Thursday, December 24, 2015

Dick and Me

I raced in a ski race this past weekend.  Or perhaps I should say I skied a bunch or laps around the snowmaking loop at Kincaid Park and they timed me.

When I was a kid, my dad bought a boat.  It wasn't very big.  But it was old. My mom had doubts about this boat.  It was made of wood, and it had some leaks, but the leaks weren't too bad.  My dad figured if he (or we) painted it with good paint, it would probably keep most of the water out.  And we were only going to use it on the small ponds and lakes of New Hampshire's "north country" anyway, so if anything really bad happened and it sank, we would just swim to shore. The way dad figured, we'd go waterskiing all summer!  We did paint the boat - red white and blue like the American flag.  And it didn't leak very much.

This boat had a motor.  It was not a sailboat. But that motor didn't have much juice. It was an old Evinrude. It had 15 horsepower. But that was probably when it was new.  This old Evinrude motor was no longer new.  It was pretty old.  This Evinrude was built in around 1967.  But it was 1982!  I bet it had way less than 15 horsepower.

If you want to waterski behind a boat like our little old boat, you need to be in eighth grade or younger. And you'd better be the smallest kid in eighth grade, too. Luckily, I was. If you were the younger sister of an eighth grader, you could waterski, too. Young cousins could waterski. A squirrel could also waterski behind this boat. When I was in eighth grade I didn't know any squirrels who knew how to waterski, but I know there are some out there who do.

But that old boat also had better be up on step BEFORE it starts to try to pull the little waterskier.  Do you know what it means for a boat to be "on step"?  That means it's hydroplaning.  The only way a boat can hydroplane is if it produces enough power to get up out of the water and skim along the surface.  Once you're hydroplaning, you're golden.  It doesn't take much power to keep the boat skimming along on step, but if you let the speed come down, it starts plowing through the water again and you end up using a lot of power to push water around instead of using it to waterski.

Our old Evinrude 15hp motor had just enough power to get up on step IF all conditions were perfect:
-The motor had to work on that particular day. Sometimes it didn't.
-All extra passengers, gas cans, lunch, life jackets, etc needed to be out of the boat. The boat needed to be as light as possible.
-The boat needed a running start as long as a full length of waterski rope (or in our case, an old spongy rope that we also used for climbing the roof to clean the chimney).
-The eighth grader or his younger sister needed to start from a dock.  Water starts were not possible. The boat started next to the dock and the driver gunned it to get the speed as high as possible while the little waterskier waited for all the rope to play out, and then braced him/herself to get violently jerked off the dock (we learned to jump just a little at the moment of impact to keep from getting an assful of splinters).
-The wind needed to be coming from behind the boat and skier.
-The waterskier needed to be able to hold his/her breath for at least five or six seconds because after the initial jerk off the dock, the little waterskier would slow down the boat enough that the skier would sink (the boat would almost sink too) and even though the little skier was technically doing a dock start, it was essentially a water start.
-Mars and Saturn needed to be aligned with Venus.

This is the kind of stuff I was thinking about in the middle of lap 3 of the 5-lap 15km skate race this weekend. I came around the right-hander out of the stadium tunnel and was starting to slog and stumble my way up and over the tunnel hill when Toomas came by me "on step". He was out of sight and gone by the time I got a good look at him. Andrew was standing on this hill giving splits, and I can always count on him for some words of encouragement like "You're living and striding!" or something about the flavor of my hands... you know - inside joke stuff.  But this time Toomas was coming through at the same time as me so I knew Andrew had business to attend to and I'd have to wait another lap to hear those comforting words from the coach. After the race, I asked a bunch of UAA and APU skiers how their races went, and the answer from all of them was pretty similar: "It was super fast and fun and you just felt like you were flying around that course!" And it made me think they must have been having a very different experience than my own.

But I've been on both sides of this one. There was a time a few years back when I was in the process of winning the Tour of Anchorage ski marathon and I passed one of my co-workers, Dick. I was going about twice the speed that Dick was (or maybe more). The elite skiers used to start later in that race, and the slower skiers started earlier. It was great - you got to see all your friends out there. The next day at work, Dick said "I don't know how you top guys skim over the snow like that. It's incredible!"  And it occurred to me that when we passed Dick, we were going so easy and relaxed. We weren't skiing very hard at all. It wasn't until a couple kilometers later that the hard charging began...
Me. Tour of Anchorage. A few years back
It seems that in a race like this past weekend, if you have the strength to apply just a little extra power, you can skim over little hills using the V2 skate without having to "downshift" into a slower stride like the V1 with its dramatic loss of velocity.  If you can just manage to keep the power high enough to stay above that threshold, you can stay up on step. If you don't quite have the power to stay above that threshold, you'll suddenly find yourself not "hydroplaning" anymore. And that's a sure recipe for ending up up 53rd on the result list at the end of the day.

But as I passed slower skiers wallowing in that sugary snow on the Coastal Trail a few years back, I didn't think too much about what it would feel like to stumble along with legs on fire, doing the granny-skate while guys like Toomas fly by "on step". But now I understand.



  1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Andrew. I wrote it while flying first class to Maui, and availing myself fully of the appurtenances consistent with that style of travel.