A Comedy of Errors (eller hvor var du da Engelski brakk staven?)
One of the great cross country tour races takes place in the heart of Vestmarka. Vestergyllen is a 40km classic which involves some demanding terrain and good all round abilities technique-wise. This was to be my first real test of the season and first, and probably easiest, seeding race for the Birkebeiner. The race has almost doubled in size since my first participation in 2010 and is approaching full capacity with a little under 1400 participants.
Double Puling (sic)
Build up to the race had been spent doing double poling intervals on skate skis with Sverre, a Marcialonga participant. Prior to the race I’d received my racing skis with a new M2 plane and was pleased with the sole. I’d been reviewing technique when I came across a rather interesting video clip from the Swedish Winter Sports Research Centre (for clip see comment field below). Although, an interesting video what particularly amused me was the Swedish pronounciation of double poling. Poling was continuously pronounced as puling which has a completely different meaning in Norwegian, implying a sausage and doughnut situation. When I shared this with the Director he yielded even more specific ski instruction as expertly documented by cycling fiend Henrik Alpers in his experiences of skiing with the Director (see http://www.henrikalpers.blogspot.com/2010/01/tenk-deg-at-du-puler-konen-din-bare-fra.html). In pedagogic fashion the Director gives the following instruction for Double puling (sic):
“Tenk deg at du puler konen din. I det du trekker pusten bare smeller du til”
Whilst for diagonal technique this is simply explained thus:
“Det er bare å fortsette å pule din kone. Men nå gjør du det fra begge sider”
On the Friday, two days before the race I discovered that my Emit tag had gone missing. A frantic panic left the house looking as though it had been ransacked and the Engelski Juniors were submitted to intense interrogation prior to the school run. With still no sign of the tag I dropped the kids off at school/nursery and hurried back home before setting out to work in order to tidy up before Mrs Engelski could see the damage. On tidying up a close inspection of the bath tub revealed a hoard of litter hidden out of sight by the panelling. I got my hand in under the bath, hoping that in the darkness that I’d reach under and feel or maybe be able to see the fluorescent Emit tag. I pulled out all the rubbish to yield no tag, but a mix of empty energy bar and restitutional snack wrappers. Engelski Junior had been at it again and had been tucking into my energy bar supplies on getting home from school. Last year he’d hidden the wrappers behind the fish tank (see earlier blog). Fortunately he hadn’t been brave enough to try out the energy gels, though as with beer it’s an acquired taste and it wouldn’t have taken long for my gel supply to deteriorate. Without a confession on the Emit tag I assumed that one of the Juniors had discovered the tag and thought that it would make a nice reflex to wear on the way to school. No doubt it had already been sold on the black market for 50 Pokemon cards. A frantic phone call to race organiser Svein Granerud and a quick relinquishing of £60 entitled me to a new tag and race start.
You Can’t Make an Omelette without Breaking Eggs
For the race I was still decidely in experimental mode. It is often useful to try out new things in smaller races when perhaps the odds are not so great. However, it is usually only advisable to vary one or at most two practices to maintain a low risk approach and avoid the possibility of things going tits up. However, I was feeling risk averse and opted to not only try out new glider and grip wax combos, but also take a risk with some new poles that I’d bought just 48h earlier. How wise this was to be was to be shown later and I was remarkably protective of the poles ensuring that they would not get any knocks whilst being transported to the race start. The previous night had been spent in the skiers equivalent of the garden shed, the “smørebod”, preparing skis. After a couple of restitutional beers I’d slept like a baby until I’d been woken up scratching at my upper body. I’d been having a nightmare and had dreamt that I’d been stood at the starting line with new team kit, but had replaced my supers (thermal underwear) with my daughters pink mohair sweater. Fortunately vigorous scratching at the irritating mohair in my sleep had caused me to wake up and abandon the race. I woke up in a sweat wondering if this qualified as a DNS or indeed a DNF. After settling down I began to wonder about the significance of the dream. Jungian psychologists please get in touch.
Famous Last Words
This year Nils Arne had chickened out and opted for a boys weekend in Austria. The hard core had now to defend honours in his absence and Rune and Gaute relived last years race in the car on the way out to Asker. How we all laughed at Gaute’s misfortune at breaking a pole after 23km. I delighted in informing the crew how I’d particularly been working on downhill technique (utfor) in preparation for some of the fast and hairy downhill turns which are par for the course, not knowing that this was to come back and bite me hard on the arse. We transferred to the bus at Asker where I proceeded to become over protective of my new poles after becoming paranoid after recounting Gaute’s pole misfortune from 2011. On the way up to Solli the bus stopped for an eternity at Bergsmarka, but fortunately we were able to make it to Solli in time. It transpired that a bus in front had collided with a skidoo, blocking the road for some time. Unsurprisingly the organisers opted to delay race start for men, and the women were allowed a hassle free race for once.
