Illustration by Mark Wilson
Taking on Lake Placid’s toughest Nordic race
It all started sometime the summer before last, when my son Nathan suggested he would come back East and we would both ski the Loppet. Held at the Nordic Center at Mount Van Hoevenberg, the Lake Placid Loppet is said to be one of the hardest distance cross-country-ski races in the country. I said something like, “Sure, good idea,” and thought nothing of it. Until, while in Colorado over Christmas, he told me the date of the race and reminded me that I said I would do it. One of those “Remember, you said, Dad?” conversations. I was stuck.
I knew enough about distance endurance events (think 90-mile canoe races) to know I had better train for this thing. After a week of high-altitude and out-of-breath skiing in Colorado and some needed instruction from the Kid, I came back to West Virginia, where I live, with a training plan Nathan put together for me. The days in the gym went fine, but the time on skis was a little problematic. The only appreciable snow in West Virginia was man-made and on the ski slopes. So off I went to Timberline Mountain where, while most people skied downhill, I put on my skinny skis and ran up. I also carried skis everywhere I went that winter and took every advantage of any snow I found.
Shortly before the race I called my ski-racing friend and old paddling partner Jack Burke—father of U.S. Olympian Tim Burke—for some advice. He said, “First, it’s a long race [25K is just over 15 miles], so pace yourself at the start, and secondly, don’t fall down.”
On the day of the race, and armed with that advice, I headed for the start line. The gun went off, and by the second turn on the course, people who did not get Jack’s first piece of advice were flying by me. I was soon skiing alone and wondering if anyone was left behind. My goal in this race was to not come in last.
In 2019, due to less-than-ideal conditions, the race consisted of three loops up East Mountain. Halfway around the first loop, I caught up to one guy. Things were looking up; I might not come in last, I thought. He must have had mohair-bottom skis because he could climb while staying in the track but had no speed on the downhills. So, it was him ahead of me on the climbs, and me ahead of him on the downhills. I then caught up to a woman who must have done the race many times before because everyone seemed to know her. I finished the first lap skiing with her. We came back through the stadium and pulled up at the feed station for some GU and Gatorade.
GU, if you have not tried it, is every bit as good-tasting as it sounds. Warm GU is bad enough, but cold GU is kind of like trying to down thick axle grease. It landed in my stomach in a lump, and so did all my energy. After the feed station, the mohair guy and the well-known woman took off and I was once again alone, and maybe last. The GU finally dissolved, I kicked it back into gear and caught up with them by our second climb up East Mountain. My West Virginia, up-the-ski-slope training was starting to pay off.
On the last section of my second lap, the woman I was pacing headed off in a different direction. I followed. Maybe she knew a shortcut? In canoe races we always look for a sneak. It turns out she was looking for an official so she could drop out of the race. I turned around and headed back to the course, through the stadium, skipping the GU this time, and on to the third lap. By my third climb up East Mountain I was starting to get tired, and the course was getting somewhat skied off and icy.
Reaching the top of the climb, it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually going to finish this race. I was going to have skied the Loppet. Woo-hoo, euphoria, I felt great. It was time to let ’er rip. On the last half of that last lap I started passing people. I think it was mostly folks who did not take Jack’s second piece of advice, about not falling down. Some of them looked fairly beat up. Coming through the stadium the third time and heading for the finish line, I was totally spent, the tank was empty, and I was skiing on an icy flat. My skiing form must have been pretty much gone. As I crossed the finish line the announcer called my name and time, and then said they were knocking two minutes off for dancing across the line. (Dancing? What did he mean, dancing?)
Later, in the lodge, I found out that I had actually won my age class in the race—came in first. Not too bad. I was feeling rather cocky about it all.
But then, to put it in perspective, and to bring me back down to earth, the Kid said, “Dad, in your age class you were also second to last.”
The 2021 Loppet is being held virtually. Complete the course at Mount Van Hoevenberg Nordic Center between March 5 and March 27. Visit www.mtvanhoevenberg.com for details.