Becca Spiro is originally from Brookline MA. She grew up on the east coast and went to college in Maine after taking a gap year in Costa Rica and Baja. After graduating college, her wanderlust led her to London for a graduate program in contemporary art, and then to Mexico to work for the National Outdoor Leadership School. From Mexico, she moved to Switzerland to teach art history and Spanish at the Swiss Semester, and when that gig was up, Becca took a Spanish teaching job in Memphis at an independent all-girls school. In October of 2014, Becca moved to Breckenridge where she currently lives and works on the Breckenridge Ski Patrol. Over the past five summers, Becca has worked as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and this summer she is excited to work for Johns Hopkins University and The Keystone Science School.
The Grand Reverse by Becca Spiro
Midnight: Standing side by side at the base of Mount Crested Butte, the full moon was so bright our headlamps were unnecessary. We were surrounded by racers jumping up and down to stay warm and our adrenaline levels soared. We had been up since 8am for the mandatory gear check (at 9am) and the mandatory racer meeting (at 1pm). Race officials had confirmed we would travel from Crested Butte to Aspen despite the incoming storm, so at 3pm we returned home and attempted to sleep. I have never been a good napper, so my remaining hours were spent watching romantic comedies and waxing my skins. I reassured myself that spending some time in a horizontal position was better than nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, we rose at 9:30pm to discover that the forecast had changed. Two feet of snow had accumulated at a checkpoint near Aspen, and due to the resulting avalanche danger, the course had been reversed. Rather than skinning 40 miles from point A to B, we would now travel a 35 mile loop, returning to Crested Butte. Of the 400 teams registered, 200 dropped out.
We had paid $400 for our team registration, we had spent countless hours training, and we had never done the Grand Traverse. We were not going to quit. I turned off my mind and went through the motions: get dressed, drink coffee, choke down oatmeal, swallow ibuprofen and get on the bus. Before lining up at the start line we picked up our SPOT (locator devices), checked our beacons and took some obligatory “before” photos.
As the horn blew, racers charged uphill, fireworks went off into the night, and the sound of swishing skis was overwhelming. My lungs burned from the cold air but the excitement in the crowd was contagious. We stuck with the pack up a long gradual hill, pulling off our skins after 20 minutes to skate ski along a groomed road down to the first checkpoint.
The skin along the East River felt viscous. Racers pushed past each other without making eye contact, grinding over rocks and losing skis, falling down the side-hill and knocking their partners to the ground. Regardless, I could not believe how well my body functioned for that first portion of the race. I was able to eat and drink and I felt unbelievably energized….Until 3am.
As we began our ascent up Brush Creek Trail, my stomach began to churn, and I knew that something was seriously wrong internally. I tried to continue on, but I was eventually forced to do the inevitable and take care of business along the side of the trail. Fortunately it was dark, as I barely made it 15 feet from the trail, before exposing my cheeks to the negative 14 degree temperatures. Unloading on the side of the skin track, I felt strangely balanced by a loss of dignity and a total lack of self consciousness. I cleaned myself with fresh snow and carried on, but my stomach pain persisted. The nausea was overwhelming and I was unable to eat or drink any of the provisions I had packed. I tasted bile in my mouth and I knew that if I continued to feel so miserable, I would not finish the race. I felt panicked. My partner forced me to rip open a frozen can of Coca Cola and I scooped out the slushy content with my mitten, hoping to swallow down a few sugary calories. My body and my mind were violently rejecting the thought of ingesting anything, but I felt the soda in my system within minutes and I knew I had to counterintuitively force food into my system. A passing stranger noticed I was in distress and offered me several gummy chews, which I was able to eat if I focused on chewing and swallowing as a necessary process. At least this form of fuel was more appetizing than the frozen avocado and goat cheese sandwiches in my pack. With my partner’s constant support and prodding, we wove uphill through the trees for the next several hours, one step at a time. Tears streamed down my face as we witnessed the lightning sky, and with deep gratitude we arrived at our first cut-off checkpoint with 30 minutes to spare.
