Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

2024 Ski Marathon Season Recap: And my Day Lilies are Sprouting!

If the following reads like a tragic comedy, it is meant for validation. It seemed we had a prolonged November with a cold spell in January. Then March came and hasn’t left yet. But alas, my day lilies started sprouting before the Birkie!!! 


My backyard February 23, 2023

And my backyard February 22, 2024. Looks just a little different compared to last year.

Oh wow, there's some day lilies popping up in that mess.

Mora Vasaloppet 42 km Classic

My die-hard readers know Mora is my favorite owing to its flat double pole-able terrain. I focus my training on this race and think about it more than all the others. I’m not sure what happened this year at Mora but I can only assume that the snow farmers weren’t quite as diligent as those at Battle Creek and must’ve figured that some cold weather would eventually come. Because it has always come. But none of us can remember a winter this warm and even a race that has gone to such extremes as the Mora IceGrinder and Little Snow Gun That Could simply couldn’t compete with Mother Nature.

The writing was on the wall that Mora would be canceled based on the weather forecast and the trail condition reports. Erik and I were in Colorado and as we had planned to come back for Mora, instead we extended our trip by an extra day. We briefly had thoughts of driving to the Ski to the Sun race since my big hold-up for doing that American Ski Marathon Series race is missing Mora, but alas it was a 20 hour drive from Crested Butte and 24 hours back home and I later learned that even the Methow Valley has been snow deprived this winter and the Ski to the Sun race course was altered.

So I cut my losses and went back to skiing, rollerskiing, running, and strength training.

The World Cup

Last year the Minneapolis World Cup was announced for Finlandia weekend 2024. The Finlandia decided to keep their date (yes, I know, it did fall victim to this year’s snow drought) and even though it’s my “hometown” race (i.e. the place I went to high school), I wasn’t about to miss the World Cup coming to my other hometown (the one I’ve lived in most of my life). So last year as soon as the World Cup calendar was set, I went about planning my racing season. Sure, there was some turmoil and disbelief when I missed out on the first-round of World Cup tickets and realized perhaps I’m not as die-hard a skier as I thought (apparently neither is most of the Vakava team) but we got tickets the second round after some very nervous moments in October.

Knowing that I wouldn’t ski much World Cup weekend, I tried to train a bit more in the few days before. I can’t say I was entirely successful in this but since the Birkie Classic race had been shortened to 30 km, I figured I didn’t need much in terms of distance anyway. For our Vakava practice the Wednesday before the World Cup, I had a big set of classic intervals planned, but it started snowing and I was waxed with my kick wax of the year - START Purple Oslo - and it was trying to ice like crazy but I was so determined to make my skis work for me and finish that workout and I did although only by sliding my skis in the track on all the uphills.

Watching the World Cup races was electrifying and we definitely put on a good show. I suspect the World Cup will be back, maybe we’ll get to even host a few more races! One of my goals was to find somewhere on course where I could cheer for the athletes by name. This was insanely difficult because it was loud almost everywhere but for the 10 km skate race I finally found a spot at the bottom of the North Finger.

The Birkie Classic: I guess we got to ski “Mora” afterall

I had mixed thoughts about the Birkie decision for the Elite Classic race distance. Even though distance is my forte, I wasn’t too sad that it had been shortened to 30 km but this meant Erik, skiing from the Skate Elite Wave, would get up a ski marathon on me:) I felt more relieved that we didn’t have to do the Elevator Shaft and we would get a flatter course as such.

The split day format meant I got to don a cow suit and cheer for the Elite Skate race. There were lots of Vakava skiers on course and many others I knew and we had fun yelling at the skiers to “keep moo-ving along!” Vakava had a great day with the following results: 


Alex finished 59th.

Nate had a great race, finishing 52nd and leading the Vakava men. He also got to wear the purple bib for the first year! 
Erik getting cheered on by some cows.
Laura and Claire crushing in the women's race. They went on to place 42nd and 36th, respectively.

Mary Beth has the Birchleggings and won her age group.
Sarah putting the hammer down, led the Vakava women with a 25th place finish in a stacked field.
Coach Dave skiing with the masses Saturday afternoon out of Wave 70.

Paul was 96th on the day and Derek 73rd!

Andy finished 123rd, wearing a retro suit.

Ben showing some good knee bend.
Elena finished 48th.

Sunday was the classic day. The trail was diverted around Mt. Bauer, a downhill that had caused a lot of falls the previous day due to an ice patch. I was glad that I didn’t have to climb it or go down it! Based on times over the past few days, I knew this course was going to be fast and at only 30 km would go out hot. So I did some running/jumping to warm-up but failed to realize how congested the narrower than usual start line would be and I ended up in the second to last row. At least I had some company with three of the four other Vakava guys. I knew the course suited me with lots of double poling and between already feeling strong and some boost from altitude training, I knew I could finish much better than my starting position.


