Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spring Cross Country Skiing

Eighty minutes. That’s all the time it took Scott and me to go from our ordinary, everyday routine of work and home projects to a cross country skiing paradise.  One hour and twenty minutes of easy hiking on packed snow through the woods up the Spaulding Trail gave us full access to rolling, open meadows just begging to be skied and enjoyed. Sometimes the trip is faster, but we had all day so we were in no rush.

Easy hiking up the trail with light skis
When I first moved to Juneau in the early seventies, there was no Eaglecrest, and no trail grooming at the Mendenhall Campground or Eagle Beach. Cross country skiers had to find their own way, and that often meant hiking to reach good skiing. I learned to delay skiing gratification, patiently trudging uphill to the Dan Moller bowl or Spaulding Meadows and then packing in my own trail once I reached the snow. I didn’t mind it, because that was what I did for fun. I didn’t have much money to spend on entertainment, but I did scrape together enough to buy cross country ski equipment. It turned out to be a good investment. It gave me more than a full day’s worth of fun every weekend from November to at least the end of May. Best of all, it gave me a lifetime of enjoyment, as I’m still hard at it forty years later.
Cross country skiing in Spaulding Meadows - what's not to like?
Just a few days ago, Scott and I made the hike that I’ve done ever since the first winter I lived in Juneau. The trail is better traveled these days, and improvements have made it wider and smoother in spots, but it is essentially the same as I remember it from the first time I traveled on it. Years of experience have taught me it’s often easier to hike up the trail rather than try to ski it, unless the snow is very deep. But the skis go on my feet as quickly as possible once I reach the top of the trail as it breaks out of the woods and into the main meadows. Then I’m free to travel in any direction I choose, keeping an eye on the clouds, the weather, and my map and compass, combined these days with my GPS. The open meadows are not a good place to lose your way in a white out or storm, and I’ve done both. It makes for a good story to tell, but can be a bit stressful when you’re actually stumbling about in a blizzard with no visibility and no sign of a trail.

The weather was not a serious factor today. Sunlight filtered through light clouds and a cool breeze gave just enough chill to the air to make us keep an extra layer of clothing on, even after our vigorous hike uphill. We skied quickly up into Spaulding Meadows on our lightweight, waxless touring skis, following old ski and snowshoe tracks in the deep snow and occasionally making our own way when we wanted to strike out on our own.
Ski in the trail or out of the trail - either way it's fun
After taking in the views across the meadows and checking our watches, we decided we had plenty of time to travel over to Auke Mountain.  A clearly marked route left by other winter travelers made the traverse to the Muir Cabin easy, and we enjoyed kicking and gliding on the trail, gazing at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and Lynn Canal in the distance. The downhill runs in the untracked snow put big grins on our faces, and the uphill climbs on the packed trail seemed effortless.
Visibility and navigation was not a problem this day
The Muir Cabin was warm and welcoming as we took a short lunch break inside, and then continued to ski to Auke Mountain to explore the hillside and get in some turns in the soft snow. We watched the weather go from partly cloudy and breezy to clear and warm, then back to cloudy and cool. The sun kept teasing us to stay out longer than we’d originally planned, and then it would hide behind the clouds while the sky threatened, convincing us to head down before we were caught in a storm.
But wait, there's more! Heading over to Auke Mountain to do a little exploring
As our legs started to tire out from miles of skiing, we turned towards home, traveling back past the Muir Cabin and down the Muir Trail, joining the Spaulding Trail and out to the car. We took our skis off just below tree line, finding it easier and faster to hike down with our skis on our backs rather than trying to pick our way down the steep trail on our skinny skis.
Hiking down the Muir Trail keeps equipment and knees from breaking
We were home by mid-afternoon. A quick trip up, a few hours of easy skiing, a little bit of exploring, and a pleasant walk down made for a relaxing day off. I learned to cross country ski up in Spaulding Meadows forty years ago, and it always gives me a great deal of pleasure to go up there every chance I get. If you’ve never been up there, or if it’s been a while since you have, now is the time to do it. The days are longer and the snow should last at least until the end of April, if not longer. Maybe I’ll see you up there when you go!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tour of Anchorage

Things were not looking good for me in the weeks leading up to the Tour of Anchorage.

I gave an informal skate ski lesson to a friend one night after work and had to loan her my headlamp so she could see the trail in the dark at the Mendenhall Campground. We started out slow, doing little drills and practicing technique, but soon we were able to go faster and faster as she loosened up and got the hang of it. I was doing great skiing behind her, able to see just enough from the headlamp she was wearing, but I did not have a clear view of the track right in front of me. Suddenly my ski base grabbed at a spruce cone lying on the snow and stopped me dead. I slammed face first on the ground and jammed my arm up into the shoulder so hard it took my breath away.

A moment of panic seized me. I’d been training all winter for the 25 km Classic race at the Tour, just a mere three weeks away, and now I worried that my arm was – what? broken? dislocated? Turns out it was none of the above. It was just very, very sore, and certain movements made it hurt.

I was scheduled to do a long training ski the next day at Eaglecrest. I was hoping to get in about 25-30 km of classic skiing, which meant I’d be out there for two to three hours. My arm hurt before I started, but by some miracle the back and forth motion of classic skiing did not bother it. I tried double poling and that didn't hurt either. I couldn't swing my arm out sideways without wincing, but that motion wasn't required to ski. I was safe.

