Skarverennet 2010 : why the rooster crossed the Hallingskarvet

25 Apr

Hallingskarvet, looking towards Ustaoset, seen from my after race tour

Yesterday the Coq à la crête noire crossed the Hallinskarvet mountain range on long, thin carbon wings and skinny fiberglass feet. Flight time for the 38km voyage was 2:28.

The Skarverennet is the traditional ski season ending race which attracts a lot of top Norwegian and international talent. The winner amongst the women contenders was the dwarfish but still very hot Therese Johaug, nicknamed the “Energizer Bunny” for her high-frequency style. She beat Norwegian men’s World Cup winner Petter Northug Jr. by three minutes and me by fifty. To be fair to Northug, I should add that he was in the lead right through the sprint competition at km 32, but then took his skis off to sit in the car he’d won. See video here.

I had a good lead-up to the race that was nevertheless marked with transport issues too. Since I signed up too late to get an included rail ticket, I had to improvise. I was able to buy train tickets from Oslo to Bergen and from Bergen back the same way to Finse the morning of the race. That allowed me to see the race area by train the evening before, which I think settled my nerves a bit.

In Bergen I got a good night’s sleep in a soft bed in a hotel located right next to the Bryggen UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site of Hanseatic League buildings. The whole trip involved more than twelve hours of train travel, but everything went without stress, leaving me mentally well-prepared for the race.

On my outbound trip on the Bergen Line heavy snow started falling right after the 1222 meter high point at Finse. The storm blowing in from the West was exceptionally cold for the season. It left new snow on the ground where all had previously melted away even just a few kilometers from Bergen only a handful of meters above sea level. Happily the weather forecast predicted the storm to blow over the Hallingskarvet a few hours prior to race time. Conditions therefore looked exceptionally good.

The morning of the race I had to ride in first class from Bergen back to Finse since that was the only thing available when I bought my ticket. Stepping out of the train at the station the temperature was about -6C with clouds, stiff wind and moderate falling snow. I waited in a cold line to get inside the station building to pick up my start number.

When I got to the race secretary I was informed that I had been given a woman’s start number in error. After a lot of hand-wringing a woman stepped up saying that she needed a women’s start number and had a men’s number with someone else’s name to trade for it. A few phone calls later and the exchange was authorized. If someone named Pål who had start number 526 with transport from Asker reads this, I’d be interested in hearing the whole story. I for the moment have been omitted from the race results and hope that will get sorted out after the email I sent.

I lined up less than ten minutes prior to race time. That was my only truly bad decision of the day. Since I’m relatively new to skiing and haven’t done many competitions, I doubt myself more than I should. After the final countdown the gun went off, the rope went up and I could see the elite class bounding way like manic pogo stick hoppers. It took a while for the movement to come to my neighborhood, two hundred meters back.

On the upside the weather suddenly turned good with the sun coming out and a tail-wind if anything most of the way.

Last year, halfway up the first climb, I remember wanting to turn back:

This year I didn’t have a chance to get anywhere near my maximum heart rate. The herd was herringboning where I had to power to spare to paddle. Forced into gliding herringbone or pure and simple walking herringbone, I switched lanes all the time and still kept running into the poles of the guy in front of me. Sorry! Unskyld! Beklager! I know I was a terrible nuisance and regret it. The trouble was that if you didn’t hug the guy in front of you, some ambitious idiot would squeeze in. And I clearly haven’t mastered skiing in formation. At least not with people who are a lot slower than me. Start, stop, wait, start, brake (going uphill!), still run into the pole tips of the guy in front me, excuse myself and then do it all again. Aaaarrrghhhhh!

Somewhere in the tussle my water bottle fell out of my sack but I didn’t need it anyhow since there were drink stations and I had consciously drank a lot of water in the hours before the race.

After 4km at the top of the first climb I was able to shift techniques to V2/dobbeldans and pass some of the panting obstacles. Being able to V2/dobbeldans is a minor victory for me. My main goal for skating this season was to learn how to do it. The different skate steps are frequently compared to gears and V2/dobbeldans is the one just below free skating without poles on the downhills. However, the stronger a skater you are, the steeper the hill on which you will use V2/dobbeldans. Being a touch obsessive, I’ve been training hard on this technique. Earlier in the season there was a good climb back towards the house on my local trail to test it under difficult conditions and then later there was the trail in Sørkedalen up to Søndre Hegglivann.

