Several Nordic Skiing enthusiasts ventured to St. Albans, VT, for the Hard’ack 8km Challenge Race. It has been several years since the venue has hosted an event like this. The day was perfect to showcase the recent improvements to the venue and trail system. Operating as a non-profit, the area relies on passionate volunteers to keep it running. Several NWVE members have had a significant stake in its continuance from Lary Martell, who donated time, equipment, and expertise to lay the foundation and improve the Morton Designed trail network, Scott Magnan, who work closely with Lary envisioning a home for the BFA Nordic Ski Team, to Mike Cain who oversaw its upkeep and expansion, and now Tyler Magnan who is filling the shoes Mike left. Over the years, the area has ebbed and flowed, being reliant on donations and community interest. Recent investments have helped with improvements, but it remains a labor of love for those who care about the community and the diamond of family recreational opportunity Hard’ack and Aldis Hill provide.
Skiers fretted over the forecast in the week leading to the race. It called for rain and warmth, something we have not had to contend with since this season started! It caused concern as the Champlain Valley can lose its snow base quickly, especially with rain. Race Director Tyler Magnan reassured participants that there was nothing to worry about. The snowpack was durable, and the grooming would be indistinguishable from larger centers with big machines. Hard’ack does have a big machine that was utilized for portions of the course. Skiers arrived while the course was still being set. Going on the photographic memories of Jessica Bolduc and Jake Hollenbach, who studied a course map, a group set out to explore the course. It was not long before Helen Hollenbach commented, "this is beautiful." It indeed was with broad, level corduroy, a mix of meadow, woods, and hills, as well as a few skiable blind turns that gave just enough uncertainty to have you question your approach. I do not know if all the trails have names. There may only be one named trail, "Mashtare’s Massacre," a hill to honor Mike Mashtare, the veteran Running (and Ski) Coach at BFA.
After the preview, we returned to pick up our numbers, adjust our skis and finish warming up. There were some different interpretations of the course going around, including those who thought they were in the know. Another question was if we were doing Mashtare’s Massacre the easy or hard way. Apparently, the course took it the easy way, which I think is more difficult than the other way. Even though there were some inconsistencies with what people thought we were supposed to do, spirits were light, and it was an atmosphere of fun. It was hard not to be excited about the spectacular conditions on a warm sunny day.
The course started in the soccer field next to the lower parking lot. From there, it climbed the hill, hugging the tree-line, and entered the woods. After a couple of swooping drops, it rose steadily until a hard right took you down a hill. On this righthand corner was a sapling that begged to be grabbed to whip you around the corner. It was very tempting to hook this tree with my elbow, as I would in a running race, but having a pole attached to your hand added some complexity that probably would not end well if attempted. At the end of the downhill, a tight chicane spits you out into the middle of the Middle Field. At the end of the Middle Field, skiers made a U-turn and began climbing back to the Sledding Hill and pump track. Around here, you started climbing Mashtares Massacre the "easy way" and eventually descended onto the Powerline Trail. This trail was a gradual downhill until a sharp right-hand turn, then more downhill to a hard left, and then skiers looped around the Far Field. Upon exiting the Far Field, skiers were back in the Middle Field and took a run down the Dragstrip going south. At the end of this segment, skiers took another right into the woods for a little loop before the Lap/Finish area. The snow was transformed and softening after an overnight freeze; the temps were in the low thirties and climbing, the wind was from the south and increasing throughout the day.
