Monday, March 16, 2009

Fourth place in Homer

It took more than 24 hours for by body to clean up after the endorphic blow out that was the 2009 Kachemak Nordic Ski Club’s Homer Marathon.
If you missed the weekend update on the Soldotnadomination of the 25k mens race, I placed fourth in the men’s 25km race.
The men's 25k was taken by Soldotna High Ski Coach Dan Harbison, second went to Alaska mountain running legend Bill Spencer from Anchorage and third to Tsalteshi trail groomer and the usual Tuesday night race leader Tom Seggerman.
I chased Tom in, trailing by two seconds to finish in 1:37:22. Harbison set the pace with a 1:32:12 finish. Forty-two people competed in the men's 25k, while the women's field boasted 31 starters.

This was one of those races I knew was going to go well pretty quick out of the gate, though I tried not think too much about it so I didn’t phsych myself out.
Temps, in the low 20’s, were a bit cooler than anticipated, though balmy compared to last weekend.
I chose to ski in a jersey and tights. As part of my warm-up, I made sure to overdress enough to turn the thermostat up so I would survive the standing around period before racer went off.
A wise idea, the organizer, though well intentioned, spent a little too long thanking all the people who helped put the race on while scantily clad racers started to shiver and shake.
With the handful of 42k racer out of the gate, the 25’s hopped into the troughs.
I jumped into the back of what was deemed the 25k male contingent of Team Tsalteshi, sitting behind Dan and Tom.
With the blast of a gun we were off. Dan pulled us down the track at a moderately fast pace, opening up once we got out onto the corduroy.
The 2008 course was essentially the same and works fine for this report. The 2009 course is online but was published in pdf format. Click to expand.

A few racers from adjacent tracks fell in behind me, but after banging a hard U turn and diving into a section of steep curves and small climbs, they started to fall back while Tom and I drafted the best we could off Dan.
The course looped back and passed the start again. Dan started putting ground between Tom and I, however, gauging the spectators cheering, I noticed a gap of a few seconds between the cheering for our small line-up and the trailing pack.
I started to worry that perhaps I was going out too hard.
In distance races starts it’s always amusing to watch aptly named “suckers” go out too hard thinking that they’ll put a gap between themselves and the pack, only to meet up with their own endurance and ruin their legs for the rest of the race.
Suckers are easily tempted to chase after stronger racers, and are identified as the ones who start sucking wind and having coughing fits a km or two out of the gate.
In this case, I didn’t see anyone I could identify as a sucker, except for myself.
Drafting off Tom however, I was cruising at a pace I knew I could hold for some time.
With the pack out of sight, only two skiers seemed to hang not too far back that wouldn’t shake.
The course started throwing some of its fastballs at us pretty quick.
A thin layer of fresh snow covered a hard compact, to occasionally icy in the corners, base.
Years of skiing east coast snow would pay dividends in this race and unquestionably played a role in landing my placement.
Though the fastest way to get around a sharp descending corner with speed is to step turn, but ice can make that difficult. As a result I found myself making a few quick alpine turns to shed speed as I approached a curve, entering with a few steps into the outer portion of the bell before setting hard edge into the apex, and completing the corner with a few more quick steps.
Cornering has not been a strong point for me, but I was doing well enough to keep up with Tom or at least catch back up on climbs, where I do excel.
We went through the course’s first major climb, much of it off camber, taxing one leg harder than the other, before reaching the top of Bjorngard and the first aid station.
The marathon had three aid stations, and as with last weekend, I chose to ski only with an emergency cliff bar and rely on handouts.
Tom blew through, and while I drank and skied in my recently learned technique, another skier wearing a camelback passed me. I immediately hit the accelerator and tried to catch up and draft.
The skier, Bill, has a hard earned reputation as someone you don’t want breathing down your neck in any race you hope to place well in, as he will assuredly put you back one place.
I stayed just a few meters back from Bill as we went into a winding descent. He started slipping away, though I kept him in sight so I could judge the trail.
Going into a particularly hard corner I saw him do quick hop-skip-jump just before the apex.
I knew it wasn’t natural and shaved some speed anticipating trouble.
Bill had dropped his inside ski into a rut left by the snowmobile groomer, though I didn’t know this until the groove did the same thing to me.
I couldn’t recover, and in a split second I was rounding out the rest of the corner on my outside shoulder.
I shaved enough speed going in that the crash was more of a down and up, though it cost me several seconds and let a skier behind me close some ground.
The corner was close to the bottom of the descent, and after crossing a stream we went into another long gradual climb up “The Wall,” where I put some space between myself and the guy behind me while getting Bill, who was now drafting behind Tom, back in sight.
The long climb was draining, particularly again with its off camber stretches. I was definitely starting to dig deep.
Over “The Wall,” the course began to enter familiar territory. The distant radio towers atop Dimond Ridge were visible, though I knew the trail meandered a long way to get to them.
I made it through the second aid station, making sure to keep moving so I didn’t burn up my weak advantage over the guy behind me, knowing a gradual descent was coming up.
Also in store was a feature called “pucker factor”.
The course had already dropped into several similar features; steep sided ravines that appear so sharp from above that it’s hard to believe one’s ski’s won’t just become impaled at the bottom.
I’d seen these in my previous ski, including the most infamous, “Milk Toast,” but had taken my time getting through them.
Now I came at the precipitous drops with speed.
The first one I hit in the first few k’s of the race I was too far back, and as I crested, I was rolling down the windows and doing the equivalent of a mega sit up trying to keep my upper body from tilting any farther back and sending me back down.
After that I began to lean forward, even throwing some weight into the drop as I dove in, providing a split second of air time.
Done correctly, I would shoot out the other side with only one quick kick near the top.
After passing the point I’d turned back on a few weeks ago, I felt a little stronger knowing I held an advantage over some of the competition.
The trail made a slow descent on a wide trail, before tipping over into the Bottom of the Bridge Creek Valley.
The skier behind me was closing in slowly on the descent, while Tom and Bill were out of sight.
From the valley bottom I headed into what is ultimately about 20+ full minutes of climbing to the top of Dimond Ridge, with a short break a third of the way up to dive through a few ravines including Milk Toast.
I can’t really say enough about the climb up Dimond. Here’s how I look at it. If there was no climb up Dimond, I would have a lot more to say about the previous two climbs, which were actually quite difficult by any standard, but Dimond was so brutal it just made the race feel like there was only one climb.
It wasn’t helped by some spectator who told racers they were, just around the corner and headed into the long downhill, when in fact, the guy was standing behind another 2-3 minutes worth of good paced climbing!
Climbing remains my forte though, whether it’s on a bike or on skis. I put some serious distance between myself and the other guy while reeling in Tom, who had been overtaken by Bill.
Nearing the crest of Dimond Ridge. Michael Armstrong, my colleague at the Clarion's sister paper the Homer News caught this shot from his home, which sits on the course near Dimond Ridge Rd.

