Monday, March 13, 2017

13th Place, 3rd Place, and Life Lessons on Attitude and Racing Mentality; Part 2

The Kachemak Nordic Marathon is by far my favorite course in Alaska. I wish every race was as hard as this one, and as scenic. Surrounded by Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay, three volcanoes and glaciated mountains on all sides, there is no prettier venue than this. That alone would make this a great race, but man, this course is as close to backcountry skiing and mountain biking as you can get on a pair of skinny skis. The Marathon Connector Trail, a 15Km overland route that links Homer’s Look Out Mountain and Bay Crest trail systems is Rowdy with a capital R.

A fuzzy shot of yours truly and a photo op I scored with the winner of the ladies 25k :)
This season was no exception.

Cold, clear, dry and windy winters are generally no fun, but they do benefit one place, and that is Homer. With only rudimentary grooming equipment available to punch in the Marathon Connector Trail, the wind can play a big role in firming up the route and filling in the many steep ravines. In years where the snow has been deep and plentiful, this link can be 15Kms of unforgiving punchiness.

This year, conditions were pretty solid, although a tad thin.

I signed on for the 25KM race. I did the 42KM in 2012 when I was a lot stronger under the guise of, you get more bang for your buck. I MUCH prefer the 25km route though. I like the beginning of the 42, and I envied those racers skiers on their route out through the rolling hills of “Milli’s World” that the 25KM racers miss out on. Where I don’t envy the 42km racers is when they get to Bay Crest. The 25km racers dive bomb down the bluffs in a screaming fast and fun descent to the finish taking the cleanest route. The 42KM skiers however, are denied, and sent on side loops that interrupt the flow so that they get all their additional KMs.

No thanks!

The short
1:33:35; 3/20 overall
The long
The 42 and 25 racers all went out together, there were around 60 of us total I guess, about 30 in each race, and as we all did the first 5km together on a loop around Look Out, it was kind of sporty.

Look Out has some descent pitch, and some sneaky hard corners lying in wait. I found pretty quick that I was having to make some sprinty passes to get out in front. For the most part, the first 5km was very wide, making passing easy, though there was at least one section where I found myself and a train of others sitting behind a skier and unable to make a pass. There didn’t seem to be a reason to be a jerk and go crazy so early on, especially given that some people alongside weren’t even in the same race, but there was certainly an opportunity for two younger-looking skiers to take off and build a small and early lead.

Eventually, the two events diverged at a funny spot where the course appeared fully gated, save a 3-foot opening on either side of the fencing. The 25 went one way, the 42 the other.

Instantly, it was less chaotic.

From what I could tell, there were only two other skiers with me at this point, Dan B and Louis. I actually didn’t know about Louis immediately.

We sped across the flats and headed out onto the Marathon Trail, where we went from wide, smooth trails, to narrow, choppy, variable, and twisty.

So it begins!

The descent out of Look Out was possibly the scariest. Louis came bombing through relatively quick in the initial shorter descent to a bench with the first aid station, and it was obvious he knew the trails. Dan and I latched on, but as we made a short climb off the bench, I passed, and then began the first descent in earnest.

I scared myself silly at one point as I passed the point of having control, and hung on through a series of tight choppy corners doing everything I could to stay upright. One of the corners was off camber and I hardly held my edge. Another corner slammed through a ravine with only a short shot to speed check, banking a hard and narrow right at the bottom. The outside of the right was a wall of compact snow, and the trail was only one lane wide. I could practically see my ski tips impaling themselves on that outer embankment.

I’ve skied this route enough to know what’s coming, to recall all major features, as well as most of the scariest technical aspects and ravines, but the finer details are lost. Also, a thinner snow pack this year meant the trail was a bit more narrow than I recall in places.

With overcast skies and even a bit of light snow falling, lighting was flat in sections, making it difficult to spot ski-grabbing ruts or uneven groomer gouges with more than a fraction of a second of notice.

Eventually, Louis and Dan came around, and that helped a ton.

We bottomed out of the first descent, and began the climb up Crossman Ridge. This is the first major climb of the route.

