my chance to show locals how good of a skier I actually was. Winning by 15 minutes wasn’t an end all in the ski world, but winning by that much would definitely impress my friends and other people watching. “Wow, that band director won the race!” Of course, no one but maybe Karl would understand that not having the race track firm was a huge hindrance to me. Thus, it wasn’t as if I could walk around to every member of the general public and explain my plight.
Plus, after learning about my job loss, it now did mean something, possibly, for future job opportunities, to do well in something I was passionate about. For me, it was about accurately representing myself. I like sports, I like the outdoors, I’m fit, I’m above average in seriousness and competitiveness in this endeavor. I wanted the results to clearly reflect that because who knows – maybe someone out there sees that or the attention I draw provokes someone to think of something or someone and eventually it all leads me to a job opportunity.
This was more than just a small local race to me. But, at the same time, I was balancing those thoughts with the idea that in reality, it really was just a local race. My life wasn’t at stake, this wasn’t the Olympics, and there probably wouldn’t be superstars showing up to push me to the brink.
So, as the week wound up, I found myself pushing myself in training even more. I originally thought I’d taper for this one, but if it was up in the air as to what the conditions would be like, I might as well not waste a mid season taper for it. I skied 90 minutes Thursday morning and went for a 55 minute run during my break during conferences. I played with AJee out on the mounds of snow, which mimickked small mountains and ridges for her, while the night finished up. At 8, I picked up Christie and we headed home.
That night, I was yearning for a fun xc ski experience. I felt like it had been almomst 10 days since my last “perfect” ski day. It seemed like everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had to endure kind of tough snow. Aspen was pretty nice, but after the race, there wasn’t any time to really hang out and just ski. And it started to snow, so even though the tracks were great, they were gradually getting worse.
It just won’t stop snowing!
On Friday morning, I woke up too early – around 5 AM. I felt bad for Ajee, so I went down to the basement to be with her. First, I made some coffee, put on warm pants, grabbed my book and my ipad, and then headed down to the cold room. I doubted I would actually crack open the book. Ajee doesn’t really cuddle with us. Right now, we are her play mates, so when she sees us, she wants to play. She tries to tug at our shirts or bite our faces off until we reciprocate. She actually is pretty smart that way. Once we start her game, she plays along. She is fun to play with. My other dogs didn’t really want to play with me. Jake thought fetch was much to boring, and he was satisfied by wandering around the yard and the woods, looking for deer guts. Joanie and Zato had each other. They played great together, and were fun to watch as they’d wrestle, but if you tried to get involved, they didn’t really do anything. It was like as a human, you weren’t really welcome into their world.
For Ajee, though, we are her world. She desperately seeks our attention, physical touch, and gamesmanship. And she depends on it. The thing, I htink, that is impressive from an intellectual standpoint, is just how keen she is in knowing what to do to keep us “in” the game. She has figured out little things, like when I clap my big mits, she has to run as close to me as she can without letting me pull her toy out of her mouth. But, unlike, Jake, she doesn’t make it impossible for me. Jake would never give up the toy. Ajee knows that after a while, she needs to give it up so I can throw it again. On the flip side, how many labs have you met that play fetch…but they just know no variation. You throw, they bring it back, they drop it, and you throw it again….and if you don’t, they keep bringing the ball to you and dropping it at your feet.
Ajee likes to mix things up. Pigachu, her yellow pig toy, is a tug of war gadget, an avalanche rescue tool, and a fetch ball, all in one, and she often combines all of those games at the same time. On this morning, I figured I’d be chucking Pigachu off the couch, tugging it from her, and repeating …not conducive to cuddling or reading.
And so that’s what I did. From about 5:30 to 6:30, I was loving on Ajee. I did eventually finish my coffee and then, convinced the grooming situation on the Mineral belt wouldn’t suffice, packed the car and headed out to the pull off by the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center. I hadn’t ever skied from the pull off.
Driving in through town, I took a glance out the passenger window at the Mineral Belt – still tons of powder. I went through town, then realized we needed gas in the car. I was annoyed now – having been up since 5:30, I wasn’t even going to get on the trails until 8 if I was lucky. I was hoping to ski twice today on this free day off from school.
It ended up not mattering much. As I got to the site, I could see the big groomer just laying down the new tracks. Had I gotten there earlier, I would have been greeted by powder there as well. I put on some blue on my classic skis and headed out. The snow was super slow, starchy, and it was sunny. It was hard skiing across the wide open plane. My skis wouldn’t glide, and even though I was getting grip, I could tell it wasn’t from the wax – it was just that the snow was sticky. I got all the way across the plains, which was about 2 miles of 1% grade – so basically flat, and then reached a very steep, brutal climb to reach the more central trails. I’d been on those trails before, starting from the lodge, which is in the parking lot of ski cooper. My last experience on them was pretty enjoyable. There are some fun descents – a lot steeper than the Mineral Belt, with just the right level of sharpness on the turns. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the woods, I was convinced that the snow here was just not going to be good for classic skiing. I decided to turn right around and head back to try skate skiing. I came all this way!
