Old Guy Finishes Another K-Bay Ski Marathon
By Hal Shepherd
I’m one of those slow learners who usually takes a long time to gain knowledge or new skills. In college, while I consistently studied for hours for each exam with only mediocre and sometimes even disastrous results, I would observe others who excelled apparently while spending most of their time partying instead of studying. Similarly, I have watched in awe as fellow athletes who just walked onto the field instantly acquired a skill that it would take me months or even years to become even passably master.
My standard strategy for getting ahead in life, therefore, has been to repeatedly try and fail on various skills or just give up all together and move on to the next endeavor. So, when I signed up for my first ski marathon about 20 years ago at the Mount Bachelor ski area in Oregon, because I had done classic style cross-country skiing and other athletic activities all my life, I thought – “How hard can it be?” I knew I was in trouble about halfway through the race when I started getting passed by every other skier (including several little old ladies who were at least 30 years older than me, skating with perfect form). At the end of the course, while everyone else waited on the last idling bus to shuttle us back to the start, I was the last one to board.
Part of the problem was that I originally thought that by just being in shape, I could get the hang of skate-skiing fairly rapidly. Still, as my first attempt at racing showed me, I had much to learn about this relatively new Nordic technique that got its start in this country in the mid-90s. When I moved to Homer in 2009 and found out about the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club (KNSC), provided the opportunity I needed to get back on the horse.
KNSC has built and maintains over 80 km of cross-country ski trails located at Baycrest, Lookout Mountain, and McNeil/Eveline in the Homer area. Also, during the season when snow depth allows, Baycrest and Lookout Mountain are connected by the Marathon Trail.
KNSC is a non-profit organization that relies almost entirely on the efforts of dedicated volunteers to manage the Club and maintain trails. Being an early riser, I have often watched with admiration my neighbor, an avid skier and Club volunteer, headed out at 5:30 am to groom the trails at the nearby McNeil/Eveline area.
Similarly, the Club’s detailed and sort of fun website provides daily updates on trail conditions, including for some locations, real-time interactive maps, and trail cams (which are like watching the paint dry on your wall until that exciting moment, every three hours or so, when a human or some animal might suddenly step in front of the lens). The site also hosts Sno Tel data, including snow depth, relative humidity, and temperature. But my favorite update is the Real-Time Grooming Report which provides the date on which certain trails were last groomed and can even be accessed by smartphone while you’re skiing.
Taking advantage of the KNSC trail system finally caused the light bulb to go off in my head that the art form of skate-skiing is all about the ability to combine technique and waxing. Once I had this epiphany, I thought I might even be able to handle the popular Kachemak Ski marathon. And so, because I am turning 61 this month and wanted to prove that I am not getting older, I completed my second 25K at the March 22 event.
Last year, due to Covid, the race was a do-it-yourself at the time of your choosing during the month of March, following the traditional trail as provided on the KNSC website. This year the traditional marathon returned to the Homer in a single-timed event and followed the standard Marathon trial from point-to-point starting at Lookout Trails and ending at the Bog Loop at the lower Baycrest Trail system.
The course was certainly competitive. This year’s 42k winner, who completed the men’s race in one hour, 58 minutes, 5 seconds, was a competitor in the 2022 Olympics. The winner of the women’s race did it in 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 29 seconds. I was shocked at the beginning of the race when with 26 miles to go, the first racers were using their skis in a running fashion to actually sprint the first 100 yards or so, and it looked like they planned to keep up that level of exertion for the rest of the race!
For the rest of us mortals, however, the course is basically a tour of some of Homer’s most beautiful and challenging trail systems. I look at my sudden interest in marathons again, not so much as a late-life crisis but as an opportunity to discover trails and locations in the area that one would not otherwise have reason to explore.
Beginning at Lookout Mountain, the course basically runs through the entire area and then past the downhill ski slopes there before jumping onto the Marathon Connector Trail, which descends steeply for 15 K into the remote Bridge Creek watershed. The trail powers back up even steeper terrain, to the Bay Crest ski area, and then runs through each of the trails in that system to end at the Bog.
The biggest elevation gain is just as you start ascending out of the Bridge Creek valley when you come around a corner and are confronted by what is less of a hill and more like a wall known as “Kill Bill Hill” (which I’ve renamed “Kill Hal Hill”). Here the trail heads straight up for about 1K and then levels off slightly for about the next 4k as it passes through the “Dragons Back” section before crossing over Diamond Ridge road into the Baycrest area.
The KBNC website describes the course like this: “This remote course is very difficult & challenging, and safety comes first. This includes looking out for others & stopping to help when someone is in need until a rescue sled arrives. Do not take chances – because a rescue will take a LONG time to find you, and there is no cell service in some areas. Be cautious on the steep drops!”
The “steep drops” in question are a series of roller-coaster dips that you confront primarily as you climb out of the Bridge Creek watershed. Many of these are so steep that you can’t see the bottom until you are right on top of them, except for the infamous “Milk Toast” which lurks about 2/3rds of the way through the course and which is more of a cliff than a dip on both the decline and incline. Milk Toast is so bad that many skiers have to take their skis off to repel down and then do sort of, an ice climb back up.
This year, the day was beautiful, and the ski club volunteers along the racecourse were easily as terrific as the scenery, including the trial groomers who gave me the latest update on how many groomers and skiers have, so far, been eaten by Milk Toast, the folks handing out refreshments (including tequila) at the life-saving aid stations and the two guys who kept the snow bridge intact by continually shoveling snow over the Diamond Ridge road crossing so that we would not have to stop and take off our skis to cross the pavement.
I came in close to last again. Nevertheless, I’ll probably be back next year. Look out, little old ladies, I’m comin’ for ya!