(Author’s Note: The first three (3) sections of this were published in the Valley News today. The last section, the one where I ramble about my personal relationship with racing, was not. Also, I don’t have any pictures from this race – I gave my camera to Pepa but she forgot to actually use it – but some great ones can be found at TeamToday.)
When most skiers head to Lake Placid, New York, they find themselves racing down Whiteface Mountain.
Early Friday morning, I found myself racing up it on my rollerskis.
Ahead of me were eight of the fastest cross-country skiers in the country. Behind me were a handful of other formidable competitors. And if I looked to my side, I was surrounded by autumn foliage lit up in the sun and expansive views of the Adirondacks.
I didn’t have many chances to appreciate the scenery, though. The toll road up the mountain is five miles long, with an average grade of 8%. It finishes at the “castle”, 300 feet from the summit of Whiteface, which is the fifth tallest peak in the ‘Dacks. Construction of the toll road began in 1929; then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt officiated the ceremony.
On Friday, our little ceremony was officiated by the New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) and the U.S. Ski Team. White team vans leapfrogged past me as I skied, and periodically I would pass coaches from the country’s various elite teams taking video and cheering for their athletes.
At the halfway point, a group of NYSEF juniors offered me a paper cup with water in it; I skied past them. I haven’t done many hill climbs in my life, and certainly none on rollerskis, but here’s one thing I have learned: you can’t stop for anything. What little uphill momentum you have, you must conserve. Your body is moving, and if you let it stop…. you’re screwed.
Up ahead, I could see my own coach, video camera in hand, shouting at my teammate. “Come on Hannah! Turn it over!” For the last two miles, Hannah had been maybe 30 seconds ahead of me, tantalizingly close, but a gap too big to close on the windy course. If I had tried, after just a minute or two the effort would have shot me out the back of the race. You can’t get excited in a hill climb. It’s a deliberate slog.
In a few seconds, my coach’s attention would turn to me. I hoped that her voice would tell me whether I was doing well enough, or not. Preferably the former.
Two and a half miles left. I kept climbing.
Up ahead of me, the race for the podium was heating up. Climb to the Castle, as the competition is called, is the closest thing we skiers have to a national-level race in the off-season. While the teams from Alaska don’t make it to New York, many of the country’s other best athletes do.
The women’s field was small, with only fourteen finishers. The men’s field had sixty. But the main difference between the two was not the quality at the top, where both fields featured multiple Olympians and national champions. The nordic combined team – the men who won all the medals in Vancouver – were out in full force.
The front of the women’s race included Dartmouth student and Olympic biathlete Laura Spector; U.S. Ski Team Olympians Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola; and Dartmouth senior Ida Sargent, the seventh-ranked skier in the country.
Last year, Sargent and my teammate Hannah (Dreissigacker) finished third and fourth.
This year, it was not to be. Sargent said, “Last year it went really well, so I was actually psyched to race it again. This year I thought I would know what to expect, but you can’t ever predict how something like this – which is just so hard – will unfold. I felt tired and instead of being able to attack like I had hoped for, I was just kind of holding on.”
Spector’s experience was different. As a biathlete, her races usually consist of shorter loops with rifle-shooting stages in between them. She hadn’t raced against regular skiers recently, but was excited to see how she stacked up.
In the beginning, the pace conservative; everyone knew that they had 50 minutes of climbing ahead of them. Spector said, “A large group stayed together for nearly two miles. It first started to split up when Morgan [Arritola] took the lead from Liz [Stephen]. I was working my way up one spot at a time. Every time I thought I saw a gap forming between the leaders and the person in front of me, I would jump ahead and fill that spot.
“When we got to around 3 miles I offered to pull because everyone in the lead group was taking a turn on the front. I soon noticed that I had opened up a gap and decided to push it from there.”
Spector held her lead through the final kilometers of the race and ended up winning by just over a minute. She said, “My win was for my teammates. I feel like there have been doubts in the past as to how well American biathletes train and perform physically, and I was out to prove that our training is just as rigorous and effective as what the cross-country skiers are doing.”
Sargent finished fifth, unable to recapture the podium. She said, “I’m sure I’ll do [the race] again next year, but right now I’m glad there is a full year before it happens!”
One thing that we all faced as we neared the finish – regardless of whether we were headed toward victory or not – was the wind.
With just a half mile left, the toll road takes a turn, and the castle is visible, tantalizingly close. But this turn exposed us to the wind’s full force for the first time; estimates had the gusts reaching 50 miles per hour. It literally stopped us in our tracks; multiple athletes I claimed to actually have been blown backwards (rollerski wheels roll both directions).
“I don’t think I’ve ever skied in wind that strong before,” said Sargent. “It was brutal.”
Personally, I wanted to sit down and cry. Even though I could see the finish, I had no idea how I was going to get there. My strides were only gaining me a few inches each time I pushed forward. I could have walked faster.
In the end, I made it to the finish by reminding myself that the wind was just as tough on my competitors as it was on me. My teammate Hannah had put two minutes on me in the last mile, when all the climbing had finally caught up with me, but nobody had passed me.
Honestly, I was just relieved to have made it to the top.
There’s a month until the racing season begins, and it’s all going to feel easy after Whiteface. I guess I’m prepared now.
You might think the story ends there. But it doesn’t. Something surprising happened to me on that mountain. I stopped being afraid of ski racing.
The end of my season last year was an absolute disaster: race after race of burying myself to go slower and slower. I dropped out of a race for the first time ever. I skied like a sack of dog poop. I felt tired all the time. I couldn’t go hard, but it was so hard to go even not hard. Something was terribly wrong, and everyone had a different theory about what it was, but the case was never resolved completely.
It had made me forget what racing was supposed to be like. I dreaded racing. Going into Climb to the Castle, I was terrified. I was sure something was going to go horribly wrong, I was going to feel tired, I wasn’t going to be able to turn it over, I was going to get dropped by everyone, left to ski, cold, alone, perhaps sobbing, up this indescribably steep road to the top (when I got there, it wasn’t nearly as steep as it had been in my mind). You can’t drop out of an uphill rollerski race. What are you going to do, turn around and ski downhill for three miles? You would have to be crazy to attempt to ski down a toll road.
I was afraid because it was a hill climb, but what I didn’t realize was that I was also afraid because it was a race. The last race weekend I remember was Spring Series in Madawaska, Maine, where I dropped out of the first race, missed the heats in the sprint, and then did terribly in the hill climb. It was not a fun weekend of ski racing. But that was the most immediate sense I had of racing. Everything in my body and my mind expected that experience all over again.
Almost as soon as I started Climb to the Castle, though, it was different. I was skiing! I was skiing well, I would even say. I felt in control. I was deciding my pace; I wasn’t fighting with my body. I was relaxed. I was beating people. All of this, honestly, was a complete shock.
Sure, I did really fall apart in the last mile. I bonked. I was really, really slow. And I almost sat down on the side of the road and cried in that 50 m.p.h. wind. But that was different. Everyone gets tired after climbing a mountain for 4 miles. Pacing yourself perfectly in a hill climb is pretty tricky. The fact that I didn’t nail it doesn’t mean that I’m not ready, that I’m not fast, that I don’t have the ability to go do an actual, normal race, and pace myself as I should.
You might not think that finishing a five-mile race 9 minutes behind the leader would boost my confidence. But it did.
I don’t dread racing anymore. Now I remember why I love racing: it’s a thrill when you feel good. I can’t wait. Bring it, races.