Well, I just got back from two days of racing and I think I'm feeling better now than when I started. Maybe I'm racing my way into shape? I'll have to if I want to be competitive since this weekend was a bit of an eye opener. I've skied a lot this year (around 213,000 vertical) but very little has been at a race pace. Turns out that was a mistake (maybe not though, since I've had a ton of fun and training by skinning a resort to ski bumps is about as fun as it sounds...see the bartman for more).
Anyway, the race at Jackson was stacked, with the best field ever assembled in North America. Last year there were maybe 8 or 9 guys in speed suits (think fast). This year there were more like 30. The whole 2010 US National Team was there along with half of the Canadian team and a few other Olympic caliber athletes making the transition from other sports. The weather was worse but the snow better, but still with HUGE steep moguls. And, the course was more or less the same with the main difference being a climb through moguls rather than up the groomer to the side.
The start was frantic as always (see here for a write up and pic of the Samurai flying). Partway up the first climb, I felt my arms tying up and had to settle down a bit. I found a rhythm with the Canadians, James and Ian, and was able to top the first climb just as Bart and co were pulling out of the transition to drop down the Alta Chute(?). Then, I was exposed for a fraud. Although I'm skiing better this year then last, I continued to lose what seemed like minutes on each descent. I'd catch back up on the climbs and fall back on the DH. Then at the top of Corbet's with winds NUKING and about to lose my mind and fingers, I stopped to put on a jacket. My plight wasn't nearly as bad as Bart's, who had a gear malfunction in the thick of the storm and was forced out of the race to save his fingers. On the last descent I was passed again and then again before the misery was over.
The result? 11 minutes faster than last year, but 8 places worse. The rest of the SLC crew didn't fare too well either. Jared was looking like he might be in form to win the whole damn thing earlier in the year before illness derailed him and he finished uncharacteristically in the teens. Tim and Layne put in their biggest day of the year, in a race setting, and probably suffered for not being on full race gear.
The top three Americans qualified for the US team. They were Brandon French of Whitefish, Luke Nelson of Pocatello, and Pete Swenson of Colorado. However, Reiner Thoni of Canada stole the show by winning the US National Championships. The 2nd race of the weekend was also a qualifier so the whole spandex clad crew drove over the pass to Alta, Wyoming for the Grand Targhee race. Hints of sun this morning promised good weather but it's January and the temps were in the single digits. Strangely, I felt stronger than the day before, in spite of being on the heels of an 8,000 ft race. The first climb was competitive with the usual suspects taking it out in front and I found my self at the top, still in the thick of it. The skiing was mellower, with lower angled slopes and more powder, but continued to be my achilles heel. At one point, I looked to my right and saw Jan Koles, strait lining past me with a huge powder plume behind him. Then it was Pete, then James, then Chis, amongst others throughout the race.
Other mishaps included not eating anything over the near three hour race the first day, leading to cramping legs, not drinking until the end of the Targhee race secondary to a frozen bottle, and losing my sunglasses turning bad visibility to near blindness.
It's smoothing out these mistakes and feeling myself become more efficient that makes the sport fun. Adding measurable racing goals to backcountry skiing keeps me motivated. However, the main motivation of having fun by simple exploration seems to win out over the goal to get faster. I talked with a number of the top finishers, and it seems a certain level of dedication to structured workouts is necessary to excel. It would be easy to get caught up in that routine, but then I hear about days like this or remember days like this and my imagination starts running wild. Lessons learned racing and preparing for races certainly apply to doing big things in the mountains though. In the end, I'll keep searching for balance and speed, in the backcountry and on the bumps.