Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Central Masters Championships

Last weekend I competed in the Central Masters Championships at Marquette Mountain. Like the race two weeks prior at Mt. La Crosse, the level of competition was generally high and I was one of the slower skiers. This is one of only two races I regularly attend which includes a super G (SG), or super giant slalom. The other occurs next weekend, also at Marquette Mountain.

Masters racers at the break near the top of the GS and slalom hill, Cliffs Ridge. The city of Marquette, Michigan and Lake Superior loom behind and below.

A super G course is generally somewhere between a giant slalom (GS), which consists of turns similar in shape and rhythm to natural free-skiing, and a downhill (DH), which generally follows the contour of the hill with mostly subtle turns at very high speed. Most people who don't ski (or at least do alpine racing) usually associate competitive ski racing with the last Olympic downhill race they saw. Professional racers often attain speeds over 80 mph and jumps over 100 meters on downhill courses. Slalom (SL) and giant slalom are considered technical events. They feature shorter turns and success requires mastery of precise and quick movements, balance, and a high level of technical execution. Super G and downhill are considered "speed" events, where technical skills are still important, but strength, brute force, and sheer nerve factor more prominently. The courses in speed events may include some technical turns and features, but generally to a lesser degree than in technical events. I have been told more than once that I have a lot of nerve, and it follows naturally that I tend to place better in the field in speed events.

But to keep some perspective, the super G at Marquette Mountain is considerably more tame than a World Cup or Olympic speed event, or even an amateur event on a big mountain. In the Midwest, almost all ski racing is of the technical variety since we lack the big-mountain vertical drops necessary for authentic speed courses. Still, the diminuitive Marquette super G may be the closest I ever get to cheating death on skis. It usually involves speeds in the 50-55 mph range and one to three very small jumps. However, on the day of this super G, high winds blew straight up the hill with gusts up to 40 mph and lots of new snow. The first race was contested in near blizzard conditions. To say that the track was slow was an understatement. The course consisted of a steep drop at the top, followed by a long flat section, followed by a steep knoll, and then a modest pitch with some terrain to the finish. In good conditions, it is relatively easy to generate a lot of speed on the opening pitch, carry most of that speed through the flat, then jump over the knoll into the final stretch. Each time I approached the knoll, my speed would slow to a crawl due to winds and piles of blowing snow on the course, and then a big white tornado would form in my path right at the break. I would not catch any air going over the jump. There was some terrain around the third gate from the bottom and I believe my skis may have briefly lost contact with snow there, but it was nowhere near the typical super G experience. My friend Atilla asked why I bothered with the new skis since it appeared that I stopped for coffee on the way down. Though he is a better technical skier than I, I beat him in the super G. His excuse was that he grabbed two cups of coffee.

The wind subsided a little for the second race, but it was not possible to keep the track clear of blowing slow, especially on the flat section. Most racers were faster in the second race and I shaved 3.5 seconds - an eternity in super G. The sun even teased us for a brief moment and several of us were convinced that we should do a 3rd timed run, just for fun. It wasn't worth it. By the time we returned to the start, Murphy's Law exerted its cosmic influence and high winds and blowing snow resumed.

Even though I like to go fast, I welcomed the slow conditions for getting acclimated to the super G skis I had acquired just the night before the race. They are used and several years old, but in good condition for their age. At 204 cm, they are much longer than anything I had ever skied before (and 21 cm longer than my GS skis). I was a little nervous and made my first warm-up run on a very gentle green circle slope. I wanted just to get used to how they felt under foot before pushing the envelope. However, it was hard to make these skis do much of anything until they get up to speed. My feet felt like they were attached to two slabs of concrete.

Still, despite the slow conditions and my unfamiliarity with my new skis, I was able to finish near the middle of the pack in both super G races. I usually finish at or near the bottom in the technical events, as would be the case this weekend. I even avoided being chicked (beaten by a girl) in the first race, which may be a first-ever accomplishment for me on the masters circuit.

