Monday, March 7, 2016

Wasatch Powder Keg 2016

Yowza!  Lately it seems like T-Dawg Sleeps, or at least Rests, instead of Speaks.  I don't know why I haven't written any blawg posts for 2 months, but I am keen to get back on it.  I got tales rattling around in my head of floating the Rio Usumacinta and an amazing trip to the Carlyle Lodge in the Valhalla range in British Columbia among other things, but the story that's at the top of my head at the moment is this past weekend's 14th annual Wasatch Powder Keg Skimo race.

The Powder Keg has become a late-winter rite for the Utah "competitive backcountry" folks who like to ski uphill as much as going down.  And because it's the oldest/biggest/best skimo race in the country, it typically attracts a solid crowd from around the west as well.  I've realized that there are few road warriors as willing to drive great distances for events as ultra athletes!  It attracts folks from Montana, AZ, CO, ID, OR, and always a good cadre of Coloradans who scoff at the relative low elevation of the Wasatch!

A brief overview:  "Skimo" is short for "ski mountaineering", which truth be told is not necessarily representative of most races, since they usually held in or near resorts, and while yes, sometimes there is some rope work to ensure backup safety by oxygen-deprived athletes determined to charge, it's not really "mountaineering", per se.  I prefer the moniker used more in Europe:  ski running.  But even that isn't quite appropriate, because - like regular backcountry skiing - it's mostly hard walking uphill on skis (between harrowing descents over icy moguls, punchy mank, and screaming groomers).  But skiwalking doesn't have the same ring to it.  So it's skimo.  For more general info Paul at the Utah Adventure Journal was kind enough to publish an article of mine in his winter issue:

The Powder Keg actually hosted the fastest folks (Euros) in the world in 2004 and 2005 as a stop on the World Cup tour, but since then it's "just" become the premier US race; there are others that may be more competitive at the top end, but the PK typically has almost the best competition and always has the most participants across the spectrum.   There are a few different races/divisions (including a fairly well-attended junior division) with the "elite" and "heavy metal" (skis and bindings over 1200grams; gotta delineate this in an era of mixed ski genres) divisions doing 6200' of climbing and skiing over 10 miles, both within and just outside the boundaries of Brighton ski resort. And a few years ago a "technical teams race" was added for the next day, where two people race together, never more than 30 seconds apart, and do some steeper/hairier stuff, for longer:  8600' over 14 miles.  This year it got the nod to be the "North American Championships", which theoretically would lure some of the fast Canadians (and Mexican?) skimo-ers to Utah.
Historically the race has been blessed by good weather, and Saturday was no exception:  sunny and warm, as much of February and early March has been.  However, a strong cold front was projected to stomp into the Wasatch on Sunday morning......

Chad Bracklesberg has been a driving force for skimo for years, and he took it over when Andrew McLean and Butch Adams  -the pioneers - were ready to hand it off.  Chad and his wife Emily and their cohorts Eric Bunce and Nick Francis pretty much take a week of vacation to put the Powder Keg on, and rely on >60 volunteers to help make it happen.  I am not a big race volunteer guy, but I helped Chad set some skin tracks earlier in the week; we needed to put them in when the snow was soft, because the early morning race start meant that it was going to be very much pre-corn, and having some semblance of a flattish skin track was going to be important on a few of the climbs.  Chad was very appreciative of my help, tho really all I think I was doing was keeping him company and keeping his mind off the zillions of race details that were blasting through his head.

But enough about all that:  what about me!  That's what these blawgs are about, right?  The start was a bit of a frenzy, as always:
only 30' off the line and I've already lost 10'?  And eventual winner and Wasatch Strongman Tom Goth is already out of the picture to the left!  
But I tried not to blow up in the first 10 minutes, as I've been wont to do in the past, so I tried to keep it at a "moderate push" to keep my lungs inside my chest.  It appeared to me that Tom was going to march away with it and then there was a posse of 6 or so guys clustered in a "chase" (when you're only walking fast it's hard to image actually "chasing" people....) and then local goofball/physicist/aerobic animal Elliot Barcikowski and I keeping them within sight, with plenty of other strong Wasatch locals lurking not far behind on the first thousand-foot climb.  Elliot came out of the first transition a bit ahead of me, so it provided some incentive to charge the first descent, but for being inbounds at a resort, "charging" down off the icy, bumpy, rocky, and cliffy Millicent bowl on little skimo skis felt pretty spicy, and then waited 'til it mellowed out a bit before straightlining to a tear-jerking speed.  Elliot got away from me a little on the next climb and I was chasing him down the icy, south-facing descent when suddenly I saw him clawing his way back up onto the old mining road I was tearing down after blowing a turn.  Exciting stuff!

