Well, there we were again. The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse seems to have this effect on some folks. There are some who do it once, and that’s enough. There are others who do it, and come back again and again. I should have known that we’d be in the later category. The very evening that we’d finished the EMGT for the first time, we lay in bed, exhausted, and discussing what we would do different next time. Wait, next time?
Yep, next time.
more, we lined up at the start, all 170 teams of two, headlamp clad,
with the most amazing array of ski gear you will ever see in one
competition. Skate ski gear, classic gear, bc touring nordic gear,
"heavy metal" AT gear, tele gear, and lightweight AT gear. There’s
something that makes me smile when you’re lined up at the start and the
person on your right is wearing some fish scale skis, the guy in front
Marker Barons on a pair of K2 Pontoons, and on your left a couple of
skate skiers. The heart of this race beats adventure for skiers from all
walks of life.
Every other race I’ve felt so nervous that I was pretty sure I was going to vomit all over the starting line. This one was different. I knew what was in store, as much as you can know. In fact, over dinner, Dan had said we were too relaxed. Many racers seem to get pumped up and maybe even a little riled up over something right before a race. It makes sense. I’m never so good physically as when I am completed pissed off. Not so much now. I was calm and collected. I hoped to finish, hoped to do my best, and I had a plan this year. The plan was to eat and drink as much as I could. Last year, I had ate and drank almost nothing after about seven hours in. And we were out there for fifteen and a half hours last year. All I wanted was to beat fifteen and a half hours. That is a long, long, long time to be skiing.
The epic start. Dominique Maack
This year, I wasn’t paying attention, and when the surge of skiers broke free and, like one large, crashing wave, began to sweep up Crested Butte Mountain, I was surprised. Soon, I recovered from my shock. I also realized that I was feeling pretty good, and that it seemed like the folks in front of me were moving slowly. Since these races are determined by me, Dan let me lead, and soon we had moved to the far left of the run, the better to pass people. This year, we have very light AT gear, and I can do a much faster cadence with this gear than with any other. This works out really well for me, since I’ve got little stumpy legs that aren’t much use for strides.
When we reached the top – it’s not really the top, and in truth, I have no clue where it is – and began to rip skins, Dan and I smiled at each other.
“You must be feeling really good,” Dan said. I smiled. I was. And I loved this descent. It is pure chaos. The folks on nordic gear are terrifying as they spiral out of control down the steep, icy cat track. I shouldn’t lay blame all on them, either, for quite a few people in the rando scene aren’t really skiers, but runners, who have taken up skimo racing in the winter. You may not want to be right next to said person, but it’s always good for some excitement.
This year was no different from last year, people careening off the trail into the woods, doing unintentional whoorly birds right in the middle of the trail and falling in a face plant. One guy came ripping past me on an off-camber turn, and promptly went careening into the trees. I kept at my power plow. There are times when it is perfectly respectably to just plant your legs in a power plow and have at it the whole descent.
We reached the bottom, crossed pell-mell over the creek that last year didn’t have a snow bridge and came to a quite sudden halt. Breakable crust, the stuff of nightmare quality, was waiting there for us at the bottom. It was stop and go traffic, slow enough where we sat and chatted with our neighbors, telling jokes (I only can ever remember the one), and, for me, shoveling Honey Stingers into my mouth.
As the leaders broke trail for us, I watched the clock. We had till 7 AM to get to the Friend’s Hut, our first cut off time. At the pace we were going, I wasn’t all that sure that we were going to make it this year. I wasn’t sure that the leaders, who I could still see, were going to make it.
People moo’ed like cows, make honking noises, and joked. The testosterone filled folks tried to break their own trail, ending up with their tips jammed way down in the snow, their tails up in the air, and wallowing around for a good while before they could get back in line with the rest of us. I figured I was going to save my energy for the many miles ahead. I didn’t exactly have it to go wasting it like that. At one point a red fox paralleled us in the opposite direction, looking at us like we were aliens. I'm sure we looked the part.
There was a moment when I looked up and felt like I was surely dreaming - there was a rather steep drop, and then up the other side, what seemed to me at 1 AM were thousands of headlamps swarming up the side of a cliff. It was like D-Day. After a power plow with our skins on down the ravine we saw why. It kind of was a cliff, and there was no clear way up. We chose the STFU (straight the fuck up) route. Climbing in ski boots is interesting, and when I struggled for a second, the impatient people behind me pushed me up. That was fine by me.
we were free of the breakable crust, and people spread out more. I was
feeling ok. I decided last year that I didn’t particularly care for
skiing through the night, and this time was no different. I stared at
the moon, huge and gleaming in the night, and Dan and I gasped in awe
when a magnificent red meteor streaked across the sky. But I was seeing
about quadruple of everything. I was stumbling, and fairly convinced
that I was going to fall sideways and fall asleep. It helped to have the
tails of someone’s skis in front of me. I could focus on them (even
though focus isn’t quite the word, as for one person there were eight
skis and legs dancing in front of my dizzy eyes. In a daze, we made it
to the Friend’s Hut around 5 AM. That was the same time we reached it
last year, only last year we had started at 11 PM instead of midnight.
We were already moving an hour faster than last year. A short break,
shovel more Honey Stingers in the mouth, guzzle down some water, throw
on the wind jacket, and it was up Star Pass.
