FAYSTON, Vt. — This past Sunday, July 23, Kam Husain and Alex Lawson won the 2017 App Gap Challenge and set some of the fastest times on the grueling course in the process. Husain, a 19-year-old Vermont native and former Stratton Mountain School skier, set a new men’s course record of 30 minutes, 28 seconds. Lawson, a Craftsbury Nordic skier coming off her senior year at St. Johnsbury Academy, was the second-fastest woman ever on the course, winning in 26:58 and coming within 21 seconds off Corrine Malcolm’s record.
Competitive cyclists refer to the individual time trial as the race of truth. It’s just the athlete against the course and the clock, and there’s no pack to hide in. On the steeps leading up to Vermont’s Appalachian Gap, men raced 7.5 kilometers and the women raced 5 k in Fayston, near Waitsfield, Vt. Since Vermont Route 17 was left open to traffic, the race was an individual start. App Gap may be the only rollerski skiathlon in the U.S. (if there are others, email peter (at) fasterskier.com), with the flip-flopped format of skate technique followed by a transition to classic.
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“Last time I did it, I was only a J2, so I wanted to beat that,” said Husain, who will be a freshman at Dartmouth College this fall. “I’ve been working on my skate skiing, so I wanted to take my skate skiing out hard and see if I could hold it through the classic. And it worked out pretty well.”
Husain broke a seven-year-old record set by former GMVS skier David Sinclair by six seconds.
“I was definitely trying to gun for it, because I was feeling pretty good,” Husain reflected. “I’ve been really trying to work on my fitness, especially in a race like this. I’m glad my work has been paying off.”
Lawson, of Bethlehem, N.H., explained that while she was new to the race, she was familiar with the territory and terrain.
“I’ve never raced the App Gap before, but I’ve skied parts of it at a few camps that I’ve done at GMVS [Green Mountain Valley School],” she wrote in an email. “I didn’t really have too much of a plan for how to ski it, but I definitely took the skate part pretty conservatively and just tried to ski smoothly.”
Her time was the second fastest of any woman in the race’s nearly 10-year history (Malcolm set the record of 26:37 in 2012). The race started in 2007 and was held every year thereafter, except last year, according to Justin Beckwith of the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA). Beckwith started the race as a finale to his junior camps at GMVS, where he was previously a coach and nordic director. After it went on hiatus for a year in 2016, Beckwith, NENSA’s new competition director, decided to revive it.
“I think [the race] went really well and the event was a lot of fun,” Lawson wrote. “I haven’t really done many rollerski races before, but this one was a blast and certainly makes me want to do more in the future.”
The second-overall woman, Callie Young, of Newport, Vt., finished 1 minute and 31 seconds behind Lawson. She was also unfamiliar with the course, but received some advice from a friend who had done it before.
“‘ Hammer the skate leg and just walk the classic section,’ ” she recalled. “I definitely didn’t want to take that advice … but decided to go out pretty hard for the skate leg then once I transitioned just focus on good technique and smoothness for the classic section. The only thing I had to know when I was close to the top was when I got to the record time I knew I was pretty close. At that point, I was going to try to push a little harder if I had anything left.”
In retrospect, Young wished she had driven the course before the race.
The Mad River Glen ski area served as race headquarters and also the transition zone.
“My goal was to bring cross-country skiing to an alpine hill,” Beckwith said, adding that he wanted to recreate the vibe of European rollerski events like Norway’s Blink Festival. “The biggest clubs are so strong, they’re having their own time trials. Hopefully we’re creating more excitement for cross-country skiing and also rollerski races. Having this community event, it’s not just about who had the fastest time. You get together with your buddies.”
Fifty-seven starters lined up Sunday under cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 60s. Right around the start, it began raining lightly, which continued for about 25 minutes. The terrain is markedly different from the Northeast’s other major uphill-rollerski race. Whereas the Climb to the Castle, up Whiteface Mountain’s toll road outside Lake Placid, N.Y., is a steady 8-percent grade, Route 17 from the men’s start teases you with mainly easier sections below 5-percent grade.
Strava lists Route 17 to Appalachian Gap as a 5-percent grade, but that’s deceiving. As you get closer to Mad River Glen, the road pitches upward, with a 15-percent ramp right below the ski area to soften you up. Starting 2.5 k closer to Mad River, the women had maybe a kilometer of relatively easy grade before the steeps. The pavement is slow and you need to watch for cracks. There’s also the odd pothole that you wouldn’t notice while driving, but that would take you out on rollerskis.
From the exchange, there’s no relaxing, with regular grades over seven percent and several over 15 percent. The killer is a 20-percent incline right below the finish. At least the pavement is new and faster than the pavement for the skate segment.
As with any other race, being familiar with the course helps.
“I live right in the valley. I know this road,” said Elliot Ketchel, a four-time App Gap racer who won the junior men’s race in 31:18. A GMVS graduate, he’s headed to Bowdoin College this fall.
At the finish, 1,509 vertical feet above the men’s start, skiers loaded their boards and boots into a sag wagon and changed into dry shirts and sneakers for a hike down the ski trails. With perfect timing, the sun came out for the barbeque and awards.