I'm sporting a frizzy Betty Page wig and breathing heavily. I've never been on skate skis before, and now I'm trying it in a 24-hour race with itchy wig hair in my eyes—but that's no excuse. The pack from a mass start at the Equinox Ski Challenge in West Yellowstone is starting to break up, and I'm already falling behind. Hell, I should be able to ski faster than I walk.
Or maybe not. Just 10 minutes into the 5.4-mile course on the Rendezvous Ski Trails I'm dead last, sliding bow-legged in search of a rhythm that will bring me a bit of momentum. It doesn't come, and by the half-hour mark I'm lapped by one racer after another—men, women, children—until it feels like I'm again among the pack just as I approach a big hill. The others cruise up from behind and tuck into a long, steep right-hand drop leading back toward the timing gate and warming hut.
I join them, confident at first in a clumsy tuck. I grew up downhill skiing. This shouldn't be a problem. But then as the track flattens out again my tuck collapses into a yard sale barrel roll. A woman wearing butterfly wings looks back and says, "That sounded like carnage." It feels like it, too. I collect my breath and poles and wig, and launch into a hobble. All I want to do is complete one lap and tag my wife, who will carry on for our team.
It's not that I hope to win this thing—not when some of the 88 contestants pass by me like superheros with facial hair. Three of the early front-runners in the men's division are bearded, and one is decked out in a Lycra suit that appears to be vintage 1980s. The man in this midnight-blue and flame-orange body sock is a lean and agile, late 40-something athlete. He's a bit older than me, and clearly 10 times faster.
The hirsute pack leaders will lap me three times before I make it back to race HQ and take a long break. I'll spend the next 22 hours watching them rack up more than 150 miles of nearly non-stop kicking and gliding around the Equinox course. These guys will average more than six miles an hour and cover ground equivalent to a round-trip between Missoula and Polson while I'll struggle to make a measly few laps. I have no place in what will become the battle of the ice beards.
Still, I feel right at home. The Equinox Ski Challenge is a celebration of community, great snow and lactic acid. It's a tiny frozen Mardi Gras, and it's entirely up to each one of us to decide when it's time to pass out.
Around late March when the sunny side of the calendar officially begins and the ski season starts its downward slide into spring, it's time to break out the wigs, costumes and race-worthy Nordic wear in West Yellowstone. Since 2007, the town by the eponymous park has been the site of the Equinox Ski Challenge, an annual charity race where racers finish as many laps as possible in three hours, six hours, 12 hours or, in the case of my wife and I, the 24-hour coup de grâce.
Funny outfits are optional, although it's part of the tradition. Going long distances is optional, too: No one is required to complete a set number of laps on the rolling course through a dense pine forest. Besides the hill where I crashed, the route is mostly a series of serene ups and downs over a deep snow base.
The combo start-and-finish line sits near a local street, with a nearby hotel and places to eat, ringed by competitors' tents and tech shelters for ski tune-ups and waxing. I cross it for the first time at lunchtime, after two hours of sweaty, clumsy huffing. Other racers are starting to lose track of the number of laps they've logged. But after just one go-around, I'm ready for a break.
There at the finish line, thankfully, is my wife, Katie. She's wearing a shiny bridesmaid's dress and is laughing at me.
"What took you so long?" she asks. I tag her and send her off with a "you'll see" and a kiss, then head for the warming hut.
Inside it is Dan Cantrell, who lives in Big Sky and comes down to West Yellowstone to ski. He grew up on a cross-country ski course in Vermont, and some youthful enthusiasm left over from those years led him to volunteer as this year's race organizer. Cantrell took over from a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor named Sam Newbury, who dreamed up the idea of the challenge in 2006 while driving home from the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike race.
"The Equinox Ski Challenge is such a uniquely focused race," Cantrell explains. "It's not all about competition, but instead, personal challenge and commitment."
The coziness of the hut helps me forge a deep commitment to sitting down. Next to me are Leila Sternman and Aaron Sinnard, a pair of 20-somethings from Bozeman. Sternman is eating a calorie-packed concoction made of peanut butter, pasta and soy sauce.
"I'm a little nervous my muscles will seize up," she says, motioning to the brown mush she's eating. "I'm working hard on electrolytes...and peanut butter."