Despite starting near the back, Josh led the Vakava men finishing in 16th.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from 20 years of citizen ski racing, it’s that the first half kilometer is probably the most important part of the race. This is where all the packs form and this largely determines finishing place. The exception to this is the normal Birkie Classic course which is long and with all the grinding uphills in the first half, I have to meter my effort. But not this year. I don’t have much of a sprint so I figured I could go as hard from the gun as I wanted and not blow up. And that’s what I did, making my way up through most of the women’s field over the first half kilometer.

Brock moved up nicely through the pack, too, finishing 19th.

After the climb to the Powerlines, which was much less steep than I remembered, we headed back by the start area on the classic trail and got some rest on some long fun downhills. Then we headed out towards the open golf course area. It was great hearing so many people cheering for me! I kept #630 in my sights for awhile but she pulled away as I passed one of the guys in that section. As we finished up the first lap, I packed up with numbers 601 and 603 (Zoe Reker). These were both low numbered bibs, meaning they had finished well last year, but this year’s race would take less than half the time and so I felt confident skiing up with them. There always seemed to be a couple guys hanging around our pack, too.

On this second lap the climb up to the Powerlines was a bit more of a grinder but still not bad as there were double pole sections between the climbs. At times this past year my classic climbing had felt invincible and that’s how I felt again. At least on these relatively short uphills. Then it was downhill and around the loop again. Us three women were packed up more on this lap and we got lots of “Go Ladies!” cheers. As we did our final climb to the Powerlines, there were a bunch of Elite guys in front of us but they all seemed to pull ahead of us. I was able to drop #601 who didn’t have kick wax on, but Zoe gapped me on the downhill. 

Skiing with one of the Elite Wave guys in the classic race.

I kept pushing hard through the last lap, passed a couple Wave 1 guys, and then felt like I was slowed down a tad by an Elite Wave guy I was coming up on. I wanted to cross over to the inner track but he was there. I had been trying to make use of some good lane changes despite not being as proficient as those World Cup skiers although I’ve definitely practiced and have gotten better.

I thought Zoe was going to stay ahead of me but after going down a long hill out on the golf course, I came up on her after a big corner and skied with her for the climb up to the aid station. I passed her just before the climb. As I went into my herring bone run, I could tell the snow was getting churned up and some of the newer snow in the sun caused my skis to ice a tad (I had START Oslo Purple on again). I’d done that workout with icing skis before the World Cup and so it wasn’t too hard to slide my skis free at the top of the hill.

My sense without turning back to look was that I’d gapped Zoe a bit and so set my sights on another Elite Wave guy but my skis iced a tad again going up the hill by the new Trailhead and that guy pulled away. I enjoyed the next short rolling section heading back to the start/finish area. I was glad to see the last uphill was in the shade so I wouldn’t ice and I put in a good herring bone effort. After going through the tunnel and getting in the finish lane, I could hear someone coming up fast on me. I didn’t know who it was but tried to do a good sprint and barely edged out a 19 year old guy from the Elite Wave. 

Craig skiing in the classic race to 18th place.

I ended up 10th woman and per result times, just hit the winning downslope of the curve, or what my high school cross-country running coach referred to as “Beating the Bulge.” The race definitely validated some crazy fitness I’d felt back in our rollerski 5 km time trials during the dryland season but also the course, which was rolling and fairly double pole-able is about the best course possible for me. I could’ve eeked out a couple more laps for a full marathon but my low back muscles were sore enough afterwards it’s good we got to stop. If I had it my way, this would be the new Birkie course. Instead I’ll keep skiing Mora.

The Great Bear Chase

I’m not sure how many years the Great Bear Chase has been canceled, but I’m guessing in math terms, it’s approaching zero. Even the Keweenaw Peninsula’s lake effect snow wasn’t spared from this extreme El Nino winter. I kept skiing anyway though, figuring that my ski season doesn’t usually end until the middle of March, I even did some rollersking. Instead of heading to Calumet, Erik and I did some canoeing on the Mississippi River, forever on our (perhaps just my) mission to paddle all of Minnesota’s designated water trails.

This was a sweet canoe loop that far exceeded my expectations and that I’d highly recommend - perhaps on a warmer day as it was in the 30s when we were paddling. The Grey Cloud channel was particularly unexpected. As we pulled the canoe out of the water Erik commented, “The water is freezing on the canoe!”

