6 Things I Learned at the Vail Winter Mountain Games

Panting for air and slapping my gloved hands against my chest, I looked up the snow-covered, rocky ravine and willed myself to take one…more…step. It was day two of the Ultimate Mountain Challenge, a three-day competition composed of a 10-kilometer Nordic ski race, a marathon-length Ski Mountaineering contest and a 2,200-foot sprint up the front face of Vail Mountain.

I entered the event as a fit man in my mid-30s but with little experience in the three disciplines. I finished in a respectable sixth place in my division but could have done better. Here are six things I should have known, or maybe did, but ignored, that would have made the experience even better than it was.

Be prepared for nasty weather
Even though I spend a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains, the mild winter of 2013 lulled me (and I expect a lot of competitors) into a false sense of security. A storm struck less than an hour into the four-hour Ski Mountaineering leg of the race, blasting me with snow and icy wind. Luckily, I’d lost the light liner gloves I’d planned to wear in the race and was forced to wear others that were heavier and wind-proof. If not for this twist of fate, I could have easily ended up with frozen fingers and a DNF (did not finish).

Feed the fire and let the water flow
Big sports take big fuel. Your body will burn massive calories when climbing more than 4,500 feet over four or five hours and you must eat well before, during and after each event to perform well. I tried my best to nosh down about 200 calories per hour during the SkiMo race in the form of Honey Stinger gel packs. I still bonked hard after the race with uncontrollable shaking and nausea that was overcome only with lots of sugar and food. Make sure to keep fuel, hydration and electrolytes flowing through any events that last longer than an hour.

Train for multi-day exertion
The Ultimate Mountain Challenge features three races over three days and each is very physically demanding. My workouts leading up to the event did not have enough back-to-back-to-back grueling days of high output workouts. I paid for it with a weak Vail Uphill run performance on day three.

Work your weakness
Everyone has one and mine was the Nordic Freestyle 10-kilometer race. I hadn’t been on Nordic skis in years before the start of the race and it showed. Just a couple days of training on the skinny skis and a little more preparation would have improved my performance greatly.

Recover immediately
It’s hard to do when there are great parties, cool people and concerts everywhere you look, but it is really important to eat well, drink plenty of fluids and get some sleep. Think twice before taking that shot of tequila; it’ll hurt halfway up Vail Mountain the next morning.

Remember to have fun
It is really easy to get caught up in the intensity of racing and forget the reason you’re there in the first place. I caught my thoughts drifting into negative territory during a couple particularly tough moments and had to remind myself to look up, enjoy the view and revel in the beauty around me.