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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion
  July 1

I, like many skiers I know, have a wonderfully masochist habit of finding extremely hard endurance events and workouts and then attempting them, usually with little or no specific training beforehand. 50 mile trail runs, 100 mile mountain bike rides, 11,000 foot peaks which are usually hiked over the course of three days. No problem. We (and when I say "we" I mean all skiers, not just elite racers) have all read, and preach to our friends, about the research that shows cross country skiing is the best aerobic exercise you can do. It gives us a slightly arrogant attitude towards other sports. "Hey I'm a cross country skier, I can run a marathon, no problem." That's half the fun of being a skier, because usually WE CAN do it. For most people, running a marathon or riding a century would be a season-long goal, or even a lifetime goal. We could do either before lunchtime on any day of the week.

A week ago, my dad presented me with the idea of biking Vermont from end to end in one day. From Derby Line on the Canadian Border to Guilford on the Massachusetts Border, all along scenic Route 5. The length of the route had been reported to be anywhere between 188 and 218 miles. He and some other members of the White Mountain Velo club were going to try it. When he asked me if I wanted to go, I had done approximately 120 miles on a road bike this year, total. But my skier mentality liked the idea of a challenge and I agreed to give it a try.

The paceline heads south from Wells River to Fairlee.

We drove up to Derby, Vermont last night and stayed at the Super 8 motel so we could get an early start at 5:00 am. When I woke up at 4:00 am, it was still dark out, but the sun would be up soon so we started getting ready. We expected to average 17 miles an hour (14 mph with stops) which would mean a 14 hour ride. We needed to make use of every bit of early daylight so we would have plenty left on the other end. It took a little while longer than expected to get everything organized in the morning, so by the time we rolled off on our way, it was 5:30 am. There were six of us attempting the whole thing: Dave Harkless, Ward Solar, Joe Homer, John Jurczynski, my dad Peter, and myself. I felt a little out of place. I am not much of a road rider. A couple of crashes when I was younger (one involving a compound arm fracture and a hospital stay) turned me off of road bikes for quite a while and now, living in Utah, the roads just aren't good for riding. Dave, Ward, Joe and my dad are all part of the White Mountain Velo club. They all ride hundreds of miles a week and ride a century every few weeks for good measure. John has biked across the country and has done three previous 200 milers. These guys all ride more in a season than I have in my life. If you add up all my mileage this year, it is barely a century and the furthest I have ever gone at once is 80 miles about 4 years ago. But I am a skier, so I can do this right? We'll find out. . .

For those of you who know northern Vermont, we actually took route 5a, not Route 5 from the border. The first forty miles were fine, albeit a little faster than I thought we had planned on. Before I go any further, I should mention a couple other matters that complicated my goal of finishing. Two days previous, I had done my first weightlifting of the season. I want to reduce the amount of strength I do in the gym this year, so I have been doing more bounding and rollerboard instead of weightlifting. But now I want to ease it back into the routine, so I hit the gym on Friday. This morning my quads, hamstrings, and gluts were still very sore from the squats I did. Which is good because I doubt I will use my quads or hams very much on a 200 mile bike ride (please note the sarcasm in that last sentence). The other problem is that last night I played Ultimate Frisbee with a group in Littleton. Now, I am not much of a thrower, so the way I play Ultimate is to sprint up and down the field, alternately playing defense and going long for touchdowns. So it got me pretty tired. Then just as I was thinking I should leave, I went for one final touchdown and collided hard with another player. He was in the air, I was on the ground, and his knee and my ribs collided. I fell to the ground in pain. A friend of mine came over just as I was getting up and asked, "Was that crack I heard skin slapping or bone breaking?" I wasn't sure. I thought I had just had the wind knocked out of me, but my ribs still hurt quite a bit. When I got home, my mom said that if I could breathe deeply, the ribs weren't broken. I took a few deep breaths. Though it hurt to do them, I did do them, thus convincing myself the ribs were intact and the ride was still on. So anyway, back to the ride. . .

