by KTNA Staff ~ March 30th, 2014
Talkeetna writer Dan Harrell tells the often humorous story of his Oosik race experiences over the last nine years, and how his breakthrough in technique changed his standings. Audio is 14 minutes.
The Denali Nordic Ski club held the 2014 edition of the Oosik classic ski race a couple of weeks ago. Once again it was a huge success. Even though we went almost two months without any significant snowfall, trail design and trail work went ahead. Talk of making it a freestyle event was heard and much concern began to emerge as the date approached with ever diminishing snow cover. Drastic action had to be taken yet again. Chris Mannix sacrificed another pair of skis to the snow gods by way of fire sacrifice. No doubt sacramental wine and beer were consumed in hopes of appeasement and low and behold there was new snow. Just in the nick of time. The trail was great! The course was new and interesting as it always is and the turnout was very good.
This was my 9th straight Oosik. It was touch and go for me as well. About three weeks prior to the event I nearly cut off my left pinky stripping an electrical wire. I was not sure if it would heal well enough for me to feel comfortable gripping a pole for a couple hours straight but it healed quickly. I was extra excited when my niece Celeste decided to make this her first Oosik. For the first time in 8 years we would have more than one Harrell in the race.
My Oosik history started in 2006 on an old borrowed pair of skate skis. I talked someone into waxing them for me. My brother Dave participated with me. He had done the race the year before, the first year the Oosik landed in Talkeetna. Before I ever arrived in Alaska I knew about the Oosik. I was not yet a skier but loved this sort of stuff and when Dave mentioned a 25 and 50 kilometer ski race through the back wood of Talkeetna Alaska, I was determined to do it with him.
I had finished more than a half dozen marathons by then and was sure I had the physical stamina to complete the event but I needed to learn to ski. Our first winter in Alaska was spent in Caswell on my brothers property in a 16 foot travel trailer older than I was. It had not moved in 25 years when we began to refurbish it before hauling it to Alaska from Utah.
When snow began to fall and the temperatures got cold, I started thinking about skiing. I knew nothing about wax, fish scales, groomed trails, double poling, etc… But I did know that I got a great thrill going out into the woods and trying to move around on the long sticks attached to my feet. I was anything but graceful and ended up taking a toll on much of my brother’s gear.
Race day arrived and I was to compete on skis I had not seen until the day before, on a course I did not know. I had never skied in groomed tracks. We were 10 minutes late to the starting line and were guessing at kick wax. The entire concept of kick wax was a complete mystery to me. We rubbed it on thick and hoped it would do the trick. I am a fairly competitive person by nature and was determined to try and beat my little brother. It was good that we gave all the other skiers a head start. Had I seen what the others were doing and realized the level of my abilities on skies, I might have thought twice about this race. As it was, I was blissfully unaware of my complete lack of skill or technique. As I happily ran down the tracks on my skis nearly unable to get any glide due to the large amount of kick wax and the poor condition of my skiing form, I was still delighted to be out on a beautiful March day. With so many other crazy people playing in the woods around Talkeetna. I was amazed at how many lakes there were and truly felt like I was in the middle of nowhere in this wonderful frozen paradise. I could not keep up with Dave for most of the race. Simply due to exuberance and sheer effort, I was passing some of the back of the pack folks who were out for a leisurely ski with friends.
After a couple hours I knew the end was coming up and I was getting tired. I was using muscles I didn’t know I had before, and not using them well. I was still focused on giving it my all but, not sure If I was going to see Dave before the finish line. Then, leaning against a tree, eating a cliff bar, I spot Dave. I say hi, he offers me a bite of his cliff bar, I say no thanks and redouble my clumsy efforts down the trail as I pass him. He was not concerned and was probably only then realizing I intended to try and beat him. I spent the rest of the race flopping down the trail resisting the urge to look back and see if he was gaining on me. I reached the finish ahead him by only a couple minutes and was delighted with my result and effort. I have no idea what my place was, or my time, but I was hooked.
The second year I did the Oosik the hook got set even deeper, as I was challenged by a good friend to a race within the Oosik. A bet was proposed and accepted. The amount was significant to me then, and though it would not break the bank then or now, it was almost as much motivation as the bragging rights. I had initially accepted the challenge at least partially because I thought I would get a training partner out of the deal if nothing else. As it turned out, the level of competitiveness that this friend exhibited in this competition was beyond my own. At least in talk and bluster. He refused to train with, or even ski with me for the most part. He claimed to have a secret weapon, and coach, in his friend Bill and did not want me benefiting from this. The smack talking was more ferocious than the competition. I was bothered by the lack of camaraderie but also spurred on by it. I was determined to beat him and was keyed up for the competition. I bought my own pair of used skis and started learning how to wax them. I worked on technique and got ready for the event. As it turned out, this friend was better at talking about skiing and training then he was at doing either and it seems knowing someone who is a very good skier is not the same as becoming one.
I began to realize this much hyped event was going to be anticlimactic when I spotted him enjoying a cigarette at the starting line. I lined up behind him and planned to keep him in my sights until a good opportunity to pass presented itself. I expected him to run out of gas after a few miles and even if he was a better skier, my conditioning and experience with endurance events would give me the edge in the end. I was wrong. I passed him almost reluctantly within the first half mile of the race and never saw him again until he strolled in an hour or so behind me. I’m sure once he lost sight of me he began to enjoy the festivities at the aid stations and forgot all about our bet. I did not stop to enjoy the aid station festivities and did not forget the bet.