After all the training I’ve done this year, I would’ve preferred to do another ski race but that just wasn’t in the cards. There’s always next year:)- And we got out to Wirth on their last day grooming to get in some good elevation, skiing loops of the North Finger and La Squadra. I got 2,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in just under 24 km!

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Where Are You Winter? Finding Snow in Colorado

Throughout my life, I’ve been struck by the quotes from others I remember. One occurred 30 years ago while my friend's mom was driving me home from a sleepover. It was just the two of us in the car and it felt a bit awkward without my friend, but the mom led the conversation, saying that she lived in Minnesota for the changing of the seasons and to experience the summer and the winter so distinctly.

I thought about this in our relatively snowless winter of 2016 when Erik and I finally found some snow up near Lake Louise and above Canmore in Alberta. And I thought of this now in 2024 as we prepared to travel to Colorado.

Last year we drove to Idaho to ski the Boulder Mountain Tour, but we were only gone a week and it just wasn’t enough time. I proposed we spend two weeks in Colorado this year, working towards completing the mostly defunct American Ski Marathon Series with the Alley Loop in Crested Butte and a “pre-camp” at Snow Mountain Ranch. So a year ago we laid the groundwork for this trip and as it approached and the Twin Cities had seen zero natural ski days of the winter, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Snow Mountain Ranch

We drove to Colorado, leaving the Twin Cities on January 27th in fog with bare ground. By the time we made it to western Minnesota, the snowbanks were high, collected from drifting snow. This persisted throughout Iowa and eastern Nebraska. Then as we entered Colorado the snow disappeared and the high was near 60 degrees. That of course all ended as we drove west out of Denver on Sunday on I-70 and then turned north to drive over Berthoud Pass on Hwy 40. The snow returned, deep, but obviously not fresh.

Back in 2015 over Thanksgiving week we spent a handful of days in Frisco and Breckenridge skiing before doing one day each at Devil’s Thumb Ranch and Snow Mountain Ranch. We decided then that we had to come back to Snow Mountain Ranch to ski more and so that’s what we were about to do. As an added bonus, probably because Snow Mountain Ranch is one of the YMCAs of the Rockies, lodging at Snow Mountain Ranch is both economical and trailside.

After a brief unpack, we got right to skiing. It was nearing 4 pm and we had less than two hours before dusk. The sun was still warm and we didn’t wear much clothing which became a big mistake once the sun went behind the mountains. After an hour I had to call my ski quits because it was simply too cold. I added a jacket and rallied with a run to get just over 1.5 hours on the day.

First natural snow ski day of the 2023-2024 season for me at Snow Mountain Ranch with our friend Emily. Photo Erik

Monday morning was again sunny but with clouds condensed in the valley. We set out to ski up to the top of Blue Ridge. It was a slow, tiring climb at 9,000 feet of elevation and the very top section wasn’t groomed so we turned around (well, we did try for a bit but I’m terrible at skiing in rutted-out powder so gave up). We did take the out-and-back trail to the overgrown scenic overlook which was a flatter and hence more enjoyable trail.

Sunrise from our lodge room at Snow Mountain Ranch.
Classic ski most of the way up to Blue Ridge. 1,800 feet of vertical in 14 miles.

That afternoon Erik and I skated all the trails in the southeast section around the biathlon range, criss-crossing and hitting up the rollers by the Nordic Center. 

Sweet braid and views of the Continental Divide from Columbine Point.

Afternoon skate ski - only 1,350 feet of elevation gain in 14 miles.

Tuesday morning I wanted to do some 30-30s classic style. This is of course a bit crazy at almost 9,000 feet. I did these last year with Ben in Idaho but we were “only” at 6,000 feet on relatively flat trail. Erik wanted to do these striding, I wanted to do them double poling. We compromised by heading to the north trails for a combo of both. The first 15 minute block we started on near flats but as soon as we began climbing, our heart rates jacked up super high. In the steepest part of the hill, I just stopped to breathe during my 30 seconds off. Once the terrain leveled off though I was able to ski during the “rest” 30 seconds. I finished up the first 15 minute block and then went back to find Erik.

I mis-read the map and so instead of the second 15 minute block starting on more uphill, it was actually a big downhill. Like a really big downhill so I just skipped those intervals. Once we hit more level terrain, I resumed the intervals. Turns out they are pretty easy to do on a gentle downhill grade. Then we finished up one more 15 minute set (5 minutes of rest between sets) that included an uphill section as well as a gradual double-poleable grade. Lesson learned: I can’t do 30-30’s at 9,000 feet on steep uphill or downhill grades.

That afternoon we skied the D loop on the northeast side with my old high school coach Karen who currently lives in the area. That probably has the best “rolling” terrain and we greatly enjoyed the company, trails, and sun!


