It's one of those mornings where I feel like doing something productive, but just can't quite seem to focus on it. Therefore, it's a good morning to blog.

I rented skis for the Christmas holiday. This was unusual for me because it costs money, which I don't like to spend, and because it involved skiing, which I don't really know how to do. But I haggled, cut a deal, and took the Greyhound northwards with a set of classic and associated poles and boots.

As an aside, the trip continued to prove that there's no good way home in the winter. Over Thanksgiving, PG and I left Minneapolis at 3PM, and I got into the house at around 2AM. That's what crawling at 30MPH through a ground-blizzard on icy roads can do to a journey. Thankfully, the Greyhound fishtailed a only couple of times and pulled off of the road to bang ice off the front window just once.

So I had these skis. Let me count the number of times I've skiied before: three? four? Once, when I was much younger, my school rented some shoddy skis and cracking leather boots and we skiied around the football field for a half-hour or so. The hundreds of other kids who'd already been out there that morning had turned the field into a mass of disjointed ice. I hated skiing.

Later, I learned to some downhill and saw that skiing had potential, as long as you could direct your momentum to carry you from the bottom of the slope to the lift. If I was so unfortunate as to lose momentum too soon, I'd end up stuck, unable to move, and, eventually, forced to double-pole across an expanse of disjointed ice. I still hated skiing.

Last Christmas, I found myself again strapping on cracking leather boots and making a half-mile loop. Skiing, it turns out, works better at ten at night on a (mostly) groomed trail. Skiing had potential.

So I had a goal: to get out and ski every night. A few nights got thrown out for family things, or hideously cold temperatures, or tromping through the woods in snowshoes with my brother (New Year's got blizzarded out), but enough remained. I found snowmobile trails on the far side of the dike wall and set out around midnight following them through the woods and along the river. This was the way to ski.

Subsequent nights were accompanied by a reduction in paranoia-induced over-insulation, and a growing blood-spot where an ill-fitting boot wore away the skin on one of my toes (a comparison of two successive nights is at left—this is one way I know I'm a scientist). Then I ruined my regimen by going to Georgia.
But somehow, somewhere on the drive back, probably in the early hours of the morning, I got this idea to do a ski race. And not just any race! What I had in mind was the Book Across the Bay. I can't even remember how I first heard about it, but there it was, clearly in my head. A 10km race across a frozen bay of Lake Superior.

And having chosen this, did I train for it? No.1 Rental prices on skis seemed high, and Minneapolis is big. But I assembled a crew of skiers and found a ride up to the race. Then I put together back-up plans in case the ride fell through, and back-up plans to the back-up plans, all of which turned out to be unnecessary. I rented a set of classic on Friday, went to the Northfield Contra Dance, and then took a walk up towards Prospect Park. To sleep on Alim's couch, ready to head North the next morning. By 1AM we had our departure time chosen (yes, it was inordinately difficult) and were all asleep.

The next morning we got going perhaps a half-hour late, drove down to campus to pick up a load of skis and ice-climbing boots (you weren't expecting that, were you?). A brief stop at Midwest Mountaineering followed, so I could pick up a hat and gloves, since I'd recently (the day before) lost my mittens and my winter-turban. And then we were on the road.

Let me make introductions.

We have Brel, Alim's friend. Originally at school out at MIT, now spending some time in Madison, WI. I don't learn too much about him, but he's quick-witted, enduring, and a generally nice fellow throughout the trip.
We have Alim, she's studying environmental science, something of an athlete, and definitely an adventurer.
And, of course, there's Noah, my old roommate. It's his car that's ferrying us to the race. Pianist, chiropractor, hiker, accordianist, traveler, he's a bit of everything. And now he's a ski-racer, or about to be.
And the final vital member(s) of our team: the equipment.

Since we'll be couchsurfing, we stopped at Toby's to pick up some excellent breads 'n' pastries.

It's just North of Toby's, by Sandstone that we make our first stop. We're carrying ice-climbing equipment and are planning to meet up with a few others to get some climbing in before continuing on. Rumour has it that the climbing's in a state-park, so we pull on in, only to be redirected to the city quarry: such things are not allowed in the park. There's brief discussion of NinjaClimbing, and an unproductive cellphone call. Somehow, we decide to go to the quarry, probably because it doesn't require buying a day pass. There is no NinjaParking.

The quarry road is a mass of rutted ice, which gives way to a parking lot which is also a mass of rutted ice, which gives way to a trail which is merely packed snow. We haul all the gear back along this and find ourselves standing at the base of a most impressive set of cliffs.

