Sunday, March 18, 2012

Vasa Story-Another Perspective

My friend Travis Rector, an astrophysicist in Anchorage, headed to Sweden for his first European ski race. I tried to tell him everything I knew about Vasaloppet, but still, it was a great big brand new exciting experience, and here is his cool story.  It's long, but it's a very fun read!

Boy, where to begin??  Overall the race went really well.  Bluebird skies, good enough kick, relatively fast conditions (until near the end).  But it was also a frustrating experience in many ways; and it's probably physically and mentally the toughest thing I've ever done.  
The days leading up to the race were restless and very stressful.  It was hard to just enjoy what was going on around me when I had the race looming ahead.  In hindsight I think it was a really big bite to chew all at once- doing my first international race, and 90km to boot.  It was just hard to wrap my brain around it all!  I kept worrying about what I was forgetting- which was a good thing actually because there were several things that I HAD forgotten!  Combining jet lag, anxiety and an uncomfortable cot in an unfamiliar setting meant I didn't sleep well.  And of course the night before I got next to no sleep at all.  As you know you have to catch the bus around 4am, so I planned to get up around 2:30 to get a good breakfast and get out the door.  I wasn't sleeping anyway so I got up at 2:15.  I had a good breakfast and got ready.  Everything was going well until I stepped out the door and realized I didn't have my big down coat for staying warm before the race.  My wife had the keys and I couldn't wake her up to let me back in!  So I had to head to the bus without it. 

On the bus I sat next to a nice young man who was also doing it for the first time.  It was also his first year of skiing, and he hadn't skied more than 20km!  I later learned these people are called "Blueberries", folks who don't really ski but want to say they've done the Vasaloppet- a badge of honor for any Swede.  As one person put it, "Muslims do the Hadj, Swedes do the Vasaloppet."  I later looked up his results and he did indeed complete the race, in a very respectable 9:20 no less.  On the bus it got really warm, so much so people complained to the driver.  I don't handle busses well anyway, and this really made me nauseated.  I had planned to eat a sandwich on the bus but I felt too queasy to do so. 
Once we got there things swung to the other extreme.  It was 12F and windy at the start and very quickly I became frozen.  They were having computer problems, so the line to get into our bin was going extremely slowly.  I stood in line freezing my a** off for an hour!  All the other bins were fine- it was just ours that was having problems.  Finally they realized they had to just let us in, so we all swarmed in; and I grabbed a spot on the far edge, naively thinking it would help keep me out of the melee.  I then ran up to the expo area to warm up and put on my boots.  By this point I only had enough time to eat a banana, throw my clothes bag in the truck and head back to the start.  There were women up on platforms leading everyone in warm-up calisthenics to the worst of the worst 80s music they could find (really, where did they find this stuff?!)  Five minutes from the start I took off my warmup pants but I was just too frozen to take off my coat.  (I later ditched it at Smågan, never to be seen again.) 
Even before the gun went off I could tell being on the edge would help little.  Already people were lining up to shoot by on the outside edge.  And as soon as the race started, all hell broke loose.  People were shooting around me every which way possible, on both sides!  Only a 100m from the start and one guy slammed into my pole just as I was planting it, and I have no idea how it didn't break.  Then of course we began the climb up the hill.  I thought I was prepared for this, but I had no idea how crazy it would be!  Every step, someone stepping on your skis or poles, or both.  People pressing from all sides, trying to cut in front of you.  One guy was so close behind me I could see his skis right behind my herringbone, and I could feel him bumping into my fanny pack.  I was thinking, "shouldn't you at least introduce yourself at first?!"  On the edge, people were attempting to ski off course through the woods, but with little luck.  Didn't anyone tell these people it's a 90km race?!  At one point I yelled, "and there go our brave arctic explorers!"  A few guys nodded in agreement, but no one else seemed to understand (or care) what I was saying.  I tried to stay relaxed, but it was very hard to keep from falling over.  And of course you had to keep alert and keep your poles safe.  Fortunately I didn't fall or get hurt.  But after the race I found a 3" long chip of P-TEX missing from one of my skis, a puncture in my boot, and a pole-tip-sized bruise in my thigh!  All in all it took 55 minutes for me to go the first 3km. 
Finally things started to level off and you could actually ski, although it was slow and I was still surrounded.  I thought this area of the course was the most beautiful.  The stark landscape and blue skies were incredible.  Unfortunately I couldn't look around much as people were jumping track left and right, and many people crashed as doing so- meaning you had to quickly get around them.  As I mentioned in an earlier email I was only able to make it up to the 7th wave, which turned out to be about 2-3 waves further back than I should have been.  Even though I wasn't trying to race hard (after all, it was 90km!)  t spent the entire race weaving in and out of traffic.  I was trying to be very careful about wasting energy jumping track, but I just kept getting stuck behind people that weren't skiing well.  Even just 10k into the race people were starting to get gassed.  And it was wasting more energy standing up and slowing down than it was to just get around them.  Slowly the crowds spread out, and it became more and more possible to ski at your own pace.  But all the way to the end I was always having to work to get around people. The race results show that I passed over 1500 people during the race! 
In the early going I was focused on keeping the tempo up and the effort light, staying efficient and not overreacting to the crowd.  Mentally the hardest part of the race was seeing a marker for EVERY SINGLE KILOMETER!  Is that really necessary?!  That was just brutal.  Occasionally I'd miss one, and then get a treat a few minutes later to realize I was further along than I thought.  Once we started to hit the downhills I was surprised at how bad the skiers were around me.  They snowplowed everything!  And crashes were frequent, like you said for no apparent reason.  It was a challenge to avoid them.  In one sequence I had to quickly jump track to get around a crash, only to have another downed skier roll over and flop his arm right in front of me.  I had to jump his arm!  Amazingly I didn't crash there, or at any other point in the race.  But even the most gradual of downhills was a challenge because people were skiing poorly.  Many times I had to use my poles to knock other people's poles out of my way so I wouldn't get skewered on the downhills! 
Once we started hitting the climb up to Risberg the crowds compressed and it was slow going.  I tried to stay light and shuffle along, avoiding as best I can running over the skis in front of me.  But it was exhausting climbing in the crowds.  Every time I started to get into a rhythm the crowds would slow me down.  By the time we got to Evertsberg I was getting pretty gassed.  Physically I was starting to fatigue; and mentally I was really struggling with how I was going to finish this thing.  I had hoped to make it to at least the 60k mark before feeling this bad, but there was still 45k to go!  I never seriously considered dropping out, but I did stop for a minute to regain my bearings.  I think I was going through a mini-bonk as a result of not eating on the bus.  Fortunately there was the second downhill stretch; and I started to feel better and things resumed to go well.  I just tried to focus on doing one 5k at a time.  My mantra was "no matter how bad you feel you can always ski 5k."  By the 30km mark I knew I was going to finish, but I also knew I had a lot of skiing left!  Unfortunately by this point the course was really getting chewed up and it really slowed my pace down- from about 14km an hour down to 12.  We were down to six sets of tracks and it was now about freezing, so it was turning into sugar.  Even the most gradual of hills became unstrideable, and the crowds meant I had no choice but to herringbone up walking.  Everyone around me (including myself) was gassed at this point and mostly resigned to our fate.  By the time I got to Eldris, though, I knew I was in good shape, as I had skied the last 8km of the course the Friday before, so I knew there were no major hills.  The finish of course was thrilling, but by that point you're just happy it's over. 
To be honest, after the race I felt somewhat deflated.  I had hoped to do better, or at least feel better.  Having to suffer as much as I did made me think I hadn't really gotten ready for the race right.  Or that maybe I'm not as good as I had hoped I was.  Going into the race I had no idea how I was going to ski 90km.  And afterwards I still have no idea!  We went back to Stockholm to stay with a friend; and she threw a party for us on Tuesday night with a bunch of "real live Swedes(™)"  They were all so impressed that I had done the Vasaloppet; and when they heard my time one of them said, "oh, you're a real skier!"  So it was nice to know I wasn't a blueberry :)  I asked if finishing the Vasaloppet qualified one for Swedish citizenship, and a woman said, "Yes, as long as you're not a Norwegian."  Pretty funny. 
Lasting impressions:

- The blåbär sopa was as good as advertised.  Maybe it was the fatigue, but I loved that stuff! 

- I knew the crowds would be thick for the first 5-15km, but I wasn't prepared for being in crowds the whole way!  My finish time was right in the middle of the pack, so maybe I was in the thick of it.  It really took a lot of the fun out of it.  I just wanted to ski and enjoy the surroundings.  Instead I was constantly watching the skiers in front of me, wondering what the hell they were going to do next.  And every time I got around a group of skiers, there were more.  It just never let up. 
- At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was surprised at the poor technique of many of the skiers around me.  Some really awkward double-poling styles, and again really bad, bad form on the downhills.  I think maybe the reason is that most Swedes learned how to ski a long time ago and their form hasn't changed with the times.  We also tend to get sloppy over time.  In the APU group we work on some element of technique 3-4 times a week.  I guess I should be happy that I had better form, but it also made me wonder why I was having difficulty keeping up with people who looked so bad! 
- I wish I had gone with others.  The few days leading up to the race were interesting, but I felt pretty much alone.  It would have been nice to have someone (or a group) to share it with.  I tried striking up conversations with people, and some were intrigued enough to talk with me.  But for the most part people politely answered my questions but it wouldn't go beyond that.  It may have been just a language thing.  I also felt really vulnerable, as in if something went wrong I wouldn't have much help. 

- I couldn't believe the sea of used gels, discarded fanny packs and broken poles that littered the trail the entire way.  Who cleans all that up?! 
So I don't know if I'll do it again.  Not because I had a bad experience, but because it would be hard to top.  Except for my starting position, everything worked out well.  Excellent weather, fast conditions, no broken poles or any major problems.  And there are so many other races out there to do.  And boy, was it expensive!  

1 comment:

  1. Nice race report. I was a "blåbär" three years ago and did it just to able say that i've done it. Its been two more races since then and I'm already longing for the next one (wich is already sold out).