I settled in for a couple minutes, the pace wasn’t bad, and even though the trail was groomed wider, it was still soft and punchy off the center.

Throughout the course, poling was punchy – maybe every 15th pole plant would punch through anywhere from a couple inches to a couple feet. On flats and such, it was no problem, but on all steeper pitches this meant I had to compensate with more leg power.

I knew I was at a disadvantage to the locals who trained on these softer trails and were less reliant on upper body power. It scared me as I felt the legs start to burn a bit more than they should have on some of the climbs and I couldn’t relieve them.

After a couple minutes into climb up Crossman I could feel my pace was no longer matched with Dan and Louis, and the trail firmed up enough to feel good about coming around.

For the remainder of the climb I held a small lead over the two. I was climbing just a titch faster than they were.

I knew what this meant: The long brutal climb up Dimond Ridge that awaited us all would be my only place to try and distance myself if neither Dan or Louis dropped off before than, otherwise, it’d be a sprint after 25km…

We topped out Crossman Ridge, and going through the aid station I grabbed a cup of water. Dan and Louis closed that gap immediately.

We began the slow and winding descent to Bridge Creek. I know this area well enough, and one of the memories I had from 2012 was that I skied too conservatively. The trail here is mostly in the forest and follows a twisting, switch-backing logging road of sorts. The hair pin turns are tight, and I was nervous about them back in 2012, only to realize they were fine that year.

This year, they were a bit choppier, so, despite wanting to cut it loose, I really couldn’t feel comfortable.

One prominent feature this year was alder stumps and branches poking through the trail. Most had been cut and ground down, but they were often lurking and ready to snag a ski or worse. This section had a lot.

Along the descent, I passed Tasha and Sadie doing the tour, and they gave me a cheering boost and tandem pole taps.

There were enough short breaks in the descent that I could just barely maintain my lead, but at some point near the final descent into the creek, Louis skied up next to me.

I don’t recall if he passed or moved back in behind me, but I know that as we bottomed out, we were fully bunched, and I was leading.

We hit the vertical-looking  Kill Bill Hill out of the creek bed and it was time to go. I slammed the steep trail. Fortunately it was decently firm in this section.

I continued to dig in everywhere I could along the lolly-gagging 600-vertical-foot endless climb that tortures every skier into thinking they are done, only to steer back, ever upward. I knew better of the climb, but to my dismay, whenever I glanced back, it seemed that Louis and Dan were never more than 15 seconds behind.

I few times I thought I was starting to build a lead, that they were alas fading, only to glance back a few minutes later and see they were still there and no farther back.

It stressed me out that they were together. I could take one of them, but two guys meant they were working together, and that I’d have to fend off two placements in the final rush to the finish line.

The fabled Milk Toast ravine came and went. It was in really good shape, much better than most the other ravines, and I actually came at it with more speed than I really should have.

I want to say that somewhere in that area, Dan detached from Louis. I don’t know for sure, but as we went into the final part of the ascent, I noticed it was only Louis chasing. The trail got a lot worse near the top, softer and more wind-blown powder and debris. The legs screamed a little louder. At some point here, I saw a skier not too far up ahead in a multi-colored kit that I’d spotted once or twice before. This was as close as I would come to second place, though I had no idea of this. All I knew was that there were probably 2 skiers in front of me, but maybe more.

Finally, I hit the Dimond Ridge Road crossing and the smiling volunteers.

I slowed to snag another sip of water at the aid station, and Louis came alongside. Dan was nowhere in sight.

Time to let gravity take over.

We wrapped around the shoulder of the ridge on trails that were notably smoother and firmer. I felt my poles hitting with confidence. Louis started to pull away a bit, and knowing I had to keep him in sight for the descent or risk falling behind, I tucked a little tighter and reeled him in. The descent would have been slower without Louis as a guide. Even though it’s fairly straight, the clouds were a little darker, and lighting was very flat.

Once the trail hit the flats, I skied right up into Louis’ slipstream. I could see Dan about 20 second behind us.

As we entered a tunnel of conifers I realized I could go a bit faster and did not want to let this turn into a 3-way. I came around. Louis clipped on.

