Tuesday, April 23, 2019

2018-2019 Season Recap

Every year I like to write a season recap, but similar to when to put storage wax on my skis, it’s hard to know when the “season” is officially over because I’m always waiting for those April skis. Often when I’m racing and nearing the end but still hope to catch a few people the phrase blares in my head: “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” Now, why I think of this proverb over and over again in ski racing is beyond me, but it’s applicable to the end of the ski season as well. And I think it’s a good attitude to have: never give up until it’s really over.

Erik landing a jump during our crust ski on April 14th

Anyway, given that I’ve never seen ski-able snow in the Twin Cities in May, I think it’s safe to say the season is officially over April 30th, and good thing since the new season arbitrarily begins May 1st:)

As ski-able snow is becoming increasingly less likely, and my skis are getting storage waxed in order of their likeliness to be used between now and May (A skis first, then B skis, then rock skis- maybe we should call them C skis:)), it’s time to publish this post.

We only got one crust ski this year but it was amazing! Crust skiing is simply the best. Photo: Erik
We still found plenty of snow that we never needed to take off our skis. Photo: Erik

If not already evident enough with my Crossroads Series, the 2018-2019 ski season for me was marked by ambivalence juxtaposed by all-in training and races.

This past year I’ve taken a more type B approach to ski training. I’ve made some subtle differences- not doing many half hour rollerskis after work, not focusing on rollerskiing so much, and racing less (partly because World Masters wasn’t in Minneapolis this year). I’ve also been struggling with this notion of getting stuff from races. I’m over the prizes and shwag. My house is too full of this stuff already. Once I get them they become too sentimental to me and I can’t box them up and send them to Goodwill. Besides, who wants some plaque that says “Top Female 32 km Classic?”

Erik and I came home from Birkie 2019 and immediately put our new hats in the Goodwill pile before they became too treasured.

During the winter I find it really difficult to get skiing after work. By the time I get skiing it’s dark and often quite cold. The driving takes forever and it’s difficult to get home at 8 pm on a work night. So this year Erik and I used more biking/running to and from work in lieu of one of our usual ski days some weeks. It’s just so “easy” to run the 5 miles home from work in the light for my exercise and be home by 6 pm rather than driving somewhere to ski in the dark. That’s just not efficient and I’m an efficient person. We did this during the polar vortex because somehow, it seemed nicer to run rather than ski at -17 ℉. Besides, on that coldest day I got to run with the wind on the way home from work and that’s something no ski trail would afford.

And so what have I been doing instead of training quite so much? Well, I've entered into my "project phase" of life. Here's a nightstand I made with Erik's help. You may notice a few different awards as structural features:)

Sometimes, to save time and spend less on bus money, I started biking and running to go skiing after work. This had me running from downtown Minneapolis to Wirth a few times and biking part way to Hyland. This activity was in addition to my usual ski time so it worked to improve my fitness. I figure if it’s faster to run somewhere than take the bus that I should run. A couple times I also ran to Hiawatha Golf Course and those times I substituted some run time for ski time.

Despite being at a crossroads with skiing and the man-made loops we skied before we managed the snowiest February on record, I actually liked being out skiing the vast majority of the time. It made me savor my ski time.

Most frustrating for me over the winter was repeatedly failing at keeping my hands warm in December and January. I’m not sure if this is a new phenomenon or an old one that I forgot about during the months of 80 degree weather. Either way, I’ve developed a zero tolerance policy for frost nipping my fingers. It seems I often fail to factor in the wind and other times it was colder than predicted or snow conditions were so fast that I wasn’t dressed appropriately. I shouldn’t be making this Rookie Mistake.

A typical April skier's workout. Yup, that's a two man saw we used to cut down this tree! Photo: Steve Pieh
Erik arguably got the better workout on the day.

At the beginning of the season I stated my intention to do more threshold workouts prior to the racing season. I can happily report that I executed these marvelously. The first one occurred on Onion River Road near Lutsen. It was one of those rare times when everything came together perfectly. For me to do intervals, I need decent snow conditions. There wasn’t much snow on the North Shore in early December when Erik and I were on a trip for the State Park Challenge but we did manage to get in one ski and I was really hoping to do a double pole threshold session to get ready for Mora. Every year Mora leaves my lower back incredibly sore and so this year I attempted to be better prepared with long threshold sessions. I double poled 4 x 15 minutes on Onion River Road- on the flats, up the gradual hills and even down the gradual hills and a few hours later as a stiffness settled into my lower back it was mission accomplished!