It was arduous to get all the way back to the car. By the time I did, I had already skied a little more than an hour. The tracks on the plains hadn’t firmed up much. On skate skis, the temperature had risen, and I was getting hotter by the minute. I managed to get all the way back to the main trails, alternating up the steep “lung buster” slope before enjoying some relaxing, shaded trails up by the lodge. Overall, it was not a particularly pleasing, effortless ski. It wasn’t the kind of ski where you feel like you find a rhythm and can just go forever. But, by the time I got back to the car, I was proud of the hard workout that it was.
After the two hour ski, I drove home for breakfast. The afternoon included another 90 minutes of skating at CMC. When we pulled into the lot at 4 PM, I was expecting at this point to have seen some grooming. Alas, nothing had been done. In fact, nothing was even set up. It made me really angry. I was convinced it would be impossible for me to double pole and that this day would likely turn out to be one of the ‘worst’ ski days on the trail all year. Given that I had enjoyed, up to this point, roughly 95 great ski days on the trail already this season, that part was only a little bittersweet. But I felt worse for the people traveling from far away, excited to take part in a race on one of the best trails in the state. I remembererd two years ago, living in Alamosa, when signing up for a race was as much about a “guarenteed” day of skiing on appropriately groomed trails. Now, I was lucky enough to have that almost everyday, but I knew that people were coming from southern Colorado and even New Mexico – that is a long way to travel to ski on shoddy trails. And it was sad – since this was our town’s chance to show off what we have.
I expressed my frustration to an older gentlemen who had come from Steamboat for the race. I detailed the past week and how there had been no grooming, how the big groomer was broken, and how I had my doubts as to how they would make the course race firm. After saying all of that, I felt a little bad. He sighed, “Oh, no!”
“Maybe I should change to the 10k,” said a lady who was with him. A local who must have been hosting them tried to deflect my negativity, saying, “Let’s go skiing,” as he pulled the group away. I followed them up the trail, continuing some conversation, which consisted of me mostly trying to recoup some losses for the sake of Leadville.
As I finished my workout, the CMC groomers were just starting. It was 5 PM. Students were setting up the start. How were they going to pull this off?
I purposely skated some big lines through the courdory, hoping it would force them to at least make a second pass.
Saturday – Race Day
I was up at 6 am to make coffee and head down to the garage to scrape skis. It ended up not feeling like enough time at all. My race started at 8:15. I wanted to be there by 7:30 to check the trails and make a decision – could I DP and thus use my skate skis, or should i play it safe and just classic. Or, did I need to switch entirely to the skate race? As if this wasn’t enough to be thinking of in the already crunched morning, I was frantically brushing and scraping skis and feeling like I was behind schedule. At 7:15, we got into the car. I felt like I already had been racing for an hour.
We drove into town. It was shaping up to be a perfect, bluebird day. The sun was coming up, and though the tempnerature forecast was supposed to be at about 15 degrees, it was a comfortable and quickly rising forecast. We drove up the hill and pulled into the Dutch Henry Parking lot. I decided, since roughly 18 miles of my race would be on the Mineral Belt, that I should check to see what the firmness of those tracks were. As we drove by, they looked good, but, after the warning from Dan’s text, I was well aware of the value of looks.
I hopped out of the car, grabbed my poles, and jogged over to the start of the trail. I started stabbing around the middle and edges of the trails. To my amazement, everything was rock firm. I could hardly believe it! They must have been grooming the thing the entire night! I can’t imagine how many times they would have needed to go over it to make it this quality.
Despite the relative unorganized feel from the night before, the Leadville Loppet 2020 was generally one positive surprise after another. Up at the start, things were hustling and bustling. The trails everywhere were great, the start line looked official, and people were warming up (completely unaware of the state of the place just 15 hours prior.
The I took my classic cold skis out and put on some blue wax…Oh I forgot to mention the real drama of the day which had taken place at 6:30 AM that morning. After scraping, I plugged in my Laura Ingalls Wilder iron in order to hot wax my binder, and it would not fire up! My first thought was that there must be something wrong with the outlet. Afterall, this iron had been roasting since 1856; there was no way it just happened to die the morning of a race, right?! I tried plugging it in everywhere, Ajee, in tow, lurching at either my hands or the iron’s cords. “Ajee! Stop! No!” I blurted. She didn’t perceive the intense nature of the situation.
