2021: Great Bear Chase

Being a hometown event and the last officially timed nordic skiing race for each winter, this was an event that I wouldn’t miss – pandemic or not. The organizing committee did an excellent job of staying ahead of the game as well as being open, honest and frequent in their communication leading up to the event. They even included a free virtual option – do your chosen distance from anywhere and consider making a donation to the trail system. Mother Nature threw a curve ball or two as we got closer to the event. But the Swedetown Trail System groomers rose to the occasion, worked their tails off with what Mothership provided and produced the best course they could!

Race week

When the pandemic arrived in our neighborhood shortly after the conclusion of 2020 Great Bear Chase, I honestly didn’t think it’d last nearly as long as it has. Neither did I think it’d change so many lives of so many entities in so many different ways – including the tradition of pre-race meal and waxing rituals with friends at my casa the night before the Great Bear Chase. Little did I know that last year’s such gathering would be the last one such for a while (just to clarify: the while is still going on). 

With unseasonably warmer weather in our area and accompanying rain, I had little reason to believe that the event would actually go on … especially if the predicted wintery mix for Friday was more mix that wintery. But the Swedetown Trails had a good base and closing the trails for a couple days to keep the damage minimal paid off big time. I am (and so are many many others) grateful to everyone who followed the groomers’ request to leave the trails be on those days.

In spite of associated uncertainties, Mike put together Toko wax recommendation right on schedule. Not only he had taught me a fair amount about the general waxing rationale that helped me get a head start on preparing my skis, Mike took additional time to answer a barrage of my questions/concerns as and when they popped into my head. AND, he had offered drills to fix a timing issue in my stride that caused tail slapping!!

Ski preparation
Ski Salomon S/Race Skin 201 Medium Blue
Glide zone
Base cleaner Star Next Glide Wax Remover and Toko Copper Brush
Base layer Toko SP LF Black
Wax Toko SP Performance Blue and Toko LP High Performance Red polished with a dedicated brush
Structure Toko Red
Top finish Toko JetStream Bloc 2.0 Red polished with a dedicated Toko Nylon Brush and Toko Thermal Cork felt
Grip zone
Base cleaner Swix Skin Cleaner
Base layer -

Friends who normally would come and stay with me couldn’t make the trip up north this year. General discussions about waxing I got to be a part of or the number of skis I got to prepare for my friends weren’t the same either. So, in more ways than one, the night before the race was pretty low key. Having completed necessary preparations and made myself some intangible goals (i.e., ski well but with peace – thanks be to Shannon again for this timely reminder) as well as tangible ones (i.e., don’t fall at the bottom of Papa Bear, don’t fall when entering the stadium, and finish in 1:50 – 1:55 range assuming good, fast and stable trail conditions) fairly ahead of time, I was in bed by 9 pm on Friday night.

Race day

Waking up around 6:15 am gave me more than a full night of sleep (first one such in a few days) and plenty of time to get ready. The drive to Swedetown was short and uneventful. After a quick stop at the main chalet to pick up a radio, I soon found a spot to park, chatted briefly with LizKim and Shannon, and made my walk to the stadium with Sue and Chuck, Alice‘s parents. Sam had kindly offered to let me stash the ski bag and a set of warm clothes in their van near the finish line. Per guidelines from the race organizing committee, I showed up a little more than 13 minutes before the start of my corral (#15). Other than quick chats with Christine, Kelly and Peter (a gentleman I met last week in Cable, WI, during the 2021 North End Classic) and a few strides to check the wax on skis, there wasn’t a lot of time to do anything else.

Once in the staggered arrangement of corrals, I did have an opportunity to chat Dean, Roger and with few more fellow skiers. Learning from my mistakes of past two in-person races, I paid close attention to SeƱor Tervo’s announcements and started my watch with ~5 seconds before he fired the starter’s pistol. While three enthusiastic classic skiers from our corral had taken off with corral #14b of skate skiers about 5 minutes earlier, the rest of us left on time on our merry way.

