On a warm autumn morning in 1977, I was sitting in my office, finishing my first cup of coffee, when the phone rang. It was Candi Sperry, something of a foul-weather friend from Massachusetts. I rarely see Candi in summer, but when the days grow gray and cold and I take to the ski slopes of New England, she often joins me. She had just returned from a preseason show where she had picked up a couple of entry blanks for a ski marathon to be held Dec. 16-17 at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. Twenty-four hours of continuous skiing, proceeds to go to Easter Seals. Her question: Should we enter?
We talked it over for a while, I hemmed, she hawed. It would be nice to report that support of a charity spurred us on, but charity wasn't the motivating factor. We figured that skiing for 24 hours might cost Blue Cross more than we would donate to Easter Seals. Ultimately, what made us decide to try it was the challenge, a chance to do something neither of us had ever done before.
This weird event began in Minnesota in 1976, where Chris Vaness and Rick Napurski set the world record for skiing continuously for 50 hours and 17 minutes. That got their names in the Guinness Book of World Records. The next year a couple of Easterners went after the record at Bretton Woods and one of them, Mark Filtranti, grabbed it by skiing 51 hours, two minutes. Then, in December, Bretton Woods and Easter Seals decided to turn the stunt into a competition.
The rules seemed straightforward. Beginning at 9 a.m., the competitors were to ski down and be chairlifted back up the same slope continuously for 24 hours. They would be allowed five-minute breaks each hour to warm the toes and eat a snack. After 24 hours, the Easter Seals part of the event would be over. Sponsoring organizations and individuals that had pledged money-per-hour would then pay up. Any ambitious athlete wishing to shoot for Filtranti's record was free to continue; no charge for extra lift tickets.
On the eve of the competition Candi and I drove to Bretton Woods, near Mount Washington in the northeastern part of the state, and prepared for a good night's sleep. But first a friend who worked at the resort bought us a beer at a local tavern. And then another. And another. The crowd in the little pub was feisty, the ambience very European, very Scandinavian. Ingemar Stenmark trained like this, we kept telling ourselves.
We got to bed too late, and, not surprisingly, awoke too late to eat our scheduled carbohydrate-laden Aunt Jemima breakfast. We grabbed a couple of granola bars on our way out the door.
Minutes later 50 of us gathered at the slope, and after three gang starts for the television cameras, the skiathon was underway. Twenty-four hours later eight of us would still be on the slopes; fifty-two hours later the number would be two.
Many classic sporting types were on hand as participants or spectators. They included:
The Old Champ—Filtranti, a spectator, was checking skiers to make sure breaks didn't exceed five minutes per hour. I thought this was a conflict of interest, considering we were after his record, but Filtranti was a genuinely helpful fellow dispensing a number of useful tips to keep us going. "It's all mental." "Remember, five minutes at the end of one hour and five at the beginning of the next gives you a 10-minute break." "Ski right down, your rest comes on the chairlift."
The New Champs—A couple of teenagers from Massachusetts dethroned Filtranti by skiing for 52 hours. (Pat Purcell and John McGlynn now hold the record, 81 hours and 12 minutes.) When it was all over neither Chris Poulsen nor David Bono looked like the clichéd competitor who says he could easily do it all over again. Their first request upon finishing: Would the bar break its rules and serve a kid a beer?
The Youngster—A little local guy of seven became the media darling. He was in all the television footage, and his confident proclamations that he was after the world record made him everyone's favorite. His criticism of my skiing style—so what if my skis weren't perfectly parallel—struck me as a bit too precocious. After 10 well-skied hours, it was time for the little one to go to bed.
The Oldster—A fellow who admitted to 45 years claimed he ran an average of four miles a day. He was an intelligent skier, and one of the eight left after 24 hours. He was the upper-middle-class fitness boom incarnate.
The General—This bluff old guy knew everything there was to know about what criteria the Guinness people insisted upon in granting a record. He kept the skiers on their toes and on the mountain for the necessary intervals.
The Workers—As hardy as the skiers, they came from surrounding towns. There were National Guard medics, rooting parents, energetic sandwich-makers and tired hot-chocolate brewers.
For all the help of the volunteers, the 24 hours were still tough. At the outset, everything went wrong. The early conditions were terribly icy and, coupled with the fact that Candi and I were wearing new boots and using skis that hadn't touched snow for eight months, produced many early bruises. Then the snow softened, the flurries lightened, and we gained confidence in our equipment. (A word of warning: Don't break in new boots during a 24-hour skiathon. Five of us tried to do so, and only Candi avoided trouble. Luckily, I'd packed an old, well-worn pair, and after seven hours I switched boots. The other three with boot problems were forced to withdraw.)
Around midnight the surface began to ice, and people quickly decided that the lodge offered more accommodating terrain. Some claimed boredom and quit. Others got injured: One strained a knee; another departed because of a thumb, jammed in the morning, that had swollen to ugly and painful proportions. Some were ordered to stop. The medical team recorded blood pressures and heart rates regularly, and if yours climbed too high, you were benched. Others were simply reasonable people who knew when they were too cold.
We less reasonable ones were treated to a night of stars and stark beauty. The sky was cloudless and the moon was new; we could see every constellation. Our thoughts wandered so far and wide, by dawn our minds needed as much rest as our bodies.
Candi and I talked about mutual friends. We talked with other skiers when we met on the slope. Individuals usually stopped at the same stations on the way down; a certain tree or mogul became Jack's Tree or Joe's Hill. When Jack wasn't at his tree, or Joe at his hill, for several runs in a row, we knew who'd dropped out.
"Sull," Candi said as we disembarked from the chairlift at 3:30 a.m., "that was the first ride up we didn't say anything." An ominous observation. But dawn was only a few hours off. Indeed, the dawn's early light, when it did finally come after six, was worth the fatigue, the biting temperature.
The sunrise process, from the silhouette of the Presidential Range across the valley through the sun's appearance over Boott Spur, lasted more than an hour. It was a slow, magical transformation that affected everything. At one point, the sky to our left was still black and filled with stars, while to the right it was as blue as noon. Our slope was shrouded in a London-fog sort of dusk and ahead of us were the Presidentials, blasted by the sun we still couldn't see, flashing pink and purple before turning the true white of their snowy covering.
Once the sun was up the skiing was, we all said, "a piece of cake." We even skipped our last breaks and continued until nine. Then five of us who were quitting assembled at the summit for a last run together. The moment we realized it was over, that we weren't going up for a 97th run, our knees started shaking and we felt very weak. The first Bloody Marys went straight to our heads.