We were cruising at an average speed of about 19 mph for the first 40 miles. Despite a stop for a blown tire near Lake Willoughby and another stop for a broken spoke in Lyndon, we were making good time. Fortunately, my mom and a few others were driving sag wagons for us, so we were never far from a new wheel, or food, or (for better or worse) a way out. My legs were tired, but I figured that was from the weights and frisbee, not riding, and it would go away after some more pedaling. When we hit 60 miles near St. Johnsbury I began to get nervous. My legs were getting more and more tired and the pace was not nearly as leisurely as had been advertised. We were still averaging 19 mph. I had been pretty sure that if the pace was slow enough, I could pedal 200 miles. But I wasn't so sure that my non-rider legs would be able to keep up a faster pace. Shortly after passing through Wells River we passed the 80 mile mark. Dave congratulated me on setting a new standard for myself, but I think they were all curious to see how long this non-rider would last. And to be honest, so was I. I knew I could make it to 100, but I wasn't sure about much beyond that. At 95 miles we stopped for lunch in East Thetford. A couple friends of mine met us there with cookies (mmmm...cookies). I complained to them about being tired and about how the pace was too fast, then we were off again. Just before we got to Norwich, we passed the 100 mile mark. "Okay, I made the century, everything now is just bonus miles," I thought to myself. "Hang on as long as you can." In two weeks, a bunch of us in Utah are going to do a 120 miles ride (with a lot more vertical) so my next goal became to make it to 120. About the same time we hit 100, storm clouds moved in and began dumping rain on us. From Norwich to White River Junction (about 6 miles) we got absolutely poured on. As we started up a hill out of White River, the thunder and lightning was very close and the rain was so thick you could barely see the person ahead of you and the roads were covered in a two inch deep river. We decided to pull over and let it pass. The good thing about the rain had been that it allowed me to get my mind off my aching body and focus on trying to see where I was going instead. After a 15 minute break, the rain let up and we were on our way again.

Mile 125, wondering if a Powerbar would give me strength to go on.

At this point I really began to struggle. I could hang on to the pack fine on the flats, but as soon as we started up a hill, I would get left in the dust. My legs were burning, my chest was aching, and my arms, back and butt were very sore. I was sure there was no way I could finish at this point. I was just hoping to make it to 120 miles. Our next pitstop was at 125 miles and while I made it, I was sure I was finished. I knew that I could ride a little further, but I wasn't sure I could do it at the 19 mph pace that we were still maintaining. I ate a couple energy bars and decided that would try to hold on a little longer, but I fully expected to flag down the sag wagon and hop in just a few miles down the road. Fortunately, the next section was not very tough. A lot of flats and small rolling hills. I was able to hold on to the pack for longer than I expected, but I did avoid taking any pulls up front during this time. I began to think that maybe I could make it to 140 miles. When we had stopped for lunch in Thetford, one of the people who met us there, a bike racer himself, had casually mentioned that the furthest he had ever ridden was 140 miles. That had stuck in my mind, and now it provided me with a goal in order to keep my legs turning. Exerting every last bit of energy I had, I made it to 140. If there had been a sag wagon there when the odometer hit 140.0, I probably would have pulled it over. But there was no sign of support so I was forced to keep going. I set my sights on 150, thinking that would be a nice round number to stop at. 150 came and went with no sag wagon. When we reached Bellows Falls, we still hadn't seen the sag wagon, so we all pulled over at a convenient store and replenished supplies. Now, usually when I do a ridiculously long workout like this, my favorite foods to bring along are a stick of pepperoni and block of cheese. I have found that hours and hours of eating energy bars and other pure carbohydrates leaves me feeling still hungry and craving something heavy and salty. The pepperoni and cheese does just the trick. It just sits in my stomach so I no longer feel hungry and lets my body slowly digest the fats and salts. So I had pepperoni and cheese waiting for me in the car, but the car was nowhere to be found. Instead I went into the convenient store and bought a couple Slim Jims and a hunk of cheese (along with a king size Snickers bar and a bottle of fruit juice) and chowed down. I was pretty full by the time I was done and I was hoping it would give me a good enough kick to make it to the car, wherever it was. We pedaled slowly throught the residential streets of Bellows Falls and just as we were leaving town, our support crew yelled at us from a gas station. If we had gone another mile instead of stopping at the convenient store, we would have seen them. We stopped again quickly to fill water bottles. I filled mine and then pulled out the map. At this point we were expecting it to be another 50 miles, possibly more. But it looked on the map like we only had about 35 to go. I wasn't sure if my delerious mind was playing tricks on me or not, but it just didn't seem like that far to go. I was reluctant to believe this good news, but it did give me faith that maybe I could do it. I resolved to keep going. I thought that maybe I could make it if I just went my own (slower) pace. And we were close enough now, that even if I went a few mph slower, I wouldn't be more than 20-30 minutes behind at the end.

