The Inaugural Long Hall Loppet was held on March 14, 2020. Like many of the races this season, the weather leading up to the race was not quite ideal, but the venue delivered an exceptional event. Not only was there a meteorological event that threatened the Long Hall, but there was also a State of Emergency to consider as well. Organizers and skiers persevered, and with some modification as well as planned luck, the event was held within the constraints of the recommended guidelines.
The saying in like a lion out like a lamb had not been tested too much for March 2020, but the Wildcat was roaring in Pinkham Notch. High winds whipped through the Ellis River Valley, putting a chill on the athletes even though the temperature was climbing well into the thirties under sunny skies. A portable yurt was erected, only to be swept off into the woods by a powerful gust within moments of being anchored to the trail. In the excitement, it collapsed and folded itself up into its compact transport configuration, and it was decided that it was best to leave it where it was and deal with it later.
The Long Hall Loppet had a rolling start. This was a concept few had experience with, but participants adapted, and it made for natural social distancing for the “socially awkward” Nordic skiing population. My initial thought was that it would provide people the opportunity to get a jump on things and not tie up timers at the end of the day if they may not be the fastest skier out there. As it turned out, people used the two-hour starting window to determine the condition they wanted to ski on. Many opted for an early start on firmer snow, while others waited until it softened a little. Some wanted to get it done and move on with the day, and others wanted to chase. There were many other reasons, as well. The rolling start seemed to work for everyone, and may be a model for future races when circumstances discourage assembly of large numbers of people.
Aside from the strong gusty wind, conditions far exceeded expectations! Jackson still had a significant natural snow base, and the groomer did a phenomenal job preparing the trail for the race. The snow was a mix of slightly transformed and granular. The skate track had been nicely tilled, providing a fast, yet cushioned surface that skis rode beautifully on. The course was modified as snow from the touring center to the Ellis River Trail was compromised in the fields, but as stated, there seemed to be at least foot and a half that stuck in the woods. The start/finish was moved to the Rocky Branch Parking area and climbed up the North Hall Trail, then down the South Hall. Skiers continued down Bengt/Wifferdill/Bengt and picked up South Ellis. They pressed onward to North Ellis, up Kellogg, and finally returned to Rocky Branch on a short two-way on North Hall.
The course was challenging. With the start being moved to Rocky Branch, it started with a steady 5km climb the seemed never-ending and only got steeper! Then came some fun downhills, followed by more technical downhills that even the fastest skiers found themselves checking speed on. It was a precaution, and a few felt they had scrubbed more speed than was necessary. Once on the Ellis River Trail, the terrain rolled smoothly with familiarity. Before the end of the race, there was one more climb with a couple of single stick pitches in it, then an easy downhill finish for the last half kilometer.
So, what’s up with a rolling start? Is there racing action? You bet there is! A small group of skiers hovered around the start at 9:00 a.m. Timers offered a fifteen-second interval to those ready to go. Due to the wind, most skipped warming up and wanted to get on course. They also wanted to get on the trail before it got too skied in. Peter Caffery (Unattached) was an early starter and hammered on the more technical downhills. David Johnston (MNC) was also an early starter and skied his way through getting first tracks for much of the race. As a person who started a few minutes after the initial group, it was interesting to hypothesize who left what tracks. Karen Alence’s (MNC) were easy to pick out being classic tracks, but others were more intriguing. You could see that one person had people track while another would ski around them with a more extended narrower V. The crust on the side of the trail was ski-able, and you could see that people took advantage of that as well. The downhills were especially interesting as many had plowed straight down, another made tight turns, and one person appeared to have bombed down, leaving the track of a slim edge here and there.
While it was fun to track and imagine who was doing what, and how that converted to position in the results, there was also an awareness that those behind were doing the same. The thought of being caught drove you to ski well, and the further into the course you got, the more determined you were to hold your place on course. Jeff Palleiko (Gunstock) had this in mind as he made his way around the loop. Even though there was no way of knowing when others started behind you, the probability of not being caught improved, motivating one to ski harder as those chasing were running out of course.
Like most of the field, I started out fast. As the hill continued, I realized that things would need to change as I could not sustain my pace, and I had not even hit 1km yet. I altered my approach, focusing on form and switched sides every five poles, as I have learned from canoeing. Someone once told me that upper body fatigue begins after only four strokes, and cycling has taught me the benefit of a ten-second rest, so five it is for me. My experience has taught me to do this, and it is what works when economy and efficiency are necessary to extend power. Others noticed the first climb was unrelenting as well and had to adjust accordingly.
As I skied, I began to catch people. Competitors were cordial as was I, trying to give room and not pass when it did not make much sense to. On the hill, people were near-threshold, breathing deeply, and commenting on the climb. Karen was skiing along and not using much real estate with the classic technique. She thought things were wonderful at about the halfway mark on the hill. I passed others who seemed happy to let up a little as I went by. Wendy Clark (Unattached) and Laurel Smith (Jackson) were enjoying the day skiing together. William Norton (Saxtons River) was also in the mix.
