Friday, March 1, 2013

Uber Pain: The 30th annual Mountain State Marathon 25k

Wow, I can't believe February is gone, and March is here tomorrow.  I've been meaning to write about this race since the end of January, but keep forgetting.

Unfortunately, I don't have pictures, so I'll keep the text short as not to bore you with a long read.

I previously wrote about XC skiing in the Morgantown, WV area, and I took it one step further on January 27th completing my first ever Mountain State XC Marathon.  I've always wanted to do it, and I've had my eye on it for the 5 years I've been in WV, but it's never worked out.  This year, I figured I had adequate fitness, the weather was supposed to be OK (although very little snow), and I didn't have anything to do.

Now, the last time I did a ski marathon I made my wife Carly promise to never, ever, EVER allow me to do another.  They're just insanely hard, I never have the fitness during that time of year, and I hated my last one so much (my ski broke 5k in to a 50k race, and I had a 101 temperature I didn't know I had until after) that I never ever wanted to do another.  So just talking Carly into allowing me to do it took a few weeks.  But eventually we decided it'd be fine- after all, thanks to the team I'm in the best shape I've ever been in.

...and then I was a little sick in the days leading up to the race, pretty stressed out about work, and totally worn out- so it really didn't look like it was going to happen.  But somehow I got my skis prepped with fresh wax and all my gear prepared.  I got about 10 hours of sleep the day before so I felt a bit better, and Carly decided the day before that she'd compete as well- but in the 10k race, not the 25k- so I decided I'd go for it.

My confusing take on the course.  The STAR is the start.  RED is from start through snow farm to first Ascent of 3 mile (to round top).  BLUE is first Descent.  GREEN is Gandalf loop/Orchard loop and 2nd Ascent.  ORANGE is final descent to finish.  So course goes red line to blue line to green line to orange line.

We got to Whitegrass, the XC ski center where the race is based, early enough to test out kick waxes (need for propulsion) and to get a good warm up in.  On arrival, I still wasn't sure which technique I was going to use- classical (traditional parrallel skiing you see most folks doing) or skate (a "skating" like motion in which your skis make a V shape).  Skating is faster, but I'm not nearly as good at it and it doesn't play to my strengths like classical does.

But, after signing up and seeing who was doing which race, I decide that the real race was going to be in the 25k skate, and that while I most certainly would win the classical race, I wanted to race against the big guns.  So I decided to test myself, and go for the skate race.

At the start, I knew I had made the right choice.  The weather was warm- too warm for my kick waxes to work I think, especially given the type of snow.  And I didn't have klister, which is another form of kick wax that is made for warm conditions.

There were only a handful of folks signed up for the race.  Probably somewhere between 20 and 30.  But there were some pretty serious folks in attendance- a former Olympian  a former Div I collegiate biathlete (XC skiing and shooting), a top ranked international orienteering skier, etc.

I wasn't feeling very sharp as I lined up, and had I known these folks were around me, I probably wouldn't have started so fast.  At the gun I took off after the leader nearly at full throttle.  I still couldn't keep up, and after only about 1k I was gased.

The course was....brutal.  You start out doing the "snow farm" which is essentially a couple of loops around a field.  Then you head out behind the center and up this trail- this horrible, hellish trail- called 3 mile.  It climbs an amazing amount interjected by 180 degree switch backs.  You finish that trail and climb further (although now not quite as insane) to a small hut, turn around and head right back down.  Once back to the center, you do a small section of narrow and hilly terrain, then back out to 3 mile and up again.

About 15 minutes in, and I was crushed.  Let me tell you, I've done a lot of different kinds of racing- running, cycling, triathlon, duathlon, adventure, etc- and I can absolutely say that XC ski racing is the most painful (I've done a couple other "marathons" both 25k and 50k).  Because you're using your whole body, your heart rate and respiration rate rise so quickly, and there just isn't enough oxygen getting to your muscles.  Plus factor in now the extra energy needed to fuel your lower AND upper body and it's no surprise that I have to be even more careful about bonking with XC ski racing- it sneaks up on me quick!  And it's just plain difficult, especially if you're not an expert in terms of technique.

Photo Courtesy of
So here I am, in 2nd place, barely moving, going up this mountain (first 3 miles is about 600 ft of elevation gain) thinking...why did I do this to myself again?  Definitely wasn't feeling it, and wasn't on my game at all- form was crap, system felt completely burnt out.  I took a honey stinger gel only 30 minutes in, and hoped for the best.

But I soldiered on, getting passed by 4 racers slipping into 6th place.  One was a woman, the ex-Olympian  so it wouldn't affect my place, but I count it none the same.

However, when I hit the turn around (about 40 minutes in) I started to feel a bit better.  And coming back down, through a combination of skill and double-polling strength (example of double polling here), I worked my way into 4th place.  I battled with a guy for a while, who had passed me on the up portion, before getting away.  I did the little loop around the center (couple miles) and headed back out for my second crack at 3 mile trail.

Us post race, thanks to Chip owner of Whitegrass

At this point, I became aware that 1 of the guys in front of me (the collegiate skier) had been racing the 10k, not the 25k, and was done (they did 1 loop of what we did).  So I was in 3rd, 2nd male at this point.  This put a little wind back in my sails, and I took the time again to slow so I could take another honey stinger and a quick drink.

Charging back up the hill, starting to hit my stride and feeling a bit more awake (but muscles torched from the strain of climbing), the guy behind me caught up to me again.  I started to push even harder, determined to make it impossible for him to pass.  Because even though he had caught me, he'd have to put in more effort to get around me since it's narrow and he wouldn't be able to use as good of form.

He stayed right in my draft and we ascended the mountain again.  I knew if I could make it to the top in front, I had 2nd place in a lock (spoiler: he did too, which is one of the reasons he didn't try to pass me because he knew he'd just get right in front and I'd blow by on the way down, he told me after).  So at the top where it starts to level a little more I put in a doubled effort and pulled away.

From there it was just holding it together and not biffing (a technical term) on the downhill switchbacks.  I caught carly on the last little section before the finish, which made her mad and put some fire in her race helping her secure a 2nd place finish in the womens classical 10k!  YAHOO!

Photo Courtesy of

I crossed the line totally spent and so happy it was over.  2nd place male, 3rd overall.  1 hour 56 minutes was my time, which I was happy with, since I thought 2 hours would be a tough goal- that ant it was my fastest 25k despite the terrain (granted I've only done 1 other).  I was very very glad it wasn't a 50k- no way I would have made it.  Here's the Strava link- hopefully it works

Carly and I hung around for the awards, I got a really nice waxing brush and she got a awesome wool buff, and then headed to hellbender burrito for a delicious (GIANT) burrito and guac with chips, and then drove the 2 hours home.

Glad I did it, but glad I've got some time to forget how much that hurt before the next one too...

Hope to get a report up from my experiences at Southern Cross.  Look forward to that...