My progress in skiing has continued over the years and it took a huge jump when I discovered skate skiing and then double poling. The problem I had with skiing was firstly gear. How to find good gear that was cheap enough for me to justify buying on a tight budget and then how to use the gear. How to wax skis. How to use proper technique. What size skis. What size poles, etc… And how to get a good workout doing it. I am not a great classic skier. It is hard to learn and until you do, its hard to go fast enough to get your heart rate up to were it would be, for, say…running. That’s where skate skiing came in for me. I bought a pair of skate skis and began to learn rather quickly how to skate. Within a year I went from looking like a new-born deer on skis to simply looking like a slightly off-balance skier. The addition of the new ski trails at Talkeetna Lakes Park played a big role as well. These are great trails for a beginner to learn skate technique. I began to gain confidence on skies. I could now go fast enough to get a good workout. A new love was formed. Skate skiing brought me to my big breakthrough in classic skiing. My classic gear was better, but still not good, and I was now spending much more time on skate skies than on classics. I needed better classic gear for the Oosik but didn’t want to invest in it. Time was running out and any attempts to borrow skis for the Oosik were fruitless.
I knew the course was going to be pancake flat and I had done a bit of double poling and knew I could do that on skate skis. I called Chris Mannix to see what he thought of the idea to do the Oosik on skate skis with no kick wax at all. Could I double pole the entire thing? With no option for kick at all? Chris said maybe so, and the fact that he did not laugh at me in my mind made this my best option. I only had a couple weeks before the Oosik and I had to see if I could double pole for two hours nonstop. I went out and tried a couple of times and my arms did not fall off so I decided that was the plan. It was a break-through year for me. I slashed a half hour off my time and there was no looking back. My understanding of classic skiing and the role of double poling in classic skiing was transformed.
I am not one bit opposed to racing people who have no idea I’m racing them. For years my goal was to beat a Mannix- any Mannix. It helped that over the years Chris and Arthur have been very involved with the event and distracted by all the responsibilities of running the Oosik, and this was a much more casual ski for them. More of a victory lap after months of preparation. This did not stop them from beating me year after year, barring illness, injury or surgery.
Last year I had good gear, a good knowledge of the trail, good conditioning and was excited to see what I could do. A few kilometers into the race I spotted Arthur and Chris happily standing to one side of the trail pointing out a porcupine up a tree on the course. I gave a look towards the spot they pointed as I cruised past but never really even tried to spot the thing. I didn’t even know porcupines could climb trees and at the moment didn’t much care. I was passing both Mannix brothers at the same time. Even going casual and stopping to chat people up I knew both could still catch and pass me, so I kept pushing. I saw Bill Barstow at another aid station partaking in some refreshments and spotted other notable Talkeetna skiers at other aid stations. I finished strong and felt good about finishing in front of all participating Mannixes. Karen was out due to illness so I would have to wait for another year to beat her, but I had for the first time finished ahead of a Mannix.
It was not until the next day that someone called and mentioned that I was the first Talkeetnan to finish the 25k. I thought I was the only one paying attention to such things and had mixed emotions about hearing it had been announced on KTNA. I knew that now some of those I had beat may not let me pass next year quite so easily.
This all brings me back to this past Oosik. Before the race my wife said to me “I hope you’re first for Talkeetna again”. I tried to hide my sheepish grin as I said “Oh, I don’t care, we will see. I’m just out for some fun. It should be a great day for a ski.” She knew better and didn’t let me get away with it. “Sure”, she said. Then I told her I hoped no one else was paying attention to such things because that’s probably the only way I’d win. There are plenty of better skiers out there but usually the siren song of the aid stations pull on them and I pass while they enjoy a shot or a beer or a brat or some bacon or maybe even a margarita trail side and chat with friends. At aid stations when offered refreshments I always smile and say “no thanks” and look for who I get to pass. This year I was ticking off names of possible rivals while I passed aid stations when I spotted Bill Barstow the coach of my old “friendly” nemesis approaching one of the final aid stations with just over 5 k to go. Bill is without question a better skier than me and knows how competitive I am. I’m hoping he will stop at the aid station and grab a drink and not even notice as I pass. Ironically, my friendly nemes is serving drinks at this very aid station. Bill does not stop. He is two skiers in front of me and I am gaining on him. It will be tricky to pass and even trickier without him noticing. We catch him on a small hill, and noticing the skier in front of me trying to pass him he steps slightly aside and we both pass. As I go past I can’t help but tell him how great the trail he made is. He makes an utterance that both acknowledges my compliment and says “Hey I see you, I don’t want to let you beat me”. I can tell he’s not happy but I’m hoping with the early day for him (he had to get up at 4 a.m. to prep the trail) and this late in the race, maybe he will just let me go if I push hard and get a lead. For the next kilometer I give it my all and can tell one of the two skiers I passed, when I passed Bill, has stayed with me. I’m hoping its not Bill and I’m wanting to ease off the gas a bit, so I try to find a spot to catch a glimpse around a corner. I turn to look and have to turn more than I want because of how close this skier is to me. When I see it is Bill I am both shocked at how close he is and thrown off balance by looking. I lose my balance and fall. Bill steps gracefully to the side and passes while I curse and struggle to my feet. Bill says, “Never look back Harrell” as he skies off ahead. I give it all I have for the remaining 3k to try and catch up but the gig is up and I realize I’m not getting him this year. Turned out I was third among Talkeetnans. Galen had beat us both by a significant amount. I was 15 seconds behind Bill but had a great race and was completely happy with my result. I skied back to find and ski in with Celeste and finished the day feeling overjoyed at the wonderful place I live and the beautiful people I share it with. Because of the Oosik, and for so many other reasons, like trails and frozen lakes and the return of the sun. March is my very favorite month in Talkeetna. If you don’t know why March is such a great time to be in Talkeetna, or you have forgotten after the long cold dark winter, then you really need to Get Outside and Play.
Get Outside and Play #18 The Oosik and March in Talkeetna, by Dan Harrell