Harry Hoppet and the Chamber of Exhaustion

There are a lot of positives to living on the Border. Water skiing is good, camping is easily accessible, locals complain about 15 minute long commutes while us Melbourne natives smirk and agree.

But for me, the real draw card to living here is the access to the snow.

A mere hour away is Mt Beauty and if you don’t get caught behind a bus, Falls Creek is only another 40 minutes up the road. If the weather permits, one need only ski up and over the downhill slopes to be greeted by this view of Pretty Valley.

Suffice to say I’m not moving anytime soon. To make matters even better, the first two seasons of living in Albury for me have been absolute rippers of snow cover.

So while there is snow on the ground, I put my bicycle to one side and spend my days covering kilometres on skis. Just to be clear, I mean the real kind of skiing here, where you ski uphill under your own steam. As a quick aside, if you want a great way to keep your cardiovascular system fit when it’s dark and raining outside, it’s hard to go past cross country skiing.

The culmination of the season for XC skiers is the Kangaroo Hoppet. The Hoppet is a 42km race held on the fourth Saturday in August every year.
It’s a Worldloppet race so it’s kind of a big deal. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Hoppet office has many leather bound books and smells of rich mahogany.

World Loppets are a series of 20 XC ski marathons held around the World. In terms of competition, it’s like running the Melbourne or New York marathons. There are a few full time elite skiers competing for the win, then those who are racing to beat that guy they nearly beat last year and of course those who are skiing to do their best time. That’s just in little backwater Australia. The Swedish version caps entries at 10,000 and sells out within 10 minutes of opening every year. Even Taylor Swift struggles to match that kind of pøpülårity.

Ben Cousins, if you’re reading, this is a great piece of life advise.

When 2018 rolled around, it was my tenth Hoppet. For those who aren’t familiar with a XC ski race, it’s a short sprint followed by racing at your aerobic threshold until you finish. Positioning matters, especially in the first few kilometres. Therefore, the firing of the starting gun portends a short and intense effort that you never get a chance to recover from.

Once the starting order sorts itself out, cross country skiing is actually a pretty boring spectator sport. At least I think so. I’ve never been close enough to the front to see any drama, but I suspect one skier manages to ski marginally faster than everyone else until they can no longer keep up. Again, much like a marathon.

Back in the field however, it’s a race within a race. Cross country skiing is heavily technique based as well as being rather taxing on your cardiovascular system. The corollary of this is that if you go to hard to soon, your technique falls apart and you end up skiing slower than if you dosed your effort all the while wiggling your way around the course looking like a constipated daschund. Dosing such an effort is an art itself and you need to be really careful not to try and smash that fella skiing 100m ahead of you within the first 10km and carefully reel him in over the next 30km instead.

I always have a better second lap than first. 2018 was no exception. Given my inability to sprint my way out of a wet paper bag, I started the course with a glut of skiers in front of me. The next two hours were spent trying to pick off one at a time without blowing up.
I suspect my poor sprint is actually a saving grace for me in that it stops me going into the red too early.
The Hoppet course take you out and around the base of the downhill slopes before heading across Rocky Valley Dam and up The Paralyzer to the top of Heathy Spur. “The Paralyzer” is aptly named. It’s a lung busting 4km climb that hits you when you are already bleeding from the eyeballs (to borrow from cycling parlance). Over my ten Hoppets, I’ve figured while climbing The Paralyzer you need to push yourself just to the point that the sky starts to change colour and you see stars and no harder. It’s also a great opportunity to overtake 15 competitors.

From there you ski over the spur, over a couple more brutal but thankfully short rises and rapid drop 300m of altitude back down to the dam. Just as an aside, it’s common to hit 65km/h heading downhill. You never realise this at the time, you’re just thankful you aren’t going uphill anymore. But in hindsight, that sort of max speed is a bit sketchy on XC skis.

The great kazak alpinist Anatoli Boukreev used to describe alpine climbing as being an art of effort management. He learned it from cross country skiing.

When climbing peaks like Everest, K2 or Annapurna, the biggest trick is not getting to the top but getting back without dying. Boukreev always used the simile that a well managed effort would leave him feeling like “a squeezed lemon”.

On a quick tangent, Boukreev was notable for carrying 3 people to safety during the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster. He managed this in the middle of the night, during a hectic blizzard, above 8000m elevation, all after having summited Everest earlier in the day… without oxygen. Jon Krakauer wrote a book about the disaster in 1997 titled Into Thin Air in which he was overly critical of Boukreev for not rescuing more people.
While Boukreev was fireman carrying people to safety in the death zone at midnight in 110km/h winds, Krakauer was tucked away in a tent and refused to help rescue efforts as he was too tired.
Because of this, I’ve made a point of never buying a Jon Krakauer book, no matter how interesting I find his subject matter.

Anyhow, back to racing the Hoppet. Once you’re over Heathy Spur, it’s back over to the start line for lap two. By this time you’re skiing full tilt, desperately trying to catch everyone you can. The last 15km just can’t conclude fast enough as you gulp down every breath of air. Before you know it, the dam wall is in sight, signalling 1km to go. 1km is time to engage the afterburners and push past that point where you see stars. Up over the final rise and desperately sprint like Asafa Powell trying to rescue your career as Usain Bolt pulls ahead of you. Then bam, you’re over the finish line feeling like a squeezed lemon and the sky looks red instead of blue.

If you’re unlucky, one of the clinic regulars will recognise you and take a photo to be shared on social media, while you’re feeling just like a squeezed lemon.

Every time I finish the Hoppet I always look back at the results and wonder if I could have gone any harder. Which is probably a stupid question to go and ask yourself.
This is of course after the obligatory 4 hours of race brain, where you temporarily lose 40 IQ points due to sheer exhaustion.

But after an afternoon nap and downloading data to Training Peaks, it was pretty obvious that it was an all out effort with nothing left in the tank. Then after every Hoppet, I spend the evening thinking about how hard I’m going to train in the off season for next year. But by October I get distracted by bicycles again and am doomed to yet another year of high level mediocrity in cross country skiing.


-Ross Hamilton