Skiers sensed it was time to get going and began circling the soccer field. The 5-minute warning was given, and people started lining up. The field was seeded with the fastest at the front. Two waves were created based on registration. The first wave was underway at 10:00 a.m. Jake Hollenbach (NWVE) led things off for the day. Jake had a solid race and never looked back, leading wire to wire. Following Jake were Eli Enman (NWVE) and Adam Terko (MNC). Adam was on a mission to catch Eli, which he did, and after a little back and forth, Eli managed to edge Adam at the line, but not on time with the 15-second interval. Sam Noel was next. He held his spot but skied the race alone. Brook Hodgeman (St. Albans Nordic, MNC, SMC, NWVE) had a race similar to Sam's except for having Michael Millar (MNC) in his rearview mirror. I hoped that Michael was tired from the 50km club ski he did the day before. He admitted he was tired but not tired enough for me to see much of him during the race. I assumed my usual role of not getting caught by Steve Crafts (MNC). I was also worried about John Thompson (NWVE, Castleton) and James Donegan (NWVE), and Jacob Tremblay (BFA). Steve stayed within sight, but on the final stretch down the Dragstrip, I was able to gain enough to hold him off in the results. Jacob caught me on the second approach to Mashtare’s Massacre and dropped me. John and James were over a minute back in the start order, and with the fast conditions, it was tough to make up that kind of ground. James did overtake a couple of skiers in his race and cruised into a top ten finish! Scott Magnan (NWVE) started a little after the halfway mark in the order. He had fun picking off some of his former skiers, Cody Putnam (NWVE) and Cody Boissoneault (NWVE). Still, He may have had mixed emotions about his current skier Lydia Hodgeman (BFA, MNC) overtaking him. Lydia has been having a great season. Scott looked great skiing and was not inhibited by the low back issues that have been a persistent issue over the years. Kasie Enman (NWVE) was one of the few that raced in short-sleeves, seemingly committing to the decision upon exiting the car. Kasie also had some of the youngest skiers in the field to chase. In front of her were Hanna Holm (MNC) and Virginia Cobb (MNC). I wonder if they knew they had a Multi-Sport World Champion and Olympic trialist chasing them! Virginia knocked it out of the park overtaking many skiers on her mission to the finish line. Craig Pepin (MNC) chased Kasie and closed a bit but could not pass her in the race. Perry Bland (NWVE) got his first race of the season under his belt. He has been staying fit with some skiing and loved that Hard’ack was able to host the best race of the season! He was also impressed with the Magnan boys doing such a great job with the event. Rosemary Shea-Cobb (MNC), Jessica Bolduc (NWVE), and Helen Hollenbach (NWVE) finished the start order for Wave 1 and probably had the most competitive race of the day. Rosemary held her position and did not get caught, but Jessica and Helen worked together to edge Rosemary on time. Helen was able to catch Jessica, but on the Dragstrip, Jessica re-took Helen and put a few seconds on before the finish line.
Wave 1 cooled down as Wave 2 arrived and assembled. The wind was picking up, and the course seemed to be glazing a bit. Wave 2 had about half the number of racers as Wave 1. It was intended to be a novice group, but late entrants were also incorporated. For many, this race was a family affair, and the separate groups enabled more participation. After an inspection, Oliver Tremble (MNC/NWVE) wanted to get the lowdown from his Uncle Jake, who won Wave 1. I pointed out that Jake had taken all the speed out of the course, and that's why everyone else was so much slower than him. Oliver wanted to know how this was possible, and Jake explained how his skis have klister sprayers that resemble Inspector Gadgets shoe oilers. Eric pointed out that you have to be careful not to deploy such an advantage on the first lap of a two-lap race. This did not seem to be very relevant to Oliver, who was excited to be wearing Camille's old ski suit as a hand-me-down from the Carlsons, and that it was blue like his dad's!
Wave two got underway, with Eric Tremble (NWVE) leading the way wire to wire. Eric was chased by Tyler Magnan (NWVE), Rose Clayton (MNC), and Jamie Willsey (NWVE). Rose skied up to Tyler and slowly pulled away. Jamie held his position and, like many on the day, skied alone. He did have several fans to cheer him on as they cooled-down! Cipperly Good (NWVE) was reluctant to enter but obliged when her dad Wally Good (NWVE) said he would race as well. Cipperly was chased by Allison Holm (MNC) and Karen Alence (MNC). Cipperly caught a few racers and wanted to make sure she had a gap on them. Wally had a great ski while practicing, “making it look serious.” Tough to do in a pair of 1970’s designer cords, but his 35-year-old Atomics looked like they meant business. The final starter was Oliver Tremble (MNC, NWVE). He was tuning up for this weekend's BKL Festival and wanted to beat his dad to the finish line. Oliver was psyched to pass some grown-ups in the race and cranked it up when he saw Eric closing in on him. Oliver met his goal with a 4-second margin and was super excited to have competed in the race. He celebrated by taking a couple of downhill runs on the alpine hill.
Just as with the cross-country running season, Hard’ack provided an inclusive event where participants could enjoy some aspects of the sport that pandemic restrictions have diminished. It has shown a different way while complying with the state and governing body's recommendations. All who participated were very appreciative of this now as well as last fall. Families participated together and had various activities to pique their interest. The weather cooperated, providing the perfect conditions for the challenge. Tyler and his volunteers did an excellent job hosting the race and providing a great experience; all are sure to remember!