As we saddled back up, the rain moved in again and we got dumped on. The section between Bellows Falls and Putney was probably the hardest on the route. It was a lot of long gradual climbs without much downhill in between. As we started up the hills, I noticed I was not breathing as deeply as I should be. I was so worried about my ribs that I was taking short, quick breaths without even noticing it. It was slightly more painful to take deep breaths, but I figured that at this point I needed every molecule of oxygen I could get. I began to breath more normally and I settled into the pack to prepare for the hills. Going up the first few climbs, something felt different. I'm not sure if it was the pepperoni, the breathing, or something else entirely, but I felt great. It seemed as if the nerves in my legs had been shut off and they were now just going in circles without feeling any pain. I put my head down and just thought of nothing but keeping my legs moving. WHen I did look up a few minutes later, I noticed, to my amazement, that there were only 4 of us. We had dropped the other three. I was shocked. I had no business dropping people at this point. Just then, one of the guys pulled off and I took the lead. The adrenaline was starting to pump again for the first time in miles and I picked up the pace. By the time we reached the top of a long series of climbs, it was just me and Dave, everyone else had fallen off or let up intentionally. I couldn't believe it. WHere had this energy come from? Never in my life have I gotten such a huge second wind. At this point Dave said, "Well, Cory, I'm impressed. YOu are one tough guy." I think he, like myself, had expected me to quit a long time ago and we were both very surprised to see me up at the front after 165 miles. I swelled up with pride. On the next climb, once we had regrouped, one of the other guys, a racer and one of the strongest riders, came up next to me and asked, "So you been riding much?" I could sense the "Where did this guy come from?" in his voice. I took great satisfaction in saying, "No not really. In fact, today I have more than doubled my mileage for the year." At this point I was really psyched. I remember thinking, "I am a cross country skier and I can do anything."

In Brattleboro, we stopped to regroup before one last stretch to the border. It appeared that my estimation was right and we only had about 15 miles to go. From here on out, most of us stayed together as a group, though we were still moving pretty fast. I could tell that everyone was gearing up for a sprint to the line. I had already decided I would not sprint. After my poor performance in the middle of the ride, I didn't feel like I deserved the right to sprint with the stronger riders. I also did not want anything stupid, like a crash, at the end of my triumphant ride. As soon as the Welcome To Massachusetts sign came into sight, the other five riders took off. The competitor in me couldn't resist the excitement, so I started sprinting too. By now they were all ahead of me and I tried to choose a line up through the middle of them. As I started to move between two riders, they closed in from both sides. I had to make a quick decision: either go for it and hope I could get through the narrowing space without causing a pileup, or lay back and just enjoy the last 100 meters. For once, my competitive instincts did not get the best of me and I let up and coasted across the line at exactly 6:00pm. Twelve and a half hours after starting at Canada.

Everyone else sprinting for the Massachusetts line.
At this point, I felt great. The whole ride I had pictured myself staggering across the border, using my last ounce of energy. But in fact I felt so good that it almost seemed like a shame to stop. This dulled my sense of accomplishment a bit, but as I thought back to how I had felt 50 miles earlier I was extremely proud of the fact that I had pushed through. By taking it a few miles at a time and never giving up, I had made it. 185 miles at 18.7 mph (15.1 mph including stops). So there you have it, more proof that being a skier will allow you to do so much more, no matter how painful it may be.

