Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vasaloppet Race Report

I quite like the Mora.

It's sort of a little cousin to the Birkie, and a totally different race, but it feels, just, very Minnesotan. The race itself is unassuming—no big, named climbs, no world-class trail, no elite wave—just a lightly-rolling trail 58k (the longest major race in the country) from Salen, I mean, Warman to Mora. The country is beautiful, and, again, pure Minnesota. Mostly hardwood forest but several fields and prairies, some swamps—basically what you'd see if you drive across the central part of the state. And while the race doesn't seem hard, there are no real downhills—no rests—for thirty-five miles.

It's a lot of fun.

The trail itself is never really perfect, but was, this year, very good. The start was groomed not-that-great, as seems to generally be the case in this race, with a lot of ridges between the tracks. It was groomed quite well most of the way with a few minor issues: scattered dirt (rare and avoidable), a classic track, which wasn't really necessary for the skate race, and road crossings which could have used more snow. Otherwise, it was great. So goes the season.

We headed up 65 to Mora (no, Google Maps, it does not 1:51 and you should not take 35) and got to the gym, Collin cursing me because, apparently, he really did have to use the bathroom and there was nowhere along 65 to stop. We grabbed bibs and camped out in the high school for a while, and then jumped on a school bus up to the start. The Mora is about the only race I can think of where you ride from the finish to the start, and it's a rather long bus ride when you consider that the 35k skiers ski it in a straight line and the 58k is more than half again as long as the bus ride. (The same thing happened this fall when I ran a marathon and, on the bus to the start, thought "I have to race this?") But the start was warm and sunny and I skied out to the trail juncture (about 1k), stripped down, and waited for the national anthem (belting it out with Zach Handler) before the gun went off.

Actually, the gun went off, and then the gates went up. And several of us got tangled in the gates. It was not good. I caught a pole and finally got going, but by this point there were 100 skiers in front of me. Yes, many were doing the 35k, but many were not. I wended and double poled my way back towards the front pack, hoping to keep contact until Liebsch (no-poles skating—"That's not fair!" was my reaction) slowed it down.

Which happened. There was a bottleneck at the first little hill on the 58k, and I could see no one was pushing it. However, there was some concern—last year this pack had had about a dozen and a half skiers in it, this year it was easily triple that size. Race fields have been much deeper this year—which might not bode well for those of us at the bottom of the Birkie elite wave (however, my consolation/rationalization is that everyone who's anyone skis the Birkie). I should do a quick chart of the number of skiers within x% of the winner this year versus last—I'm sure it's significantly higher.

Now seems like a good time to talk about a few truths of Mora. If you are reading this and have skied it, or plan to ski it, please keep these in mind:

  • The race goes out slow. It's a 58k and it's flat. No one is going to win in the first three kilometers. This means a couple of things: a) keep contact with the lead pack as long as possible and b) you didn't need those fluoros—they'll be gone by the time you'd need them to go fast.
  • Once the pack thins, it thins fast. Someone at the front decides to put the hammer down, and it moves. So, try to get in to the pack where you think you'll be, but don't kill yourself. It's a 58k race. (With the bigger fields, yeah, you want to get where you think you should be. But try to do that before the trail narrows down.)
  • Do not do anything stupid—or that you'd do in a 5k—to gain two or three spots. It's a 58k race. If you need to pass, double pole in the tracks, but not on hills. Hills will bottleneck. There are six of them on the whole course. Wait your turn. Don't try to pass on the hill, you are much more likely to fall down than you are to gain any meaningful time. I have a little remorse for the guy whose pole got stepped on and broken, because that sucks. I have no remorse for the guy who tried to pass me on a hill and fell down.
  • If someone is letting gaps form, let them know about it. Don't passive-aggressively try to go around them. But don't let gaps form. Four hard V2s and you'll catch the folks in front of you. If someone tells you to close the gap, especially if they are the third woman in the race, close the gap.
  • Once the big pack breaks up, it's a pack race. You are screwed if you ski the whole way on your own, unless your name is Matt Liebsch. If it is, hi Matt. If not, take it easy. There's no need to attack a pack at 11k unless you do plan to catch the on in front of you.
  • If you want to try to break a group (and this doesn't really apply in the last 10k when the trail is wider), offer to take a pull. If you get in front, you'll be doing more work. If you want to push the tempo and see if you can break it, go for it. But if you can't see anyone ahead of you, you're not likely to get very far.
  • Speaking of which, do not draft the whole way and expect me to let you in or be nice to you. Skiers could learn from cyclists. Everyone takes a pull. It's not cool to sit behind someone the whole way. Pull for two or three k, and then let someone else. With a pack of seven following me at one point, after I'd pulled for three k, I asked someone to take a pull. More than one guy—the only other guy to do the work—should have volunteered. I like setting the pace, but not the whole race.
  • And finally, here's how to behave around the top women (I skied most of the race with women 1, 2 and 3). First of all, if they ask you to do something simple, like let them ski together, or not let gaps form, or let them pass on a flat (you can jump right behind them—and they like to take pulls), do it. They are the ones who are borderline olympians (Carolyn, 5th in this race, probably would be in Vancouver for biathlon—she went to Torino 2006—had her gun not malfunctioned). Not you. And—and take note number 299; yes I am calling you out here (the results don't have bib numbers; er, now they do, and I know who you are, and you are younger than me, and you have a lot to learn)—if I get to the side to double pole, I am doing so in order to let Anna and/or Jojo pass me. Not you. When the guy behind you has to say "hey he's letting the girls pass, not you" take a hint. Had you taken a single pull, I might let you by. You had not.
Anyway, there's a lot in there about my race. I fell in to a sort of chase pack and, with a guy in a UNH suit, led a lot of the way. The elite women caught us around 20k but skied in the pack—which me and UNH were leading—until the halfway point. Being in a pack was very important. While the winds were generally a tail wind, the course winds around a lot, and there were a lot of points where the headwind was rather strong. We hit one section on a frozen lake/river and had a perfect tail wind, I exclaimed "this is what I'm talking about" and had a smile from ear to ear. Then there was a hill. I broke it some, UNH did some, we let the girls hang out in back, and it would have been nice for others to take a pull. We did catch a few guys, and were moving at a good, but not brutal, pace.