The finish was at a new spot for me this year, so I wasn’t exactly sure what was coming, when we blazed by the 1km sign.

“Should I start to drill it? I have a lot of gas left. What if there’s a steep pitch to the line and I tow Louis right to it so he launches around me?”

“F-It. Go hard. See if he can hang on.”

I turned the screws, and started making some gentle zags across the trail to break the effect of the slip stream.

Suddenly we blurred by the finish line off to our right. It was going to come up fast!

“Wait, the trail is going out and away from the line. Is it going to do a loop? How much farther out could it go? This isn’t really a KM! Hold the pace!”

The finish made a wide loop up a false flat. I hadn’t really looked in a minute, but for the first time, I could see I had broken the slipstream and Louis was no longer on my tails, but was still only second back.

The course looped around and made an easy gradual flat downhill to the line. I held the pace to the line just in case. Louis was 10 seconds back, and Dan 10 seconds behind him for the final.

What. A. Race.

So what’s the big lesson to be learned this year?

When I finished the TOA in 2010, 11, and 12, there was a lot of frustration, and actually, tears for the latter two. The tears, they weren’t necessarily that big a deal, in long events, I apparently have a thin margin with my emotions, but as much as I trained, and as much emotional energy ass I put into the event, my results sucked. I’m not just talking placement either. In a race that attracted 1500-2000 entrants (in it’s day), you can’t put a lot of stock in placement, but damn, my seemingly realistic goals felt helplessly out of reach.

And yes, it didn’t help that my placement results were deflating too.

In general, I was just frustrated with Nordic skiing. It seemed I had few cohorts to actually race with, and spreading them out over a 50km event, meant much of the race was spent by oneself, racing a clock.

In all of this, in the end, I still wanted to do the best skiing of any week, and the year, on wider boards in the mountains.

In a way, an injury finally fully freed me to do that guiltlessly. I stopped thinking about Nordic racing all together, with amazing ease.

Between the weather – a couple absolutely miserable snow years for Anchorage dashed tour hopes, and Nordic dreams, for anyone in town, and motivation, my skiing backed WAY off.

This year though, has obviously been good, and I’ve just totally been enjoying skiing, with no competitive goals to speak of.

When I did sign up to compete, I threw out the “bigger is better mantra” of the 50km or 42km events, went for the ones I knew I’d enjoy, and did just that, enjoyed them.

I was rewarded with a great experience in Anchorage, and a legit head-to-head race in Homer. For sure, I could have got another 17km of skiing in Homer if I’d done the 42, but, I also would have had a way different experience, and quite likely, less of an actual race. Never once during either event did I seriously consider if I’d signed on for the wrong race.

Does that mean I’d never do the 50km TOA, or 42KM Kachemak again?

No, that’s just the thing, if I want to do either, clearly I should, but, for now, I’ve reached some point of balance, and that’s what I need to focus on and maintain.

13th Place, 3rd Place, and Life Lessons on Attitude and Racing Mentality; Part 1

Five years. That’s how long it’s been since I skied in a Tour of Anchorage or a Kachemak Nordic Marathon. The 50KM race from Anchorage’s Hillside, up Spencer Loop, back down, and across town to Kincaid, was for a few years, my pinnacle athletic event of the year. I thought about that race in every month, maybe every week. The Homer Tour, which followed the next weekend, was by far, my favorite course of any kind (it still is), and any skier that would listen, or even proffer an interest, I’d tell them it was a must do. Then, in February 2013, going full steam toward what I hoped to be my best performances yet in either race, I went too far, strained my MCL, and between that and a series of lousy winters, that was kind of it for me and serious skate skiing for a few years.

This year though, winter in town has been great, and the Tour of Anchorage was back on, in its full glory.

Anchorage has hardly climbed above freezing for more than a few hours since late November, and the snowpack in town has been great for Nordic.

In the end though, my Nordic skiing motives have changed, a lot. I just do it because I love it. The Tour wasn’t even on my radar, and might not ever been, were it not for Meredith’s enthusiasm for skiing it.