Karen and I enjoying the viewpoint on the D loop.

Wednesday morning we classic skied with Ben up to the Yurt Loop and hit up a couple other trails. That afternoon Erik and I skated the remaining trails we hadn’t yet done, including a few big climbs and descents.  

Myself and Erik at Snow Mountain Ranch. Photo: Ben Mullin

Thursday we left Snow Mountain Ranch and went downhill skiing at Winter Park. Lift tickets are considerably more expensive than cross-country skiing but it was nice to have a day off from breathing so hard. As always, it took me awhile to get my downhill legs under me and I almost quit fairly early after doing some steep chewed-up blue runs but then found some easier slopes. We spent that night two miles high in Leadville. 


Downhill skiing at Winter Park.

Alley Loop Marathon

When I read into the Alley Loop, I learned that there was a team competition whereby six people had to ski all of the different race distances/techniques and at least two had to be women. There’s a big purse and top five teams all take home money. Last year there were only six teams. I can’t say our flatlander team was terribly stacked, but it was still fun to have our contingent represent as the Minnesnowtans. This included myself in the 42 km classic, Erik in the 42 km skate, our friend Emily in the 21 km classic, fellow Vakaver Ben Mullin in the 21 km skate, Ben’s wife in the 10 km skate, and Ben’s son in the 5 km skate. Our team name felt a bit hypocritical seeing as we’ve barely had snow in Minnesota this year!

I had decided to do the 42 km classic because there weren’t many women in the field last year and the course appeared to be a good one for double poling. Because I had good chances of winning, or at least being on the podium based on the 2023 results, I decided to preview the course on Friday. Erik, Ben, and I set out to ski an easy lap of the 42 km course (it’s 3 laps total with the first loop having a special start and the 42 km course having an extra 3 km section per loop). We skied easy (or at least I skied easy) and found that there were some sneaky false flats, a few climbs (that wouldn’t have been much at sea level) and that the course starts with a 150 foot climb. It snowed on and off on us during the preview, temps were around 35 degrees, and the sun kept trying to pop out.

The forecast had been calling for snow on both Friday and Saturday, race day. Even though I don’t particularly like a slog, I know that I do relatively better with a slog. I just wasn’t sure if a slog at 9,000 feet would also be my jam. The wind was forecasted to pick up for the second lap of the race. Nothing dramatic, but 10+ miles per hour wind is noticeable. Temps were otherwise in the 20s. The Alley Loop is a costume race and contest with lots of prizes. As such I wore my hot pink polka dot spandex suit while Erik wore his winter camo one-piece, both Erik Pieh exclusives. 

Some hard to ski in costumes. Photo: Crested Butte Nordic

The race starts in the town of Crested Butte which sits at an elevation just under 8,900 feet. The course climbs to just above 9,000 feet. I’ve spent enough time at altitude to know that I don’t get altitude sickness at that elevation (or even higher) so I was confident in that. I hoped that by being able to double pole more, I would use more muscle power rather than cardiovascular endurance to better manage the race at altitude. 


Main street (Elk Avenue) Crested Butte with snow on it, ready for the Alley Loop.

The race starts on Elk Avenue which is the main street of Crested Butte. This is an old Victorian style street with mostly real fronts, painted quite festively. Other than dirty snow on the street and being at 9,000 feet, it would’ve been awesome. I warmed up on the hill heading out of town and quickly realized there was no way I could stride this hill, even easy, without being in level 5. I was definitely in Level 3 just walking up the hill so I planned to do a little run/slide to start the race and not bog down in the first 5 minutes. Otherwise I did a slow jog and then it was time to line up. I got invited up to the front row in the small field of 40 combined men and women. While waiting for the start I looked around for all the women competitors and a few were looking a little fast!

The gun went off and the field started. I counted the women and as we headed into that first climb, I was in 5th with two women just in front of myself. Settle Elspeth, you cannot push this hill. It’s a long race. So I tried to chill but my heart rate still jacked up. I herring-boned walked the short steep section at the end and passed one of the women back up. As I went to double pole, I was gassed. My arms had that I-just-ran-an-all-out-400-meter feel. It’s OK Elspeth, you didn’t push the hill that hard. You will recover.

I set my sights on passing the next woman in front of me as we snaked down some gradual turns and did. I was into 3rd for women - on the podium. As we went into a gradual uphill, I caught a guy wearing Crested Butte spandex. I could hear myself breathing hard. Now I couldn’t see anyone in my field ahead of me. Over the previous 24 hours it had snowed about 4 inches making conditions soft and slow. Even though I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me in my race, I could see their tracks out on the skate deck instead of in the even slower classic track and followed suit. Even though I felt like I was creeping along, I was working plenty hard. It was interesting noting that on some of the short steeper uphills that the nine skiers in front of me, including two women, had been able to double pole. I took a few running strides on these. Once I got to the steeper uphills, I just herring-bone walked. 

