This was a strange year for the Traverse from the beginning, with spring arriving so early that the course had to be rerouted and bridges built across rushing streams that are normally under many feet of snow. Before those adjustments, people joked about the potential first-ever Grand Traverse Triathlon, thinking the racers might have to swim the snowmelt, run the dry trails and ski the shrinking snowfields. With the course change, the race started on the ski slopes at 11 p.m. (relocated from the community school and moved up from midnight because of course conditions). So the racers took off to boogie music blaring from the KBUT Soul Train celebration at Butte 66, with the peak of Crested Butte Mountain illuminated eerily by spotlight in the background.
My husband Michael and I saw the racers off Friday night, then headed home and turned on the computer to follow Chris by the Traverse’s Spot GPS locater. Hmmm. Team 152 appeared to be perpetually camped out at Soul Train. Technical malfunction number one.
Michael and I headed to bed, then got up this morning (Saturday), drove to Aspen and waited for team 152 to cross the finish line at the base of the Little Nell ski run. And waited. Chris and Alex are fit and they’d trained hard, so we expected them to arrive at least in the middle of the pack. With no functioning Spot locater, we had no idea where they were, so we maintained our finish line vigil, taking turns hitting Starbucks and the restroom. More and more racers arrived, to cowbells and hollers, and enjoyed the booths, sunshine and festivities after trading their ski gear for t-shirts and flip-flops. Kudos were handed out (Brian Wickenhauser and Brian Smith finished first, in an amazing time of 7 ½ hours).
Finally the announcer began the one-hour countdown to the final 4 p.m. time cutoff, and we just hoped Chris and Alex would make it before getting disqualified.
As we consulted our watches, the announcer noted, “There appears to be someone walking down the ski slope way up there.” He originally theorized that the person’s legs were so thrashed that he or she couldn’t make one more ski turn and had chosen to walk. Then his voice changed: “Actually, that person is running down the mountain. I don’t think it’s a leg issue. I’m going to guess this is a mechanical situation.”
As the two racers got a bit closer, Michael noted that the runner was petite, like Chris’ partner Alex. And the skier zigzagging alongside the runner was a tall, lanky fellow like our son.
“Running down the mountain on foot – this is going to be one of those Traverse stories we tell for a long time,” the announcer said. As the pair got close enough that he could see their bib numbers, he added, “Looks like this is one of our fund-raising teams. [A few teams, like Chris and Alex, used the Traverse as fundraising opportunities for worthy nonprofits.] Looks like we’ve got Chris Garren and Alex Pogue skiing – and running – for the finish line.”
The fans clanged their bells, hooted and clapped for Chris and Alex, who crossed the finish line in their wigs (Alex’s a neon green frizz and Chris’ a curly black Afro worthy of the race’s Soul Train start). After hugs, photos and congratulations (even with the delays, team 152 took top place among the four co-ed teams in their 18-25 age bracket), we got to hear the story of their travails. Here’s what they said.
Chris and Alex, doing their debut Traverse on skinny Nordic gear rather than some racers’ high-tech AT gear, felt fast and strong all the way to the Friends Hut, “even passing a lot of people in Lycra.” Then on Star Pass (maybe a third of the way through the race; I can’t even pretend to have skied the course), Alex took a fall and the whole toe piece ripped completely out of her Nordic ski boot. They concocted a duct tape repair, which quickly failed, sending her ski flying down Star Pass ahead of them.
Alex walked/slid down treacherous Star Pass on one ski. They then tried various other fixes, utilizing many items on the Traverse’s required gear list: bailing wire, Ace bandage, duct tape, medical tape and even string, attaching Alex’s ripped shoe onto her ski and putting the skin on the bottom of the ski to keep from scrubbing off the wound-around tape. That lasted a couple of awkward miles before failing. Then they resorted to a hose clamp shoe attachment, which got them five more hard-earned miles into the backcountry before a fall on a treacherous whoop-de-doo broke a piece of Alex’s binding, which had been anchoring the hose clamp. (At one point, the tip loop holding the skin onto her ski also broke, prompting yet another round of medical tape improvisation.)
They switched the hose clamped boot to the other ski, a tenuous connection, and proceeded as delicately as possible. Sometimes Alex tried to ski, sometimes (particularly on all downhills) she walked or jogged, wearing one of Chris’ extra shoes (about five sizes too big for her) to replace her ripped and hose-clamped one. With all the attempted repairs, uni-ski sliding and postholing up to her hips, Alex didn’t maintain a high-enough caloric intake and began to bonk.
“For a while, especially before we tried the hose clamp, we were pretty much just trying to get ourselves to a point to be rescued,” Chris said.
Instead, Alex ended up running a good chunk of the course, including the relentless steep of Little Nell to cross the finish line to cowbells and glory.
So far we’ve heard just a fraction of Chris’ Traverse stories: the amazing sunrise, the spectacular beauty of the course, and the mind-bending experience of skiing through the backcountry throughout the night, starting with Soul Train vibes and ending with Aspen sunshine. There will be plenty to add to this Traverse tale. But while Chris rests his blisters, I thought I’d get down in words one of the many stories that have now become part of Grand Traverse lore.