The advantage of being in the first 25 km classic corral and being one of the faster skiers was plenty of space in and around the classic tracks for many many kilometers. The downside – caused primarily by the pandemic-inflicted lower than usual in-person participation numbers – was that I had to rely on what I had already known and in turn, learned very little from those many many kilometers (you know, by following and mimicking the technique of better skiers ahead of me). I did catch myself a couple times with regards to tail slapping – they seemed to occur only when I was forcing the issue. A couple deep breaths and remembering the advices from friends/mentors fixed it in no time.

25 km (15.53 mi), 1:54:13, 4:34 min/km (7:21 min/mile), 13.13 kmph (8.16 mph)
Garmin Forerunner 945 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

All skiers were required to carry our own nutrition to avoid/minimize contact in the lone aid station. I planned on taking a gel and some water every 7-8 kilometers or so. I attempted to consume one gel on the go on Greenstone but it fell out of my hand before I could even open it. Not wanting to lose anymore precious nutrition, I just sipped some water and kept moving … figuring I’d take a full pause/break at the bottom of Papa Bear (the lowest point on the course) before starting the climb back up. The first 9-11 kilometers went flying by – I barely had to stride or use herring bone technique, except when encountering obvious ascents. Once in the open fields of Papa Bear and in spite of a downhill segment, I needed to double pole or stride to keep moving forward while countering the strong headwinds. First time since switching to the 25 km event, I didn’t fall at the bottom of Papa Bear (tangible goal #1, check). After stopping briefly to take the gel (the aid-station volunteers kindly offered to properly dispose off the gel wrapper) and drink more water, I began the second half of the course.

I don’t know too many skiers who are fans of this gradual yet seemingly grueling climb from the bottom of Papa Bear. But I have spent enough time on Bear Loops and have devised myself a tangible metric to assess my performance. If my average pace entering the Mama Bear is approximately same as that when I leave the Mama Bear, then I am in good shape. If the latter is a few seconds faster, then I am in really good shape. If the former is a few seconds faster, then I might have a strugglefest ahead. Good is, however, not an entirely objective metric – it depends on a combination of trail conditions, weather conditions, waxing, my energy levels and feelings (yes, I do have feelings!).

