Enoch rides again to kick off loppet season
Enoch, the name of the Seder-Skier.com sprinter van, showed toughness in the month of January. We started with an epic journey along the million-dollar highway, an impromptu drive on the most dangerous road in America, then took an even more impromptu 1,100 mile trip to Wisconsin and back on a weekend, and ended with a clutch cold start in Crested Butte for the Alley Loop. Here is an inside look at those adventures.
Durango Nordic Center and The thule pickup
I headed to the San Luis Valley to start the month, passing through South Fork en route to Durango to pick up a craigslist find of importance: our Thule ski wagon for Novi. We found a good deal, I think ($150 for everything), and so I figured the long drive would be worth it. I was also excited that on the way I could take in a 20k skate in Pagosa Springs and maybe check out the Durango Nordic Center.
I was also on the Mikaela Shiffrin beat during the night, which meant stopping at a gas station in South Fork to file a story around 7:30 p.m. Once I completed that, I started up and over Wolf Creek Pass, thinking of my days with Zar and Coach D and the Alamosa harriers. The Durango Twighlight was a fantastic meet that included getting out of school early, making the beautiful drive through the San Juans in the daylight, chilling in Durango for several hours, racing, and then eating pizza, driving back over the now sketchy roads, and arriving back at the high school about in time for a Saturday morning practice. ….ahhh….good times. Weird how it seems like another lifetime ago. In between the chapter of being a music teacher and running coach to where I am now, it really is a lifetime ago.
Enoch and I found a super junky looking R.V. to park next to at a welcoming gas station right in Pagosa Springs, which looked very inviting with all of its Christmas lights still up, downtown bustling, and steam rising from the hot springs off the side of the road. I took in my bowl of oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, and huge loaf of bread, and then settled in for a chilly night in the van, the first in a long time.
I slept well and arrived at Cloman Park early to scrape my skis. I made the audacious decision to use a pair of skate skis I’d never raced on, with a pair of boots I’d also never use. The boots ended up feeling a little big, and the skis, albeit fast, were squirrely. It made for a painful race on the ankles, and on the generally flat course, I had nowhere to utilize my only strength in skate skiing, climbing.
I wasn’t in a great mood afterward, but I felt like I had worked, and that was what counted for the day. I made my way down the road to Durango.
I pulled into the Durango City Market, which was busier than a mosquito on a nudist beach. I called Craigslist Guy, drove a mile to his house, and made the exchange. At that point, I wasn’t totally sure what to do. I could start for Leadville and get home late, essentially having spent more time driving than I had slept in the previous 14 hours, or I could drive farther away from the target, up to the Durango Nordic Center, and check that out.
For some reason, I had thought that DNC was right in Durango. Actually, I needed to hike up 3,000 feet to Purgatory resort. The nordic trails are right across from the Alpine venue.
I went to a gas station, picked up some uber-cheap coffee — half of it was a customary afternoon blend of cappuccino (I usually don’t spice it up in the morning, but in the afternoon, anything goes…) sat in the warming van, scanning Alpine ski stories for work while I sipped, and then headed up the hill.
When I got on skis that evening, 2 inches of snow had already fallen in the tracks. The daily grooming of DNC had cemented a firm base underneath, however, and the skiing was really enjoyable. When an inch or two of warm, fast snow has fallen into a rock hard track, it makes me feel like I’m skiing at some of those bad weather world championship 50k’s you sometimes see on tv.
Anyway, it was very enjoyable. I skied for about an hour and 45 minutes, making four for the day after my cooldown in Pagosa. I was pleased with my choice to stick around, too. It seemed like I could’ve parked right by the trail and no one would have cared. I probably should have done that, but I wanted to heat up warm oatmeal for dinner. Fortunately, there was a cute, cottage-like gas station just 2 miles down the road.
I pulled in, only to find that the microwave had a sign saying I could not heat up outside food because, wait for it….COVID. Huh.
Well, I drove all the way back down the pass, and 11 miles later, stopped at a gas station where the virus apparently didn’t exist, microwaved my grits, ate, and fell asleep peacefully across the parking lot. Oh, the world we live in.
On the next day, I had perfect conditions and fresh grooming for a wonderful 3 hour classic day. Durango’s trails were a nice mix of long and short hills, steep and gradual. It was probably one of the few venues I’ve been at where you really can’t have an enjoyable day without having some kick. There is just too much climbing. Just to see if I could, I double-poled the loop, but it wasn’t much fun.
There were tons of happy faces out on the trails, but it never felt crowded, a phenomenon I must say is a testament to the quality of the system, too. All in all, I was so thrilled about the day, I thought about staying for another day, but I figured that might not go over too well with my wife waiting at home!