At 29k—or maybe a bit later; it was right after a feed—the girls took off. A few of us jumped on their tails—we'd done work for them after all. Kristina Owen jumped out to a lead and the pack didn't really follow. I skied with JoJo Winters for a while, and Anna McLoon was nearby most of the time. Kristina was gone, and for a while it was a pack of four or five of us, me, UNH, JoJo and Anna. JoJo later jumped behind a relay skier (the lead one) who was going a slightly shorter distance (oh, say, 10k) and rode him, and the pack was down to me, UNH (okay, his name is Philip) and Anna. The boys did most of the work, but Anna helped out, so, thanks.

Last year, I bonked at 52k, but this year I had goos and ate one on a long, gradual downhill (and the flats afterwards) and it went down pretty well. I'd had very minor dehydration cramps near the start, but they worked out—I felt good most of the way. There was one nasty section after a road crossing which required some double poling and fancy footwork; but with a couple experienced skiers we all took it easy—no one tried to jump anything in there.

We had to dodge some 35k skiers. Most were fine—we were going considerably faster having skied 48k in the time it took them to ski 25 (twice as fast) but a few needed a few yells of "on your left. On Your Left. ON YOUR LEFT!" before they got it. We headed through the last feed and there was a woman standing in the middle of the trail—back to the trail—taking pictures of … something. I lost it. "Get off the trail you're standing in the middle of the race!" I yelled in a very not-Minnesotan way. I was skiing with someone who, presumably, spent some time at UNH, and a woman who's in a Ph.D. program at Harvard (she went there undergrad) and my New England popped out. Come to think of it, instead of saying down the trail "I'm not an arsehole, I just get amped up sometimes" I should have said "I'm from Boston—sometimes it pops out like that." Then we told stories about stupid spectators and people who won't get out of the way.

Anyway, we caught another fellow who kind of messed with the little group. He was going slower but jumped on (nothing wrong there) but a) didn't really take pulls and b) was a chronic pole stepper-on-er. Now, everyone steps on poles. It happens, and it's not the end of the world. You take a stronger step than someone, you get to close, you nick their pole, you apologize, or if you have had your pole nicked, you say "no worries." It happens, especially in pack skiing.

I have nothing against this guy, but he stepped on my poles a couple of times. At one point he got enough of it to actually rip it off my hand (but not break it, although I may need a new grip—this will be assessed soon). He apologized, and everyone waited for me, but, come on. Nicking a pole is one thing. That's inexcusable. And a k later it happened again. There was no wind—he was too close. And I'd tired out from circling back and sprinting back to the group, so both guys beat me in the sprint up the hill (we had to circumnavigate some 35kers coming off the lake, too). Anna was back a bit. I came down Main Street (or whatever street it is) with no one to catch, and no one catching me, and didn't have to kill myself.

I grabbed snacks and gabbed some, and then got my clothes and waited for Hans, who was grabbing the van (thanks, Hans). A guy walked by (not a skier) and said "oh, so did you do the 52k?" I looked up and said, "yeah, and then tacked on an extra 6k for good measure—and so I'd get to the finish line." In any case, it was a good time. Collin and I blasted down 65, grabbed lunch at Culvers, and, while it was sunny during the whole race (thank goodness for sunglasses) it was snowing in Saint Paul.

And how did I do? Last year, I finished in 2:38, 20 minutes off of Matt Liebsch. This year, I finished in 2:35, 19 minutes off of Liebsch. So, just about the same. I was eight places back of last year, but the fields are deeper. In any case, I felt good and had fun, so what more can I ask for?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the comment on my blog (Blowing & Drifting), and for the link to your blog. This race report is great! I love the tips. If I can do Mora next year, I'll look these up and memorize them. Good luck at the Birkie!