I know what we can do, to make it harder. Convince the legislature to shut down the state, which will shut down the state park, forcing the 25 and 50k trail races to be held at the nearest ski hill. Yeah, that would do it. Beautifully brilliant!
Well, it was a solution – a great one, truly. Let me first say that I was in awe of the runners who attempted and/or finished this year’s Afton Trail Run. It appears I picked a good run to serve as a volunteer, rather than to run. It looked really freaking hard, zig-zagging or going straight up or down the now-grassy ski slopes, and very exposed to the 80-some degree heat (my volunteer shift began around 10:45, so I missed the hours that reportedly offered some episodic shade to the runners). One of my mountain-biking trail-running friends backed out of the race, once he heard they were using the bike trails at the Alps. That’s pretty telling, about how aggressively the trail was designed.
This is not to say that I had zero envy, even at the end of the warm day. The sick and twisted part of me is alive and well, if just a little disguised as a sensible, low-mileage runner, lately.
Sick and twisted: This very ski hill (Afton Alps!) played a part in my introductory year to outdoor fun in Minnesota. I’d moved from Tacoma, WA to Northfield, MN, for college, and joined the alpine ski team. In that first year I got introduced to not just Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park (for pre-season runs with the nordic ski team) and Carleton’s Arboretum, but also to the very new experience of downhill skiing in Minnesota.
New? What, it’s snow, you go up on a chair, and down on 2 boards. Same as at Crystal Mountain, Sun Valley, or Mt. Bachelor, except maybe shorter runs, due to lack of elevation.
IS NOT SAME. Especially if you race. I’d never thought about ambient temperature before, while skiing. I’d worried more about how waterproof my pants were (or rather, weren’t, as those were the days prior to the invention of Gore-Tex), which I only thought about while sitting on a wet chair lift. But when the air temp gets below zero (as it often does in Minnesota winters), you simply can’t stay outside the whole day or even evening of skiing. You must go in, to warm up. Often. Sometimes, every 30 minutes. It’s why they call it a “warming hut,” and not a “lodge,” here, in some places.
Add to that the frequency of night practices that collegiate skiers have, and the temp dives even further. This is especially true if you try to cut down on wind drag on a slalom course by wearing not-so-puffy ski clothes. I actually looked forward to the nights we were at a hill where we had to use the rope tow, rather than the chair lift: the effort of holding on to the rope kept me warmer.
So, I raced for two years, then quit the team. Notably, the decision was aided by a close-to-pneumonia case of bronchitis and a huge pileup of schoolwork. But really, ski racing in Minnesota didn’t offer the fun factor that mountain skiing in Washington did, for me. I missed long days of schussing, taking breaks only to use the restroom. Carving into fresh snow, following dubious narrow trails into the woods, tackling huge mogul fields: I loved it all way more than I liked a staggered line of somewhat flexible blue or red poles, screwed into the exposed, sometimes very steep hill.
This is not to say that skiing or boarding in Minnesota isn’t fun. Learning a new sport (boarding) as well as some maturation has given me a new appreciation for smaller hills and chalets with an acceptable variety of warm and cold beverages on the menu. Plus, some of these local hills are very accessible: less than an hour from my doorstep. The lift ticket price is still a little hard to stomach, but the grin I get from carving a huge turn on the board, and the forced leisure of sitting on the chairlift or in the
lodge warming hut are worth that price, a few times each winter.
Back to sick and twisted, and this July 2. I’m not a mountain biker, and don’t really desire to be one. But I love exploring new trails, and to a degree, I enjoy exploring the range of my abilities. Part of me wanted to see how I’d fare, running on that tough of a trail for several hours. I love mountains, and some runners have already compared that course to a mountain race. The Afton State Park trails, which in sum offer quite a few difficult hills, may not earn that honor: they offer respite in a fair amount of flats and shade, and the hills are perhaps a little less frequent.
So, what I got out of last weekend’s day of volunteering, partly as I was assigned the awesome duty of greeting weary, jubilant finishers at the end with a medal and some congratulation, was renewed excitement about trail running, and a new perspective on those ski hills. Funny how a 100-degree temperature swing can change things. Or not.