Just Ken from New Mexico skied the 21 km classic with this box around him and subsequently won "hardest costume to ski in." Photo: Crested Butte Nordic

The downhills were slow. Everything was just slow. The 42 km skate leader, David Norris, passed me in the 42 km-only section, wearing a fox tail. Once we joined back up with the 21 km course things were more interesting. I was glad to have learned about all the hills the previous day. These are a doozy at 9,000 feet and I double poled wherever I could since double poling doesn’t spike my heart rate like striding. The 21 km classic race had started just 5 minutes before us and now I was passing up a bunch of these skiers (they had gotten ahead of me while I skied the extra 3 km section) which kept things interesting and they were skiing the track in for me.

This year the Alley Loop went cupless for the aid stations, although I only read this fine print a couple days before the race so hadn’t planned ahead. Hence I skied with my water pack and decided to make some super sugary coffee blend since these ingredients were available. I planned to take it on the wide downhill heading into town where I could first catch my breath. My drink was simply delicious as I’d really maxed out the sugar..

Next up was my first lap through town for which the Alley Loop is named. The course goes down an alley, back up Elk Avenue, and then through more alleys/streets to head back out on the trail. While this is obviously really cool, the snow was dirty and slow and between trying to ski fast, avoid the dirtiest snow, not run over anyone, or get run over myself by skaters, my mind was plenty occupied and I can’t say I really enjoyed the scenery although it was a good diversion from the usual trail. 

Alley Loop course and elevation profile from my Garmin.

As we left town there was crazy traffic. It turns out the 10 km rec division is incredibly popular by costumed skiers. The lap route out of town was almost completely flat, thankfully we didn’t have to climb up and over the starting hill, but it was so crazy passing so many people and then trying to stay out of the passing skaters way. The snow was still slow and now we were battling a headwind. I was exhausted and my right tricep tendons got sore. It’s like how I should’ve been feeling on the third lap, but this was only the second. Elspeth, everyone has to deal with the new snow and wind and altitude.

I wasn’t entirely sad to leave all the costumes behind and head out mostly on my own on the 42 km section. A handful of skaters slowly made their way by me as it was slow for them as well. I wondered why Erik hadn’t caught me yet. But double poling the gradual uphill was rough and I didn’t want to completely burn my arms out yet so I resorted to a shuffle stride. And then we hit the uphill section and my motto simply became: just keep moving. Of course this was easier because I didn’t see any women behind me.

I was happy to only have the hilly section one more time and to get back out on the gradual downhill (and pass back up some of the same skiers I’d passed before including a woman wearing boots with rainbow colored fur) but then it was a slog up the last hill before the downhill into town. By the time I took my second feed on that downhill, I realized I should’ve taken at least one more feed on that second loop because this was going to be a long race. It was just so slow that there was nowhere else good to take a feed without coming to a standstill (except for the steep hill with the right turn that would’ve been too treacherous).

I caught one male 42 km classic skier as we headed through town and then I headed out onto the flats by myself.

While I appreciated seeing all the costumes on my second lap, I think it was mentally more draining trying to pass so many people while being considerate of those trying to pass me. At least they had skied the track in well and I could just put my head down and try to hammer on that third lap. My tricep tendons weren’t bothering me any worse and I got through the section fast enough. Then we briefly headed down valley before turning back up valley on more gradual climbing. Back down to the yurt, then back up. Just keep moving. More 42 km skate women were passing me and finally as we squiggled around, I saw Erik, having a very slow race. At least then I knew he hadn’t had to drop out and he was OK.

Then it was up to the hills one last time, double poling wherever I could maintain enough momentum. I walked the steep uphills, but always pushed over the top with a few running strides and then into a strong double pole. The downhills seemed to be getting slower, especially on the farthest out part of the course where it was gently snowing. Soon enough I was past the gradual downhill and climbing back above town and then taking the descent back into town. There was one kinda steep one with a right corner at that bottom that by now was rather snow-I tried to double pole the alley and the gradual uphill finish on Elk Avenue with a bit more vigor than I had the two previous laps. I was definitely exhausted when I crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 22 minutes with a few 10 km skiers who had been out for some 2 hours. I was relieved to make the 3 hour 30 minute cut-off to get my special bell/medal although the finish line wasn’t very organized and I actually didn’t get said prize (or my age class award). Not sure if this is merely a blessing as I already have too much race crap!

