It’s 2pm. I’m sitting in the hotel ballroom for the pre-race meeting next to Allen Hadley. Allen’s completed the Grand Traverse (GT) every single year since its inception in 1998.
The crowd of 400 racers erupts in a loud cheer when the race directors announce that conditions are favorable for a full traverse from Crested Butte to Aspen.
Allen, cries out “Yeeeeeah!!!” fist pumping in the air. This will be his 19th year and his excitement does not seem to have waned in the slightest.
The race starts at midnight, so skiers still have a number of hours to eat, rest, or in my case, pack and repack gear obsessively rethinking every detail. It feels like I have been packing my race bag continuously for the past 3 days but, still find something to readjust to occupy the rest of the afternoon.
Initially, I had planned to race with Tony, but he unfortunately injured his knee a couple days prior. My friend Jason Killgore who was also racing got into a small avalanche whacking his leg on a tree causing him to also have to pull out from the race. His partner David Glennon and I decided to team up, as the “TKill Memorial team” and put up the good fight for the fallen brethren. David’s a great runner and a skilled skier, so I knew he would be a great partner and help keep me on point.
The GT is not an easy race logistically. However, David is extremely well organized. We’d be traveling with a fine crew of Boulder folks, in a rented minivan with a driver (thanks Kevin!), and staying at the Crested Butte hostel (a lot better than sleeping in the truck!).
For dinner, we opt for sushi. I find a rice, avocado, and salmon roll to be the perfect pre-race food. Somehow I misread the menu and order sashimi – a $16 thimble sized piece of raw fish wrapped in cabbage. Not quite the optimal fuel for a 40 mile race, so we fill up on microwave bean burritos at the hostel.
At 9pm, we begin to hear rumors about the traverse being changed to a reverse because of excessive snowfall, meaning that we wouldn’t ski to Aspen, but instead stay on the Crested Butte side. The course would be close to the same length and elevation, but wouldn’t have the aesthetic appeal of traveling point to point. Shortly thereafter, the news is confirmed to our great disappointment. Spending the night skiing around in the foothills just sounds a lot less exciting. While we understand the safety concerns, neither David nor I get our motivation back up until about 3 minutes before the start standing on the line. Then, the electric atmosphere just takes over, disappointment dissolves, and we are ready to ski.
The race starts off at a reasonable pace up a blue run under a clear sky. With a wave of 400 headlamps and a near full moon illuminating the snow it does not feel like midnight.
Ski racing starts are always a bit chaotic with planks and poles click clacking all around. I keep my eye on David as we jockey into position in the lead pack of about 5 teams. David surges around a few teams, yelling at me to follow, so we get into the skin track behind the leaders. It is more efficient to skin in a track even on a groomer. Our initial goal is to open up a little gap on the bulk of the field to avoid the congestion at the top of the first climb for the transition. We arrive there in 3rd place, rip our skins, and begin skating the one mile or so of rolling groomed road before the descent.
Skating is very physical and neither David nor I have practiced much this year, so we maintain a steady effort without forcing the pace.
We’re passed by several teams here, including Brent Knight (an ex-pro nordic skier) who cruises by effortlessly declaring “I love nordic skiing!” I can barely answer him gasping for air while flailing up a small rise. The descent down into the valley is short and sweet. Skiing at night is fun and I focus on staying relaxed, letting my legs absorb invisible bumps and inconsistencies in the snow.
The wide groomed trail bottlenecks into a very short bootpack. David and I had planned on putting on our skins just before this point while still on the groomer. This proves to be a good move. A half-dozen teams pass us up the bootpack, but we immediately repass them when they stop to put their skins on in a more awkward spot on the hill side.
The skin track now stretches far out ahead of us over rolling hills. We can see the 3 lead teams a few minutes or so in front of us. The glide is incredible on a layer of light, fluffy snow. I am really enjoying myself and push the pace a little with David right behind me. We negotiate a few bumbly sections over creeks and spots with minimal snow mainly trying to avoid scraping our skis or catching them on protruding brush.
Once the trail improves, we begin a 7 mile, gradual climb up to the turn around just past the Friends hut. David clips into the tow rope behind me. This is not so much for towing, but rather to keep our pace in sync. If I let up, I can feel David’s skis bump against mine. If he lets up, he feels a tug on the rope as it tensions. This is a good team strategy and while we speak very little, we feel like one unit moving along the trail.
It is pretty cold as we pass Friends hut and our pace is just sufficient to keep us warm. I am shivering at the turn around, and fumble with my skins, taking a little longer on the transition. As we engage the downhill, a volunteer yells “point ‘em straight! Pow turns!!” We indulge in a couple hundred feet of glorious powder- good fun, but not much help to raise my body temp. The good skiing is short lived though as we merge back onto the skin track and start double poling over flattish terrain.
While I thought the downhill would provide a bit of reprieve from skinning, the double poling, awkward occasional skating, combined with oncoming traffic proves to be the hardest part of the race for me thus far. Thankfully, David takes over the team lead, keeping our pace honest while I struggle with cramping triceps and hamstrings.
I was a bit worried before the race about coming down a tight trail with oncoming skiers, but everyone is incredibly gracious, stepping aside to let us pass and voicing their encouragements. This proves to be a big mental boost as we leave the out and back section to close the final clockwise loop around Mt. Crested Butte to the ski area.
We cross a small creek, taking the opportunity to put our skins back on, just as we are caught by Billy Laird and Eric Sullivan. The have a total of over 25 combined finishes at the GT many of which on the podium. They are also fit and very skilled skiers. While they had been looming right behind us the entire race, we thought we would put a decent gap on them above Friends Hut, but they were descending much better than us. It is surprising how important technique really is even on non-technical terrain.
Thankfully, we made the right decision to transition at the creek. As Billy and Sully try to skate through the increasingly deep powder track, we pass them and put some concerted effort into the next climb.
By the top, their lights are out of sight again and we ski a cruiser trail down into an open meadow. We skate along a road where David nearly falls, as his ski grinds on some gravel. Another quick transition, and here come Billy and Sully again charging hard. Billy gives David some lip, telling him he’s done and should quit now. This is all in good fun as they race each other a lot, but still gives us a boost and we again pull ahead.
From the course map, I remember there being two final climbs in the last 4 miles. I tell David we should not rip skins until the ski area. He clips into the tow rope and we surge up the first of the two climbs with everything we have got. We enter a wooded section of tight, rolling singletrack. It is hard skiing the downhills with skins on especially with the accumulated fatigue.
We reach a point where it is difficult to tell how far down the trail descends. Going against our previous decision, we stop to transition again. Just as we lock down our heels, Billy and Sully crank by us shouting “Don’t rip! Skins to the resort!” A classy move, but it’s too late for us and we’re stopped transition again. David and I both agree that while this small mistake cost us the battle for 4th place, Billy and Sully were closing way stronger than us and were technically much more proficient on the tight singletrack.
With less than a couple of miles to go, we are completely exhausted and painfully shuffle our way up the last, frustratingly circuitous climb to the ski area.
At the top, a volunteer on a snowmachine points to a lift and informs us that the final descent is right pass it. David mumbles something rude about the last climb and keeps pushing. I apologize to the guy on the snowmachine who looks at me quizzically, telling him that was not direct at him and it was just the fatigue talking. It is snowing heavily now and we point ‘em straight down the green run to the finish line, which we cross in 7:25 good for 5th place.
Regardless of whether we got to ski to Aspen or not, the Grand Traverse is still quite the experience. I am very thankful to have shared it with a great partner and an awesome group of friends. It sure made for a memorable weekend. Congrats to all finishers- ‘til next time.