Anyway, I had the good fortune to participate in the Heather Challenge at Sunlight Resort a few weeks back. That was my first time skiing there although it brings back bitter memories of my younger brother who got to go up there after I was off in college with his buddies and their girlfriends and no parents for the weekend, something my folks would NEVER have let me do. Seriously, im NOT still bitter...
But I digress!
I wanted to talk about two things. First, a Skimo racing mindset and second some thoughts on race training based off of the changes Ive incorporated into my exercise regimen and how that has worked out.
Race MindsetI dont get to participate in many races and am OK with that. While I typically dont like competitive venues, I really love skimo races since they push me to get fitter and more efficient- challenging my assumptions. This directly translates into more fun in the backcountry for me. Its also fun getting crushed by the amazing racers out there for a healthy perspective and dose of humility. Anyway, in the few races I participate in, there somewhat routinely seems to be someone about where I am fitness wise who is struggling and kind of pissed. This always seems to take place on technical terrain- boot packs, steep or tight kick turns, scrappy downhills etc. Being the pathetic person I am I used to just get psyched when I saw this because I had found someone sucking worse than me and that sometimes makes all the difference! Then the gracious side of me says that everyone has a bad day and Im more inclined to look at that person with compassion...until I pass them asn then with a big grin say, "Great race, huh?" or words to that effect. Yeah, karma is going to kick my butt one of these days but until then, may as well have fun!
Seriously though, the more I think about these encounters the more I realize a few things. First, Im always coming up on these people, they are not overtaking me. This means they are obviously fitter than me or maybe just faster over the short term. Second, I pass them and seem to not see them again. Finally, as mentioned above, it is always in technical terrain.
Here is my half baked theory. People who approach skimo as a ski race are going to get frustrated. It is a blend of athletic ability, technical skills and gear-specific trickery and techniques. Athletic ability alone wont work out well. If you want to wear lycra, wear skinny skis and just worry about breathing hard, do a nordic race! While the conditions in a skimo race are not identical to backcountry skills, they come close and dealing with scrappy terrain is part and parcel of the "mountaineering" aspect of skiMO.
Mindset has a lot to do with performance and is hard to train for if you are just skinning up groomers at your local resort. Especially when you get tired! For folks new to skimo Id definitely keep that in mind for the first season or two.
I think with the right mindset, those tricky parts of the courses dont sap your motivation as much and you end up performing better.
Regarding the tiredness aspect, I feel that skimo races are really hard for their length probably because of the steepness, sheer amount of vert and that weight on your feet which, light as it is, adds up! Better pacing at the beginning and fueling (discussed below) really seem to be important. Think about it- these are basically half marathons (or less!) and my friends who run those regularly and do quite well claim you just go run fast for the whole thing. Big difference.
My mindet going in has become that if I dont get scared on a downhill, lost (aka "temporarily misoriented") and or almost die of exhaustion it wasnt much of a skimo race! And I will likely freeze my butt off at some point and there is always the possibility of a gear malfunction.
Mindset is everything! Or at least deserves respect along with fitness, gear skills and technical skills.
Race AnalysisThe Sunlight race was super fun for an amateur. First, check in was at Cripple Creek Backcountry, the first full service backcountry ski shop ( or I think Im getting that claim right!). Doug, one of the owners was super friendly and they have great beer on tap- perfectly legal with liquor license prominently posted! It was kind of fun to browse a ton of gear and fondle it. I even finally got around to getting some wide skin material for a spring traction set of wall to wall skins - a lesson learned from last year!
Joe Risi, was there from COSMIC/USSMA and it was great to see him again. Those guys had laid out a great course which was not easy with the boney conditions and were justifiably psyched.
After a night in the car in the back of a parking lot, I was slumming for coffee at the 7 eleven when I spied come of the CB crowd (aka racers I see on the start line and podium) also slumming so I got to follow them up the back road shortcuts from town to the area. Sunlight is a super cool little resort with one lodge to which all runs come to. Great for families I think. It is also in aspen zone which was cool and unusual compared to the spruce beetle kill I am used to skiing in these days. It is always fun to see different places.
