Just days after skiing for 61 hours straight Ben Eck says he’s feeling fine, really. It was fun, he says, honest. After completing a total of 61,000 vertical feet on New Hampshire’s Black Mountain—more than double the height of Everest—Eck has been crowned this year’s winner of the grassroots endurance race, the Last Skier Standing.
Inspired by ultra-marathon road races and 24-hour mountain bike challenges, Last Skier Standing is the brainchild of Andrew Drummond, a fixture of the Northeastern backcountry ski community and founder of the group Ski the Whites. In its first year, 2020, Drummond garnered the signups of 60-some participants and their support teams who witnessed Rick Chalmers, a 58-year-old carpenter from South Portland, Maine, complete 34 hours, or 34,000 vertical feet, to clinch the inaugural title.
Here’s how it works: skiers (and a few split-boarders) on any manner of equipment line up at the base of Black Mountain, which offers almost exactly 1,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. Each skier has one hour to complete a lap by skinning to the top and skiing back down before the next lap starts on the hour every hour until there is only one de facto winner—the last skier standing.
This year, what began as a herd of 80-plus skiers clamoring up the slope thinned down to the two finalists by hour 42, Eck, and the runner-up, Jerimy Arnold a 40-year-old father of three. The pair continued the race for another 18 hours until Arnold completed 60 laps, ultimately pulling out to make it home for his wife’s birthday, leaving Eck to complete the ever-important victory lap, his 61st, to win the race.
Fueled by frozen gas station pizza and hot Tang, the 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate Northeastern University completed the feet on telemark skis and a cult-favorite boot of the early aughts, the Scarpa F1.
After giving the pair a few days to recover from the all-out exhaustion, we spoke with Eck and Arnold—both MIT graduates, by chance—about why the hell anyone would do an event like this and what tactics they used to endure it.
Sierra Shafer: Congratulations to both of you. How are you feeling now that we’re a few days past the finish line?
Jerimy Arnold: I’m back at work and with my kids. My appetite hasn’t been crazy, and I probably slept 9 hours last night, got on the spin bike. I’m feeling fine.
Ben Eck: I got two nights of good sleep in there, so I’m feeling pretty good now. My feet were in rough shape, but the swelling is going down, and my legs are working again.
Jerimy, you did this race last year and made it to 25 hours. Ben, everyone is calling you a total dark horse. How did you prepare yourselves for this kind of endurance race?
Arnold: I’ve been doing ski mo races for 15 years. This year, I had a goal coming in for 40 hours and after that, it was just one lap at a time. I have done some ultras and longer 50K mountain runs, but I’ve gotten out of trail running races because I now have kids. It’s too much of a time commitment. My priority is skiing, so that’s where I take my hall passes.
Eck: I raced mountain bikes in college and have done some of the local endurance races. But the difference is, in a 24-hour race, you know you’re going to be done. [Last Skier Standing] is so different because you don’t know how long it’s going to go.
Did you follow some kind of rigid training program leading up to the race?
Arnold: I usually train twice a week at our local mountain with friends. We’ll show up before 7 a.m. and be off by 9. We do 5 or 6,000 feet of vertical with intervals, and a fast lap or two. A normal backcountry ski day on the weekend is my long training day.
Eck: Not exactly. I went on a hut trip in Colorado in January, which included a lot of miles and time on skis, but nothing super specific for this race. I’m not really regimented with training, I try to do what’s fun. I’m just someone who happens to think long slogs are fun.
The amount of vertical you two put on the board is this amount of time is a major physical feat. But I imagine this comes down to mental stamina in the end?
Arnold: I let my mind wander, rather than focus on what hurts and what doesn’t. Because of the sleep deprivation, you start to see lots of ghosts and oddities in the woods from your headlamp and shadows it makes on the snow.
Ben and I were joking about what we’re seeing. I saw a lot of cars parked beside the side of the trail that weren’t really there. You see lots of crazy things… saw a pirate ship and a pink panther, all kinds of things. Physically I could have kept going. Mentally, I essentially gave up, unfortunately. I felt like if someone gave me a kick in the pants, I would have gone another lap.
Eck: It’s definitely a mental thing. I wasn’t sure at the beginning if my body would make it. I had no idea. I knew that mentally it’s always a struggle to stay motivated and not fall asleep. Physically that last lap wasn’t that hard, but dealing with the sleep deprivation… I worried about skiing down.
Were there any low points when you wanted to quit or doubted how long you could keep going?
Arnold: I had a really low point at lap 52 where I thought I was done. I talked to Andrew [Drummond] for a bit… Sometimes you need a kick in the pants because it’s not physical. So I started that next lap late but once I had to move at a quicker pace, I actually felt better. whether it was the change in stride and mechanics, I felt better. That was the motivation I needed to keep moving again.
Eck: Sometime Monday morning, I felt this tearing sensation on the bottom of my foot that was really painful and hard to put weight on. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to ski on that for much longer. But I put on some Moleskin and tape, changed socks, and dried out my feet.
Also, about 25 hours in, the heel cable broke on one of my bindings, so every lap after that I took the cable off and put a Volle strap on to hold my foot down.
Ben, I hate to say it, but that’s what you get for being a telemark skier. Care to explain yourself?
Eck: I started tele skiing when I started backcountry skiing with the MIT outing club on rental gear that no one else seemed to want. It’s just a fun way to ski. There’s absolutely no advantage. It’s just the same stubbornness that inspired me to go for 61 hours.
Arnold: Obviously, Ben and I were on totally different types of skis—I was using ski mo race gear and Pierre Ginoux carbon ski boots—but it didn’t seem to play much of a factor. Heavier stuff has an advantage on the down, lightweight on the up. That’s the trade-off.
So the two of you both went to MIT, have both lived in Westford, Massachusetts. Do you think there’s a type of person who’s just built for this kind of race?
Arnold: You see it often in trail running and endurance sports, it’s the same types of people who tend to do well… It’s the addictive personality, always trying to improve yourself, always wanting to see how far you can push yourself.
Eck: I like to think maybe we got our training in sleep deprivation at MIT. Or maybe everyone else just has better sense.
That reminds me—tell me again why anyone would put themselves through this?
Eck: It’s interesting just to see what’s possible. It’s basically like skiing from Jackson, NH, to my house in Boston, over Everest Twice. It’s nice to have a single-minded focus on something. In life, there is so much going on to be stressed about, it’s nice to feel like I did a lot and it’s okay to do nothing for a couple of days after. It’s also really fun to get all the support from people. My girlfriend Michelle was there the whole time, staying up late with friends to support me. It felt good.
Will either of you coming back to win it next year?
Arnold: We’ll see. It really does take at least two people to get far. Maybe things just lined up this year.
Eck: I’m undecided. Part of me wants to go back and have a good time, just do a few laps and cheer people on. But I really think that if you could be fit enough to do your lap up and down in half an hour, you’d have time to sleep each lap, and you could essentially go on forever that way I hope someone else tries to figure that out so I don’t have to.