Overall our team didn’t fare well. The others said they really felt the altitude and had slow skis (I had hot waxed mine before leaving home and hadn’t skied on them - the others all used spray wax) and the team division was way more competitive than last year with double the number of teams so we ended up 9 of 12 teams. 

The New Mexican cross-country skiers, including old friend Kristin from U of M days, fielded a few teams in the competition.

I had learned just a couple days before the race that there was actually prize money in the classic. I thought this was pretty crazy given the very small field but cool to get a big check for the third time in my ski racing career! 


Awkward big check photo by Erik

More Skiing in Crested Butte and Heading Home

Erik and I were super glad to spend a few more days in Crested Butte, especially since our first two were cloudy. Sunday morning dawned clear and since we were staying up by the downhill, Erik suggested we make use of the free uphill skiing before 8:45 am. I climbed 700 vertical feet up a green run, stopping multiple times to take in the spectacular vistas, particularly the view west, before I skidded my way down the run. Next up we headed into town to ski a bunch of trails on the east side under bluebird skies and mountain views. After lunch we skied farther up the valley that the race had been in, doing the CB loop twice. We missed some good scenery during the race with the low clouds. 

The view west as we skied up the Crested Butte downhill. Photo: Erik


The pointed top of Crested Butte mountain during our uphill ski. Note the fresh snow on the trees!


The rock face of Crested Butte from the trails on the east side of town.


Up the valley. It was cold in the shade and warm in the sun.

Monday Erik went downhill skiing while I did a run around town (I love looking at architecture) in the morning and skied on the free Town Ranch trails in the afternoon. There’s a ton of old bikes around Crested Butte that for the most part are unlocked and people were riding with their skis to the trails! The town is relatively small and with 4+ trailheads, it’s easy enough to walk to a ski trail. We stayed at the Old Town Inn on the south edge of town and had about a 200 meter road walk to access the closest ski trails. Not bad. I thoroughly enjoyed my ski on the Town Ranch Trails but think I made the right decision to classic as the tracks were pristine while the skate deck was a bit chewed up from paw prints. It was nice to ski on very flat terrain and be able to enjoy the amazing views. 

The old Crested Butte Jail circa 1883.

A fun garage in Crested Butte I found on my run.


One of the old bikes around town. Note the container for hauling skis!

Tuesday we started with Ruthie’s Run, an FIS homologated course above the Nordic center with plenty of uphills, although none were unpleasantly steep, and downhills, most of which were easily navigable but a couple required some good skid turns. In the afternoon we headed back to the east side to do Middle Earth and Mordor. I’d highly recommend Mordor counterclockwise as there is a brutally steep hill going the opposite direction that would be an incredibly intense downhill.

Wednesday we moved on to Salida, but first we did some 30-30 intervals on the flat and free Town Ranch trails. It was snowing again and I found that by doing these in the track, which was slower than the skate deck, it really brought up my heart rate. On our way to Salida, we stopped for a sledding adventure on Old Monarch Road. This involved an hour hike up the gradual road and then one incredible powder sled run directly down to our car that took 5 minutes. By the end I was hiking in snow that was crotch deep to get back up to the road.


Big mountains popping through the trees off Old Monarch Road.

Getting higher and hence better mountain photos before the clouds rolled in.

Thursday we did two different adventures. First, we climbed the hill directly above Salida marked with a big S on mountain bike trails (turns out that Salida which sits down in the valley around 7,000 feet, is a year-round mountain bike destination). Lacking enough motivation to climb something taller, we ended up doing a second hike on more mountain bike trails that only got us up to 7,780 feet. I guess this way we didn’t have to worry about any avalanche danger but I would’ve liked to hike through a bit more crotch-deep snow. Then we spent the night near Colorado Springs. 

Salida afternoon hike on mostly mountain bike trails.


Looking down on the old Salida train station from S Mountain above Salida.

Snowless valley on our afternoon hike.


View from the east side of the same mountains we had seen yesterday from Old Monarch Road.

Friday I began my day early with a run around Old Colorado City. By now we were down to 6,000 feet and I was both able to breath easier and run faster, although a dusting of new snow with some occasional ice still kept the pace down. Next we hiked all around Garden of the Gods. I was bummed that it was cloudy and snowing so we couldn’t see Pike’s Peak, jutting 8,000 feet above the valley with almost as much prominence as the Himalayan behemoths. I managed to overdress once again. Despite the snow coming down, I could see my shadow and began stripping clothes like mad. 

Snow at Garden of the Gods.

20 minutes later the snow had stopped, the sun was poking out, and I was roasting!!!

By noon we were back on the road, driving to the Kansas state high point, Mount Sunflower, before spending the night in Norton, Kansas. Saturday was our day off as we finished the drive home.


