Have you ever tried to eat a chunk of banana that’s sat out in 20-degree weather? It’s a frozen, slippery blob, impossible to chew or swallow, and it tastes like crap. Plus, the feed station volunteer pulled a Kieran Jones, letting me peel it myself. Try that while you’re wearing gloves and picking up speed going downhill. But that was the quandary I was in on the last lap of Saturday’s Sugarloaf Marathon as I tried to stave off an impending bonk.
On Friday night, I worried whether I would even finish the race. Sprained at the Climb to the Castle in September, my knee had nagged me all week. On the long ride to Maine, the pain was 12 on a scale of one to 10. My wife had asked me to switch to the 25 km race, but I demurred. If I had to, I’d bail, but I wasn’t driving 500 miles to ski a half marathon.
Instead of the soggy snow and tropical temperatures of last year’s edition, it was 15 degrees at the start. The track was fast; an overnight dusting of snow didn’t slow it down.
Ninety skiers trying to funnel under the bridge at the start wasn’t gonna cut it. I’d seeded myself in the second half of the pack, so I relaxed while others jostled for position. On the other side of the pack, someone broke a pole or lost a basket. At the first little bump past the bridge, the bunch came to a halt as people at the front scooted over.
On a tricky left turn about one km into the race, a Bates skier went down in front of me, and I barely managed to avoid her and another skier who went down. Heading up the long, gradual climb to the first feed, the peloton strung itself out. There was room to move, and room to tuck on the ensuing fast descent without hitting someone. While the track was fast overall, there were sugary spots in some of the downhill corners that could throw you off balance.
The first couple of laps went well, and I skipped a couple of feeds in order to stay in touch with the people I was skiing with. Towards the middle of the second lap, I realized that my knee wasn’t bothering me. I focused on gliding long on the flats and keeping quick and light on the hills. For half the third lap, I caught a ride with two of the Bates women. Together, we reeled in Tom Simon. When they lapped a half marathon backmarker on one of the narrow, twisty bits, I got stuck behind for a moment and went off the back. A few minutes later, the 50 km leaders blew by me.
At the end of the third lap, my fast start caught up with me. The beginnings of a bonk crept up, as did stomach cramps – always an issue for me at the end of a 50 km skate race. It didn’t help that, as I went over the bridge, I saw my ride gliding away, under the bridge and 500 meters ahead of me.
In the stadium, I glommed down my last gel, and on the easy bits beyond the bridge, three guys in my age group surged past me. Oh well, it was either eat or crawl home.
After the semi disastrous banana feed, and my last gel, I caught a second wind. While I didn’t get back any of the places I lost, I finished strong, with perhaps my best 50 km time. There you have it: an old dog can learn new tricks. Skiing the 25 km race, my road bud Colin grabbed bronze in his age group, just 10 minutes behind the third place overall male. The great conditions, and seeing people I don’t see often, more than made up for the ridiculous drive. Banana feeds not withstanding. What are you doing next March? If it’s anything like Saturday, it’ll be worth the trip.