et’s get one thing out of the way right now: this isn’t a story about winning. Instead, like all athletic pursuits that I engage in, this is a story about me enduring long enough and hard enough to collapse across the finish line. Lance Armstrong says that you never get better, you just get faster; although this is true of me, too, I always seem to get faster a lot slower than everyone else around me. Still, I enjoy it. It is Type 2 fun, to borrow a phrase from a friend: it’ll be fun after it’s over. When it’s happening, and some combination of legs and lungs are screaming at you to stop, well, just think of the memories.
The Steamboat Pentathlon consists of five events: Alpine Skiing, Snowshoeing, Nordic Skiing, Mountain Biking, and Running. You can do a short or long course and can compete in teams, duos, or alone. There is also a youth option (which is the short course). You compete within your age and gender group. First, the racers run up Howelsen Hill (400 feet of elevation gain), which is a hard-packed expert-rated alpine ski hill, and then ski down it. Then, they snowshoe for either 1.5 or 2.5 miles. Next, they Nordic ski (skate or cross country skis are acceptable) for either 2.25 or 4 miles. This is followed by a 7.4 or 12 mile mountain bike course which usually includes both snow-packed and dry conditions. Finally, there is a 2 or 5 mile run. There are similar individual events, even to the first – a friend has run the Stockholms Brantaste (Stockholm’s Steepest) race for two years now, which features a warm-weather run up a ski hill – but I don’t know of any race anywhere that combines these activities. The breadth of skills required and the potential for winter weather make the Steamboat Pentathlon a unique challenge.
The Pentathlon occupies a strange duality of spirit in my mind. On the one hand, it is very clearly a race by the town of Steamboat Springs, for the town of Steamboat Springs. Main Street hangs up banners announcing it and nearly every business in town, it seems, donates prizes. It’s a race with so many prizes – either in the numerous categories I listed above, or in the random giveaways that participants get entered into – that it’s tough to walk away empty-handed. The race goody-bag is stuffed full of locally-made power food (like the amazingly delicious Granola Gold that I received last year, ate my share of, and immediately started cutting deals with other goody-bag items to acquire more of from my friends) and gift cards to the small businesses located along Main Street. The meeting the day before the race featured an enormous unmanned St. Bernard seated serenely in the hallway, tiny barrel around her neck, receiving pats from every racer walking past while she wore an expression like a benevolent archangel. My point is, it feels like a small town event. I think we are some of the few people who come in from Denver to do the race and very few people outside of Steamboat seem to know much about it, which is remarkable in a state as crazy for races as this one.
On the other hand, Steamboat is not your average small town. It has produced more winter Olympians than any other town in North America – their website boasts 88 and counting. That room where the pre-race meeting is? Every available surface is covered in flags to the over eighty Olympians who have trained at Howelsen Hill. Its geography is partly what breeds this spirit: Steamboat Springs lies in a valley north of Middle Park and Rabbit Ears Pass in northern Colorado, and there are several tales from its history of the Pass closing in winter and people having to ski over it to get supplies from towns further south. Although Steamboat is relatively low in elevation for a Colorado ski area – the town at the base is 6700 feet above sea level – it is firmly in winter’s grasp. The town itself receives about 200 inches of snowfall per year and winter average lows are in the single digits. The nearby town of Fraser refers to itself as the “Icebox of the Nation” and is the coldest incorporated town in the lower 48. Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian immigrant, arrived in Steamboat in 1913 and introduced the idea of skiing as a sport rather than just a means of travel, and Steamboat, known as “Ski Town USA,” has been in its grip ever since.
How does this spirit translate to the Pentathlon? I was in the best shape of my life in 2014 and I was beaten not only by a large portion of the local children who participated but also by multiple parents of infants and toddlers who did every single event except the alpine ski with their babies strapped to their backs. So you see, the Steamboat Pentathlon may be a small town race, but the small town is full of post-Olympians, current Olympians, and, most upsettingly for me as what appeared to be two ten year olds passed me on the run, chatting merrily as I silently counted my steps in an effort to take my mind off the searing pain in my legs, proto-Olympians.
