Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse has become an annual landmark for my husband Mark and I. Out of the eight times I have competed in this race from Crested Butte to Aspen, six have been with him. At 11 p.m. on March 30th we toed the starting line yet again, and I thought of all those races, all those years.

We’ve skied the race on Nordic skate skis, classic skis with fish scales, classic skis without scales, and for the last three years we’ve raced on lightweight randonee gear. We’ve won the coed division, turned around a quarter of the way in, and had a medical evacuation an hour and half from the finish. We’ve seen heavy powder and open streams.

This year we knew the conditions would be rough, with make-shift bridges over the rivers, miles of dirt to run in our ski boots, and ice instead of snow for most of the race. Aside from my decision to bring an extra pole, we didn’t alter our gear. We have our system dialed, so we knew we just had to get through the tough terrain the best we could.

While every year I get butterflies in my stomach as we stand there with the other racers, headlamps spangling the darkness, waiting for the prayer to start the race! This year I felt a distinct pressure to do well. My goal was to win the co-ed division and get top 10 overall.  This pressure is a mysterious thing. Mostly, it comes from within me. After a successful season of competitive ski mountaineering last winter, I started this year with some mediocre performances. It was hard to get motivated and I kept having technical difficulties. But come mid-season I had my head back in the game and my equipment dialed, and I won the North American Ski Mountaineering Championship. I felt like I came into my own as a racer again, and frankly, that’s where I wanted to stay--at the top of the pack. What makes racing so exciting, though, is that each time you race you don’t know what’s going to happen. 

Every race has its ups and downs, both literally and figuratively. The GT is so unique because, unlike shorter ski mountaineering races, it goes on for 8 to 15, or even more, hours. We finished this year in our personal record time of 8 hours and 51 minutes. Coming in 8th overall and winning the coed.

Being out there for so long, there’s always a moment (or two) when you wonder how much longer you can keep pushing so hard. The first mishap we had was that when we were going up Star Pass, just after the Friends’ Hut, my skins failed and I slipped out, stepping on my pole and breaking it. It was only partially severed, so we tried to tape it for speed, but when the tape job failed we pulled out the spare pole I had in my pack. Why I brought a spare pole is beyond me. I have never brought a spare before, but as we were packing for this year’s race, something inside of me knew I would need it. 

For me, the more profound challenge came climbing up Richmond Ridge after Taylor Pass. After nearly seven hours of charging through the dark, I was mentally exhausted. What finally came into focus for me was the cup of soup that would be waiting for me at the Barnard Hut. It sounds like such a little thing, but I was so tired of eating gel and sugar. Knowing that a salty cup of hot goodness was in front of me was the trigger I needed to get me out of my own head for awhile, and it enabled me to tap into some inner reserve of strength to keep forging ahead.

The other shining moment of the race was when the sun started to rise and the whole sky glowed bright red, streaked with dark clouds. To be honest, part of me wished we were further back on the course so we could get a better view and watch it longer. I was reminded why I do this: you’ve been working so hard through the night, and then when the sun comes up, it’s a new day. It’s a new race. You feel like you’re a new person. It all begins again 

That’s the thing about this race: there’s not one pivotal moment to overcome, it just keeps going. You’ve got to find your own groove, and keep pushing—always staying at the edge of discomfort. There are moments that are harder than others, but what makes the Grand Traverse distinctive is that one moment doesn’t undo or define the entire race. It becomes a collection of moments, and you can choose which ones to focus on. You can focus on the ones that are hard and stressful, that slow you down, or you can focus on the sunrise or a cup of soup—whatever gets you through.

For Mark and I, this year’s Grand Traverse was a huge accomplishment because of the speed with which we finished the course, and placing so high. More than that, though, as Mark said, “I think this foreshadows the summer, and it makes me really excited about what’s to come.” This is just one more step in our journey towards completing the 50 Classic climbs of North America, a project we’ve undertaken the last two summers and which will pursue again this year. The GT reaffirmed our partnership, and for us the summer’s all about long slogs through ice and snow, variable conditions, problem solving, unknown outcomes, and working together, just like in the race.

 I would like to thank my husband, for his inspiration, companionship, and support during the race. I’d also like to thank Jalene Szuba and Bryan Wickenhauser for putting together such an amazing event. Once again I had the privilege of racing on incredible La Sportiva boots and skis, and also got outfitted in a two-piece La Sportiva race suit that worked perfectly. Thanks goes also to CAMP for accessorizing with some key items, especially the wind mitts. And I would not have had so much energy, if is wasn’t for Honey Stinger’s energy chews that taste so nice and go down so easy. I love those things! I hope that other folks are able to get out and enjoy their time in the backcountry as much as I do, have a great spring and be careful!

A Special thanks to Laura Puckett and Alissa Johnson for helping me take my 2nd grade writing skills to at least the sophomore level.

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