2010 Pajarito Pinhead Challenge race report 3/13/2010

Here is a timely race report for the Pajarito Pinhead challenge, Los Alamos' local uphill downhill nordic/skinning race.

A mighty week of flurries and whatnot dumped a foot or so of new snow on our favorite mountain the week before this race leading to great conditions on a 94" base and somewhat oddly for march 13th an open ski hill for Skiesta and the associated festivities. (base is accumulating as we speak as it is dumping snow as I type this!)

early morning ski hill displaying perfectly groomed conditions

Here is my whiny part of the report. Despite an excellent ski year and lots of skiing leading up to the beginning of february I was laid low by a sinus infection mid february, followed by two middling races and then a nasty cold the wed-thurs-friday before the race. I was sort of recovered by race day, but not really. I only did the race as it was 10 minutes from the house and for some perverse reason, I love this race.

The race, for those who do not know, is the best race ever, and perhaps one of the races I am most poorly suited for. It begins with a mass start from the ski lodge up one of the jeep road. After a bit of climbing the race diverges and one of two paths you may take. If you are on backcountry/at/tele gear you may skin straight up dogpatch to the summit. If you are on nordic gear you keep on going up the steep but not too steep jeep road. The course comes together at the top of dogpatch, hits the steep trail over the top of the mountain and then across the top, down the fairly steep I-don't-care run and then back down the jeep run to where you start. Total elevation something like 1200 feet climbing followed by the same descent. The first year, the skaters took one-two. Last year the skinners took one-two. This year, well, read on!

Pre race assemblage. Note Zack is facing wrong way and Mike starts with skis in backpack

Like I said, lots of new snow, but the last few days had been really warm (50's) followed by cold nights, so the course ended up being pretty much well groomed frozen corduroy at race time. Both the jeep road and dogpatch had been groomed, in startling contrast to last years mushy fresh snow festival.

A strong field of 15 or so lined up, pretty evenly matched with 7 skinners, 6 skaters and two guys on classic touring gear. I think this was the field record. Anyhow after a bit of warming up and then panic as everyone realized it was 40 degrees and climbing rapidly we started the race.

At the start, last years winner Hans Hanson (last year on telemark gear, this year on skate skis) and Gene Dougherty took off fast with me a bit behind. Now I will pretty much give you the Tarik view of the race as I could not see much other than ahead of and near me.

Anyhow, as we started climbing I felt pretty good. Hans and Gene were way up front and I was skating along merrily with a skier or two close behind. I was in no shape to chase or really go hard, but was focused on maintaining form and glide on the steep and off camber climb.

Shortly into the climb Susan Hanson and Sanna skated by me and slowly pulled away. And not too shortly after that I passed Sanna who was stopped on the side of the trail leaning on her poles looking about to puke. I was hurting badly but was somewhat relieved that I was not hurting as badly as Sanna.

I followed Susan at a distance and could watch ahead as Hans was distancing Gene. We made a switchback and doubled across the mountain to even more off camber trail. it was pretty hard skating, but the course was still hard and fast. Susan was skating away from me, but I snuck a look back and no one was anywhere near me. Eventually we crossed the dogpatch skiers and I think I crossed just below Rob, skinning up the trail. We made two more quick switchback and joined the trail with the skinners up a very steep pitch. I was pretty much 5 feet behind Rob up most of the pitch. I had no glide and was barely skating at all. I could see Gene up ahead with form looking worse than I felt. Susan was closing in on him and I imagined that I was catching them. Hans was no longer in sight.

typical pre-race dork mode photo

There were skiers and snowboarders coming off the lifts by now, fortunately there were not too many and there seemed to be no problems with anyone getting in anyone's way. Just a steady stream of people hauling off the lifts, looking quizzically at us idjits practically crawling up the hill and then dropping down the steep runs.

At this point in the race I felt as though I had been sick all week. My form went to hell, I had no glide and I really was working hard just maintaining my will to keep going, let alone race. After a long stretch trying in vain to get closer than 5 feet from Rob, I looked up and realized not only was I not going to catch Susan or Gene, I could no longer see them either.
update check Mike Engelhardt's brief race report in the comments for the view from second place!

Full field on the starting line

Eventually the trail flattened out and I finally dropped Rob, skated along the backside of the hill and then hit the last climb to the summit. I felt like crap, but knowing the end of the climbing was near, I pressed on. As I made my way up the last stretch I saw a guy hiking while carrying his skis over his shoulder. I could not catch him on the uphill. Turns out it was a fellow racer, Dylan, who I presume had taken his skins off too early on the brief descent and was now regretting that slightly. Finally we curled around the Mother lift and began descending gradually on Rim Run. I finally dropped Dylan and could see Toti off ahead of me, but could not catch him as I very quickly came to the top of I-Don't-Care.

