Across-country ski racer once described a typical 50-kilometer race this way: "It is like going through the trauma of birth, the boredom of an entire life and the agony of a terrible death—all in three hours." And so it was last week to one degree or another for 131 men and women who competed in the week-long national cross-country ski championships in Anchorage.
Alaska was at her deep-freeze winter best—or worst. The jagged white peaks of the Chugach Mountains rose through swirling banks of fog, and the waters of Cook Inlet were black and filled with slabs of ice. The morning light was never bright until after 9 a.m., then the sun arched low over the horizon until twilight began around 3 p.m. A strange and persistent ice fog—literally specks of ice hanging in the air—rolled in and out of the woods during the races. This created a special hazard for the competitors, but it also covered every tree with a stunning coat of furry white crystals that turned even the crudest sections of the course into a fairyland.
U.S. cross-country racers are accustomed to performing in isolation, but on the first day of the Anchorage event they were surprised to find nearly 3,000 cheering Alaskans scattered along the trees and trails of Russian Jack Springs Park to watch the relay races. "It was like racing in Scandinavia," enthused John Bower, director of the U.S. nordic program. When the men's 3 x 10 km. race was won by a New England team of Stan Dunklee, Doug Peterson and Bob Treadwell, the cheers were politely enthusiastic. But when the women's 3 x 5 km. relay was won by an all-Anchorage team of Betsy Haines and sisters-in-law Lynn VonderHeide and Alison Spencer, the woods rang with cheers.
The unfamiliar advantage of performing before an audience was slightly offset by the fact that the field of entrants was unusually small, a journey to Alaska being so long and costly. Also, three of the country's best racers—1976 Olympic silver medalist Bill Koch and veterans Tim Caldwell and John Mike Downey—did not make the trip to Anchorage.
Downey is considering retiring because of recurring illness. Koch and Caldwell were recovering from a siege of flu and bronchitis that felled almost the entire U.S. team early in December during a race in Colorado. Cross-country coach Marty Hall called it "a nightmare; they were falling like flies, someone new every day. Cross-country skiers are as tough as any athletes, but they push themselves so close to the ragged edge of exhaustion every day they train that they are left with almost no line of resistance against bugs. They catch everything."
The prognosis for both Koch and Caldwell was that they would be fully recovered for a winter of racing in Europe, including the world championships in Lahti, Finland, in mid-February. After his long struggle with exercise-induced asthma, Koch changed his asthma medication and had regained peak condition when he was felled by the Colorado bug. And now, "We'll know in a couple of weeks," said Hall. "It's all up to Kochie. It always has been."
Even without Koch, Caldwell and Downey, the men's field was well supplied with first-class skiers, at least by U.S. standards. Dunklee and Peterson had raced fairly well in Europe last season. Not far behind were Kevin Swigert, Bob Treadwell and Craig Ward, though none had any extensive international experience. The best of the women, by far, were VonderHeide and Spencer. Unlike the U.S. alpine team, which often has had superior women and so-so men, the U.S. nordic team has been just the opposite for years. That may be changing. Spencer, a seven-year team veteran, said, "American girls are taking this sport more seriously because they have to. When I started, coaches used to say, 'Now don't overdo it, girls.' Now they say, 'Get out and do it—or else.' "
After the opening relays, all events were held in Kincaid Park, a bleak yet beautiful wilderness area outside Anchorage where the trails were surprisingly impressive. "They're not far off the best in Europe," said Peterson.
In addition to the tough course, there were the vexatious problems of having to ski long and killing distances in the clammy subzero temperatures common to an Anchorage winter. "This is unique weather," Hall said. "These kids have never skied anywhere like it. Your clothing becomes soaked and there is no way for the wetness to evaporate. In a long race like the 50-kilometers, your body heat is just sucked out as energy to feed the physical effort to cover ground. There's nothing left to keep you warm. If your hat gets wet, you lose all kinds of heat from your head. This leads to hypothermia. You lose your strength—but worse, you lose your ability to make decisions. You just come apart."
In cross-country races run in such intense cold, racers use a variety of tricks to fight off frostbite—blowing out the cheeks constantly, wearing wool socks over ski boots, tucking hands into stomachs on downhill runs to avoid the dread "wooden hand," changing to dry hats two or three times during a long race and smearing green skin lube on the face as greasy armor against the freezing air. But Alaska added a new hazard, the ice fog, and this caused a frightening-sounding injury to become quite common—the iced-up eyeball. The cause is a buildup of ice particles in the fluid lubricating the eye. The particles become solid ice, which acts a bit like a layer of glass on the eyeball, scratching, burning and blurring the vision. "If you didn't blink often enough," said Spencer, "your eye simply froze. So along with everything else we have to concentrate on in a race, we had to consciously remember to blink, blink, blink, to keep the eye moist." If a skier didn't blink often enough, the particles also could build up on the eyelids until they became so heavy that they would drop—and stick shut.
On the first day of individual competition, Treadwell skied a smooth 30-km. race in 1:32:23.98, beating Swigert and Ward for the title. When he finished, Treadwell's face was so cold that he said, "I feel like I have two nails driven into each cheek." In the women's 7.5-km. race, Spencer won in 24:40.59 with VonderHeide second. Two days later it was even colder, 11 below zero. In the men's 15-km., Dunklee demonstrated that he had recovered from his last traces of Colorado pleurisy to win in 43:46.18, with Ward and Swigert behind him. Peterson was fourth by barely a minute, mainly because he fell on a hill while partly blinded by ice in his eye. In the women's 10-km., the sisters-in-law finished in reverse order, VonderHeide winning in 32:26.32 and Spencer coming in second.
The last day of the meet was to be the most punishing of all. The women were to ski 20 kilometers, their longest championship event, and the men were to undertake one of the great ordeals in sport, the 50-km. Cross-country racers often speak of pain and controlling it, of using it as a barometer for measuring their performance in mid-race. But nothing causes pain like a 50-km. race and many is the man who "hits the wall," which Kevin Swigert describes as "exactly like having a piano land on your back."
The women's race, once again, went to Spencer, who finished in 1:04:28.64, with VonderHeide second. Then a hopeful and shivering field of 21 men came to the line in the 50-km., facing an approximately three-hour journey. Betting at the start was that no more than five would finish; the rest would hit the wall. But, astonishingly, 12 men went the full route. The winner, in 2:48:02.43, was the doughty Swigert, followed by Treadwell. Exhausted and frosted, his long hair standing out stiffly below his cap, Swigert raised his ski poles in triumph. He had said earlier that whenever he felt he was approaching the wall he would begin to chant his favorite training slogan: "Train the brain for pain...train the brain for pain." And any man who is going to face birth, life and death in one three-hour race had better have at least his brain prepared for the ordeal.