Cross-training for OCR - Rea Kolbl's skimo adventure
After an incredibly successful 2018, which saw her crowned World's Toughest Mudder in Atalanta, dryrobe ambassador Rea Kobl has been preparing for the 2019 OCR season by pushing her cross-training in a new direction. Here Rea gives us the story on her most recent adventure.
The unplanned adventure
What was the last time you did something for the first time? It’s the phrase I heard for the first time at World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24 hour obstacle course race, and it stuck with me since. I made it a goal to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone to learn new skills, create memorable experiences, and ultimately become a better endurance athlete.
My favorite obstacle course races are the long distance ones; anything over 10 miles and all the way up to 24 hours, the steeper the terrain the better. I train like an ultra trail runner, logging around 80 miles per week in addition to training specifically for OCR. Even then, running 2 hours a day isn’t enough to prepare my legs for the 24-hour events, so cross training provides a valuable time on my feet while minimizing the risk of injury. Different sports help me develop systems I don’t necessarily train in my primary sport but make my body stronger as a whole. They provide additional aerobic system training while recovering joints and muscles beat up from the sport I specialize in. Lastly, they challenge me; stoke my fire, get me excited when I quickly notice the progress in areas I start from the bottom, and remind me how wonderful it is to be athletic enough to tackle any kind of adventure.
How skimo helped me in the mud
This winter I found my favorite form of cross-training: skimo. For those unfamiliar with the sport, skimo (also known as ski mountaineering or randonnée) is similar to ski touring where you “ski” uphill using the skins on the bottom of your skis that give you traction going up; once at the top, you remove the skins and ski down. Ski touring is done in the backcountry, while skimo races are usually confined to the resorts where avalanche dangers are professionally mitigated and my lack of avalanche safety knowledge wouldn’t put me in danger.
So how does all this help me with OCR?
First and foremost, it provides hours of aerobic activity at high altitude; for most of our training days, we skied on the mountains between 8-12,000 feet, driving our heart rate into the threshold regime where the oxygen supply is scarce. Since uphill skiing motion is more similar to gliding forward than running and the descents spare your joints while creating thighs of steel, these hours on the mountain simultaneously strengthened my muscles while recovering my joints (providing we didn’t crash on the 50+mph descents).
Hiking up a hill with skis attached to my feet made my legs stronger than ever before – when I ran the Florida Spartan race a couple of weeks ago, dragging my feet through ankle-deep mud never strained my hip flexors, something I’ve struggled with before. Lastly, conditions up high are unpredictable, and we often found ourselves in a blizzard that instantly froze any exposed skin, facing the winds threatening to blow us off of the mountain. Not quitting when no one was watching us made us mentally stronger than any gym workout ever could.
The race: when things go wrong
This past weekend my friend Trever Townsend and I put all of our skimo training to test; hundreds of miles and thousands of feet of ascent in a variety of (mostly unpleasant) weather conditions made us confident we could do well at our first race, the Audi Power Of Four in Aspen, Colorado: a 24-mile course with over 11,000 feet of climbing. We started in the back, letting people with more training and racing experience take the charge up the mountain. Throughout the first 3.5 miles of climbing we steadily gained places. Knowing the day was going to be long we started conservatively and felt great at the first summit, caught up with the mid of the pack. But that’s when the trouble started.
The first descent was down a steep ridge with deep snow and trees positioned perfectly in our way. Nothing like the groomed descents we were used to, Trever broke his pole less than a mile down the hill. Soon everyone we passed on the ascent was miles ahead, and it took us almost as long to tumble down the mountain as it did to climb up. I hoped this first descent was an anomaly but after a few short chats with fellow competitors we quickly realized that our focus on ascending in training was going to cost us time on the downs. I was so glad once we finally reached the bottom and it was time to go up again. But the constant breaking, crashing, digging ourselves out from underneath the trees and out of the ditches exhausted us more than expected, making our legs feel heavy and uncooperative.
Sometime during that second climb we realized that this was no longer a race, but rather an adventure of pushing new limits and learning the skills on the fly. Our motto changed from trying to compete to “break no bones, break no skis, break no more poles, and finish.” We kept moving along to the sound of avalanche bombs in the background – the ski patrol was doing an avalanche mitigation, where they trigger the slides using a bomb when no one is on the slope to make the area safer. All the new snow not only made our descents harder, but it also made the avalanche danger high, rerouting some of the course to safer areas. It made me appreciate that avalanche beacon I carrying in my pack (even though my skills of using it effectively were questionable at best).
I was actually really enjoying ascents, winding through trees with giant snowflakes falling on our heads. Eventually, even descents became so ridiculous that laughter replaced fear. People riding the chair lift right above us as we were trying to learn how to ski over deep, heavy snow moguls on what felt vertical slopes were encouraging, telling us we looked great when we crashed every few seconds, occasionally losing a pole or a ski. Our finishing time target slowly drifted back, but we made the cut-off before the fourth and final ascent, somehow still in the game, putting one ski in front of the other, ignoring the blisters and that little voice telling us this is a good place to quit.
As we were finishing the last 5-mile long ascent to the top of the mountain, the blizzard set in. Ski patrol on snowmobiles passed us and asked if we want to continue. To me this seemed like such a bizarre question; after 10 and a half hours of “racing”, with only a few miles to go (most of them downhill so at least we would tumble in the generally correct direction), of course we weren’t going to quit. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were the last pair allowed to finish the race. When we reached the final descent the race route was closed due to an avalanche danger, and we were instructed to follow any groomed trail to the bottom, because “they all lead to the finish”. Well, all except the one we took down to the valley.
Finally back in the land of cell service, we called my husband to find out where the finish line was located, and after confirming that we’re still alive and in one piece we headed back in the right direction, luckily still high enough on the mountain that our mistake only cost us miles but no additional hike. 10 hours and 54 minutes after we started a few mountains away, we finally skied across the finish line.
The most important lesson
Emotions overwhelmed me as I saw the finish. I remember winning my first big Spartan race in 2017; I cried tears of joy, full of disbelief at accomplishing what I thought was out of reach. I always assumed those feelings of happiness were tied to success measured in finishing positions and trophies. What this experience taught me was that success doesn’t need a placement to feel real, and that the same feeling of indescribable joy can just as well come from finishing something you never thought you could, regardless of the reading on your timing chip. I don’t think I consciously questioned our ability to finish, and I never once thought of pulling out of the race as a viable option. But I think somewhere deep down, my body and brain both knew we were in way over our heads – finishing before the cut-off proved that doubt in my head wrong and pushed the limits of what I thought I was capable of an inch higher.
I used to wonder why all those people from in the very back of the pack of any race keep coming back, and now I understand it. We said “one and done” as we wobbled back to the car, wrapped in our dryrobes, staying dry in the blizzard under the setting sun. It only took us a day to change our minds: this past weekend marked our first Skimo Audi Power of Four 2020 training day in the powder between the trees.
They deflated the finish line banner 3 minutes after we passed underneath. But as Trever put it: “They couldn’t deflate us.”