Ultrarunners chase ski mountaineers at Colorado’s Elk Mountain Grand Traverse.
It’s nearly midnight on March 28, and my headlamp illuminates 30 feet of a pristine groomer at Colorado’s Crested Butte Mountain Resort, where I’m lined up with 400 racers on skinny skis for the 18th annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. I give my skin suit a yank, and the pins on my number bib put three small rips in the thigh fabric. I wonder if the thin layer of spandex can hold together for a ski mountaineering race over 40 miles and 7,800 feet of climbing from Crested Butte to Aspen. More importantly, can I?
The odds look good on paper. My teammate and I are both professional ultrarunners; we race up to 100 miles on foot over technical terrain. Fitness skinning has become integral to our off-season training, thanks in part to lighter gear and access to uphill skiing within ski area boundaries. But the biggest factor in the rapidly increasing crossover from ultrarunning to skimo might be Kilian Jornet, a Spaniard who dominates competitions in both disciplines worldwide. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in ultrarunners signing up for the Grand Traverse in the last year or two because of the Kilian effect,” says race director Bryan Wickenhauser. As if to prove his point, I spot Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe, the men’s and women’s champions of the 2014 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, on the starting line at CBMR.
Runners who follow Jornet discover real training benefits. Howe, a Nordic ski racer in college, believes it prevents injury and burnout. “Skimo is a good break for my body and it helps me become a better climber,” she says. Over the past four winters, Krar has skied uphill at Snowbowl, a ski area near his Arizona home. “It’s a new kind of hurt,” he says. “I get to try something challenging and still be in the mountains.” Both ski touring and running improve aerobic capacity, but climbing steep skin tracks works a runner’s often overlooked anaerobic system. And when ultrarunners want to test their ski endurance, they come to the Grand Traverse. Inspired by Switzerland’s Patrouille des Glaciers point-to-point ski race, the Colorado event is easily four times longer in duration and distance than the average skimo race. Like a 100-mile foot race, racers compete overnight. For skiers, the midnight start means they finish before midday sun increases avalanche danger.
On course, we sprint the first climb and settle into a consistent pace. I’m grateful the darkness hides my mangled turns. Navigating ungroomed snow on skinny, 160cm skis feels like running technical downhill terrain in racing flats. The sunrise gives us a rush of energy on the final climb, a snow road that leads to Aspen Mountain’s summit at 11,212 feet. It’s a nightmarish stretch; undulating terrain means we can’t skin or skate consistently. So I revert to what I know best, and pull off my skis to run.
Ahead, ultrarunners lead the field. Converts with stronger ski skills fare best. Krar and his teammate J Marshall Thomson take second in 6 hours and 54 minutes; they’re fast enough to beat the previous course record by more than 15 minutes. Howe and her husband finish third in the co-ed division in 9:04. And my Sisyphean effort finally ends. We skate past the Sundeck as the ski area opens for the day, then scratch jittery G.S. turns on the final 3,000-foot descent. A crowd of spectators cheers us through the finish arch as the clock reads 9:23, and I quickly trade hard plastic ski boots for comfy trail running shoes. The triumph feels like I just finished an ultra, but I’m ready for this new kind of hurt to end. —Matt Hart