Monday, January 28, 2008

Race Weekend

Competitors started arriving in Jackson late last week for the White Mountain Classic 30K marathon. Most identifiable were the skiers from Harvard, in their bright red, white and black, but you can always tell a racer. You just can't tell them much.

Traffic started picking up on Thursday. Racers flitted all around the trails on Friday. All week the local neurotics had been talking about weather and wax. Forecast providers fed their anxiety by changing the predicted high temperature across three grades of kick wax in three days. No one would wax too early, but it's never too early to start obsessing about it.

By the night before the event, the forecast had settled down solidly in the range for anyone's favorite brand of wax rated for the upper teens to the low twenties. The night was supposed to be pretty chilly, lower teens if not a bit colder, with a forecast high from 21 to 23, depending on which forecast provider you like. With a start at 10 a.m., the temperature should be on its way up. Top racers will knock off the 30 kilometers in about an hour and a half. The slowest skiers were personally predicting they would take more than four hours. It should have been pretty straightforward.

Eight a.m. brought a temperature of 21 degrees F, after a much milder night than anyone had predicted. Where would the temperature go from here? Would it zoom up to the 28 or 29 mentioned days ago?

We had stocked up on a big pile of the wax most likely to work, based on forecasts from the latter part of the week. Next to that stood a much smaller pile of the next warmer wax, which quickly dwindled even further as skiers panicked. It was a race between our small supply and the inexorable clock ticking down toward starting time.

Anyone who actually put on that warmer wax probably had a rough time. The temperature never got above 24. The original wax choice remained the right choice. The best glide wax turned out to be a grade warmer, but even there, the ranges overlap sufficiently that many racers had already chosen that option.

For the race organizers and the actual workers who carried out the grand plan, it was a long, hard day. The course had to be built the day before and taken down after the stampede. Two hundred registered skiers came through the lodge, building gradually to peaks before and after the race. Since they had not come to shop, we had some time to observe them from the retail enclosure.

I prefer to see racers from a distance. We don't have much to talk about. I don't get absurdly tweaky about equipment, and some of them decidedly do. Many of them know more about the intimate technicalities of the gear we sell than I do. I came from the woods, and only developed much interest in fast skiing on groomed trails as a result of working beside them day after day. When a real gram-geeking millimeter freak comes in, he usually leaves soon after with his sense of superiority reinforced.

One guy was pushing seven feet tall and weighed 240 pounds. Through his thick northern European accent I gathered that he felt slighted that ski manufacturers do not produce a lavish selection of top-end skis for gentlemen of his size.

"What can I tell you?" I said to his sternum. "Here's their 800 number. Let 'em have it."

Many more people need just a little technical leg up as they try to decide whether to get sportier skis than require detailed analysis to get the absolute perfect ultra-performance racing ski for someone who weighs exactly 73.547297 kilograms. But don't those ultra-tweaked racers like to look down their nose at the shop lackey who isn't up to speed on the latest greatest and the last 15 years of the history of the top ski from the brand of their choice? It's another whole sport to them.

To be a good host I should probably polish up my game enough to be able to volley with them a while before they smash one past me and leave the court in triumph. But frankly, the real world needs me more than they do. What happens in a winter of mud and desolation? I do other things rather than pine for what I can't be doing.

Ski manufacturers will have a new marvel every year or two. That's just how it is. It may be a repackaged old marvel or it may be a shiny new abomination, but you can be assured, there will be technical specifications.

I'll have to read them some time. But right now I'm going skiing.

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