Everything seemed to be falling into place and aligning to make Saturday, March 8 the best cross-country skiing day of the 2013-2014 ski season for me to try reaching a distant lofty goal I've had since I took up skate skiing in 2006: skiing over 100 kilometers — more than 62 miles — in a day.
Tucked away in a pristine pine forest 18 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota sits the Boulder Lake Management Area system of cross-country ski trails, a beautiful winding mass of over 32 kilometers of traditional classic and skate skiing possibilities.
The social media savvy trail groomer had posted updates on BoulderLake's Facebook fan page that pointed to the trails having just been lovingly prepared for potentially ideal skiing conditions on Saturday.
Weather forecasts predicted excellent temperatures for Saturday, one possibly final day in the sub-freezing range before daytime highs began jumping up to the 40s on Sunday. My schedule for the day was blissfully empty, and it also happened to be the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club's annual "Tour Duluth" day — during which skiers try to put in as many kilometers as possible on Duluth area trails — so the time seemed right to try to ski 100K.
With the day available and the best trail grooming and temperatures I could hope for, I got my skis waxed at Duluth's Ski Hut with a special hot box waxing. I chatted with the ski technician and told him my goal for the next day, and later in the day when I picked up my skis they had a small label affixed designating them as "100K At Boulder Day Guy," and I felt excitement as the store clerk wished me luck with my long ski day attempt.
Although my body felt good — with no injuries or aches — I did have one concern: not having done a single ski outing over 11.1K for the entire ski season. Even though I'd been consistent, either skiing or running at least every other day all winter, I didn't have any recent long hour-plus workouts under my belt, unlike the previous winter when I'd had numerous days skiing from 33.3K up to my longest ever day of 66.6K.
When I skied that record distance last year I'd planned, prepared and headed to BoulderLake early in the morning, only to find that five inches of new snow had fallen overnight. I enthusiastically told myself the fresh light snow might not make too much of a difference in my 100K attempt, and I set out in the darkness. I managed four 11.1K loops before the groomer came out, and although I was then able to put in two more loops, the extra effort of skating in the fresh ungroomed snow proved to be too much, and I begrudgingly gave up when my left leg started to cramp up at around 60K, finishing the day with a new personal record of 66.6K.
This year my attempt felt magical and right as soon as I started putting the planning pieces together, and as I went to bed early on Friday night I looked forward to the early alarm in the morning. I also felt a tinge of doubt over being able to accomplish such a momentous personal goal, and worried that if I didn't succeed this time I might never even attempt a 100K day again.
The alarm woke me at 5:15 a.m. and I ate a modest breakfast of toast with almond butter and strawberry preserves, two vegetarian "sausage" patties, a caffeine-laden packet of chocolate Gu sports energy gel, along with coffee and water.
Outside my house in Duluth it was 10°F, and I knew that as I drove north the temperature would drop and likely be between 5-8° when I put on my skis and hit the trails.
With highs in Duluth forecast to be in the low to mid 20°s and for the Boulder Lake area around 15-18°, I expected to be skiing the bulk of my day at nearer to 20°, and dressed accordingly wearing a medium weight Norwegian flag hat, two thin wicking base layer tops covered with a light running jacket shell, thin cross-country skiing gloves, my favorite go-to Solomon medium weight ski tights over two pairs of wind-blocking briefs, and my best long ski socks.
I brought along a big workout bag filled to overflowing with a variety of extra layers of clothes, gloves, hats, and jackets, plus my warm down winter coat for after my ski if I got really cold.
I had a plastic bag filled with containers of water and various electrolyte-rich sports drinks, and another with food including Gu packets, Clif energy bars, and a small package of Duluth Whole Foods Co-op deli Greek dolmades — the deliciously simple grape leaves stuffed with rice.
As I carried everything down the steep front stairs in front of the small house where my wife Julie Ahasay and I live, I felt a palpable sense of imminent adventure, and as I drove northward I watched the temperature drop to 8° when I passed IslandLake and turned off Rice Lake Road towards BoulderLake.
A wide smile came over me when I began seeing towering dark pines coated in clean white snow alongside the twisting, snow-packed, unpaved road, and soon turned the Volvo into the Boulder Lake parking lot — the only car there in the 6:30 a.m. darkness.