July 10

Since the Vermont Bike Ride is my first journal entry of the new season, I guess I need to back up and fill you in a bit on what I have been doing for the past three months. After writing down my review of the 2001 season, I realized that for the first time ever, I could not honestly say that I enjoyed the past year of racing and training. Sure, there were high points that I enjoyed tremendously (the chance to ski in the east for an extended period of time in great snow, my 50K race at Canadian Nationals, my trips to Alaska, etc.) but overall the daily drain of trying to train and work full time, and still keep up on normal routines like sleeping, eating, doing laundry, etc. was not much fun. For most of the dryland season I felt overwhelmed and for most of the race season I felt outclassed. It was frustrating. Since I wasn't happy, I didn't really enjoy writing about my experiences. As a result, maintaining this website became a negative reinforcement of experiences I did not want to dwell on any longer. So I decided this spring that I was going to take a break and not worry about the website for a few months. Then after a few months, when my training was back on track and I had more positive experiences to write about, I would again be excited to document my escapades. So here I am, back into training and ready to write more often.

So to get you up to speed on highlights of the past three months. I spent most of April doing fun training: crust skiing in the high mountains and hiking and biking where there wasn't snow. I also did a half marathon just to kick my butt back into training mode. In early May, Eric Maas, Abi Holt and I took a trip to Fruita, Colorado - just outside Grand Junction - to mountain bike on the excellent single track they have . We camped out, did a couple rides that are among my favorites ever, and also went to the Carnival in Grand Junction to ride the Ferris Wheel, the gravitron, and the Kamikaze. A word of advice: Do not try to do sit ups in the gravitron after having a large dinner, and definitely do not go on the gravitron two times back to back and then follow it with the Kamikaze. I have rarely felt so sick in my life. But I digress. . .

In June, I went back east to New Hampshire for three weeks. A major part of my training plan this year is to spend more time at sea-level. In mid June my 5th year (yikes!) Dartmouth reunion was taking place and three weeks later, two of my friends from Dartmouth were getting married in Jackson, NH. It made perfect sense for me to stick around for the whole time. The first couple weeks I was home, training was great. I traveled to some of my favorite spots in the state (Squam Lake, Hanover, Dartmouth's land grant in northern NH) and thoroughly enjoyed my training in the familiar old haunts. I also spent some time training with the Dartmouth team in Hanover to give my plan a little more structure and to have other athletes to train with. I felt good and I was excited to be training again. Unfortunately, the last week and a half I was home did not go so well. I mentioned in the bike ride story that I had injured my ribs playing frisbee, but I didn't think they were broken because I was able to do a 185 mile bike ride the next day. Well, now a month later I can confidently say that the ribs were indeed broken. In fact even now, I can still feel them when I try to sleep on the left side of ny body. For the first week after the injury, all I could do was bike. Running was too painful because of the jarring motion and weight training was out of the question. I did skate rollerski once, but it hurt more than ever the day after, so I gave that up too. The best and worst thing about a cracked rib is that there is really no way that exercise will make it any worse, so you can do whatever you want to, as long as you can stand the pain. I have had a good week of testing my pain threshold. So my training in the past week or so has been less than I had hoped for, but today, as I head back west to Park City, I think that the worst of the injury is over and I can start to try other activities again.

So there you go, you are now up to speed on the beginning to this season. I relaxed, then I played, then I went east to start the serious training. Now I am headed back to Park City with renewed desire and energy and a plan to make this year more fun, more effective, and much faster.

July 13

Today was the second IRS race of the season. I really didn't think I was going to be able to race because of my ribs, but it has now been two weeks since the injury and I wanted to test it. After all it's only pain right? For a complete race summary go to the IRS section. I was pretty slow, but the pain was bearable and I guess I can't expect too much having just returned to altitude and not rollerskiing in a while.

