Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Some of the many kick turns under the waterfall namesake of the Waterfall Area
Once again, the Wolf Creek race was a great season kick off. Good early season snow opened up a lot of terrain options and there was a longer course with the best high elevation terrain incorporated. This included two trips up Alberta Peak and a journey out the Knife Ridge. The vast majority of the course was off piste and in skin tracks with lots of challenging terrain. The descents were steep with great snow. Probably most importantly, everyone seemed to have fun, even those who got off course. Hard to ask for anything more in a skimo race!

I figured Id talk about the courses a little and then training and finally analyze the results a little.


The short course was about the same as last year with the addition of a boot pack up Alberta Peak which made it a really good glimpse of what longer races would kind of feel like. Jo Risi, COSMIC Series coordinator, was kind enough to offer up military discounts to this race and the military participants at least loved the short course. I mention this because of two things, first, it is neat to see Joe's efforts at tying in the historic roots of skimo back into the sport. Who isnt a big fan of the 10th Mountain Division and its deep historic ties to Colorado? This is a pretty cool initiative. Especially with National Guard Soldiers who are often avid outdoor enthusiasts themselves, much like the recruits of the original 10th Mountain Division were. Second, it is great to tap into a pool of folks experiencing skimo for the first time and being reminded about what that feeling was like. They all overdressed, they all had heavy gear, they struggled with kick turns, they got utterly smoked. They all want to do it again. Sounds like my first race! As my friend Rich said who was mentoring these guys, it is kind of a rite of passage. After all that suffering you can think about getting light gear and fancy spandex onsies! However, even without all the cool racing gear, it can be an awful lot of fun. Once again, I feel the need to say that regardless of what backcountry setup you have, you should really do a few skimo races. You will learn a lot and be better for the experience.

The long course was roughly 4,200 vertical feet and a little longer than 9 miles which is a little bigger than last year but probably good for an early season race. There was an initial short ascent and descent and second time up the initial skin track to liven things up before the pack got too spread out. One sobering incident was a tib/fib break on the first downhill. The racer was one of the faster folks and by all I heard a very good skier. The run was a "blue" bump run with good snow conditions. It sounds like one of those total bad luck situations and serves to remind us all to be careful. This gear can be unforgiving. I heard the injured racer was doing as well as could be expected and I wish him a speedy recovery.

After the second ascent of the initial skin track the course once again ran the rim around half of the ski area. About half way around the rim the skin track joined the cat track that accesses all the bowls on either side of the Treasure lift. The fast folks have always skated this section which is close to a mile in length. I had never felt up to the challenge before but went for it this time and will talk about that below.

At the end of the flatter section was an easy boot pack up Alberta Peak and some great skiing consisting of three steep drops with flatter sections in between. There was some challenging terrain such as rocks to dodge up high and a dicey stream crossing down low. In one place, I made my only "error" and firmly wedged my ski pole in a hidden notch in a buried tree. It ripped the pole out of my hand, making me take my only crash. I had to flounder up hill to retrieve my pole and it was bent at about a 30 degree angle requiring some refabrication with crossed fingers that it wouldnt snap. This definitely cost me some time. Oh well, it wouldnt be skimo if something didnt go wrong!

Then it was time so switchback up the Waterfall Gully to the namesake waterfall and escape out a boot pack with a knotted rope to a gentle skintrack, more switchbacks and finally a very scenic ridge section back to Alberta Peak. This section ended with a partial ascent of Alberta on a very "springesque" sunbaked boilerplate slope that was probably over 45 degrees. It was all about precise skinning, clinging to the snow with just your edges. "Edged alpinism" to some extent. Fun stuff. This whole ascent benefited those with good kick turn technique like Ive talked about before and which is explained extremely well in the video you all have probably seen already. I especially like the final clip where the turns are executed almost at a run- inspiring! There was a lot of variety in skills needed and for a mid pack guy like me who also skipped the awards ceremony to go back and clean up the course, I got a double shot of the carnage that steep switchbacks wreak on the unprepared. There were lots of "fails" evidenced by the boot packing some racers apparently did through the skintrack after their technique and skins failed them. Even after all that carnage trashed the skintrack, I had to perform some interesting "skimo yoga" to get through some of the carnage resulting in the racer behind me claiming that he had never seen moves like that before. Look for my studio opening soon! This could be big...

I ran across two racers who had blown both sets of skins. One was "tele guy" who was super inspiring in his rippin turns as well as the fact that he duck walked up the last part of the ascent to the ridge, post holed the ridge, and still crushed me in short order (this was after beating me up the initial skintrack, (I think) stopping to help the injured guy, RUNNING up Alberta peak to pass me again and after the whole skin failure thing apparently recovering enough skin traction to finish the race in front of me- pretty bad ass. 

I also ran across a guy I had met at the start who had blown 3 new skins on brand new skis (kinda weird) who asked if I had a spare skin. I gave him one of my two spares hoping the good karma would come back to me. Instead, it just let that guy blow by me (both skins, one of which was mine, flapping and half failed already...). I got the skin back much worse for wear at the finish. It had never failed me in two years including being the only pair I used for the entire Grand Traverse. Im hoping that karma is still just waiting to hook me up at some point.

Moving on, after a fun descent of about half the mountain racers made their second to last ascent up some more modest switchbacks to the Knofe Ridge accessed via the catwalk welded and bolted to the side of the ridge's rocky spine. Very Euroesque. Then some skating out the ridge to a series of steep shots on more good snow to a catwalk which took racers to the base of the mountain and then back up hill to the finish just over one mile away.