When I tell them I'm happy to be only sore and not injured from my fall, Sinnard says, "I was coming up the hill behind you guys. You were talking or something, going real slow. And I was thinking, 'Wow, someone is actually slower than me.' I was barely moving. The craziest thing was how packed in we were and no one crashed into you. That was special. That was a good crash. Might be the best one here."
We laugh about me leaving a "man-shaped hole" in the course, then Sternman assures me that experiences and stories like mine are the real prize at events like the Equinox Challenge.
"It's, you know, type-two fun," she says. "It's not fun while you're doing it, but later you look back on it and say, 'Oh that was really fun. Remember that night when it was freezing and horrible?' That's type-two. And if you're lucky it's a mega moon tonight."
Every 18 years or so, while making laps around the earth, the moon passes our planet a bit closer than normal. This year the event was set to occur on the same night as the race.
In the months leading up to the challenge, Internet astronomy chat boards lit up with dire predictions about what the rising "mega moon" might bring: earthquakes, higher tides, volcanoes and strange climatic patterns, for starters.
When I emerge from the warming hut the early afternoon sky is darkening right on cue. The wind picks up, snow is starting to fall and big stormy gusts are blowing tarp shelters sideways. One microburst rips through the Equinox tent city, snapping the aluminum legs of a shade structure with a man hunkered inside. I join a group of bystanders and rush over to prevent a total collapse.
The man in the broken shelter introduces himself as Jack Hart. He thanks us, then looks up at the sky. It's really starting to snow, and that's not good news for the speed demons.
Hart, who skis all winter on the Rendezvous Trails, holds out his hand and spreads his fingers to represent a new, pointy snowflake. "A new flake when it falls is like this," he says. "That grabs your ski base. An old snowflake is rounded and beat up and pulverized by the grooming equipment. It's like skiing on ball bearings, which is so much faster."
A Bowdoin College ace named Wilson Dippo proves the point when I ask him about his stats as he rushes through the timing gate. Dippo says the new snow is cutting his pace nearly in half, from 30-minute laps to 50-plus minutes.
"I've been skiing for five hours and 51 minutes and 59 seconds," Dippo says. "I think I'm at 90K"—about 60 miles—"so I have a long way to go. I want to ski up around 300K."
That's why he's in a hurry. He's a fresh-faced college kid and he wants to hang with the ice beards.
Close to dinnertime, Andy Hall from Pocatello, Idaho, decides to take a break. The 32-year-old Bureau of Land Management firefighter doesn't know his race standing, but he does know why other racers smile when they see him.
"Yeah, the ice beard," says Hall, who is sporting a very frosty Grizzly Adams. "With all the new snow that's falling and the moisture in the air, it all just collects there."
Nearby, Neil Gleichman, sporting some impressive face-frost of his own, skates into the pits for a ski change. The history teacher from Victor, Idaho, brought four pairs and plans to use them all. Anything to give his body an edge.
"I'm trying to keep cramps from happening," says Gleichman. "They're close, but they're not there yet." The sun is setting and the snow is tapering off as the "12-hour barrier" looms ahead. In a few hours, at 10 p.m., Gleichman and the other racers will be halfway there.
"Believe it or not," says Gleichman, "the last 12 tend to get easier."
I'm not buying it, and neither are many of the other racers who've opted to compete in the six- and 12-hour divisions instead of the full-day marathon.
Six-hour racer Chris Hamilton of Bozeman likes to lead multi-pitch climbs up the subsidiary peaks near Denali, but says no thanks to 24 hours of skate skiing.
"You see a lot of crossover between this and road biking... the body-Nazis, or endorphin addicts," says Hamilton, describing the ice beards and other around-the-clock racers. "They just keep going and going and going."
I ask Hamilton what he knows about the guy in Bib No. 1 and badass body suit. Hamilton shrugs, and so do others. All I have to go on is what I find on his feed table: wasabi soy almonds, a carton of hard-boiled eggs and a $23 bottle of Hammer chocolate energy gel, which promises 26 servings. There's also a box of Cheez-Its and a probiotic yogurt drink.
I think: There it is, the true Equinox Challenge. Can anyone chase down gulps of gel with handfuls of frozen snack crackers?