Over the years I'd formulated a general plan to try skiing over 100K at Boulder Lake, by doing nine 11.1K loops to reach 99.9K and then an extra 1.1 kilometers I'd mapped out and verified multiple times with GPS. I thought that if I could manage to complete 100K I ought to add on one addition kilometer, as the likelihood I'd ever attempt to ski so far again was slim.
The 11.1K loop started at the Boulder Lake south parking lot and covered all of the Blue Ox, Nine Pine, and Bear Paw trails, plus the extra distance across the flat frozen lake to a fantastic little warming house — Wolfski's Ski Den — and back to the parking lot. Although some maps list this loop at 11.5K, I've measured it many times with multiple GPS units as 11.1K, so I used my more conservative distance.
Loop One — 11.1 Kilometers
I put on my secondhand Peltonen Supra skis and started skating at 6:36 a.m., right at the day's official sunrise, although it was still quite dark in the forest.
My newly-waxed skis felt very good, and I was the first person out on trails that had been groomed just the day before. I could immediately tell that my skis were gliding much better than before the waxing, but I didn't get much time to enjoy the glide as my fingers quickly got quite cold.
The last thing I wanted on a mega-kilometer day was to overheat, and with temperatures expected to be near 20° that's what I'd dressed for, however I was out before 7:00 a.m. and it was only 8°.
I'd worn my thinner gloves and for the first 20 minutes or so my fingers kept getting colder. They almost lost feeling and I nearly stopped to warm them, but as always seems to happen when you keep going they did eventually regain feeling and warm up, as I'd experienced numerous previous times from skiing in temperatures colder than -20°. I wished, however, that I'd worn my thicker skiing gloves, and my thin shirts and light jacket were also just barely acceptable for the conditions on that first cold morning loop.
When my fingers finally warmed, I was able to return to enjoying the beautiful quiet morning — peaceful, still, and all alone.
I said hello to all of the terrain — the hills, flats, open areas, and tree-lined wonderlands — all familiar to me, but this time I knew I could be out there all day, so I paid extra attention to taking it all in, and carefully observed the trail conditions throughout the day's first loop. The grooming was nearly perfect, and soon I was skating across the open lake for the first time of the day, happy to find the warming house open.
I was still a bit chilled, and the warmth of Wolfski's Ski Den felt comforting. It was deserted and quiet as I made myself a packet of the hot cider BoulderLake generously puts out along with hot chocolate mix, and I warmed up.
The sun was starting to rise, and I took a few photos on my cellphone camera to document my first 11.1K.
I was somewhat skeptical about my chances of actually making it to 100K, especially with how cold I'd gotten on only my first loop.
I washed down another chocolate Gu packet with the last of my apple cider and headed back outside.
Loop Two — 22.2 Kilometers
Starting out back across the lake and into the forest I was all-too-soon cold again, and considered stopping at the car to get warmer gloves, but I thought I was likely past the cold hand stage and figured if I just kept skating I'd warm up.
Skiing past the parking lot I saw one other vehicle but no skier, and didn't see any fresh skating tracks aside from my own, so I guessed whoever was there was classic skiing.
Past the parking lot my whole body got colder, but I focused on the beautiful skiing, as spots of sunlight began to appear from between the trees and in open areas.
Aside from being cold my body felt good, but I was afraid I might have to ski too hard just to keep warm, jeopardizing any chances for making it anywhere near 100K.
I started looking forward to again stopping at the warming house after my second loop. I hadn't specifically planned to stop after each loop, and gave myself the freedom to do 22.2 or 33.3K segments without stopping if that was what felt right, but after another lap with the temperature stuck at 8°, I was happy to reach the warming house once again and take a brief break.
I warmed up there — this time with hot cocoa — and still had the place to myself. I took a photo of my big grey beard full of icicles. I was worried that I was sweating so much while still feeling mostly cold — not a good combination.
Looking over my progress I saw that I was doing each 11.1K loop in just under an hour, a pace that I'd hoped to be able to maintain all day if my body and determination held out.
I tried to drink plenty of water and had some cold, but mainly drank hot water from the warming house's big plastic dispenser, mixed either with cider, cocoa mix, or by itself.
It was 10° when I headed back outside and once again put on my skis.
Loop Three — 33.3 Kilometers
Back on the trails my body felt good but my clothes were soaked and I was still cold. I thought I'd do another loop and see how I felt, hoping to warm up as time passed.
