It starts to happen as the cold starlit night gets the first shimmer of daylight. Then it comes on full force as the horizon takes on a yellow red glow and the sun pushes over the tree edge. Elation! My body responds with a new found power. I am going to make it! I have only four more hours to ski. There are twenty hours behind me and the sun will help me time this adrenaline rush for the finish line.
Eleven long hours of night skiing are history. The uphills that grew in the dark requiring single poling are now diminished. I smile to myself confidently as I notice the clarity the ski trail takes on in the real light of day. No more fading battery headlamps to change out. No more lonely thoughts. There is now a sense of pride from skiing into the darkness and through the long night. Right now I am warm and comfortable on well-waxed skis and I am watching the sunrise. Better, I am actually skiing to greet the rising morning sun! There are ice crystals in the crisp air floating into my face and I feel powerful as I glide through them.
I know this too will change. That is one of the many lessons from 24 hour skiing. Yes, this too will change. But for now, I will enjoy the moment. This is what it is all about. The ego of racing has been subverted in the long night hours.
The 24 Hours of Telemark 2003 all started with the worry of cancellation due to no snow in most of the Midwest. Long days of Nordic speed skating in preparation gave way to a concern that it would take place on a 3 kilometer, artificial snow course. In addition there was the possibility of —25 degree F wind chill. The last two years had interesting and aesthetically pleasing 10K loops. A 3K course sounded like something for gerbils not skiers and artificial snow sounded like a Hollywood set not northern Wisconsin. Possible —25 degree F wind chill? Now that would separate Nordic skiers from Green Bay Packer fans!
Did I really want to do this? Yes! And so did another 190 racers who showed up on January 11-12, 2003 at Telemark Resort in Cable, WI. For the third 24 Hours of Telemark put on by Team Sports Events, Inc. (www.teamsportsevents.com) headed up by Kevin Eccles.
At race start the temperature was at 0 degrees F. It never go warmer then 12 degrees F. Overnight it dipped back to zero! A 3.1kilometer loop with of a mix of short steep hills and long flats exposed me to 5-12 knot winds alternately in my face and at my back. I was racing on man-made snow. The two inches of new snow that had fallen just prior to the race at least gave me the feeling of full winter in the Northwoods. Spectators cheered around the clock from many different locations on the course. In the bright sunlight rock and roll blared from the staging area under a huge Red Bull inflatable (Did I hear Johnny Cash more than once?) As night took over, bonfires burned trailside, half way tents with Christmas tree lights shimmered. Ice crystals floated from snow guns and I heard kids laughing as they tubed down a hillside lit by a smiling half-moon. On each lap I noticed the timers thumbs up, inspiring me to keep going. I took this all in along with noticing race organizers, support vehicles, and volunteers everywhere shoveling, encouraging, and passing out fluids. Add to that the speed and grace of team skiers flying by you, the tenacity of the diagonal skiers, and I realized I was smack dab in the middle of a skiing phenomenon.
Preparation and logistics are everything in a 24-hour race and a support crew is number one on the list. I was fortunate to have George Welk and his wife, Yuliya. George was trailside the entire race. I had only to ski up to him and he would pop supplements, hard candy, and energy bar chunks into my open mouth. I did not even remove my gloves to have batteries changed, receive warm drinks, or get treats. If George didn’t have it in his bulging pockets, he would sprint off and have it on the next lap. Yuliya meanwhile, had a smorgasbord of hot soup, hot mashed potatoes, turkey jerky, sliced apples, bananas, oranges, bread and cheese, pickles, olives, crackers, nuts and dried fruit ready and waiting in the room at the lodge following every four hour ski block.
My race strategy has been the same for all three years of 24 hour racing: ski four hours; take a one half hour break in a room. No sleep. Snooze, you lose! This break included a hot shower, a complete change into dry clothes, and lots of food for me, while George was present to hot air dry my Salomon ski boots, favorite mitts or gloves, and face mask. George was in charge of getting me out of the room on time and making sure I was not disoriented enough to forget my watch, race bib or timing chip. We laughed a lot when I always seemed to turn the wrong way down the halls in the lodge!
Race strategy also included not telling me where I stood in comparison to others until the last eight hours. I could not ski any faster than I was and I did not want to know if I was behind as that can be mentally discouraging. Foods like strong coffee, sugars, and sodas were saved for this last time period should I need to pick the pace up.
Wax and great advice was provided by Solda Speed Makers and TorbjornSports of Park City, Utah. (www.torbjornsport.com). The Wax Maestro himself recommended F15 blue covered with S-30, scraped while still warm. My Fischer skis ran fast on the dirty, man-made snow and noticeably faster than others on the one relatively long downhill. George waxed skis twice for me and both pairs had a fine structure. Humidity range was 50-70%; temperature range was 0-12 degrees F. I used Infinity R1ski poles (www.infinityskipoles.com) They’re the lightest ski poles I’ve ever used. 24 hours of skiing makes them worth their weight in gold.
Overall it was a demanding course with few places to stretch or rest. The snow was abrasive, cold and relatively slow. It seemed like I was often going uphill. On the wide-open flats I was dealing with the wind. Many tight corners demanded focus and agility on my feet. Clothes layering is a challenge in 0 degree F. I did a complete change of clothes five times. Five complete sets of ski clothes is a lot of clothes! I often had three layers on my arms with a vest on top. I had 2-3 layers on my legs covered with wind pants or warm ups. I wore a facemask the entire race with cold protection cream and used mittens and over boots at night. I like cold weather and still got uncomfortably cold on several occasions.
Why do a race of this caliber anyway? Multiple choice. You pick.
1. Camaraderie among team racers, across teams, from spectators, volunteers, race organizers. (I heard, ” Good job” or “looking good” at least 1,500 times)
2. Truly a unique race that is in its third year. Team Sports Events, Inc. does it right and has loads of swag!
3. Collect a commemorative hat each year.
4. Friendly atmosphere in a vibrant ski community. We are all in this together so let’s live life well.
5. Adds the element of extreme to Nordic skiing. 24 Hours is 24 Hours! I met a friend adventure racer, Anthony, who entered the solo division and had barely ever ski skated. Another guy from Madison who joined a team at the last moment really inspired me when he told me he had never skied before.
6. A hamburger, French fries, and German dark beer never tasted so good after the race especially when shared with good friends. (In my case, Denise and Doug Kruse).
7. The gamete of emotions one goes through in an abbreviated amount of time. You come to understand the lessons of a life sport like Nordic skiing, which enables you to appreciate what is really important elsewhere.
If you picked one, any one, you are a winner! And I hope to ski with you next time.
Chris Ransom, 51 is National Solo 24 Hour XC Ski Champion 2001-2003 and a member of the U.S. Masters XC Team. His latest passion is his new wife, Juli Lynch, and the sport of ice boating.