I visited the SkiGo tent for a chat and to get some final advice before the race. Spirits were high and I’d followed the advice to the letter and was commended for my skiprep work: glider LF6, HF blue, C105 + fluorkloss; grip wax 2 layers HF violet, thin layer HF red in the “tråkke” in case of blank/glassy tracks seeing as I was starting at the back of the field, and a further 2 layers of HF violet on top (keeping it simple huh!). This formulation actually proved to be quite successful during the demanding conditions. The day before the race 40cm of snow had arrived and the race organisers had had a big job in preparing the course through the night. With temperatures relatively mild (-4C) it was looking likely that the tracks would disintegrate early on in the race. At least this would afford us at the back of the field some good practice for the Birkebeiner later in the year.
Pride Comes Before a Fall
After last years starting disasters I aggressively placed my skis on row 3 of the grid. I opted to take the inside bend as I knew there would be a mad rush at the first corner already after 40m, and I was getting overly paranoid about my poles. I wanted to steer clear of the initial cuffing that occurs early on and avoid a potential mishap. Gaute had started some 20 min earlier, being a young pup. This “jaktstart” was a bonus for Rune and myself as we discussed when we would overtake him during the race. We eventually decided on a sprint prize (“spurtpris”) at the 30k mark. Rune had positioned himself on row 6 of about 20 in the middle of the field. Within 3 seconds of the start I could see out of the corner of my eye a big commotion behind and I heard a big thump as Rune bit the dust in the big kerfuffle after crossing the starting line. At least it was good to get the fall out of the way early on I thought. It took Rune 2km to catch us up. The undulating terrain on the way to Sandungen provided an interesting test, particularly due to the many winding turns and deep snow at the edges. After 2km I caught some of this deep snow on a tight bend and had a wipe out. One of my team colleagues sportingly stopped to check how I was and I embarrasingly waved him on saying that I was okay. Many of my competitors were also struggling with the conditions and it was all looking a bit like Keystone Cops on skis.
DNF (or wtf)?
A further 2km on the same situation arose again. So much for my downhill skills. This time I veered off the track into some deep snow on an embankment in what was a gentle interruption. Knee deep in snow I pulled myself up using my right pole. I lifted my left pole and was struck by a bizarre vision. I pulled at the handle and raised my left hand, yet the pole remained in the snow. It only then transpired that the pole had come apart at the cork handle. A brief panic set in and then a realisation that this was some form of cruel retribution for having laughed at Gaute’s predicament in 2011. The nightmare with the mohair jumper was probably also another vivid message. Had my nightmare ended after all with a DNF? Was my Vestergyllen nightmare only just beginning and was it also going to end in a DNF? I got to my feet and immediately realised that the pole could not be salvaged. I jammed the tip of the broken pole into my clenched fist and opted to try as best as I could to continue. After a fashion I learnt to use the remainder of the pole as best I could. However, there were now hoards of skiers from the wave behind passing me by.
I decided to man up. I wasn’t about to become a quitter. 36km with one pole would be a big challenge. My stretch goal for the race had been an unlikely 2h30min, though more realistically 2h45min was the practical goal. My goals shot to pieces I began to think of just finishing the race. I also thought that there may be a slim possibility of a pole service at the first drink station after 12km, though I had never noticed a pole service in Vestergyllens gone by. This was to keep me going over the next 8 km. We rounded Sandungen and came to Bergåsen, a 1km 10% incline demanding mainly herring bone technique. I was able to achieve the climb without too much detriment to position in the field and mood. I was starting to feel that perhaps this was doable, though tough. After Bergåsen a gentle decline takes us down to the races lowest point where the first pit stop is situated. My attempts at double poling were proving very problematic and frustrating. I would succeed for several hundred metres and then lose the pole as it flew out of my hand to be left some 5-20m behind depending on the gradient of descent. I was really starting to despair as I would have to abruptly stop my descent and go back up the hill to fetch my broken pole, as all the time another wave of skiers would tear on past. It was getting harder to hold onto the pole as my left hand began to gradually cramp up the tighter I held on. After the 5th loss and retrieval of the pole negative thoughts began to make an appearance. How could I possibly continue for another 30km like this? The air was beginning to turn blue and my left hand enter a state of paralysis. My only hope was the first pit stop. If there were no poles available a DNF would have to be contemplated. At least I’d get a ride on a skidoo.
Back in Business
On getting to the first pit stop panic set in and the curtains came down. NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! Where were the poles? All I could see were sports drinks and bananas. There was no sign for pole service and I became resigned to my fate. I’d never broken a pole before and after 19 races, my 20th was to become my first ever DNF. Crisis! I held my head in shame as a girl came over to offer me a sports drink. I thanked her and asked her if there was a pole service, knowing that this was it and that the end was about to be confirmed. She smiled at me and said that there were some poles laid out behind the drinks table. A big sense of relief washed over me as I now realised that I could continue in the race. I expected to be offered some grubby pole of uneven size and crappy handle, but was surprised to be offered good quality poles. The poles weren’t quite my size and I had the option of poles either an inch too big or too small. I ditched my good pole and went for the larger poles after briefly weighing the pros and cons. The smaller poles would probably assist double poling, but make the other techniques more challenging. For some reason I went with my gut feeling, but struggled for the rest of the race to get over the top of the poles when double poling. Still I was back in business and my mood had changed significantly. Now I was going to gun it and try to overtake as many of those that had passed me by as I’d struggled with my broken pole predicament. After 15km I glanced at the watch, 1h06min was pretty good going considering my circumstances. It was at this point that I decided that sub 3h could be a viable goal.