My educated guess is that this is what happens when you take a block of stone, set it next to something softer, use a river to carve it out, grow some plants on top of it all, and then put rain on it. The stone's relatively impermeable, so the water table slowly flows off the cliff forming a goodly amount of ice. Hacking into it, big chunks fly off. At first this is because my hacking skills are, well, unskilful. A few minutes later, it's apparent that the ice has become somewhat brittle.

Our fellow climbers are a long time coming. The waiting's not so bad. We play around with the crampons, climb into a cave behind the ice and discover a frozen spider web (and a frozen spider: sadness), and hack off hunks of ice while screaming "SCOTT WALKER!!!". Actually, I don't participate in this bit, but Alim and Brel, being Wisconsonites, are pretty riled up about the protests and political goings-on. By the time the others show up with their rope, we've really got to be going. We tarry long enough to watch Mike lead-climb the ice, and then head back for the road.

The road winds up through Duluth and then across the high bridge. We're momentarily confused in Superior (really, who designed the layout of the I-Roads in this town?), but find our way through and begin journeying east parallel the lake.

The next stop is for food in a town so small it shall remain nameless for fear of marginalising it any more. Or perhaps this is a cute way of saying that I no longer remember the name.

The café is small. We order pasties and chili and, in some cases, pie. Behind us a painted weather lady motions to blobs of "Harsh Cold" (yes, the graphics did use those words). We try for a while to figure out what's wrong with her, then Noah mentions her breasts and the conclusion is inescapable: she hasn't been put there for her ability to talk about weather.

We continue on, hurrying now, and the road becomes familiar to me. We turn North towards Washburn, which is where the race ends.

There's not a lot of time, so we pull the car into the first spot we see, strip and change on the road, and begin pulling our skis together. I have my hiking boots along with the thought that at some point during the race I'll be unable to ski effectively and switch to running, but, staring at them, my ultralight philosophy comes back to me and I leave them behind. Other things have to come with. I forgot to bring fleece jackets, so I'm stuck wearing my winterized trench coat. I pack a Clif bar on the inside, where my body heat will make it soft and chewy. I throw hand-warmers into another pocket. I leave my camera behind: it's too bulky. I bring the ski googles along.

I'm not wearing a lot now. Tights and wind pants, a synthetic t-shirt and the winterized trenchcoat, a hat and gloves. But I took notes back in January while I was skiing at home and noticed that my happiness was inversely related to the amount of clothing I was wearing (presumably the trend reverses at some point!), so I'm hoping that this holds out on the lake.

There's a shuttle bus from Washburn to Ashland, and every notice we've seen says you should arrive early so your trip doesn't get bottlenecked by this bus. Well, we stroll on down and there's the bus. A couple of people climb on, and we follow them. It's not until the bus starts moving that we find it was hiding a line several hundred people long! As we pull away I'm filled with a combination of both guilt and elation; after all, it was a truly innocent mistake.

The ride is short, and jovial. I'm getting very excited.

The bus pulls up, and we join a human river of skiers.

Following them, I have a chance to gaze across the lake. Distant bonfires are burning on the ice and on a far-off, indistinct shore, I can sense the visage of Washburn.

We make our way through the throng and into the tent. It's a hive. Ski teams have staked their ground around the edges. Coaches are preping their charges. Things are being bought and sold. Some people are jumping up and down, others are lost in zen-like trances. At the back, we sign some forms, pick up T-shirts, and are hustled into a corner. The people who planned this have done a great job. Just how great becomes clear a moment later: I have a bag to put stuff in which will meet me at the finish line. How cool is that?

Timing chips in the numbers, need to have them located on the front of your body. Oops, have to take it off and try again. A booming voice announces twenty minutes 'til race time.
I finish packing and dressing and head outside. Fifteen minutes, the megaphone-voice announces. And that is the moment that I suddenly need to pee.

It's a rather bad habit of mine, probably relating to the adrenaline kick my body experiences during competition. And the urge seems completely unrelated to the actual need. Bothersome. I go and wait in line with everyone else; there are perhaps forty Port-A-Potties and they are all in use. Ten minutes says the voice. I know from a study I read about baseball stadium design that the average male can pee in 15 seconds; females take 45. Therefore, everyone ahead of me in line belongs to a hitherto unknown gender because the time is coming in at minutes. Speaking of which, the megaphone voice just said five! It's my turn, and I make every effort to meet the expectation set down by my sex. A few moments later, I'm skiing towards the bonfire where Noah and Brel are waiting. Alim is missing somewhere.

Amid a seawave of skiers, we make our way from the fire in the direction of the start line, following a fence of old Christmas trees out onto the lake. A sign labeled "00:45" slides past us, it must be a staggered start. I'm a little ahead of Noah and Brel now and the start line is much farther out than I remember it being. I ask a woman skiing to my left where the start is… and she tells me the race has already begun!