Training for the Tour of Anchorage involves long hours on the groomed trails
Then the Juneau crud wormed its way into my system. I’d been feeling great all winter. I got my flu shot, took my vitamin C, drank plenty of lemon tea, and made sure to get my rest. So where did the sore throat and tired feeling come from? The timing was awful. Not only was the Tour getting ever closer, but I had an action packed weekend of Nordic skiing planned with visiting PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors Association of America) demo team member Megan Spurkland that I absolutely could not miss. I sucked down even more hot tea and vitamins, but I was starting to worry again. I skied for two full days straight during the clinic, absorbing as much about skate and classic skiing as I could from Megan and the other instructors who participated. Then I celebrated a fresh snowfall by skiing powder with my friends on Sunday, probably not the smartest tactic to recover from a cold. By Sunday night I was ready to collapse.

I gained a wealth of knowledge about skiing from Megan Spurkland
But the uphill drills didn't give me much time to rest the weekend before the race!
We were scheduled to leave for Anchorage on Thursday, so I had a few days to rest and try to kick the cold out of my system. I felt a little better as the days went by, but my throat and chest still hurt and I was just so tired most of the time. One thing that helped was talking to a friend who was a former cross country state champion runner. She told me some of her best races were right after she’d been sick. She might have just been making that up to help me feel better, but I don’t care because she did cheer me up and gave me hope.

When we got to Anchorage we had a few days to ski before the race on Sunday. Each year when we go up for the Tour we enjoy exploring the miles of groomed ski trails all around the city in the days before the race. This year I skied so slowly and gently I’m sure Scott was worried if I’d be able to race.

The worst part of it was that I was moving up into a new age group this year and had a good chance to finally win a gold medal instead of the silver I’d won three times previously. I’d trained hard for four months, doing longer and longer skis, interval training, hill training, and refining my technique. I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing, but it would be a bit of a disappointment to not be able to see it through.

Enjoying the trails around Anchorage, but trying not to push it too hard
Sunday morning I woke up and . . . my throat felt fine and my chest didn't hurt! It was too good to be true. I felt rested and strong, and at the same time nervous and excited about the race, which was an excellent sign. I ate a good breakfast, storing away energy for the hours ahead. We geared up and headed over to the race start.
Getting the wax right is critical to having a good race
The 25 km classic race starts at 9:30 a.m. at Alaska Pacific University, followed by the 25 km skate race. Over at Service High School, the 40 km and 50 km skate races had already started beginning in waves at 8:30 a.m. The trail for all the racers merges just outside of APU, and within a short time over 1,100 skiers would all be working their way across town towards the huge finish arena across town at Kincaid Park. It’s quite a feeling to be skiing along beautifully groomed trails with so many people.  As I pushed off with the rest of the skiers in my start wave, I thought “Well, ready or not, here I go”.

My hours of training kicked into gear as soon as I hit the trail. I tell my ski students – focus on your technique and the speed will come, so I tried to do the same. I thought about extending my glide when I was striding up hills, keeping my weight fully balanced on one ski at a time, driving my foot through and then kicking down in a powerful flexed position, hips forward, leg extended back, and arms poling strongly. And I double poled, doubled poled, double poled on the flats until I thought I couldn't double pole anymore. Luckily a good two hours of the ski clinic the previous weekend focused on proper double poling and I had a dozen tips running through my head as I tried to find the fastest way to move along the trail.

The time flew by quicker than it ever had before in the Tour. I felt fast and for the first time I realized the 25k skate skiers had not yet started to catch me. All the skiers who were able to catch and pass me were very good classic skiers – mostly men and a few younger women who looked like junior racers. This was encouraging because in past years I’d been caught and passed by skiers who had sloppy technique but were just super fit and could probably take off their skis and run past me if they wanted to. I wasn't looking at my watch, but I began to hope that I’d hit my goal time of 2:15, three minutes faster than last years’ time of 2:18.

I started the final climb up to the finish area. The Tour of Anchorage is famous for the brutal 5k climb up into Kincaid Park. It must be torture for the 50k racers, but we all struggle to make it up those hills that come at us one after another at the end.

I saw the last hill in front of me. It’s a challenge to stay in the classic track that climbs steeply up to the finish arena after 25k of racing, but it’s a sign of your technique and fitness, not to mention your wax job, if you can maintain your kick and glide to the top and not step out or herringbone up the hill. A friend who had already finished cheered me on from the side and Scott was at the top of the hill yelling encouragement. I was going to make it!

Everyone is a hero when they finish their race!
They do it right at the Tour, and as you go around the large outdoor arena, whether you are a top hotshot 50k skate ski racer or an old lady classic skier like me, they call out your name and where you are from as you approach the finish line. You can’t help but feel happy. Then your timing chip comes off from around your ankle, you’re handed a commemorative zipper pull for finishing, and you’re done. Warm clothes are found and plenty of energy food is provided by the race officials. People mill around the finish area, watching everyone come in and comparing notes on the race. There’s hours of socializing with old and new friends, other racers, spectators, and volunteers. I love this race.
This is just a fraction of the hundreds of skis piled around the finish area
Juneau skiers did well at the Tour and competed in all the events – 25k skate and classic, and the 40k and 50k skate races. Several racers either won medals in their age group or placed in the top 5.  Scott won a silver medal in his age group and broke the two hour mark for 25k. I won my gold and set a new personal best of 2:12, well under my 2:15 goal. Should I shoot for 2:10 next year? Or should I just go for broke and try to get under that two hour barrier? Maybe if I don’t get sick and avoid crashes at night I could do it.
We did it!
Whatever happens, I will have fun trying. And now I’m going to go play in the snow – Spaulding Meadows is calling my name, and there are some ridges around Eaglecrest I need to visit on my fat skis.