Meredith, who really only started skate skiing over Christmas, quickly latched onto the sport (notice a trend?), and set her sights on the TOA.

I’m grateful both for her enthusiasm in skate skiing, and also for giving me a reason to sign up.

Meredith celebrates finishing her first Tour.
Nonetheless, I didn’t “train” for it.

I’ve been skiing plenty, a 25-30km skate and a 15km classic ski a week, sometimes with a bonus shorter skate of classic ski thrown in over the weekend; but hey, I’ve also been riding my snow bike too, doing interval sessions on the trainer, and of course, split boarding every weekend.

Comparatively, 5 years ago, I’d log 75-100km on skinny skis a week, sometimes skiing 40-50km in a night – as I said, I went too far.

Times and motives have changed.

I signed on for the 40km and promised myself to have fun and ski no harder than I absolutely wanted to.

The short
Final placement: 2:07:55; 13/131 overall; 2/24 in age bracket.

The long
Despite temps forecasted to be 0 or colder on the start line, I was probably more relaxed than I have ever been the night before a Tour.
Having not skied in a qualifying race since 2012, I was seeded to start in the last wave of the 40km.

The upshot, my wave was smaller (only 30 or so people) compared to a normal 50-person wave. Also, I would have a great idea of how I was doing in the big picture compared to others. If you start in the first wave, you could have a great pace, but so could someone a wave or two behind you, and you’ll never know that they’re skiing 30 seconds faster than you until the final results are published. On the other hand, if you start in the back, anyone you pass, you are beating. The more 40k bibs I saw, the better I would know I was doing.

The obvious down side to this is endless passing, and man, it was something this year.

When I raced the 50km, I usually got in the first, or at worst, the second of the non-elite waves, and I pinned it hard to build my gaps on the long initial climb.

The 40km skips out on the climb that helps to string racers out, and instead sends them bunched up into the narrow Tour trail pretty quick.

I blasted my wave easily save a few high schoolers, and was shocked as I hit the first mass of skiers from the next wave within only a km.

Let’s just say, form amongst those I passed in the first 5km was not great. Fortunately, courtesy was outstanding.

Most skiers were content to stay right, and I was generally able pass cleanly on the left until we got into the Tour Trail. Even on the descent, with a long line running as far as I could see, I was able to stay far to the right, sometimes squeezing by 3-wide.

I kept my V extremely narrow on short climbs and bolted gaps on the hills.

There were a couple instances where I had to pass skiers on a flat that had spooky wide stances or splayed poles. In a couple instances, where “on your left” didn’t seem to have much effect, I used my right pole, and when the timing was right, gently guided the skier’s left pole inward using my right pole, and made my pass in two fast power steps, keeping my right skier parallel to theirs. In only one instance did this cause any kind of reaction, who was a bit non-plussed, but, we don’t need to talk about what they might of thought if we’d tangled instead.

Mostly, I just found it entertaining, I’ve done this move before on the trails with Junior Nordic kids, but this was the only time I’ve ever had to do it in a race with adults.

Despite cold temps, I had my wax DIALED! Running side-by-side with others, my skis were out gliding everyone it seemed, so all I had to do in most cases was keep it smooth and steady and apply power where needed and I could speed by.

About the time we hit the Campbell Airstrip trail head, the conga line was thinning out, and passing was getting easier. I also noticed I was trailing a high schooler in a Fairbanks kit, Jack C. He was in my wave, and was pulling at nearly the same pace I was, I couldn’t really pass him at his pace, and the two of us were cruising through the remaining bunches, so I latched on. Jack had awesome form, and I was getting a free lesson just holding his pace and copying his technique as we crushed the rest of Bicentennial and headed out over Tudor Road.

We started to trade off a bit going around U-Lake, and passed where the 25K course merges.

I was expecting a potential cluster of 25k skiers as has been the case in the past, but the new start format this year meant only classic skiers were on course, and they were all to the right in the track.

Somewhere in here, Adrian, who was in the next wave from Jack and I, but had clipped onto our pace line, began to take pulls.

