Last Saturday, I raced in my first national level Ski Mountaineering Race. Before I get into what happened, here is a quick overview of what that type of racing is all about.
Ski Mountaineering Racing (SkiMo or Randonee’) was born in Europe and comes from Mountain Infantry Ski Troops who patrolled the mountainous borders of the army’s respective countries. The patrolling led to the army units coming up with competitions that would test unit against unit to test their fitness and ski ability. Fast forward 50 years and todays Ski Mountaineering has over 20,000 serious competitors world wide and represents countries from most of Europe, North America and parts of Asia. Today SkiMo races last between 2-8 hours, cover 3,000 to 12,000 vertical feet of climbing (the Sandias are 5,000 ft from the Tram to the top), have 8-10 transtions from up hill skiing, to down hill in steep backountry conditions to boot pack hikes up rocky, snow ridge lines. The equipment is very specialized that involve skis that allow pivoting in the toe for uphill to full lock down for the downhill. We also use mohair skins on our skis for the uphill, boots that move like shoes for the up and are stiff for the down and special one piece lycra suits (yes I wear a giant piece of spandex to race in). Here is a video of the race from this year.
So, on to the race.
This race had 3 divisions: Citizen, Advanced, and Elite. They had 2000, 4000, and 6500 vertical feet of climbing respectively and were about 6, 10 and 17 miles long. The race was in Vail, CO. I signed up for the Elite race. I spend much of my time in the winter going uphill on skis and have trained hard this year for it so it seemed logical to me to jump into the big race. There were about 80-100 racers in the Elite division. The race would go up the front side of Vail, down the Back Bowls, up Blue Sky Basin, down Blue Sky, up the back bowls and then back down the front side.(Here is a map of the course.)
The race would likely last between 4 and 6 hours. The race started at 7:30am and conditions that morning were cold (around 17 degrees) but clear, although we knew that snow might come. A note about clothing. We wore head to toe lycra light suits specially made for SkiMo racing. They had some warmth in certain areas and generally breathed quite well, had special pockets for your climbing skins and most of the time would keep you warm enough if you kept moving and barring a full on blizzard (and yes, I know I look awesome in lycra). We also carried a special pack to put our skis on for the boot pack (hiking) sections. My pack contained a thin windbreaker, extra gloves, avalanche shovel and probe and a water bottle with coconut water and a small about of SFH Endurance Protein.
AT 7:30 there were about 200 racers lined up at the start line. At the command go, we all took off in a ski run and went full anaerobic up the first pitch and then settled down into good but brutal pace. The climb up the front side took me right around an hour and we climbed about 2800 vertical feet in that hour. I was sitting in 20th place or so and feeling very good. It had been a tough climb but I had gained a few spots on the steeper sections and held my own on the flatter stuff (I dont train much on flat terrain and the technique is very different and I also believe that my leg strength from the gym was comparably higher than most of the athletes there and it favored me on the steep stuff.) At the top the weather moved in and visibility went to zero. We skied down the Back Bowls and then the course dropped us into very steep, very thick, shitty tree skiing that was out of bounds at Vail. The snow was gloppy, slow and punched out so most of the racers basically crashed down about 1000 vertical feet. It was quite the sight to see a bunch of grown men in light suits landing on their heads every 50 ft. After skiing down decently, I put the skins back on and started off on the second climb. The first part was a flat section and then steep switchback up Blue Sky Basin to the top. We gained another 2000 vertical feet. At this point I was still feeling strong and has stayed around 20th or so. At the top of Blue Sky we had a long, low angle traverse across the entire ridge and that is when the weather changed. The storm moved in with force and soon we were in full blizzard conditions with 40 mph winds blowing sideways and it snowing as hard as I had seen in a while. The low angle stuff prevented me from working up the requisite body heat to keep warm and soon I was turing into a popsicle. About 1/4 mile form the end of the second climb the race drastically changed for me. I was skinning along and suddenly my leg cramped from my groin to my knee. It cramped full on, locked down with no possibility for movement. I was bent over at 45 degrees and could neither stand up or bend over to take my skis off. I stayed in this position for about 10 minutes before the cramp finally let go. During the 10 minutes my body temp dropped rapidly. When the cramp went away, I put my skis back on, and finished the climb. I then descended back down Blue Sky in more gnarly, off piste terrain shaking uncontrollably from the cold. At the bottom of the final climb, I filled my water bottle and set off hoping the leg would hold out. 2 switch back up, it cramped again. Same thing, 10 minutes of standing still, waiting for it to relax. When it did I set off again until it quickly locked up again. At this point I relalized that I was not going to get to the top in any type of racing fashion and that if I kept the cramping up I might jack up the leg for more than just a day. So I DNFd. Fuck. I ll spare you the details of getting back to the front side, but by the time I reached Vail village my leg had cramped no less than 5 more times and I was in the beginning stages of hypothermia. It took me over an hour of shaking uncontrollably before I finally warmed up. Back to the DNF and the oh fuck.
What I learned (or maybe just forgotten).
To quote someone I try and listen to: “There is No Such Thing As a Free Lunch.” Meaning, I have spent the last 9 months since the Death Race working 70 plus hours a week and putting in training where I could. I have spent zero time recovering, a lot of time eating like shit, and very little time getting the proper sleep. So what did I expect? I had convinced myself that my previous base of training and my general nasty attitude would carry me through the race in good fashion. Instead I lived up to our shirt and fell to the level of my training..which was shit. I had built SOME solid SkiMo technique but had only really mastered the basics and not the nuance… I could destroy the steeps, descend with the best but sucked at kick turns, flat skinning, temperature regulation and numerous other small things. I played with the big boys but forgot to put my ante in and I paid for it. Needless to say I came away a bit pissed off…but only at my self. I put this out there because we all WANT to move to the next level. We all WANT to be better. Truth is, it WONT happen with out focused, dedicated work. You must DO, not just want. I have relearned what I already knew and it was a painful reminder. Rather than spew about my next move, I will leave you with the thought that ACTION means more than WORDS.
Ben, thanks for sharing! “Nuance” of body temp control is a such a good term. For a race of the distance you raced, would you try forcing more calories than the bottle of drink throughout the race?
Looking forward to the grueling GT. Holler if you’d like to train together. Kerry in ABQ.
Kerry, Yeah was a discussion today…my bottle had about 240 cals of coconut water plus another 70sih from the protien powder…I would stick with something like that but should have had many more additonal calls… I had an extra Gu but didnt eat it and in retrospect should have had 3-4…have heard of making a slurry in a 10 ounce bottle of half gel and half energy drink/coconut water…for the GT Im going to have one of those plus some solid foods…I think the cramp(s) were a combination of the cold, the flat skin track and food…need to rectify that before the GT. Llove to train some. Im up in SF most days Wed-Sun…hit me up on email (its listed on this site) and we will get some vert in.