No, it’s not what you say when someone sneezes.
It’s Athabascan, and translated roughly, it means sliding your feet on snow in springtime. Those of you who have lived in northern climes know that doing so can be a dicey and often entertaining prospect, which is of course why Fairbanksans think it such a wonderful idea. There can actually be many forms of sliding your feet across snow…and ice and slush…in springtime and I’m sure it will come as no surprise that we enjoy them all, but this particular enterprise is all about skiing. Who would think that a ski marathon on an only partially frozen river in the last week of March is a good idea? We do!
The guy who is in charge of making sure it’s safe for us to do so is Bad Bob Baker. Any reader from Fairbanks knows the legendary Bad Bob and to give those not fortunate (or nutty) enough to live here a bit of background, Bad Bob is fast, competitive, often wins his age group and races in bright orange. Always. He also has a heart of gold and volunteers hundreds of hours to make everything from high school track to ski races happen in Fairbanks. When thanked, he gives a gruff nod and he would be mortified to know I described him as having a soft and generous heart.
Getting back to the point, would you trust the thickness of ice on a 50 degree day when you can actually see the gravel at the bottom of the river to a guy in orange spandex called Bad Bob?
Of course! It’s all part of the fun. And no one went in the drink today, though a few of us got hot enough that we would have been glad to. And there was some talk of whether the best approach was to ski around standing water or through it. Once again, part of the charm.
That brings me to the first phase of fun and entertainment for the community – the lead in to the race with all its drama. Text messages and e-mails fly all over town the week before – are you racing the Sonot? What distance? Will it be on the river? What have you heard? Part of this is friendly and just about finding out who will be there that you might not have had coffee with recently and the other piece is sneakily competitive. By figuring out who is there, you can actually start to get a tally on the people faster than you in your age group. The simple method would be just to look it up on line, but what fun is that?
The other aspect to the pre-event drama is something that only people who have bibbed up for a ski event fully understand, so I’ll describe it in more detail for those of you who do not believe that sliding along the river with boards strapped to your feet and sharp pointy objects in your hands is a good idea.
Let me use running as an example. If you typically run a half marathon in 2 hours, you may slow down a little in the heat or wind or rain, but assuming that you’re running a road race and that the terrain isn’t too extreme, your half marathon result on any given day will probably be somewhere between 1:55 and 2:10. On a really terrible day when you’re sick, injured, tired, having muscle cramps, etc. there might be a wider variation, but you can still trace the difference in your result back to a specific factor in how you were feeling that day.
Not so with ski races. The temperature of the snow itself is a factor in how fast you can go and how much effort is expended to do so. If you’re on classic skis, you also have to select a wax that will work for the temperature of the snow, how old or granular the snow is, whether you’ll go through icy patches that will grind your wax off and how much climbing you will be doing. I’m a bit of a hack as a skier and I just generally try to stay vertical and do my best, so I’m not the best person to talk you through all of this. My point here is that all of these factors add to the drama and anticipation of the day. On a spring day when the weather may actually change quite a bit between the time you start and the time you finish, the drama and anticipation is even higher. The comment the race organizers made today was that we would literally be racing spring to see if we could complete the course before the sun did its thing.
I’m not very speedy, so there was definitely slush, shiny spots and puddles on the way back where none had been on the way out. Just adds to the excitement! And to my original point about how the conditions affect expectations and results, many of the skiers today on the “fast snow” commented on being able to complete the 20K course 15 to 20 minutes faster than expected. Going back to that half marathon example, imagine the feeling of crossing the finish line 15 minutes faster than your PR because of “fast asphalt”.
As I said, drama. Both in the anticipation and the result.
So lets get on to the day itself. One of the great things about skiing…or running or anything else outdoorsy and athletic in Fairbanks is that we have amazing athletes of all ages here and yet the approach to things is very egalitarian. I came into the finish today behind a six year old that I can easily imagine as a future Olympian. And living in Fairbanks, she could set her sights on that dream and accomplish it – many others have.
Lining up at the start, you see a combination of old geezers in wool shirts, suspenders and old school wool ski pants lined up next to skiers from the various high school and university teams and scattered among them the smaller kids decked out in the colors of their various ski clubs. On the advice of a friend, I lined up behind everyone under everyone in bright clothes under 25. It was a wise decision.
If you’ve ever seen a mass start swim at a triathlon, imagine everyone with sharp sticks in their hands and it will give you an idea of what a mass start in a ski event looks and feels like. The good news is that you’re not going to drown skiing. Or at least not until the river melts down a little more. The little guys (and by that I mean everyone under 4 foot tall of both genders) take off at breakneck speed, giving it their all with an energy level I’m not even sure I remember.
As an aside, one of the great remarks I overheard today was when a tweenage girl was complaining to her dad about a sore throat. Instead of asking if she needed to go to the doctor, he asked her if it was because she was breathing through her mouth, adding the comment “you know, you were really sucking wind out there for awhile.”
So off we go down the river on a bright sunny day under a clear blue sky, already wondering along with all the questions about who is in our age group and whether it’s going to be icy whether we also might have put on one too many layers. The answer for absolutely everyone was yes. It was 35 degrees when I started and 50 when I finished. Did I mention that the snow was fast, fast, FAST?!
Some of you have heard me say before that my favorite thing about the Equinox Marathon is that it’s a social event – a time to check in on friends and their families in the fall just before winter sets in. I think the Sonot Khaazoot may be the spring equivalent. I skied with a group the way you do in any race moving ahead a little when you’re feeling great and dropping back a bit when you need to regroup. Most of the group I was with for the day were parents skiing along with the younger skiers in their families and encouraging them along the way. Several of the 12 and under set I skied with today were doing their longest ski ever – 20K is just shy of a half marathon.
There were also three dads moving along with the group towing baby trailers on skis, stopping frequently to make sure that the kids not quite old enough for skis of their own (and in Fairbanks most start skiing as soon as it’s somewhat likely they’ll be able to stay upright for a few minutes at a time) were enjoying their time on the river.
It was a companionable group and I learned a lot about the kids who were trying so very hard not to get passed by an old lady like me. One little guy in particular was very obviously torn between wanting his mom to be proud of him and not wanting to appear uncool being seen with her. Knowing her boy, she stayed slightly in front of him or behind him all day, giving us a chance to chat. When I finally decided to move on ahead, it took me nearly a full kilometer to pass him. Kid has guts, but sometimes the old dogs still have it in the endurance department. Next year, he’ll beat me.
I think my only disappointment is that the day went by far too fast. To be honest, I think I only had 20K in my legs, so I’m not sure going further would be a great idea, but the thing about skiing, at least on a gorgeous spring day like today, is that it’s over while you’re still at the very peak of enjoyment. It’s a bit more intense than running in that you have a lot more to pay attention to – how the snow feels under your skis, what the trail conditions look like ahead of you, boards, sticks, other people with boards and sticks. It also goes by just a little faster, making you yearn for more. Or maybe it’s just that community feeling of seeing everyone out celebrating that made me want to stay out all day.
I can’t quite leave a recap of a race without talking about the results. Even knowing that my competitive streak is absolutely meaningless given the caliber of athletes I had the pleasure of skiing with (or behind) today, I still have to say that it was a ski I can feel good about. I set my sights on two and a half hours, friends who know the river and the event amended that to two hours and with the fast snow, I finished in just under an hour and a half.
Just because we all need to keep our egos in check, though, I’m reminding myself that I got beat in an endurance event by a six year old. I guess I’ll have to wait until she makes the US Ski team a decade or more from now to feel fully justified.
Whether it envolves sliding on snow or not, here’s to happy springtime trails!