Stage 4 of the Pierra Menta climbed about 6,000 feet. There were two major climbs, the first of which went for almost 4,000 feet. As usual, the first 1k was an all out drag race -- poles banging and clanging, lycra clad europeans charging all over the place, shouting, cowbells, crashing, stench (you can't imagine after 4 days of racing). And then as racers found their rhythm and settled in, a steady sound of marching as 400 racers trudged up the mountain. It sounded like a war scene from Lord of the Rings, except in addition to bugles, there were harmonicas and accordians.
The race purposefully starts with the groomer drag race to allow things to sort out. A natural selection occurs with the fastest racers emerging at the front and then on down. Javier, a Spanish national team member and friend of the US team -- he did the Powderkeg twice when it was a world cup event -- stepped out of his binding at the start and because he didn't want to lose his place, ran on one leg and skinned on the other leg, holding his ski in his hand. When he finally had an open spot where he wouldn't risk losing a place, he clipped in and kept motoring. The day before that, he finished with two broken skis and a gash on his arm that required stitches. It's all out war at the front.
In the middle of the pack, things are less violent, but still very competitive. Brandon and I have found ourselves with several of the same teams over last couple of days, two of which are women teams, one from France and the other from Italy. On Stage 4, we also raced with the Swiss women team, until they streaked by us on the bulletproof, exposed downhill. The Swiss team and France team were battling for second place, and the Italian team for fourth place.
The first climb went relatively well, except for a spot where I had a mini-bonk. Fueling has always been an issue with me. For the most part I have it worked out, but it is a challenge. Prior to the race, I had tried to fuel properly, but after 3 hard days of racing -- over 11 hrs being constantly pinned at altitude -- I think I was running a deficit. Basically, everything I put in was instantly burned. And if I didn't put in enough, I could feel my legs begin to lag. I think I went through 5 or 6 Gus and a half bladder filled with Coke and water. On a normal ~2 hr race, I would only race with one bottle and one Gu.
Brandon was raring to go and set a fast pace. I did my best to keep up, but think he could have gone a bit faster. We were encouraged to hear that we were only 5 minutes behind Pete and Cary at the top of the first ascent. As we approached the top, as we have gotten used to (but will never take for granted), the crowds yelled and cheered. Some people yelled "Allez!" Some people yelled "Go Brandon! Go Jared!" Some people chanted, "Yes we can!" Some people yelled "Obama!" Some people yelled, "Go Japonese!" I didn't correct them.
The first descent, as I mentioned, was bullet proof. I felt I was skiing it very fast, making GS turns, making sure I didn't lose an edge. It was a lot like skiing South Superior. There was exposure on the right and any fall would have sent you into a death slide for 100s of meters. It was about midway down when the Swiss women rocketed past. They ended up finishing 2nd on the day and 2nd overall.
The rest of the course was a mixture of ridgeline booting and steep skinning. Running the course with the French women was fun since they are national heroes. When they would come into view, the crowds would yell and cheer -- "Go Letcia!" (I think they won last year.) The Swedish men's national team joined us around the 2nd ascent as well. We have been together at some point during every stage and have become friends.
Perhaps one of the coolest parts of the whole race was the last summit. It was a boot pack up a knife-edge ridge. There was a light cloud cover hovering on top of the peak. From the bottom of the boot pack, we watched as racers with skis on their back disappeared into the clouds, balancing on the ridge. To the left, the terrain dropped off sharply. The relief was huge. The peaks, including the one on which we were standing, were very sharp and articulate. They were essentially giant shards of rock on which a path had been conveiently cut in the ice and rock. Brandon and I both were in awe as we glanced around. We dared not look because that would have meant taking our eyes off the boot pack, and that could have meant a fall.
At the top of the summit, we began a downhill boot pack. At one point, the the down track had been worn on the right and left, leaving a crotch-height (for tall people) ridge of snow in the middle. Being somewhat vertically challenged, I scrubbed a good 4 inches off the ridge. And then it was a downhill run out of the clouds in ski boots and sugar snow to the transition.
At the transition, I think Brandon and I were still sitting in decent position -- maybe 50ish? However, we had a few mishaps on the downhill. As we left the last transition, I observed an Italian racer desparately skiing off course on one Trab. The other, by the single track off the mountain, had left his foot. It was gone. I doubt he finished. Since the snow was relatively good, Brandon and I skiied fast. The descent was 1500-2000 foot bowl. We GS'd it and then when my legs gave out I had no choice but to straightline it. Unfortunately, my straightline and another racer's straightline intersected. We both tried to correct, but had a collision. I rag-dolled and ended up 10 meters below my pole. As I was rag-dolling, I actually thought, so this is what it's like to rag-doll. I'd never done that before. A spectator skiied down and threw me what he thought was my pole. It turned out that it was simply 18 inches of pole -- one that I had borrowed from Pete since I had snapped my carbon pole two days ago. Disgusted, I threw it across the valley and started skiing down with one pole. I didn't see the guy who I collided with after the collision. I hope he's ok.
For awhile, it was ok that I didn't have a pole. The descent wasn't too technical. But then it turned into a steep north facing tree section with bumps that were taller than me. I developed a system that worked ok -- plant, turn, put pole in other hand, plant, turn, put pole in other hand . . . -- but was glad when a spectator graciously offered her pole. I greedily took it and was able to ski faster, but not after the Italian women rallied by me.
The steep trees emptied out onto a bobsled run, complete with bermed turns. Brandon was eager to get by a competitor who wasn't comfortable maching down a single track, ice covered run. The competitor was rude and held his poles out so Brandon couldn't get by. When Brandon finally put a move on, he got tangled up with the guy's poles and went for a slide. Shortly after that, I lost a pole again, and had to stop to retrieve it.
And then it was over. The whole race was over, and we finished! Brandon and I crossed the line, clanging poles bro syle, then shook hands, then hugged. What an experience.