Well, maybe it actually was dead. The grooming was going to be terrible, my skis were probably going to be slow, I was going to be late, and my grip wax was going to suck – maybe it did make sense. So, I corked on Toko green – two layers, as a base. Then, I corked on some blue. The weather was probably going to be cold in the morning, so I figured that after 20k, nothing would be kicking anyway. Plus, I really ought to be able to double pole everything anyway, so if there was any race to have a slick underfoot, it was this one.
I ended up discovering that my iron was just fine, and a switch in the garage had been turned off. Oh well. Back to the race.
I warmed up on my race skis up the exercise loop, running into Clayton Moseley, the head guy for Southwest Nordic based out of the Sante Fe, Albquerque.
“The trails are really nice, aren’t they?” I said excitedly. I briefed him on the situation of the snow that week. “I would have felt bad if you guys would have come all this way and had terrible skiing! I knew you and your group always came here.”
Moseley was a grizzled veteran of the southern Colorado race scene. He had done Alley Loop many times, and the Leadville Loppet several times as well. He had been at Alley Loop two weeks ago and raced in the classic race, placing 5th. He had placed as high as 2nd or 3rd in that race in previous years.
Then, he told me something that got me amped up a little for the rest of the day.
“Yeah, we brought a good crew today. I have a friend who used to race for NMU (New MExico) and I told him, ‘yeah there is a guy in Leadville that is pretty good, but maybe we can hang with him for awhile.’ So he is here, he is pretty good!”
I blushed and shrugged off the comment with humility. “Oh gosh!” I replied. Here I thought I was taking the easy way out by doing the classic race, which has typically not included any “ringers.” In the past, the Loppet has usually garnered one or two (sometimes more) legit skate skiers.
This would not be the case in the 2020 rendition. I finished a full loop of the exercise loop, kicking just to test. I could double pole everything, but I figured I might as well enjoy the fruits of my labor that morning and see how the kick was. I could tell it was a little slick. The reality was, had that race started at 6:45 AM, I would have had great skis for a 44k. In the shade, at 15 degrees, I had the recipe for success. But today, the sun was going to wreak havoc a little sooner than I would have liked.
I finished cooling down and went to the far end of the soccer field to drop off my coat with Christie and Ajee. I pulled down my pants a little and did one final pre-race pee. I was feeling good. Even with all of the training I had done this week, my mindset for today was to just have a good solid long ski. I didn’t really care about tapering for this one, and I hadn’t. Ironically, I did the same thing at crested butte, and I ended up killling it. So, in the back of my mind, I knew, too, that if I had to really push it, I probably would have something there.
The race ended up being a much harder effort than I thought.
We got shot off from the soccer fields, took a hard right and headed down the lower section of CMC trails. Everyone was moving well and there wasn’t much room. I talked with Clay on the way down, said a few things rhetorically to the race group so we wouldn’t have any ski/pole trouble, and before you knew it, was safely at the start of the Mineral Belt trail. The first 1.5 miles probably took 7 minutes – it was all downhill and skis were fast. I was in 4th in the classic, having spotted the leader a solid 100 meters.
As soon as we hit the first uphill turn, I started double poling, and before the 11 mile mark, I had passed everyone in the whole field, including the lead skate skier, Alex.
As I went past, I cheered, “Go Baaates!”
I knew Alex had raced for Bates in college. His fiance was a teacher at our school, and she had mentioned through the winter how he was training for the Loppet and was wondering if there would be competition from me. Inside, Alex was the main compmetition for me. I pridefully wanted to say that I beat the entire field, skaters and classic skiers, on classic skis. I knew Alex was pretty good, so my chances actually weren’t great that I’d be able to pull it off.
I quickly found a rhythm and double poled up past the 10 mile mark. I felt totally fine and in control. The tracks were hard and cold, it was nice outside. I started to worry that the sun would heat things up too fast, though, as it peered over the mountains. I knew, even then, that today’s race would have been better for me had it started at 7 am. My skis were a cold grind ski with cold wax on. I should have had a plus ski… a plus skate ski.
Right before the nine mile post, we made our turn onto the CMC trails and started our first descent. I was in first place and couldn’t hear anyone around me, though I had been somewhat shocket at how fast the classic skier behind me had strided with me. I figured he must have either really fast skis or great striding technique. Turns out, he probably had both. I hadn’t gone downhill for more than one minute when Alex came whizzing by me. I figured I sort of had to expect that, since he could really do damage on the downhills, but the speed at which he passed me was discouraging. Then, the second skate skier passed me as well, and before I knew it, the classic skier behind me had caught up as well. My lead I worked and felt I deserved to have built had vanished. We went all the way down to what vertically would be the equivalent of about the 10 mile mark. Then, we made a hard right on the skinny, wooded trails and started back up hill. I worked hard and past everyone but Alex, who was pretty much out of sight at this point (though in reality, he was only about 15 seconds up.
