Sunday, July 20, 2014

Flashback: 2009 Vasaloppet

If 2008 was the year of the trifecta, 2009 was the delightful double: two 90k ski races on consecutive weekends. How did that work out?  Read on ...


Prelude. The wax rep in the ski shop in Mora, Sweden, said it like this: “People in the last wave can’t ski right.  They don’t train right, they don’t eat right, they don’t dress right, they don’t wax right.  Half of them shouldn’t even be doing a race like Vasaloppet.”  Harsh words indeed, but I had to agree.  I had started two Vasaloppets in the last wave and I didn’t ever want to be there again, so Super Swedish Skier Martin suggested racing Öppet Spår the week before to try to qualify for a higher wave in Vasaloppet.  Racing two 90k’s in a week would definitely be a venture into the unknown, but I’m all about challenges, so I packed up my skis and headed for Sweden.
Act One— Öppet Spår. This is a great, fun race!  The name means “open track”, and the race is an opportunity to ski the Vasaloppet course in a less competitive format and try for a better starting wave in the real Vasaloppet.  The two races are exactly the same: same distance, same starting and ending points, same feed stations, same nervous flutter in your stomach the day before.  The only difference is the start: Vasaloppet is a mass start, 15,000 people fighting and clawing their way up the first long steep hill, while Öppet Spår, with half as many participants, is a staggered start, any time within the space of an hour, so the first long steep hill is just a long hill that you ski up at your own pace, unimpeded by crowds or difficult conditions.  So I skied up it in half an hour, compared to an hour and a half in my first Vasaloppet and two and a half hours in my second, and headed down the long long trail toward Mora.
It was a great day for a long ski: cloudy and gray, with temps near -5C at the start, expected to warm to  -1C by afternoon.  My skis were super fast and my kick wax was perfect; I had had my skis waxed by the pros at the ski shop in Mora, and that was definitely a good idea.  With my skis working perfectly, I could concentrate on skiing each piece as fast as I could, double poling on the flats, tucking down the downhills.  I had a little airplane cold that left me feeling slightly under my best, as if my top ten heartbeats were missing, so I wasn’t as energetic as I would have liked to be on the uphills, but hey, my skis were so fast and it was a glorious day to be skiing across Sweden. 
The first 60k went by smoothly, and I was clicking off a steady 10k per hour, feeling strong and happy.  Just about at the 60k mark, it started to snow, and I mean really, really snow.  It snowed 10 cm in half an hour, and 20 cm in the next three hours.  Suddenly it was a whole new race, a really hard slow slogging grind toward the finish as soft deep snow piled higher and higher.  For one long stretch, the whole right half of the trail had just been abandoned to the snow and everybody squeezed into a two-person-wide trough, jostling for pole room.  People lined up at the next downhill to go down one by one, rather than flounder through the powder on the sides of the trail.  It was almost impossible to pass anyone, because stepping out of the track and into the soft deep stuff just brought you to a struggling halt.  At one point, a snowmobile pulling a single track sled came by and everyone jumped into the track.  I figured the race was over now, as everyone single-filed behind the snowmobile, trapped by the speed of the person in front, unable to pass or move ahead.  After a while a real groomer came by, setting two sets of tracks, and the race was back on.  For a short while the skiing was fantastic again, but the tracks filled up again surprisingly fast and the pace slowed to a sloggy crawl.  I had to laugh at the craziness of it all!
I finally finished, exhausted in every cell of my body, in 10:01.  That was a half hour faster than my previous best, but I was afraid it wasn’t fast enough to move me out of the last wave, and at that point I didn’t even care.  There was no way in the world I was going to be able to do that again in one week’s time, so I was just happy to have had that interesting challenging experience and I decided that was the end of this year’s adventure.
Intermission. I had a week between the two races, and even though I had decided to skip the next race, the original plan was to recover and maybe rent a car and explore the area, checking out some other ski trails.  But ten hours of hard skiing in the cold dry air brought the little airplane cold back with a vengeance, and instead, I spent the week trying to recover from both the cold and the race.  It was a fun week to be in Mora, sick or not; there are four or five other races going on that week, so there is lots of skier-friendly activity every day.  I watched races and trolled through the ski shops, making friends with the waxing technicians, eating a lot, taking a lot of delicious naps, and getting a massage.  On Thursday, the Öppet Spår time cutoffs were posted, so I presented myself at the race office to learn my fate.  As it turned out, my 10:01 Öppet Spår was good enough to move me into the ninth wave, and just one minute away from getting me into the eighth wave!  I gave the race official my best smile and begged for that last minute to get into the eighth wave, but he just laughed and reminded me that a minute ago I was thrilled to be in the ninth wave.  He was right; I was totally happy to have moved out of the dreaded last wave, and now I knew I was definitely going to ski the next race.  So I really buckled down and concentrated on getting over the cold and preparing my skis and body for the next 90k.
Act Two—Vasaloppet. Before I knew it, it was next Sunday and time for Vasaloppet.  Once again I got up at 3:30 to eat breakfast and get on the bus to Salen by 4:30; once again I ignored my nervousness and prepared to ski my best.  Being in the ninth wave instead of the tenth made for an ever-so-slightly better trip up the first long steep hill—the skiers are just a little bit better in that wave, so although there was still a bottleneck, it seemed to start moving again without too much delay and in an hour we were up on the plateau again, heading for far-away Mora.
It was much colder this time (-18C at the start!), and my skis seemed not quite as zippy as the week before, or maybe that was leftover fatigue.  Never mind; I double poled as much as I could, to save my legs for the quick uphills and the zooming downhills, rocking like a south bound train and feeling thankful for all of those three-hour double pole roller ski sessions in the rain last fall.  There was a little light snow off and on, but nothing like the previous week, and when I passed the 60k mark, I could smile at the memory of what it had looked like last week and revel in how much faster I was going this week.
Martin had suggested that, what with the tradeoff between the slower first uphill and the faster non-snowy conditions, I should be able to break ten hours this time, and he guessed I could finish in 9:45.  I checked my watch every 10k to make sure I was staying on schedule, and I even gained on my schedule in a couple of stretches.  I completely ignored the reality that I had 90k to ski and skied totally in the moment, focusing all my attention on each little piece: how fast could I ski up this hill, how low could I tuck on that downhill, how quickly could I pass that person in front of me, and then the next person, and then the next.  I never thought about whether I was cold or warm, hungry or thirsty or tired; I never stopped to adjust my wax or my clothing or to pee; I didn’t even look at the scenery (much); I just skied as fast and as hard as I could in every single kilometer.  It was a completely zen experience, and I was almost surprised to actually arrive in Mora.  The announcer’s voice broke through my trance as I came down the last noisy, crowded, brightly lit straightaway to the finish line; he switched to English and shouted, “Welcome to Mora!  Here is some ooga chaka chaka for you!”, and I sang along with the music as I crossed the finish line in, can you believe this, 9:18!  I was hours behind the elite skiers (Martin, 4:17) and the good skiers (Tim, 6:41), but I had beat my previous best by 40 minutes and I was in the 60th percentile of women skiers.  That and finishing strong and happy in two consecutive 90k races were as good as a gold medal for me!

Après. Martin and Gunnel and I went to dinner that night at the beautiful, welcoming home of their friends outside of Mora.  It was a wonderfully warm and happy evening, with friendly fellow skiers and an adorable, exuberant little boy around the candle-lit dinner table.  We had a special soup native to the Sami region of northern Sweden, hearty and delicious bread and cheese, ice cream, and, oh my, wild raspberries picked last summer and preserved for this evening.  I can hardly imagine a more perfect day.

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