When the skiing gets hairy 

A nordic marathon can make a man out of you. And freeze your wig.

I'm sporting a frizzy Betty Page wig and breathing heavily. I've never been on skate skis before, and now I'm trying it in a 24-hour race with itchy wig hair in my eyes—but that's no excuse. The pack from a mass start at the Equinox Ski Challenge in West Yellowstone is starting to break up, and I'm already falling behind. Hell, I should be able to ski faster than I walk.

Or maybe not. Just 10 minutes into the 5.4-mile course on the Rendezvous Ski Trails I'm dead last, sliding bow-legged in search of a rhythm that will bring me a bit of momentum. It doesn't come, and by the half-hour mark I'm lapped by one racer after another—men, women, children—until it feels like I'm again among the pack just as I approach a big hill. The others cruise up from behind and tuck into a long, steep right-hand drop leading back toward the timing gate and warming hut.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

I join them, confident at first in a clumsy tuck. I grew up downhill skiing. This shouldn't be a problem. But then as the track flattens out again my tuck collapses into a yard sale barrel roll. A woman wearing butterfly wings looks back and says, "That sounded like carnage." It feels like it, too. I collect my breath and poles and wig, and launch into a hobble. All I want to do is complete one lap and tag my wife, who will carry on for our team.

It's not that I hope to win this thing—not when some of the 88 contestants pass by me like superheros with facial hair. Three of the early front-runners in the men's division are bearded, and one is decked out in a Lycra suit that appears to be vintage 1980s. The man in this midnight-blue and flame-orange body sock is a lean and agile, late 40-something athlete. He's a bit older than me, and clearly 10 times faster.

The hirsute pack leaders will lap me three times before I make it back to race HQ and take a long break. I'll spend the next 22 hours watching them rack up more than 150 miles of nearly non-stop kicking and gliding around the Equinox course. These guys will average more than six miles an hour and cover ground equivalent to a round-trip between Missoula and Polson while I'll struggle to make a measly few laps. I have no place in what will become the battle of the ice beards.

Still, I feel right at home. The Equinox Ski Challenge is a celebration of community, great snow and lactic acid. It's a tiny frozen Mardi Gras, and it's entirely up to each one of us to decide when it's time to pass out.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

Around late March when the sunny side of the calendar officially begins and the ski season starts its downward slide into spring, it's time to break out the wigs, costumes and race-worthy Nordic wear in West Yellowstone. Since 2007, the town by the eponymous park has been the site of the Equinox Ski Challenge, an annual charity race where racers finish as many laps as possible in three hours, six hours, 12 hours or, in the case of my wife and I, the 24-hour coup de grâce.

Funny outfits are optional, although it's part of the tradition. Going long distances is optional, too: No one is required to complete a set number of laps on the rolling course through a dense pine forest. Besides the hill where I crashed, the route is mostly a series of serene ups and downs over a deep snow base.

The combo start-and-finish line sits near a local street, with a nearby hotel and places to eat, ringed by competitors' tents and tech shelters for ski tune-ups and waxing. I cross it for the first time at lunchtime, after two hours of sweaty, clumsy huffing. Other racers are starting to lose track of the number of laps they've logged. But after just one go-around, I'm ready for a break.

There at the finish line, thankfully, is my wife, Katie. She's wearing a shiny bridesmaid's dress and is laughing at me.

"What took you so long?" she asks. I tag her and send her off with a "you'll see" and a kiss, then head for the warming hut.

Inside it is Dan Cantrell, who lives in Big Sky and comes down to West Yellowstone to ski. He grew up on a cross-country ski course in Vermont, and some youthful enthusiasm left over from those years led him to volunteer as this year's race organizer. Cantrell took over from a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor named Sam Newbury, who dreamed up the idea of the challenge in 2006 while driving home from the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike race.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

"The Equinox Ski Challenge is such a uniquely focused race," Cantrell explains. "It's not all about competition, but instead, personal challenge and commitment."

The coziness of the hut helps me forge a deep commitment to sitting down. Next to me are Leila Sternman and Aaron Sinnard, a pair of 20-somethings from Bozeman. Sternman is eating a calorie-packed concoction made of peanut butter, pasta and soy sauce.

"I'm a little nervous my muscles will seize up," she says, motioning to the brown mush she's eating. "I'm working hard on electrolytes...and peanut butter."

When I tell them I'm happy to be only sore and not injured from my fall, Sinnard says, "I was coming up the hill behind you guys. You were talking or something, going real slow. And I was thinking, 'Wow, someone is actually slower than me.' I was barely moving. The craziest thing was how packed in we were and no one crashed into you. That was special. That was a good crash. Might be the best one here."

We laugh about me leaving a "man-shaped hole" in the course, then Sternman assures me that experiences and stories like mine are the real prize at events like the Equinox Challenge.

"It's, you know, type-two fun," she says. "It's not fun while you're doing it, but later you look back on it and say, 'Oh that was really fun. Remember that night when it was freezing and horrible?' That's type-two. And if you're lucky it's a mega moon tonight."

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