First off, sorry this is so late as to be almost not worth posting (the race recap) but I think there are a few lessons us average racers can take away from this race so Im going to briefly recap it. Work obligations had me traveling and this is the first breather Ive had! The 2014 race was super fun mainly for one reason- I was asked to help set the course which Id never done before. This is my stomping ground and I m like the only racer in my town ("best racer in my home town" ha ha ha ha) so I know Wolf Creek pretty well. It was funny doing this with racers a lot better than me though because Id get asked, "What should we do here?" and Id be like, "Gee, Scott, whatever you think makes sense for a real racer!" But seriously, self depreciation aside (a healthy trait I think...) it was a lot of fun. Joe Risi, the new COSMIC executive director (I think that's his official title) had sounded out some top racers for what kind of a course they wanted. He told me there was consensus on a technical boot pack and Scott Simmons (race winnner and super inspiring athlete and family guy - note he has some good photos on his blog from the race) wanted switchbacks/technical kick turns. Since I suck at the cardio aspects of racing I embraced this as a way to get a leg up on the competition! So they wanted technical difficulty, I could help with that!
I reconned a bunch of the mountain which had low snow conditions finding a few powder stashes. Joe and I spent the better part of 2 days reconning, negotiating with ski patrol and setting course. Scott, his son Quinn, Miles Vanzara of Pine Needle Mountaineering and Nick Gould all set course the second day as well. It was a real team effort to put in as much off piste of a course as possible and a lot of different people's ideas all came together to make a challenging course that squeezed the best out of the low snow conditions. We finished up after 4pm Friday prior to the race and no one involved saw the entire course! I was smoked and almost didnt bother racing!
The race was 3k vert for the full course over 8 miles. There were a lot of kick turns, some of which got pretty technical on steep slopes. The downhills were about as good as you can get on Wolf Creek with nice steep sections that are unfortunately (for some I guess) not too long with flatter terrain between them. There was a technical boot pack about 75ft long that was so steep you had to use a knotted rope to ascend it! I only had a 100 ft piece of static line so as we knotted it and it started "shrinking" we had to space the knots out which probably had short racers dreaming of skewering me on a ski pole. We did the best we could! It seemed the course was well received by the racers...or at least MOST of the racers.
When picking up the flags after the race I found an honest to god blood trail leading up the kick turns to the boot pack. On the two more difficult sets of kick turns (below the boot pack and the "skimo bouldering" section through the rock tiers near the upper Alberta lift section) I saw where some racers had apparently taken off their skis and postholed up the kick turns. More on this later!
There were three things that came out of this race for me: gear, technical skills and fitness feedback.
I passed three people who were sidelined by skin failures. There could have been a number of reasons why. Lack of maintenance at the beginning of the season is what Id assume (see my next post for some maintenance thoughts!) or it could have been a technique issue, bad luck, etc. Regardless, I think that the folks I passed never caught back up. The lesson here for me is that skin failures are your MOST LIKELY GEAR FAILURE and can affect your finish so come up with a way to mitigate this.Keep skin glue in shape and have a second pair of skins readily available. Alos. practice for swapping out a skin- it should be like an "official" transition goes and it should take less than a minute!
We are talking kick turns and rope ascension. I was talking about what a racer should focus on early in the season with Jason Borrro of Skimo.co and he was a fan of technical skills over pure athletic training. I think he has something there. As an average, mid pack racer I passed very few people during the majority of the race- those 3 with skin failures and another on a downhill who crashed. In the kick turns and boot pack however, I passed 5 in about a 200 ft section and one more higher in the kick turns. Technical skills can give you an advantage over more"cardio" focused racers. I saw this at the US Nationals at Crested Butte last year where no "average" racers bothered to show up- they didnt get the memo! Anyway, I was way back in the pack and dont think I passed anyone until the Guides Ridge where I passed the only 2 people I passed in the race. They both had difficulty with the rock scrambling stuff.
There are two skills here. First, kick turns. These are not a natural movement and must be learned. Here is a 5 min video to help you visualize this if you are new to the idea. The trick is to practice until it is ingrained in muscle memory. The trick is to rotate the ski mostly behind your body where you have more room. On steep slopes you do this for the inside ski that you turn first as well as the trail ski. It lets you switch back up very steep slopes.
The second skill is the technical boot pack. I heard a number of comments about needing to pay a little attention to upper body strength. As a climber of middling abilities I know enough to understand that climbing is done with the legs. Pulling yourself up with your arms is not sustainable and will quickly deplete your reserves. Standing with your weight on your feet (toes really) and using the rope as little as possible is the key. Mixed climbing is pretty good practice as the lack of sensitivity in your
plastic boots is unnerving until you get used to it. Once you do, you can stand confidently on pretty small nubbins and not waste energy.
I mentioned that I was pretty tired after two days of breaking trail, thrashing out the boot pack and setting the course with Joe and the other guys. I also had new core shots in my PDGs plus a recompressed edge which was a total bummer but I think the effort put into finding safe terrain paid off for the race as there were no injuries or broken skis that I heard of. Anyway, on race day, I figured Id start out a little conservatively and see how it went. I soon found myself at a steady zone 3 heart rate, well below where I wanted to be but that was all I had. I just tried to stick with it and do my best. Early season ski legs had me stopping for a breather here and there on the descent and towards the end ascents were more in zone 2! Yikes. I was obviously not operating at peak performance. However, after the pack sorted itself out I was only passed by 2 guys in the rec class (pretty strong guys who should be considering the long course next time!). I mentioned before I ended up passing some folks about 2/3 of the way through the course, mainly on the big ascent which included the boot pack and the technical switchbacks.
Overall, this year's course was a little shorter than last year's Wolf Creek Pass race but with much more technical terrain and . 3700 vs 3250 vert feet, ~10 vs 8 miles. I had a slightly faster time and MPH but slower rate of ascent. Im guessing that the takeaway is that I was in better shape and might have had a finish Id be very psyched about if I was rested. Heck, Im still psyched- it was a fun course! Anyway, you get the idea. What has changed in the last year? Well, persistence has to be factored in. Also, I had increased my distances on longer runs this summer and had added speed workouts mid to late summer. I really feel like the speed workouts are money and are now the focus of my week. This means Ill sacrifice a long slow workout on the days I inevitably have conflicting obligations but always do one speed workout if not two. These consist of threshold training as I mentioned in previous posts and 800s or so done on hills (about 6 with recovery in between for double the interval time).
So, What are the big takeaways? First, try and help set a race course! Whatever mountain is your stomping grounds, get involved- its a lot of fun! Not to mention taking a load off Joe. I have gained a new level of appreciation for Pete Swenson's YEARS of efforts putting in courses AND crushing on race day. Wow.
Second, tune up your gear and your technique! It will put you further up in the standings.
Finally, speed training is key to improvement, you know it, so go do it!