At this point, I figured I was in for a race. I knew I would be approaching Christie pretty soon, as she was going to cheer for me at the road crossing. About 3 minutes ago, I figured I’d be the first face she saw, which would be a nice impressive showing of confidence. Now, I felt panicked, as if I might be the first classic skier, but with someone right in tow.
As we weaved up and down the CMC trails, I was double poling almost everything, desiring to get as much of a lead as I could. At the same time, I knew my grip wax wouldn’t be effective soon as the weather warmed up. So, I occasionaly sprinkled in a stride here and there or a kick double pole, but not much. I had the fitness to double pole this whole thing, and even though I didn’t have the perfect set up for it, I made up my mind there that today was going to be a grind and I was up for it.
We exited the woods and got back on the Mineral Belt. Soon I could hear the HMI students at the aid station at the road crossing. I heard Christie’s voice, too. I figured I was only up by about 10 seconds, maybe less, but I must have been wrong. Christie cheered for me as normal, I didn’t take any aid, and I looked focused as I headed up the first serious climb on the other side.
In my visualizations all summer, fall, and winter of this race, I pictured myself decimating the field on this climb, which has pitches between 7-11 percent. It is most definitely the hardest section of the Mineral Belt, and I had been proud to V2 the entire thing, though that truly leaves one breathless. I also had double poled the entire thing before as well, ensuring confidence that if I ever did classic the race sans grip wax, I could do it. Today, however, I knew my upper body would get tired, and I thought it might actually be in my best interest to stride up this hill when I could, just to spread out the work muscularly. My breathing would have time to recover when I went back to DP, and my arms would thank me at the end of the race. So, that’s what I did. On some of the steeper parts, I sprinted up, running and striding. Then, around the turns, I did short double poles. I was up the mile stretch in a jiffy, and I couldn’t hear or see anyone behind me.
After the steep climb, there is a very gradual downhill slope to the 7 mile post. This is a section where someone with great skis might be able to recover and tuck, but those with less than great glide would get caught and likely be unable to tuck at all. I was the latter today. My plan now was to work on this downhill and then really throw in a hard double pole effort from 7 to 6, the climb up California Gulch.
That section of trail was one I was very accustomed to, since I often went back and forth on it after work. It could get pretty fast on hard packed or icy days as it cools off from a day in the open sun. Also, it there was a predictable solitude on that section. Only Larry, the biker/local who skate skied late after work on that section of trail as well was someone I’d run into. He often would attempt to race me as I double poled that section. In the summer, it was a spot where I also did L3 or L4 skate efforts, as the glide down is both safe and fun.
It was also the part of the race where I knew most people would hit the wall for the first time. It was deceivingly tough – one of those hills that doesn’t ever end. If I could build a lead here, it would send a good message going into the 2.5 mile downhill on the other side.
I climbed easily, went through another aid without taking anything, and pushed up the other side. By now, the sun was in full force, and the snow was starting to change in content. It was getting soft and slushy. All of a sudden, I could feel the stiffness come out of each pole – the energy return seemed to be cut in half. The glide in my skis was pretty much gone by the time I hit the highest point of the Mineral Belt. I would need to work hard on the downhill, too.
In my last Loppet, this section was the one where skiers caught me. It is a two mile stretch where the grade hovers between 2-3 percent for most of the way. I’ve never been in a situation where I could full on tuck on this section, but today would certainly be the opposite of that. I was still nervous that the skier behind me might have fast skis coming down. If he did, I figured he might be able to claw back some time. It appeared that I had around 90 seconds or more him at this point. When I crossed California Gulch, I took a quick glance back and saw him coming up the final bend to the aid station. He was close, but not super close. I knew that if I got to the dog pound before him, I was in the clear, as I could separate again on the final uphill climb. Well, that’s what I thought righ then and there.
As the race wore on, however, feelings of being ‘comfortable’ with my lead never really arrived. Once I hit the turn around, I started to think about how I would have to fight against traffic. What would that do to my efficiency? Then, I remembered that there was still a considerable downhill segment left in the race on the other side of the Mineral Belt.
I started double poling up the east side of the trail. The sun was hot and in full force, and i could feel the tracks having slowed down considerably. I hit the second place skate racer and Graham right away, and then a female skater. I was passed the three mile mark, in a good rhythm, when I started to encounter more racers. They were moving out of the way for me more than I was for them. A few cheered. It was as if we were all part of the ‘brotherhood’ of the race at this juncture, since our small group of 44kers were the only people racing who would get to see this side of the trail.
