The cross-country ski trail at my high school started near the football field. It did a quick loop and then made a short, sharp climb away from the football field. I strode up that hill and suddenly sent a stream of orange juice flying out of my mouth. And kept on skiing. That was thirty-two years ago and the last time that happened during a ski race. Until yesterday.
I went over to the Keweenaw to ski the Great Bear Chase. Since the Birkie was cancelled and I had this public goal of skiing a good one, I wanted to salvage something from the season. I needed to justify rollerskiing by myself way back in June. I drove over on Friday and got to the Calumet High School to register. I asked where the spaghetti supper was. “We ran out of food,” said the young girl that handed me my bib.
Normally, I eat a pizza at around 4 pm the afternoon prior to anything big. Lately, “big” is Grandma’s Marathon and the Birkie. I spend the night before each of these in my own house. But I started eating pizza as a pre-race meal because I read somewhere that it’s a useful pre-race meal anywhere in the world because you can get a pizza anywhere in the world. This was a rare out of town race for me where I could put this choice into practice. So, naturally, I ignored that reason when faced with a food choice the night before my only 50k of the year.
I thought about stopping in Ironwood or even earlier to eat “on the timeline.” I didn’t stop. Now, faced with a dinner choice where I wouldn’t eat until 8 pm or so, I panicked. I went to the Burger King near the Calumet school. I had a Whopper and fries. Sure, terrible, but at least a known quantity.
I drink a ton of water in the morning before any race to “get things moving.” So, when I went to the hotel’s continental breakfast the next morning, I was a little nauseous from pounding a quart of water. This is normal. I had some cereal and some coffee. I got back to my room to put on my race clothes. And ran to the toilet to hurl. Burger remnants. Now, I have a serious question: Is there some tiny bouncer in my stomach that let the raisin bran go by just 5 minutes before, but was still keeping onions and lettuce and tomatoes outside the rope? How is that even possible?
I shook it off. Actually felt better. Suited up. Went to the race. Ran my normal pre-race template. My truck showed 2F with about 15 knots of wind outside. Painful, but not my first rodeo. “I’ve had worse,” as the Black Knight says. My skis were good and fast. I’ve never put Dermatone or tape on my face and I’ve never had a problem. I had plenty of layers, a buff, and lobster-claws. Standard near-zero set-up.
25k was uneventful. At 1:40, I was right at a 4:00 min/k pace. I was hoping for a better pace, but I was pretty happy considering the cold snow and my gastro issues earlier. This course was less hilly than the Birkie, but I figured if I ran a 3:20 total time, it’d be at least another Wave 2 quality race. My Birkie last year was a 3:25.
At 28k, I took a gel and drank some water at the aid station. Isn’t there a sea-creature that turns itself inside out to evacuate its stomach? Well that’s what happened at 30k. It kind of freaked me out that I hurled up a gallon of stuff so I stopped. While I was mopping up my face, I realized, I couldn’t really feel my lower jaw. I took my hand out of my glove and spent some time warming up the skin around my chin.
From about 32k to the feed at 39k was a long, steady downhill. When I was tucking or tuck-skating, I put my gloves in front of my face. That race direction was into the wind and I was going quicker downhill. Again, I normally do this and my face felt fine, but my stomach was on edge.
I pulled up to the 39k aid station to get some water. All the volunteers’ eyes got really big. I knew something was up, but not sure what. Finally, a dude came up to me and said, “Dude, your nose looks really rough.” Aw, shit. I took my hand out of my gloves and went skin to skin on my nose until it got pink again. “Yeah, yours was the worst we’ve seen all day,” he said. I was drinking fine all day, so not dehydrated. But could there be a component of calorie-uptake to frostbite/frostnip? I don’t know. I’ve skied in conditions much colder with no problem. At this point, I had tried to have one gel and expelled it. So, no real calories to this point and afraid to try again.
After I warmed my nose up, I tried to put cold hands back in my wet and now hardening gloves. No luck. I had to look at them to see what they were doing. I shook my head, pissed at myself. The volunteers scrounged some chemical hand warmers and I threw those in my gloves and kept on. I looked at the Garmin on my wrist to assess the damage. It was dead. Maybe it’s colder than I thought? Probably for the best to not know how bad it was with 10k to go.
I finished. Walked to the truck and saw the 4F on the thermometer. That’s twice as warm as 2F right? And only 250 miles to drive home now.
Before every race, I set goals. I start with three boilerplate items: 1) Be safe. 2) Finish. 3) Have fun. For this one, I added 4) Time between 3:00 and 3:20. All I did was finish. I’m experienced and better-prepared than I’ve been in years. This complete collapse was a surprise. I haven’t had an ass-kicking like this in a long time. 3:40 of suck.
There was a point where I was skating my way uphill the last 10k. I knew at this point I was in survival mode. I took my hands out of my pole straps and tucked my poles under my armpits. I pulled my fingers into the palms of my gloves so I could try to revive my thumbs next to the hand-warmers. I skied with just my legs until I got my thumbs back and thought, “Someday, you’ll need toughness. And you’ll be able to look at this and realize you can bear it.” Melodramatic, but that’s what I squeezed out of one butt-ass cold, windy, puke-filled finish.
Done, done, on to the next one. Time to get ready for Grandma’s Marathon in 13 weeks. I’ll be eating pizza at 4 pm.