The skaters skate off in tiny puffs of snow

I am proud to say I am a disaster going down really long steep stuff on skate skis. My theory is that I have too much inherent potential energy for snowplowing on edgeless skis to arrest my descent. I did make two nice snow plow turns before I fell hard and resorted to my time honored technique of sliding down by sitting on the back of my skis or on my hip. So this I did. I made it about halfway down the endless descent when Dylan passed me, followed quickly by Rob who was, as usual, was going mach-1 downhill. The nicely groomed downhill was hard enough that I actually caught my edge while I was sitting on my skis and had them roll under me painfully. It was a pretty fast descent all things considered, but it seems to go on forever and my butt is still bruised from the bouncing and the scraping.

As it looked like I was almost at the jeep road, I watched Sanna gracefully snowplow past me on the very steep last pitch and disappear down the trail. I made my pathetic way down to the jeep road and descended quickly to the finish feeling pretty bruised and battered, but happy to be done.

Tail end of the field at the start

Results looked like this (photo evidence (here and here, with annotation, this is at least double or triple transcribed off the race entry forms so sorry for inevitable misspellings :

29:12 Hans Hanson - Skate- New course record
35:12 Mike Englehart - Skin*
35:30 Gene Dougherty - Skate
37:24 Susan Hanson - Skate - First Woman
37:43 Jeff Johnson - Skin
39:35 Toti Larsen - Skin
40:18 Dylan Harp - Skin**
40:42 Rob Cunningham - Skin
42:11 Sanna Sevanto - Skate - Second Woman
43:00 Tarik Saleh - Skate
50:49 Zach Baker - Skin
54:57 Hawke Morgan - Classic***
55.35 Martin Peck - Classic***, +
56:38 Paul Graham - Skate, +
1:08:39 Jerri Sullivan - Skin - Third Woman.

* = Started with his skis in his backpack and booted up the hill
** = at least he was booting up when I saw him
*** = were on edgeless touring (classic skis) and, AFAIK went up the long way with
the skaters
+ = deskid at the top of the descent and ran downhill to the jeep road

I assume that I lost about 3 minutes on the descent to those around me, which was better this year than other years. I think I lost 7 minutes on the descent the first year. This was my best time, the course was super fast and despite the cold I was probably fitter than years past as well. The course was a touch icy for the skinners and many of em had issues with grip on the way up, hence the booting up.

I ate a giant breakfast burrito, traded war stories with the rest of the racers, went to the awards ceremony, won a nice beer glass and then went snowshoeing with my mom, who is visiting this weekend. She took most of the pictures.

I tower over a rare fledgling ski-dino post race

Big thanks to the organizers for putting on a great fun free race with great prizes. everyone should do this. It really hurts, but it is worth it.

I think I would like to do better last year, but I really need to practice going downhill on skate skis and/or go much faster uphill, probably by loosing some weight. I finished right behind Toti and Rob for three years running now, so I predict it will happen almost exactly the same way again next year anyway.

Til next year pinhead.
2009 Pinhead race report
2008 Pinhead race report

post race snowshoeing to the overlook with ma


nordic_68 said...

Sounds like an epic race TS! I love your foreshadowing at the end about next year.

Were the classic guys on edgeless skinny skis? Surprised no one was using XCD type backcountry skis - which would seem to be perfect...

Tarik Saleh said...

I updated the post a bit with some more info and pics since your comment. The skinners were on a mix of AT, tele, and backcountry gear, I can't really tell the difference anymore. The classic guys were on their one pair of edgeless touring skis, I predict that they will be buying more gear before next years race! Maybe I one day I will skin it to see how the other half lives...

Anonymous said...

Great Race Report Tarik,
This is my 35th season of downhill skiing. On downhill skis, I'll ski just about anything. I spend most winter weekends skiing the diamond and double diamond steeps from the hike-to ridgelines and the lifts @ Taos Ski Valley. During the week, I skin up the slopes @ Pajarito for strenuous workouts and nordic ski for easier workouts. I took up cross country skiing in 1990. On occasion, I would ski down portions of the jeep roads and/or blue/green runs on xc skis when the snow @ Pajarito was good. On hard packed or icy snow, I too was a disaster going down these runs with a free heel on skinny skis. In the late 1990s, a neighbor told me about alpine touring gear and thus ended my feeble attempt at free heel skiing on the slopes. Hence alpine touring gear had to be my choice of gear for this event.