When darkness and cold hit in earnest I duck out of the race and head across the street to the Holiday Inn for a hot shower and some pizza.
At 2 a.m. I pull my poly-pro back on and return sleepily to the starting line. The ski techs are huddled in their tuning shelters and the clouds appear ready to break. When I approach the techs and ask about demo-ing some skis, Peter Hale welcomes me. He's based in Montana and works with some of the best skiers in the country. Hale puts me on a pair of Norwegian-made Madshus racing skis and tells me to go "test the Ferraris."
Now I'm alone on the course—and I feel great. The Ferraris kick into gear much faster than my rental Rossignols, and I start to carry some comfortable speed. I'm not wearing a headlamp, and it turns out I don't need one. About five minutes into my lap, the mega moon bursts forth and the surrounding forest illuminates like someone just flicked on a porch light. It's dead quiet, save for the sound of skiers approaching from behind. A few pass at a medium pace, then comes Bib No. 1 skiing swiftly and cranking music on his iPod. He dusts me.
Back at the warming hut the mood is part hospital waiting room, part slumber party. I've only made two laps in 18 hours, but I'm pumped by a no-crash run on crazy-fast skis. I've also downed two plates of pizza and taken a power nap, and I feel way better than the Bowdoin skier. Wilson Dippo, who'd earlier told me he hoped to hit the 300K mark—186 miles—is now down for the count. "My legs," he moans, before dropping out with 179.1K skied.
Across the room I hear Tom Cedarholm and Jennifer Zeigler talking about the most mysterious ice beard on the course. Turns out, the man in Bib No. 1 is a 48-year-old high school teacher from New Hampshire named Joe Holland, and he might be in trouble.
"Yeah, Joe's having a hard time," Cedarholm comments. According to Cedarholm, Holland came into the warming hut feeling nauseous.
Cedarholm and Zeigler, who drove in from Jackson, Wyo. for the race, speculate that Holland might have downed one too many power goos.
"You could just go solo on those things for like 15 hours," says Cedarholm. "Then they just don't do anything for you anymore. You need protein." Joe is "really, really, strong," he adds. "He's still moving. I would have dropped dead a long time ago."
Rhabdomyolysis is a serious condition that occurs when muscles are exerted to the point that they begin to release frayed fibers and toxins into the bloodstream. This can trigger an entire body spasm and lead to kidney failure, or at least that's what the paramedics at the finish line tell me while I wait for the ice beards to cross one last time.
First comes Andy Hall, who immediately collapses. The paramedics hover over him, asking if he knows his name, where he is, who's president? Hall's wife and friends have a hard time removing his skis and poles, and someone in the crowd jokes that 24 hours of skiing has fused the gear to his body.
Neil Gleichman arrives next, with so much ice clinging to his beard it's hard for him to take a drink. He doesn't seem to care where he finished, and neither do many of the other racers.
There are those like Joe Holland, on the other hand, who have gone all-out and hope to win. After Holland zooms briskly past the finish line one last time, I finally catch him at his feeding table and ask how he'll describe this experience to his ski friends in New Hampshire.
"A psychological turnaround," he says. "I did not want to be here. At 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon we were just four hours into it, and I was ready to quit right then and get on the plane and go home and say, 'Look it just didn't happen.' I felt awful. But I stayed with it...and it didn't get worse. Definitely had waves of feeling terrible, then feeling pretty good. And as long as I remembered those waves of goodness, I could get myself through those rough spots."
Waves of goodness sweep through the crowd when the champions are crowned at the awards ceremony. There are prizes for best costumes and for the kids' race. A portion of the proceeds will go to youth programs and the local food bank.
And Joe Holland meets his personal challenge by winning the men's 24-hour soloist division. He logs 165.5 miles, making him king of the ice beards. In the glow of victory, he talks about starting a race like this back home.
Katie and I only complete a total of four team laps, but because no one else entered the 24-hour family division, we win. My three- and five-year-old daughters shyly accept the prize as the warm morning sun begins to thaw the frozen crust on Andy Hall's face.
After tying for second with a total of 143.5 miles skied, Hall appears comatose, but is apparently okay. Gradually, he summons the strength to speak. One thing is on his mind. He asks: "Is there any of that pasta left?"