After a very successful Nationals in Houghton we got to relax for about a week before the next competition called for us. This time, the call was not for glory, qualifying for World Championships, or accruing Supertour points; the Qaniq’s sweet call was only adventure and money. With a $3000 prize for winning on the line, the Qaniq Challenge was tempting for all of us APU skiers who had just proven our form at US Nationals, and there was plenty of bluffs, calls and folds from all of us in the days before the race. I went all in and announced my intention to race from the start. I showed my stone face at practice everyday daring anyone to challenge me, and then went home and shook and sweated in my room hoping nobody else would come. A few days before the race several of my Alaska Pacific University teammates showed up sick and had to fold their hands leaving just Scott Patterson and me.
The day before the race I finally remembered to register for the race online. Within a few hours after I signed up got calls from Pete and Dylan who tried to sound calm as they asked me whether I was really coming down. “Yes, and Scott is coming too,” I told them.
On Friday morning Dylan, Lauren, and Scott and I met up at Dylan’s place to caravan down. The drive was clear, and Scott and I chatted nervously about strategy: “If the races aren’t fair, what do you want to do?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean like…for example if, um, say that it’s too narrow and we can’t pass one another. Should we just agree we will split the prize?” I gasped. Scott waited for a few seconds.
“I guess,” he said.
We made it into Valdez at 3pm, checked out the course briefly to assess the lack of snow, and then went to check into our b&b. We were greeted by a nice woman, her young son who wore a batman t-shirt, her two wide-eyed daughters who eagerly showed us how to operate the Samsung massage chair, and their father, a lean ex-coastguard man with a thin smile and a wicked comb-over. Dylan, who originally had planned on staying in a separate hotel, asked if they had extra rooms. When they said no, we briefly conferred and then decided it would be fine if Dylan shared Scott and my room. At 6pm, Dylan went to the airport to pick up Pete. When they returned, Pete plopped his clothes down in our room, and what Scott and I thought would be a comfortable room for two suddenly became a very inexpensive room for four.
At 7pm we had a pre-race meeting at the Valdez Civic Center/Cinema. There we were greeted by the crooked jawed Daryl Verfaille, the mastermind of the whole event, who told us not to worry about the race conditions or the fact that there was not really a bridge over the river on the lower half of the course. “Our guys will figure it out,” he said confidently. We later learned that Daryl had been stuck on Denali for three weeks at 17,000 feet before finally giving up on a summit attempt.
The next day at the race they apparently had figured it out. Except for a few sections of slush and ice, the course was as good as it possibly could have been. A plywood platform over the river had been shoveled with enough snow to make it feel safe. We started in 30 second intervals, and it was clear from the start that double-poling was the ticket, even for the top two women. I was able to take the win by 28 seconds over Scott and covered the supposed 15km in 28:00, which is probably the fastest I have done a “15km” ever. The icy tracks certainly helped, as did the flat course and the fact that it was probably not a full 15km.
The rest of the day we spent walking around Valdez and checking out the few shops that were open. We had another race meeting to discuss possible race changes for the following day, and then went back to our b&b.
That evening as Dylan and Pete applied fluorocarbons to their skis, Scott and I lounged around in the living room. One of the other guests, a well-dressed and polished looking 60-something year old with a gold chain around his neck, started talking to us. He was in Valdez to visit his newborn grandson, he told us. He went on to explain to us that he was a former long-distance runner, extreme skier, semi-pro golfer, thespian and just a great guy. We were soon joined by our host family just as our esteemed gentleman launched into his next story about how wonderful it is of him to host exchange students. “Facebook has made it so much easier to stay in touch with former students,” he said, “we have contacted everybody whose address we lost or who stopped writing us. We even had one student who we had lost contact with for years and years, who never returned Christmas cards or even phone calls. Finally my wife found him on Facebook. She asked him, ‘Why haven’t you returned our calls?’ and he said that it was because his parents kicked him out of their house when he told them he was gay. We said, ‘Well son, no matter what you are part of our family and we don’t think any less of you because you are gay. You are always welcome with us. Some people are just born like that–it’s not your choice.’” It was a nice story, but Scott and I felt a strange tension in the air. Suddenly our landlord chimed in, “You know, a lot of people think they are gay and then at some point in their lives decide they aren’t and get married and have kids.” I almost punched him in the face but instead got up and tersely announced I was going to bed even though it was only 8 o’clock. Scott followed me while the well-dressed man continued with another story. “When I was younger I was a really good scuba diver…”
I slept poorly that night, needless to say.
The skate course was held on a trail some 10 miles outside of town. We weren’t quite to the mountains yet, but on good snow years the course could have taken us to them. Unfortunately a marsh had melted into a two foot deep puddle and they had to modify the course. It was a relatively cold day, and we kept hoping the sun would pop out from behind the mountains but instead it skirted below the peaks. The gun went off for the mass start, and I jumped into the lead. It was a flat, fast course again, and after some time of putting in steady work I could feel that I was tiring myself out while four other racers cruised behind me. I started to consider ways to force people into the lead on the narrow course, but just as I did I lost concentration and fell flat on my stomach. Suddenly the race dynamic changed. Scott shot by Dylan to the front and said something to him as he passed. As I scrambled to catch up to Pete and Dylan, Scott started pulling away and I could tell Pete and Dylan were tiring. After a couple minutes though, I saw Scott slow down again and allow us all to catch up, but as soon as we did he pushed pace again. I was stuck behind the other too and couldn’t follow Scott as he started to put in serious time. Eventually I got around them, but Scott already had 20 seconds, leaving me perhaps an 8 second cushion from the previous day. It was too close for comfort so I pushed the pace on the gradual downhill and brought the gap down to 10 seconds. Unfortunately the wind blew into my eyes so hard it froze my contact and my vision became blurry. I fell to the ground again, losing another few seconds and my precious momentum. Now it was really a race. I pushed for everything I had so that Scott would think he had less time on me when he saw me at the turnaround, and then just held on and prayed that I wouldn’t fall again. I came to the finish 16 seconds behind Scott to secure the overall victory. Afterwards I asked Dylan what Scott had said to him after I fell. “He said, ‘I feel bad about this’” I guess in the end his conscience caught up to him which is why he slowed down.
That evening all of the racers and volunteers gathered at the Fat Mermaid for awards, raffles, and drinks. Each racer had a free drink coupon, and Daryl bought all of us beers at the end of the night out of his own pocket. Becca, the women’s winner, also won a plastic kayak while Pete took home a GoPro. We left at 11pm super-impressed with the enthusiasm of the organizers and volunteers and jonesing to get back next year. Another very successful weekend.