Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seeley Classic race report

I've only skied it twice, but the Seeley Classic race, run entirely on the Birkie Trail system, is fast becoming one of my favorite races. The trail is great—almost perfect for striding—and the grooming is, of course, superb. The race always seems low-key—there's no busing and everyone hangs out at OO before and after the race—which belies that it is neck-and-neck with the Craftsbury Marathon as the largest classic-only race in the nation. And while Craftsbury is one of the largest events in the Northeast, the Seeley is just another weekend race in the Midwest. But for someone who rather likes the finesse of classic skiing, including plotzing about wax, it's a great time.

Transport up to Hayward was interesting. I have no issue with my car (despite what you may have heard on Cartalk) but, working for a car sharing organization I felt bad about my carbon footprint driving up a single occupancy vehicle. So I shot an email over to John Swain, who lives one neighborhood over, about carpooling. He was driving up with his folks, so I couldn't subject one of my free-housing folks near Birkieland to four people, but rather in a hotel. After some quick math I realized that the cost of a hotel room would be somewhere on the order of 25¢ per mile, so I wouldn't recoup the full cost in saved gas, but with maintenance I'd be close, and I wouldn't have to do all the driving myself, which is always a plus. Also, it would be more environmentally friendly.

I headed up to their house Friday afternoon and after a couple of false starts headed off to Seeley for bib pick-up. One of the perks of the Seeley is that you get a sweet hat with your entry ($55 for a race, a hat and a feed is not a bad deal, or as John's dad, Ed, pointed out, it shows what the mark-up on $30 retail hats is) so we wanted to make sure to pick it up before they ran out. Then it was off to the motel for some sleep, and while I didn't sleep particularly well I definitely caught enough zeds. Had I known about the hot tub I probably would have found some time in there.

As for waxing … I had glide wax on and was waiting on the kick along with everyone else. No one knew. They were setting the tracks and it was in the mid-20s, but temperatures were slated to rise from about 23 to 34 during the race. So we planned to go to bed early and go up early to wax test in order to try to hit it.

Breakfast at the hotel was decent (waffle, better than continental) and we made for the course. The parking lot was much larger and we got a space easily—they've expanded the lot considerably. Last year we got there with minutes to spare and had to park down OO and run to the course (our warm up). Of course, last year, in new snow, the waxing was super easy. This year was more difficult. We set up a wax bench, I scraped my glide, and we put on klister binder. A little Swix red/VR50 was tested. It was good, but slipped a little on the hill north of OO, and with warmer temperatures coming, we decided to put on a layer of VR55. We didn't hit it perfectly—I'm not sure anyone had perfect wax this year as many did last year—but we did pretty well.

With some time to spare, I was able to enjoy the scenery. The warmer air had mixed out the clouds rather well and the sky was bright blue. The clouds, however, had frosted the tops of all the trees with a rather thick layer of rime (which would later fall on us like snow) and they stood out, stunningly, against the sky. I wished that I had brought my camera. Perhaps I enjoyed the scenery too much because, as usual, I went running around before the race. I stapled two goos to the "belt" of my pants and went to take a pee, but one of the staples hadn't taken. With no time to grab the stapler (three minutes to start) I went and dug a divot next to the trail at 22k where it looped through the start and put the goo there, hoping to grab it later. There was a chance.

I jumped on my skis and we were off. The Birkie originally alternated direction every year until 1992, so the trail was designed to be skied in either direction, and skis well in either direction. The classic trail skis fine in either direction, but seems to have been designed with the current southward journey in mind, and it skis best going south. We were going north. And with a decent amount of elevation to lose (before the climbs to High Point) there were some fun corners—something you don't get on the Birkie Trail. None was too challenging, but there were definitely some times I used the whole trail. I stayed with the lead pack until it broke up (pretty quickly) and then jumped on the back of the second pack. There were about ten guys in it, but I couldn't quite muster the energy to stick with it, and by about 4k in I was skiing mostly on my own. Every so often I'd see someone (usually passing me—apparently I went out fast) and skied with people for a kilometer or two at times, but packs didn't form.

Here's the thing: skiers don't understand drafting. At all. A few of them seem to—when I saw the lead pack going north as I was going south (much later in the race) the top four guys were one behind the next—but most definitely do not. This means that if I got behind someone and drafted them, I'd not be expected to jump in front later on and take my turn. But this is ludicrous! Drafting is a really great way to conserve energy and, working together, you can go considerably faster. I took some nice rests behind people who were rather furiously double poling. And if I took a pull in front they'd either drop off or step in to the track next to me! Seriously, guys, drafting is really important.

A couple years ago at the Bear Chase I was with a couple guys who seemed to get this. They'd pull for a while and I'd sit in back and rest. When we saw someone ahead, I'd be rested and jump out in front to go catch that person. We probably caught three or four people in this fashion. Yet most skiers really seem averse to it. So if anyone reads this (does anyone) please draft more. Yes, someone may step on the back of your skis once in a while. But you'll go faster. There's a reason cyclists do it.

Anyway, I was feeling half decent and not wanting to kill myself on the climbs to Boedecker or OO. I saw my first woman when Jojo Winters passed me. I stayed with her (as did a couple other guys) for a while but, good gravy, technique and training showed when she schooled us up a striding hill. (She finished four minutes ahead of me, although she was the only woman to do so, so I got girled, but not girlsed, if that makes sense.)

I felt half-decent going in to OO after the hills, and remembered I had a good there. So I jumped in the right track and started looking for it in the snow. At 10 mph, it's kind of hard to see a three-inch-high packet sticking up. Nothing. Double pole. Nothing. Double pole. Nothing. Doub—OH THERE IT IS I'M ALMOST PAST IT. Brain make arm reach down and grab. Hand, grab. Eyes, look at hand. Is there a goo in it? No? "Damnit." Apparently I said that loud enough that John's mom heard me and retrieved the goo, which I'd look for later in the snow only to find it on the wax bench.