Specifically, we reached the Friends Hut at 6:30am. If we had not made that checkpoint before 7am we would have been forced to turn around and we would have been lumped into the dreaded “did not finish” category. I wept and smashed another can of coke in my hands to slurp up the next hill. At the Friends Hut, race marshals had boiling pots of hot water to melt frozen camelbacks, but we only stopped for a few minutes before gaining a final 800 feet up Star Bowl. The realization that this push would be followed by a long stretch of downhill was my only thought.
The ski down Brush Creek Trail gave me hope. My stomach pain almost entirely vanished and the miles floated away as we soared downhill. I felt hope. We reached a river crossing and my partner discovered that her first pair of skins were wet and would not stick to her skis and her second pair were frozen. Luckily, I had anticipated gear malfunction, so I was able to lend her an extra pair I had packed. (Ironically, I wore the same skins for the entire race). After this minor setback, we began to leap frog with several other partners, a father and son, two women who I coincidentally knew from my summer employment, and a co-ed team who were poorly matched in terms of speed.
Around 11am at Strand Hill, my partner hit a wall. She had not eaten much over the past several hours and her mood was affected. Movement, which under normal circumstances would have been easy, became impossible. I encouraged her to eat in the same way she had done for me. Strand Hill was steep, and we had to edge our way along and straddle several fallen trees in order to reach the ridge. In an attempt to move faster, my partner removed her skis to boot-pack, and immediately sunk into the deep, soft snow. She pounded the ground with frustration and I realized how balanced our partnership was. She was there for me when I needed her and visa versa. My strength was her weakness and visa versa. I felt overwhelming appreciation and empathy for her. My breaking point manifested in tears and silence, while her low point resulted in anger.
Back at the Brush Creek Trailhead, a race marshall told us we were close. “Only one mile of skate skiing on this flat road and then 500 feet of gain over three miles” he said. This was it! It was only noon and we felt confident that we could make the finish line by 1:30pm. We mustered the little energy we had and began (what we thought) was our final push. But...after one hour we were still going up, and after two hours our surroundings were still unfamiliar. We had gained well over 500 feet and looming ahead of us was a steep slope where we could see tight switchbacks. We had only one choice, and that was to go up to go down and finish this thing for once and for all. In this mindset, Mount Crested Butte was Mount Everest. As we slogged up the remaining 1500 feet on the eastern side of the ski resort, we imagined crossing the finish line and what that would mean. My partner and I had only been skinning for a year and a three months, and while both of us had run marathons in the past, neither of us had accomplished such a large physical feat. Simply moving for fifteen hours was something I never imagined I was capable of doing. In those final minutes I thought about the power of the human body and mind, and how we really are capable of unimaginable tasks if we make up our minds to do so.
As we approached the Red Lady Chair a little after 2pm, a woman unloading the lift saw the shredded Coca Cola cans in the side pocket of my backpack and said “Hey! I work for Coca Cola!” I thanked her profusely. I never drink soda. At this point, Jess and I could literally see the end of the course. We decided we would cross the finish line together and, with disbelief, we clicked into our bindings one last time and descended the last hill.
As we crossed the finish line around 2:30, a cheer went up from the crowd, and strangers hugged me. Another woman put a medal around my neck and a friend brought us two cold beers. The race was over and the months of training flashed before my eyes: sore legs, blisters, hours spent preparing healthy snacks in the kitchen, gear debates and discussions on technique.
All for what? I realized that I still did not know why I had agreed to do this silly race, but like many things in life, it was a challenge that I undertook to give myself (a temporary) purpose. My identity is fabricated by these masochistic experiences. I come out stronger and wiser, and I see what happens when I reach my lowest point. A couple days later I am left with a hacking cough and a disrupted sleep schedule and appetite, but I feel accomplished. I am lucky to have friends who lent me their gear and brought me back down to earth when I felt out of control. It’s “just a long ski with a friend,” one of my friends reassured me, nothing to worry about at all.
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