The last race of nationals finished on January 10th and the first race of U23s isn’t until Feburary 3rd leaving an interim period. Although training is already in the bank for performances, this period can still be a crucial chance to rebuild, recharge, check in with doctors (read more), and have some fun. Since fun is obviously derived from money, this meant a trip to Valdez was in order to try out the inaugural Qaniq Challenge. I joined up with a small group of APU athletes heading over to try and take home most of the $10,000 purse.
Valdez is a spectacular place any time of the year, but winter makes it even more stunning. Unlike Anchorage, where the city transitions gradually from coastal plain to peaks, the mountains around Valdez climb right out of the sea. When they are capped with snow, the possibilities for fun backcountry skiing lines seem to jump off the hills. The low snow year and a little thing called U23s coming up had to tone down the risk and we did not even put the fatties in the car. Next time…
But back to racing, with the mountains right there, not many features actually remain around Valdez to make interesting race courses. Avalanche hazard dictates an appropriate distance be maintained from all real mountains. After 300 miles of driving, we quickly previewed the course. Glacial riverbeds and ancient terminal moraines composed the majority of the course with flat being the overall defining descriptor. Knowing this we were already contemplating double poling as we went to the pre-race meeting. The meeting quickly clarified that although this was the first year and the snowpack was thin, everything that could be controlled had been managed. The organizers were super enthusiastic and excited to have all of us there even though the turnout was 370 people less than they initially planned. Plans for future years already existed before the race started. Also, after so many races with elite experienced hosts, seeing the Valdez parks and recreation employees get fired up about hosting a ski race for the first time was pretty sweet.
Lodging was a little more interesting. After initially planning lodging for two, we ended with squishing four people in a quite small B&B room. We had been informed that there was a kitchen; however closer inspection indicated the kitchen comprised of a single burner and a toaster oven. Moose sausages went in the toaster, pasta in the rice cooker, and sauce on the burner. Once on the table, it was hard to tell that the meal didn’t come from a complete kitchen.
Rain the previous week had washed out the bridge, created large puddles, and significantly diminished the snowpack, but the morning of the first race dawned cold and clear. Most of the puddles were frozen and the reconstructed bridge held overnight. Although forecasts had predicted between 9°F and 36°F, the temperature materialized to around 28°F. At 30 second intervals, the first Qaniq Challenge race began with all 30 men, women, elite racers, and those still on three pins mixed in together. Most of the elite guys, including myself, had opted to double pole. We hammered two loops with a few shorter hills, before trying to maintain form through the remaining 10 kilometers of almost perfectly flat snow machine trails. Fifteen kilometers after the start comprising of 28 minutes, 30 second gaps also marked the finish intervals. Lex Treinen cruised faster than the rest of us and set himself up nicely for the following day’s race. The rest of us emerged with new targets and quite sore lower backs.
More moose meat, another meeting, and another night of postponed waxing brought the second day of racing. Several course revisions due to flooding gave us a course that was even flatter than the first day; however, sticks in the trail played more important roles in the race. Since Valdez normally has around six feet of snowpack, the alders were not trimmed low enough for the thin snow conditions. Lex was the first casualty among the lead pack of guys when he decided to kiss the groomed trail after catching a ski tip. I quickly reacted to this opportunity and pulled the scummy move of attacking while he was on the snow. Shortly later my conscious caught up with my attack and I paused slightly. At that point, another racer stumbled and I decided that since I had already half attacked, I might as well go for a full scumbag. Fortunately for my conscious if not my wallet, Lex recovered, dropped the others, and hung within 15 seconds of me to claim the overall for the weekend and $3000. At least I still got the $1500 consolation prize.
A post-race banquet capped off the fun weekend with distribution of prize money, great raffles (a rechargeable headlamp for me), a few drunken locals, and quite some rounds of local stories. (One of the memorable stories of the night was this video which according to locals was posted by a local gravel truck driver.) I drove back the next day recharged with a couple more races under my belt before U23. Now up to a total of 2 classic races and 4 skate!