I got up and over the highest point of the trail and double poled the flat section between 5 and 6 that looks like a slight uphill from both directions (the ‘railroad effect’ – must be perfectly flat to give this type of allusion? I’m not really sure.). I crossed California Gulch and went through the aid station again, not taking anything. I wasn’t feeling thirsty or hungry. I was just in a state of focus. At the start, I was a little nervous about fluids and energy, since I could tell it was going to be a sunny affair, but since stations were plentiful, I knew I was ok to push it towards the side of not taking anything if I could, since then I would avoid any risks of GI issues. This plan has not always worked for me, but I would say 98% of the time I’m fine going about it that way. I’ve only had two major uncomfortable situations in terms of lack of fuel and food, and they both came on very hot, windy, and difficult all day bike rides.
I was feeling good and focused, and I felt at that point like I really had the hard part of my race behind me. Still, the signs every 5k reminded me that at this point, I was actually only at 30k – still 14k to go. And even though I would eventually get to the bottom of the trail and had a net downhill to the finish, the effect of the ensuing up and down climbs in the CMC woods was about to be much more taxing than I anticipated.
I floated past mile 7, working all the way down California Gulch, a section of downhill, which, on a typical after school evening, can be slick enough to be a tuck and go section. Not so today. I went up the gradual incline and then down the steepest downhill point of the trail, past mile marker 8, and back across the dump road, where the last aid station was. Feeling fine, I decided to just go for it at this point. No aid or water – let’s just finish. If I was in fact in a state of depletion, refueling 2 hours and 10 minutes into a 2 hour and 45 minute race probably wasn’t going to be the difference.
The rest of this race was not particularly enjoyable. I will state the positives first. What was good was that there was no issue of directions. I really thought with a course this confusing, and with other racers out, that there could be a reasonable chance that I would get either led astray or reach an intersection and not know where to go. The course was extremely well marked, with signs clearly facing you on the out portion at the beginning, and separate signs facing you as you double back on the same trails. I could have probbably compnleted the course without any assistance, but in addition to the well marked signs, there were also workers at every turn.
That was the good. The unfortunate thing was that there were a heck of a lot of 10k and 22k racers out well I was coming in for the final 10k on the CMC trails. Every time I was trying to fly down the narrow trails, I was forced to yell to wake up the oncoming traffic, which consisted of a mix of novice young and old skiers, high school and collegiate athletes (they knew to get out of the way), and small children, parents, and other goofballs in costumes. Since on the downhills, they were coming up, they were usually in the head down, grinding, completely gassed state. Not a great place to have a guy who is whipping uncharacteristicly quickly downhill coming right at you and totally surprising you.
Then, on the uphills, I was double poling like mad, since I had no grip, and the same types of people were know careening down the trail. Many were in the tracks, which, for some was maybe their right, but for others was out of place. Either way, they should have been the ones moving out of the way for the uphill traffic, like I had done, but that generally did not happen. So, I was forced in and out of the tracks, had to yell constantly for people to move, and was scanning and deducing whether or not the people in front of me were confident of enough skiers where I could count on them to move easily or if I needed to just do all of the maneuvering to prevent a large crash.
That lasted from around 33k to about 42k, and just seemed like forever. I don’t know if it really slowed me down, but it definitely fatigued me mentally more than the rest of the race combined! The final straw was an insane downhill (for 10k and 22k racers) which came into a sharp, 90 degree hard right turn. The hill was long, and at the end it was so steep that it was impossible to see the hard left turn until you were right on it. It was hard enough taking as a downhill. Of course, my course had to take it as an uphill as we neared the finish. Knowing that I was at the mercy of whoever was coming down it as I approached the, for me, left turn and sharp climb, I poured a ton of energy into getting around the turn and out of the blind zone as fast as I could. Luckily, no one was coming until I reached a small crest of the hill.
Sloppily herringboning and double poling my way to the crest, I saw collegiate athletes, aware of the danger ahead, snowplowing down towards me. We went by each other without hardly an issue. That was a big break for me, since it easily could have been a crowd of costumed skiers, an unsuspecting little one, or an overmatched, inexperienced adult, which would have forced me to really abandon my line and rhythm up the hill.
The race finally escaped the CMC woods and got out onto the Mineral Belt with probably 4k remaining. I had been alone for the last 90 minutes or more, and now, all I had to do was close up the race by getting around all of the lonely 5k racers still plodding along. That race was most of the costumed people. I didn’t mind going around them, which I had to do frequently, since there was plenty of room on the Mineral Belt anyway; besides, the tracks were probably slower than the skate at this point anyway.
