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The Oosik, the Wrong Way

The toll of a wrong-way Oosik. Photo, Aubrey Smith.

The toll of a wrong-way Oosik. Photo, Aubrey Smith.

The Oosik is one of the most infamous outdoor events in Alaska—a 50-kilometer ski race that doubles as an end-of-season festival for recreational and elite athletes alike.

According to one of my roommates here, there are a couple of right ways to do the Oosik, and a wrong way to do the Oosik. The right ways are this: you can either try hard and go fast, or you can not try hard, go slowly, stop at the beer and bacon station, and drink the various other alcoholic libations offered by your friends and fans along the side of the trail.

The wrong way to do the Oosik is to try hard, and go slowly.

I definitely did the Oosik the wrong way.

How do I know this? Because I tried so hard that today because my back is sore in places that I didn’t know my back even existed. And I definitely did not go fast.

Let’s back up a bit. I live in Anchorage. The Oosik is in Talkeetna. Saturday morning, I woke up at 6:30, got into my car with some instant oatmeal and leftover pasta from Friday night, and did the two-hour drive to Talkeetna, the first half hour of which (mom, skip this next part) included enough blowing snow and darkness that I was pretty sure I was going to total my car.

Upon arriving in Talkeetna, I went and found one of my friends from Anchorage who had graciously agreed to wax my skis for me. I’m not going to name him because at that time, 11 a.m., he was holding a piece of chocolate cake and a beer, which I’m not sure is something that he’d want published about him on the internet. But I think that we can agree that this friend of mine was doing the Oosik the right way. (For the record, I just want people to know that my friend waxed other peoples’ skis too—it’s not like I have a personal wax technician or anything.)

I took my skis and walked back to my car. Then I put on a one-piece spandex suit that’s pink and sparkly. At that point, I’d say that it was not yet clear to me whether I’d be shooting for the fast-right-way Oosik or the slow-right-way Oosik, but I felt that the suit was appropriately gaudy yet still functional enough that it would suffice for whichever path I chose.

There were something like 100 people doing the 50 k with me, which began at noon. We started with something like a 500-meter promenade around a gravel pit, and by the time we passed through the stadium at the end of that, there was already a 10-meter gap between me and the back of the pack of the people who had chosen to do the fast-right-way Oosik. (For the record, the 500-meter promenade may have been less than 500 meters, and the 10-meter gap might have been larger than 10 meters, but that’s how I’m choosing to remember it.)

This would have been a good place for me to choose the slow-right-way Oosik. Instead, I thought to myself, ‘those guys aren’t very far ahead of you. You should catch them.’ And I kept double poling as hard as I could without the gap getting any smaller.

And then Holly Brooks caught me.

You might have heard of Holly before. She went to the Olympics last month. And in 2010. So, she seemed like a pretty good person to ski with.

Holly, I’m pretty sure, was skiing the Oosik the right way. She didn’t seem to be trying very hard, firstly because she was able to carry on a conversation with me, and secondly because I’m pretty sure that if Holly had been trying hard she would have been going a hell of a lot faster than me.

This was maybe a kilometer-and-a-half into a 50-kilometer race. And because that kilometer-and-a-half had been almost entirely flat, my arms were already tired from double poling.

The slow-right-way Oosik thing to do at that point would have been to say, ‘See you later Holly, nice skiing with you, have a nice day and enjoy your leisurely slow-right-way Oosik, as I will be doing, just half an hour more slowly.’

Instead, I kept trying, because I did not really feel like admitting to Holly that my version of a slow-right-way Oosik would have taken half an hour longer (at least) than it would have taken her.

Then, after a few more kilometers, we caught Holly’s husband, Rob Whitney, who had briefly attempted a fast-right-way Oosik before being dropped by the lead pack, at which point he switched his approach to one that didn’t involve trying very hard. Skiing easily along with Rob was Don Haering, who works with the Alaska Pacific University club team while also still finding time to occasionally ski race pretty fast. At least, much faster than me.