I faded a little on the next long climb as Elliot pulled away and two guys caught me; and after another couple of long climbs and descents there was one more 300' climb and descent where the 2nd guy - local Joey Campanelli - and I pretty much blasted into the finish line simultaneously, though he was kind enough not to try to "take me" at high speed in the last couple of corners.  I ended up 9th, 13 mins behind Tom Goth:
Tom pretty much skied by himself off the front all day, and totally crushed it in the sprint finals Friday night as well, winning by a big 8 second margin.  
Which is about where I usually am.  There were lots of absentees:  the Flying Dorais bro's were apparently out snowmobiling (?!?!) there was no SLC Samurai nor Viking, Chad, Eric, and Nick were all busy putting on the race, some of the phast boyz from CO are racing in Europe, my last-year partner and ever-faster Noah was out of town, and the two fast old guys from CO -  Michael Hagen and Pete Swensen  - weren't there to beat on me for the master's win.  But I'll take it; I've been trying to make this 20 year old hydration pack work for years as a small/light ski pack:

But - what a surprise - my modifications have been mostly a shit show, so winning this actual skimo pack:

will hopefully enable me to be a cool skimo guy!

Brother Paul had an interesting day:  after tearing his ACL last spring and getting it mended in May he'd been doing quite well leading up to ski season, and his doc said "yes, you can ski this year, but it's NOT fully strong and you CAN'T hurt it again!"  Which may have been ringing sonorously in his ears as one ski caught in a bush, came off, and launched him out over his remaining tip in a high speed somersault just above some trees.  He came to an abrupt halt actually hitting one of those trees and heard the sickening crunch......of his ski as it snapped on impact.  Better ski than knee, I always say.....(actually, I've never said that before, but it seemed appropriate).

On a more somber note, well-liked-and-known hard-girl Emily Sullivan was volunteering instead of racing this year and slipped off the course while setting ropes, fell off to the wrong side of the ridge, tumbled over a cliff band and was stopped by a tree - that kept her from going over an even-bigger cliff - with bad injuries.  A challenging rescue was mounted and she was finally extricated and flown out, and is stable in the ICU with broken ribs and lacerated liver.  Really unlucky, and really lucky at the same time; no head/spine injuries, and alive.

I recovered Saturday afternoon by hefting a literal ton (or two) of mulch:
isn't mulch-moving what sport scientists advise doing between races to recover?
Colter Leys was my able pard for the 2014 teams race, and even though he towed me around that entire day, was willing to possibly do it again this year after being in NZ last year on a multi-month bike tour with his family.  We hoped that we'd be just as smiley but not quite as bloody as we were in '14:

Day 3 of the PK had a stormy forecast, but until Sat night it looked like the brunt of the front wouldn't hit until late morning. However, it was snowing  -and raining, just barely downcanyon  -and blowing super hard as daylight came, and Chad, Eric, and Nick were scrambling on course reroutes.  But once they got word that the patrollers were kicking off windslabs that had already formed, and the fact that visibility was going to near-zero:

they wisely pulled the plug.  I think no one was as disappointed as those guys; they put in so much effort and try super hard to make a great event for everyone that it was crushing to not allow folks to...crush themselves.  But everyone knows that's the way it goes.

We did have time to do a couple of brisk laps up the first climb, and it was great:  a fun chance to chat with folks you normally don't "chat" with since every ounce of oxygen is going towards trying to beat them!  it was still a bit stormy when our posse topped out:
Colter and I made the most of it by taking our little skimo getups into the "real" backcountry (the Park City ridgeline) and doing a few laps on the fresh snow that had blown in, and had a great day skiing a few inches of powder, which is perfect for Voile's Wasatch Speed Project skimo skis.  The truth is that I was more wiped out than I anticipated after Saturday's effort and I felt like I could barely move uphill, and I literally would have been a drag on the fresh  -and very strong - Colter, but after a Brighton (Costco) muffin calorie bomb finally kicked in I was able to march a bit and at least be able to keep up with him as he broke trail!

Thanks again to Colter for being willing to give 'er a go:
Not quite as exhausted as last time.  And just wait'll next year!  
And thanks again to Chad and Co for once again throwing down hard for a great event!

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