Our six-year old neighbor looked up with a furrow in her brow. C and I were unloading the car, parading multiple arm loads of gear – skis, poles, sleeping bags, coolers, glow sticks, and other essentials – past her and into our home. Our neighbor asked what we were doing and we explained that we had just spent the weekend at Kincaid, skiing for 24 hours.
“Why?” She quite possibly thought that sounded like the dumbest thing she had ever heard.
I think we gave her a George Mallory “Because it is there” kind of response, but if we’re going to be honest the only reason why we signed up for and participated in the SKAN (“Ski Kincaid All Night”) 24 hour race was because of the poster.
It is a pretty cool poster. I noted in an earlier post about the Tour of Anchorage that C won an age group medal in the Tour. A couple of weeks ago, she stopped by the NSAA office to pick up her hardware, and took the opportunity to ask if they had any extra copies of the SKAN poster lying around. “Well, would you like to meet the artist?”
I don’t know that C really wanted to meet the artist, but there is no polite way meet such a question with a “No, I just want a damn poster.” So C was brought back to meet the artist, who, as it turned out, was also half of the entire volunteer squad of two that was organizing and directing the race. C complimented her work, described how we had seen the posters from previous years and how she had always wanted a copy, and slyly asked if there were extra copies floating around looking for a home.
“Well, have you done the race?”
“Done the race? Good God no.”
“Well, if you sign up, we’ll have extra copies at the bib pick up.”
A short while later I got an e-mail at work. “Scott, we have to do the SKAN.” Um, ok.
For those unfamiliar with the 24-hour race format, such races are endurance events that ask the question, “how far can you go over the course of a day?” I don’t pretend to know the deep history of 24-hour racing, but to the best of my knowledge they rose in popularity as mountain bike events, at least in this country. I know there are some 24-hour runs that take place. And here in Anchorage, we have a 24-hour ski race. Typically a race director will set a course of some moderate distance and the participants will have 24-hours to try and do as many laps of the course as they can. Most laps wins. Pretty easy, at least until your legs fall off or you abandon the course to chase pink elephants through the dark and fall in a lake. Then things tend to get hairy.
Having decided to ski, we still had options, and could have opted for 6- or 12-hour events, either solo as part of a team. Showing an obscene lack of common sense, we signed up for the 24-hour solo category. Our preparation consisted mostly of forgetting that the race was coming up and then frantically packing ten burritos, some bananas, and a bag of energy bars and calling it good. My race strategy was simply to start skiing, eat a lot, take lots of breaks, and see if I could manage not to cry.
We pulled up to the race venue a little after 8:00 am and staked out a piece of real estate in the wax bunker, a cavernous cement monstrosity used by ski clubs for weight training and setting up wax benches. For the SKAN, it doubled as base camp. C and I stretched out our sleeping bags and wondered what we were in for. Grant, who we knew from the ANR ski program and who, albeit unbeknownst to us at the time, was about to set a new course record, set up camp next to us. We started to eat and wait for the launch. In due course the whole lot of us wandered down to the stadium, stepped into our skis, and at 10:00 am started the journey.
The start of a 24-hour race is something to behold for its lack of excitement. Off the front, skiers on teams who will get lots of rest between laps launch off the line in a jumpy wave of frantic double poling, but the soloists amble forward in no hurry to get anywhere because, let’s face it, we have all day. A photo of the start gives the lay of the land. I’m in an orange jacket way in the back. C is next to me, but mostly out of view.
Finishing the first lap, C was all smiles.
In comparison, I looked a little concerned, which in and of itself should be concerning as a close look at my watch shows that I’m only 25 minutes into a 24 hour race.
We continued to ski laps, each one characterized by big hills separated by small hills. We skied up and down the contours of Kincaid park, stopping after each lap to drink a little water, eat a little snack, and in one instance to pull over and re-wax our skis. In due course we were ravenous. Up the rise a picnic had formed. “Aha! They are serving us lunch! Fantastic,” we proclaimed, and hiked up the hill to get in line. After filling a plate with two kinds of potato salad, a flaky meat filled pie, and a cookie, we started to notice a pattern in those around us. Everyone was wearing blue jackets. Each jacket was labeled “APU,” a local ski team and training club.
“Umm, is this the APU ski team spread?” we asked while staring at the ground and kicking clumps of snow about sheepishly with our ski boots.
We learned an important lesson that day: stolen food tastes oh so sweet.
Sufficiently fortified with simple carbohydrates, I continued to ski and C went to take a longer rest. C started documenting her race with a series of self portraits. Here, after lap 4:
And here, looking similar after lap 5:
And looking hungry after lap 6:
And after lap 9:
Yes, Christie skied herself into the emergency room. We had reconnected on her 8th and 9th laps after skiing our own races following the poached APU lunch, taking breaks as needed. At 4:00 pm, the race switched from the first course to the second (we skied each course for six hours, first in one direction and then in reverse, effectively giving participants four different courses to help mitigate boredom). The second course looped about the south side of Kincaid, returning to the stadium via a long climb called Hair Pin. It was exhausting. C declared after eight laps that her body was telling her to take a longer break, but she headed out again, hoping to get ten laps in before dark. Back in the stadium, though, she was having trouble catching her breath. A likely combination of fatigue, cold air, and exertion brought on an asthma attack. Not too much later, C decided that a trip to the ER was in order.
