Lake Placid Loppet Report
The Lake Placid Loppet returned after a multiyear hiatus due to snow conditions and the COVID-19 disruption. It is also the first time the race has been held upon completing the new facilities at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. Skiers were welcomed in the beyond-state-of-the-art lodge to a folding registration table in the corner of the lobby. Some things stay the same.
The real story of the Lake Placid Loppet is the fabled course. For this year’s edition of the Loppet, the course was shortened from the 25km loop to a 12.5km loop. Be it an act-of-mercy, or a forgive them for they know not what they do, moment, much of the original course’s signature features remained intact. I am leaning toward the latter as this race was tough, even for the seasoned athletes.
I first learned of the course, perhaps at the 25th Anniversary of the race. There were notable dignitaries on hand at the banquet. I skated the half marathon and finished in shock. Just shy of curling up in the fetal position at the awards banquet, I was seated with Perry Bland (NWVE) and Lary Martell (NWVE), and a few older gentlemen at a table. They intently listened to me describe my experience and when I finished, exclaimed, "that's how you're supposed to feel!"
I was seated with Chummy Broomhall, among others who designed the course and knew Perry and Lary as ranking American skiers. They went on to describe how every inch of the course was planned. The subject matter was something I took great interest in. Everything about the course was designed to be deceptive. They even took advantage of the worldview that America could not create a world-class Loppet course. What they did do, was what they scientifically intended.
The 50km course is specifically designed to deplete all the energy out of your cells, deplete your psyche, and force the mightiest to crumble and cave to the pain that miscalculating on this track will inflict. Some of the deceptions are in that the elevation delta of the highest and lowest point is not that far apart. Copies of the course profile were elongated to level off the relentless pitches. Each climb was designed to lure the athlete into the red zone, followed by a watt-sucking downhill that offered no muscle recovery. Eventually and over the course of 50km, even the fittest skier’s competitive nature would be their undoing. The result was a brilliant masterpiece created by careful scientific analysis of human capability and re-ordering physiological transitions to cause an unsuspecting athlete to cease normal function throwing the body into irrecoverable turmoil before reaching the finish line. One by one, the fitness systems shut down, wholly expended, exhausted, and the ego crushed as the neuromuscular system goes haywire, sending uncontrollable shockwaves of spasms through the body.
Only experienced athletes will push themselves to this level of exhaustion. Ordinary people will heed the warning signs and back off. On some level, an athlete knows that they are making poor decisions and as a result, will blow up. That is a calculated risk that can happen anywhere, but what happens on this course is designed to take the experienced and seasoned athlete beyond their limits without noticing and then crack. It brings them so deep into the pain cave that before they realize it, they are lost in the darkness with no way to get out.
Lucky for us, the course still exists, and we can challenge ourselves to see if we can survive it on an annual basis.
I have always wanted to do the 50km Classic race, and when Justin Beckwith (NENSA) called to see if it should be added to the NENSA Marathon Series, I enthusiastically approved and said it should be all in! Since that call, it has been on my radar. A follow-up that sealed the deal was when Jessica offered it as an incentive to go watch the EISA Championships on Saturday. “We could go watch the race and then ski the Loppet on Sunday,” not fully understanding what she was signing herself on to do. The forecast also looked ideal for a long classic ski, so I was in.
Well, at least my gut. My brain debated 25km, 50km. Even registration gave a bailout deadline. I stuck to the 50km, and my brain cast doubts on what I was doing to myself. An internal debate was making me physically ill days before the event. Things have always ended the same way in this race. Me standing with the finish in sight, paralyzed, as even the slightest twitch or blink of an eye could grow into an incapacitating whole body cramp that feels like it is ripping the muscles off the bones. And now, in all my wisdom, I had signed up for double the distance in the classic technique.
I feel that classic is the gentler of the two techniques in a long-distance race. The problem is that Placid can have significant variables that can potentially negatively impact one’s experience. Swings in temperature, weather, and where the precipitation transition line is can all diminish a good day. Beyond that, the freestyle racers can obliterate the tracks when they come on the course. None of that was an issue this year. It was the year for the classic race.
Race morning came, and we arrived early and set up the table. I was a mental wreck and could not think to do anything. The best thing to do was stick to the plan—Guru Green wax. Warm-up. Use the facilities. Get to the start. Strip to my favorite race-wear. Put on the pack I prepared on Friday. Get on the line. Go… - Easy. I am thankful that my prerace is so programmed. I was able to go through the motions and take care of myself. This year’s Craftsbury Marathon experience taught me to trust my waxing instincts. Testing earlier in the week helped too. Even though it would warm out of the range, Guru Green was the only thing I wanted contacting the fresh and falling snow.