The wind would subside somewhat for the rest of the weekend, but the temperatures dropped. Saturday and Sunday mornings greeted us with subzero readings and the afternoon highs were in the teens. Both days did bring full sunshine, however, which is a rarity in the U.P. Saturday included two slalom races, in which I generally performed poorly. Slalom is the most technical event, consisting of many short, quick turns. It requires lots of training, which I have not been able to get this year. I think I will try to do more training next year and cut back a bit on the racing.

On Saturday evening, we enjoyed a lasagna dinner banquet at the US National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum in nearby Ishpeming, Michigan. The location was the birthplace of skiing in North America, introduced by Scandinavian immigrants. As in years past, I picked up one raffle prize. As in years past, it was an article of clothing two sizes two big. I tried to trade it with Hall of Fame volunteer Dick Wagner for a "history of skiing" DVD, but he was incensed that the windbreaker was adorned with a logo of a bankrupt financial institution. So I still have a nice XL pullover windbreaker. It would be perfect for golf or other casual outdoor activities in spring for fall. Let me know if you are interested!

The giant slalom was on tap for Sunday. I made a fundamental mistake on both runs of the first race. I generally failed to look ahead, where I wanted to go. Instead, my eyes were mostly fixated on the soft snow below each turn that I wanted to avoid. The problem is that the skis (like bicycles, cars, and other modes of transport) tend to follow the eyes. I skidded most turns instead of carving through on the hard snow. "Look ahead" is to skiing what "keep your head down" is to golf - a basic fundamental tip that is overlooked at one's peril. I placed dead last in the first race. I corrected the fault for the second race and my times improved by an average of 1.4 seconds per run. The course was different, but most racers recorded similar times in both races. My placing in the second race moved up four positions from the bottom. My handicap and points also dropped.

I return to Marquette this coming weekend with the Chicago Metro Ski Council series. I plan to add masking tape marked with the words "look ahead" to my ski tips so I will be reminded of this basic advice when I step into the starting gate. Hopefully the conditions will be faster for the super G.

Race Results:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Midwest Masters at Mt. LaCrosse

On January 10-11, I competed in my first USSA Masters ski race of the season with the Midwest Masters at Mt. LaCrosse, near La Crosse, Wisconsin. As usual, it was a humbling experience. The Midwest Masters series brings out some of the best adult competitors in the midwest. Many are ex-collegiate racers and most have more racing experience than me.

  • The Good: I nailed the exit for I-39 South at Cherry Valley. It was the best turn I made all weekend.
  • The Bad: Of the 6 runs that I finished, I'd rate 1 fair and the other 5 poor.
  • The Ugly: The 2 runs I DNF'ed (did not finish) - the very first SL (slalom) on Saturday and the very last GS (giant slalom) on Sunday.

The courses and conditions were very tough. All races started on Thunderation, a narrow blue square run with very modest pitch. Then a hard left-booter, an almost 90 degree right turn, takes racers over the lip of the headwall, which is very steep and pronounced on the skier's right and becomes gradually gentler moving to skier's left. Most transitions were blind and difficult to line up coming off the right angle turn. Past Chicago Metro Ski Council (CMSC) races on this hill took a tamer line on the skier's left, where the NASTAR course is usually set. For this weekend, all but the morning GS race (2 runs) were set on steep technical lines on the skier's right.

The weather was cold, but not frigid - between 10 and 20 degrees for most of the weekend. Most of the hill either faces north or is shaded from the sun by trees and rocky outcrops. Conditions were mostly icy and really tough to set an edge on the pitch. There were numerous funky terrain rolls and fall away turns after the headwall, which were more pronounced on the SL and afternoon GS sets (on the skier's right). The features made it very difficult to look ahead. Rather than scanning the next gate or two as one should, I found my focus too often on the terrain immediately in front of me. The best racers made it look easy, of course.