I did a few more threshold sessions each weekend in January when I wasn’t racing: a couple 4 x 15 minutes skate skiing at Hyland and Wirth and then did 30-30s (30 seconds on at marathon race pace followed by 30 seconds skiing easy for an hour total) at Wirth. I finished up with 4 x 15 minutes classic at Elm Creek. Most of these sessions I did as part of 3 hour skis. I warmed up for an hour, did an hour of threshold, and then skied easy for an hour. Doing this really made those sessions fly by and made me feel ready for my upcoming marathons.

My heart rate from skate 4 x 15 minute thresholds at Hyland.

Despite a more type B approach, I’ve been doing my intervals and races with a fervor that has even surprised me.

Every Wednesday night at Vakava we do hard intervals and in particular, two Wednesday nights in a row, we did classic skiing at Wirth going twice up the hill to coach’s corner. Some of these we even did double pole only! I pushed these so hard it made me realize that I still have that fight 100%.

Heart rate from hard intervals at Wirth with Vakva

In early January, Vakava participated in the Wednesday night Elm Creek team race sponsored by the Fulton Team. This year’s categories ended up being different than previous years and was a bit confusing but in the end I ended up racing the 10 km classic against Kathleen. In terms of performance, this was one of the standout races for me in the past few years. Kathleen gapped me a decent bit on the gradual downhill from the start but I attacked like no other on the two steep uphills on each loop- running them with mad turnover. I didn’t give up and tried my hardest on the fast double pole sections as well and by midway through the third lap I caught up to Kathleen! I passed her and she tucked in behind me. I did everything I could to put some time on her on those short quick uphills but she stayed with me and pulled in front of me as we neared the finishing stretch. I didn’t let her get too far in front of me and we finished within a couple seconds of each other. Mission accomplished again: phenomenal training race AND it was extra fun to come home and watch the women’s Tour de Ski Classic 10 km which was also 4 x 2.5 km loops and see that I had a similar time! (OK, so their course was hillier).

We've been paddling a fair bit this spring, including on March 31st, the day the river crested in St. Paul. Here we're about to canoe into the building on the grounds where we got married almost 11 years ago. It's been quite the adventure paddling on flooded roads, bike trails, and parking lots this spring, into buildings, and over bridges! Photo: Erik

In terms of racing … in summary, I was left wanting more.

I wanted a longer City of Lakes Loppet but was grateful to get to ski on excellent snow conditions at the man-made loop.

I wanted to ski faster at Mora where I ended up 4th for the fourth consecutive year. Despite my training, I don’t feel my double pole has improved. Meanwhile, my fellow competitor, Chris, made up almost 30 minutes on me in a year’s time. Maybe it’s not possible to get 10% faster.

At the Finlandia I managed to enter into the most competitive race and was denied an axe for the first time in seven tries. Wow, I had quite a streak going. Here I found myself wanting there to be no prizes, maybe even wanting no placings. Just wanting to ski hard and not actually know how I stack up against others:)

Things went well in the Birkie with my highest place ever in the skate race and that 337th overall...the wanting more is wanting to stay there and knowing it will take a lot to improve upon that performance.

And finally, at the Great Bear Chase, I got my first and only win of the season but know I could have pushed harder. I wanted to double pole faster. My double pole is good, but not as good as Ingvild Østberg’s and instead of accepting the obvious- that I will never be top 5 in the world- I’m going to keep working on it.

The crazy thing is, despite being in the Crossroads last year, I’ve emerged wanting more than ever to get better at skiing. Because. I’m. Always. In. Pursuit. Of. Perfection.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

March Ski Trip 2019: A Mixed Bag

The Great Bear Chase

We kicked off our March Ski trip with the Great Bear Chase Ski Marathon. As I previously mentioned, I decided to do the 50 km classic to best prepare for the best post-race meal offered by any race. Looking at last year’s race results, I knew I had a decent shot at winning the classic which both adds some extra pressure and excitement!