Sounds tiring just reliving it! The top finishers, Scott Simmons and Marshal Thompson were less than a minute apart at the end and finished at almost exactly the 2 hour mark. Crazy.
The course generally goes from right to left with start/finish at the "391" road marker


It is hard to get a good read on how training impacted this race since I spent two whole days breaking trail and setting course! I was once again pretty tired. It was VERY fun helping set up a skimo race though and I would (and will!) do it again in a heartbeat. I should mention that there were some great folks helping set up the course and it was a neat collaborative effort with everyone working together and providing suggestions/modifications which resulted in such a cool course.

The biggest changes Id made in my training was running much longer distances over the summer, learning to skate ski and incorporating olympic lifting into my week in modest quantities. Hard saying yet how these are playing out but here are my initial thoughts.

Long distance running. Probably a bad idea? Once again, Ill reference the wisdom of on summer training.I think the idea of 1-3 hour type runs or races makes a lot of sense. But, Im just in it all for the adventure and so I do what I want! No regrets because some of those runs were awesome adventures!

Skate skiing. After seeing first hand the advantages of skating in the Grand Traverse last year I wanted to take that technique more seriously. I got some ratty old skis and set about skating up 6k worth of groomed forest service road. That gentle uphill is tough but I think the training will be a benefit. Im probably one of the few who has never skated, I grew up on classic technique and snubbed my nose at those pansy skaters who required a machine groomed route. Well, turns out that skating technique is an amazing workout and the fact that you cant just shuffle along means you are forced to engage in explosive/dynamic movements constantly, especially on a continuous uphill type of track. It is pretty awesome. Im not sure I want to skate the flats but uphill is where its at for skimo cross training I think. Im also using slightly shorter than "normal" skating poles to try and isolate my legs and not rely on the long poling strokes you can accomplish with nose length poles. I may revert to such poles though as it really allows for ab engagement.

Lifting. While I would like to think there is a benefit on the uptrack, I dont know yet. However, on descents I had to stop and rest my screaming early season quads a lot less and I think lifting had something to do with that. I discussed this a bit in a recent post so check that out for more on lifting.

Finally, Id say that I felt pretty good on the course for being so tired. How tired? Well, I had my trusty heart rate monitor on and I was able to stay in the lower part of my zone 4 / threshold heartrate for the first ascent and a bit of the second, then a lot of zone 3 and the last two ascents were solidly in zone 2. Wow. I typically am maxing out zone 4 the first ascent or so depending on its length and staying in zone 4 and 3 for the majority of the race. Even with this decreased performance level, I felt like I would have beat my time for last year if I was going toe to toe with my "last year self." The numbers this year are hard to go by but from the splits I managed to notice, I think this is true.

Bottom line, I think another season of training and the tweaks Im making are going to help. We will see!

On a side note, I have been interested and amused to read some of the articles appearing in print about the growing enthusiasm for skimo. out there. The recent Outside article, Up is the New Down (sorry, this is just a link to a list of articles in the issue but gives you the cover shot so you can scrounge a copy...) describes a workout regimen of nothing but intensity training for every workout all week long for multiple weeks. Id be cautious to follow such advice as it flys in the face of everything Ive read or heard in conversations with really good racers. Of course I am a mid pack dude so I could be missing something, feel free to correct me!


I have just a few comments here. First, Im amazed that my PDG boots continue to hold up so well. I have beat them up some and there are rivets that need re pressing in the top buckles but they continue to go strong. My cheap poles have stood up amazingly well and Im thinking that is definitely one area where you can skimp on gear. I continue to like the Ski Trab bindings, mainly the heel pieces but like the Dynafit Low Tech toe pieces best for the front. I saw some of those cute stubby heel pieces Dynafit and some other bindings seem to be going to and saw one fail on the race where the heel lift somehow jammed down below the pins and was non operational. Weird. Speaking of binding weirdness, it seems the shop that installed my bindings didnt epoxy the screws and the bindings moved towards the front and back of the ski just enough that my heel didnt always catch the heel pins in the slots but they jumped the slots and held the boot in over the heel welt that holds crampons on. Not only hard to get skis off with that but probably unsafe in a crash. Note to self- check the screws each year!

Finally, I got to try out the Contour climbing skins, a very generous gift for helping set up the course. The skins themselves seem very light weight and glide great right out of the box. They climbed like champs as well. On the other hand, I suspect the glue is not quite as good as Coletex and Pomoca (not to mention BD Gold). I already see some balling of the glue after a few days of use while the aforementioned brands dont seem to show this for some time. Also, the tip bungee system is not that great. The bungee material is very thin and so they easily max out in stretch while applying them making it hard to pull the pull tab and remove them. Luckily, the mounting is cleverly designed to make the bungees easily replaceable and Ill be upgrading that shortly. That upgrade and probably new BD Gold glue should make these some awesome skins.

Race Result Analysis

So, not a lot of explanation needed? About 4 of 5 full course racers finished between about 2:30 and 3:00. I was on the tail end of that (truth in advertising). Ill do better next time, coach!!!! Seriously, there was definitely a big pack in that half hour window. While no amount of fitness probably would have made me a half hour faster on a 9 mile / 4k course I bet 10-15 minutes would be reasonable? Who knows. either way, I think I could be nearing my goal of being above mid pack! Beyond selfish interests here, I think it is interesting that I see a healthy "awesome amateur" pack out there and it is an exciting challenge to try and get in the midst of that group. Anyway, fun to look at and think about.


Well, I hope that if you raced you had fun! If you have any suggestions on the course for next year (what to keep what to do different) please let me know! It was great meeting a few folks who had read this blog at the race and I hope I see you guys around. Finally, Id once again encourage everyone to volunteer to help set up a skimo race if at all possible. It is really fun. Take care and have fun racing and training! The season is definitely on!


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