One my third loop I saw another person for the first time, a casual classic skier who I said hello to as I skated past.
The kilometers flew by and the conditions were great and getting better by the minute, with the sun warming up the cold snow and making it faster. I skied Nine Pine for the third time that morning, with my thoughts returning to the hot cider waiting if I could make it to the warming house. I began thinking of each circuit as either a "cider lap" or a "hot chocolate lap," which helped break up the daunting prospect of 100+K into much-more-reasonable single-loop chunks.
I crossed the lake again, anxious to warm up inside Wolfski's. The warming house was bustling this time, as two loud — at times screaming — young boys, their parents, and some friends were busy chatting about the day's ski adventures. I just quietly smiled when the father half asked and half said, "I hope you weren't looking for any peace and quiet in here?"
I took a loop three photo and enjoyed more hot apple cider. The temperature had remained below 12° for the first 33.3K I'd skied so far, and I was ready to make a change for the next loop.
Loop Four — 44.4 Kilometers
The sun was out and shining brightly by then, and I knew I needed to put on sunglasses in order to make it through the day without blinding myself from the sun's reflection off the bright white snow.
I crossed the lake and made my first stop at the car. I put on sunglasses, a fresh pair of warmer gloves, and a thicker — and most importantly a dry — hat, and returned to the trails.
Those changes did the trick, and I felt much better as I skied onward, savoring the sun, the beauty of the trails, and the ideal snow conditions.
I didn't know how far I could make it — how far I'd be able to push my body after not having any long ski outings all winter.
As I skated along I thought for a few moments here and there about heading home, happy to have skied three times farther than any other time this winter — but I quickly put those thoughts aside and decided to keep pushing on one lap at a time and to just see what would happen.
My fourth loop went by easily and without difficulty, and I returned to the warming house where the loud family was still encamped, along with some other folks out enjoying the beautiful sunny day. I had another hot drink, some cold water, and an energy bar.
I rested a bit, and closed my eyes as I leaned against a wall, my right hand outstretched resting on a metal heater. After each loop I learned to put my hat and gloves on the heater, too — after first breaking up the icicles that attached my beard to my hat enough so that I could even take it off. Although it had been good to get a dry hat and gloves at the start of that loop, my shirts and jacket were still thoroughly soaked, so as I closed my eyes I planned out another stop at the car.
I observed that, thankfully, my loops were still taking me about an hour per 11.1K skiing very conservatively.
Loop Five — 55.5 Kilometers
I stopped at the car and changed into dry top layers and another dry hat, which immediately felt great. I used the time as my lunch break, drinking electrolyte and vitamin-rich fluids and eating most of my co-op dolmades along with an energy bar.
My already high confidence was boosted considerably when I got back on the trails knowing that with luck I'd hit 55.5K after that loop.
My body felt good in the new dry clothes, and I began passing lots of skiers around that most popular mid-day period.
I skied through Nine Pines for the fifth time, worked my way through the hills of Blue Ox and the gently rolling terrain of Bear Paw, and soon I once again crossed the lake and entered Wolfski's for my now-hourly routine of warm liquids, resting my body and eyes, stretching my legs, and visualizing and planning yet another loop.
Loop Six — 66.6 Kilometers
Starting loop six I contemplated tying my all-time personal distance record of 66.6K if I could just finish that circuit of the trail, and I knew I could do it barring injury.
I started getting excited, having pushed through all of the day's possible early drop-out points for calling it quits, and I knew I'd most likely soon be skiing into uncharted distance territory for me, if my body and will both held out. That uncharted newness was what I sought and looked forward to.
After skiing more than 60K I started to feel a bit tired, but more in a sleepy way than any sort of physical or muscle fatigue.
I continued to savor the perfect day. The weather and trail conditions were fantastic, with the sun having heated up the snow just the right amount to get a smooth and efficient glide, and the temperature had finally warmed to the day's peak of around 19°.
My body and skis took me back to the little warming hut, having tied my personal record, and there I recouped, rested, and — after a period of contemplation — decided to push on into uncharted territory.
Loop Seven — 77.7 Kilometers
My seventh loop was filled with an odd mixture of feeling great as I skied farther than I ever had before with each kilometer — pushing onward with a new thrill and challenge — and trying purposely to conserve my strength, waiting for my body's muscles to possibly give out at any moment.