Selfie on the Kansas high point. If I've done my counting right, I'm now half done with the US high points.

Sunday we went back to the hamster loop at Hyland. I had intended to do intervals but simply ran into too many friends. Not a bad problem:)

Monday, January 22, 2024

What’s New, Taking the Weather in Stride, and Early Season Race Recaps

What’s New:

While my training has largely been ordinary this year (same approximate volume and intensity), I’ve incorporated a few new things.

First, I’ve done more leg strength than ever before. Higher step ups, more lunges, and increased weight with squats. But I haven’t neglected my core or upper body either and I’ve still been doing the weighted pull-ups. And then I did something in July that’s been a goal of mine for 20 years. I benched my body weight! That after not benching in 3.5 years.

Second, I’ve been doing some jumping. Think ski jumps and broad jumps and tuck jumps and jumping jacks. I figure these are a crossover between strength, agility, and cardio. We’ll see if they make any difference.

Third, I’ve brought back hilly runs. I did these back in 2007 to get me prepared to ski up big hills at the West Yellowstone SuperTour and since I’m headed to Crested Butte to race the Alley Loop, I figured I should give these a try again. I previously called these altitude simulation runs but I think they are good for going uphills. I was way too weak to do these in high school and college but now I can squeeze in 500 feet of elevation over eight miles by adding in a few hills on my run home from work. 


Used the river gorge to get in some good elevation on my December 4th run home from work. Check out that ascent!!!

Of course I always spend a lot of time working on and thinking about technique. I’m never going to be a great skater or strider, but that double pole, well, I want to perfect that. I mean, I want to look like the pros. I’ve worked my upper body so much that it has to be possible and I’m just missing something. A few things I’ve been working on include quick down and quick up, getting up high, getting my pole plants farther forward (the reason why I think my poles always slip while rollerskiing) without straightening my arms, and not going back on my heels when I do the scoot. That’s a lot.

I also got two new comments while rollerskiing that made me smile. I often get comments about training for the proverbial Birkie (to which in my head I always list off all the other races that are equally - and sometimes more important to me than the Birkie but that the random person doesn’t know about) or that I might be some kind of “professional.” But these comments were both new and happened in the summer while classic rollerskiing.

The first one came while I was skiing with Erik: “Hey, what wax is kicking today?”

The second one I was out by myself and some guy from his lawn said, “You’re going to beat me in the Birkie next year.” Statistically, very likely.

Taking the Weather in Stride:

I don’t have to tell anyone that this December has been very warm. I’ve felt fortunate to have four machine-made snow loops in the Twin Cities and that the employees are very diligent, running the snow guns when the temps drop below that magic temperature. My intervals are no secret when they are so visible on the short loops.

Of course it helps that I have cross training options like running, rollerskiing, and even biking. A couple times to get in long workouts but avoid boredom, Erik and I skied for 1.5 hours followed by an hour run. But mostly, I haven’t worried about the warm temps and shortened loops, other than by the middle of January I have yet to do a 3 hour ski this winter! 


Talk about a boring ski at Battle Creek on December 2nd.

Followed it up with this inspiring run!

Early Season Race Recaps

Last year we did Skadi’s Ski Chase. It went OK but I had kinda decided we weren’t going to do it again until Finn Sisu announced their new Tour de Finn series. All of a sudden I was signing up and mighty glad to be doing so because it would kill some skiing time on the hamster loops. Race morning dawned warm with temps barely dipping down to freezing and a bit wet. The race field was huge. Of course, there were three times as many men as women. The organizers were going to start the two fields 5 minutes apart but that seemed dangerously close to lap time so we asked to shorten that to more like 2 minutes which seemed to work well.

I didn’t get a good start position. The race didn’t mean that much to me and since it got funneled to about three skiers wide ten meters from the start, I decided to just chill and let that play into my race strategy. In such a short race it’s easy to go out way too hard but this way I held back for the first quarter lap to let my heart rate come up and then got to the passing. 

Definitely not the best photo of me but this shows some of the course congestion, including with the men at the 2023 Skadi's ski chase. Photo:

By the time I caught up to Molly though she put in a fight and we ended up skiing together the second half. It was drizzling and eventually I had to pull my glasses up. Since they’re prescription I always have this battle of “is it better to see through rain splotches versus without glasses.” Eventually the latter always wins. I thought my best chance to beat Molly was to hit that north donut hill hard and that’s what I did, holding her off by just a couple seconds.