I was still thinking about the race behind me. I wondered if Graham had negotiated the two-way traffic section as well as I had. In the back of my mind, I also thought about the possibility of someone behind me having to do less. What if they had been sent directly down the MBT and missed the 8 or 9k of loops up and down the CMC section? If so, I could find myself at any moment coming up on someone who I had actually truly been in front of. Mostly, I didn’t think of that, though. I just kept thinking about the next 800 meters, about my form, and about grinding ahead to the finish. I was still fully engaged in the ‘don’t look back it’s a race’ mode. I was starting to feel good about myself having been locked in like that for this entire race, and having to double pole with slow skis for over 97 percent of the distance, in hot conditions…on a day that I didn’t think I would really have to work for. As I came up on the 11 mile mark, I started to think that I was probably safe to let up.
Just as fast as those thoughts creeped into my mind, however, I squelched them. You’ve come this far, don’t give in to the temptation of mentally checking out now, I thought. There was a couple of groups of really small kids and their moms in front of me. It was the last group to navigate around, probably for the day, I figured. I kept my speed up, snuck up, and passed the kids before they had a chance to even comprehend me being there, a strategy I felt at this point to be actually safer, and much faster, than diplomatically stopping and trying to avoid a collision. There was no collision, though, and I hit the lowest point of the trail, took a bending right hand turn, and started back into my double pole up the deceiving gradual uphill that leads to Dutch Henry.
I kept my face forward, focused on my rhythm, and told myself to turn around and assess the damage only after I was above 60% of the climb. Quite frankly, tyhe prospect of turning around to see if someone was close was actually quite frightening – more so than the prospect of turning around with pride, thinking the race was over, only to then discover someone was there. I knew at this point, if I saw someone, it would help me to kick it in. Meb always talks about how he frequently turns around while running to logically assess what he has to do to make it home in his spot. In a race this long, and with one final steep climb to go, I needed to know just how easy or hard I needed to take it. I didn’t want to hammer and risk fainting if I didn’t need to!
I was well past the 60% barrier I had arbitrarily set for myself when I stood up, gliding from the last pole push, and turned around. No one was there. I wave of relief was over me. At 42k into a 44k, I finally relaxed to savor the victory.
I climbed the final turns to get back to the soccer field and double poled across to the finish line. I saw Josiah, one of my students, cheering and saying my name as I approached the clock. It read 2:47 something. Part of me was amazed at just how long of a day this had been.
I crossed just three minutes behind Alex, who was in the chute as I came through. I went all the way through, then relaxed and stared off into the north part of town, not really exhausted, but definitely mentally and physically spent. I turned back around to see two gentlemen working the finish line having a conversation. One was pointing at me, and anticipating they were talking about me, I started back towards them. What now, I thought.
I hadn’t made more than a couple of pole pushes when the one who looked like he was in charge of timing caught my attention and yelled for me to come over. Basically, he thought I had gone the wrong way. Turns out, he actually didn’t know his own course. He was expecting to see me come down the woods out of CMC and into the finish, which is what other races had done, while the 44k actually came from the opposite side woods, climbing into the finish. At first, I was mildly worried that he was actually seriously considering stripping me of my day’s work, and that I had someone done something wrong. Luckily, Alex was there to vouch for me, and indeed the two of us corroborated on the excellent markings, how we had crossed a 40k sign on the Mineral Belt trail below the presumed, false turn, and the official was fine. It was then that I learned Alex’s time of roughly 2:44. I was excited to have been so close to him, and at the same time, I thought it was interesting how, being that close, I hadn’t been able to see him. I think, had I been on a warm, plus skate ski and just double poled everything, I would have been very lose to beating him, it’s hard to know since I never could really see him.
Eventually, I spotted my post race heros, Ajee and Christie, who came sprinting over to greet me with a smile. I did an obligatory cool down, which was me classic striding – er – slipping about 100 yards to the section of woods where other finishers would be coming out. Ajee and Christie trotted next to me. We were stopped by a friend I had met the previous weekend in Frisco, a guy who was from Steamboat. In Frisco, we had talked for almost 45 minutes about everything from races to skis to future plans. He was probably in his early 40s, and seemed to have time and money at his disposal. He had plans to race the Birkie, but would have to start from the last wave. Since I had been in a similar experience the previous year, and since I could tell he was an above average skater, I quickly had briefed him on how terrible his experience was likely to be and to not get his hopes up too much. Actually, it was a great talk, and we debated some potential options for how to get around the mob that is wave 8. I cautioned him to not be tempted to leave with the whole group, and to wait a lot longer than he thought before crossing the start line. I had waited about 3 minutes, but then felt stupid for standing there, and took off. I immediately regretted the decision, as I caught people before I had even skied 2k.
