Some of you might know that I live in New York City. For those of you who don’t, I live in New York City. While New York City is known for and very good at many things, producing quality cross-country skiers is not one of them, Caitlin Gregg notwithstanding.
There are actually a couple of other exceptions to this rule. Namely, Tim Donahue and Sproule Love, a pair of impressive athletes—role models, really—who have somehow figured out a way to be pretty damn good at skiing by dint of hard work, perseverance, and acceptance that they will have to sometimes resort to some peculiar training methods, like climbing the stairwells of downtown hotels. Some of this acceptance has rubbed off on me.
(If you want to read more about Tim and Sproule, you can, because they’re SUCH HUGE BALLERS THAT THERE WAS A WHOLE STORY ABOUT THEM IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.)
Anyways, while stair workouts are good, most of ski training in Manhattan is decidedly less glamorous. It consists, mostly—okay, actually pretty much entirely—of outings in Central Park. Typically, laps—big ones and small ones. For long workouts, 10 k laps of the road around the whole park, and for interval workouts, 2 k laps of the North Loop, which features what I’m pretty sure is Manhattan’s largest hill, which takes about 2 minutes to ski up, and about 3:30 for an interval when you tack on a flat prelude.
I was living in Manhattan all of last year, then moved to Long Island for the summer and then back to Manhattan in the fall. I trained primarily for skiing, mostly by rollerskiing, through this entire period. Some people might ask why I wouldn’t just take up another sport that makes more climatological and geographical sense. In fact, in recent days, I’ve been seriously asking myself that question, and I am pretty bemused by the fact that honestly, I did not seriously ask myself that question all summer and fall—not before, during, or after rollerski sessions on the access road to the Long Island Expressway in sweltering heat, or during 4×4 interval sessions on the one big hill that I found near the state college I was living at in the middle of the most unpleasant suburban car-packed part of Suffolk County. I will point out that through the early part of the summer I had a foot injury that made running difficult, and that bicycling in the most unpleasant suburban car-packed part of Suffolk County is about what you would expect. But that does not explain the fact that from about June through the middle of February, I persisted in trying to make myself good at a sport that I would only very rarely actually get to practice in its idealized form. (Meaning, going skiing, as opposed to rollerskiing, which in general is tolerable and sometimes fun but largely sucks, in my opinion.)
Anyways, I am pretty sure that obtaining a true understanding of my motivations will probably require some Freudian psychoanalysis or something like that, which in all likelihood is not what most people come to my blog to read. Bottom line is that yes, I might be a little bit crazy, but for whatever reason, I spent a fair amount of the last several months rollerskiing around Central Park, occasionally with training partners, but mostly by myself, in the dark, before or after work, and increasingly, as winter set in and the Central Park people decided to salt the ever living bejeezus out of the road, in conditions like this:
(For the record, training in Central Park can be pretty awesome, and can give rise to some awesome things happening, like this one time a few weeks ago when this skateboarder told me, as I approached the top of the hill at the end of an interval: “You’re the fuckin’ man, bro!”)
Anyways, at a certain point in December, it occurred to me that, if I was going to be doing all of these Central Park workouts, it might make sense to actually enter a race.
I’ve always liked racing marathons, and plus, since it takes a while to get from New York to anywhere that has legit races, I figured that I might as well get a lot of bang for my driving buck and race for a long distance. Fortuitously, I am friends with former FasterSkier Canadian Bureau Chief Kieran Jones, who lives in his country’s capitol city of Ottawa, which hosts an annual World Loppet race called the Gatineau Loppet. (Yes, technically the Gatineau Loppet takes place across the river from Ottawa in Quebec, but no one I know knows where anything in Quebec is.) He kindly agreed to allow me to sleep in his spare room for a few nights, and even offered to give me feeds during the race. Given that Kieran is a PROFESSIONAL COACH for a local elite ski club, this seemed like an offer that was unlikely to be topped by anyone anywhere—professional feeds at a World Loppet race!
So, last Thursday, I did a very adult thing and rented a car. It was definitely on the expensive side, but since I live in New York City, I get paid enough to rent a car even if it’s on the expensive side, which is pretty sweet.
After renting the car, I drove it to Topher’s house in Williamstown, crashed for a night there, where I ate part of one of Topher’s cows and also acquired some gels for the race. (They were not cow gels.) Then, on Friday morning, I woke up, drove to Middlebury College, watched the Bowdoin Polar Bears kick some Colby Ass, and proceeded to Chalet Jones. The Canadian border guard was kind enough to wish me good luck when I told him I was on my way to a ski race.
After a good ski with Kieran’s club and some other fun shenanigans on Saturday, I woke up on Sunday morning mostly excited for some racing. However, there was one thing I was not particularly excited about, which was the temperature. The general perception of the Gatineau Loppet seems to be that it is both awesome, and reliably butt-ass cold—and clearly, the race organizers had done a good job coordinating the competition with a deep dive of the thermometer.