Conditions looked pretty perfect- a start in the mid-teens warming to the mid-twenties. I wore a layer of long underwear on bottom, my sports bra on top, and my spandex suit. The race had spandex bibs this year which was nice- no having to worry about the bib coming undone and flapping throughout the race:) It also makes for a good souvenir. I did a brief warm-up, learned I had decent kick, and then did a bit of running before the start to keep warm.

I lined up in the front row, next to Erik, and the bear we were to “chase”. Or does it chase us? Wait, aren’t bears supposed to be still hibernating this time of year? There was another woman in the front row, some fast guys from Minnesota, and another woman in spandex in the second row. We took off and a bunch of guys passed me on the first uphill. I noted to keep the other front row woman in my sights and easily got in front of her at the crest of the hill.

Tiny me, way over on the left side. This photo really shows that it was a small classic race.

Me in the foreground, keeping an eye on the chick in green who is at the front of this photo.

My goal was to find a pack of men to ski with but within the first three kilometers I had passed back most of the men who had gotten off to a fast start and found myself alone.

The skiathlon started five minutes before the classic and so I was passing a steady stream of these skiers as the course rolled.

“Go Elspeth, I can’t wait to read about this on your blog!” One of the skiathlon guys said. Admittedly, I didn’t know this guy. I guess that makes me famous?!?!?

It had been eleven years since I last did the Great Bear Chase and I’ve only done it twice before- both times skate. I knew the course was fairly flat but checked the course map and profile before the race: a short hill at the start, a bigger hill around 3 km, another hill around 4 km, gradual climb to 7 km, down to 14 km, gradual climb of 300 feet over the next 4 km, then rolling from 18 to 25 km, then repeat (it’s a 2 lap race for the full marathon).

That first lap I mostly skied outside the tracks. I thought it was faster, the pole plants didn’t pencil through on the skate deck, and made cutting the corners easier. The first four guys in the 25 km classic race passed me- the first one was way out ahead. I took a feed 14 km in at the lowest point on the course and this guy in the classic caught up to me. This was a guy with terrible technique. “Elspeth, you gotta go, go, go, cause you’re NOT skiing with this guy with awful technique,” I told myself and took off. I never saw him again.

Somewhere out on course.

From here the course climbs quite gradually. I did some striding, trying to save my double pole muscles for the second lap. The fast 50 km skate guys passed me having started 15 minutes after me. I briefly tucked in behind a pack of skiathlon guys, then passed then. I was enjoying that first lap until the last 5 km or so when the reality sunk in that I still had another 30 km to go. Could I maintain this pace?

I just about caught one skiathlon woman before I headed out on my second lap. I was again alone except for the 50 km skate and skiathlon skiers (now on their skate lap) passing me in a steady stream. It’s easy to feel bad about my skiing ability when being constantly passed but I tried to tell myself I was doing the slower technique and the fact that no other classic skiers were coming up on me was a good sign.

While I really enjoyed that first lap, the second lap was a bit more of a sufferfest. Mostly I was bothered by some pain in my right hand from my pole strap and my left glove/pole strap combo which felt like it was too loose. I mostly skied in the tracks but often my outside pole penciled through which is always frustrating. Sometimes I worried that a women would catch me but then I tried to not focus on that- which is wasted energy- and instead focus on skiing as efficiently, strongly, and as fast as I could. I wondered how much ahead of me Erik was (he was also doing the classic) and figured he had 20 minutes on me, or about 5 kms. Then I tried to think about skiing fast.

My kick wasn’t terribly good by the second half of the last lap. It was mostly a double pole course anyway and I got really lazy about striding well and often herring bone ran or just ran outside the tracks. The woman I had almost passed in the skiathlon caught me back up (she got behind me after her ski exchange) with around 5 km to go. It was dragging on and I was getting tired. My lower back felt like it was about to seize up with 3 km to go but I wouldn’t let it. I modified my technique to not lean so far forward at the waist. I could still crunch well- maybe that’s how I should always be skiing.

I passed up the beer stop but may have stopped had I known they had wine:) Erik took full advantage.

