Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Gunnar Hagen, for the First Time

Michael Wenger is a trail runner, a bike racer, and an adventurous back country skier.  Last year, on a Wednesday headlamp racing night, he skied all the way around the full Amabilis loop, by himself, in the dark, with his headlamp, in conditions so icy he had to skin both up and down.  This year, he tackled a new challenge: the 30k Gunnar Hagen ski race.  He didn't make the three-hour cut-off, so the race results show him as a DNF, but he most certainly did finish, and sent us this wonderful story of his journey.  Nice work, Michael!

Gunnar Haggen 2012--A test of endurance and a lesson in xc skiing

When I discovered xc skiing a few years ago, I never imagined I’d be lining up to do a xc ski race this past Sunday. For me, skiing has always been a meditative, zen-like experience that lets me process things going on in my life and get back in touch with nature. So when I decided to sign up for a 30K cross-country ski race, I didn’t know what to expect. I have skied 30K before, but on old-school, metal-edge xc skis (with 3-pin bindings, of course!) and the ski took all-day (with multiple breaks for jerkey, bread & cheese, and other granola-like items consistent with a classic PNW ski tour--minus the wool knickers). However, Debbie Kolp offered some encouraging words and gave me the push I needed to follow through with an event I’ve been eyeing for a few years.

So, race day arrived and I looked out onto a glorious, snowy day in Seattle. As I traveled along I-90, the snow got heavier and I thought to myself that this would truly be an epic day in the mountains. I arrived to a busy Cabin Creek snow park and helpful volunteers who instructed me where to park. I walked to the Kongsberger cabin, dropped off my stuff, and took a moment to absorb the energy of the race--people debating what wax to use, sucking down gels, warming up. The energy was amazing! With my waxless, borrowed skis, boots, and poles, I made my way to the registration and put on my first-ever bib. Keep in mind, I’ve done plenty of cycling and running races, but this felt a little different. It’s as if with skiing there is a fitness aspect to it, as well as a science to it all. Snow temperature, waxing, technique, all play a part in how well you do.

So, 10:13 rolled around and they called numbers 55 and 56 to the line. The countdown began and I was off! Almost immediately I began getting passed by folks. I couldn’t figure it out at first. I was fit and train pretty consistently. But I began to notice that the faster skiers knew when to double pole, when to kick & glide, when to double pole and kick, etc. They made classic skiing look so beautiful and easy, although we all know that these are skills that take years to develop. I also quickly learned that in the ski patrolling and ski touring I do, the idea (at least for me) is to be cautious, snow-plow on the downhills, and not take too many risks. However, in racing, I saw folks screaming down the hills, step-turning around corners, and really going all-out.

So, I slowly took a few more risks, started to perfect my aero-tuck, and got into a sensible rhythm. I also made sure to be aware of my fuel intake. Each lap, I’d down a gel(I have found a new favorite gel in Honey Stinger energy gels--thanks for being one of the sponsors!), a water, and an energy drink (Thanks to Nuun!). The wonderful volunteers at the aid station called me their best customer!

As the laps went by, I soon realized that I wouldn’t make the 3 hour time cut. While I was completing lap two, I saw folks who I knew were completing their fourth lap. “No worries,” I thought. I stuck to my rhythm and thought of this as training for goals later this season (the Hog Loppet, ski patrol weekends at the Mt Tahoma Trails, Spring trail running races, etc.). As I rounded the corner to start my final lap, I was asked for my bib and told that I could complete the race if I wanted, but that they would be taking down the course. “Of course I want to complete the race,” I told the nice volunteer. I had driven out there to do 30K and I was going to finish it! So, I set off on my epic, solo last lap. I double-poled, I kicked and glided, I fell on the downhills due to my lack of skills and exhaustion--and loved every minute of it! I rounded the corner and came into the finish and told the volunteer taking down the tent that I should get the “laterne rouge” award--the award in cycling (mostly in the Tour de France) given to the last place rider.

So, I hobbled up to the cabin, enjoyed a delicious bowl of chili, and reflected on a completed journey (I’d stopped calling it a race a while ago and thought of it more as a journey that I wanted to complete!).

Most race reports tell you who won, how it all went down, and other details. Well, don’t hold your breath on this one. All I can tell you is that a lot of fast people passed me, and I got a lot of encouraging shouts as I made my way around the course. I was grateful for the volunteers who provided great support, great markings, and wonderful chili, etc. in the cabin after the race.

As someone who identifies strongly with being a xc skier, as well as with my Jewish heritage, I thought I’d try to connect the two. So, in preparing for this write-up, I Googled to find out if there were any famous Jewish cross country skiers. Finding none (and please, correct me if I’m wrong), I feel that I am the beginning of a new generation of slow, cautious Jewish xc ski racers who will pave the way for other slow, cautious racers in the years to come. We’ll make our way slowly around the course, enjoying the energy of the race, the wind in our faces, and the knowledge that we’ll probably have the last lap all to ourselves!

Thanks again to the Kongsberger ski club for putting on the race, my friend Zane for letting me borrow his skis, and to Debbie Kolp for encouraging me to enter. I’ll be back next year to re-claim my lanterne rouge award and enjoy some more of that delicious chili and the sweet taste of “victory.”


  1. Great write up and kudos to Micheal. 30 Km classic is not for the faint of heart.

  2. agreed! Kudos to Michael.