Eventually I broke over the ridge, and firing across the road I found Tom downing a GU at the final aid station.
I grabbed a cup of water and Gatorade, dumped them both back, whacked Tom’s pole and said “let’s hit it.”
I took off down the mountain doing my best to keep on Tom’s tail through the bomber descent.
We were pushing alpine ski speeds, ripping around corners like I never thought possible on skinny skis. The highlights included taking a corner so sharp we skied through an impossibly low overhanging spruce limb that made a small tunnel over the trail, and catching some respectable air on the way out of a ravine crossing.
Tom pulled a bit ahead of me towards the bottom, but slowed up to let me catch back up and draft through the flats to the finish.
With Tom pulling, we were probably holding a steady pace of 25mph or faster on flat ground.
The final k’s of the race literally flew by.
One final short climb brought us up to the finish.
Though a sprint might have been fun, I have no question that Tom still would have taken me down, and if not would have been quite unfair since he’d already separated himself from me in the descent and then slowed to let me catch up and draft the rest of the way home. I was just lucky to be skiing into a fourth place finish a few split seconds behind third.
I left the notes: "Other placements, food, beautiful sun" at the end of this report on Sunday night, but I think the latter two speak for themselves as to what happened after the race. The bright equinox sun came out, temps rose into the comfortable upper 20's low 30's, the Tsalteshi crew loafed and cheered on the cen-pen women and Karl, the sole Team Tsalt skier competing in the 42k race, before heading into town for pizza and beer at Fat Olives.

A few shots from the group gathered around a warm fire and baked goodies at the finish. Thanks for a great race KNSC


Andrew J. Bernstein said...

Great report, and congrats on the result. I think you'd go faster if you ditched the cargo shorts.

Dante said...

I agree, but than, I'd be sporting some serious moose's knuckle.

Andrew J. Bernstein said...

I think I speak for all of your fans, when I say that'd be OK.