Monday, March 1, 2010

Classic Debacle

The Great North Woods 30K was, by orders of magnitude, the most frustrating 3 hours of my short ski racing career. The GNW30 is a classic race at The Balsams in Dixville Notch NH. The Balsams is one of the few grand hotels scattered about the New England woods that still remains (The Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods is another). I've heard only great things about The Balsams, so when they announced this race (this was it's first year), I thought it would be great fun for Cacky and I and other friends to spend the night up there and enjoy 2 days in the Great North Woods.

I'm one of those people whose knowledge largely comes from books instead of experience so the thought of "getting the wax" right for a classic race has been stressful and daunting. And the forecast for the race was aweful. 32F and snowing is (apparently - remember I have no experience with this) the absolute worst conditions to figure out the wax. The wax that I am talking about is the grip wax which is in the middle part of the ski (the kick zone) and allows you to grip the snow when you push down on the ski (just like your foot grips the floor when you walk). The problem with 32F and new snow is wax either seems to not provide enough grip (or "kick") or the wax causes snow to cake onto the kick zone. This "icing" reduces glide if it is minimal or makes any glide impossible if it is severe. Indeed, waxing for these conditions are so difficult that all the pros (and more and more college skiers) have special skis called hairies or zeroes just for it. In these skis, the kick zone is not waxed but rather is roughened up so that little hairs are sticking out. These little hairs provide the grip andnd a nice coat of fluoro over them allows glide and prevents icing. All the ski companies now also make fish-scale skis for racing. Fish scales were invented so recreational skiers could dispense with the stress of waxing but at some point it was discovered that fish scales work pretty darn good at 32F. So Fischer, Atomic, and other companies make a fish scale version of their racing skis. These don't have as good of glide as hairies (so they are not as fast) but the fish scales grip over a wider temperature range than hairies.

Given the temperature/snow forecast, I sat in front of a pair of fischer Vasa Crown fishscale racing skis at the LL Bean store (with a hugely discounted price) on Friday but decided not to buy them. I also got into a discussion with snowman on Friday night about borrowing his but given how late it was I didn't really see this as an option (I would also have had to find boots that fit me). In the end, I went to BNS twice on Friday afternoon and bought all the wax I though that I would need.

I also planned on leaving Falmouth at 6:30AM to insure that I got to The Balsams by 9-9:30, which would give me plenty of time to figure out the right wax. The race started at 11AM.

Cacky and I left on time (or close - 6:40) but a combination of snow, slow roads, slow drivers (even slower than I), snow plows, oil trucks, getting the van stuck in a snowy parking lot, two bathroom stops, etc. etc. meant that we didn't get to The Balsams until about 10:20, which gave me enough time to register and wax my skis with the best guess but not to test the wax. I talked to friends and based on their recommendation I went with the Skigo HF Yellow, which is a little warmer than the recommended wax***(see update below)*** but I wanted to insure that I had good kick at the expense of a little glide. This is where my inexperience shined! I knew there would be a increased icing but I thought I could just "kick it off" like I had done at Rangeley the week before (the only other time that I experienced icing). What I didn't realize was the extent that skis could ice.

Oh. My. God. If my skis were on anything other than a glazed classic track, snow instantly caked onto my kick zone to about 2 inches thick. And there weren't many glazed classic tracks. This was northern New Hampshire and somehow they had escaped all the rain that inundated New England on Jan 25 (a date which will live in infamy). Actually there were hardly tracks. There was so much snow and wind that whatever tracks they set the night before were either obliterated by the wind or by all the skiers ahead of me (I even heard that the groomer was having a hard time grooming because the new wet snow was clumping).

So I seeded myself well back into the pack but the first 3K was a massive pile of slow skiers and I had the choice of 1) staying in the track where the icing was ever present but minimal but skiing at rediculously slow pace or 2) passing out of the track and instantly caking up my ski with 2 inches of compacted snow that was impossible to kick off. I tried both strategies and liked neither.