So I took the feed and planned my eating of the remaining goo: around the 31k marker, which I knew to be about 0.8 mostly-downhill kilometers before the Gravel Pit feed stop. That's enough time to get it out, get it open, eat it and then have some water/energy to wash it down. We rolled on to OO with me a trading places with a few folks—again, no one wanted to draft (ugh)—but at least I could see people so I had motivation to go fast. I took my goo and saw the leaders right around Gravel Pit, and then headed up that hill and down to the turnaround.

I forgot to take the Jaeger shot there (oh, yes, you read that right) and pretty quickly passed a guy in a gray suit I hadn't seen in a while. He seemed to be bonking. My next order of business involved two guys I could see in front of me: a guy in a New Moon suit called Paul and a guy in a Madnorski suit. Paul had passed me before OO but hadn't pulled away, and Madnorski had passed me more recently. I felt rather ducky and figured I had a chance to take both of them.

While Madnorski was closer to me, I actually caught Paul first. He seemed to be hitting the wall and I hadn't had a proper bonk (yay for lots of energy drink at feeds and a goo) and I strode by him and quickly lost him. So, now it was down to me and Madnorski. The tracks were still pretty good. For the first half—when I was in tracks that had only been skied in by a couple dozen skiers—the tracks were fast and firm, and I had bomber kick. In the southern 22k, the tracks were, well, less good. That's what happens when you let a few hundred skiers—not all of whom know "never herringbone on tracks unless the hill is seriously so steep no one could" so the hills were kind of trashed when they got at all steep. In addition, the sun and air were warmer, so they fell apart more easily. But my kick was still surprisingly good.

I also knew I hadn't bonked because I was able to turn up the dial without dying. I slowly chipped away at Madnorski's lead until I was about five seconds behind him. We descended down the 29k hill (as I know it) and my skis seemed slightly faster than his, so in an all-out sprint in to OO, which is downhill, I'd probably have a slight advantage. On a moderate uphill, I put the striding hammer down and got right up behind him. It was fast enough in the shade that I was catching him on any sort of down grade so I jumped in to the track next to him and for about two kilometers we were neck-and-neck.

There were two hills to go up before the finish, and the race—as it was between me and Madnorski—would hinge on these. Before the first one, I had jumped in to a slight lead by striding pretty well, and I went in to a fast-walk type of herringbone (a run herringbone is surprisingly hard) and glanced behind me at the top—Madnorski was gone. I got up to the next hill—the one up to the picnic table—and pushed pretty hard up that because, why not. Madnorski was nowhere to be seen. I felt pretty good—apparently I hadn't gone hard enough—and came in to the finish, where I immediately ate a few cookies and doughnut holes.

As for the results … I finished in 34th place in 2:29, which is okay (the winners finished in 2:03) as I was 20% back. Again, I probably could have gone faster. I was skiing with mostly elite wavers, but this finish would have probably put me near the cutoff in the Birkie again. I have to get faster. As for my age group, well, wow. The 25-29s ruled the top of this race. Apparently, if you are going to ski Seeley and are in your late 20s (yes, this is depressing to write this), you better be good. Of the top 16 finishers, 10 were 25-29. Of the top 36, 19—more than half!—were in the age group. After this, there were three more finishers. There were almost no 20-24s (five, if you include Scott Kyser who wasn't really racing) for a variety of reasons, such as collegiate racing and JOQs nearby.

But here's the thing: this does not mesh with other race results. For example, in the Birkie I was 29th in my age class (18-24), out of 218. Had I been a year older, my time would have been 43d out of 223. In the City of Lakes I was 6th out of about 45, and in the 25-29s I would have been 16th out of about 70. Based on the size of Seeley, I'd expect to be in the top 10 out of 25 or 30. But I was 18th out of 22.

So this seems rather bizarre. Why should this race have such a stacked field of 25-29s? I actually have a hypothesis: it's a classic race. Sadly, in my opinion, a lot of skiers have not skied enough classic in recent years. A lot of people go out and skate, but the ones of us who stride are all a bit more serious about racing do both. Now, anyone significantly older than us would have started racing in, potentially, the 1980s, and would have learned to race classic. And while most high school leagues still have classic skiing, a lot of recreational skiers turn mostly towards skating. So recreational racers would likely not show up to a marathon-length classic race. Serious racers, however, almost all ski classic. A lot of us like it. If you look at the top finishers in this race, there are a whole slew of people who I skied with (read: lost to) in college. Collegiate skiing makes for good classic racers. However, beyond about my level of racing—which is about the elite wave in the Birkie—no one skis classic anymore.

There's no way to know what the future will bring, but I'd guess that it will result in somewhat fewer classic skiers, but not much less competition. It also means that I'm not going to get an age class prize for a good long time.

Anyway, after the race John played on skis for a while (I had no problem standing out in the warm, sunny weather, and took a short cool down) and we headed down to Seeley around 2:00, ate lunch, I grabbed a beer and gabbed with Jim Crandall and Morrey (college coach's dad, college coach) and after John got his plate for being in young (24.something) we headed back to the cities. I explained how we were doing well by driving together (I explained that my carbon footprint was reduced from 1*car to 0.25*van and each of their personal carbon footprints was reduced from 0.33*van to 0.25*van. In gallons of gas, I went from 7.5 to 3.75, and they each went from 5 to 3.75. I ate well and now will sleep well. And live to race again. Skating. So I can beat some younger folks.

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