Bonnie Underwood (Woodstock) was near the crest of the hill when we met. Both of us pressing on, though a reduction of enthusiasm was detectable after climbing 900 feet over 5km with a few pitches well over 20% grade. There was a quick acknowledgment and smile before moving on. I wondered if today would be the day that James Underwood (Woodstock) would beat me in a race as the time is close with his rapid improvement as a U14. He was nowhere in sight, so perhaps this would be the day it happens. Just before the course really dropped off on the downhills, I overtook David Anderson (Fast & Happy Bicycles). As I was soon plunging, I hoped I was not impeding him.
Kenneth Kimball (Jackson) skied out to cheer and offer support. It was nice to come across him in the middle of nowhere as it was a Lonely Loppet. I was fortunate not to encounter anyone on the downhills. While it probably would not have been a problem, it is nice to have the whole trail to yourself when things get technical. I made it down, bracing more than I needed. I know some others opted to slide down on their behinds.
Bob Burnham (CSU) took a hard fall that compromised the rest of his race. Wisely he found someone to chaperon him to medical rather than push the envelope. Once on the Ellis River trail, it was time to get back to business. I knew who was ahead of me and who was chasing. I reminisced the early White Mountain Classic Races when we raced on this side of the touring center's network and had flashbacks of a race with Joe Holland (Putney) and Dhyan Nirmegh (NWVE) when it was advantageous for me to finish between them as long as Nirmegh was ahead. Joe is a better skier, but I had a lot more energy at the time.
In the process, I began to wonder why I had not passed Jud Hartmann (NWVE) yet. Given our historical results, I should have been close. I started to have doubts. Was my internal metronome off? Was I slacking? I must have been moving as Chris Burnham (NWVE) had not caught me. I caught another skier, relieved until I saw it was not Jud. Then another, not Jud. Finally, I saw Jud’s suit, and the reason I had not caught him. He was hopping along, showing a lot of pep and agility as we skied around where a landslide years ago had changed the Ellis River Trail. My skis were running well on the surface, and I was able to go by with a long glide.
Now that I had gotten by Jud, I was still looking for James, as well as keeping Chris and Dennis Page (Nansen) at bay. As I neared the end of the Ellis Trail, I saw another skier. I got closer and recognized the suit of Carrie Nourjian (Stowe Nordic). I had forgotten that she was one of the first out and realized she was having a great day. She did, taking second overall for Women. As I passed Carrie, I saw her carrot, which had been within range the whole race. James was just ahead, fatigue setting in. The finish of this course was challenging. The Kellogg Trail was formidable in the last kilometers before the finish. James had raced hard and being so young, his heart allowed him to push himself into an energy deficit, and his muscles were starting to provide feedback that the final hill was not going to go so well. He moved aside as I went by, giving a cheer and resumed, but Carrie had him in her clutches as well. James skied valiantly, but when the muscles say enough, there is not much to do but obey. Carrie got by. It was good motivation as Amy Gunn (Black Water) was only five seconds back in the results, even though starting close to a half-hour later. This is the beauty of the rolling start, a nearly 18km chase that resulted in more than one conclusion!
As I finished, CSU's Victor Golovkin was just starting out along with teammate Robert Faltus. There were even more lining up to start the race. There were a few New Hampshire High School athletes looking to get in a race due to the cancellation of the Eastern High School Championships. Another benefit for the rolling start. You did not have to be an early riser! The trail was softening, and that was what some were waiting for. Others came into the finish as I was taking off my skis. Chris Burnham was still tearing it up with salt rivulets streaming down his face. I was impressed I held him off with that kind of effort, and likewise, he complimented me on my ski as he fully expected to catch me. Chris went back out to cheer Melissa Manning (NWVE) but his trip was quick as she skied in to be the first overall woman! Charlie Gunn (Black Water Nordic) was soon to finish too. The Gunn's were sympathetic to the cancellation of the Junior National's in Truckee, CA, and the disappointment for the athletes that had worked so hard to earn their way to the championship. They understood the difficult call that needed to be made with mounting, uncontrollable obstacles impending on the latter half of that competition—Heartbreaking, yet the right call, and for the best.
After athletes completed the race, they were offered some individually wrapped snacks and a beer from the sponsor Athletic Brewing. As Jud and I chatted about the race, I clumsily spilled some of my beverage. Jud shook his head with a look of disgust. “I don’t know, seems pretty potent for non-alcohol!” Athletes were grateful for the opportunity, and the measures taken to conform to the recommendations of the time. Most had nothing but accolades for the course. Jackson did an excellent preparing and hosting, and the Loppet was not so lonely after all! Paul King (Tamworth) says that the Hall is the toughest trail in the area. “We ski it once a year as an exercise in humility."