Wilson Dippo is a sophomore on the Bowdoin College Nordic Ski Team. He raced the Equinox Ski Challenge in West Yellowstone, MT, two weekends ago, and this is his story:
I feel like my 15-year-old arthritic cat. I’m pretty sure my parents are going to need to mash some Cosequin into my dinner soon, too. As I told a friend of mine, “this isn’t the most sore/ tired that I have ever been, but a bunch of my joints have gone on strike, and they say they won’t be coming back until working conditions improve.”
Let me just say right now that this post is a novel, if you can’t be convinced to read the whole thing, the gist is: The Equinox Challenge is super-cool and the Birkie has nothing on it.
Well, let’s take a step back so I can actually tell you about the race. The night prior, I drove up to West Yellowstone from Salt Lake City with my Dad and one of my teammates from high school, Ian Anderson. We were headed for the West Yellowstone Equinox Challenge, a 24-hour ski race. The course was a 9.1K loop, until seven in the evening when it switched to a 6.4 (I think—I never actually checked). The race started at 10 in the morning. Every time that you came through the lap, you had to check to make sure that they had written down your bib number, and then you could either start again, take a break, or tag off to a teammate, if you were in the team division.
Ian and I were the only two-man team (They said beforehand that it was split into solo, two to four, and five to eight person teams, but it really became team division or solo). We flipped a coin and Ian got to start. The whole time he was gone I had my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t be the first one back, because I knew that would mean a really early bonk—especially since there was a fast team from XC Oregon doing the four-person six-hour race. Fortunately, Ian came through a minute or two back, and I was on my way. The course was brutal. It was no Saint Mikes Carnival (for any of you eastern collegiate skiers), but it had one climb in the middle of the loop that was about as hard, or a bit harder, than the last hill at Stowe.
For the first four laps we alternated, then Ian said he was going for two, so of course when my turn came I went for two as well. It was a huge mistake, but I kept doing two laps while he did one, meaning I was on for 50 minutes, off for between 25 and 30. All things told, though, I felt pretty damn good. I was flying – going a bit below threshold – but the tracks were incredibly fast. I was knocking down laps in less then 25 minutes.
My first big mistake happened around 2 in the afternoon, when a five-man team sent out a really fast guy who was drafting off me. I was pretty sick of doing all the work, so I decided to drop him. I was transitioning really well (which paid off big-time, because the loop had a ton of hills that made 180 degree turns right at the top), so at the tops of the hills I would put in a bit of a surge. Over each one I would get away, but then he would just catch back up. After putting in way too much energy I just stepped aside so he had no choice but to pass—at which point he dropped me super-hard.
I crossed 100 k at about 6:00, eight hours into the race, and I was starting to feel it. My forearms just didn’t want to grab the pole for the first five minutes of each leg, the bottoms of my feet started to feel pretty beat, as did my left knee. I didn’t have a clear sense of time for most of the race, but just a little while after 6:00 I had a huge bonk. I really wanted to eat, but didn’t want to do the actual eating – an IV would have been great. I have to give huge props to Ian who, while I was bonked, pulled off an extra leg, which actually gave me enough time to put my skis on again. Well, I went out to do two laps, ended up doing three, and when I came back inside the warming hut I was toast. There was no single thing dragging me down, but I was so low on energy, had so little leg strength left, and hardly any mental drive to keep me going. I ate a bit, Ian came back in just before ten, and we celebrated the 12 hour mark together. I ended up going back to the hotel for a couple hours of sleep, and Ian stayed in the warming hut in a sleeping bag.
Through the course of the night we each did a couple laps, but we were getting nowhere. At 8:00 Ian woke me up, saying we had two hours left to put some more k’s in. He led out with a lap, and then at 8:27 I started mine. 8:27 is important, because the entire lap I was doing the math on how fast we each had to go to get back before 10:00 (everyone had to start their last lap before 10:00 for it to count). I flew around the course in 16:30 (the shorter course, by the way), which I am fairly sure was that loop’s record. Then Ian took a leg, and I again went full speed to try and squeeze the extra six k out of the 24 hours. When I came back through the lap, though, Ian was just standing there. He was totally fried. But I had made up enough time so that our last lap only needed to be 30 minutes to beat the deadline. When I got back, he was there and totally fired up for a victory lap. We went out screaming and shouting, and we were hauling. On one of the downhills I spun around and went down backwards. We came in at 10:05, twenty-four hours and five minutes after we had left for our first lap.
In retrospect, there is a ton that I would have done differently: more varied food (i.e. something that wasn’t sugar/ carbs), slower out of the gate, longer time on thus longer time off, taking my boots off every chance that I had, etc. But regardless it was awesome. Though unofficial, we unintentionally won the 6- and 12-hour team division as well (I think), and at one point we were an entire lap, nearly 30 minutes, up on the entire field.
By the end, the four- and five- person teams had dropped us, besting our 289 k with 450 and 460 k. That is still 145 k each, most of which we did in the first 12 hours. The cocky side of me comes out, and I’ll just say that with one more teammate, I really think that we could have been competitive through the entire night—maybe have even won. So the plan for next year (assuming the Equinox lines up with spring break again) is to go back and race the thing in the solo division, unless we can find a sweet third team member.
Moral of the story?
Ski racing is awesome.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.