Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Great Ski Race 2010

Last Sunday, I joined over 1,000 other enthusiastic skiers for a North Tahoe tradition: The Great Ski Race. This 30K course travels from Tahoe City to Truckee, and provides a venue for everyone from elite racers to beer-drinking party-goers. My day involved reconnecting with friends, heart-pumping hill climbing, cautious descents, and, of course, a few good crashes.

View of the starting area from wave 4

The forecast had been for cloudy skies and a chance of mixed rain and snow. Not exactly good news for a fair-weather skate-skier like me. What we got was yet another blue-bird Tahoe day. It was cold enough at the start for some fast conditions, but warmed up to make things a little mushy by the end. (I guess the key here is to ski faster and you'll get good conditions the whole way!)

Susie is ready to start!

In addition to attracting talented skiers from all over the country, this race is one of those community events where I feel like I see every local I know: neighbors, friends, co-workers, students. It makes for an enjoyable day, and helps me remember that my goal here is fun, not competition.

The race starts in six different waves. You're assigned to a wave based on your previous finishing time at this race. (If you're a first timer, you have to start in the back.) The fast kids take off first, and each wave has progressively slower skiers until you get to what they call the "party wave." I ended up in my standard wave 4 - somewhere between the real racers and the partiers.

Racers start with their skis in the groomed tracks, and when that wave starts it's double-polling only (no skating) until you get a couple hundred yards out where the tracks end. Then, it's skate like mad through the wide stretch to try to get ahead of as many people as possible before the inevitable bottle-neck that occurs almost immediately. Since I always get my butt kicked at this race I don't take it too seriously. Thus, I always find this mayhem at the start to be terribly fun!

Soup station #1, at the top of the pass

It's crazy to me that the race never really seems to thin out as much as I'd like. For the entire first 10K it seems like I'm knocking skis with people. This isn't a big deal, until you get a klutz like me tangling you up enough to cause a crash.

Aside from the glaring disadvantage that I have ghastly skating technique, this course works well for me mentally. The first 10K is all uphill, which is, of course, where I excel. I pass folks like mad all the way up. By the time I reach the top, all the hard stuff is over with, and I still get 20K of trail to enjoy.

The next 10K is downhill, and the last 10K is rolling. This, of course, is where everyone I passed on the way up kicks my spineless, fraidy-cat, I-suck-at-downhills booty. But the scenery is awesome!

Here's an extremely short clip of the trail. I had a rather tenuous grip on my camera, and knew I was risking a fall by trying to hold a camera and ski pole at the same time, so the footage is sub-par to say the least, but it gives you a little idea of the trail, anyway.

A race like this is a perfect way for me to start the season. It's a killer workout, and a huge exercise in humility. For twenty kilometers I am passed by little girls and old men alike. I was passed at about the 15K mark by a former colleague of mine who is a great skier. I couldn't figure out why she was even behind me in the first place, until I realized she was just pacing her daughter. And I'm not sure, but based on size, her daughter couldn't have been much older that eight. They beat me by 14 minutes.

View on the descent

I had a few good crashes on some of the steeper downhills, but nothing too painful. I actually couldn't help but laugh as I looked both up and down the trail to see skiers everywhere, sprawled pell-mell about the trail, those who remained upright trying to navigate the human obstacle course. Such good fun!

The finish of the race consists of a portion that I like to call "The Ice Luge." After your muscles are quivering from the exhaustion of navigating 30K, the skier is required to negotiate a series of narrow, steep, hairpin turns. If you're like me, about 500 skiers have already come through to scrape the top layers of snow off, and you're left with a scooped-out track of ice. Slowing down? Forget about it. It's so terrifying for me that I always find myself laughing through the whole thing.

Way back up there at the top is the end of the "Ice Luge" section. Notice skiers are still braking hard toward the finish line.

Once you survive that, you pop out onto the wider, downhill stretch across the finish line. This part is much easier because it's wide enough to make turns and slow down. Of course, many skiers think they're home-free and carelessly get up enough speed for an exciting crash. Spectators always have a good time at the finish of this event!

Many skiers come across the line with their feet in the air. Oops.

Thanks to Tahoe Nordic SAR for putting on another great year at The Great Race!


  1. "For twenty kilometers I am passed by little girls and old men alike."

    That's too funny. Nothing like a big mouthful of humble pie to start off the year! ;-)

    Looks like it was a beautiful day.

  2. I would TOTALLY be one of those people crossing the finish line on my rear! In fact, that's probably how much of the race would look for me, lol :) So, great job getting through it, Gretchen!!!

  3. This looks like so much fun. The crash-potential reminds me of a midnight bike race here in San Diego where wipeouts are just part of the "fun." And, wow, a blue-bird day is exactly how I'd describe that sky in your photos too.

  4. Ha ha! This looks AWESOME! how long did it take you? This is an event I'll have to watch for next year- I'm not much of a downhiller either, but I do love to skate. :) How long did it take you to finish?

  5. Michael - Yup, the humble pie is part of the beauty of this race for me. That's one of the same reasons I do triathlons. It sort of forces me to look at the whole event as "good natured fun!"

    Paige - That's sort of my whole goal at this race: to cross the finish line upright. Spectators line up because it's such good entertainment, and of course I know half of them, so there will be big smack-talking later if I fall! ;)

    Anne - Okay, I can't see how wipeouts could be fun in a bike race. You must be talking about mountain biking, right?? Still, I'm terrible downhill on the bike too (both mountain and road) for the same reason: an actual sense of mortality. Landing on snow is at least relatively soft! (It's the other skiers landing on me that I worry about!)

    Amber - That would be a blast if you wanted to join me next year. I was thinking I should just give up and join the partiers who ski in costume.
    I finished in 2:19, which is more than 10 minutes slower than my race in 2007. Conditions were good this year, so I think the difference was that I really was more cautious on the downhill. But snow-plowing is good core strength training!

  6. this was totally off my radar-- now i'm totally psyched to do this some year (even with technique probably much more ghastly than yours)

  7. Exciting and fun! But I'm too much of a klutz (and coward!) to try a race like that. I'd be one of the spectators at the finish. ;) :)

  8. ohhhhh so cool!

    I'm awful on downhills on the mountain bike...which is why it's collecting dust in my basement.