Was love in the air for the Woodstock Ski Runners Sweetheart Race?
On Sunday, February 9, 2020, the Woodstock Ski Runners held their annual event at the Woodstock Nordic Center. Race Director Nick Mahood personally welcomed skiers from around New England participating in the growing race. Many were forward to a low-key, easy race on the second day of a Bluebird Ski Weekend.
It was a remarkably scenic ride to Woodstock. Traveling through the Green Mountains after a fresh dumping of snow made for picturesque scenes and vistas worthy of postcards. Snow clung to the tree branches and layered everything with a pristine white coating. The sky was blue, but upon hitting the heights of Randolph, a haze on the horizon represented the impeding front that would drop more snow that evening. It was an interesting commute as I wanted to get out of the car and ski everything, but my journey was to Woodstock to race.
Upon arriving in Woodstock, skiers were greeted with a packed house. The BKL event is wildly popular, and they were having their awards with standing room only and people spilling out of the reception hall. Tucked away in a corner was the registration table that we had to weave our way to through the enthusiastic cheers of the awards ceremony to get to. A course map was provided, but little attention was paid to it at first glance – start, three 5km laps, finish, got it.
The temperature hovered around 10-degrees, and the sun was out; however, the snowy front was creeping closer with some occasional stray flakes reaching the ground. The snow surface was fast! Woodstock had not received a lot of new snow with the last storm, and the groomer did an excellent job mixing the powder, ice, and old snow into a fast solid track. Skiers warmed up on the course and found their expectations were wrong. Most were thinking of a flat drag race on the golf course, but found we were to race on rolling terrain in the woods with some steep climbs and technical turns! The course started in the stadium, crossed the Kendron Brook, and began climbing the Overlook Trail. Skiers followed this for the most part out to Easy Glade and returned on Brookside East after climbing The Hill. The course was very skiable and flowed nicely. The trails were narrow, offered plenty of variation, and had good recoveries after the climbs.
Skiers returned to the stadium and began setting their skis out for the start. We chatted about how the course was different than what we were expecting but in a good way. Chief of Timing Bob Haydock (Bogburn/CSU) came out and was a little confused about what we were doing. “Its interval start!" he exclaimed to our surprise. Someone shouted back that we wanted a mass start. Bob just looked over his glasses at us like we were a bunch of lunatics. Given the width of the trail, interval start was the right call. Bob lined us up and told us not to finish too soon as he was the official starter and finish timer. At 15-second intervals, racing got underway.
The ten pre-registered women started first led out by Woodstock's own Bonnie Underwood. The Mansfield Nordic Club had a large contingent at the race, including four women. Racing was underway, with a few opting to Classic Ski the race. Tracks were set along the side of the trail the whole way, so it was a viable option. As the men lined up, it was noted that cyclists Christopher Naimie (Bow Nordic) and Jamie Willsey (NWVE) were ordered next to each other, making for an interesting matchup as Christopher is a Crit/Sprint specialist, whereas, Jamie is more of a Cross/Climber type. Others were hoping for a different position in the start order as they had planned on marking each other in the race. As the skiers departed, it was clear that there were different agendas in mind. Some were building confidence, more were enjoying a fun opportunity to compete, and a few others were on a mission.
With skiers on the course, the racing intensified. Most attacked the event like it was a 5km race and hammered early on. Sara Graves (Stowe Nordic) worked her way through the field and skied fast enough not to be caught by any men. This was, in a way, an advantage as she had little traffic to contend with on the narrow track. Skiers were, for the most part, polite when passing, but there were a few spots where bottlenecks could occur. Mostly where skiers would be going slow anyway, so it was not a significant factor. Bonnie was overly polite, stepping off the trail to let skiers by, but used the opportunity to cheer on her son James Underwood (Woodstock), who was coming off a huge weekend with double wins at the Craftsbury Marathon BKL Challenge. James was holding his own in the open race, chasing down a few skiers and pacing off Jeff Palleiko (Gunstock) for a bit.
Mike Millar (MNC) skied through the crowd, catching almost everyone from his 22nd start position. I thought my skiing was fast, but Mike came by and was quickly out of sight, as was Adam Gropf (Ford Sayre) and David Johnstone (MNC). They also went on to be the top three, respectively.
On lap two, skiers started looking over their shoulders a bit. A sign that fatigue from lap one had set in. The flurry of action in the first lap settled into more protracted efforts. Paces evened out, and overtaking objectives became more of a process. A lot of people used lap two to catch their breath. Steve Crafts (MNC) was trying to keep Pat Giersch (CSU) in sight, who in turn, was trying to keep me in range. I was skiing well for the second day in a row, and trying to stay ahead of the two who started behind me. Fortunately, I saw in the distance Jamie Willsey (NWVE) and focused on reeling him in. The course had a few spots where you could check your progress, the best being in the lap area, and there always seemed to be an MNC uniform closing. Michael Gaughan (MNC) was the one sighted on the final lap giving me an extra boost to stay focused on holding position.
Oddly, after two laps, we began to hit some wrong-way traffic. Somewhere in the latter half of their second lap Bill Donohue (Gunstock) and one of the MNC women got off course and were skiing into the field. Bill dropped out, but the other skier got back into it after quickly realizing the error and finding their way back on track. The course was well marked, and everyone had successfully completed the lap at least once, but it is understandable that while you are in it, you can be distracted and find yourself in a place other than where you thought you were. Due to the low-key vibe of the race, anyone who finished was given a position with the Bogburn rules enforced.
Jamie picked his way through some lapped traffic and, at the top of the steep hill, offered to let me by. His skies were faster, so I drafted him down one more hill before overtaking him with a couple of kilometers to go. Renate Adamowicz (MNC) was just ahead as we closed in on completing the lap portion of the race. She yielded at the bottom of the last downhill and as Jamie and I split off for the finish. We raced all the way to the line. Michael Gaughan came through a few seconds later, along with Pat Giersch. We watched as those we had passed over the course of the race streamed into the finish. Jeff Palleiko (Gunstock) and Steve Crafts had a bit of a sprint to the finish. James Underwood U14 was right there too. For the Women, Leah Silverman came in, but Sarah Glueck (Ford Sayre), who had registered late cruised in soon after to take 2nd overall for women behind Sara Graves. A couple of other Ford Sayre women would hold off Mansfield with Kate Newick (Ford Sayre) and Angelina Andrews (Ford Sayre) edging Tristan Adie (MNC) and then Cindy Glueck (Ford Sayre) right behind her. Renate Katie Hill (MNC) and Karen Alence (MNC) would follow closely. Karen was one who opted for the traditional technique.
While on course, it seemed like things had spread out a lot, as racers made their way into the finish, they seemed quite close together. A deception due to the speed of the snow. As we cooled down, we encouraged some of the athletes in the Try It 5km Race. They looked great and hopefully were inspired to see how they fare in a longer race. It was undoubtedly a good day and course to try racing. Conditions were excellent, the course was challenging, and the intimidation factor was sufficient enough to give a sense of accomplishment yet not disillusion you. People had similar stories about the race and how they felt at different points. In the end, they were all happy to have done it, celebrating skiing and sharing the many different ways each person loves the sport.