Joining A Race Without Training? Hey, It Could Be Fun.

Ski the TOA. Race? Fun? Both? Up to you. Credit: Anchorage Daily News

In this strangest of times, I think back to the great and diverse and sometimes unorthodox adventures I’ve had cross-country skiing. And although I haven’t competed often, there was this one time, some years ago…

As I understand it, you’re supposed to train for a major race. Seems sensible, right? But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

Chalk it up to an uninspiring winter in the Rockies or maybe just a lazy streak, but I didn’t bother to prepare for the Tour of Anchorage. Didn’t train, hardly skied, ate too well; then flew up to Alaska at the end of February, did a little track skiing. Lay awake the night before the race, thinking: “Hey, my first marathon! I’ve never done anything longer than 25 kilometers. I’ve skied three times since prepping skis. What am I doing?”

As it turned out, what I did was have the time of my life. First, you can’t help but love Anchorage—150 km of groomed trails, maybe a quarter lit, eight mountain ranges visible on a good day, and incredible hospitality. There’s a large and dedicated racing community, from kids to Masters, represented by the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage is one of the most active XC clubs in North America. Their Alaska Ski for Women (held on Super Bowl Sunday) is the most popular all-women XC event in North America.

The Tour of Anchorage rings the city with a choice of distances.

The Tour of Anchorage is actually four point-to-point races, 25 km classical and 25 km, 40 km, or 50 km freestyle. The longer distances begin on one side of the city and go through the center of town—strange and wonderful to pass through birch and spruce forest, over roads streaming with traffic, and along the ice floes of Cook Inlet.

I chose the 50 km (don’t ask). Luckily the day was perfect, starting off cool with great snow, air crystalline, so we had great views of Denali.

I was saved by four things. First, at home I lived at 8,500 feet, so Anchorage’s altitude was an oxygen-rich dream. (Highest point on the trails is around 1,000 feet, lowest is four feet below sea level.) I got tired enough to do several face plants in the last 15 km, usually at conspicuous spots (why does that happen?), but never ran out of breath.

Second, friends who’d skied the race said to take it easy on the first ten kilometers because that’s where the hills are. Right! They’re not very prolonged, but a lot of up and down. You finish the Tour with a longish uphill in Kincaid Park (weirdly wonderful to see moose on these trails and jets flying low overhead).

Racing fuel.

Third, I carried several packages of Nutter Butters. They tasted good from the beginning, better as I got more tired. 

And last, people made all the difference between dropping out (which was a definite possibility) and finishing—not graceful but grinning. Race volunteers kept us hydrated and full of cookies and enthusiasm; spectators yelled us on; other skiers were inspirational, like the guy who broke a pole in the first series of hills and just kept going. (We passed one another at least a half-dozen times; I stuck around the finish area to give him an exhausted cheer.)

Best of all, I talked with two people who’d skied the Tour before, and they slowed down to give me an emotional lift. Without that, they’d probably have finished in the middle of the pack instead of waaay back. (My time was 4:04:20.6, 276th out of 292 male finishers. My pre-race fantasy had been 3:45.)

So what do you do when you’ve finished a 50 km, are staggering around beaming groggily, and one of your kind hosts takes you back to your hotel? I’d hoped to attend the awards banquet but slept through it; grabbed a late dinner; headed back to bed, and flew home the next morning, stiff but not hurting.

I’d love to ski the Tour again, with a few changes. Like about two consecutive months on skis, distance training, a much higher general fitness level, and hotter skis. But there’ll still be Nutter Butters.     

Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau is a great resource on the region. My favorite place to stay is Copper Whale Inn, a snowball’s throw from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and with 80 mile views over Cook Inlet.

The Tour of Anchorage is scheduled to be held on Sunday, March 7, 2021.  Plenty of time to train.

Choice of 25, 40, and 50 km and classic or skate races at the TOA. Credit: Anchorage Daily News


  1. Charles Hamlin (Terry) says:

    Was there a Dunkin?

  2. It would have been a little excessive sugar-wise — tasty though!

  3. harlan levy says:

    Good writing and reporting. Anchorage sounds attractive with all the skiing. I cut my leg so badly decades ago that that I’ve never skiied again and do other great sports. But your adventure makes me want to put on my hardly used snowshoes I bought in 2019. But the snow from our only sizeable snowstorm two weeks ago quickly melted, and there’s nothing on the horizon … except whatever global warming produces.

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