My first SL run of the morning race was a DNF that ended at the 10th gate - I slid sideways into the gate in a total mental lapse. I'll blame the fact that I hit the road later than I had hoped the night before and was a little "out of it" that morning. My next SL run was in super slow-mo. I just wanted to find the finish to give myself some confidence to build on for the afternoon race. My afternoon race was better, but still rather lackluster. I have let my conditioning drop too much for such a long hill. I'll have to try to get it back before my next two races at Marquette Mountain, which is also a long hill, but it is usually a tad easier to race well and find the finish there. A lot will depend on race day conditions.

My first GS run of the morning race was pretty slow. There was some blue safety netting right behind a blue gate just before the right turn onto the headwall. I inspected the course before the netting and outside gate were up. During the race, I failed to pick up the outside gate and was not sure if the turning gate was in fact the turning gate or the outside gate. I wedged for a moment and scrubbed a ton of speed. I improved about 1.5 seconds in the second run but still struggled with the hard turn and transition between the top section and the headwall.

The afternoon race was set on the more technical headwall transition on the skier's right. I was cautious and clumsy in the first run, but it was still probably the best run of the weekend that I actually finished. I was more confident on the second run and carried more speed from the headwall into the rolling finishing section. At times I caught some air and was bounced in a compression. A through gate helped build a little more speed, but two gates later I hit a rut at a point when my balance was a little off. I came out of my right ski and hit my head on the snow and my right shin on my dislodged ski. My goggles were torn from my face but the helmet did its job in protecting my head. I also didn't seriously hurt anything else. I just had a bruise and 2-inch cut on my shin. I picked up a bag of ice from the concession at the hill and some large bandages at a grocery store. I drove most of the way between La Crosse and Madison holding the ice on my leg. It is still quite sore several days later, but has been getting better each day. My upper body also felt like I was hit by a linebacker for the next few days. The worst part of it all was that the crash, which occurred about 6 gates from the finish, interrupted what was otherwise my best run of the weekend. I would have really liked to get a time on that one.

Mt. LaCrosse is just a tough hill. I have had some of my best and worst days racing there. I had a breakout race weekend there at the end of 2007, where I was promoted to the A class in the CMSC series (second from the top), but I've also crashed there about 4-6 times. I probably have more DNFs per start at Mt. LaCrosse than any other hill.

Here is a screen shot from my GPS computer that shows my speed (blue), elevation (green), and heart rate (red) during the GS crash run.

Profile of GS crash run.

My speed was generally building throughout the run, except for a slow down at the transition from the opening to the top of the headwall. The crash occurred 39 seconds into run, where my speed dropped abruptly from 36 mph to 6 mph (minimum speed recorded) in about 4 seconds. My heart rate recovered nicely after I stopped moving. The marker on graph and map shows the moment of impact.

NB: My GPS computer is designed for cycling and tends to understate the speed for skiing because it can only record at a maximum rate of one sample per second. Thus it tends to show a straighter path down the fall line than is actually skied. I tried uploading the data tracks to my motionbased account, but it distorted almost all of the statistics, showing some very high (and very low) speeds and grossly distorted elevation profiles. When I ski, I usually set the GPS computer to record only when my speed is above a certain threshold, usually 5-10 mph (depending on the speed of the chairlifts). I think the data and time scale get distorted by the motionbased software engine when this feature is used. It also get confused if the GPS signal is lost or just weak, which happens frequently because I tuck the device inside my coat or suit when I ski. For some reason, the PC application seems to know how to more accurately process the available data.

Race Results:

Christmas Concert

Faith's school Christmas concert from December 2008 is online here! Faith is second from the right in the second row. (Run time is about 6.5 minutes.)


  1. Viewing requires Apple QuickTime.

  2. Click on the link to view in its original size.

  3. It is a large file (275 MB). If your connection is slow, it might be easier to download and view from your local machine (right-click link and choose "Save Target As...")