Back in Frisco, in the face of this dilemma, I offered him a ray of hope – he could just plan on taking in the Birkie experience for fun, but not elevate it to a position in his race schedule where he would taper and base the majority of his enjoyment off of race time or place. Go in, I told him, knowing that it is going to likely be a frustrating experience, and instead of spending 4 hours clawing tooth and nail to get by as many people as possible, just sort of go with the flow, enjoy the scenery, enjoy the comraderie, and treat it like an overdistance workout.
Then, come to Leadville and race the weekend before. His original concern had been the Birkie and that he would be too tired having raced at 10,000 feet seven days before his race in Cable, Wisconsin, and when we left that afternoon, I figured he probably wouldn’t show up.
Yet, here he was. He was thrilled with his decision to come up. He told me about his race – the 22k skate – and how he had loved the trails and not been bothered by the two way traffic. He was likely in front of that escapade. I noticed his Swix Triac 3.0 poles and his Lillsport gold gloves, and was filled with mild envy. I wondered if at any point I would ever have a pair of poles that cost over $400. Good for him, though, and he was a nice guy. I was happy to see that someone would care enough about the sport to get himself the nicest stuff and go out and test himself. He didn’t have the excuse that I always had (well, I don’t have top of the line stuff), and for that, I commended him in my soul more than I really was envious. In fact, envy is the wrong word – I wasn’t bitter – more just amazed at where he was at in life.
He had come that morning and showed up just in time for the race, and he was displaying other signs that he didn’t really know all that the Leadville Loppet entails, so my parting words to him were to make sure he goes into the gym for the epic potluck. “Oh, I didn’t know that,” he responded. “I was going to just go home, so thank you for telling me that.” I felt genuiley like I had helped someone. And I did see him at the potluck.
Christie and I stood there, looking out at the beautiful day. “Oh, see, there is the dog that looks like a grown up Ajee,” I said, pointing to a big, furry black dog that was escaping down the slope into the lower CMC parking lots. “Oh my,” Christie said, and we both commented about how we truly hoped Ajee wouldn’t be quite that big. We stopped and talked to a few other puppies, ran into the Bennings again, and finally made it to the blueberry soup table. It was a hot commodity. The worker was refilling huge coffee pots with milk jugs of the secret recipe, which he kindly said he did not know … only that he served it. We each had a glass before heading to the car to take off our race stuff, get into comfy stuff, and head into the gym for lunch.
The potluck was full and happy. There were all of the homemade soups and stews, along with a few donated from restaurants. There were also baskets of soft bread from High Mountain Pies, and coffee from City on a Hill. Christie and I loaded up and ate several bowls. My first bowl – actually I started with two, was one where I just mixed a bunch of soups that seemed like they could go together, and then another bowl of thin broth I could add too my main bowl if I wanted to thin it out. That was a mushroom and wild rice soup from the fancy restaurant in town that my parents took us out to when they visited in October. I wanted to show Christie it before it was all gone, so I preserved that soup on its own.
Usually at buffet style meals, I get really excited about sitting down for the first time, since it is fun to hear about and/or see something that I might have missed when going through. “Did you see that one with mushrooms/all the vegetables/the meat, etc.?” is a question I almost always ask at this event or the annual trip to Calvillos in Alamosa, Colorado. The first plate is a sampler, and once you’ve decided what is best, you go back and hammer away until you are so full you can’t move. It is fun going out to eat with Christie, since she is like that, too, in a good way! And, since we never go out to eat, everything about the experience is soaked in, commented on, and reminisced.
The mayor was doing his usual thing of walking around the tables of hungry skiers, spouting off trivia questions, throwing chocolate bars to people blurting out the right answers, all in between announcing the age group winners for every race and raffle prize winners as well. The top three in each age group of each race walk away with a glass cup. Almost everyone gets a cup, and the awards take forever.
Exhausted from the long day in the sun, I didn’t mind just sitting at the table and letting the afternoon wind down. Dan joined us at our table as well, and him and I talked about grand nordic ski ideas. He also told me the ins and outs on the grooming situation in Lake County – about who was really in charge. “There is a board meeting Monday – you should come,” he told me. I would love to be on the board, and I love his willingness to venture out and try crazy things as well as his dogged work ethic to groom and take care of the trails he already has jurisdiction on. Lake County would be THE mecca for nordic skiing if everyone just turned everything over to Dan and let him run it. He is the kind of guy that would and is pouring his heart and life and time into nordic skiing. In my experience, every nordic center sort of needs someone like that – someone who donates obscene amounts of energy, time, and money to do stuff like race organizing, grooming, and skiing.
