2006 Pepsi Challenge Race Report by Lane R. Ellis
I woke to the radio alarm clock at 6:15 AM to start my Pepsi Challenge race day, which would be my first cross country ski race. I was signed up to do the 48 kilometer freestyle (skate) race at 10:00 AM in Biwabik, Minnesota at the Giant’s Ridge ski resort, an hour north of my home town Duluth. I only started skate skiing at the end of last winter and got out 38 times. This year I’ve skated about 10 times, so with a total of less than 50 outings under my belt it’s all new to me as a beginner who’s still learning. Before picking up skate skiing last winter I had done classic style cross country skiing a few seasons on my old 1970s wooden Norwegian skies with bamboo poles (thanks Dad, for giving me your old skis!), but consider myself first and foremost a runner (5K to marathon distance with a half marathon personal best of 1:29.)
I signed up for the Pepsi Challenge because of my desire to try the Birkebeiner race. As a new skier I would normally have to start in the final of many “waves” at the Birkie, but if I did a Birkie qualifier race, like the Pepsi Challenge, I could move up in the waves. Last fall I skied 44K at Lester Park here in Duluth on my best long ski up to that point. This year I did two long skis, including last week at Boulder Lake when I got in 50K in 3 hours and 24 minutes for a 4:04 per kilometer pace, taking it fairly easy on the relatively flat course there. I was happy to have broken through to 50K barrier in my training that day, and ended up with about 85K total last week, and some good running including a 39 minute 10K in training. So I felt in decent shape heading into this race, but had no idea what to expect.
My goals for the race were to finish, seeing what a ski race is like, to enjoy myself as much as possible, to take it easy on the first 24K lap and then proceed with caution depending on how I felt on the second lap, which I’d heard was on much more difficult terrain. Last night I was lucky enough to have my good friend John Bankson wax my skis for me, especially good since I had never waxed them before. I recently got a Swix waxing iron and a variety of wax but was weary of doing anything myself until I watched someone else do it. Thanks John!
I had a good drive up to Biwabik, stopping in town to pick up my race packet, and then headed to Giant’s Ridge ski resort. I had an hour before the race began and slept in the car for thirty minutes. I then got into my ski boots, put on my race bib, grabbed my skis and poles and a bag with warm up gear I never actually used and headed to into the resort. I was a bit chilly walking around outside with just my race gear on, but I had a good feeling about the weather and what I wore. I was dressed pretty lightly - just two wicking shirts and a thin fleece top with medium weight tights on my legs. On my head I had my thin blue Duluth Cross County Ski Club hat. I heard a fellow say that is was 7 degrees out and that it had been -7 degrees just a bit earlier, which made me think about adding a layer of clothing, but I didn’t, deciding to stick with my game plan according to the weather forecast I saw which called for race temperatures between 15 and 21 degrees.
With eight minutes until start time I got on my skis and adjusted my poles. I skated a bit and noticed how much more glide my skis had thanks to the waxing John had done. I had been a bit worried about stepping right into my first ever race on my first ever waxed skis (I got my skis a few years back at the Snowflake swap meet and they were some of Chad Salmela’s USBA test wax skis.) I knew I’d be much better off with waxed skis than with skis with two year old wax however, and was ready to get going and try them out. With five minutes to go I headed over to the starting gates, which were set up in several waves. When I’d signed up I guessed that my finishing time would be about 3 hours and 30 minutes, which put me in the second wave. At first I was apprehensive about starting in the second wave, so close to the best skiers up front and me having skate skied less than 50 times. I didn’t know if I could ski the course in 3 hours and 30 minutes. I had planned to start at the back of whichever wave I was in, being my first ski race, to see how things went and so as to not slow anyone else down. I momentarily skied back into the third wave thinking that perhaps I should start there, but then I thought of my conditioning and saw that I probably did belong in wave two, so I went back up. The race announcer soon sent off the first wave of racers. I didn’t know how a ski race would start, so was surprised when I saw that they start each wave two minutes apart. I was glad to see this as it meant that in my position at the back of wave two I wouldn’t be holding up any fast starters from wave three.