Now, minus 17 Celsius or whatever that chart says for Sunday may not seem all that cold to a lot of readers—okay, actually, I take that back. If minus 17 doesn’t seem all that cold to you then you’re fu—ing insane. I suppose that people who live in more northern climates than New York City’s might be able to get somewhat used to fu—ing insane temperatures. In any case, I do live in New York City and have for a year and a half, which means that even though I grew up in Maine and went to high school in Vermont, I now bundle myself up in a down jacket and hat whenever the temperature drops below 50 degrees, and carry an umbrella everywhere. (This is not actually true but I’m trying to make a point here.) And which further means that for me, minus 17 degrees is really, extremely fu—cking cold. I wanted to go to the start line looking like this:
Unfortunately, instead I had to rely on spandex and double windbriefs. However, the eminently rational race organizers did give the athletes the courtesy of delaying the start of the race half an hour, giving me ample time to make sure that my gels were well-pinned to my tights.
At about 9:15 (the race start was at 9:30), I went outside, jogged around in my down jacket, and went to the start line. Based on my last marathon finish of 2:27:21 in 2009, I had been assigned to the “D-Wave” for the Gatineau Loppet, with the “D” signifying the domination that I was about to apply to my fellow “D-Wave” competitors. At 9:36, six minutes after all the fast people had departed, the “D-Wave” was released, from which I shot like a cannonball from a cannon.
A few disjointed observations from the race:
1. I had an extremely meticulous feeding plan, thanks to Coach Jones. It involved Coach Jones giving me a banana at 10 k, then following up with a gel, conveniently safety-pinned to my tights, every 10 k thereafter.
Unfortunately, as I neared arrival at the 10 kilometer mark, Coach Jones was too busy walking or chatting or making snow angels or something to notice my rapid approach. (And trust me: it was rapid.) He proceeded to rummage around in his backpack for like five minutes before handing me an unpeeled banana. UNPEELED! So much for being a “professional coach.” Henceforth readers should automatically add air quotes to any reference of Kieran Jones as a professional coach. After giving me the unpeeled banana, said professional coach also did not appear at any other locations along the course to deliver feeds of lobster, or poutine.
2. Racing a ski marathon from the D-Wave is both awesome and decidedly un-rad. Awesome because I did officially Dominate all the other skiers in the D-Wave—that’s right, every single one—and also felt like a total champ as I passed the hordes of skiers who’d gotten a head start. I even told one that I was coming by on his left so forcefully that he sat down on his skis out of sheer terror. (I felt bad, but it really was hilarious, and it wasn’t my fault.) Un-rad, however, because I had to pass like a bajillion people, sometimes on sections of single-track trail that made for a lot of painful double-poling, or even waiting, at times. And also un-rad because I didn’t find any friends to ski with until like 35 kilometers into the race.
3. Do not eat spicy Sri Lankan food the night before a ski marathon. (I think I’m making myself fairly clear here, but if further explanation is warranted, email me.)
4. Sometimes two pairs of windbriefs are not enough—specifically, at times when you’re racing for three hours at like 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s windy. Re-warming on the occasional downhill was sometimes necessary.
5. Gels are hard to eat when it’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, I’d say that gels actually become solids when it is 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
I estimate that all of these problems—solids, D-Wave shenanigans, TBFD (total banana feed debacle), partially frozen reproductive organs—cost me about 16 minutes and 17 seconds. Apply that correction to my finishing time of 2:46:25, and one gets 2:30:08, which is coincidentally three seconds faster than the time of the race winner, Ian Murray. (I actually would have been a lot faster than that, but I slowed down at the finish to take an American flag to pre-emptively celebrate my victory.)
[If I were to deliver a serious appraisal of the race, which I hate to do because being serious is no fun, I would say that it went pretty darn well, save for some of the traffic and some pretty bad cramping at the end. I did, in fact, win myself a bronze medal for being such a huge baller and crushing all but two of the other 24-29 age-group participants in the race.]
After the race, my professional coach redeemed himself by taking me for the only acceptable recovery meal for an Ottawa ski marathon, which consisted of a cheeseburger the size of my face, and a poutine. While some people are skeptical of poutine’s nutritional benefits, I have it on good authority that Quebec native Alex Harvey subsists on it exclusively, which actually makes a lot of sense, because the dish includes all of the important macronutrients: carbohydrates (potatoes), protein (cheese curds, duh), and fat (gravy, and trace amounts in the other elements of the dish like the french fries and cheese curds).
The recovery meal was followed by a shower, and then skating down the Rideau Canal. I’m really bad at skating, but this was still an exceptional way to spend the afternoon, especially since I could do it in a down jacket, not spandex.
There are a few more vignettes I wish I could include, but right now I’m tired, having just arrived home after 8 hours of driving, a $13 toll to get over the George Washington Bridge (seriously?!), and a subway ride home.
All things considered, I am calling this an extremely successful vacation. Hopefully I will get to ski race again this winter, because it’s pretty damn fun.
(Editor’s note: Kieran Jones is a highly competent and eminently professional ski coach, as well as an excellent host. Just not when it comes to delivering peeled bananas to his needy houseguests.)