It all started last summer when I was stuffing my face with french toast at Izzy’s, my favorite breakfast joint in Crested Butte, and noticed a poster on the wall. “What’s that guy in a chicken suit doing skiing down Elk Avenue?” I said as maple syrup dribbled down my chin. The poster was marked Alley Loop 2007, and right then and there, I decided to enter.
The Alley Loop is Colorado’s biggest nordic ski race. The course winds through downtown Crested Butte and back again, and depending on the heat, stretches anywhere from 1K to 42K. The kicker is that both professional athletes race, as do people dressed as chickens. It’s mostly a costume party. People who have no business on skinny skis take great joy in participating right alongside those dressed all in spandex. These shenanigans brought me great joy. I would dress as a donut! That way no one would expect too much of me, and if I happened to do really well, I would take everyone by surprise.
Fast forward to the fall. I paid my 21K entry fee, waxed my skis, and invested in a $24 training plan that was supposed to get me in shape for a race three times as long. I knew I would need to get in skate shape by February, but I was confident. You see, a few years ago I entered a mountain bike race. I didn’t really train, and on the day of the race I was the only one in tennis shoes riding the heaviest bike in sight. I almost won. In my mind, the Alley Loop would go down the same way. This was going to be a cake walk, donut costume and all.
Further boosting my confidence was the fact that I had just been sent a pair of Fischer skis and boots along with a closet’s worth of items from Swix. I was officially a sponsored skier in my very first race. The pressure was on.
It wasn’t until sometime late December when I tried to ski my first consecutive 13 miles that I realized I might have a problem. I found myself grinding up a hill seven miles in, nearly in tears. I wasn’t sure if my breakdown was caused by snow conditions or if I was legitimately incapable of skiing a half marathon without stopping to catch my breath, but it didn't bode well.
Then, the skis arrived. These things were fast. I skied my first 21k without taking a nap in between laps and decided I was ready. I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I was going to be able to finish thanks to the new gear and a new sense of optimism.
February 4th. Race day. There wasn’t enough time to fuel up at Izzy’s before the race, but I managed to get down some breakfast before heading to the start line right on Crested Butte’s main street. Standing there toeing the very back of the pack, my heart rate monitor was already reading 160 BPM–a truly astonishing rate, seeing as that’s normally what I clock when running up hill. The nerves would warm me up well though, since the course took off straight up and over one. The horn blew and off we went–single-poling in single-file behind one another to slowly tackle the steep section. Three steps later I skied directly over some lady’s foot. Down the backside of the hill, I side stepped (at considerable speed) around a fellow who got snagged in the powder that had fallen overnight. Looking back a moment later, the section had claimed eight people and broken at least one person’s pole.
I was feeling great considering I hadn’t eaten shit. Then I realized people in worse and worse costumes were passing me. I was probably somewhere close to last place. I tucked in behind a guy my dad’s age, disregarded my heart rate monitor, and got into a rhythm. Push, glide, gasp for mountain air at 9,000 feet. Repeat another 400 times.
The aid station almost took me out of the running entirely. I got boxed in while choking down an energy gel that would’ve gone better with about 10 gallons of water. The only way to get out was to demand clear passage by show of force–making words was hard enough–and push across a couple pairs of skis.
As I came into town I was delighted to find my friends had put on banana costumes and were waiting to cheer me on. I sped up for their entertainment and hoofed it around a downhill corner, almost falling as a result, before ducking out of view into one of the many tight alleys.
Things weren’t as hectic anymore, as most of the participants–costumed ones–were well ahead of me. I ignored my indignation as to how I could possibly be the least fit person there and tried to enjoy the view, which was gorgeous in typical Colorado fashion. Paradise Divide loomed in the distance covered in fresh snow, and Mt. Crested Butte popped out between flurries. I gritted my teeth, remained thankful for fast skis, and reveled in the extremely friendly competition–nearly ever person who passed me in the second lap congratulated me. In retrospect I’m not sure why they were offering up enthusiastic “good jobs!” I must’ve looked the way I was starting to feel.
The last corner nearly tipped me again, but this time I had the added challenge of being stuck behind an elf and a meteor. On the final stretch I wanted nothing more than to finish strong and pass them both, but they had the same idea. The three of us sprinted in unison to the finish line where finally, we could stop moving for the first time in two hours. I came in just under my self-imposed time goal with legs and lungs intact.
I’d like to tell you that I finished on the podium and spent the rest of the day partying in a banana costume. But in reality, I came in dead last in my age group (and the age group above me) and spent the rest of the day sleeping on the couch.
I haven’t decided if I’ll enter again next year. If I do, it will be with a costume and a group of friends. Because if you’re going to come in last place, you might as well do it in good company.