This post was written by my friend and fellow adventure mom, Amanda Kuhnert, who skied the legendary Stowe Derby this year from the top of Mt. Mansfield to the village of Stowe on cross-country skis. Here’s to “challenging our boundaries” and “embracing adventures with and without our kids.” Hope you find her experience as inspiring as I do!
Just a few days out from another birthday, I decided to celebrate by joining about 300 other skiers of all levels, abilities, and objectives at the top of Mt. Mansfield for the 68th annual Stowe Derby cross-country ski race.
The 20-kilometer Stowe Derby with a vertical drop of 2,600 feet is a great personal challenge. A lot of people do it for fun, some for competition, and others – like me – start out doing it for fun and let their competitive nature get the best of them after the first hairpin turn down Mt. Mansfield.
I’m not a hard-core Nordic skier, but I do love to ski. Perhaps I’m on my way to becoming a hard-core skier. After six years of lugging my kids in a pulk, or enclosed Nordic-inspired ski sled, behind me on endless treks in and around Stowe, Vt, I feel like my time has come. Pushing forty, I’ve decided the next decade of my life will be about challenging the boundaries of what might be considered a “normal day in the great outdoors” and embracing the adventures that await – with and without my kids.
So whether you’re a competitive Nordic skier or a novice, I’d highly recommend signing up for the Derby next year; registration opens in the fall at stowederby.com. You can choose to do the morning skate race, the afternoon classic race, or both (known as the Derby Meister), which is only for the very strong of heart. The Short Course is a popular children’s race that kicks off first thing in the morning. The 6-km course follows the rec path and is almost entirely flat. My son, age 9, did it this year and had a blast.
Decided to go for it? Here are some first-hand tips, learned through the school of hard knocks, to help you prepare for the big day:
• Join as a team. I’ve done it both ways – on my own and as part of a team. And although you’ll race on your own, there’s a lot of time before and after the race when it would be more fun to be part of a group. What makes the Derby special is that it really is a social experience — riding the bus together from the high school to the mountain, hanging out and stretching in the base lodge, taking the lift up and waiting for your turn, and, of course, toasting a race well-done (or at least completed) at the awards party.
• Do lots and lots of wall sits or any other fitness activity to get your quads in shape. The first several kilometers of the race follow the Toll Road down Mt. Mansfield. If you spend the winter on Nordic skis, as I do, your quads might not be adequately prepared for the challenge. Mine, in fact, were shaking about halfway down.
• Hydrate well … ahead of time. The fastest racers will finish the race in just under an hour, while others may not cross the finish line until two hours or more past the start. And there aren’t any water stops along the way, so either carry it on you or hydrate well before you set off. It may be cold out, but you’ll need the fluids. However, keep in mind that you won’t find a restroom until you cross the finish line. Just to show that the race attracts all types … A friend of mine, who did the race purely for the “fun” factor, carried a wineskin filled appropriately.
• Wear warm clothes to stash before the race. The Stowe Derby begins with a very slow double-chair lift ride up Mt. Mansfield. Then you’ll stand at the top of the highest peak in Vermont for half an hour or more in what could be the most challenging weather conditions of the season. You never know. So wear a down jacket and ski pants that can be stripped off right before the race and stashed in plastic bags provided by race organizers. They’ll collect the bags and deliver them to race headquarters, where you can pick them up later.
• Keep to the inside and look for packed-down snow. You’ll come to the most intimidating section of the course within seconds of the gun. When you reach that first tight turn, stay on the inside and fight the urge to trend toward the fresher snow. This might be a good idea on alpine skis, but not on skinny, finicky cross-country skis. The best bet is to follow the well-worn path.
• Pace yourself. After the long downhill, you may think it’s a straight shot into town. But it’s not. There are a series of four uphill stretches that will test your cardiovascular endurance. So my best advice is to find your rhythm and stick with it … on the flats and on the hills. A lot of racers “bonk” on the long, flat 5-kilometer section that brings you from the upper section of the rec path into town. Keeping a steady pace throughout the race will help you maintain your energy reserves to the end.
About two miles from the finish line, my husband and children planted a series of signs in the snow that said, “The only way to define your limits is to go beyond them.” This inspirational quote carried me to the end of a long, challenging race.
When all was said and done, I walked away with a blister on my thumb, a couple days of tender muscles, and a new pair of poles (thanks to the multiple awards categories). But above all, a deeply satisfied feeling that will inspire me to keep redefining my personal limits and setting a new bar. It’s never too early to start training for next year ….