“But my real goal is, a few times every year, to spend myself all the way down, to have the world drop away and nothing count but the moment I'm in. And if that's a battle for eleventh place in the 25k at Lake Placid, it doesn't matter. As good as the Olympics for me.” Bill McKibben
There were two races on the plate for me in Sweden this winter: the 90k Vasaloppet, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the focus of my entire year of training, but first the 45k HalvVasan, to see if I could earn myself a way into a higher wave in the 90k.
Half the distance of Vasaloppet, a third as many entrants, but still a big deal: still the excited crowds at the starting line, still the nervous flutter in your stomach waiting for the sun to come up, and this year, the biting cold. It was -18C at the start, and a cold cold wind blasted through our clothes as we milled around the start area, waiting for the trail to open. Technically, the start is a half-hour window, where you can start any time. In reality, the start area is relatively narrow, so it’s a mass start, and you spend valuable minutes just trying to get moving.
The course starts with a pretty, rolling 15k loop around a lake, then after a long steady uphill, joins the Vasaloppet trail for the last 30k into Mora. It was fun to see some new countryside, and it turned into a beautiful sunny day (my first time skiing in Sweden in the sunshine!), but I tried to focus on my race and not the scenery, and on getting warm; I was shivering so much at the start that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish, but I warmed up quickly. My skis were perfect, and my body felt powerful; I skied fast and strong, and was happy enough with my 4:16 time. That didn’t turn out to be fast enough to move into the eighth wave, so I decided that was okay; the ninth wave people are my people. That’s where I belong, at least this year. The most interesting part about this race was skiing into Mora in the early afternoon, in the sunshine, in time for lunch, just like the elite skiers in Vasaloppet!
Hanging with the Big Dogs
Here’s the part about this year’s trip that I was especially looking forward to: I was going to spend Vasaloppet weekend with Martin, his parents Gunnel and Ola, and other elite skiers and support people from his club. I was going to learn how the real skiers did Vasaloppet, and I had so much fun!
The first thing you have to know is that Gunnel is the general of a small army of service people, all there to support four elite skiers from their club. She has everything organized to the smallest detail, including when each skier will get to each checkpoint, what each skier will want when he gets to each checkpoint, and how long it will take each one to get to the next point. The elite skiers don’t use the Vasaloppet feed stations, and no individual service person could keep up with them as they fly down the course. Instead, three or four teams of two service people are positioned at spots along the course, nine or ten places in all, and they leapfrog each other as the skiers pass them to get to their next station in time. Gunnel has everyone’s cell phone numbers on her spreadsheet; she has racers’ bib numbers programmed into her cell phone; she has schedules and race information and special “elitservice” stickers for the service members’ cars, all in her voluminous bag. Service people came and went all during the day before the race, checking schedules, picking up bags of thermos bottles, coordinating pick-ups and drop-offs. One Swedish official took a look at her system and said, “With this kind of organization, we could invade Russia!” Throughout it all, she and Ola, her deputy, stayed calm and good-natured, and we found plenty of time to laugh about all kinds of silly things. They are amazing.
We stayed in the most wonderful little cabin not too far from the start: four elite skiers, Martin’s parents, the father of one of the skiers, Martin’s first coach, and me. To keep some sanity and calm and focus in the midst of all the pre-race commotion, Martin and Bjorn, another elite skier, stayed in a smaller cabin down the driveway.
Two days before the race, Martin and I headed to the Vasaloppet trail for a little skiing. Those of you who read his report from last year know that there was a particular section, with about 30k to go, that gave him a certain amount of grief. So this is what you do when you’re a skier of that caliber: you go back to that section and you ski it, several times. You study it. You learn it, where it starts and where it curves and where it flattens out and where it goes up again. And then, if you read Martin’s report from this year, you know that when he got to that spot again, he absolutely nailed it. Case closed.
The next day Martin and Bjorn and I went to another place along the trail where a lot of elite skiers traditionally go the day before the race to test wax. My skis were already waxed for the race (unless there was a dramatic change in the conditions), so I took my spare skis and just practiced gliding for fun, hanging out with the big kids. I am positive I was the only ninth wave skier there that day, and the rarefied atmosphere almost made me giddy! It was super fun to see how focused the racers are there, eking extra inches out of their glide, marking the spot in the snow where they stopped, then switching skis or adding some structure and trying again. By the time we finished, Martin and Bjorn were satisfied with their chosen skis, and we skied for a little while longer just because we love to ski.
Then back to the cabins for a rest, and a final waxing. Martin had warned me that he would be focused and unsociable the day before the race, with only 200 words allotted to trivial conversation, but he generously found time to add some super-duper fluoros to my skis, for which I was very grateful. It’s a good feeling, to go to sleep the night before a big race knowing that your skis are going to be FAST!