Goal: 25 km in 1:55:00
Lap Cumulative
# Time
mm:ss
Avg
HR

bpm
Elevation
Gain / Loss

meters
Distance
km
Time
h:mm:ss
Avg
Pace

min/km
Elevation
Gain / Loss

meters
Projected
Finish Time

h:mm:ss
Differential
Goal Time

h:mm:ss
01 4:13 154 15 16 1.00 0:04:13 4:13 15 16 1:45:00 0:10:00
02 4:19 164 10 5 2.00 0:08:32 4:15 25 21 1:46:00 0:09:00
03 4:35 169 17 12 3.00 0:13:07 4:22 42 33 1:49:00 0:06:00
04 4:02 168 10 18 4.00 0:17:09 4:17 52 51 1:47:00 0:08:00
05 4:30 174 25 33 5.00 0:21:39 4:19 77 84 1:47:00 0:08:00
06 4:38 174 20 15 6.00 0:26:17 4:22 97 99 1:49:00 0:06:00
07 4:09 172 14 21 7.00 0:30:26 4:20 111 120 1:48:00 0:07:00
08 4:29 170 2 4 8.00 0:34:55 4:21 113 124 1:48:00 0:07:00
09 4:09 169 11 17 9.00 0:39:04 4:20 124 141 1:48:00 0:07:00
10 3:52 166 8 20 10.00 0:42:56 4:17 132 161 1:47:00 0:08:00
11 4:28 168 12 7 11.00 0:47:24 4:18 144 168 1:47:00 0:08:00
12 3:31 163 5 30 12.00 0:50:55 4:14 149 198 1:45:00 0:10:00
13 4:47 164 17 27 13.00 0:55:42 4:17 166 225 1:47:00 0:08:00
14 5:12 170 28 9 14.00 1:00:54 4:21 194 234 1:48:00 0:07:00
15 5:25 171 24 5 15.00 1:06:19 4:25 218 239 1:50:00 0:05:00
16 5:00 168 15 2 16.00 1:11:19 4:27 233 241 1:51:00 0:04:00
17 4:21 165 13 12 17.00 1:15:40 4:27 246 253 1:51:00 0:04:00
18 4:49 167 20 19 18.00 1:20:29 4:28 266 272 1:51:00 0:04:00
19 5:03 169 19 17 19.00 1:25:32 4:30 285 289 1:52:00 0:03:00
20 4:39 165 14 22 20.00 1:30:11 4:30 299 311 1:52:00 0:03:00
21 5:10 170 28 25 21.00 1:35:21 4:32 327 336 1:53:00 0:02:00
22 4:32 168 20 22 22.00 1:39:53 4:32 347 358 1:53:00 0:02:00
23 4:31 169 20 21 23.00 1:44:24 4:32 367 379 1:53:00 0:02:00
24 5:09 171 23 15 24.00 1:49:33 4:33 390 394 1:53:00 0:02:00
25 4:36 172 12 12 25.00 1:54:09 4:33 402 406 1:53:00 0:02:00
26 0:08 176 0 0 25.03 1:54:17 4:33 402 406 1:53:00 0:02:00
The final cumulative time, 1:54:17, may not match the actual time owing to rounding errors. The overall distance, 25.03 km, may not match the designated event distance owing to idiosyncrasies associated with GPS data collection and in some rare cases, incorrectly measured courses. As a result, the cumulative pace and the projected finish time might not match the recorded values as well.

Going by this ultra scientific, non-peer reviewed formula derived from a n = 1 experiment, I was about 5 seconds/km slower when leaving the Mama Bear. That should have been bad news. Had this been a year or so ago, I might have believed in the numbers and likely would have gone on to have a strugglefest rest of the way. BUT, taking the full minute or so of stoppage time into account, I realized I had broken approximately even for the average pace. In turn, I expected to not struggle any more than was necessary rest of the way.

With mercury on the rise, the classic tracks as well as skate deck were turning into a slush pit. Segments/Sections under shade were icy and fast while those exposed to sunshine were soft and sinking. When I encountered one such area on Ed’s loop with less than a handful of kilometers to go before the finish, one of my skis slowed down while the other kept sliding off the trail. So, I fell and fell quite hard. A quick check to ensure that equipment (skis, poles and/or body parts) was intact, I was about to throw myself a little pity party. But bless her heart, Joan came along offering much needed pick me up. She checked if I was ok but that was the extent of her babying me or my situation, and I am so grateful for her timely act of tough love! It didn’t take long to realize that the fall was a blessing in disguise – providing a me a valuable opportunity to follow Joan, and do my best to mimic her skiing techniques and racing tactics.

So, what I needed to do between the fall on Ed’s loop and the finish line was fairly straightforward – ski at peace and keep Joan in sight and do what she did, and I did those fairly well. Not pushing the issue but just focusing on breathing and technique seemed to automagically take care of the pace – and I won’t lie, it was a beautiful experience. I didn’t fall as I entered the finish area (tangible goal #2, check), and crossed the finish line with the official time being 1:54:13 (tangible goal #3, check). I was (and still am) pretty proud of the effort and the time given the significantly different conditions over the second half. With so many variables at play and with so many of them changing from one year to next, I do understand that the concept of PR is very loosely defined or nearly non-existent in nordic skiing, and that I have no control over the field (thanks, Mike and Kristen). That said, my 2021 time was about 12 minutes better than its 2020 version, and it was good for 21/70 overall, 17/45 in gender and 1/6 in AG.