The next decision was whether or not I should push north and drive through the million-dollar highway – the most dangerous road in Colorado, supposedly – or retrace my steps home.
There were actually a lot of factors to consider, but I won’t spend 500 words detailing them. Instead, I’ll just say that I went over the hill…..it’s already been a grand adventure…why not continue it.
Needless to say, it was totally worth it. For the past seven years, I’ve wondered what this area of the state has looked like, and if it’s bikeable. Now I know the answer to both: beautiful and yes! The only somewhat frightening aspect was the final 3-4 miles right into Telluride. Northbound cars were hugging the inside, which was nice, but if you were heading south from Telluride, the rail-less pass would be a bit sketchy.
I had great driving weather the rest of the way home; took in another afternoon coffee to keep me awake and went through a few more podcasts. I cut across Gunnison and thought about how in a little while, I’d be heading back this way.
Seeley Hills Classic and Marine O’Brien State Park – back-to-back marathons
If I had written this back at the beginning of February, I might have rambled longer about these two races. Now, it just doesn’t seem worth it. It is probably valuable, I suppose, to ponder some takeaways.
First off, these were great experiences in that, similar to the 15k Snow Mountain Ranch, I both realized that I ‘can’ double-pole almost any type of insanity but I certainly shouldn’t.
At SMR, I lost the leaders at a critical pitch early on and never recovered. At the Birkiebeiner trail, the constant stump-hills of north-central Wisconsin slowed me down and ruined my rhythm every 2 minutes. To be honest, I’m not really sure which of the two courses is the more “impressive” double pole, because while SMR’s climbs were ruthless, Seeley’s were never-ending. I’ll go with Granby for the simple fact that I almost puked from aerobic exhaustion in that one, which I didn’t think was possible using only my arms for propulsion!
So, this event was a confidence booster in one sense. It also made me realize that to be successful in the midwest, you need to dial in your skis perfectly. The fields are deep and those at the top are elite. If you want to break up the typical trios on the podium, you need to have close to the fastest skis, and that means having different grinding options at your disposal. It also probably means having multiple layers of wax and powders, but I’ve resigned myself to accepting the fact that the sheer cost of those might be untenable for me at this point in life.
The one wax element within my control is grip. And I could stand to improve in that area, for sure. Even if I had the classic pair of skis ready for Saturday, I’m not sure I would have had the best grip wax. Although, being that it was so cold, maybe it would have been pretty straightforward.
The Marine O’Brien 50k on the following day was a cute celebration of Nordic skiing, a well-designed course, an old-fashioned trail, and a bit of the frusties…
I double-poled the whole first lap, again, a terrible decision. After taking an early lead I could have hammered home with during the first 3k, when the trail was wide, hard, and gradual, I quickly lost the group of leaders in the front when we hit a wildly steep pitch. For the next 20k, we were doing a lot of that, only on a single snowmobile path, with sketchy twisting downhills and three road crossings to boot. After about an hour, I felt pretty hopeless, alone, and wondering if I really was as good of a skier as I thought.
I write that to add some drama, of course. In reality, I have a semi-firm grasp on what my strengths are, and in them I have a fair bit of confidence. Still, it is good to be humbled and sometimes even lose to people who might not be as fit as you, but who were simply better at skiing that course on that day than you were. The people in front of me certainly were that.
It felt a little depressing to finish the three-hour affair, unbuckle, walk to the car, chuck the skis in, grab a drink to go, and immediately drive the hour back to grandma’s house to pack and get ready to drive on to Leadville. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t in a great mood, however, so I had no interest in staying for any semblance of an awards, even though I think I actually placed 5th overall.
The thing that really stung was that it seemed like one of the people in front of me might have cheated. I was gaining on him during the second lap, and having closed to approximately 5-10 seconds, I stopped at the top of the hill to go pee (I know….but, what can you do…..it was very remote….). I never saw him again, even on a particular section where it would have been impossible for us to not double back on each other (even if he had extended his lead). It was mysterious and frustrating…but….I digress. Maybe I really was falling apart more than I thought.
The real heroes on the 4-day trip to the midwest were Novi, Christie, and Enoch. Christie and I share the driving load – in fact, I often accumulate most of the driving – but she took the ‘hard’ shift (in my opinion) by driving through some of the wee hours of the night while I slept. Novi took everything in stride, not complaining or fussing while she sat in a van that barely got above 35 degrees the entire way home.