My body temperature had been good on the first lap but towards the end of that second lap my legs were getting really warm with the extra layer. I kept pushing all the way to the finish, having not seen anyone else in the classic race for the last 36 km! I assumed I had won but didn’t hear any announcement at the finish and didn’t have this confirmed until the awards ceremony.

After hanging out at the finish area for awhile, I ran with Craig to the high school as he was getting late for awards (he was second in the 50 km skate!). I don’t think I pushed quite as hard as I could have in the race because I didn’t feel dog tired running and was easily able to keep up with Craig, even with a back pack on.

It turns out if you win the Great Bear Chase you get to hug a bear:) Photo: Erik

I ended up skiing 3 hours and 18 minutes which seemed pretty slow. There were only eight women in my race. I managed to finish 9th overall of 45. Not terrible, and definitely deserving of a front row starting spot where there were at least ten lanes tracked wide. I was only 14 and 12 minutes behind the Erik’s [Hendrickson and Pieh] so I’ll take that.

If anyone likes a flat course in the woods, the Great Bear Chase is a good one. Plus, did I mention yet that they have the best post race food?

And the snowbanks in Big Snow Country (aka Calumet where the race is located) are worth seeing, too!

Mount Arvon

After the Birkie Skate, I really felt like I needed to train for classic. For lots of classic. This wasn’t just for the Great Bear Chase, it was so I could feel good enough the day after the Great Bear Chase to do another classic adventure: skiing to Michigan’s State High Point of Mount Arvon. There are logging roads to the top of this “mountain” that are not plowed in the winter. We decided since we would be driving by and wanted more of a challenge than driving to this peak in the summer, we decided to ski there instead. We were able to find some good info on the Internet that the logging trails become snowmobile trails in the winter that we could use.

We weren’t entirely sure how much of an adventure this would be but knew if our car would make it all the way to the parking lot, round trip it would only be about 13 miles of skiing on groomed snowmobile trails. Our car did indeed make it to the parking lot, although we had to get out our wimpy chain system we had initially bought for our last winter trip to Colorado. It was unknown how good exactly these snowmobile trails would be but they turned out to be pretty good. Erik always likes to prepare well for these sorts of potential adventures so somehow I ended up with a backpack full of extra water (over twice as much as I had wanted to bring) and some spare hats, gloves, jackets, etc. It was snowing and in the upper 20s when we took off. The route gradually climbs and it soon became apparent that I needed to take my jacket off as I was overheating. If I’m cold I keep going, but I pretty much melt down when I get too hot. After I stowed the jacket and was wearing just my long underwear top I took off double poling up the trail. After all, there’s no better time to do some good training for double poling than the day after a mostly double pole marathon:)

I thought the blue signs showing the way to Mount Arvon might be buried under the snow but they weren't. Somebody must have been thinking about winter ascents! Photo: Erik

Erik on the snowmobile heading to Mount Arvon
The register box was almost, but not quite, buried in snow.

Not a very high state high point.
The "view" on top of Mount Arvon. Photo: Erik

Eventually the trail got steeper and here I just walked. We made it to the summit about 1 ½ hours into the trek. Usually I don’t like climbing mountains when it’s cloudy/snowing, but this summit was tree covered and there was no view anyway and it didn’t seem to be snowing hard enough that it would impede our progress back out, either skiing or driving.

It was obviously fast skiing back out as there was quite a bit of downhill. The backpack ended up not being necessary, but I guess it’s good to be prepared:) Erik only carried his drink belt but he was on slower skis. The drive in and out was more of an adventure than the ski- I only had to push the car twice:)

Stokely Creek

From there we made our way farther east to Stokely Creek Lodge, north of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Stokely Creek is an all-inclusive resort with 100 kilometers of ski and snowshoe trails. We spent three nights there getting our fill of skiing, snow, and gourmet meals after meeting some friends who live in Ohio.

Us and our Ohio friends, Eric and Krystal playing on Lake Superior although we look better dressed for downhill skiing, snorkeling, and bank robbing:) Photo: Erik

When we arrived, we could either get a snowmobile ride (they do this so there are no road crossings) or ski to the lodge. We’re all for using our own legs so we skied to the lodge in a couple trips with all our stuff. This added a bit of adventure!