The race started up a nordic trail for a while so it was about wide enough for 2 racers with the odd one squeaking through when they could. I was psyched to be in the main pack which was setting a blistering pace when, about 1.25 miles into the race, the guys up front stopped and started waving their arms and turning around. WTF??? I kinda processed we all must have missed a turn and pulled a U myself realizing I could make some gains if I was fast and kept my eye out for the last flag (or flag group that indicated a turn!). One guy ripped skins but no one else did so I went with the flow on this. Turns out skin rip guy made a good call (local knowledge is an advantage!) as we had blown by the poorly marked unmanned turn a quarter mile prior! The course marshal had been dropped off in the wrong place.
Lost- check. Looking like skimo racing!
It was beautiful chaos. We were all turned around crashing through those behind us and no one really wanted to tell those folks to turn around and clog the works so it was confusing. I tried to build up some good karma by speaking up as best as I could. My well worn pink skins let me move pretty fast on the generally downhill return so I got out in front of some folks who were way better than me since I turned around quick and could hold the place on the descent even when there was the occasional wipe out.
We hit the missed turn and I knew we were in for some sorting out so in between gasps I would offer to get out of the track for anyone who came up on my tails. After a pleasant skin track up a valley we ascended some knob just outside the area boundaries on dual skin tracks so passing on the steeper part was less problematic. I know those are hard to put in for the small crews that typically set courses so a big thanks is due! This whole ascent except the very end was pretty gradual and was just shy of 3.5 miles. It took just about an hour for me to make this one never ending ascent of just about 2k feet. Then we got to ski broken crust (vs. breakable crust thanks to all the fast racers prior to us!) in THIN snow cover with exciting semi buried obstacles and the like through aspens. Yikes!
Scared- check. Definitely looking like skimo racing!
The second ascent was 1.25 miles with about 1k vert and went fast. This is where I always start finding my rhythm and start not getting passed and doing some passing myself which feels good. I hit a group at the base of the descent and got out of the transition ahead of most of them. Then reeled in a few folks with one guy still on my heels to the top which included a fun moderate boot pack with great views.
From there it was a ~2k descent with the top being a fresh groomer where you could tuck for about 4 minutes and straight line it with arms resting on knees- recovery...sweet!
Then down the "Heather Challenge" or something like that, a steep slope of unconsolidated snow pushed kinda into bumps with intermittent but somewhat routine bare patches. This made me really focus on skiing the faces of the semi bump masses to keep my skis out of the rocks. I passed a fair number of skiers here. Aggressive descents really are an important tactic as Ive mentioned before!
The bottom portion was bashing juvenile trees in a narrow glade. Then lots of steep kick turns in unconsolidated snow with all kinds of opportunities for burying poles. Wahoo! There were a few racers with blown skins here. Also, some grumbling. Then a boot pack up a steep gully and the angle started letting up. I had guys on my heels the whole way up even as I passed the occasional person and I was determined not to let them catch me- sucks to be the "hunted"! I had been doing a consistent job of fueling with my race favorite, caffeinated Tailwind and felt strong and it was the last ascent so I was pushing myself as best as I could. My rhythm was consistent and I was smiling (and not just due to others suffering!).
Well, about 1/2 way up this ~2k ascent you hit the groomers and take them to the top. I could see a guy out in front of me and then the hunted became the hunter (dramatic theme music please). He was way out there but fading and I was feeling strong and gunning for him. As we neared the top I caught up like AT THE TOP as he ripped skins and was gone. I was bummed but loved the chase. During it, the guys behind me faded and were no where to be seen at the top. I gunned it down the descent which was the sam as the last one with a turn to the finish close to the bottom. I passed a bunch of folks on the steeps once again even with legs of jello and after crossing the finish just collapsed and took a shameless sprawled in the snow breather.
Physical exhaustion - roger that. Yup, this was a skimo race!