Enoch was strong and didn’t break down, which is all we’ve ever hoped. On the way home, we did stop in Nebraska and pull over at a rest stop for four hours. It extended the journey to 23 hours, but it was worth it. Once we got to Leadville, I hopped out and went for a ski to stretch Ajee’s legs. Back home.
Departed: 5:00 PM; Leadville temp: 10 degrees
Arrived in Gunnison for pre-race porridge ….cold porridge; temp: -13
Overnight low in CB: -14
I’m not sure what it is about the Alley Loop, but for whatever reason, it seems to provide this untethered level of excitement for 51 weeks of the year, motivating me to train and grind, and then, the week of the race, I always feel like not even making the trip.
I sort of felt that again this year. Maybe it was the cold.
Because of the projected overnight lows, Christie and I decided to have me drive solo in the van and have her follow the next day in the Buick. After a very busy week of writing Olympic stories, sleep was slow and stress was high. I had Saturday mostly taken care of, with some stories banked up.
I opted for using my double pole skis with a blue glide wax. Nothing fancy, and my skis didn’t feel all that special, to be honest. They were ok, though, and as the day went on, I think they actually sped up just a little. Of course, by the second lap, I was dodging skate skiers who were constantly wandering into the classic track. This is a developing pet peeve for sure. Might have to rant more about it on the “grinds for grinds” promotion this spring.
The bigger concern as the race took off was actually my general physical state. I woke up with a sore throat and what felt to be a developing cold. I could tell it wasn’t strength-sapping in the moment, but the annoyance in my throat had kept me up during the night. Additionally, I hadn’t really had my normal volume of coffee and Emergence-C, pre-race staples.
I told myself that it wasn’t a sin to stop at an aid station, and depending on how things were, I’d be monitoring all aspects. In a 2-hour effort, I know my body will hold up without taking in much if anything (I’ve done a few 3-hour races with no water or food), but, in the event you DO need something, if you start late, it’s catastrophic.
I ended up going out hard in the first 2 miles or so of the race, getting a nice lead, before trying to settle down. Unfortunately, the race starts with its most stern climb, and it proceeds to wind gradually uphill for the next 20 minutes. Really, what makes the Alley-Loop a hard race is that you almost never are resting. Thus, throughout the first lap, I felt worse and worse – almost like I was “blowing up.”
When I did hit the one larger downhill, I immediately ‘came to’ in the lungs. I could feel everything settle down and where I at one point was wondering if I was going to just keel over and die from the cumulative stress of my job, training, the last few races, and whatever little bug was in me, I now felt ready to enjoy the perfect day.
Each lap felt better and better, and I had built a large enough lead that I was not really pushing for the final 90 minutes. I wasn’t backing off, but it was not the same urgency and tempo I had used at the Seeley Hills.
In the end, I was pretty pleased with the outcome of the race. I hadn’t been caught by the skate field, and on that day, that was a decent accomplishment, as Patrick Caldwell showed up and went sub-2.
Of course, the Alley Loop is becoming more of a family outing. Christie and I have come up to the race three times together – last year I came alone – and each of the days has been a sunny, perfect, Colorado-blue bird day. We walk around afterwards, peek in a shop or two, sit on random city benches and watch the town’s dogs galavant around – usually Christie provides on-point commentary for them – and then we choose a place to go and eat.
For most people, that last point probably seems inconsequential, but one of our early marriage decisions was to be very conscious about our budget, which included limiting our restaurant visits. Pretty quickly, the frugal side of our natures took over, and the habit of going out to eat once a month metamorphosed into going out 2-3 per year.
It’s to the point now that we have a few established cornerstone outings: Calvillos in Alamosa (though, we haven’t been for three years now), Olive Garden when our wonderful parents give us gift cards, any restaurant that someone pays for our meal (thank you to those who have done that!), our anniversary meal, and….Crested Butte.
Knowing that actually makes it all the more special. Sometimes we try too hard to find “just the right place” and it can never be good enough (there’s only one Calvillos), but usually, the date sticks in the memory bank more firmly because we are cherishing each moment.
I’m sure I’ll always remember holding Novi at the little Greek restaurant, watching biathlon on TV as she giggled and tried to tip over my plate. Afterward, we walked back to the van, where Ajee was waiting, probably feeling a little imprisoned by the fact that her owner, for whatever reason, elected to go on a 2-hour ski without her. Bewildering, I know.
She was my partner for the ride home, and Novi kept Christie company. I’ll admit, with the sun out and the snow perfect, I was tempted to hop back on my skis. I waited to get an afternoon mocha in my belly, a 2.5-hour drive under my belt, and a few podcasts in my mind before Ajee and I took the headlamps out and ripped 15k on the fast and compact Mineral Belt late at night. She needed the walk.