All Downhill

Travel East

I didn’t even know till now that there were such things as shin muscles, but mine are screaming in hysterical protest. It’s foggy and raining hard. I can barely see 20 yards through my sweat-streaked eyewear. There’s another sharp corner up ahead, rushing toward me. And I want my mommy.

The Stowe Derby, in which I am “competing,” is a 10-mile race from the shoulder of Mt. Mansfield to the village of Stowe, Vt. The first part would be easy, I had reckoned: a leisurely tuck down Toll Road, Stowe’s easiest trail. Turns out there’s nothing easy about the Derby—certainly not for an out-of-shape alpiner accustomed to silly crutches like, say, edges, sidecut and a binding with a frickin’ heelpiece, for heaven’s sake. Now it appears that the act of snowplowing down Stowe’s fluffiest bunny hill, using muscles I didn’t know existed, will be my undoing.

The Stowe Derby began as a bet, so it’s fitting that my experience with it did too. My boss wagered I wouldn’t make it halfway from the top of the Lookout double to the village, and assigned me a first-person piece, clearly to take me down a peg. (HR will hear from me.) As a nordic novice, I wasn’t entirely alone: Almost every Stowe veteran has at some point taken on the Derby, often on a bet. The spectacle is known for exquisite comedy. Local wags pack picnics, set up on corners known for maximum carnage and wait patiently for lumbering hacks like me to teeter into sight at the top of an icy Dead Man’s Curve. They’re not there to offer support. They’re there to laugh.

One doesn’t enter a race as venerable as the Stowe Derby without rigorous training. So a few days before the race I called my friend Eric, who had volunteered to give me a few cross-country pointers. We met at a local nordic center, and he admired my new equipment, state-of-the-art stuff on loan from the good folks at Fischer. But he did not attempt to suppress his laughter when I took my first few strides. By the end of the session, no thanks to Eric, I was reeling off several hundred yards at a whack between breathers and managing at least some of the downhills without leaving my signature butt-print behind in the snow. Training complete.

Race day dawned rainy and warm, with visibility of about 50 feet—just enough for me to determine that among my fellow competitors, there wasn’t one decent-size butt-cheek. You never saw such a pack of scrawny physiques. I, on the other hand, filled out my vintage ski-swap skin suit—a Day-Glo pink-and-turquoise number—nicely.

Soon my bib was called, and I hustled my pink-sausage self into line with five other racers, each of them thin and wiry and at ease on their ridiculously skinny skis. Cheery starters were sending skiers off down Toll Road in Chinese-downhill waves of six, and at the appointed moment I pushed off. By the first turn, I was safely at the back of my pack. By the third, I had been lapped by the group behind us. And with each ensuing straightaway, another swarm of seasoned veterans overtook me, skating and tucking and shouting things at me that I did not understand, preoccupied as I was by the approach of yet another sinister turn.

And this is how I find myself, halfway down Toll Road—a trail so flat that young children ride their bikes up it in summer—begging my shrieking shin muscles to see me through one more hairpin. Never again, I promise them. And yet, that smarmy little smirk on my boss’s face keeps me going.

Miraculously, I make it to the bottom before leaving my first crater in the snow—a perfectly symmetrical divot with two distinct hemispheres. There’s no time to admire it. Onward I glide, toward what I presume to be leisurely flats descending to the village.

Wrong. And if going downhill on skinny skis is misery, it’s nothing compared to going uphill. At the bottom of the Toll Road I’m greeted by a series of lung-searing herring-bone sessions through the rolling, forested hills of the Stowe Touring Center. The rasp of my distresseed breathing now drowns the protests of my shin muscles. Sweat flows from my brow, and still more competitors pour past me on the narrow trails.

It can’t get worse. But it does. Where the Stowe Rec Path crosses the river, narrow iron bridges present fresh humiliation. Two steps onto the first arcing span, I put ski tips through the rails on each side and thud to the deck. Behind me, annoyed competitors attempting to better their personal bests must wait while I squirm backward on my belly, extract my tips and totter to my feet.

Cruelly, as the Rec Path winds along the Mountain Road, it passes near some of my favorite après-ski spots: the Shed, Sunset Grill, the Rusty Nail. How I yearn for a beer and a barstool. Each bend in the trail must be the last, but only straightens onto another long slog across the mushy snow. Then, at last, after one last trip across the river, the lovely spire of Stowe Community Church heaves into view, and beneath it, the finish line.

New energy briefly revives my trembling legs, and I glide across the finish in just over an hour. Out of 295 competitors in the Freestyle category, I have finished 234th (nearly two full minutes ahead of the 15-year-old girl from Cummington, Mass.). But I have finished. It’s over. I will drive home, shuddering with chill and exhaustion. I will lie down. I will have a new respect for skinny nordic skiers. And I will never, ever enter the Stowe Derby again.