The first weekend in February was a big deal in Ketchum. The sporting event on everyone's mind was the 36th annual Boulder Mountain Tour, one of the longest-running and most prestigious cross-country ski races in North America.
I learned to skate ski last year. I made it to exactly one off-season dryland training session last fall. I attended one clinic with Idaho Nordic Ski Club this winter. So, why did I think I had any business entering a 32K cross-country ski race from Galena Lodge to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters in Sun Valley? The truth is, I didn't think. In a move born from peer pressure and pure impulse, I signed up for the event just hours before the entry deadline.
In my limited experience, the most stressful thing about any race is the start, and Nordic ski racing is no exception. First of all, Idaho's unpredictable weather patterns lead to the inevitable pre-race waxing crisis. Your race might be over before you even get to the start line if you haven't waxed correctly for the conditions. Surrounded by wax techs who were fluently discussing Swix recommendations--and only speaking broken Toko myself--I might as well have gone with a Brazilian.
Once on the starting line, the potential for catastrophe is enormous. Picture hundreds of excited athletes clawing at the snow with long, sharp-tipped poles and kicking their feet, each of which is attached to 190-plus centimeters of ski. Then imagine this chaos getting funneled into a chute one-fourth the width of the original starting line, and you start to understand why I was advised to be both "aggressive" and "narrow" for the first two minutes of the race.
Fortunately, the "wave" format meant that participants were organized into start groups according to their prior results in competition. There I was in wave No. 7--the last wave--with more than 100 other rookies. As I stood shivering in a borrowed skin suit, attire mandated by a friend who raced in the elite wave, I realized my peers were more appropriately dressed in layers of Gore-Tex and Polarfleece. But I didn't have to contemplate clothing for long because the gunshot finally cracked the air. In a schizophrenic flurry of flailing skis and poles, away we skied.
After surviving the start still upright and with my fragile carbon poles intact, each thrilling kilometer that I skated was a vivid blur. I felt like I had the fastest skis in the universe, but the only astonishing thing about my final finish time was that a man more than twice my age beat me by seven minutes. This confirmed what I've always known about Nordic skiing: It favors technique and skill over brute force. That didn't matter to me, though. Hours later at the unofficial after-party at Grumpy's I smiled into a schooner of pale ale, confident that I'd be back at the BMT next year. And the year after that.