If the skinning gets difficult, the winds pick up, the snow begins, and I’m tired, that’s when I begin to feel better. Maybe it’s from skiing all year long in the Nederland area, but a little wind does me good. It wakes me up and makes me stronger. While many start suffering, I get stronger, and we began to pass people on the way up, the wind whipping the snow around. It really wasn’t even that bad, just enough to be a waker-uper, but not enough to make me pissy. We ripped skins and descended to Star Pass, where a gentleman pointed out the best way down for us. We thanked him and headed down.
Frozen snowmobile tracks are not fun when they are involved in breakable crust and dark conditions, but we made it down, partly because we remembered that Dan's friend had hung out at the bottom last year with coffee and a bonfire.
We were not to be disappointed, once again treated to the same hospitality. Now, I care not at all for coffee, especially coffee on a stomach that doesn't want to be fed, but still, the idea makes me quite happy. While Dan drank some Aclimate that was also there, I chugged an Ensure, more water, and some more Honey Stingers, all part of my game plan to eat and drink as much as possible. I was shocked that I was able to get down all of the Ensure, as those things have a gnarly taste, and tend to make me feel queezy.
We put our skins on, and promptly Dan hit his wall. Mine came around 4 AM, and now it was my time to help him. We dipped and danced along the slow rise up to Taylor Pass, trying me being in front, because I knew when I had hit my wall, it was nice when I had skis in front of me to focus on, but finally found that he was doing better when he was in front.
The sun was rising, the birds where loud enough to break the sound barrier, or so it felt to me, and it began to warm up. We played a bit of leap frog with a couple teams, but for the most part, we were further apart from people than we had been the year before. Finally we crested Taylor Pass, and made the decent down.
Our next major goal was the Barnard Hut. This one I was not holding my breath for. Last year this stretch, followed by Richmond Ridge, had reduced me to a state of tears, in which I slogged along, sniffling, while Dan tried to console me. This year I was going to be much more mentally tough. Dan was still hurting, and as I was feeling slightly better (as good as I felt I had a right to feel after skiing for so long), I told him a story.
"When we were hiking the Colorado Trail," pantpantpant "You told me about the pep talk that the guy who put on the Leadville 100 gave at the start of the race." pantpantpant "I turned it into a mantra that I used on the trail, and since, when I've been hurting." pantpantpant
"You can go harder than you think you can," pantpantpant
""You can go further than you think you can," pantpantpant
"You can go longer than you think you can," pantpantpant
"Because you are stronger than you think you can."
It was a mantra that had always made me feel better, stronger, and more alive. I hoped it would help him.
The part of the trail we were on now had been majorly disheartening last year, where we ripped our skins, slid down about twenty feet, put our skins back on, climbed up a bit, ripped skins, skied down, up, etc. for what had felt like forever. I decided this year I was not going to rip skins. We skinned down, skinned up, and on and on. It actually worked much better, was much easier on the mind, and much sooner than we expected, we found ourselves coming up on the Barnard Hut.
A look at the watch said that under twelve hours was within reach, but might hurt a lot. I discarded the thought, and sat down to a delicious ramen that they were preparing at the Barnard Hut, watching another fox trot around and around the hut. There's a mandatory ten minute break there, and I was going to use it to the fullest. Drinking the hot, salty soup, I could have sworn it was the best thing I'd ever had in my life. In between, I chugged another Ensure, and then drank more soup to ensure the Ensure taste was gone from my mouth. I also broke out the sunscreen and my baseball cap.
"Skininng?" Dan asked.
"Yeah, I want to keep moving," I said. "Stopping to rip skins is demoralizing."
When our ten minutes were up, we clicked in, and skinned away. Dan was feeling better, but because I could feel my body wanting to stop. I thought that completing this in under twelve hours was too far out of reach to try properly, but if there's anything that I've learned from Richmond Ridge it is mental discipline. Don't let your mind go, if you do, you will be a crying lump that moves even more slowly.
took the lead again, and we skinned up, skinned down, and on and on and
on. There were others pretty close to us, but they were doing the skin,
rip skins, ski, put skins on routine. We played leapfrog with them for
the whole time, and Dan debated ripping skins, but I still didn't want
to. I liked the consistency
of skinning. We skinned up one more big hill, and I knew we were home
free. We had met up with the group of people, ripped our skins and
skated off. When I saw the photographer on the knoll, and saw my watch, I
choked up. We were going to do it. We were going to finish in under
twelve hours. After completing it last year in fifteen and a half hours,
it felt incredible.
Arriving at the Sundeck of Aspen, there were real hot tears on my cheeks. And then it was down. Last year down Aspen had been a sufferfest, stopping to shake out burning legs. This year, I was psyched. I don't know if the adrenaline and endorphins were keeping me from feeling the burning, or if I'm in that much better shape, but we let our skis go and opened it up as much as we dared with those skinny little skis, catching a few more racers on the way down the mountain. As we crossed the finish line, the lady with the purple hair who greets the racers, gave us both a big hug and the medals for finishing the race and told us that we had finished third in the co-ed division.
As they checked out gear, as required for the top three finishers in each division, I couldn't believe it. Eleven and a half hours. We had cut off four hours. When the race official left and Dan went to grab our bags, I sat down, basking in the sun.
"Are you crying?" It was Dan, back with the bags we had given to the volunteers to drive over to Aspen.
I looked up. "Yeah. I've never been on a podium. And that felt so good."
He gave me a hug. "And the best part?" He said. "It as completely a team effort. You needed me, I needed you. You did great, babe."
"We did great," and I hugged him back.
What we're doing different next year? Fixing our drinking system. And doing a much better job of organizing - avoiding a hitch hike from Aspen to Crested Butte would be nice. And bring those 5-hour energy shots to get through the night.