For the short on the long in this year's Tour of Anchorage, read the previous post. For the long on the long, read below.
As I recall writing last year, the passing of the Tour of Anchorage always seems to come too fast.
I still opted again to ski the 50KM event, which followed a nearly identical course to last year.
The major difference course this year, however, was related to conditions. We’ve had a dearth of snow all season, it had been crystal clear and dry for the two weeks leading up to the tour, and a gusting north wind has been blowing on an off at speeds topping 50MPH over that period.
The shallow snowpack was bone dry and mixed with everything from just a typical fine deposit of dust, to near-beach like conditions along the Coastal Trail on the approach to Kincaid.
The abrasive sand and snow helped to grind off wax and reduce glide, while certain areas of the course seemed to have been more chewed up than what I’ve seen in the past two years. The tour is a major ski race and certain parts of the trail were slapped repeatedly by the skis of 1,400 participants this year.
That’s skiing though. This isn’t running on a track or swimming in a pool.
Temps at least were quite reasonable if not a bit warmer than expected, starting in the middle teens and rising to the mid- to high twenties by early afternoon.
Additionally, there were no major winds during the race.
I had a lot of ground to make up going into this year’s tour. Last year, I skied in at 3:13, and knew I could have shaved an easy five minutes off that time had I not been enjoying the scenery so much.
Additionally, I didn’t put in nearly as many longer skis last year, and my comment on sight-seeing is mostly in jest. I didn’t have a very good idea of what a good pace was last year until I got to the finish and realized it had been too slow.
I was really hopeful that I could set a pace and push my time to between 2:55 to 3:05 this year.
This season I’ve been feeling much stronger, managed to get in more long skis, upped my classic skiing, which has helped my skating technique, and the tour trails are now my home turf. No need for a scenic tour this year.
On race morning I showed up without 5 minutes to start but was ready to go. For the third time now, I had basically no warm-up; and for the third time, I realized that that’s OK, there’s more than enough time to warm up on the course trying to break free from the start wave.
Lined-up to go, I got in an outside track behind Soldotna’s Carly R. I’m still weary of Carly after she came up and crushed me at last year’s Tsalteshi 30KM. I always expect to see her pass on some inside corner just as my legs give out.
I managed to go into that “blur zone” waiting for the gun to go off, watching my hands and arms tremble with all sounds coming in warbled.
All that energy went to use pretty quick and helped propel me up to the front of my wave, the second pack (skiers in the tour are sent off in waves of 50 every two minutes to limit congestion on the narrow trails.
Getting ahead on the gradual climb that leads to the base of the Spencer Loop was a planned attack. Last year, skiing in one of the later waves and not knowing what the trail had in store, I took it easy on the climbing and ended up caught in a giant line of, let’s say, gravity-challenged skiers. The long climbs are one of the few places in the mostly flat course that a little skier like myself can really make up any ground, and getting caught in a pack will put the kibosh on that pretty quick. There’s also the added risk that someone will take you out on the descent.
I ended up climbing most of Spencer on my own though, with just one skier from my wave clinging tightly to me while we picked off some stragglers from the first wave. At the top of the second and third climbs that make up the three prominent climbs of Spencer I reeled the first wave’s main pack to within sight, but couldn’t close the gap before they would crest the climbs and speed away.
Spencer and the Hillside trails went by without event, as did most of Far North Bicentennial Park and Campbell Tract.
I started passing 40KM skiers almost immediately upon entering FNBP, which went to show that while taking off earlier in the 50K may get you out in front of the other 50K racers for the climb, you end up slamming into the back of the 40K much sooner while they’re still somewhat clustered.
Mainly however, I just kept the pace strong and took advantage of my cold-condition waxing and the cold snow in these areas that made for smooth gliding. I figured I might not be so lucky later.
Sure enough, heading along Tudor Road and over top the overpass to the University, the open trail conditions were noticeably slower.
Where the 25K joined in, the trail was almost ankle-deep or worse sugar from being torn-up.
While these slog conditions near the University ultimately let up within a kilometer or less, it was draining and sign of what was to come.
At that point too I could see was that despite my efforts, I was running a time of 1:45. I knew right then if I could match my time from last year in these conditions it’d be a good race, but I was going to have to work for it.
The shaded trails near the University turned out to be reasonably fast, though I son began to notice the tail end of the 25K races, adding to the congestion.
I also began to notice that I was picking off more and more of the first wave of 50K skiers, and actually ended up in a line-up of about a half dozen 50K skiers in the middle of the course.
The run down Chester Creek Trail seemed to blur by as I ticked off the major underpasses one by one, and soon enough I was at Westchester Lagoon. Checking my watch and seeing that I was at 2:15, I knew for sure that a 3:00 ski was going to be impossible.
I squeezed back a Gu and nearly tripped over my pole in front of a photographer near the lagoon too. I’m eagerly awaiting to see if that will show up anywhere.
As expected, the conditions along the coast were less than immaculate, and from the lagoon to about the 10KM left mark, conditions varied from OK to “what am I doing here?”
In some places, so much sand had been blown off of Knik Arm that adjacent to the trail, you could not see snow, it was completely coated. All of the sand that had landed on the trail was tilled up and mixed in. On a hill that descends from one of the airport’s runways I actually had to skate down it was so slow.
Skiers were dropping like flies left and right, more than usual for this area, because of the sand and torn-up conditions, and I knew I was in more of a survival ski mode than a race mode.
Somewhere just before the 10K left mark though, conditions improved, and by the time I saw the 10K sign, my legs were feeling recovered.
I put it into high gear.
I knew that if I could hold a steady clip to the 5K mark I would gradually wind down my pace. This way I would still have just enough juice to make it up the long and always torn-up climb to the stadium.
The plan worked well, and 20 minutes later I was at the 5K mark; except that I’d burned a little more off my legs than I probably should have. Just about at that moment, a woman from my wave flew by. Where she came from or how she had that bolt of energy so late in the race, I don’t know, but I latched on and drafted off of her into the lead-up to the climb, giving my legs a chance to breath just a bit. Funnily enough, the guy who had tailed me the whole way up Spencer clipped on behind me. I had seen him over my shoulder from time to time through the race, but now he was onboard.
As we hit the climb up to the stadium and the sugar snow started sucking my legs down. I knew trying to make a heroic climb was worthless, and the girl who pulled me and the guy from behind moved up, but stayed just in sight. As the snow bogged my skis back down and my legs began to burn again, still at the bottom of this known and tortuous climb, I remember feeling a burst of liquid squeeze out my eyes and wondering what it was. I knew in my mind, but I just kept focused on the trail ahead. That tank still wasn’t empty.
As we passed the 2K left mark where the grade of the climb backs off, I watched the guy from Spencer fire off and pass the woman. She tried to give chase, and for a second I thought about joining in, but of the last 2K, I knew half of that is still climbing, and my legs were burned and just glad to have an easier grade to work with.
I decided to bide my time and wait until the 1K mark, at which point the course flattens out, making a long horseshoe approach to the finish.
Legs screaming, form probably looking god awful, I pinned it at the 1K sign, determined not to leave a single drop in the tank.
I passed the woman and she briefly gave chase, cheered on by some friends of hers, but the older guy who had tailed me was too far out of reach to reel back in.
Oh well, with my legs screaming on fire at this point, I knew I got exactly what I wanted out of that race: to be absolutely dead, but not until I passed over that line.