Brian Lavoie (NWVE) was also going through the same thought process. He was at the venue before Jessica and I and did not have to start until an hour later. I did not see any other teammates before my start, so much for leaving the topcoat out for Nirmegh (NWVE). Brian could have used it as he could not bring himself to wax his skis at all. He just had to get to the race. It is part of the mentality that all the nerves will go away once you start.
The first wave was the 50km Classic. Thirteen registrants lined up. I took stock of who was there. I am the only one in a race suit. Two others had parts of race suits, either the top or bottom. One had a braided beard. One was fourteen. One looked vaguely familiar.
The instructions were given, and we started with an abrupt blast of the horn with no warning. I told myself, "it is just a long ski on a beautiful day." I gauged my skis on the initial climb and descent out of the stadium. No problem there. As we made our way to the first intersection, I was in third. First and second were Nicholas Audette (age 14) (Equipe Ski Outaouais) and Sebastien Audette (Skinouk) of Gatineau. Both had completed the Gatineau Loppet Classic 50km. I alerted them that they were going off course, and they corrected their direction, and we continued. Nicholas had a lot of pep. Sebastien tried to contain it. I lumbered like an old broken-down diesel rocking on the tracks.
The 25km Kort Loppet had a larger field. Thirty-five skiers finished in that race. Unfortunately, where the first intersection was, most of the field detoured, adding a flat section to the course. A 2km loop out toward the bridge to the old biathlon trails and around the old Olympic Stadium. They circled back and elected to go the right way when they reached the same point. It was deemed all fair, and the two leaders were long gone and would not have been caught anyway. Bill McKibben (Unattached) did voice some frustration but kept it to a minimum as it was a day to appreciate the opportunity presented. Due to the shortening of the course, some of the traditional markings threw people off guard.
Not much changed on my first lap. Nicholas was about a minute up, and no one was behind. I had hoped to get through the stadium before the start of the freestyle 50km, but the horn sounded just as I returned to the new World Cup Trails. We set out for our second lap chasing.
The freestyle field respected our tracks, and racing was underway. Thirty-six contested this race, and the field went out hot. Brian Lavoie (NWVE) noted his skis were slow and felt draggy in the new snow. A fresh one-to-two-inch coating of cold powder had fallen since the last passes of the groomer. The course was tracked first, as that half had two inches, then another pass was made where only one inch had accumulated. After the first lap, speed improved noticeably.
In the 50km race, Jake Hollenbach (NWVE) was hoping for a big result but ended up dropping out after one lap due to a broken pole. The NWVE records archive shows that in 2010, Helen Hollenbach completed the race with one pole after hers was broken at the start. In 2011, I completed the race with one pole, days after having surgery on my left hand.
Other noteworthy athletes were in the race as well. Torin La Liberte’ (Clarkson Coach) took a hot lap to start. Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne (MNC/Greater Burlington Intramural…) was pacing himself carefully. Jose Manuel Jimenez (Manhattan Nordic) skied with Jarlath for nearly three laps. Jessica Snyder (CSU) built up enough of a lead to be uncatchable, but Mary Stewart (MNC) closed the gap significantly on the last lap. Sara Falconer (MNC) paced a little more conservatively to start.
As I started my second lap, the 50km Freestyle field had slightly over a minute lead. Soon Nicholas and I were catching skiers. Eventually, we made our way by Bruce Katz (Unattached). We chatted briefly; he was as happy to see me as I was him. Bruce is a fellow perennial Marathon Series Challenger and was locking in for the long haul ahead.
At around 15km, Nicholas showed signs of wax problems. Slipping. What was happening was what I feared in my skis. Ice crystals breaking off in the wax, eventually creating a frosty film of ice that compromised kick. My carry wax was Multigrade Blue, in case it got much warmer and would be of no help to him. I passed and pondered what the next 35km had in store for me. He tucked in and drafted until the big climbs.
Skiers in the 25km Classic race continued to have difficulty following the course. A few went through the V-boards marking the route looping back onto the previously traversed trail. After correcting a second time, Elizabeth Ransom (Unattached) was annoyed to have to catch and pass Karen Alence (MNC) and Sarah Katz (MNC) again. Michele Smith (CSU) was also among them.
By this time, the 25km Kort Loppet Freestyle was on course. This was the day's largest field, with 84 competitors. Tim Van Orden (Prospect Mountain Ski Club) and Stephen Flower (Ontario) set the pace. Things should have been fairly well-tracked out, so I am unaware of any wrong turns or detours onto the flat section of the course in this field.
