Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2013 US Ski Mountaineering National Championships Report

Nate Brown tops out on the Corbet's Ladder.  Photo: Alex Simpson.

For the second consecutive year, I joined a long list of fast lycra clad folks in Jackson for 8,000 vertical feet of racing.  This year's course was improved from last year, with more technical skinning on the first climb, a better skin track on the final climb, and the thrilling ladder ascent up Corbet's couloir.  With a strong inversion in the valley, the start was F*%$'n cold, and everyone started with abandon, gunning for warmer temperatures higher on the mountain.  The blow-by-blow went roughly like this:

The start was fast, as expected.  Resolved to prevent a blow-up early in the race, I shuffled along as fast as possible as racer after racer sprinted by.  Eventually, things settled down into a group of about 12 elite racers and a second group of about 7 including Wasatchians Chad Brackelsberg and Tom Diegel, Michael Hagan, Teauge Holmes, Canadian Brad Schalles, and a few guys I didn't know.  I topped out on the first steep groomer in about 15th place, in the middle of this second pack of racers.  I hung with Chad through the cat track and made some gains on both him, Brad and Michael Hagan on the technical skin track up Pepi's ridge.  I lost a little time at the first transition, and skied as fast as possible on the first descent, hoping to close the gap on Chad and Brad.

I took some time getting my skins on solidly and choking down calories at the beginning of the second ascent.  Then it was off through more technical skinning to the top of Tower 3 chute.  Once again, years of adverse backcountry skinning payed off, and I was able to catch or pass about four racers including Chad, who was suffering with skinny race skins.  The second descent down Tower 3 chute was fast and chalky, and I maintained position. I was able to gain more time on the steep skin track at the beginning of the third climb before sucking wind on the cat track, with Brad remaining stubbornly out of reach.  I took a few seconds to swallow a GU packet at the aid station before starting up the first bootpack.  Try as I might, I was unable to summon any pep, so I bucked down as Brad and Tom Diegel opened up a sizeable gap ahead.  A quick traversing descent down Coomb's had me transitioning once again with Chad.

I had a good transition, skiing out a few seconds before Chad.  With no end in sight, this and the previous climb are the psychological crux of the race (in my opinion).  Pushing as hard as possible, I was still fading, and Chad passed me once again at the transition to the Corbet's booter.  I stuck with him throught the ladder and had a great transition back to skinning, passing both Chad and Tom, who was having fits getting his skis of his pack.  Leah's words of encouragement helped me keep the pace up thgouth Corbet's, and I transitioned for the daunting 4,000 foot top-to-bottom screaming run in good spirits.  I was able to rely on adequate skiing skills and good leg strength on the last run, and improved my position significantly, opening a solid gap on Chad and Tom, and gaining on John Brown.  I was not able to close the gap on Brad Schalles.

I started up the final climb in good spirits - legendary Jackson racer Cary Smith was in sight, Brad was just out of reach, and John Brown, Tom, and Chad were at least 30 seconds behind.  I was able to reel Brad in, bu much to my surprise, Stano Faban came out of nowhere, burning up the track on hot pursuit.  I pushed as hard as possible, but Stano caught me at top of the last climb.  Stano got out of the final transition about 10 seconds ahead of me, and I snuck out about 10 seconds ahead of Brad.  Both of those guys can ski, so I headed down Tram line with reckless abandon, refusing to turn until I passed Stano.  Soon enough, I was tucking it down the groomer.  I kept my position, crossing the finish line in 11th place, 5 seconds ahead of Brad and 7 seconds ahead of Stano.  What a nail-biter!

I also found this video, shot by Mark Smiley.  I can be seen at 1:24 skiing pretty out of control but passing Chad, and at 1:42, topping out on the last climb.  The start of the descent is where I refused to turn until I was able to get out ahead of Stano.
Last minute skin prep.
The start.  You can't see me because I don't start fast.  Photo: Dominique Maack
The leaders at the top of Corbet's, benefiting from Jason Dorais'
strong work on the bootpack.  Photo: Dominique Maack.
Worked at the finish line.
Men's Podium.  Photo: Nate Brown
In summary, I was satisfied with the race.  I benefited from knowledge of the course, better fitness, and better equipment.  I raced smarter, starting slower, fueling more consistently, and keeping my mind focused on moving fast.  In terms of metrics, I cut 17 minutes off my time from the previous year, and improved my position by 7 places.  I also really enjoyed being in the middle of the second pack of racers, and had great fun swapping spots with Chad, Tom, Brad and Stano.

Thanks to everyone who volunteered to host the race.

The top 8 positions were amazingly tight, which is exciting.  Each of the top 8 racers finished faster than the winning time from last year, which is an indication that the sport is progressing at the top end in the US.

The women's field was thin this year.  Janelle and Jari were fast as always, but I missed having Gemma, Sari, or Amy Fulwyler come flying by as if they were out for a stroll in the park.  Also, a bunch of long-time racers were absent.  Everyone missed Chris Kroger, Brian Harder, Jared Inouye, Zahan, and Reiner's presence.  Finally, Montana racers were few and far between.

A big thumbs up to Blake Votilla, who finished a strong second in the heavy metal division.  Watch out for this guy in the future, or for that matter, on any skin track around Missoula since Blake gets out a lot and is fast.  

I was able to accomplish several specific goals from last year, specifically fuelling more efficiently and starting more slowly.  I was pleasantly surprised to find myself gaining times on the downhills, which I attribute largely to new race skis.  I am fairly content, but it is always interesting to try to faster.  Or at least maintain.  Big gains in time are becoming increasingly hard to find, but a few ideas are:

Fitness:  This is a tough one.  I am having trouble finding the desire to devote more time to race specific training.  If anything, training volume is likely to decrease as life responsibilities increase.  So, how to train smarter.  One thing that comes to mind is intervals on skis, which I haven't done because it sounds brutally painful.  Another is my surprisingly lackluster performance on the bootpacks.  I thought all the running I did would pay off, but it really didn't.  Interesting.  The only other obvious source of inspiration would be from training with like minded fast skiers.  Any Missoulians interested in some fun/painfull ski training sessions?  Blake, Ben, Josh?  Any bikers interested in getting in on the fun?  Let me know!

Racing smarter:  I am still slow at transitions, especially under the pressure of racing.  Also, I still should be able to make some time gains on cat tracks with better technique.

Tricks:  I have an unconfirmed theory that full width nylon skins and higher heel risers would speed things up for technical courses like Jackson and Bridger.

Finally, while racing is rewarding, it is engaging and interesting tours in wild places that fuel my ski aspirations.  And to that end, I am excited to continue using skis as a tool for inspired and efficient movement in the mountains.  Over the past few years, racing has introduced me to a great ski community, inspired some increased fitness, and taught me a whole host of little tricks for moving fast.  I'm excited to see where it all goes.  

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