When the skiing gets hairy 

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

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Every 18 years or so, while making laps around the earth, the moon passes our planet a bit closer than normal. This year the event was set to occur on the same night as the race.

In the months leading up to the challenge, Internet astronomy chat boards lit up with dire predictions about what the rising "mega moon" might bring: earthquakes, higher tides, volcanoes and strange climatic patterns, for starters.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

When I emerge from the warming hut the early afternoon sky is darkening right on cue. The wind picks up, snow is starting to fall and big stormy gusts are blowing tarp shelters sideways. One microburst rips through the Equinox tent city, snapping the aluminum legs of a shade structure with a man hunkered inside. I join a group of bystanders and rush over to prevent a total collapse.

The man in the broken shelter introduces himself as Jack Hart. He thanks us, then looks up at the sky. It's really starting to snow, and that's not good news for the speed demons.

Hart, who skis all winter on the Rendezvous Trails, holds out his hand and spreads his fingers to represent a new, pointy snowflake. "A new flake when it falls is like this," he says. "That grabs your ski base. An old snowflake is rounded and beat up and pulverized by the grooming equipment. It's like skiing on ball bearings, which is so much faster."

A Bowdoin College ace named Wilson Dippo proves the point when I ask him about his stats as he rushes through the timing gate. Dippo says the new snow is cutting his pace nearly in half, from 30-minute laps to 50-plus minutes.

"I've been skiing for five hours and 51 minutes and 59 seconds," Dippo says. "I think I'm at 90K"—about 60 miles—"so I have a long way to go. I want to ski up around 300K."

That's why he's in a hurry. He's a fresh-faced college kid and he wants to hang with the ice beards.

Close to dinnertime, Andy Hall from Pocatello, Idaho, decides to take a break. The 32-year-old Bureau of Land Management firefighter doesn't know his race standing, but he does know why other racers smile when they see him.

"Yeah, the ice beard," says Hall, who is sporting a very frosty Grizzly Adams. "With all the new snow that's falling and the moisture in the air, it all just collects there."

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

Nearby, Neil Gleichman, sporting some impressive face-frost of his own, skates into the pits for a ski change. The history teacher from Victor, Idaho, brought four pairs and plans to use them all. Anything to give his body an edge.

"I'm trying to keep cramps from happening," says Gleichman. "They're close, but they're not there yet." The sun is setting and the snow is tapering off as the "12-hour barrier" looms ahead. In a few hours, at 10 p.m., Gleichman and the other racers will be halfway there.

"Believe it or not," says Gleichman, "the last 12 tend to get easier."

I'm not buying it, and neither are many of the other racers who've opted to compete in the six- and 12-hour divisions instead of the full-day marathon.

Six-hour racer Chris Hamilton of Bozeman likes to lead multi-pitch climbs up the subsidiary peaks near Denali, but says no thanks to 24 hours of skate skiing.

"You see a lot of crossover between this and road biking... the body-Nazis, or endorphin addicts," says Hamilton, describing the ice beards and other around-the-clock racers. "They just keep going and going and going."

I ask Hamilton what he knows about the guy in Bib No. 1 and badass body suit. Hamilton shrugs, and so do others. All I have to go on is what I find on his feed table: wasabi soy almonds, a carton of hard-boiled eggs and a $23 bottle of Hammer chocolate energy gel, which promises 26 servings. There's also a box of Cheez-Its and a probiotic yogurt drink.

I think: There it is, the true Equinox Challenge. Can anyone chase down gulps of gel with handfuls of frozen snack crackers?

When darkness and cold hit in earnest I duck out of the race and head across the street to the Holiday Inn for a hot shower and some pizza.

At 2 a.m. I pull my poly-pro back on and return sleepily to the starting line. The ski techs are huddled in their tuning shelters and the clouds appear ready to break. When I approach the techs and ask about demo-ing some skis, Peter Hale welcomes me. He's based in Montana and works with some of the best skiers in the country. Hale puts me on a pair of Norwegian-made Madshus racing skis and tells me to go "test the Ferraris."

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