It's a little after 4 a.m. and Lindsay Yaw just had another close call, catching an edge at Grand Junction and pulling out a wobbly recovery just milliseconds before going down. This is the hardest hours of the race, mentally anyway. It's two hours after the bars close and two hours before sunrise and the night doesn't get any deeper. If you had hopped in your car down on Aspen's Main Street and started driving when these racers started skiing, you could now be pulling into Portland, Oregon. By the time they're done, you could be pulling into Portland, Maine.
Lindsay's stomach hurts. Her left hamstring is starting to cramp from 50 straight downhill runs at 80 miles an hour. She has barfed twice. Yet she has already outlasted two European men with a combined 20 years experience on their respective national times—Slovenian speed skier Ales Brezavscek and, last year's champ, German Christian Deissenboeck. I asked Lindsay if her close call was a result of daydreaming mid-run, thinking perhaps she'd let her mind wander to some happy place other than the compression turn and downhill tuck slowly melting every muscle fiber in her burning quads. "No, she says, "When I'm on course I'm just like, 'left, right, right, middle, lean hard, hold it, hold it, okay.' There's no daydreaming going on.
Soon the sun will be up, and while dawn definitely brings about a positive attitude adjustment, it also causes difficulties with light just when fatigue is reaching its peak. I've raced in a few downhills and I never remember being more nervous in my life. And I was making ONE run. These racers will get more vertical in 24 hours than many recreational skiers will get in their lifetime, skiing a quarter of a million feet in one day. They will also suffer and struggle through the kinds of mental battles that DEFINE endurance athletes. And when they're done, regardless of where they finish, they will have beaten the hardest adversary there is: those voices saying "quit the insanity and go to bed.