Heading down Chester Creek there was one congested section, and Jack decided to make a pass to the right, getting cut off. I could tell he was tiring out, and glancing back and seeing he was fading, I dialed back for a few seconds and let him catch back on. The kid had pulled me a long way, so I was happy to return the favor.

Through the race, I had an ear bud in. I had two things: one, tunes playing and keeping me grooving; and every two minutes I got an update on my distance, pace, and time. Now that I was getting into the mat of the race, I started to pay attention to the data.

We were cruising, pushing a 5:20 minute/mile pace, closing in half way, and not even an hour in.

There was another data point not on the phone, just on my face. A big smile. I was so stoked. I’d never felt this good in this race ever, I was just enjoying it so much. It sounds hokey, but really, I was just having such a good time, nothing mattered to me.

The three of us continued to pace line through to Point Woronzof.

Then the grind began. Incessant winds in the weeks prior had driven debris and sand over the snow, and while it was tilled in, the climbing separated the men from the boys. Jack fell off the train here and never made it back on.

Truthfully, the climb felt good to me, and I gave it some gas. I shed Adrian briefly, but not by much, and in the rolling run to Kincaid, surface conditions improved and he clipped back on, and we traded a few more pulls until the turn off to Kincaid. I think a 50km skier got in on the mix too.

As noted from early on, I could tell I’d passed a huge number of 40km skiers, and was passing fewer and fewer. I couldn’t have wagered how I would fare, but certainly good enough.

The course did some loops through the gravel pits below Kincaid. The head winds were off and on as the route changed direction. I felt good. My phone told me to keep digging and pay for it later. I was 5km out, and just about to pass the 2 hour mark. The closer I was to two hours at the finish, the better I’d feel about this effort in the future.

Finally, the last climb came. Everyone will tell you how much it sucks, and it does, but, compared to years past, it wasn’t that bad, at least as far as surface conditions go, it was firm. I’ve seen it where it’s so chewed up it’s not even possible to skate.

I wouldn’t have said that to anyone on course though, including myself. I hurt, but I kept going, which was more than I could say for a tragic 50km skier, bent over near the top, clutching his quads.

“So close man, keep going.”

The finish line was different this year: a gradual climb above the soccer fields to finish right in front of the Chalet. It felt mean, to end with a climb, but the location was an improvement, as it meant the finish stayed a little closer to where everyone was hanging out, making it feel a little more sociable.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Atomic Backland Boot for Splitboarding Review

Bottom line: My Atomic Backlands broke. The boot couldn’t take it and failed after less than two months of use.

The Backlands, new, tongues removed.
I arrived at using the Backland as my splitboard hardboot (a new foray, and a topic for another post) based mainly on one reason, two of my partners were using them (one of them a skier, one of them also a splitboarder).

Having a partner in crime would be really nice to trade notes with as we both adapted to this big change.

The other major selling point aside from gear redundancy, was the awesome simplicity of the boot: basically all its parts are simple and field replaceable. This is a big selling point in Alaska, where parts availability is consistently in famine condition, and it’s a nice piece of insurance on remote trips where a lot of money has been sunk into getting to a corner of mountains where you don’t want to have a small broken part leaving you tent bound.

Out of the gate, this boot really didn’t disappoint. There was a learning curve to dialing in settings, made a little steeper due to the softboot-hardboot gear transition, but, all things considered, this boot felt at home on a board deck to me very fast.

The uphill performance goes without saying: these boots are meant for uphill travel if nothing else, and they really didn’t disappoint there. End story.

Dialing them in for descending didn’t take long to feel good either though: two runs to be specific.

I think by the third outing and maybe the 8th run total, I was certain that the big question surrounding soft boot versus hard boot: “how does it ride,” was answered.


My riding felt better than ever, incredibly simple, and confidence inspiring.

The steeper the line or deeper the conditions, the better these boots felt.

They didn’t lack for playfulness either: wind features and tree skiing remained just as fun.

I think a big reason these boots felt so good for boarding was their low-profile cuff. Compared to most ski boots, the Backland has a very trim cuff. With the booster strap and removable tongues pulled, this gave the boots a very progressive flex in ride mode. The only adjustments I made between tour and ski mode was to bump the ankle buckle a notch tighter (an easy feat thanks to the two-setting cable router), and to engage the ski lever.