The race director then sent off wave two and I was off on my first ever ski race, with the sun shining brightly and no noticeable wind - great conditions, especially for the Pepsi Challenge which apparently is known as a cold and windy course. My skis felt really good and so did I. I was elated to be out skiing on such a beautiful day, and happy that I’d decided to just enjoy the ride and take it easy. I was still concerned about just how skiers pass one another on the race course however. When I run a race it’s easy to just pass people as needed, and they can pass you just as easily, but I couldn’t quite picture how it worked skate skiing. Soon I found myself slowed by skiers ahead, and eventually found a wider spot and started passing people. The first 5K flew by in no noticeable time, and it was just such fun skiing! At the first of many aid stations I didn’t stop for anything. When I’d done 50K in training last week I’d only stopped once, at 25K, for water and a banana. So up the course we went, winding through the beautiful pine trees in the sun. One amazing stretch early on was like skiing through a world of ultra bright falling, shimmering diamonds, as the snow crystals on the tall pines were blowing down gently in the sun - a skiing experience I’ll never forget.
I was spending time just hanging out behind the skiers ahead of me, held up quite a bit on the hills, but I was happy to just enjoy the ride, and conserve energy on the first lap. I learned more about passing as one fellow passed me and the people in front of me, and I latched onto him and was able to pass all the people he was passing and then eventually passed him. I didn’t stop for water at the second aid station at 16K either, just skiing through. Before I knew it I was done climbing and headed down the mountain on a speedy descent. The 24K and 48K freestyle skiers had started together, and once back in front of the resort to end my first lap I saw lots of the skiers around me head to finish their 24K race, while I headed on to the difficult second loop. My friend Ann Fluke saw me and cheered me on, which was great. I’d only skied at Giant’s Ridge once, my first ski of this season, on a really cold day with John Bankson, and I’d felt really slow and remember only what seemed like huge never ending hills, so I was worried about the second loop and what it might hold in store. I figured I’d be okay if I could keep taking it easy to 30K. I was feeling very fresh and like the race was going by too quickly and easily. I reminded myself that I was doing this first race for fun and not to go all out. I think I stopped quickly at the next aid station and had some Gatorade (which they serve warm at these ski races!) Then there was some good climbing, nothing too difficult however, and I was expecting the worst climbs to come up sometime soon. I really feared that multi-kilometer super-steep hills were bound to come up.
I’d been skiing with only a few others around for many kilometers now, and started catching up to two guys ahead of me. After a long series of steady climbs I passed a guy in a Duluth Cross Country Ski Club hat, just after the 30K point, and he said something like, “Thirty K down!”, as he stopped for water. The next few kilometers were fun, and I was feeling strong. Then in an open area was another aid station, which I decided to make my main fuel stop, so I had two warm Gatorades and a banana (which seemed to take me about a minute to unpeel with my gloves on!) I was glad I’d stopped, and felt great heading back out. Two of the guys I’d passed on the previous climbs had gone ahead of me while I was stopped at the aid station unpeeling my piece of banana, but soon I was catching back up. From about 32-38K there was some good sustained climbing and I felt good. I had saved enough energy all race long to be able to push through to the top of all these climbs. I passed the Duluth Cross Country Club hat guy again and focused on the two others I could see up ahead through the trees. I remember one really long fast downhill, the fastest and longest I’ve ever been on, which was fun. I was amazed at how fast the skiing was and how the distance and the day flew by. Soon the 40K marker came up and I was still expecting some really huge climb ahead, but none came, and soon I was heading down to the resort. Looking at my watch I figured I’d come in at around three hours, much faster than I’d planned, which felt great. With the finish line in site Ann was there and again cheered for me, and I had on a big smile as I crossed the finish line with the announcer calling out my name. What a fun day of skiing! I finished in 3:02 with an average pace of 3:58 per kilometer. My GPS said that my fastest kilometer had been a 1:28, my fastest ever, probably on some of the long down hills on the second loop.
A woman put a nice finisher’s medal around my neck and I chatted with a few fellow racers. Everyone seemed to have had a wonderful day, and later I heard someone say he’d taken two hours off of his time from last year. I went over and talked to Ann and to my friend Bruce Bauer, who finished fourth overall despite being held up in a multi-person crash in the first few hundred meters of the race. I then took my gear to the car and headed to the food area where I had lots of warm Gatorade, chocolate stars, granola bars, oranges and bananas. Then, after hanging around a while, I drove back home. Overall the race was much more enjoyable, and easier, than I thought it would be. Looking back I know I could have pushed the pace a lot, but that will have to wait until next year. Now that I know the course I’ll be confident to ski my second Pepsi Challenge.
Lane R. Ellis