Nine Pine went by for the seventh time of the day, and thankfully somehow my body continued to hold up. Before long I was skating across the frozen lake once more, and I was thrilled to pull back into Wolfski's.
All day I'd become increasingly aware that the next lap — my eighth — was crucial and probably the most important and difficult of the day, especially mentally.
It took considerable effort to push on and start the penultimate loop, but I knew that if I was able to just start the lap, try my hardest and finish it, there wouldn't be any way that I wasn't going to go out one final time and attempt the ultimate loop to reach my 100K goal.
Loop Eight — 88.8 Kilometers
I put a great amount of focus and mental effort into my eighth loop, and although my body was feeling fine I continued to work hard at trying to force myself to conserve energy and to not strain muscles that had already been skiing for more than eight hours.
The sun was going down, and with a quickly increasing amount of shadows, the snow conditions slowed a bit as the temperature began to drop.
By then each loop seemed so very long at times yet also — somehow — shorter in their own way, as I knew every bend and hill well from seven previous loops.
I enjoyed a beautiful sunset on that lap, and my focus had paid off as I eventually found myself coming back upon the warming house, where I was happy to have my final warm drinks of the long day before trying to make one final push towards 100K.
Loop Nine — 99.9 Kilometers
I was elated and overjoyed to still be skiing, and I felt as if I were in some sort of ultra-vivid, living adventure documentary, my body seeming to move on its own.
I was lucky to still have had plenty of mental will power, and just hoped my body would hold up for one final 11.1K loop of skate skiing.
After collecting my thoughts, I headed back out, skated across the lake, and then stopped at the car. I put on my warmest hat and down coat, and changed into two pairs of different gloves. I'd gotten wet and cold again the previous few loops, and had looked forward to feeling the warmth of dry, thicker clothes again.
I thought that even if I wore too much, I knew I'd be playing it extra safe on the final lap, in order to not jeopardize my record attempt. I decided I'd rather be too hot than too cold after a full day with many cold hours of skiing, even if it meant putting on the gear I'd put aside to wear once my day was complete.
Passing 90K I enjoyed skiing along each bit of trail for the last time after an extremely long day, and I was finally able to ski through Nine Pine for my ninth time of the day — something I'd always thought would be amusing. I found myself silently thanking all my favorite parts of the beautiful trail for such a spectacular day, as I pushed on in my quest for the 100K goal.
As the sun set I watched the final patches of sunlight fade amidst the evening's still trees, and then daylight faded away and gave way to dusk.
During the last half of that final loop I started occasionally seeing reflections in the glossy red tops of my skis, and I wondered what they could be.
After a while I looked up and was thrilled to find the moon out and bright, the natural source of the beautiful glimmering reflections in my skis, as I continued to push on.
My left elbow hurt, and my right heel had what felt like a huge blister, which hurt with each push off on my skis — I'd felt it building up and getting worse for the past 30K or so.
Nothing was of any real concern, however — I didn't have any muscle spasms or cramps — and soon enough in the day's fading light I made my way across the lake to the warming house. It was dark inside and likely closed for the day. I skied up past it a bit, turned around and made my final push across the frozen lake, nearly overcome by positive feelings and unbounded energy.
For the final ski to the car I quietly relished and celebrated my accomplishment and that incredible once-in-a-lifetime day. As I came up the final hill and around the last bend I dug deep and put forth an extra sprint before pulling up back at the parking lot, with 99.9K of skiing under my belt.
There were several night skiers getting ready to head out, adjusting their headlamps. One man took off and then after waiting a moment, I pushed on, with only the moon as my headlamp.
I skied half a kilometer to a big tree I'd marked out with GPS on an earlier trip, turned around, and then skated my final trail of the day back to the parking lot, having successfully skied 101K.
I felt wonderful and elated, and was ecstatic to conquer such a huge personal goal. It was the biggest athletic goal I'd ever undertaken and accomplished, and to me it was up there with my other long-time distant goals of completing a full Ironman triathlon and running 50 and 100 miles.
More than twelve hours after arriving at BoulderLake that morning, I took off my skis and packed them away with my poles.
I tried to take a few celebratory photos in the moonlight, but it was too dim, so I started the car and snapped a few by the light of the headlights, before a joyous drive south to my own home, where that night I dreamt that I was skiing onward forevermore.
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