Ski-Mountaineering’s Power of Four Race Training, Week 3: Gutting Out Progress

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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 his training here in weekly articles. Check out his posts for week one (on why this race matters) and week two (where he learns to cooperate). 

Racing, as any endurance athlete — or in my case, aspiring endurance athlete — knows, is an unglamorous affair, replete with discomfort. Dealing with preparation and race logistics and coping with barely controlled bodily fluids is often far more common than time spent on the podium, the latter being a joy I have yet to experience in ski-mo racing.

Tonight for me was no different: As I write, it’s late Wednesday, and I’m not quite out of the weeds yet, but signs are positive.

I don’t know if I was battling a bug or if I ate something bad, but my stomach was in a gnarly condition earlier today as I headed out to Eldora Mountain Resort for the second night of the annual Nighthawks race series, which now includes ski-mo. My intestinal state of affairs had me debating bagging the race altogether. 

The race was to start at 6:00 p.m., and I rolled in, clutching my gut, at 5:42. I hustled to pick up my bib and made a detour to the lodge restroom, then ran back to my car to grab skins, skis, and poles. As I fumbled with my gear at the parking lot’s edge, I heard our local race organizer, Joe Risi, who also runs the Colorado statewide COSMIC series, start the race over the PA system. My heart sank as I watched the throng begin ascending the first climb while I stuffed boots into bindings and stumbled toward the start line.

Soon, however, I realized I had an hour of racing ahead and nobody pressuring me from behind; a burgeoning confidence grew, knowing I had a few weeks of training under my belt. This short race would be the perfect first test of my fitness. After all, the program Coach Connie at the Alpine Training Center designed has focused specifically on building aerobic fitness and strength, exactly what I would need tonight. (So far, a typical week of training consists of five hours of cardio, one hour-ish long interval workout done either on skis or in running shoes, and three home-gym sessions involving lots of weighted step-ups, squats, jump-roping, and running.) And I actually did a cross-training gym session earlier in the day — the fact that I still seemed to have ample gas in my legs and lungs just a few hours after meant that the fitness investment had already started to pay off.

My heart rate elevated, my breathing settled into a regular rhythm, and I pushed my skis upward, through my headlamp’s light, into the falling dusk. I caught the pack’s tail at the top of the first climb, and my mood continued to improve as I began to pass a few racers, working my way up through the ribbon of bobbing headlamps.

At the first downhill transition zone at Eldora’s summit, I joined a group rushing to switch into downhill mode and I remembered the mantra I’d learned a few years back from experienced ski-mo racer Sari Anderson: boot, binding, ski. Lock your boots and then your bindings into ski mode, then rip off and fold your skins and stuff them into your pocket. The transition is a chance for folks like me, who may be slower than average on the uphill portion, to make up time if they transition efficiently. The descent offers another time-saver, where confident downhill skiers can speed past aerobically gifted racers inclined to making careful, tentative turns. I love these downhill segments because of the thrill and the relative rest they provide, though I noticed it’s difficult to actually see your fellow racers until they enter your headlamp’s light, a potentially dangerous situation when you’re maching downhill.

Racing off the back as I was, I had no idea of the route during the second ascent, which was actually kind of nice, as it forced me to remain in the moment and focus on my breathing and strides. There was a point when I began to run out of gas, which I attributed to my gastrointestinal challenges and the need for a few more hard interval workouts. But soon I was back at the downhill transition zone again and headed into the final descent. Blazing into the finish and shouting my number was a rush. (Above is a Suunto-generated video of what my race looked like)

Afterward, we all retreated to the nearby bar to celebrate alongside the alpine and cross-country racers. Race organizers truncated the evening on account of the slick conditions down in town, so we nursed our beers, high-fived, and then hit the road, back to our own routines.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to stop at any relief stations on the way home, and the mountain driving wasn’t bad until I attempted to turn onto my own street, slid past my intended parabola, and bowled over the metal Fire Lane sign. It was too dark to assess the damage, so I’ll look in the morning.

Despite the evening’s challenges, I’d call this test race a success. I felt decently strong, and wasn’t shattered afterward. I’ll need that and more for the Power of Four.