Enjoying a Sunday of Great Ski Racing
Every year before my dad races in the Tour of Anchorage, a 40-kilometer ski race in Anchorage, Alaska, I get a phone call that goes something like this …
“Emma, I’m racing in the tour of Anchorage in a week. How should I train? Should I stop drinking beer?”
I always laughed but I know my father left training for the race to the last minute due to the preference of powder days. I explained to him that there is very little you can do to train for a marathon ski race the week before, and the best thing to do is relax.
Coincidentally, the Tour of Anchorage falls on the same day as The Great Ski Race, which I was planning on racing. This year I couldn’t laugh at my dad because I found myself the week before the Great Ski Race asking myself the same questions and convincing myself it wasn’t too late to train.
Don’t get me wrong, I had been skiing a few days a week but due to lack of snow and too much snow I had not raced, done any intervals or completed the training I envisioned doing in December. I jumped into a relay race at Tahoe Donner Cross Country in a blizzard two weeks ago and did some half-hearted intervals that week. I mostly convinced myself that all the rides I did up tunnel creek this summer to the Flume Trail would pay off in the Great Race.
When I registered for the race I had to do some persuading to get into the first wave. I pleaded that I used to race in college AND I had to take photos at the finish, therefore I needed to start as early as possible.
“Okay, but if you get run over …,” the volunteer said.
“Yup,” I replied, wondering what I was getting myself into.
I made plans to give my warm-ups and camera bag to my trusty friend Gene Murrieta at the start of the race, who would meet me at the finish with the camera so I could take some photos of the finish. Although he had little experience with photography, he decided he would take some photos himself with my camera.
Although I was nervous I really was excited to ski race again after almost two years (the relay didn’t count). I ran into a lot of old friends before the race who still race and wear suits adorned with names of sponsors. I try not to let it get me down as I show up with my 5-year-old skis and race suit from high school. I also ran into a lot of old coaches and teammates and friends who do not race, and were racing for the first time. I knew I was not alone in feeling that my race preparation was inadequate. And then there were the costumes and the 70-year-old guys in neon Lycra. I felt my nerves ease as I remembered why I love going to races: The people I see.
Choosing to use the Port-a-potty before the race instead of warming up, I think most people did judging by the line. I got to the back of the first wave and really felt like I made a mistake. I only spotted a few old-timers like myself and one camelbak skier (a biker who uses skiing as cross training.) Please don’t get last or get passed by wave two and three, I thought.
The gun went off and I felt pretty relaxed knowing it would be a long race. It felt good to race again, to breathe hard in cold air. My skis felt pretty fast; I was proud having waxed them myself with what little wax I had left from my college career.
I managed to stick with the pack and gradually picked off skiers as the climb got steeper. At this point it was pretty spread out. I had one woman behind me and was trying to catch a guy in front of me when we skied past a couple of spectators who cheered. I was trying not to get too comfortable with fewer people around.
“Great job, you’re the fourth or fifth woman!” they said.
I was pretty surprised and I was hoping to place in the top 10. It made me go a little harder to get to the top of the course. I was thrilled to be in the top five but knew third place was well out of reach because there were no other women in sight.
Soon we skied passed the Great Race “cheerleaders” dressed as the characters in the Wizard of Oz. Every year they dress in costume, which they don’t reveal until race day. The couple of kilometers from the cheerleaders to the soup station seemed long, and I was in need of a feed, realizing I had only drank Pepsi that morning.
Although I don’t pride myself in skiing well on the downhill, I was still excited for 20 kilometers of downhill after the long climb. I prayed not too many people would pass me. Luckily, Per Hjamarsson, a 6-foot-5-inch, 200-plus-pound skier, was in front of me and I managed to tuck behind him most of the downhill. Another woman, Taylor Leach, who skis for XC Oregon, was behind me drafting. With about 3 kilometers to go, Leach and I passed Hjamarsson and headed to the finish.
Avoiding skiers who were crashing in front of us, we maneuvered to the final turn and steep downhill, tucking to the finish. Glad to be finished, I congratulated Leach, who finished a few seconds in front of me, with Hjamarsson a second behind. I had placed fifth among women with a time of 1:29:26.
I soon was greeted by my friend Gene, who told me the race officials really needed to see a photo he took at the finish. It was so close and fast between three skiers, no one knew who had won. Gene happened to be there, and with a stroke of photojournalism genius, captured the perfect moment at the finish, revealing, with some debate, who was first, second and third. I felt like I was in custody being escorted to the timing van and then to the Cottonwood, where race officials and racers studied the photo as I zoomed in and out.
After that was resolved I set out with my camera to take some of my own photos, none of which came out as good as the “winning shot.” But I enjoyed watching people crashing, a guy who finished the race in a Speedo, a blind skier passing people on the downhill, numerous children and seniors and friends crossing or crashing over the finish line. And then it was off to the free beer, food and party ” all reasons I love the Great Ski Race.
Emma Garrard is a photographer for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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