Vermont writer Kirk Kardashian reflects on his first Stowe Derby experience.
When I first heard about the Stowe Derby a few years ago, it sounded like one of those crazy Yankee traditions that’s more guts and idiocy than anything else. “You ski down Mansfield on Nordic skis?” I recall asking my friend, who informed me of the event. “I bet I would break something.” I took a pass.
Turns out, the race began as a bet in 1945, but one that displayed the “can-do” spirit of the Greatest Generation, not the sullen sarcasm of mine.
Sepp Ruschp, an Austrian-born ski racer who turned Stowe into a world-class resort, wagered that he could make it from the top of the Mount Mansfield Toll Road down to the Village of Stowe faster than his friend Erling Strom, a famous ski-mountaineer. Strom put in a good fight, but Ruschp won the day.
Sixty-six years later, the Stowe Derby is still going strong. In fact, Pascale Savard, who organizes the race for the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, expects 1,000 participants on race day this year, which is scheduled for January 13.
The course covers 16 kilometers and drops over 3,000 vertical feet from the top of the Lookout lift to the white-steeple church in Stowe. Fancy yourself tough? Then choose the Derby-Meister, where you do the course twice: once on skate skis and the other on classic gear.
The most important rule is that racers must complete the route using only one pair of skis. Why? Because the trail descends steadily from the top and then undulates before turning pancake-flat for the final six kilometers. Which makes picking your equipment a little tricky. You’re free to use a pair of alpine skis, but you’ll never make up enough time on the downhill to hold off the packs of Lycra-clad Nordic skiers double-poling and V2-ing their way to the finish line. The best tactic, according to Cap Chenoweth, a Stowe resident who’s completed 30 Derbys, is to use cross-country skis, play it safe and steady on the first part of the course, and then ski hard to the end.
That was my plan in February 2010, when curiosity about the race overcame my instincts of self-preservation.
The weirdness of this activity first hits you when you get on the chairlift and your skinny skis dangle over black diamond runs littered with moguls.
On top, things start to make more sense. The sun is peeking through clouds, and bunches of Nordic skiers are milling around. Some take off up the slope to stay warm, others soak up the experience and steel themselves for the trip down. I wait near the start line to see the first wave of racers go off. Their order has been determined by last year’s results, and these guys look serious.
Soon it is my turn, and I line up with about seven or eight others. Some are wearing Lycra; a woman is wearing a frilly skirt; and I’m somewhere in between. The beeps start and we take off. I get into second position on the first straightaway, and then take the first couple of switchbacks cleanly. The snow is firm but grippy and it makes for solid turning. It feels like a skier-cross race at this point, with big switchback turns and people jockeying for position, but soon enough the places get sorted out.
After the first two turns there’s a long straight-away, and people in-the-know get into a tuck and pick up speed. I follow suit. Then we do a few turns and traverse another straight section. Going this fast on skinny skis doesn’t feel right, but you shut off that inner voice and push on.
The woman in the frilly skirt passes me, then crashes on a turn and I pass her (she was fine). Soon we are at the top of the powerline, a long, straight section that drops down into the Stowe Mountain Resort Cross Country Ski Center. We make a hard right, with an off-camber corner, and enter the forested cross-country trails. Here we start climbing gradually on the Timberlane Trail, and then the Burt Trail, cross the wooden bridge, and then turn left onto Ranch Camp. This climbs even more and takes us over the ridge to the Trapp Family Lodge land.
I pass a few folks at this point, but soon realize that I’ve miscalculated my effort. My heart rate is firmly in the red zone now and I hope to not get passed by those whom I’ve just overtaken. In a few minutes, one guy passes me and skis up the hill. I try to follow, but he just walks away and I resign myself to a sustainable rhythm.
By now, my legs are tired (I hadn’t considered the effect of all that downhill skiing) and my form suffers. The track, too, isn’t pristine, and the combination of slippery, choppy snow wreaks havoc on my muscles. I flail and gyrate and just try to keep some semblance of forward momentum.
Exiting the cross-country trails, I come to a wide open field basking in the sun. At the upper parking lot for the Rec Path, people are ringing cow bells and cheering. I smile, grunt and keep going. I cross the river three times, poling over the narrow bridges, then reach the Mountain Road, where a line of cars is stopped and waiting for me. I speed up so as to look like I’m really trying, and ski across the narrow tongue of snow covering the macadam.
The tall white steeple of the church comes into view. It’s a welcome sight. I ski as hard as I can, which isn’t too hard, and smile as I cross the finish. What a feeling!
I’m bumbling and dizzy, sort of in a daze from the effort. My time was good enough for 139th place. Not great, but not terrible, either. My goal was to not crash on the downhills and ski hard to the finish, and that’s what I did.
Will I do the Derby next year? You bet.
Featured photo by Glenn Callahan.
Kirk Kardashian is a freelance journalist who lives in Woodstock. You can see more of his work at www.kirkkardashian.com. This story was originally published in Vermont Sports in winter of 2011.