Last weekend a crew of Jackson skimo racers descended upon Bozeman for the annual Bridger Bowl Skin to Win Randonee Rally. This is one of the country's longest running events and is typically a fun and well-organized race. This year was no different although the weather conspired to make the day more trying than previous editions.
At least 6 athletes from Jackson made the drive to Bozeman. Snow conditions on the course were nearly ideal if not a little leaner than in previous years. But what really set this year apart was the savage storm that descended upon the ski area half way through the race. The race started under broken, leaden skies with calm winds and ideal temps. Snow was promised but my initial impression was… meh! But after cresting the ridge on the first climb and traversing over to the first steep descent, it was clear that change was looming.
A few flakes greeted us at the top of the first climb and then wind, blowing snow and, eventually, full, desperate white-out conditions capped the day's festivities. Some racers were pushed to their breaking points, testing resolve and the will to simply gut out freezing fingers, horrible visibility and challenging skiing down to the finish.
The Pro race started out tamely enough. The top end of the field was missing some of the usual suspects so the pace was slightly slower off the line. This was evidenced by what Nate Brown and I like to call the "B-Teamers" at the head of affairs for the first five to ten minutes of groomer skinning. I was happy to take the lead but wondered how badly I would pay for my enthusiasm later. Fun tickets were being cashed in here but I figured, what the hell. How often do I get to charge at the head of a race? Still, it didn't keep Nate and I from asking…out loud…"what the hell are we doing up here?"
The "A Team" players, Travis Scheefer, Ben Parsons and Chris Kroger eventually took control and Nate and I settled in behind, gradually letting them gain a little under a minute by the top of the first climb. Notable was being passed early on by visiting Catalonian skimo star, Gemma Arrows, on her way to reeling in the boys and "chicking" Nate and I in the process. Awesome.
Unfortunately for Gemma, her descending skills still lag behind her formidable climbing prowess and Nate, Brian Story and I all caught and passed her on the first descent. She would go on to have a frustrating day battling unfamiliarly steep American skin tracks and multiple skin failures, eventually pulling out when the weather turned impressively grim.
Meanwhile, Jackson local female skimo studs, Amy Fulwyler, Kim Young and Kathleen Crowley had their own battle going on behind Gemma, eventually overtaking her and all finishing in good style. In the mix for the women was Bozeman's own Nikki Kimball sharing the burden of route finding and lending emotional support through the white out with Amy Fulwyler. Kim Young was eventually overtaken on the final ridge traverse by Crowley resulting in the finishing order of Fulwyler, Kimball, Crowley and Young.
The men's race was less straight forward with a number of misfortunes befalling the leaders as Nate, Brian and I slowly brought them back in the driving tempest. Chris Kroger was the first to fall victim to failing skins. Next up was Ben Parsons and his broken-binding woes ending his day. Last on the menu was Travis Scheefer, a normally dominant winner of multiple races being brought down by bad skins and lack of goggles. He powered through in typical fashion, however, and salvaged third place for his persistence.
At the front, Nate and I, once again, found ourselves at the head of affairs and suddenly the win was within reach for both of us. It caught me off guard and I seemed to lack the necessary aggression to take it home. Nate, on the other hand, was having no such problem. I led the last climb to the ridge but when I paused to pull my hood on in the driving snow, Nate thrust his sword in to the hilt and quickly disappeared into the white leaving me "bleeding" to chase his fleeting silhouette.
I was occasionally gripped with the sensation that I could ski off the unseen cornice to my left as I navigated the endless up and down of wind drift after wind drift. Travis joined me for a short stint until his skinless skis proved his undoing. Crashes were frequent in the ridiculous conditions.
I finally brought Nate back before the final rocky climb to the last skins-off transition. We battled in the wind on the rocky trail, gripping our skis I was stumbled to the top. Nate left first. With my goggles half full of snow, I couldn't decide if I was better off with them on or off. I alternated every few hundred feet. With them taped to my helmet, typical in these races, I could not take them off to fully clear them. The snow was mostly untracked making us unsure of whether we were on course. All I knew was that there was a cliff band below that we traversed above to the left.
Suddenly, out of the mist, was the drop off. Shit. I missed the cut off and figured my race was over. In a panic, I even considered sliding down one of the narrow gullies that transected the cliff. Stupid idea. Luckily, I glanced upward and noticed a boundary marker and a single ski cut across. I quickly side stepped the 50 feet upward and back on course. I had no idea if I had been passed during my flailing.
The final ski down was uneventful. As I turned the corner to the finish line and the last 100 meter skate, I only saw one set of tracks and realized that Nate and I had gone one-two. Let's here it for the B Team. Travis toughed it out, nearly blind without eye protection, for third and Brian Story rounded out the top 4. There were a few abandonments but, incredibly, no one was hurt or lost. Nice job by everyone.
This was my second race testing a new product from Gu Energy Labs, Roctane Ultra Endurance drink mix. It's a more concentrated mix from a carbohydrate standpoint with 240 calories in a large water bottle. It also contains some performance-oriented ingredients that set it apart from other products. My favorite aspect, besides the fact that it's tasty, is that it does not taste any more concentrated than standard Gu Brew. It goes down easy. A bottle of Roctane drink mix and a flask of Roctane gels and I'm amply powered to the finish. - Brian