The essence of cross-country skiing is waxing. You may imagine a skier gliding quietly through snow covered trees. What a simple, serene pastime! Well, I promise you, this will never happen unless you have first applied The Right Wax.
On Friday night, I found myself in the waxing shed at Vibeke's work (that's how we roll in Norway, people!). I had signed up for the 55km Holmenkollmarsjen ski race the following day. I signed up last week, when I had skied silky, crisp, blue-extra conditions all week. I imagined myself serenely gliding 55km. Easy!
Then the weather turned. It got warmer, and the waxing conditions became absolutely devilish. It was going to be around 0 C, right at the melting point of snow. But would it be a little above or a little below? This would make the difference between icy, hard snow and wet slushy snow. And not matter how many weather forecasts you read, the reality was that the race contains over 1000 meters of climbing, and so the conditions would likely shift during the race.
And that is why, on Friday night, I was in a waxing shed, surrounded by tall, skinny men with power tools. They were frantically brushing their skis with brushes attached to drills drills, pouring small amounts of ominous-looking white powders onto their skis, and irons in layer after layer of wax. I was overwhelmed. I had LF8 glider - at least there was fluoro in that!
In the end I followed Vibeke's advice, which she gained from her friend David. I wax with a base layer of blue extra, followed by three coats of borrowed Skigo LF orange, which has a larger temperature range than the Swix waxes I had. I had given my skis the best wax job I could, and now all I could do was cross my fingers.
The next morning, I got up before the sun, filled a backpack with all manner of food and warm clothing, and left to catch a bus to the start. At the start in Sørkedal, thousands of people milled around, standing in port-a-potty lines, rewaxing skis and warming up. I met Vibeke, and asked if she had tested our wax job. "Yes, it's really slippery," she said, "But don't rewax, it will get better after the first climb." I tested my wax, and it was really slippery. But I didn't trust my own judgement enough to rewax. So I stripped off my down jacket, and lined up for my group's 9:05 start.
|My view before the start|
I was somehow earlier than most of my group to the starting line, and thus ended up towards the front of the pack when the start gun went off. This was a mistake; I was getting passed left and right for the first few kilometers. "I'm in the wrong group somehow," I thought. "Everyone here is way faster than me."
Not only that, but I had absolutely no kick. My skis slide around like skate skis, and all I could do was use my arms to pole - everywhere. Let me tell you, arm strength is not my strong point. You might be able to guess this based on the fact that I spend most of my time biking and/or running. So basically, the first few kilometers were awful. I was miserable, moving slowly, and couldn't imagine how I could ski another 50 km hanging on to the tracks with my arms alone. I started chatting to a skiers next to me, and we both agreed the kick was terrible.
"But there's a wax station in a few km," he mentioned amiably. My heart jumped. I had forgotten there would be wax stations! I resolved to pole to the wax station, and if I didn't get good kick there, I would quit.
At the wax station, it became clear that I wasn't the only one with kick issues. Everyone had their skis off, and the two poor technicians from Swix were yelling "VR62! VR70!" and throwing tubes of wax around. After a couple of minutes of chaos, I managed to get my paws on the aforementioned VR70 and apply it to my skis.
"Thank you so much!" I guessed, "I had no kick before!"
"Yes, everyone's been having trouble," the wax technician said, "Even some of the skiers in group 1 (the elites) stopped for our help."
|I present: the wax that saved my race|
I left the wax station with a little flame of hope. As I headed uphill for the biggest climb of the day, the flame grew. I could do this; I had kick and could use the legs muscles all the hours running and biking have grown.
A wave of people worked their way up the big climb. Some in tight Lycra suits, some in regular ski suits like me. I wonder if I would go faster if I were wearing neon coloured Lycra? I mused. I passed someone wearing turquoise Lycra with a large fish design on one leg. Maybe not. A girl my age passed me wearing red Lycra with yellow diamonds. Ok, maybe I would.
On the way up the hill, the day turned from cloudy to perfect sun. The hill starts to top out at a dam, the landscape opening out of the narrow fur forest to a rolling plateau of lakes. A layer of mist lay curled up on top of the lake near the dam, and behind the dam tall, dark trees glittered in the sunlight. I didn't dare stop my flow of movement to take a picture, but mentally snapped photos and smiled.
Every 5 kilometers, there was a sign giving the distance to the finish. In between each sign, I would imagine how it would feel to reach the next sign. Imaging when I get to 35 km to the finish, I thought, Then I've really started to cover some distance!
Sometimes I would try to match someone's tempo, but this proved to be difficult. I was bad at the fast, slightly downhill sections that needed to be double poled, but faster on the uphills and good at the steeper downhills that just required tucking. It appears that many cross-country skiers are afraid of downhills, and therefore instead of tucking, they wave their arms around and snow plow and take up the whole trail. Protip: don't do that.
Every 5-10 km there was an aid station, were I would take one cookie, a piece of banana, and some juice or sports drink. I was really scared of bonking, because I started to feel hungry after only about 10 km. This proved to be just enough to keep me going.
The longest 10 km of the race were between 30 km left and 20 km left. Psychologically, you're only around half way, and physically, you're just starting to fatigue. I would think This is such a stupid race. You're not in shape for it, and you aren't even enjoying yourself. But somewhere in the far back of my head was another voice that said You know you always get a little tired, and then it passes. Ignore the tired, keep skiing, and you'll feel better soon. Luckily, the second voice was right, and I received a shock of exercise-induced endorphins that had me grinning as I panted up hills again.
Unluckily, as the race course begin to descend, the snow warmed up, and I lost all kick again. Right before this happened, I passed through the last wax station. I thought about doing a touch up, and then I thought, Nah, I'm find! Five minutes later, I passed about 50 people rewaxing next to the trail. Then I though, Oh shit.
I considered my options. A: Turn around and ski back to the wax station, rewax there. B: Ask another competitor to borrow wax. C: Double pole it out. Being that there was "only" 10 km left, and I knew a fair amount of it was downhill, I went for C. Poling was mostly fine, except for the hills that were too steep to pole but not steep enough to herringbone. I felt like I was moving painfully slow, but people around me were moving at the same speed.
|I think I'm yelling "I have no kick!" as this picture is being taken|
The race descended out of the sun and into a fog that grew thicker and thicker. After the 5 km left sign, the fog was so thick you had to squint to see the trail 10 meters in front of you. The trail went up and down and I kept praying for it to just go downhill for once! On the last hill, climbing up to the 1 km left arch, I saw Vibeke with a camera. I was herringboning, so so slowly, and she could actually run faster than I was going uphill. It was kind of funny.
Then I slide down the last hill, and poled the last few hundred meters to the finish and it was all over. And all pain was forgotten, and the whole thing had just been great fun. Finishing time 5:08.
|At the finish at Holmenkollen. Important to show off your skis to keep your sponsors happy.|
Todo before next time:
1. Purchase Lycra suit.
2. Build more muscles to double pole with.
- The Wild Bazilchuk