2014 was my second year racing the Pentathlon and my first year doing it solo – in 2013, I did the long course mountain bike as part of a five person, mixed gender team. In 2014, I did the solo short course. My goal for 2015 is to do the solo long course, which had no women competing in my age group – I’ll win by default! Last year, I woke up the morning of the race to heavy snow and brutally cold temperatures. This year, the sun was out from the start and it warmed up to several degrees above freezing. Last year, I rolled up to the race without having done any training beyond being at my base level of winter fitness – skiing and climbing roughly once a week, and riding my road bike to work whenever weather permitted. Doing a 12 mile mountain bike ride when I was cycling roughly 100 miles a week was not an issue and I made up a great deal of time for my team on that portion of the course. In 2014, however, I realized that, upsetting as it was, I had to train for the run.
I hate running. With a passion. I find it to be a deadly combination of boring and painful. Mentally, running three miles is like riding my bike a hundred. Maybe two hundred. Over several passes. So probably too late to do anything but make myself even more miserable, I started running. I dutifully did a three-mile loop around my neighborhood. I ran through Curtis Park, which is pretty on its own and features the best mountain view you’ll get in that part of Denver. Sometimes I trained with friends. One time, disastrously, I tried to train with my furry best friend and nearly yanked her head off her neck when she abruptly stopped running to sniff something. I made playlists. I listened to the Slate Books Podcast (it’s really good!). Nothing made me enjoy running, and nothing I did made me feel as tired and useless as those three mile training runs. I felt like I deserved a trophy just for training. I would come home after a run in the middle of January and collapse onto the floor beside the door, drenched in sweat, letting the dog lick the salt off my hands until I felt like I could stand. I was emphatically not looking forward to ending the pentathlon on a run. On race morning I woke up and had to mentally put it aside: I wasn’t going to worry about it, I was going to enjoy the other events, I was going to wallow in misery during that event, and it was time to get up and go.
In a lot of ways, the Steamboat Pentathlon is a race about equipment, and a major subset of that is equipment management. Beyond all the usual things you need for winter like coats, gloves, hats, etc., you need an alpine ski set up, snowshoes, a Nordic ski set up, a mountain bike set up, and whatever shoes you are going to use for the snowshoe and the run. I used the same pair of shoes but there’s an argument to be made for having two. The morning of the pentathlon finds anyone the racers can rope in helping to cart various bits of unwieldy gear across an obstacle course of deep snow, an alternately icy and muddy parking lot, and the movement of everyone else also fighting to get to the staging area. My dear friend Selena was carrying my Nordic skis – which are reverse-camber, so they can’t be held back to back without springing apart – dodged to avoid an enormous St Bernard (maybe that same archangel, although now fully in terrifying defender-of-heaven mode), and postholed up to her knee.
For the solo racer, managing your transition time during the race for swapping equipment is not a joke. Teams can have the next racer waiting in the transition area with their equipment ready to go, but the solo racer has to do a complete change between each event on their own. I ultimately finished the race with another woman three seconds ahead of me and have been haunted ever since by the specter of: why didn’t I put my snowshoes on faster? Whyyyy?! There are five crucial transitions: putting on your alpine skis at the top of Howelsen Hill; removing those and your helmet and putting on snowshoes in your transition area; swapping snowshoes and Nordic skis; swapping Nordic skis for bike shoes and helmet; and finally removing bike shoes and helmet for running shoes. This means a full footwear swap at each transition, including two pairs of ski boots.
The equipment management tone of the race is evident in the preparation the morning of the race. Every racer or team has their own transition area, just big enough to accommodate a full set of equipment. An hour before the race, I was attaching my road bike pedals to the mountain bike I had borrowed from my friend Julia so I could use my clip-in bike shoes. I then put on my alpine skis and rode up the poma lift to the top of Howelsen Hill with my running shoes tied around my neck. I carefully laid my skis out in the transition area on the Hill and made sure that my boots were ready to be put on. I had spent weeks – months even – debating whether or not to just wear my ski boots for the hill climb, but having to walk up a very short slope out of the Mary Jane parking lot the weekend before had demonstrated to me that there was no way I was wearing my alpine boots for any activities that did not involve them being strapped to skis. I jogged down the side of the ski hill, left my coat at the transition area, put on my bib, and joined the pack of racers waiting at the base of Howelsen Hill for the race to start.