July 14

After months of talking big and planning, we finally conquered the Bike Ride Of Death. I was going to write a big summary, but then Eric Maas went and did it for me. Read Eric Maas's account here.

After you have read his excellent account there are only a few things I want to add to it.

1) What Eric referred to as an alarm clock mix up, was actually him setting his clock for the time we were supposed to start riding (5:45am). This was after we had to talk him out of trying to starting at 4:45! When we called him a 6:00 to see where he was, he was just getting ready.

2) As it was for Eric, Little Cottonwood was definitely the hardest canyon for me. There were points along that climb that I was sure I couldn't make the rest of the ride. The only thing that kept me going was the thought "This is the bike ride of death, and I am not dead yet." So I kept going.

3) It was also about this same time that my knees really started to hurt. For the rest of the ride it felt like I was being stabbed in the knees on every pedal stroke. I played around with my seat height, hoping to alleviate the pain, but no luck. I then became convinced that the reason I was in so much pain and sometimes lagging behind on the steeper climbs is that my bike did not have the easy gears the other guys had. My legs were straining to turn over the big chainrings. I confirmed this when I got home: most of them had an easiest gear ratio of 39-25. My easiest was 42-23. A pretty big difference on after 13,000 feet.

July 23

One of the things I have come to notice about myself is that I train much better with other people. I like having other people around so that we can push each other and help each other. Training with a group also means a more structured plan, so that everyone knows the what, when and where of training. Last year, Miles Minson, the US Development coach ran a residency program in Park City for promising young skiers. I did not train with them as much as I would have liked because my work schedule conflicted with their workouts. But this year I decided that if I wanted to make the most of my training, I needed to train with the development group on a daily basis, even if it meant rearranging or even cutting back on my work schedule. This year's residency program started a week ago and so far I am thrilled to be taking part. It has made my training simpler and less stressful already. Every morning, instead of lying in bed after my alarm goes off at 7:00 wondering where I should do my workout, or how long I should go for, I jump up and get dressed because I know I have to meet the group at 8:00 am sharp to do the workout on the schedule. It is also a huge help to have coaches (Miles and Chris Grover) at all the workouts to give technique tips, make sure we are doing the prescribed workout correctly (not too hard, not too slow, not too long etc.) and to drive the van along with us on rollerski sessions so that we have extra water and a way home. The group this year includes Andrew Johnson, Kris Freeman, Justin Freeman, Torin Koos, and Zach Simons. It is so nice to have other people along side when I am training. Even if we never say a word for an hour or so at a time, it is just nice to know that I am not alone in a sometimes lonely sport. The afternoon workouts I still have to do on my own because otherwise I would only get in 4 hours of work in between sessions, but that's not a big deal, as most of the longer, harder sessions are in the morning. I am so happy with this set up that I can't believe it took me so long to jump in and join them. In terms of enjoyment, it's not quite the same as being on a college team, but its the next best thing at this level.

July 29

Another successful week of group training has come and gone and I already feel like I am making huge progress. It has been along time since I could feel my body building itself up, like the more training I shovel onto it, the more it eats it up and asks for more. It is the best feeling an athlete can ask for. Another, unexpected bonus of the development team program is that I had to switch my weekly rest day from Monday to Sunday. For as long as I have been training, Monday has always been my rest day. Recently that seemed to make sense because I work Monday-Friday. It seemed to me that I should fit in as much training as I could on the weekend when I wasn't working. But I now realize that this schedule was partly to blame for my constant feeling of being overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with everything I need to do every day. On that schedule, most days I still had to work and train. And if I wasn't working, I was catching up on training. And if I wasn't training, I was catching up on work. I never relaxed. But now I have one day a week which is completely mine, a day for me to be a normal human being. To relax, to sleep in, to catch up on laundry or the website, or to play tennis or golf. It also gives me time to regroup and prepare for the week ahead. In fact right now it is Sunday afternoon and I am sitting in a lounge chair on our deck, relaxing with a lemonade, and typing away. This is what I had been missing for so long. Life is good, I just hope I can keep the ball rolling.

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.