The boot did have a steep forward lean, but I liked that, as I’m more a fan of stiff and reactive boots.

The only changes I was looking to make with the boot, was to experiment and modify the tongues to “true” half tongues, by cutting them down, basically at the elbow, so that the tongue provided improved lower shell fit, without stiffening the cuff/shin area.

For the record, I tried to use the stock half-tongues unmodified a few times, but couldn’t find a happy place, and felt way better without them.

My major complaints, the liners are terrible: Cold, floppy, and flimsy. I was interested in replacing them eventually.

Additionally, without the tongues, the top of the boot is essentially open, barring a supposed piece of weather-proof fabric. As a result, cold air poured in on nippy days, and promised to let wet spring snow melt through in the coming months.

I hoped to cut the latter issue off at the pass by adding the modified “true” half tongues into the mix once I got around to it.

Never got the chance though.

The first boot to go was my splitboarder partner’s. The black pivot portion of the cuff snapped just behind the rivets. Atomic uses three pieces of plastic to complete the cuff: the stiff, black plastic pivot piece, with two flexier pieces of plastic riveted to the top of the pivot piece to close around the shins. Where the two are attached, the stiffer black plastic thins.

This resulted in failure on my partner’s boots, one catastrophic, the other cracked and would have followed suit. The rivets themselves showed no signs of strain.

My fellow splitboard partner's boot broke where the two plastic types join. First glance appear the rivets pulled out, but look closer and you will see that the black plastic portion of the cuff is thinner, and that is what cracked away. The rivets were still intact doing their job

Two days later, my right boot, (back, driver leg) failed at the pivot itself, right side of the shell.

One thing to note, conditions on the weekend these boots failed were pretty cold - highs in the single digits, sub-zero lows – following a week of even colder temps, and snow conditions were very deep and soft.

My boot broke 2 days later at the cuff pivot

The theory is that a one-two punch of cold temps brittling the material, combined with increased torsional stress in the deep and low density snow, may have pushed the boots past their limits.

On the former point, after finding failure in my boot, I tossed one in a chest freezer for 24 hours, and left the other at room temperature, then opened the cuff on both boots side by side to compare plastic stiffness.

To a T, the cold-soaked boot was extremely difficult to work at the cuff, and the stiff black plastic felt like it could be broken or snapped if it was much colder.

Even taking off the boot puts a lot of stress on the weak connection point between two plastic types.

My boot’s failure was clearly the result of torsional stress and cold temps piling up on a single weak point. Some others have reported using this boot for splitboarding without issue, but, the fact it happened it all would make me weary of recommending it’s use to another boarder. I was glad it happened on a fairly mellow day and not somewhere more high consequence.

So for splitboarders, I’d rule this boot out. Atomic has let out that they will be taking some of the light weight characteristics from the Backlands and moving them over to the Hawx freeride boots for next season. If there was ever a cross-breed of these two boots, essentially a backland shell and a Hawx 100 cuff, I’d consider revisiting the boot.

In the big picture, as a splitboarder, I would look at the weak point on the Backland on other super light boots, e.g, the Procline and the Salomon version we’ll see next year. The torsional stresses we put on puts are different than for skis, and while these lightweight uphill centric boots may be tempting, they might also pose long-term durability questions too.

For skiers, I think replicating these failures in such a short period of time is low risk, if not impossible. That being said, lots of mileage in high stress skiing (e.g., lots of side hilling and side slipping, as well as lots of jump turns, any and all in deep conditions) could eventually produce similar failures, but the timeframe is hard to judge, and would probably depend on a list of variables from amount of use, to skier build, style, and setting preferences.

For someone slamming tons of vert in creamy pow, they may never replicate these failures even after a million vertical feet (I hope they don’t!)

As for what I did next, sold on hard boots, I’ve transitioned to the Dynafit TLT6. That boot has been used extensively by other splitboarders and has a good track record.

Stay tuned.