While waiting for the awards and the Dynafit race ski raffle (think one smiling guy and a bunch of sad racers...)This guy came up to me and introduced himself (John if memory serves correctly) and said he was the guy I barely caught at the top. He said he was out of gas and could feel me breathing down his neck but knew if he could get to the downhill first it was all over. Once again, I got schooled on the downhill while schooling others! Good reminder to keep training for that!
He was a cool guy and so was his buddy, Jason who unfortunately submarined his skis under a log on that first descent and trashed himself. Major bummer and I hope he has fully recovered (mainly so those two can team up and give me another shot at John in the Breck 5 Peaks! But Im not competitive.
Sertiously, this was cool for a few reasons. These two guys were also super psyched just to race and their families were there on the slopes. We had some laughs about the appropriate family handicaps and agreed that there were still some amazing racers at the top of the heap who would still be there as they would benefit from those same handicaps! As we were talking, Jason told me he recognized me from this blog! I think that means I have like 4 documented readers. Sweet!
So, shout out to you, Jason! Come on down to Wolf Creek for another fun small mountain ski race any time! But dont bring John, he will crush me again on that shorter venue!
OK, a quick race analysis. First, I have been incorporating speed into my weekly regimen pretty consistently. Ive been doing this two ways. First, about 4-6 ea 4 min uphill sprints walking back down for a recovery of double the sprint interval. This keeps the focus on muscles and Im not limited by sucking wind. It is not faddish but from all the reading Ive been doing, most influentially on Science of Running, there is a lot more science behind this than HITT and all that other stuff. I also feel like Im less prone to tweaking things and can consistently pile on the mileage every week doing sprints like this.
The other speed work has been threshold intervals as Ive described previously. The change here has been that my longer weekend ski workout which was a long slow one in the past is now 2 hours of threshold intervals. That is 20 min up, 10 min down (really 5 min down and 5 min rest) and repeat. The proper rest time keeps the speed up on the intervals and is critical not to skimp on. The goal is improving speed and endurance, not digging a hole you cant climb out of. And you need to still be able to hit it the rest of the week.
The rest of the week is 1-1.5 hour runs at a moderate pace (usually more like 1 hour as Ive got kids, jobs, wife, life and all fighting for attention like the rest of you!)
When I get slammed and cant get in an hour of exercise, I will try to get 45 min and do a tempo style run or if after dark, a similar bout on the nordic track. Basically taking 10-15 min to get up to a "harder than threshold pace" and holding it for 30 minutes.
I also try and do a 15 min pilates routine every weekday night from my favorite pilates book, Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, which is something that I think pays huge dividends when conditions get scrappy and your poles want to submarine, you need to link turns on rubber legs etc. I know I felt a difference in this race due to core strength! Check out the author's 15 minute ski routines, especially routine B. It can be a smoker!
Where does this leave long endurance days? Well, they get in there but not that often until recently as Im trying to solidify my endurance for longer spring possibilities and a team race.
This all comes down to the fact that there is only so much time for an average person to train and how do you train smart with 5-8 hours available per week? I think there is more benefit to speed than I used to think. Also, due to this and better attention to diet I have lost 5-8 lbs which theoretically makes me faster (light is right?). An unintentional but welcome side effect. I think my body knew it could get by with what it had and now it had a shock. Anyway, for a pro this might be super important, for folks like you and me this is just bonus I think.
How did these changes pan out? Well I had my absolute best performance ever! How cool is that? Same gear as last year by the way just to "control variables" or is it Im too poor to get new stuff no matter how bad my skis are looking?
My course MPH and rate of ascent were both the best Ive had over 3 years of racing. Good thing too as that still put me just shy of mid pack! Super strong crowd out there!
The bottom line for me is Ive seen real gains from this approach and will keep with it.
I think that disciplined fueling throughout the race helped me punch it towards the end as did my ratcheting back on the first ascent to keep something in reserve.
Well, that is way longer than I thought I was going to go but I think Ill stop there. If there are any personal observations you have from your own racing, agreements, disagreements, etc, please let me know! Id love to see some discussion about what is important for us mid packers to think about!
One last thing, make sure you get out and do a team race- the longer courses and team aspect are super cool!