Montana Headwall » Head Lines & Features

When the skiing gets hairy

A nordic marathon can make a man out of you. And freeze your wig.

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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?"

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