Progress report
# Year Weather Distance
km
Time
h:mm:ss
Pace
min/km
01 2014 16 F/8 F, 5 mph NNW 64% humidity; cloudy 10 2:13:26 13:19
02 2015 27 F/13 F, 21 mph WNW, 86% humidity; cloudy, windy and snowy 10 1:22:25 8:14
03 2016 30 F/23 F, 8 mph NE, 69% humidity; sunny 10 1:07:28 6:44
04 2017 7 F/-12 F, 17 mph W, 66% humidity; cold and snowy 10 1:11:08 7:06
05 2018 21 F/21 F, 0 mph, 79% humidity; cloudy 10 0:55:38 5:33
06 2019 21 F/13 F, 7 mph SE, 79% humidity; sunny 25 2:11:27 5:15
07 2020 28 F/21 F, 8 mph S, 54% humidity; sunny 25 2:07:55 5:06
08 2021 41 F/30 F, 31 mph W, 61% humidity; sunny, warm and windy 25 1:54:13 4:33

Sweeping the 10 km course

Ever since getting into running/skiing races, a part of me always wanted to be a course sweep. So far, either I hadn’t been planning my race days well enough OR I just didn’t have the necessary endurance/fitness to sweep after a hard race effort. Taking the recent string of in-person events (specifically – what I did the day before and after) into account, I was pretty confident that 2021 would be the year I was ready for such a mission. The GBC organizing committee accepted my request to be the 10 km sweep (hence the need to stop and pick up a radio from the chalet earlier in the day). They were kind enough to let me take as long as necessary to complete my own race and cool down before heading out to sweep.

After chatting with friends I hadn’t seen in quite some time (Abbotts, Carrie and Dr. Bob, Jenna, Alice, Sam, Emmet, Ruth and more), I switched to warmer top half, skate skis and boots and started the course sweep. Kim was patiently waiting for me and I am glad and grateful that she came along. The course conditions resembled mashed potatoes and my skate skiing skills were no match. It was a STRUGGLEFEST and had it not been for Kim’s company, I’d have taken a LOT longer to do it on my own. We either slowed down or stopped to check in on skiers who were still on course and I gained a whole new perspective for racing in such warm and slushy conditions. We (read: I) stopped several more times to rest and Kim offered some tips to improve my skate skiing skills every time we stopped! When I crossed the finish line again, the 10 km outing on skate skis seemed way harder than the 25 km outing on classic skis earlier in the day.

Owing to the ongoing pandemic, there was no post-race gathering – which, in a pre-pandemic era, included a communal meal as well as the awards ceremony in the Calumet High School gymnasium. I definitely missed this gathering with friends – catching up on life while enjoying pasties and soup and such. After packing up my belongings from the finish line, I spent some time conversing with Gracis (Sam Sr. and Sammy – they were the first ones to let me know that I had won my AG), Greggs (Caitlin, Brian and Heidi), Shannon M, Angela and Dean before heading to join Kim and Greg at Keweenaw Coffee Works. The day ended shortly after a lovely meal with friends a few hours later.

Hopefully the base we have at our trail systems will melt away ever so slowly (and that people won’t start walking on them) in the coming weeks. With the 2020-21 winter XC ski racing season now over, I expect to invest some quality kilometers practicing the necessary techniques and work on fixing my weaknesses … putting some money in the bank for when the 2021-22 season comes calling.


Thanks be to

the rejections and opportunities life has brought my way, event folks (organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timers, law enforcement officials, photographers, fellow participants and spectators), and the family of good friends in and outside of my community for all the unexpected, undeserved and unrewarded acts of constant encouragement as well as offerings of constructive criticism to improve myself as an athlete and a person. I am eternally grateful to all those who let me train with them, who shared their invaluable tips with me, who helped keep my mind, body and soul in good health, who helped me stay the course during the training cycle, who continued to teach me the value of work-life balance, and who cheered me on from home or along the course.

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