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Surfed, then turfed

A rookie hits the Boulder Mountain Tour


First, a caveat: I cannot recommend the following strategy to anyone. Second, a confession: I knew it was a bad idea all along. Third, a revelation: I had fun anyway.

The Boulder Mountain Tour, a 32-kilometer Nordic skiing race, is a delightful annual event that combines fierce competition with bad fashion, cold weather with intense exercise and sober athleticism with a lot of hype.

How could I resist? I registered for the race last summer and completed the event this last weekend. After a spastic introduction to the sport of skate-skiing (BW, Rec, "Skateaway" December 12, 2007) I was now on the starting line, matched up with my peers, and my toes were numb. I was, at last, at the moment of no return.

Skate skiing is an extremely aerobic version of the otherwise peaceful sport of Nordic skiing. The idea is to mimic the action of a hockey skater or rollerblader but on a fettucine-thin pair of skis. The plan is to propel yourself down a groomed track of snow as fast—and as far—as possible using poles made of carbon fiber, so light they might break if whacked with a piece of phyllo dough. You employ a number of arcane techniques to go faster, and with less effort. After I "learned" the sport, I proceeded to chase fast people around Nordic skiing venues in Idaho, ruining various tracks with body-shaped craters from my crashes and rivers of sweat from my labors.

I scrolled through mental lists of techniques and tips as I skied. I learned that if you don't lift your toes all the time, your shins won't cramp up after 4 or 5 kilometers. I learned that if you focus on gliding more, you won't have to muscle your way through quite so many strokes of the ski.

And I learned that if you're any good at this sport, you need to bundle up and act like it's really winter. This never applied to me. All season long, people have marveled at my apparent invulnerability to the cold. Sadly, the fact of the matter is that if you're not as efficient as everyone else, you work up a lot more heat. I would have worn a T-shirt and shorts if it were feasible, no matter what the weather. Most days, that's all I really needed, while the Nordic gazelles I hung out with talked about their layering strategies.

The type of outing you may have on your skate skis depends in large part on the type of track you'll have to use. Imagine how fun it would be to rollerblade on a dirt road, and you get an idea of how important it is to have a smooth, well-groomed track. Even better is when that track is firm, cold and flat.

But like on the East Coast, where crappy snow conditions breed better skiers, I was a Bogus Basin Nordic skier. And in contrast to the Sun Valley area, where the Boulder Mountain Tour takes place, Bogus Basin is loaded with hills and not always perfectly groomed. Bogus, my friends and I agreed, builds tough skiers. I would lack grace, but I wouldn't be afraid of hills.

The 32-kilometer Boulder Mountain Tour begins at the beautiful Galena Lodge and descends (I use that term loosely; there are several uphills despite an overall elevation loss) to a large open meadow just north of Ketchum. In this fantastic year, where powder skiers have reveled in record snowfall, skate skiers have not always had a smooth Nordic highway. In the Tour, the roughly 700 entrants are grouped into nine "waves" of varying ability. The serious athletes—some of them professionals—are loaded into the first few waves, which leave the starting line earliest. They wear skintight suits of Lycra and spandex, displaying an absolute lack of body fat. In the latter waves, are us weekend-warrior rookie types who are still learning to color-coordinate our ski clothes and skate on skis. We are a proud but motley bunch in the latter waves; I was in Wave Eight.

At the starting line, racers line up about 10 skiers across, all standing in grooved tracks. For the first five yards or so, skiers must propel themselves forward using only their poles, leading to some chance for mishap ... which is what happened to my friend who fell in the track, spraining her forearm. She's made of tough stuff; she went on to complete the race and placed second in her age category. Yes, these are the people I trained with. Would that their toughness had worn off on me.

We had glorious, if cold weather for much of the race. High clouds scudded across the Boulder Mountains as we pounded and glided toward the finish line.

Sadly, it was there that my training schedule did me wrong. I took a 10-day vacation to a tropical spot and spent the entire time right up until the Boulder Mountain Tour surfing, sifting sand in my toes and drinking my weight in rum. Elite athletes are known to actually slow their training regime down a few days before their big race. This brief rest period is known as the "taper." My taper was restful in the extreme.

"That explains your tan," said local skier Dave Fotsch as he drifted by me on the course. I beat him, by minutes, through sheer force of bad attitude.

The general air of a tropical interlude was oozing from my pores as I slogged along, but I wasn't the only one whose training schedule had gone awry. On the bus ride up to the starting line, skiers talked about how the good powder skiing conditions of late had really put a dent in their Nordic training. Instead of focusing on the race, logging hours on Nordic trails, they had been whooping it up at ski areas or in the backcountry.

So be it. We funhogs knew where our priorities were. So it was that two hours and 12 minutes later, I staggered across the Boulder Mountain Tour finish line to the muffled applause of dozens of mittened hands.

The Boulder Mountain Tour is not for the faint of heart; in fact, mine may have pulled a muscle from beating too fast. Nor is it for powder hounds who have had the good sense to reap this winter's bounty instead of hanging around on groomed trails.

To skate, perchance to glide, is divine. To finish, better. I'll be back.