Rob and Don had chosen to do a slow-right-way Oosik. And so, it seemed reasonable for me to join them.

A few other things I’ll mention here. Rob is a former a-lot-of-times national junior and maybe even national senior champion cross-country skier. Don is a former much-faster-than-Nat-Herz skier. I was three weeks removed from three weeks of working at the Olympics, which involved about four training sessions, no cross-country skiing, and a very unpleasant bout of illness. Also, I had classic skied one time since January.

(Yes, that was the obligatory paragraph in which I’m listing my excuses. I’m not a professional athlete at the Olympics so I’m allowed to list as many excuses as I want.)

Anyways, Rob and Don joined the pack that included Holly, me, and a bunch of middle-aged dudes who appeared to be doing fast-right-way Oosiks, given that they were going reasonably fast given their advanced ages. Although I will point out that one of them was blatantly marathon skating. (For those of you who don’t know what marathon skating is, it’s cheating, when you’re competing in a classic race like the Oosik.)

We arrived at the first hill on the course, which was at about 15 kilometers, where all of us discovered that none of our skis had any wax left on them, thanks to icy conditions and my beer-drinking, chocolate-cake-eating wax technician who is no longer my wax technician, because he’s been fired. (I’d say he actually did a fairly good job given that my kick wax remnants seemed slightly more numerous than those belonging to the other people I was skiing with.)

The lack of kickwax meant that the rest of the race became exclusively double poling and herringbone. (For those of you who don’t know what herringbone is, it’s a technique that is slow and uncomfortable and gets you up hills very slowly.) Given that I had done very little double poling or herringboning over the last couple of months, this was another good opportunity for me to switch my fast-right-way Oosik attempt to a slow-right-way Oosik.

But here’s the problem: I was now skiing with Rob and Holly and Don, all of whom were ALREADY doing slow-right-way Oosiks. And while I am not particularly good at skiing, I do spend a lot of time in Anchorage doing it and talking about it and spending time with people who are fast at it.

And that meant that I was really not prepared to slow down and let my three friends ski away from me, thereby admitting that my slow-right-way Oosik speed was a lot slower than their slow-right-way Oosik speed.

This is how I ended up doing the Oosik the wrong way: by trying really hard to keep up with a few people who were not trying very hard.

In my defense, I’d say that I did a pretty good job of concealing how hard I was working during the race. Because we were only double poling, I was able to make plenty of stupid jokes. And I did accept a gift of an open can of a Pabst Blue Ribbon that was handed to me after about 35 kilometers by my fired wax technician.

But secretly, though I was trying to remain outwardly cheerful—comfortable, even—I spent the entire second half of the race in excruciating pain and misery. And I did not stop at the beer and bacon station.

With about three kilometers to go, I was skiing behind Rob and Don as we were passing a bunch of slower people doing the 25 k race. As those two split around a guy on some gigantic wooden skis, the guy crashed in the middle of the trail. I decided to go around on the left, just as the guy decided to roll over to his left, presenting me with an exciting dilemma of skis-to-the-face, or tree. I chose tree, which may or may not have something to do with the small puncture wound on my left hand I discovered after the race.

I caught back up, and then a little later it was time for the finish. Rob and Don sprinted ahead of me, while I tried to sprint but just kept going the same speed I’d been going the entire race. Holly was a few meters behind us, most likely chuckling to herself and feeling glad about the fact that she hadn’t broken a sweat.

I’m pretty sure that I finished more than half an hour behind the guy that won the race. And today (Sunday), my back is so sore that it has been a huge struggle to bend over and tie and untie my boots.

I would like to say that I have learned my lesson about doing the Oosik the right way, but it may take me a couple more years before I’m willing to swallow my pride and go slowly enough that I’m not hobbling around the next day. Or maybe I’ll just do a better job of hiding how hard I was trying.

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