Having arrived in the early afternoon, Erik and I did a skate ski until hors d'oeuvres were served. This ended up being 38 km of hills! In that ski our net elevation was 2,165 feet which means it is hillier than the Birkie. Stokely Creek is located in the Algoma Highlands, a region of ancient mountains so the terrain is quite hilly and a couple of the lakes are even located in what I would consider “bowls” just like the real big mountains!

This first sojourn was followed by two full days of skiing- classic in the morning and skate in the afternoon or vice versa. It was our goal to ski all the trails at least once which we managed to accomplish by our last morning at Stokely Creek. Our first two days the weather was great, including a blue sky day, but the last two days were cloudy and intermittently rainy:( We still made the best of it and maybe I can blame that on my lack of photos:)

We skied to the top of King Mountain (1000 feet above the lodge) on the sunny day.
You can see Lake Superior in the background.

Starting the penguin walk again. The trail climbed substantially from this point.

Eva's Way was one of our favorite trails- single track, pretty flat, along a picturesque river.

There were few rolling trails. On one ski, Erik and I spent 15 minutes, twice, penguin walking uphill. Usually I call this herring-boning but for some reason, as I followed Erik up the hill minute after minute, I thought we looked like Penguins. I may also have gotten this idea from the steepest hill on the Gatineau Loppet course which is called Penguin Hill. For those familiar with Bearskin Lodge, think Bear Cub World Cup-like terrain on the vast majority of trails. There were a few flatter trails and we mostly stuck to these for one ski but still did 550 feet of elevation gain in 16 km.

Fueling up from all the skiing with dinner at Stokely Creek. Photo: Krystal

Stokely Creek attracts quite the repeat clientele whom we met at the friendly common meals. People came from all over but mostly from Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and Ontario. Most of the guests were in their 50s and 60s and non-competitive skiers so it is a bit surprising at their enthusiasm for tackling the long uphill grinders and screaming downhills.

We had a good time but given the drive and extremely hilly trails rather than rolling terrain, I doubt we will head back to Stokely Creek in the future. There are just too many more places to explore!

Our friend Eric and a pile of snow on top of a log at Stokely. This was a very common sight. Photo: Krystal

Some frozen waterfalls at Stokely. Photo: Krystal

The Sault

We spent our last three nights of the trip at an Airbnb near Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior (technically, right at the point where Lake Superior becomes the St. Mary’s River flowing towards the Sault Locks). As such, we decided to go exploring one day. A cold front came through with a howling 30 mph wind. We went for an adventure crust ski but after the rainy conditions, the crust wasn’t quite set up yet. Erik and I skied out on the ice of Lake Superior which was a bit nerve racking since the lake was open and we kept crossing pressure ridges where we could see water below. I maintained that this was relatively safe since we stayed just a few feet off shore where we could likely stand if we fell through and it wasn’t too far back to our Airbnb. Our afternoon adventure was spent hiking at the Gros Cap, a big rock cliff.

Our crust ski on Lake Superior. You can see the cracks in the ice in the foreground and the open water in the background. Photo: Eric

A selfie at the Gros Cap. You can see how windy it was by my horizontal hair!
Winter returned for our last day in “The Sault” and we took full advantage of this, skiing every trail at Hiawatha Highlands in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. They have an extensive trail network of approximately 40 km. Their chalet warmed my heart, basic but comfortable and incredibly utilitarian. We hardly saw anyone else out skiing and enjoyed the beautiful day with temperatures around 20 ℉. Most of their trails are groomed for classic and skating but they did have one trail that was single track classic for a perfect backwoods feel through the forest. This ski area is a definite must stop for anyone passing through the area.

The Hiawatha Highlands chalet. Photo: Eric

The utilitarian benches/stuff storage combo at Hiawatha Highlands.

Beautiful winter single track trail at Hiawatha Highlands.
Over 8 days we skied about 280 kilometers. Not bad for mid-March.

We drove 9 hours back home on Sunday but were able to get out for some brief exploring on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The interesting ice wall on Lake Michigan on the beach in Manistique.

Looking out at the lake from an ice tunnel.

Selfie in the ice tunnel.