Once I half-grasped the technique, I would use it nearly everywhere, going directly from dobbeldans to “paddling” only when confronted with the steepest climbs. The latter, where you grab the snow to one side ahead of you with your pole and pull it crab-like alongside one of your skis, really does resemble paddling a canoe. I have therefore willfully subsisted principally on two gears, perhaps to the detriment of my V1/enkekdans technique. But that may not be a loss because dobbeldans now feels significantly more energy efficient even when climbing steep hills. It really hurt at first but with dogged pursuit it has become my technique of choice which I am now also able to practice on rollerskis.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, was dobbeldansing in my cohort of race companions. Rather, there was a mixed bag going from good v1 right down to pole-heave-to-the-right-then-slump-back-to-the-left enkeldans. I don’t know how good my technique looks, but on longer, moderate climbs where the crowd got spread out thinly enough to let me move I wove through traffic like the young and irresponsible do slalom-style on the freeways of Southern California.

The descents were another story. In the Skarverennet there are some steep drops. And since crowds make me nervous, I was doubly terrorized. On the up side, others fell, while I did not. I got off balance on some of them but willed myself to stay afoot because I was too scared to fall. Were I alone, I’m sure I would have allowed myself to eat shit. I think there’s a lesson for me about mental toughness in this.

I yet again had crappy glide, which may have kept my speed down too. That said, I don’t think bad glide prevents you from going fast on steep drops. I think it just makes it impossible to hold your speed afterward when you come down onto the flats. I again had the ridiculous experience of having slow people whom I passed like they were standing still come gliding right past me on the downhills. After the race I spoke to a representative from the Swix ski wax company and showed him my skis. He didn’t see anything wrong. I’m going to have to invest some effort to work through this mystery. Ski waxing is truly a dark art!

Throughout the race my internal voice told me that my crowd-hindered speed was enough. It may have been right. I saw several of those who aggressively tried to advance themselves get tangled up with their neighbors and break poles. I never looked at my watch but was pretty sure I’d make my three hour goal, so I said “this is OK, just keep going”. My conservative approach was comforted by the expectation that exhaustion would creep up and that I would need the reserve I was holding back.

But that never happened. I sailed over “Champagne Hill”, the last climb, with a disappointing excess of energy. There I had done all I could do. After that it would be 8km of slow sliding on skis that didn’t glide. Free skated a little, but my chicken instinct took over most of the time and I felt it was better to play it conservative in the crowd–most of which was passing me.

I sprinted halfheartedly across the finish line, turned in my timing chip and collected my pin. Happily I had made it in time to see the Men’s and Women’s awards ceremonies:

It was a bittersweet end. I had bettered my time compared to last year by an hour and twenty eight minutes. I had beaten my goal of three hours by a cool thirty two minutes. I’d developed the most important skating technique to a level well above the Norwegian average. I should be happy with all that after just two seasons on skis. But had I been more confident when it was time to line up, I could have made it over the Hallingskarvet a good deal faster. I self-selected into the loser crowd.

The best thing, I think, is to learn from the experience and make some resolutions for the future:

  1. Sign up for the Skarverennet on the first day possible (1 October) and get on the first train from Oslo. Or maybe even book lodging in the start area.
  2. Don’t go in the competitive class. Just start in the early morning and wear something GPS enabled for precise time tracking.
  3. Get to the bottom of the ski glide waxing mystery. If the scientific method doesn’t bear fruit, then get my skis professionally waxed for the race.
  4. Maybe join a ski club to learn to ski in formation.
  5. Do some slalom skiing to build downhill skills.

Trip details:

  • Temp: -6 to +0C with a mixture of clouds and sun and a light to moderate tail wind.
  • Style: Skate.
  • Distance: 38km race. Then 5 more afterward because I was cold waiting for the train.

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