The night before my first race on skis found me lying in bed wanting to sleep, but wide awake with a ton of different feelings running around in my head. Being able to tackle something as physically demanding as a marathon on skis despite my wounded heart stirs a lot of emotion, making me reflect on the times I was told by doctors that I was dying of heart disease and all they could do was try slowing it down. I was told I needed the 13 different medications to stay alive for any length of time, and would need to take them for the rest of my life. The medications left me so tired that I spent most of my time siting on the couch missing my old life. All my doctors were very quick telling me I needed to take it extra easy and slow. Short walks were ok and encouraged but much beyond that was discouraged by all the doctors I was seeing back then. I was repeatedly told to except this as my new normal but thankfully there was a part of me that just wouldn’t let this happen and I refused to listen to them. This was less four years ago, yet here I was, ready to ski a marathon distance race. I knew my body was in good enough physical shape for the task, and hoped my conditioning could make up for some of my inexperience and lack of refined technique. This was my first time around other cross country skiers/racers. Until this point, I had been on skies less than three months in over 30 years. Following is a brief rundown of how I found myself skiing the Mora Vasaloppet Classic 50K.
Earlier this winter, tired of being chased inside to my treadmill by wintry Northern Minnesota weather, I decided to break an old promise I had made to myself over 30 years ago, and that was to take up cross country skiing. Thirty years ago, while serving in the US military as a young Paratrooper, I learned to cross country and alpine ski in the Dolomite’s of Northern Italy, under instruction of the 4th Italian Alpini Paracadutisti (Alpini Parachutist) Regiment.
For two years in a row while serving in the US army while stationed in Italy, I received advanced instruction in Alpine, Cross country Skiing, Snowshoeing and winter survival. The cross country skiing we did was on these old awkward cross country skis and alpini boots. The skis had metal edges, and required a felt climber to be strapped on for traction while going uphill, with a binding that could lock down for downhill travel. We wore heavy backpacks full of personal gear and carried a weapon, while pulling an ahkio (sled) behind us that contained 100’s of pounds in gear. To pull the sleds, we used harnesses very similar to ones found on dog sleds, allowing 4-6 of us to pull the ahkio at once.
After about 5 days of cross country skiing that basically consisted of climbing up, over, and down one mountain after another while looking for a make-believe enemy, I promised myself I would never put on cross country skis again in this lifetime. The worst blisters of my life came from those cross country Alpini ski boots. I really didn’t see any fun in any of it at the time. It was seriously hard, physically demanding work. Those mountains seemed to go on forever and my blisters only got bigger. None of this necessarily prepared me for a race thirty years after the fact, but did give me a basic understanding of how cross country skies work, and if nothing else, it taught me how to push through the pain, a lesson later used at other times in my life.
So, last fall I decided it was time to break the promise made to myself so many years before, and I started researching classic cross country skis. I was looking for something Heidi and I could do in the winter that would help carry and maintain our summer fitness level we had built while running, through to the following spring when we would be able to start running again. We settled on trying out some wax-less classic touring skis and went to get fitted for them at Pengals Basswood Trading in Ely Minnesota. The first thing I learned that process, is that when you are 6’2” and weight in around 210lbs, there will be very few ski options available in Ely Minnesota. Apparently, the average person buying skis weights 20 or more pounds less them me. Thankfully they had one pair that was a borderline fit. Heidi is much smaller than me, and they had many options for her, quickly producing a pair that fit her very well.
Another reason I decided to break my promise and was taking up cross country skiing was to take advantage of many of the 1000’s of groomed cross country ski trails here in Northern Minnesota. Cross country ski trails are everywhere in our area. Almost every town here on the Iron Range has a trail maintained specifically for cross country skiing. In Minnesota, once winter gets into full swing, it gets hard to run or bike because all the trails generally have a couple feet of snow covering them. All the highways and roads become dangerous to run on once the snow piles up leaving very little shoulder for pedestrians. This left the treadmill in the garage as our best option for getting in some cardio during previous winters. I really thought skiing through the winter versus spending it running on a treadmill staring at the inside wall of a garage all winter might be a better option for getting some cardio in.
