Anyway, there was snow in Marquette . . . although not as much as usual. Here is a picture of the Nordic Bay Lodge where Dave and I stayed. There's snow but not the 8 foot + piles of snow you expect from that far up in the UP.
However, any snow seems exciting when you're from the snowless hell that is southern Wisconsin so I wasn't complaining.
The funny thing about the Noque is that if you do the 26k race you start very late in the day - 12:40pm for the 2nd wave of the freestyle 26k. I'm not a morning person so that suits me pretty well but I had to keep checking my watch to make sure I really didn't need to leave as almost everyone at the lodge was doing the longer race and so the parking lot was empty by the time I headed out to catch the bus to the start.
Anyway 12:4opm finally roles around and I'm standing in the pack of skiers waiting for the start and I have to admit that I was a little stressed. I remembered how much I do not enjoy the start of ski races. Sure bike races are bad but at least there aren't sharp pointy things flying around. You are supposed to double pole a certain distance in the start but that doesn't make the poles that much less hazardous. Not to mention that I'm starting in the wave of skiers that are less experienced so we're all just barely in control as it is.
The Noque starts with a downhill section which is quite unfortunate. Imagine it if you will . . . . a bunch of inexperienced skiers on a narrow trail all trying to go downhill. I'll admit it, I was scared. The downhills were all scraped into these narrow luge runs from all the people snowplowing down them in the starts earlier in the day. You basically pointed yourself down the hill and tried to ride your skis down the channel that existed. If your skis wandered off that path then it would be certain disaster.
At one point I was headed down one of the slightly wider downhills that had two luge runs and the guy in the path next to me went down hard. From just behind me I heard this huge THUMP. That did not inspire my confidence at all.
Early in the race before we spread out I was actually getting exhausted from going down the scary downhills. At about 10k into the race I swore that if I just made it to the finish I would never do another ski race again. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what had made me sign up for this event. Pure insanity I thought.
The uphills were another matter altogether. In the beginning of the race the trails are only wide enough for one bad skier to ski up at a time. However, many people at my ability level don't actually know how to ski up or are not that good yet so it turns into more of a ski walk. I seemed to have really fast wax compared to some people to so I kept running up almost on top of them. (Helx . . . yes, you can buy speed).
Finally the race spread out and you were able to ski without worrying so much about the people all around you. I finally stopped hating skiing and started thinking about my 2 hour goal. I took a peak at my watch and actually had the mental faculties to calculate that I was still on pace to make that. I realized that in some sections I was actually faster than the people around me. On one very slightly downhill section I was actually gliding along feeling fast. It was awesome.
On one long uphill section Peter Berbee who was ski patrolling caught up to me. Peter used to be very involved with Madison cyclocross promotion. He asked me if I didn't think this was a whole lot easier than cyclocross. I told him "no way, cross is much easier." He should have asked me that on a nice fast, flat section!
At one point we crested up to a nice overlook to Lake Michigan. I was by myself so I slowed down a little and took it all in and was thinking that skiing sure was cool. Another check of the watch showed I was still on track for my 2 hour goal.
After the last aid station you plunge down to a road and it is a tricky little descent. I saw two guys from the long race who had both gone down and were picking themselves out of the snow banks at the side of the trail. Then you have to pay attention as the trail takes a sharp turn back into the woods. One person actually skied right by the turn and I had to yell out at them to come back.
Before too long you get to a stretch with some lakes you ski across. Luckily it hasn't been quite as warm in the UP so they were still frozen solid. One of the descents down to a lake has a sign before it that says "extreme caution downhill." Several downhills say "caution" but "extreme caution" sounded pretty ominous. As I skied up to the start of the downhill I could see about 6 guys with their skis off walking and two people standing at the top of the downhill contemplating what to do.
One thing I learned from years of mountain biking is that hesitation will kill you. I knew that if I didn't just go right away that I would be totally psyched out. So I went for it . . . I started down the hill and I was using my most wicked snowplowing technique and trying to ride the one ski on the edge of the snow that was created by everyone else who had snowplowed down the hill. This was by far the trickiest of the descents as it was steep and there was a turn you had to negotiate. About mid-hill I wobbled a bit but kept it upright and then suddenly you're around the turn and you can just tuck and ride some speed out onto the lake. Scary, sure but it is a very cool feeling to ski down something that a bunch of guys are walking.
After that you're starting to see markers saying 8k, 7k and you know you're going to make it. However, I was starting to feel tired and by 5k I was really tired. The last few kilometers are through town which is pretty cool. Unfortunately the last 1k is more like 1 mile.
You can see the Dome that you finish at off in the distance but you can't seem to get any closer. With 3k to go my competitive drive kicked in a little. I was skiing behind a woman and I thought she might be the same age as me so when she made room for a guy to go by her I snuck by as well. However, I could hear someone right on me and I feared that my passing her had given her just enough motivation to pick it up a notch.
I tried to keep pace but with 1.5k to go I realized that I just didn't have the legs. I got passed but it wasn't her. It was a different woman that I had been going back and forth with all day. I decided I would just have to let her go but I could tell she was older than me so I decided not to care. As I mentioned the last 1k goes on forever and because of the warm temps this year the snow in this section was less than ideal. It was a thin layer of snow over wood chips which makes for slow going. My legs were dead and I just wanted it all to end. I felt like I might never make it to the finish line. I mixed in some double poling in the worst sections with my V1 to try and make it.
After what seemed like a lifetime I finally could see the finish banners. They looked so good to my ailing legs and arms. I tried to make a semi-decent finish and look somewhat skilled. I avoided falling at least (unlike at the Kortie 2 years ago when I fell right before the finish).
I looked at the clock and was elated to see that I finished in 2:04. I couldn't believe that I'd done it. Two years ago I did the Kortie in 2:42 and the Great Bear Chase in 2:18 so this was a good day for me. I was dead tired though and it felt really good to just sit down.
After chilling for a bit, snacking and then finally changing I checked the results to confirm my finish time. I was correct in the 2:04 but unbelievably enough I had pulled off 2nd in my age group. I knew that might be possible as very few women 35-39 do any ski races beyond the Birkie/Kortie so I was psyched. The best part was that someone was listed in 3rd place as well so I actually beat someone . . . and I finished only 35 seconds out of 1st place.
This is the totally cool bell that I won for my 2nd place. That should come in handy at cross races next year.
So what's next? I think I'll skip the Badger State Games races to work on my technique and fitness and maybe head to Minocqua. Then the Prebirkie and then the Kortie and after that the Great Bear Chase. After all that I guess I will start thinking about riding my bike.
Snow, snow, snow. If only we could get some snow.
Oh yeah, and I guess the race went pretty well given that I watched from the sidelines on crutches last year. I'm actually pretty psyched that I am skiing better than 2 years ago even with the time away from the sport last year. Sure I have a long ways to go but I'm working on it.