Race morning: up early, check the weather, eat breakfast, dress, make sure you have your gloves, your hat, your bib, your chip. I had a ride to the start from one of the elite service cars, which was pretty funny: the “elitservice” sticker allowed us to bypass all the traffic jams, and they deposited me at the elite start, from which, of course, I had to walk about two miles back to the start area for wave nine! It was a good warmup, and humbling.
And so the race began. I had a good start, for the ninth wave; I made it to the top of the first monster hill in an hour, which was the same as last year, and then I headed down the trail. The first 40k were an absolute joy; my skis were flying! I felt fast and strong, my skis were perfect, I was double poling like, well, like someone who has double poled on her roller skis for many many k’s out in Fall City! For the first five hours or so, I was skiing in the fast lane, passing people and loving life, on pace for beating my last year’s time of 9:18.
And then the wheels fell off the bus. I’m still not entirely sure what happened, but all of a sudden, my legs and arms turned to lead. I felt like I was skiing underwater, or in a big vat of slodgy syrup. My brain frantically tried to figure out what was wrong, and I tore through a hundred scenarios. Was I too cold, or maybe too hot? Too much Gu and water and sports drink, or not enough? I thought about all the training I had missed in December and early January, when I was working a ridiculous number of hours—was I undertrained? Or what about all the training I did in February to try to catch up—was I overtrained? I even second-guessed Martin’s training plan; both he and Peter tell me I have all the endurance I’ll ever need, and I need to work more on speed. What if they’re wrong! I thought of everything, my brain whirling in circles, as I skied more and more slowly, finally ending up in the far right lane with the men with big fat stomachs. Oh, the shame, as skier after skier glided effortlessly past me and I just plodded, plodded, plodded onward. I tried tucking on the downhills, but that made me dizzy. I tried giving myself a good pep talk, but that didn’t work either. I had nothing. For three long awful hours, I skied like a zombie.
Finally, at the 71k aid station, I stood there next to the drink tables for a while and thought about life. There was no way I was going to drop out, but the tiny little part of my lizard brain that was still functioning knew that the last 19k were really going to hurt. Then I spotted, next to the cups of sport drink and blueberry soup, some cups of bouillon. I’ve always seen it offered in the last half of the race, but normally I wouldn’t touch that stuff—it’s full of chemicals and cow hooves and … oh, salt! Suddenly bouillon sounded really good, so I had a cup, and then I had another one, and then a third, and oh my lord, it was like flipping a light switch. Literally, in one minute, I was completely restored to my real self, instantly feeling happy and energetic and ready to ski! It was the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, and I don’t pretend to understand what biochemical magic was going on in my body. All I knew was that I wanted to ski as fast and as far as I could before the effect wore off!
I looked at my watch. I needed to break ten hours to have even a prayer of staying in the ninth wave next year, so at this point I had about an hour and a half to go 19k. I’ve never skied 19k that fast before, but what the heck—my freshly salted brain and body were willing to give it a try! So I zoomed down the track, faster even than the first 40k, repassing all those people who had passed me on my Death March, feeling powerful and strong and fast, bounding up the uphills, tucking down the downhills, skiing skiing skiing. I had another two cups of bouillon at the 80k aid station, and then flew all the way to the finish, wrapping up that last 19k in 1:40, which is super super fast for me. I couldn’t believe how good I felt at the end! I jumped over the finish line and checked my watch; it looked like I had missed the ten-hour cutoff by about ten minutes, so I’m probably back in the tenth wave next year, but oh well … it just gives me more incentive to train even harder this year.
And then it turned out that my chip had malfunctioned and didn’t register my time at any of the checkpoints, or at the finish. Gunnel, bless her heart, went to the race office several times during the long afternoon after Martin and the other elite skiers finished, looking for word of my lost soul. I seemed to be invisible, a ghost skier, but I didn’t mind, since I’m pretty sure my time wasn’t good enough to stay in the ninth wave.
None of that matters. To me, the most important thing about the day was, first, that I pushed myself to my limits and I didn’t give up when things were looking really bleak, and second, that I recovered and had a powerful finish. If I had not recovered, if I had dragged in to the finish in twelve hours, or more, I would have spent the whole next year feeling down on myself and second guessing everything, my ability to train, my ability to ski, my place on this earth. With that miraculous recovery, my confidence in my training plan, my body, my skis, and everything else was confirmed, and I look forward eagerly to jumping into training again this summer and rocking that tenth wave next year.
Oh, and Martin? Yeah, he finished 15th overall, three minutes back. He was as high as seventh in places, and pulled a pack full of famous names up to catch the breakaway leaders. Just … impressive.