Chris McLaren Race Report

I’m 42. I first did the race when I was 40, in 2012. But I tore my ACL between that race and this year’s, so this year was a comeback for me. I trained about as hard as last time, and in 2012 I finished in 3:32 starting from Wave 9. This time I started from Wave 4.

I happen to have it really good when it comes to pre-race hassles. I am with a group who found a cabin to rent near the start line in 2012. So this year, like the last time I did this, I was able to rise relatively late and just walk to the start.

Things didn’t get less good until I got to the start area. Everyone looked very cold, and very shortly so was I. I got into the tent and it was no warmer, though the shelter from the wind made it preferable. I’d never seen a tent that big with its poles so bent and tilted.

My toes got cold. My body was kind of achy feeling—I too felt like I’d be sick for sure the day before, but I’d slept well and that seemed to hold it off. But given how I wanted to avoid freezing, I’d waited too long to get to the gate for my wave.

I waited until 9 minutes to go, then left the tent, ran my bag to the trucks, ran back to get my skis. I had to go to the bathroom again but but then there was no time. I queued up to get into the gate and had my skis on with 90 seconds to go. But the digital clock quit running so they basically just told us when to go. Because I hadn’t invested more body heat to be there earlier, I was in the back half of the wave. I came to regret this. There was far more consistent crowding this time vs. 2012. I would’ve been better off trying to break away from the wave at the start.

The bar was raised and we were off. I was kind of excited, but also pensive about the course. I knew it was going to be tougher than 2012 but I really had no idea. What would it mean to have a “soft course”?

Well, it became clear soon enough. Even before we got off the airfield, it was evident that the snow was really loose and slow. The cold made it coarse. The depth and softness sucked up energy. There was little glide to be had. Like the difference between running on pavement and running in loose sand.

Up the power lines. We’re not skiing up these hills. We’re just … walking up them. It occurred to me soon enough that I’d be better off with snowshoes than skis. In fact it is possible I might have been faster snowshoeing, I don’t know. The thing is, at first I kept telling myself, it can’t all be like this, it has to get better. But it didn’t. I recall several times planting my poles on the way up hills, or even on flats, and feeling the pole just keep sinking into the deck. It was crazy.

By the time I got to 10K marker, I’d already felt cramping in my calves. Luckily that calmed down after a while, but it seemed like my body was reacting poorly to conditions. There was no reason I should be cramping after all the training I’d done. I was looking for the 15K marker after the 10, thinking it must be coming up, and was absolutely appalled to see the 11K marker come into view. It literally felt like it had been at least 3K. It was one. I was mentally gaming myself already, telling myself to hang in there until I got to the high point of the race, and also fighting off thoughts that I might not be able to even finish this year. I was already tired far beyond anything I remembered from 2012 and not even halfway through yet.

I got to the high point. Remember slogging past it. It was slightly positive to see that. But the next thing I had to look forward to was OO and the halfway point. So I kept thinking about what the next milestone would be and telling myself to hold on at least until I got to it. Each feed station was thus not just a chance to fuel up, it was also increasingly a psychological boost for me. I was working so much harder than I remembered from 2012, it wasn’t even close.

Getting to OO was a big deal because I knew the course “calmed down” a bit from then on, and I’d have a chance to recover a bit. Of course, this year that really didn’t happen – the challenge of skiing even gentle terrain was significantly harder so there really was no chance to “recover”. However, I’d come this far and though I was definitely not feeling strong, I wasn’t getting weaker either.

People were a lot quieter this time. Everyone was working really hard, including me. Everyone was trying to go as fast as possible, even though you couldn’t move. People were trying to avoid each other’s skis and poles, and mostly succeeding, but sometimes not. I myself hit a few people’s skis, but only a few times and never more than once at a time. A guy behind me on one of the uphills after OO actually hit me three times in sequence. He apologized after the second time, and then like 2 seconds later he stepped on my pole. This on an uphill for which we were all part of a conveyor belt of skiers. I kind of lost it on him. I’m like, “Come on, man—how hard can it be?” That was the least fun part of the whole race.

Somewhere along the way after OO but before Mosquito Brook, my right tricep started cramping. To deal with this, I tried to pole less and favored my right glide ski. That held it off for while, but then the other tricep started cramping. Then the left quad. And finally the right. But by then I was at Mosquito Brook.

Up Bitch Hill. I was still fighting cramps, but they weren’t getting worse. They were just there … meanwhile, even at Bitch Hill it was herringboning, not skiing, up the hills. So I did that, and when I got to the top I saw a very buxom woman wearing a blue stewardess outfit, and that amused me.

I passed several skiers after Bitch Hill, not because I was feeling better than them, but perhaps because I was used to feeling ruined by then. However, I suppose I must have been a bit stronger than some others. Everyone was struggling. Anyway, I got to one of the last aid stations and drank and “gu’d” and ate a few bananas as usual. I really had to go to the bathroom by now, but I was hoping I could get through to the finish without having to stop.

Some time after the last aid station but before the lake, I finally gave up and pulled over to pee. That was a bummer, probably cost me 2-3 minutes. On the other hand, my lower back hurt less immediately and I felt a bit lighter. I kept going. Seemed to be passing more people now – managed to catch up to those who passed me while I was peeing on the hills ahead of the lake.

One guy did pass me at that time though – he was wearing an Old Glory body suit that was quite striking. As he got ahead of me I decided to “celebrate” the moment and shout “AMERICA!” Others behind me let out a few whoops. That was the lightest moment of the entire race for me.

Then it was time for the lake.

To be completely honest, by the time I got to the lake, I really felt like I’d won. I told myself many times in the prior several hours if I could just get to the lake, I’d let myself quit. Of course I got to it and didn’t. I got there and I kept going. I thought about finding someone up ahead to follow behind, but that seemed useless. A few I was alongside went straight for the Jagermeister being offered just a few hundred yards out, to the left of the trail. I’m not a drinker anymore so that was easy enough to ignore. I just tried to find a rhythm I could sustain and stuck with it. I searched to the left and then right of the trail for the hardest, fastest snow. I passed more people than passed me. It helped that this time I knew it was the second watertower we had to head to, not the first. It took forever, as with everyone, but finally I was off the lake. Anyway the snow off the lake was easier than in previous years. A girl half my age passed me going off the lake. I decided to try to stay with her through to the finish. She went right, I left, and we both kicked for the finish. She beat me but I knew I’d won. I heard my name as I crossed the finish line, and raised my arms in victory.

I’ve run 3 Ragnars, 2 marathons, and now 2 Birkies. This race was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I hope I get to try again next year.

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