Until that moment I believed that I was skiing solely for fun, that I would take advantage of the hot cocoa and goodies along the route, that I would have a relaxing ski across the bay. But, in that moment, I realised none of this was true. I was really, really wanted to Book Across the Bay! And with a whoop I tripled my speed.

As twilight faded to night, I followed the ice-path out and away from the Ashland shore, past the big taconite docks. The lake all around me was a smooth ice; they'd roughed up and groomed a twenty-foot isthmus for the skiiers, and through this we funneled and bottlenecked. I was skiing for all I was worth and the race became a continuous weave between slower-moving people. There was an ice-slick separating the skate-skiier/snowshoer/runner patch from the classic skiiers. I gingerly crept across this when the crowds got to thick. Squeezing between people on the patch between the now-icy tracks was a little war of ski poles and apologies. Little wars adding up to a long battle.

True night had fallen now and the trail was lit by mile after mile of candles burning in ice holders. Completely biodegradable. No clean-up. A fantastic idea.

Speed is completely unrelated to age. I see little kids pushing their way along at my speed without moving their feet.

The crowd began to thin out and I found myself moving in quasi-solitude across the ice. I'd left the pack behind and found my speed. To my left the occasional light twinkled from shore. To the right the ice faded to darkness inseparable from the sky. If I went far enough, the ice would abruptly end in cold, gray waves.

Perhaps speed is related to equipment… these aren't the best of skis.

My lungs were burning, but my throat, the only unprotected part of my skin, was frigid. The thought of frostbite entered my mind, but didn't stay there. Nothing stayed there.

I passed a bonfire, and another. These people manning the fires must spend the entire year looking forward to it. There were palm trees, people proferring hot cocoa as you went by, bags of trail mix, warming tents, medics, ambulences, chairs. I couldn't tell how much longer I had to go and their siren call tugged at me, but I ignored it. That was an experience worth sacrificing.

There is a point in a good race when pain and fatigue become synonymous with the movement and act of moving, where they somehow equal, surpass, and become the pleasure you felt at the beginning. My body is very tired. I'm playing rhythmic music in my head and reminding myself to keep up with it. Sometimes, I can see people ahead of me, and I'll push to catch them, and push to leave them behind. But then I'm alone again and there's nothing to push against except myself.

Washburn creeps closer. But my mind plays tricks on me and it's always farther away than I think. Have I passed the last fire? No. I'm shaken out of the trance by a person running—running!—beside me trying to give me a bag of trailmix. He's very persistent. I'm very tired. I let up with the poles for a moment, continuing to glide, and stuff it in my pocket.

And then I can see the finish line, a waving flag lit by the lurid flash of fireworks that someone's sending off. It doesn't matter who it is that's heading in ahead of me, merely that they're there. And then I discover a whole new level of energy and push through.

There are people cheering and it's rewarding, but their cheer is for the act and not the person. I shakily pull of the skis, push through a thin mob, and stumble into a snowbank suddenly aware that I'm drenched with sweat. Pulling myself forward, I jam the skis behind the bush and begin to walk in circles. My muscles cry out at the unfamiliar motion and the world seems very fluid.

More fire works go off.

I skirt around outside of a while, trying to cool off. There's a bonfire so hot the fifteen feet around it is clear of both people and snow. Teams are regrouping around it.

Alim skis through, but she's in some sort of post-race daze, so I let her wander away.

Having cooled off a bit, I begin to cold off, so I head into the pavilion tent. The tent isn't wide and, stepping inside, I expect it to be small inside. But it's not. There's a sort of humid haze rising from the evaporating perspiration of hundreds of skiers and this, mixed with dust from the straw coating the floor, makes it impossible to see to the far end of the tent, which seems impossible huge inside. And there's another tent set up beside this one, doubling its area!

I discover that there's a meal waiting: chili with fixin's, hot dogs, hot cocoa, water, and cookies! Mmmmm.

I slurp the chili, wandering through the tent amid teams of skiers in various ridiculous leggings changing into dry clothes. And now here's a posting of race results!

Richard Barnes, bib 3843, with a time of 1:03:59.9 (7:59/km), 101st in the men's 20—29 age group, 580th in the Classic division, 905th overall. Not too shabby. My leg muscles feel tight and strong.

Alim and Brel appear out of the crowd as I'm running numbers in my head, already thinking about how to improve for next year's race. They've been looking for me! Do I know where Noah is? Nope. Do I know what the plan is? Nope. I figure we'll just stay a while, enjoy ourselves, and head out when the time is right. And, at that moment, a band walks onto a stage I couldn't see at the end of the tent and begins to play the best music ever.

And we dance for hours.

And, in Alim's case, crowdsurf.

Yes, this is what skiing's about.

1Stupid, stupid.

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