Sunday, January 13, 2013

The 2013 Heathen Challenge: So Close...Sort of...

Here's a recap of the 2013 Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain from my perspective in the "peloton" and according to the experience of friends.  I apologize to others who also raced as I'm sure everyone had great races and plenty of stories to tell...

Well, Saturday the last of the three qualifying races for the US Ski Mountaineering Team was held outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  The race, at Sunlight Mountain, was an anomaly in the US circuit as it was around eleven miles long and gained just over 5000 vertical.  It's not the elevation gain however that is unusual but the distance to do it.  Most races start out by pinning the racers up the steepest pitch of groomed track available and this theme continues even if changing the climbing surface to bumps and skin track.  This race, the Heathen Challenge, began with miles of nearly flat cat track that moved to single track, and then finally began to climb at the slightest of angles through a stand of Aspens to the summit of Willie's Peak.  The pace and cadence were foreign and ultimately, I believe proved to be the beginning of my undoing.

The usual suspects were all there, vying for position with three more to qualify for the team.  The five that already had automatic spots were still trying to establish their rank by accruing enough points to have the privilege to race the Individual Race at the World Championships.  I figured I had an outside shot at qualifying since I had been 9th and 10th at the last two races with basically the top eight earning spots.

Tom and Jason getting cozy on the way to Glenwood

Driving up to Sunlight, the temperature was -5 but at least the skies were clear and visibility was good.  We said hello to various racing buddies from around the West, warmed up briefly, and jostled our stuff to the start line, anxious to get moving to generate some heat.

From the gun, the pace was ridiculous on the low angle groomer.  There was some fighting for position as we were funneled onto a small snow mobile road, where the field really began to string out.  Tom and Marshall were out front, trying to run each other into the ground.  They quickly gapped a chase pack of National Champion John Gaston, Scott Simmons, and Greg Ruckman.  Bryan Smith in a controlled release of adrenaline was able to close the gap to this pack as he missed the gun and was stunned to walk out of the lodge and see the mass of lycra surge away from the starting line.  Just behind this group, I was in hard pursuit with Jason right on my tail offering encouragement.  He seemed to be going awfully easy but claimed the high cadence felt uncomfortable.  Wick was immediately behind Jason, followed by Luke and Max some distance back.

As I slid into the first transition, I fumbled my skins as my fingers were wooden from the cold in spite of placing hand warmers inside my gloves.  Jason and Scott got the jump on me and then were off, skiing breakable crust through tight aspens, all the while fighting the creeping lactic acid and watching out for downed brush and stumps.  Predictably, I crashed once when my legs couldn't handle the burn any more and watched Wick glide away.  I was still able to slide into the transition with the whole crew except the front three.

Out in good position, I felt a very strange tightness in both legs.  They were numb, leaden, and cramped. I theorized it was a combination of the cold and some muscular fatigue from fast low angle skinning that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the type of training we typically pursue.  I was impotent as I watched first Ruckman, then Luke, then Max go by.  My plan to make a move on this shorter climb  was over before it started.  Luckily, I loosened up enough to hold the small gap but from there I'd have to have a perfect race and finish uncharacteristically strong.  As I ran the boot pack along the summit ridge of Sunlight Mountain, I kept telling myself that there was still a lot of racing and that anything could happen.

And then the wrong type of anything did happen and I found myself with one ski stuck uphill of a small tree at the bottom of the second descent.  The variable snow, rubbery legs, and wild reckless skiing conspired to hang me up on what is actually a very mellow low angle descent through the trees.  I could feel any chance of finishing where I wanted vanish with every second that I remained locked in that awkward position.  I exploded with expletives.

At the last uphill transition, the whole pack was already gone, making their way up countless switchbacks toward the endless flat traverse back to the summit of Sunlight.  I did my best but was off the back, out of contact, and flat from fighting myself for too long.  Afterward, I heard the stories from the front and laughed when Tom said he tried to drop John and Marshall on the final booter but was unable to do so.  At that point, John and Marshall countered and then it was Tom's turn to watch his competitors skin away.  Honorably, he held on for a very solid 3rd place, making for a terrific start to the season with a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at the three races so far.  John pulled off the impressive win for the third consecutive race and Marshall looks like he's coming into form now as he has improved each time out.  Jason was trying to close the gap on these leaders when he blew a skin and was then passed by Max, Ruckman, and Wick.  All three of whom were also on a mission to make the team and did so finishing 4th, 5th, and 6th, respectively.  Incredibly, Scott Simmons was unable to race at his usually high level and fell to 8th and was the first one to not make the team (although he will likely make it as the first alternate should someone not be able to go).  Last year's national champion, Luke Nelson was also a little flat and slotted in behind Simmons.  And then finally, I rounded out the top ten after Bryan Smith had some skin trouble on the last climb (Yes, I took advantage of his troubles!  But, I also gave him a spare skin and perhaps saved him a spot or two?).

2013 Heathen Results
I had hopes of a better race and was rather disappointed afterwards.  But after some driving and a little sleep (unfortunately more driving than sleep), it's obvious that the faster guys finished where they should have.  I could have had a perfect race and it wouldn't have been enough on that day and on that course.  Regardless, disappointment, flat course and all, the race was incredibly fun...maybe that odd type of painful fun, but fun nonetheless.  I love getting out and seeing if my body and mind will respond to the training.  The competitors, places, and time are all just metrics to measure the fun.

On the ride home, Luke, Tom, Jason, and I were talking about the sport and how much faster the front end has gotten.
I'm sure the whole field at every race is getting faster as the gear is better and more people are racing.  Again, sorry for not commenting on the rest of the race.  
Luke felt positive based on time trials and recorded workouts that he's faster this year than last.  I know I'm faster evidenced by dropping 20 minutes at Jackson and being able to hang with all but a couple guys on the climbs.   Marshall is fresh off a phenomenal summer/fall of mountain running and we expected this from him.  Ruckman is a former olympian (nuff said).  Simmons, by word of mouth, has trained like crazy.  Max and Wick are wily veterans and complete racers.  And, Jason, in spite of his schedule, maintained some great training throughout the fall to augment his freaky abilities.  Tom is relatively new as is Gaston and both are highly pedigreed.  As gear becomes more widely available and the uphill movement grows,  I predict that this type of new talent will continue to bolster the sport.   Mountain runners, cyclists, triathletes, and others will join the party.

But this year, the whole lead pack seems elevated to a new level by the competitiveness of the other racers (I'm also sure this is happening all throughout the field as those with experience are figuring out the gear, training, and tactics and new talent seems to be infused into every race).  And ultimately, this is a great thing for the sport and the US Ski Mountaineering Team that will be competing next month in Pelvoux, France.

This must be our fastest team yet.

Good luck guys!

1 comment:

  1. Andy, thanks for a great write up! Too bad you couldn't make the team at the last one but be proud of your effort, you guys have hell of a lot of competition down there.
    Also, could you please contact me via this page, so I can send you interview questions we talked about ( Thank you :)