If you are thinking that it is a little early for the Climb to the Castle rollerski race you would be right. The annual five-mile grind to the top of Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, New York, hosted by the New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) has historically been held in October.
The race is timed to coincide with the US Ski Team’s (USST) fall training camp and that two week block was shifted to early September this year. And so 90-odd hearty skiers will toe the line at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning, marking the last weekend of the USST camp, and providing an opportunity for some of the country’s top skiers to get an early-season test of fitness.
With a course that climbs steadily up to an elevation of 4,867 feet, challenging weather has become a staple of the mid-autumn event. The earlier start date has not made much difference here. With overnight lows forecasted at 24F, conditions will be good preparation for the winter season – though cold is certainly preferable to the brutal winds that buffeted skiers in last year’s edition, the head-on gale bringing some athletes to a virtual stop on the homestretch.
“There’s usually some sort of environmental challenge,” USST Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier. “But that’s all right— it’s part of the allure.”
Grover sees value in the event on several different levels. It is obviously a good hard effort on a challenging course, and also builds camaraderie— according to Grover athletes spend the week leading up to the race teasing each other and making low-key side bets.
The challenge is relevant beyond the five miles of blacktop, however. With hill climbs now a staple on the elite race scene, the Climb is an excellent practice run. There is also value from the technique perspective. Grover points out that extended V1 practice on rollerskis is rare, as athletes usually have to ski down what they ski up.
“We get a lot of V1 footage and the athletes can really play around with their V1 efficiency as well as steep uphill V2 efficiency,” Grover said. “They can ski behind somebody that is potentially skiing a little bit faster than them, they can match their tempo, match their energy output, and figure out where that athlete is getting an advantage on them.”
2010 champions, Kris Freeman (USST) and Laura Spector (USBA) will both be present to defend their titles. Freeman will again be challenged by 2010 runner-up Noah Hoffman (USST) as well as Tad Elliott (USST), while Spector will be up against Liz Stephen (USST) and Ida Sargent (USST).
The past two years, the US Noridc Combined Team presented a challenge for the cross-country stars, but the schedule change made the showdown impossible this time around. But the NoCo skiers have been replaced by their biathlon National Team brethren.
Have you ever wondered who would win a head-to-head matchup between Freeman and Tim Burke? On Saturday we will know. In addition to Burke, who is certainly a contender for the top spot, Olympian Lowell Bailey and USBA teammates Wynn Roberts and Russell Currier will also be competing in the men’s event and Susan Dunklee joins Spector representing the women, among others.
The biathletes and cross-country skiers have already collaborated on two intensity workouts— uphill level four skating intervals and a hill bounding session on Whiteface.
Grover describes teaming up with the biathlon squad as similar to joint training camps with the Canadian National XC Team, saying that “it just raises the standard of these camps,” and provides a good measuring stick for gauging fitness.
In addition to the cross-country and biathlon teams, there are a number of other top skiers. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project is led by Tim Reynolds and Clare Egan, and Sylvan Ellefson of Team Homegrown will be gunning for the top-5.
On the collegiate side Middlebury is well represented in both the men’s and women’s race, while Dartmouth starts four strong women in Annie Hart, Isabel and Sophie Caldwell, and Megan Killigrew.
Nakkertok Nordic brings a large group from north of the border adding an international flavor, and Skibec’s Stephanie and Caroline Drolet represent Quebec.
The Peru Nordic Masters once again make an appearance, boasting a robust over-40 squad, and will certainly be in contention for most enthusiastic.
The race marks the last hard effort in the USST’s two-week intensity camp. After a session in the weight room on Saturday afternoon, and an over distance rollerski on Sunday morning, the team will disperse until next month’s camp in Park City.
Who will win in 2011?
Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.