After about 3K I pulled over to put a "colder" wax on my kick zone in order to prevent the icing. I thought about DNFing and just hanging out and waiting for the tourers to catch up, which tourers included Cacky, neighbor John & Sarah, and friends Jed and Amy. But I decided to re-wax and see how it worked. I should add the re-waxing is a part of the sport, others had stopped before I and others continued to stop along the way. The colder wax helped with the icing but I lost my kick. And it didn't help with the waxing for long. So around the 5K point, which was the top of the long initial climb (yes it was a 5K initial climb), I stopped and re-waxed again with the colder wax. It was a good time to do this because I had a fun downhill and I could actually ski downhill instead of snowshoe downhill with iced up skis. It was also about this point that the classic tracks disappeared until about 5K or so from the end (that is about 20K without tracks). Striding without tracks is definitely a skill that I haven't acquired yet. Which really sucks because in order to keep my skis from re-icing, I needed to keep them flat on the ground and get good kick. But because I cannot stride out of the tracks well, my skis tended to rise up (that is, I was running rather than kick-and-gliding) and then they would come down and ice up. I could kick it off and get a few strides in but then I would pick up my ski soon enough and it would ice up. And invariably the icing would get so severe that I couldn't kick it off and it would accumulate into a thick dense mass that required me to take my skis off and scrape them against each other to scrape of the ice.

The next 20K of the race is pretty much a continuation of what I've described. Trying and failing to kick-and-glide on the cut up (remember it was snowing) groomed trail out of the tracks. Lots of double poling through heavy fresh snow on the flattish trails (of which there weren't too many). Lots of running up long climbs followed by taking my skis off and scraping of the caked snow. It really, really sucked.

The last 5K was a little different because most of this section did have classic tracks and the terrain was more roller coaster rather than long long climbs and descents. But the roller coasters added another twist to my strategy. When I got to the top of the climb with caked on snow, do I just run down the next hill (not much fun!) or do I take the time to scrape the ice off. Because there were tracks, I was doing a better job minimizing the icing, at least to a level where I could kick it off frantically at the top of a descent (imagine running on your wooden floor in your socks to get a good slide in but then realizing that you have rubber on the bottoms of your socks). But I failed enough times to kick the ice off that I did a lot of stopping and de-icing over these last 5K.

I was pretty sure that I was going to be DFL so I worked pretty hard over the last few K to pass some people. In the end, my final time was 3:06, good for 35th out of 49 men (ski races always separate the times of men and women, as it should be). There were probably a lot of DNFs out there, including some college racers who DNFed within the first 2-3K (I saw them walking back down the initial climb as I was walking on my skis up). Remarkably the winning time was 2:03, which is painfully slow for 30K (by comparison, the winning time in the White Mountain Classic 30K in Jackson NH last month was 1:21). But looking at the times and talking to some racers after it was apparent that everyone had icing problems. And this is where skill and experience, both of which I lack, helped. You needed the experience to know to err on the cold side (because caking is worse than lack of kick) and you needed the skill to get good kick in tough conditions and to kick the ice off when it occurs. Or you could have just said FYVM to kick waxes and skied on a pair of Fischer crown vasa fishscale skis. That's what the winner did.

***update - Zach Caldwell (Boulder Nordic Sports) has some nice notes for waxing in these conditions. Swix special red was what the friend recommended. The stated range is 0F to +1F (pretty narrow!). The Skigo Yellow HF range is -1F to +5F so I thought this would be better. Thought is the operative word as I had no time to try it.


  1. Oh man! Sounds like fun :-) Too bad it was such a slog because the skiing at the Balsams really is nice. You'll have to go back and ski there when you aren't racing in the worst conditions ever so you can actually enjoy it! Good for you for sticking it out and finishing!

  2. Great report!!! Great waxing insight for a noob like me. Congrats on a tough race. Might have to give the classics a try next winter.

  3. If the top skiers went with waxless, that's all you need to know. I don't think there's anything that would have worked.

    Mad props for toughing it out. I've raced like that before, and it just flat out sucks, but it would suck more if you dropped out. Nice work.

    Arms a bit sore? :)

  4. Hope you had a great post-race cause it sounds like you earned it!

  5. Kick waxing for 32 is a nightmare, I feel your pain. Would you go back?

    Best regards Peter

  6. Post race was great Val - see my next post (my tours of Scotland and Kentucky!). And yes Peter, I'd go back in a heartbeat if they have another stay overnight deal.