Sometime after 7:00 and after nine hours of skiing, I packed C into the car and we made the trip across town. An ER nurse did the intake. “Have you had any exercise today?”
Does skiing 58 kilometers count? We had to explain the SKAN. “Wait, you’re skiing all night? Why? Is this for a charity or something?”
No, it isn't. Why indeed.
Sufficiently pumped full of steroids, the hospital released C back into the night. She wisely decided her race was done. But mine kept going.
I was back on the snow at 11:00 pm, some thirteen hours after the race start, with ten laps done in daylight prior to the ER visit. We were now on course three, skiing the first course backward. Headlamps were required. The long downhills I remembered from the morning had turned into long climbs, with a fun and fast descent of Elliott’s climb the reward, a trail generally only skied in the uphill direction. The narrow reach of our headlamps served to block out everything but the stretch of trail ahead. I skied the first lap of the day where I did not see a single other body on the trail. At 2:00, I plodded back to the bunker for a burrito and a nap.
Sleeping in the bunker was surreal. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Bodies over-tired, mind both exhausted and restless, unable to calm itself and unable to make sense. Shifting in and out of sleep and waking dreams. Difference being that in the bunker you were liable to close your eyes and open them to find that a new body had crawled up and fallen asleep at your feet:
Conversations would come and go, people would sleep and rise, eek out another lap. Grant’s girlfriend, who was running support for his race, would appear and cook up a mug of hot ramen and disappear back into the night. That ramen fueled Grant to 38 laps (242 km). I ultimately got up at 6:00 am, sipped some tea, and prepared to head back into the early morning, still well short of 38 laps.
It turns out that a storm had moved in. The wind was blowing a fresh inch or two of snow around the stadium, and flakes continued to fall at a steady pace. The storm would ultimately produce between 12 and 15 inches of new snow across the Anchorage bowl, but thankfully the full brunt held off until late on Sunday. We were back on the second course, tackling the hair pin turns for which the Hair Pin climb was named in reverse at alpine speeds on skinny skis. At least it felt like alpine speeds at the time.
The falling snow captured plenty of ambient light, which was a good thing as my headlamp proved to be a distraction, acting like high-beams on a car in a snow storm. With the lamp on, all I could see were individual flakes rushing forward, the trail itself lost in a continually shifting milky way of falling snow. However, with the lamp off, the new snow did as new snow does: muffled sounds, smoothed the rough edges, blanketed the trails in contemplation. It also slowed the skis, making for much more work. But the sun was starting to rise, birds awoke and sung, and spirits rose… and then fell. The trail on return skied up and over Little Niagra, a short hill always skied as a descent. Coming the other way, the hill was a vertical wall that I had to somehow surmount. One step after another, because I was reduced to steps on Little Niagra and unable to get any glide from my skis at all, I was at least grateful it was a short hill.
Back at the stadium, our race directors were cooking waffles. More people started to emerge from tents and from the bunker, putting skis back on for a final go at the race. Sometime after nine, I poled out of the stadium for the last time. Roughly 40 minutes later – appropriately the slowest lap of the race for me – I came in and crossed the finish line.
Note the 1,000 yard stare, eyes turned inward, all attention turned to forward momentum and pain management. In my mind, my form was perfect: weight transferred from side to side, perfectly aligned on a flat ski, arms powerful and well timed. In short, I looked like the male version of Marit Bjorgen:
Take a close look at the photo above and the photo below of my actual triumphant finish, and judge for yourself how well I fit my mental image:
In any case, I was soon told that I did not need to ski anymore, and I reacted appropriately:
And here are C and I are once it was all said and done:
I ultimately skied 16 laps, which amounted to 101 km (about 63 miles). Total time on skis was between 9 and 10 hours. I slept for 3 hours. The trip to the ER took about 4 hours all together. That leaves about 6 to 7 hours for eating, sitting around, and waxing skis, i.e. wasted time. Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement next year. C stuck around and stayed awake for the night, helping to cheer me on, doing what she could around the stadium to help out the race, and distributing glow-stick necklaces to those in need. We were both exhausted, and ducked out of the award ceremony early. We went to bed at 6:00 Sunday night (after struggling to stay up that late), slept a solid 12.5 hours, and would probably still be sleeping today if we had not had to get up and go to work.
A public thanks to our race directors, who appeared to do, well, basically everything, and a thanks to the race sponsors (although I would be surprised if any of the above happen upon this web page to receive their thanks). The good SKAN folks are reporting by way of summary that 137 racers, a number that includes 12 24-hour soloists, skied a total of 4,071 miles, and I am glad that C and I got to contribute to that total to the best of our ability. The race was a lot of fun, although once you figure in the ER bill (which has yet to arrive), the total costs (registration, new headlamps, food, medical care) probably make it seem ridiculous to participate on either a dollar per mile, dollar per lap, or dollar per hour basis. To make it more affordable next year, we will probably aim to either eat less or skip the ER room altogether. We’ll research it over the summer, see what makes the most sense, and report back to you.