While preparing for the Grand Traverse two years ago, people kept telling me: Sign up for the Gothic Mountain Tour. It’s great for training, they said. ‘Great for training’ was code for a lot of skating over rolling terrain, a necessary evil in the Grand Traverse that I was content to remain willfully ignorant of.
Fast forward to this year where the uncertainties of the world leaked into uncertainties in the race season. After last year’s Grand Traverse got cancelled days before the midnight start, I didn’t bother trying to sign up again (it also sold out within hours of opening registration and there are currently some 200 teams on the waitlist). Other race ambitions have been half-mast, with the general outlook being: Get fit enough to race if you feel inspired. Otherwise, the fitness will pay dividends for bigger missions in the spring.
Three days before the Gothic Mountain Tour, I got inspired.
The Gothic Mountain Tour is a nearly marathon length point-to-point ski race that travels from the town of Crested Butte through some of Colorado’s most stunning mountain scenery and ends at a backcountry yurt. With 5100 feet of climbing and descending over 23.5 miles, it has a little bit of everything: Long flat skins through mountain valleys, prolonged climbs that top out at 11,500 feet, high alpine descents in various conditions and yes, a whole lot of opportunities for nordic skiing.
I hadn’t really considered signing up for the race in the past, in part because of the flatland reputation but also it sounded really hard. It was. But it was also a spectacular test of endurance that takes place primarily in the post-card backcountry around Crested Butte. Here are some highlights and a few lessons learned throughout the day.
All in all, it was an excellent day spent moving through the high country.
As for lessons learned, here are a few:
Down skirts work
Thanks Alex Lee. Your advice to wear a down skirt in negative temps was well taken. When we shuffled up to the Gothic Mountain start line at 6am, the mercury read a frosty -10 degrees. I wore light base layers under a two piece race suit, appropriate for the 14 degree high eventually forecast but definitely not for -10. The down skirt was a perfect accompaniment right up until the final five mile skate to the finish. But honestly, nothing would have made that skate more enjoyable than just not having to do it…
An empty bottle is better than a frozen one
It’s tough to avoid frozen water when temps are in the single to negative digits, but in this case it could easily have been avoided. I brought one bike bottle which holstered on my pack and had a spare soft flask inside the trap door of my pack. An hour in to the race, the bike bottle was a block of ice and even the nozzle of the soft flask was too frozen to drink out of. What I should have done is kept the soft flask inside my race suit and left the bike bottle empty so I could fill it at the Gothic townsite aid station nine miles in. Instead I had to slog around a block of ice for five and a half hours. Hindsight, and all that.
Skate technique can win (or lose) a race
Nordic skiers probably already know this, but they possess the ultimate secret skimo weapon. Coming into the final descent of the Gothic tour, a stunning long powder run down into the Slate creek drainage, I’d worked my way into the top five among ladies. That high placement was soon squashed by the five miles of undulating terrain that lay ahead. One by one, racers passed me as I herringboned, shuffled, poled and only occasionally V2’d up the snowmobile packed trail. Things got desperate toward the end (read: I cried) and I was happy just to finish.
Most importantly: The Gothic Mountain Tour is not just a training race
The Grand Traverse gets the glory for its masochistic midnight start and course that travels from one awesome ski town to another. But the Gothic Mountain Tour deserves its place as a race goal on its own. It has the best of the GT: traversing high country to get from one cool place to another, long rolling slogs that really make you question your decisions in life, and the reward of taking on an effort many simply don’t. (It’s also a lot cheaper than the Traverse, logistically much simpler and there’s no waitlist).
So, I guess it’s time start those nordic ski lessons…
Check out full race results here.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.