Friday, March 29, 2024

Struggling to the Finish – A Well-Earned Sonot Slog

Post by Eric 

Sometimes finishing is winning – literally.

Even if you are left far behind by your wife.

Originally, I had higher hopes for my Sonot Kkaazoot 50-kilometer ski race. Sure, I hadn’t done enough skiing this winter, but I had done a lot of running. And running is a lot like classic skiing, right? Well, without the poling or the kicking and gliding. But, you know, kind of similar. At least, that was my reasoning.

On one of my many runs (but I usually didn't run with poles)

I hadn’t even planned on entering the 50K Sonot. I decided the 30K would be a good choice. But pressure started mounting. 

Susan Sugai, Mother SCUM, told me she was going to enter the 50K, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone at the back of the pack. The SCUM – Susan’s Class of Untrainable Men – are a ski group I remain part of despite showing up to only one or two practices a year. How could I NOT be part of a group called the SCUM? And Susan told me Bill Husby, another SCUM, would also be doing the 50K. 

And Corrine, who only classic skis, said she would be doing the 50K. Unlike me, she did a lot of skiing this winter. She even skied the Oosik 50K Classic Race in Talkeetna on March 9. But with all my run training, I was sure I could keep up with her.

Friend Amanda got this picture of Corrine during the Oosik

We had both planned to ski the 50K Birkebeiner in Wisconsin in February, but an almost complete lack of snow resulted in us cancelling the trip. They did hold the race, but as a 30K for most entrants. Three laps on a 10K loop of manmade snow. We decided we’d rather stay in Fairbanks, where the skiing was much nicer. 

But my focus was on running. I had entered to run the 26-mile version of the Chena River to Ridge in early March. I had been trying to do it for the previous three years and had to bail due to injuries or illness. And this year I actually did enough running training. 

Me at the start of the Chena River to Ridge

I kept injury and illness at bay and finally ran the CR2R 26-miler on March 2! The Sonot wasn’t until March 23, so I still had time to get in some skiing. But there were some bike rides I wanted to do, and a snowshoe race, and I accompanied a friend on a bike ride between Nikolai and McGrath. By the time the Sonot rolled around, the last real skiing I had done had been on February 4. And before that January 3. The longest ski I had done before the Sonot was 18 kilometers. Now that I write that all out, it doesn’t seem all that smart to enter the 50K, but there was all that pressure. And I’ve never been known for intelligent training, so why not go for it?! 

More of the wrong kind of training - accompanying Nikki on a bike from Nikolai to McGrath

Of course, after I signed up for the 50K, Susan told me she had decided to do the 30K. And the morning of the race, Bill said he was doing the 30K. Ah well, I still had Corrine to keep me company at the back of the pack. 

As the race started, I still was full of delusion, convinced I could convert my running training well. At first, Corrine and I skied close together along with Susan, Bill, and Dermot Cole, another SCUM, who was also skiing the 30K.

Several SCUM (and Corrine) at the start of the Sonot

With the warm temps, Corrine and I both decided to use our skin skis (classic skis with patches of traction fabric in the kick zone). I had gotten mine earlier that winter and had used them only a couple of times. But I struggled in the beginning with my kick on the uphills. Then at about 8K, I remembered that my bindings are adjustable. I stopped and – after struggling to remember how to work them – I adjusted them one more click. That helped quite a bit. 

My first ski with my new skin skis in October

But by then Corrine was long gone and Susan, Bill, and Dermot had passed me. I eventually reeled in those three and saw Corrine just ahead of me as I climbed the Tower Loop. I was reeling her in, too!

I didn’t see Corrine again until almost the end. 

But I didn’t know that at the time. I felt good and just knew I was catching up to Corrine and leaving Susan, Bill, and Dermot behind. 

But I was overheating. I was wearing only a windbreaker as an outer layer, but the temps were just too warm. I had planned on taking it off after I caught Corrine, but I couldn’t wait anymore. At around 25K, I stopped at the far end of the White Bear to take off my windbreaker and have a quick snack. 

And along came Bill and Dermot. I thought I had put a lot of distance between me and them! My confidence at catching Corrine started to waver. But I finished my snack and started chasing my SCUM compatriots again. I caught and passed them, then hoped that at some point I would come around a corner and see Corrine.

On the Sunnyside Trail, still hoping to catch Corrine

I kept that hope up for a long time. But every time I came around a corner and didn’t see Corrine, that hope got a little fainter. Finally, at 43K, as I was dropping down the last big hill at the far end of the White Bear, I saw Corrine coming up the other side. She was several K ahead of me. I cheered her on, but I also sighed. There was no way I was going to catch her. I glanced at my watch, then looked at it again when I got to the spot she had been. Fifteen minutes. Ha! No way was I going to make that up. 

But at least I had the last straw of motivation. I didn’t want to dink around on the course because of the volunteers who would be waiting around for me. I needed to push a little harder for their sake. At the next feed station I said, “Well, I guess I’m the last skier.” No, they said, there’s one or two more skiers behind you. I looked back. No one. 

I sure as heck didn’t pick up any speed after that. In fact, I finished 25 minutes behind Corrine, so I lost another 10 minutes after I had seen her last. I finished in 5 hours, 24 minutes. Corrine finished in 4:58. I did a lot of trudging and plodding at the end. Mostly I saved my energy so that I could look good for the finish. Not particularly inspiring. 

Except that I won! 

The pose of a true winner!

My age class for the 50K, that is. I was the only entrant in the 60-64-year-old Men category who started.

Sometimes all you have to do to win is to finish. I’ll take it. 

Corrine also won her age class – 65-69-year-old Women. Also, the only entrant in her category. She would like it known that there were only seven women who raced the 50K and all the other women were less than half her age. Also, that she beat one of those younger women! Her goal was to finish under five hours and she made that goal with 90 seconds to spare! She was also a minute faster than her Oosik 50K race two weeks earlier. The Oosik is basically flat while the Sonot has over 4000 feet (1220 meters) of climbing. Not sure what that means, but I guess she prefers hills.

Corrine at her Sonot finish. She says that leopard skin tights make you faster!

Corrine has reminded me that we can use our time on the Sonot to request a higher wave placement at next year’s Birkie. (We’ve tried to go unsuccessfully for the past three years.) The race has so many skiers it starts in waves with elite skiers going our first and skiers without any recent 50K race time in the last wave. If they accept our time, it looks like Corrine could start in Wave 2 and me in Wave 3 instead of both of us in Wave 6. Less people to pass, but more pressure.

Skate skiers at the Birkie (photo from the internet). Doesn't that look fun?!

But there shouldn’t be that much pressure. Not if I train intelligently. Ha!

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