Rhythm & Blues
The stretch to Grønland at roughly the halfway mark involves a gradual climb of 160m over 3-4 km. I was pleased to reach Grønland and knew the trail well from here. We were about to enter the Grenader trail which also has commonalities with Vestmarkrunden. I was now in good nick, and although the poles were a little on the large side, my technique was paying off and my skis were good, with good glide and pretty good grip considering the conditions. I was really getting into a good rhythm and the km were getting eaten up at a rapid pace. I was passing a fellow participant at the rate of about 1-2 per minute and my self-esteem was continuing to rise. We scooted past Mikkelsbonn and received some cheer from day tripper spectators. I thanked them for their support and came in for pit stop number two at 24km. It was here that I noticed that the sports drink was a bizarre blue in colour. I have always been particularly sceptical of blue food or drinks, it generally not being a natural colour in the food chain. I began to have flash backs from 20 years previous of wild nights in Stirling on Blue Caracao and Diamond White. I then remembered drinking blue Star Trek beer which had been given to me as a gift from a friend who had been to Las Vegas. Panic had set in the next day after inspecting the daily abblutions to reveal a blue log. I’d been taking antibiotics at the time and thought that this was some bizarre side effect. I was about to call the doctors for advice when it suddenly hit me that Vulcan beer had been the culprit. I stayed away from things blue since then, and was sceptical to what was being offered before me. However, no other drinks appeared to be in the offing so I opted to take a chance and hope that the Vulcan energy drink would not have the same side effects.
Is there a Chiropodist in the House?
The next phase of the race gives double polers a real opportunity to make up lost ground on those still mastering the technique. I fall in to the latter category, but the undulating terrain and also ascent up Haveråsen, also part of the Grenader course, was being tackled in a most satisfactory way. I was still passing competitors at what seemed an incredible rate and was constantly in the left hand track. At the 30km mark I had used 2h16m. This gave me a good shot at going sub 3h over the last 10k, though I would still have to go some as the last 3k involve a climb over a 20% gradient. The final pit stop at 34km afforded an opportunity to top up with more Blue Curacao/Vulcan sports drink before the end game. After about 35km a brief sharp descent with good speed led to an open area. I was really gunning it at this point and there was a small sharp rise in the terrain that obliterated my view of what was to happen next. As I traversed the rise at about 30kmh I saw immediately a distinct lack of snow and a huge sheet of ice bizarrely speckled with grit. Fear set in as I realised that not only was I going to go for a big wipeout, but that I was about to go for an involuntary “steinslip” of my newly planed skis. The sheet of ice was several metres square and I skidded across the surface hitting the deck halfway into the turn, the grit ripping it’s way into my new team racing kit, left knee and ski sole. After sliding over the ice my wipeout was cushioned by deep snow and I had to take immediate evasive action to avoid the next guy behind, Mr Bliz, from flying into my back as he also bit the dust. The falls must have been incredibly spectacular. Mr Bliz had slammed his pole at full force into the ice and the tip of which lay direct centre amongst the gritty ice. I was struggling to get up and was in considerable agony, not because of the knee, but because I’d had one of those falls that all new beginners seem to have at some stage. I’d got a ski wrapped around my head and lay in the deep snow with the other ski having been rotated and turned 180 degrees causing a fiery shooting pain in my big toe. It felt as though my big toe nail was being extracted, and it took me a while to solve the puzzle of how to get out of the mess. I checked that Mr Bliz was okay on getting to my feet, then battled with gritted teeth the ensuing pain of throbbing big toe.
At 35km we hit Sandungen. My time was now 2h35min and I knew I was going to have to go some to break the 3h barrier. The next 2km were covered in exactly 10 min leaving just 15 min to master the final ascent to the finish. I was still passing other skiers and the next kilometer, though gradually uphill, was completed in 4 minutes. The gradient steepened leaving 11 min to do the last 2 km. The HF red grip wax under the violet was now kicking in and doing it’s stuff. However, the penultimate kilometer was proving to be a tough one and 8 minutes went by. With only 3 min left to complete the last kilometer I knew the game was up. I hit the finish in a time of 3h03min and was pleased that I’d overcome a number of demons to finish in a respectable time, only 3 minutes slower than the previous year. I met Rune at the finish who was beaming. He’d done well. Gaute was also happy and I began to regail my eventful race around Vestergyllen. Despite my mishaps and, looking at times like a Dane on skis, I’d come through a good test. This kind of examination will do me well with the Holmenkollen Skimaraton (sic) coming up next in a little under 3 weeks.
Torleif 2:12:55 class winner
Hans Christian 2:35:48
Tille Marie 2:53
Last place 5:24:04