Finishing my second lap, the 25km Freestyle leaders caught me. They looked fresh and fast. I felt an empty pit in my stomach. I needed to eat something solid. Fortunately, I was able to get a feed that hit the spot heading out for lap three. During lap three, I continued to ski through the other fields. At this time, some of the NWVE 25km freestylers also began catching me. I saw Brian at one of the intersections. Soon Tyler Magnan (NWVE) and Sarah Pribram (NWVE) cruised by. Both looked great and gave supportive accolades as I steadily continued in the race. It was an excellent time to have enthusiastic team support. Sarah was in second place!
I also saw Jamie Wilsey (NWVE) and Jonathan Rodd (NWVE) at an intersection and wondered when they would catch me. I found myself skiing solidly, making my way through lap three, but I also started encountering the carnage that can be created on this course. Skiers were not too panicked, but recalibration was evident.
Mixed in with the recalibrating skiers were others on the move. Ben Coleman (NWVE) was skiing well deep into his race. Towards the end of the loop on the big climbs, Karl Goetze (Unattached) passed. I looked back and saw a familiar jersey closing in. Nirmegh (NWVE) was dialed in for the finish. I knew he would overtake me as I crested the last major uphill before the stadium. I checked again and knew it would happen on the runout above the water reservoir. Sure enough, Nirmegh flew by, not checking speed or anything. I got on his tails for about 200m, and then he was gone! I saw Jonathan and Jamie heading to the finish on my way out for the fourth lap.
I conducted a self-check as I passed through the stadium on my final lap. Hunger pangs were at bay, and I had enough sustenance to get me through. I was craving salt but only had minimal signs of cramping. As long as I was smart, I was going to finish intact. My skis were fast and I was keeping pace with some of the skaters on their third lap. I was actually gaining on them on the downhills. They voiced their frustration about that. I continued passing skiers but was eventually caught by the 50km Freestyle field leaders on the final climbs. There was no point in contesting them (they were an hour ahead of me), and sticking to my plan was critical. On this course, the steep climbs are where you rest. The difference between attacking and walking them is slight, and the dividends of conserving energy over expending it are great, especially more than 40km into the race.
Around this point, skiers were becoming lost in the pain cave. Torin La Liberte' (Clarkson Coach) described the darkness of the abyss where he was in the cave, and the only light was that of God. Starting fast and racing has major consequences on this course. Not everyone required a divine intervention to finish. Brian was able to ski, mostly even splits, and made it to the finish, not too distressed. Jarlath was happy with his control on the course too. Sara Falconer faltered but was able to save it in the end. She reflected that she would take it a little easier next time on the first lap, emphasizing next time.
I made my final pass through the stadium and turned to the finish; Helen Hollenbach gave some enthusiastic cheers. As I made my way down the final straight, Jessica also cheered me in. I crossed the line, and the officials were caught off guard that I had just won the 50km Loppet. I was too, even though I knew I was in first for the last three laps. I was also surprised that I was in good condition considering. I was exhausted but happy that I had met my goal of finishing without cracking. It did not take long to sink in that I won the race too, and I was soon interviewed about my journey.
Finishing one lap is an accomplishment. This race was designed to be the ultimate test of discipline. Some may achieve it on their first try. I know it has taken me several. Next year Brian may choose to wax his skis before he hits the road three hours too early. Others may reimagine what it means to contest the Lake Placid Loppet. Do you follow the lead or stick to the plan? Torin may not attempt to race off the line with only “coaches’ fitness.” The beauty and the brilliance of this race are always there, just as planned, for anyone to test their mental fortitude.
Everyone in the race was supportive, as we were all in it together. NWVE took two overall podiums. In addition to my win in the 50km Classic, Jessica was third overall and the first woman in the 25km Classic. She was also the first overall in the 27km classic. Sarah Pribram was the third woman in the 25km Freestyle. The club also took many age group podiums. Congratulations to all who participated.
Thank you to all who participated in making this race a success! A shout-out goes to Eric Darling (NWVE), who, while sidelined, still played a crucial support role for the skiers when they needed him most. Special thanks go out to the hosts for putting on a spectacular event. The course was well prepared (even if a sign or two was misread) and as challenging, if not more than intended. The new lodge provided a perfect space for a post-race celebration! Skiers recovered with a delicious feed, a pilsner or root beer, and the company of more than a hundred who met the challenge of the Lake Placid Loppet.
While we were skiing in Lake Placid, other NWVE members were in Wisconsin participating in the American Birkebeiner. Kudos to Chris Burnham, Sara Graves, Stephen Wright, and Luke Shullenberger for finishing that epic race! Also, congratulations to Eli Enman, David Connery, and Kasie Enman for skiing the Stowe Derby! And finally, John Witmer, who competed in the Eastern Regional Biathlon Cup! I’d love to hear some accounts of those races!