Three-way sprint finish for the lesser places at Skadi's. Photo:

The next weekend was Hoigaard’s Relays. Last year I’d intended to do both Skadi’s and Hoigaard’s but we had good natural snow and the temps were freezing so we skipped Hoigaard’s. This year it was quite a bit warmer, like well above freezing warmer but it was raining. I was motivated to race though because there wasn’t much else to do. Erik and I partnered up and I sent him out first. I’m still not great at balancing on my skate skis and conditions were slushy. When Erik tagged off to me I struggled for the first few meters, through a particularly slushy section, but then I was flying towards the south donut where we pulled a near 180 to cut off the south donut. I didn’t have my glasses on because of the rain and I had intended to take that corner wide but ended up cutting it tight, got knocked a bit backward, and just couldn't recover. I fell before I slid off the course and as a result two other racers fell. It’s never good to fall on a downhill because it curbs so much speed. 

Erik racing the 2023 Hoigaard's Relays. I wish the spectator with the umbrella had been in the background. Photo:

From there I never really recovered. That and my skiing isn’t really good enough to be able to push hard in those conditions. Usually I end my first lap breathing super hard and feeling like the whole event is a good workout, but that wasn’t quite the case this year.

And back to Taking the Weather in Stride

The Tour de Finn motivated Erik and I to sign up for our first ever Pre-Loppets. Ha, and then the weather flipped, to really cold and the Pre-Loppet got canceled. I wasn’t very excited to race at -25 ℉ windchill so was glad. I saw the cold weather coming, so I ramped up the training before the front came through when I wouldn't want to train as much. Because that cold weather always makes me question why I keep at this ski racing business.

Perhaps I spent too many years being too hardy - always racing and training when it was below zero. Instead of giving me great tolerance, this has backfired and turned me into a wimp in my older years. Too many times of getting sweaty and then cold and on the fringe of hypothermia, shaking uncontrollably. And too many times frost-nipping my fingers and toes and now that my toenails are getting deformed and thickened and the tips of my pinky fingers have decreased sensation I take the cold weather much more seriously.

When I see the weather dipping, even below 20 ℉ if there is substantial wind, I immediately think about shortening my workouts or running (when I can keep my hands and feet warmer), or simply not going out at all. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the difficulties of dressing for the extreme cold is that in between winters we have 90 degree heat and I often forget most of what I’ve learned the past winter. Here’s a few things that are helping me through this polar vortex, both new and old revelations. I’m at least an average sweater and even though my hands and feet get cold, I almost instantly melt when my core overheats. I’ve learned the hard way that I absolutely can NOT do fleece as a medium layer. Instead, in the past I’ve learned to simply add an additional t-shirt, or perhaps double long sleeve tops, but absolutely not under any circumstances, fleece. Our black Vakava warm-up suits are not insulted. Fortunately this year we got some snazzy new vests. While my initial intention was to wear the vest during warmer weather, I realized quickly that adding it on top of my Vakava jacket worked well for me. I really like the collar on my jacket with a protected zipper flaps, is reasonably flexible, and doesn’t go up so high. The same isn’t true for the vest. Hence I zip the jacket all the way up and not the vest and then adjust the zipper on my vest if I get warm or cold. The balance is always how to stay warm but not sweat. And then throw into that long uphills and screaming downhills and well, it’s pretty much impossible so the goal becomes to sweat as little as possible.

If it’s colder than 15 ℉, I wear my insulated U of M pants. Keeping the legs warm is helpful. Otherwise on my head I wear a thin hat and lately, double thin buffs.

That leaves the hands and feet. I’ve taken to wearing my giant mountaineering mittens more often. They are a beast to put through the pole straps (as in I have to pull them through with my bare hands) but they are warm although they don’t grip the poles terribly well. Erik made me some light but wind-proof overmitts a few years ago that I’ve busted out finally. These are nice because I can wear lightweight mittens that make gripping the poles a dream. I’ve also found that they seem protective against my other problem of my hands getting cold after my gloves/mittens have gotten really sweaty.

Erik overhead some skiers at World Masters in 2018 talking about using latex gloves to prevent gloves/mittens from getting sweaty. I've done this a number of times in the past, usually with reasonable success (although the gloves are literally dripping when I take them off) but more recently I haven't had good luck with this. Once the sweat starts rolling around when I move my hands to get into my tuck position, this makes my fingers cold again so for now I’m nixing this. It’s also gross.

Erik surprised me with some heated socks just before the polar vortex kicked in. I stupidly thought I’d be OK without them skiing on a 15 ℉ day with a windchill around zero but I wasn’t so, I started using the heated socks and so far so good! I got the Meister brand and on 50% power the giant (they are quite overkill) batteries still have half charge after 10 hours of use.

And now we’re heading back to the 30’s so I’ll likely forget all this knowledge!