Once we had our skis, we were super excited to try them out but unfortunately for us the weather wasn’t cooperating and none of the trails were tracked/groomed. Our first few outings, were on the Babbitt golf course and consisted of breaking our own trail around the outer edge of the property. We did this for almost a month before the trails were finally being regularly groomed. Once the grooming started, we began skiing loops on the golf course almost every night during the week while venturing off and discovering new ski areas on weekends.
It didn’t take long to realize the potential in speed I would have on faster skis. My skis were very slow because they were wax-less touring skis designed for someone 10 or more pounds lighter than me. My frustration continued to grow as I watched others pass me with ease, and this resulted in a lot of glide wax experiments trying to make them faster. But nothing would make them any faster, so I went back to Pengals Basswood Trading in Ely and bought a pair of wax-able race skis. This time, I was fitted with a nice, stiff ski that appeared to be a perfect fit for my weight. I was given a short lesson on waxing the kick pocket before heading out the door to try them. I couldn’t have been happier after trying them out. The glide was almost double that of my wax-less skis. For the first time in my life, I now understood the attraction to cross country skiing. Putting on a pair racing skis was life changing. Nothing that soothes the soul and erases life’s stress the way quietly and quickly gliding through the woods on a gorgeous sunny winter day can. I woke up most mornings excited to go skiing when the conditions were nice. For the first time in many years, the cold seemed to melt away, and I found myself enjoying winter again.
It took a little time to learn how to choose and apply the many variations of kick wax. I ended up with a box full of different waxes for different conditions. but the pay off in speed was well worth the lesson. At this point, I was averaging the same pace on my skis that I normally run at while on flat ground or going uphill. The downhill sections I was going much faster than any pace I can run at.
By now, all the trails I was skiing were groomed and tracked. For the most part, I was skiing on fast pristine conditions most days and could ski 20 miles very easily without much effort. One night while relaxing for the evening, I came across an advertisement on the internet for the Mora Minnesota, Vasaloppet. The Vasaloppet is a 50K classic ski race that would be held the following weekend. I didn’t think about it but for maybe ten minutes, before deciding to enter the race. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. A marathon on skis was something I wouldn’t have even been capable of just a year before, and at this point I knew I could finish without any trouble. The following week was full of research on proper kick wax and glide wax for the expected weather conditions. I took my skis to Mesabi Recreation in Virginia, Minnesota and had the proper glide wax for conditions applied. I had to go to three different shops however to find the Klister wax(s) needed for kick. Weather conditions were going to be unseasonably warm with temps in the lower 40’s requiring a special wax combination. I settled on a hydrocarbon glide wax, and a three layer Klister kick wax combination with the help and recommendation of Mesabi Recreation.
The town of Mora, Minnesota host’s this annual ski race every year. The race begins and finishes on main street. With a fleet of dump trucks and heavy equipment, snow is trucked in until it completely covers main street. In places where the trail crossed the roads, snow was also trucked in and dumped across the road. It was an amazing amount of snow to haul and spread out. As we pulled into town the night before the race, I was absolutely amazed at how little snow there was on the ground. The lack of snow on the ground started making me doubt they would even have a race but upon getting to the registration we were informed the trails would be good, but that due to the lack of snow, the 50K was now going to be 42K. This was somewhat disappointing because I had come to conquer a 50K ultra-marathon on skis. I signed up for the race and then Heidi and I walked across the street and attended the pasta dinner that was being served for the event at the American Legion. After dinner, we retired to our room at the American Inn where I did my best to get some sleep, however I tossed and turned most of the night, becoming more nervous as morning drew near.