I expressed that to him again, saying how nice it would be if they just gave him the keys to the Pisten Bully, gave him a set budget, and said, “Here you go.” I also reiterated my idea of a Leadville 100 mile ski race to compliment the famous run and bike events. Dan is the kind of guy who takes those types of brainstorms seriously, and his look gave that vibe again as we sat in the gym. We were both leaned back, legs up, talking, dreaming, and for me, learning.
The other folks we sat next to were from South Fork. They were a couple in their upper 40’s/early 50’s, and had been together for almost thirty years, but had never gotten officially married. I remembered hearing someone else talk about them when I lived in Alamosa, and in fact, I recalled racing them in the 2018 Loppett. I just couldn’t catch them on the downhills that day. My skis were slower. Today, even with the slow skis, and in a different discipline, I finished over 15 minutes in front, another testament to my improvement. She was a multi time winner of the Hard Rock, a 100 mile trail race in Silverton – probably one of the hardest trail races in the world – and together, they had both come from a running background and taken up skiing as a non-impactful way to continue endurance sports.
We spent that afternoon walking up and down the Leadville downtown. It was fun to enjoy a sunny afternoon together. We had Ajee out on a leash with us. It is weird thinking how many times we had walked up and down the street, going in and out of shops, and thought about how we wished we could be doing that with a pup. The fun thing then was to find a dog walking with it’s owner and carry on a conversation of what we thought the dog was saying. I guess that is still fun, and we still do it.
Ajee followed us in and out of our favorite stores. We went into the Christian thrift shop. Everyone who saw her thought she was the cutest puppy. As we walked up and down the streets, the sun shone brightly and the sky was perfectly blue – there were no clouds. We walked around for a long time, and when we returned to the car, it felt like it should be 5 PM, but it was only about 3. My body was tuned up and ready for it’s second workout. I’m so programmed in doing that since I workout twice probably 27 of every 28 days, that even after an incredibly monumental effort, I still had a great desire to go back out and ski. I kept joking to CHristie that it was time to go back out and ski. The muscles in my body certainly hoped it was a joke, and yet, my soul was only partially joking. I actually did want to go skiing. I was starting to think about skating, the rhythm, the slightly longer poles, the different gears. Whenever I start to think about skiing, or imagine the world cup skiers, it creates a desire in me to go out and do it. I could feel that urge coming on, and yet, the coach side of me was trying to suppress it, knowing that the best thing for me was rest.
“Do you need to go out and ski again?” Christie asked, emphasizing the word ‘need.’ “No, I mean of course not. But I want to go,” I said, emphasizing want, trying to qualm the idea that I was simply debating on whether or not I should force myself into another workout. No this wasn’t about equalizing a caloric-to-workout ratio or compulsive urge to train. This was simply me looking out at a bluebird day and thinking the best thing to be doing was to ski. When I feel this way, I have to remind myself that it won’t be the last day ever where I will ski. Growing up skiing on the Red River mostly, when it was feasible that is, definitely programs a human into thinking that every perfect ski day needs to be sapped completely of every possible grain of sand. The only appropraite response to this kind of weather was to ski for as many hours as was physically possible, and then tack on two more.
You can’t think that way, however, when you live in Colorado. In the winter, maybe more so, since the weather and grooming is somewhat unpredictable, but you still need to be careful. In the summer, when you can literally have 45 perfect days in a row, you have to plan in some rest days, otherwise you will train yourself to death…and remember, we are at altitude, so things are even more risky.
I made a firm mental decision that the rest of this day needed to be a good rest day. We went home early, sat out on our porch outside, read some books, made food, and enjoyed an extended evening.
The next week:
Sunday – AM – 2 hr skate
PM – 1.5 hr DP @ Beaver Lakes – tons of climb
Mon – AM – 90 DP Beaver Lakes + 30 min strength
PM – 1 hr 45 skate
Tue – AM – 6k CL + 90 min skate
PM – 1 hr 45 min DP/CL
Wed – AM – 75 CL (Ajee with me for 5k)
PM – 1 hr 45 skate (CMC – tried to climb a lot
Thurs – AM – 75 skate @ CMC (Ajee with me 3-4k)
PM – 2 hr CL/DP on Mineral – good effort – did 18 miles in about 1 hr 45 minutes
Fri – AM – 80 CL/DP CMC – freshly groomed – really nice
PM – 2 hr skate with 20 min of hockey on skis; went 11.5 miles in final 70 mninutes – reat skiing; 1400 feet climbing in 15 miles
Sat – AM – 2 hr 5 min CL/DP – 16.5 miles and 1100 feet of climbing
PM – really tired but was so nice so I had to go out; 1 hr 40 minutes with 1100 feet of climbing (again)
Totals – Ski – 23.75 ; Lifting – .5 – Total – 24.25 hours
Can’t believe how much I skied this week.