Writer and former Skiing Magazine editor-in-chief Sam Bass is competing in the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race in Aspen, Colorado, on February 25. He’ll be documenting the next five weeks of training here in weekly articles.
“Use each other to motivate and go faster — you should be lying on the ground cursing me at the top of this lap. You’re welcome.” So read the most disquieting part of the email my partner and I received last Sunday from Coach Connie of The Alpine Training Center, prescribing week two’s ski interval workout. I could feel my alveoli sizzling as I read its details.
As I tried to picture how and when I’d fit this un-pleasantry into my week, anxieties hit me like icy snowballs that leave marks: I’m hopelessly slow. I’m over-the-hill. I’m a never-has-been who is vainly trying to construct the outward appearance of athletic skill. And no matter how hard I work, my race partner, Eric Henderson (aka Hende), is faster off the couch than I can ever hope to be.
It’s the partner thing that’s on my mind today. For safety reasons, many of the world’s longer ski-mo races require that you race with a partner. In the big European stage races like the Pierra Menta, Mezzalama, and Patrouille des Glaciers, which draw thousands of fans, teams of ski-mountaineers use rope skills to traverse technical mountain terrain.
In the same spirit, longer American races — like our impending 24-mile Power of Four — also require partners, and it helps to pair with someone you know and trust and who complements your weaknesses.
Remember that guy you knew growing up who was good at every sport? That’s Hende. Physically, he’s scrappy and efficient and naturally runs at a high RPM. (As I write this, I recall my ninth-grade humanities teacher, who used me as the example when defining to the class the word “phlegmatic.”) Hende has all of these qualities, along with being unfailingly optimistic, despite having sustained a near-fatal neck injury while working as a heli-ski guide in Alaska in 2009.
Alaska was where I first met Hende, in 2005 while I was working at Skiing Magazine, and I’d often see him at trade shows and around the mountains in his capacity as a marketer for gear manufacturer Dynafit and other outdoor brands. He took a chance on me in 2014, when we partnered for the Grand Traverse race, which starts at midnight in Crested Butte, Colorado, and finishes, when it runs as intended, 40 remote backcountry miles to the north in Aspen.
Our race was not without pitfalls. Halfway through we were turned back due to avalanche danger, which added a couple more miles and a few more thousand vertical feet to the standard route (not to mention the distaste of having to do an out-and-back rather than a point-to-point).
I also made the mistake of wearing thin, lobster-claw Nordic mitts, which left my fingers frozen and unworkable by 2 a.m. Hende donated his mitts and saved my night. And when I went over my tips and tomahawked down the upper section of the first big descent at 3 a.m., trebucheting my headlamp yards downslope, he retrieved it and slammed it back onto my head, yelling at me like my spittle-spraying high-school O-line coach used to do. The adrenaline gave me a new lease on the race, sent blood to my extremities, and pushed me through to the finish.
I should also tell you about the towrope. It’s actually a misnomer, as it’s not so much a real tow but a gentle physical reminder for the rear guard to keep up and the front man to not run ahead. Both partners wear light climbing harnesses and stay connected via a 10-foot shock-absorbing bungee cord. You deploy it only when one partner starts to drag and staying together becomes imperative. Hende definitely towed me more than I towed him. It’s a memory not lost on me as we prepare for a more equitable experience in the 2017 Power of Four.
I like to think that what I bring to our partnership is concrete reliability. I know that he knows that while I might not be fast, I can go forever — I will never stop. I had put five months of heavy leg-strength training in at The Alpine Training Center before the Grand Traverse and nowhere during the race did I feel like my gams would quit on me. He reminded me of that reliability attribute this Tuesday, when we actually did Coach Connie’s interval workout.
She told us to ski one lap up Eldora, our local ski area, at a relaxed, conversational pace, followed by another lap faster than our best time. We did it: 29 minutes for lap one and 22 minutes for lap two. Hende’s engine sparked and I aped his long strides, and we pushed to the top, cheering for one another between gasps. We didn’t outwardly curse Coach at the top, but we sure felt like it.
The Power of Four will be different. I haven’t put the leg time in that I did for the Grand Traverse. When I did the Po4 race back in 2014 it was without thoughtful, systematic preparation, and I was dragging the whole 24 miles. I may have started late this year — we began our regimen 48 days out — but with Coach Connie’s crash course, I feel optimistic. Actually, make that unfailingly optimistic.