I did the Vasaloppet yesterday.
I didn’t really want to do to the Vasaloppet. If you’re a connoisseur of this blog you’ll know how exhausted I was after the Olympics, and how I didn’t get to ski at all while I was there or even run much at all. I came home faced with the fact that I was signed up for the 90 k Vasaloppet, which was taking place in five days. My friends who are athletes recovered from the Olympics by doing things like sleeping 17 hours in a 24 hour window. I needed to do that too, but I couldn’t because I had neglected my school duties for three weeks, and I needed to be churning out statistics and paper sections. I felt horrible and dreaded, dreaded, dreaded the Vasaloppet.
So I asked my friends: should I do it? I laid out the pros and cons.
Knowing my friends, of course they all said do it. I pretty much knew that, subconsciously, when I asked them. Like me, they live for adventure. We are the kind of people who do not want to regret thing that were left not done, never tried. So I took their advice. I went.
Susan’s wax tech, Mattias, was there waxing for an elite team and offered to let me join them, and to do my skis. It was a totally amazing experience which I wrote about for FasterSkier, here. I am so, so, so grateful to Mattias and Robin. First, it was a blast to stay with the group, who were all great and fun people. Second, there’s no way I could have organized myself for this point-to-point extravaganza, and they just took care of everything for me, thank you thank you thank you. One of Robin’s cousins was even driving to Stockholm after the race and offered to wait for me to finish and then drop me in Uppsala on his way, instead of me having to wait a few hours and take a crowded train. Seriously, these people were so nice, and they made my life so much easier. Third, Mattias prepared amazing skis for me, as he usually does for people who are actually worthy of them, like Susan. Seriously, they were magical, and if it weren’t for them I almost certainly wouldn’t have finished. As a “retired” athlete there are a very declining number of times left in my life when anyone, let alone a World Cup tech, will wax my skis for me.
All of that is an experience that I would have missed if I hadn’t done the Vasaloppet this year. And that would have been a shame. I felt so welcome, like I basically never have the entire time I have been in Sweden. They were wonderful, wonderful people.
But for the race itself, meh. It was not fun. It was fun for a little while – the start and trying to weave my way through traffic was so exhilarating! – and then moderately fun for a long while. Imagine a ski marathon that you have done, a 50 k. Then imagine that you had already skied 3 hours before the start. They were three fairly enjoyable hours, for me, but any time you think “Yes! only 50 k left to go!” something is seriously fucked up. I felt like I was doing great, and I still had an entire marathon left to ski.
And then with 30 k left to go in the 90 k race, I hit the wall, hard. Once you use up your glycogen stores it’s very difficult, basically impossible, to come back. I still had a long, long way to go. It was one of the most discouraging and painful things I have done. But I knew I had to finish because people like Mattias and Robin had gotten me to the start and been so nice to take care of me. I couldn’t disappoint them by dropping out even though I couldn’t imagine how I was going to move my body across all that distance to the finish line. It took hours and those hours felt like a lifetime.
I skied 90 k without ever, once, seeing a familiar face. Other teams had stations for food and hot drinks and wax help, and even just cheering and moral support. My little Uppsala team did not, and Robin’s team was, of course, following him to the finish hours ahead of me. That’s the price of doing a race in a foreign country. When the going gets bad, it is really, really lonely. All of which creates a feedback and makes you feel even worse.
And then there were the conditions. For more than the last half of the race, it was snow that had been bought in, and it quickly broke down into slush. There were no tracks in some places, and there was deep slush in other that tripped up racer after racer. It was a mess. One Uppsala teammate said that it was the worst conditions he had seen at the race. A lot of people dropped out, apparently. Mattias texted me to say great job for finishing, and added, “the conditions was tuff”. All of which is to say, it was not at all enjoyable skiing and for sure contributed to my demise, although of course everyone else had it just as bad and so I can’t whine too much.
There’s parts of the race that I don’t even remember.
As I wrote in the FasterSkier piece, I was aiming for between 6 and 6 1/2 hours, but it took me over 7 to finish. Hundreds if not thousands of people passed me in those 30 k. This was not what I had envisioned. And yeah – we all have bad races. Bonking happens. It’s not like I was entitled to a perfect race. But this was so far outside of the realm of un-perfect that I just wasn’t prepared for it to be so bad.
Yesterday after I finished, I was in so much pain. Things that are normal for someone who has done even a normal-length ski marathon, 42 or 50 k. My back was a knotted mess, my hip flexors were shot, my calves were tight in weird places from trying to keep my skis going straight in the slush, in those long sections of trail where the tracks were completely gone. But there were other things, things that I didn’t know could hurt from skiing. At some point the tendonitis in my elbows, which bothered me back in 2011 but only when rollerskiing on pavement, flared up again. I developed a huge blood blister across my right palm and a bruise across the back of my left hand where the pole strap crosses. When I took off my boots there were strange marks which were painful to the touch on the top of my feet from where the laces gathered. My wrists, hands, and feet hurt.
When I woke up this morning, it was worse. Both my shoulders were sore but the right one – which I dislocated in 2010 – was noticeably worse. I propped myself up on my elbow to reach for my water bottle and a searing bolt of pain told me that I had better not do that. I gingerly rotated my arm around and found that the pain was taking away a quarter of my range of motion. I have been popping ibuprofen but I have no idea what’s going on – I didn’t crash or do anything traumatic to the shoulder. It’s just not right. As I wrote to a friend in an e-mail today, it hurts even to sleep.
I guess this is my punishment for disrespecting the Vasaloppet, for thinking you can cheat by not training, and somehow get away with it. The Vasaloppet is not something to be trifled with.
In one sense, I really wish that I had not picked this year as my Vasaloppet year. I don’t think I’ll come back to this race again, so this is my only memory of it. I had no illusions about even turning in a good time, but I did dream of celebrating as I crossed the finish line in Mora. I wanted to pull an Erik Bjornsen and do a rodeo pole-wave even though I finished in the middle of the field. I wanted to feel that rush. But in this race I felt so bad that I think I basically just coasted across the line. I felt shell-shocked. I wasn’t even absorbing the surroundings. It’s one of the only races I’ll ever do where there is a grandstand watching the finish line on main street – and I didn’t appreciate it.
If I had come some other year, some year when maybe I had to pay for a plane ticket to get here, there would have been no cheating in my prep. I’m sure the race still would have been very hard – a 90 k race is never not hard – but I probably would have had a more positive experience. I would have enjoyed it more.
Sometimes you have to question your attitude. I think that I’m invincible, that I can do anything – well, okay, I won’t do well in the Vasaloppet, but of course I’ll finish, it will just be slow but still fun! No, in fact, it’s not that simple. Some things you do for adventure are not good adventures. You don’t have to take every single opportunity as it comes – you can plan out how to have the best and most meaningful opportunities. Sometimes I sign myself up for too much just to get the experience, but then the experiences aren’t as great.
But, life is life, and this was my Vasaloppet, prep or no. Despite all the misery, I have some good memories too. Being part of a start of 15,800 skiers all going at once is quite a unique feeling that you can only get at this one place in the world. That’s something to be happy about, as is the feeling that I can be adopted by a community of nice Swedish people who don’t know me or even know anything about me. It’s a comfort.
Although part of me wishes I hadn’t gone, it’s not all of me. Good or bad, these are the memories I get to keep.