Morning arrived and brought perfect conditions for skiing. It was about 30 degrees at the start so conditions would be fast. After about a 20 minute wait in line for the porta john, I headed to the start line, picking a spot somewhere in the middle of the pack. while finding my way to the middle of the pack, it quickly became obvious seeing all the brightly colored spandex cladded people with super human size legs around me that hanging with these guys would be by far the hardest and fastest I have ever pushed on a pair of skis. The more I looked around the more I started thinking of how tiny my legs looked in comparison to everyone around me. They looked really fast in those shiny spandex suits. From what I could see, I was probably the only guy not wearing a bright spandex ski suit, and the guy with the smallest legs. It was intimidating being in that start que for the first time ever. No doubt, I felt like I was about to get schooled on the fine art of classic skiing. Thankfully I was able to get my intimidating thoughts under control and remind myself I was there to compete with the guy I was yesterday, and to learn from the Pro’s. Since the guy I was yesterday didn’t ski, I had already won just by showing up.
And just like that we were off. With a loud bang from the start gun it became a flurry of poles and skis. For whatever reason, I had never pictured the start of a race on skis. Being more of an optimist, I generally think about the finish line. Turns out, the start of the race was pretty intense. I had people running their skis up on the back of my skis, pushing me up on other people’s skies. I lost count of how many times I was hit by other people poles, or hit others with my mine. For the first mile I kept thinking that If I crashed and went down the people behind me would run right over me. Everyone was headed forward as fast as they could go. After taking a painful jab to my foot from someones pole, I did my best to just tuned it all out and push forward. At that point, I was concentrating on keeping my ski tips about six inches off the skis of the guy in front of me. For the first mile or so, the pack seemed to stay really tight before finally loosening up and spreading out somewhat. The snow conditions were really fast. My wax was working out perfect at this point. The glide on my skis was incredible and the kick was just as incredible as the glide. I was hanging with the middle of the pack in these conditions with ease, and felt like I could easily hold the pace for the next 50K.
After a few miles, we came to the first hill. It wasn’t very high, but it was steep. I had no trouble running up the hill. I was amazed at how well my kick wax was working. I was able to diagonal stride most of the hill, and had no issues running in a herringbone pattern on the steepest portion before turning onto a short level portion leading to a very steep descent with a slight turn at the bottom. As I approached the turn at the bottom of the hill I knew I quickly realized I was in trouble. I did my best to make the corner but ended up out in the woods. I took a good tumble but thankfully not injured and was able to pick myself up and quickly push on.
After I had gone about 10 miles or so, the conditions started to get really soft and I kept running into issues on the downhill sections. It was pretty obvious that I needed to practice more downhill trails to learn how to control classic cross country skis during a steep descent. They handle nothing like a metal edge ski on downhill and my inexperience was showing. About half way into the race I was still holding middle of pack right up to the point where I wiped out myself and two others on a steep downhill section. One of my poles went flying pretty far, and it took me a few minutes to pick myself up and find the pole before pushing on. I had taken a pretty hard hit, actually knocking over the guy that was in my way. At this point was really starting to dread the downhill sections. Thankfully there were not a lot of these steep hills, but just enough to show me my biggest weak spot. At that point, I promised myself I would ski more downhill sections in training until I master turning on classic skis.
Not long after my biggest crash, the temps started pushing into the upper 40’s. By then, there was a lot of slushy/granular snow on the course. This type of snow, began icing up my kick pocket to the point It was slowing me down to a snails pace. With only about five miles or less to the finish, most of the trail had this condition. I lost all my glide those last miles and basically had to run instead of ski. If I would have had a scraper, I could have scrapped off some of the kick wax to improve the glide, but I didn’t have one. So another lesson was learned. Another promise to self, next time bring a scraper with me. By the time, I crossed the finish line I had fell almost to the back of the pack but I was on top of the world despite this fact. I had just completed my first 42K ski race. My wounded heart had no trouble keeping up with the middle of the pack. It was only my inexperience that held me back. Using the lessons learned in this race, I will be back next year and will lead the middle of the pack at the finish line…