From there, things became a blur. I used my ski poles to propel myself up Howelsen Hill. At the top, I yanked off my running shoes and tied them around my neck while simultaneously jamming my feet into my alpine ski boots. I didn’t bother with closing the bindings and took off down the hill. I also didn’t bother with turning, choosing to gain speed and make a sharp entrance into the transition area. Alpine ski over, I staggered out of my ski boots, leaving them bound to the skis. I untied the running shoes, jammed them into my snowshoes, jammed my feet into them, yanked them as tight as I could with limited time, and took off out of the transition area. Are you getting the impression that there was lots of jamming going on? I was also jamming out to a playlist with a heavy emphasis on M.I.A. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The snowshoe started off with a brutal uphill and I quickly slowed from a jog to a brisk walk, getting passed repeatedly. By the time I had finished the snowshoe, many people had already left on the cross country ski. I did more shoewear jamming and took off along the groomed trail for that portion of the race. Although I was behind the main pack, I greatly enjoyed this trail, and was gratified to not wipe out on any downhill portions, especially after cresting a hill and seeing the carnage of four racers completely tangled together in a snow drift on the slope below. I wobbled past them and continued on my way.
The mountain bike was by far my best portion of the race, and the only time that I was actively passing everyone around me. This isn’t surprising as I was on a light bike with great components, and bicycling is my strongest sport. The mountain bike portion of the ride not only gave me an opportunity to make up time; it also gave me time to take in water via my Camelbak (which I had not been carrying for the rest of the race) and to eat some snacks as I powered along the mixed road/snowpacked course.
And then it was time for the run. I ditched all my cycling gear and reluctantly swapped my cycling shoes for my running shoes (left discarded inside of the snowshoe bindings from two events earlier). I carried a water bottle and a Honey Stinger waffle and started to run. My legs immediately began petitioning to secede from the rest of my body, and registered their protest by sending shooting pain through my thighs with each step. I had really gone all out on that cross country ski portion and this was my punishment. Clutching my water bottle for support, I ran out of the transition area and onto the path, over ice-slick bridges crossing the Yampa River and onto the path that runs alongside the river through town. People passed me. Everyone I had passed on the bike now seemed to blow by me with boundless energy while I felt like every step involved hauling my thousand pound legs out of the kind of quicksand that killed Atreyu’s horse. I would hear them approaching behind me, their breath sounding like the chugging noise created by the hot springs for which Steamboat is named, and then they would overtake me and their breath would fade away. Thanks, Doppler Effect, I thought bitterly, as if physics itself was against me. At the halfway mark we were offered water, which I refused, because it gave me an opportunity to once again pass my nearest competitor – but she inevitably powered right by me shortly thereafter. I marveled at the abilities of other people to accelerate – I was probably running more slowly than a brisk walk. I started to hallucinate about the food I would be eating that night, always a sure sign that I have reached my limits and am going to need to break through a wall to continue – that or eat something. My friends came out to run the final hundred yards with me as the transition area and finish line hove into view, but I was too focused to say a word to them and they soon dropped away, leaving me, so close behind the woman who’d passed me after the water station that I could have lunged out and grabbed her hair and pulled her to the ground and run over her crumpled body – if I’d had the leg strength to make any sudden movements. Luckily for her, I didn’t. She took third place and won a prize and once the bloodlust of competition had cleared out of my eyes I was amazed at how she’d persevered during the run.
I finished and immediately started hatching plans to do the long course next year. That course finishes with a five mile run, but at this point, the 2014 Pentathlon has passed from active event into personal mythology. It is now Type 2 fun. I’m sure I’ll be ready for 2015.
Jamie Anderson was born and raised in Colorado and has returned after spending most of her 20s in the UK. She is an avid skier (alpine, nordic, and learning tele), cyclist (both road and mountain), backpacker (all seasons), and rock climber. She particularly loves winter sports because winter is the greatest season and people who don’t prefer cold to heat are wrong. Her greatest outdoor accomplishments include kayaking across the width of Scotland from Fort William to Inverness, hiking the Drangajökull glacier in Iceland, completing a Class 3 climb of Mt. Sneffels in Colorado, and retrieving a whistle from a cup of jello without using hands in a time that destroyed all previous records during a combined bike/run/obstacle course race to raise money for Make a Wish Colorado.