I downhill skied @ Pajarito the previous afternoon. Between 3:30 and 4:00, I skied I Don't Care and Dogpatch, plus the service roads. The snow conditions were variable. The slopes had good snow that had not yet gone through a melt/freeze cycle. The lower jeep roads had turned slushy in the mid day sun and were beginning to freeze up. Even on alpine touring gear or alpine gear I am not that fast going down. I have to skin or boot up fast to post a good race result. Thirteen years of skinning the slopes @ Pajarito has taught me that skins will grip will on snow, but not on ice. So I decided to boot pack the uphill portion of the course to the Aspen lift and put on my skis there. The Pajarito Mountain grooming crews did a great job grooming the slopes and jeep roads the night before the race. I guess only the top 2-4 inches had melted and refrozen the previous day. In retrospect, I could have skinned up without problems. Dogpatch is about the same pitch as pussycat which I skin up regularly.

On to the race itself. The skaters started off quickly while those of us with the heavy duty gear started out slowly. I am about even pace with the other skinners until we start up Dogpatch. As the course turns upward I am able to put some distance between myself and the other skinners. Steep uphill is where I am strongest. I see Hans coming across the upper jeep road as I reach the top of Dogpatch. He is stronger than me on the uphill portion to the top of the Aspen Lift. At that point, I take the skis off the pack, click in and go as hard as I can on the short downhill section. One skinner on nordic skis catches me at the top of the Aspen Lift and I pass him back on the downhill traverse. My best effort isn't fast enough to carry me over the last uphill section around the Sunier deck to the top of the Mother Lift. I click out of my skis and sling them over my shoulder & walk to the top of the Mother lift. Two skaters, Gene and Sue, pass me on this stretch. As I get near the top of the Mother lift, I click back into my skis. I am able to pass Sue as the jeep road starts downhill. I am a bit scared as I go into a tuck on I Don't Care while still making a few turns to stay in control. I love skiing steep, technical terrain. I Don't Care is neither steep, nor technical and it is fun to ski when it is fresh corduroy, but I never do it at this speed. I remember that the last downhill ski race I did was 28 years ago at the 1982 Skiesta when I was not quite 12. Gene falls at the intersection of the lodge return trail and I Don't Care. I pass him there, but he recovers quickly and comes in 18 seconds after me. Hans finishes six minutes ahead of me. Even my best day on skins would not have been enough to catch him on this day.

End of Story,
Mike Engelhardt

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jean and Ken and everyone who put on the races - they were a blast! It was so great to do an event like this with no travel.

My view was starting with Hans for the first kilometer or so, knowing he was a monster. I made a half-hearted effort to pass him, because I had an idea of what was ahead and didn't want to max out right away. This guaranteed a full detonation at 1k. Had I followed him sensibly, I would have blown at 2k instead and done a better time.

Hans skated steady and we made the first switchback, at which time I hit a low. Susan and Tarik weren't far behind and I was hurting. Starting at Dogpatch, I mingled with the lead skinners (Mike, Jeff J, Zach(?) and another). I followed them up the long grind heading towards the Spruce lift, and started passing when the grade lessened. I moved into second place by the Mother lift.

After the easy top section of Rim Run, I rounded the corner onto the steeper section, and sticking with my brilliant plan, pointed straight down the run. The idea was to stand at the bottom and let wind drag slow me down enough to round the corner onto "I Don't Care". What I didn't account for is that above a certain speed, the 10% control the skate skis afford you drops to absolute zero (like superconductivity) and my skis danced off in random directions at high speed. The other thing I discovered is that crashing is an effective speed mitigation, stopping just in time to get up and begin "I Don't Care".

The groomed run allowed reasonable impersonation of speed control but I was still way too hot coming into the turn onto Lodge trail and went off the edge heading for the trees. I luckily stopped in time, and crawled up the bank to see Mike blow past in a tuck. Another fall and I finally made it to the finish! Very unusual and interesting race combining a big aerobic effort and an extremely technical descent (for the skinny skis anyway). Thanks all! -Gene

gpickle said...

Just as this is your favorite race, we love the yearly recap of it!

I think I would die...

craig@eberhart.us said...

As the timer for this race, I was incredibly impressed. These skiers are talented, fast and in great shape! After 25 years of just cross country, I went to the dark side about ten years ago because my boys had no interest in using energy to go uphill - nice excuse eh! It was exciting to watch. I will be there next year(to watch or time)! Thanks, Craig

Robert said...

Tarik, excellent narrative! I'm a big fan of the race, myself. A small number of cool people, a short course, well organized by volunteers, everyone wins a prize. The route seems to favor no particular equipment set-up, and there is no negativity; everyone is there to get a little exercise and have fun. Been blessed with good weather to boot. Yes, let's do it again next year!

- Rob Cunningham

ph0 said...

fantastic report and impressive pictures
especially the "rare fledgling ski-dino" :-)