Alex Lee’s story: I bought a plane ticket to Colorado at 8 a.m. on March 16th for the following week. I was finally fully vaccinated, and so were my parents who I was going to visit.
Half an hour later I called a friend from Leadville, “Hey Andy – wanna ski next weekend?”
“Can’t,” he replied, “I’m doing the GT!”
I hadn’t realized the Grand Traverse coincided with my trip and hadn’t thought about racing all year. And yet, for some reason by 9:41 a.m. I’d sent an email to Manasseh asking if she knew anyone looking for a race partner…..
9:47 a.m.: “…I’m actually looking for a partner.”
M’s story: I got Alex’s email while wearing shorts and a bikini a stone’s throw from the waves that crash against the coast of North Florida. I was on the tail end of a ‘work-cation’ to visit family where the most exercise I’d gotten was 15 mile rides on a beach cruiser and three mile runs at sea level. I was happily subsisting on a diet of shrimp, white wine and appetizer schmorgesborgs and my toes had finally regained feeling absent since sometime in January.
Subconsciously, I knew the GT was happening the following week, and part of me had wanted to wrangle a last minute partner. So I guess you could say Alex caught me at the right time: fat and happy and not at all worried by the prospect of skiing roughly 40 miles across the Rockies in the middle of the night. Also, I was psyched at the prospect that we would be Team WildSnow!
A quick phone call and email volley later and we had secured one of the few remaining spots. Team WildSnow in Spandex was heading for the GT.
The Grand Traverse is a 38-ish mile backcountry race that departs Crested Butte at midnight and traverses the Elk Mountains to Aspen. The course has a total 6800 feet (though my watch tallied 7,500) elevation gain and follows several drainages, climbs three passes and tests skiers with a seven-mile undulating ridge crawl before descending groomers to the finish in downtown Aspen. There is limited aid throughout: one stop with minimal water 15.5 miles in and another with hot ramen and electrolytes at mile 27.
Amazingly, hundreds of teams sign up each year (registration is capped at 200 and nearly always sold out) despite the somewhat grueling midnight start, variable conditions (it gets “reversed” as often as it goes through, with teams completing an abridged course that links back to Crested Butte), and demanding terrain and duration.
Alex and I had both done the race before (this was his fourth effort, my second) with varying success. He once finished the race with a stomach flu that had him throwing up out of the gate and prevented him from eating anything the entire time. In my first attempt, I bonked so hard halfway through I nearly curled up in the snow on Taylor Pass and my partner had to tow me 12 miles to the top of Aspen Mountain.
It seems neither of us wanted to repeat our past struggles, and this year we finished in 9 hours and 52 minutes, with no tears and no towing. The time was quick enough to put us in 6th for the Co-ed division and 25th overall out of 165 starting teams (22 which DNF’ed, also not uncommon in the GT).
A few days after the race, after many naps and snacks, Alex and I called each other up to debrief over Zoom. Here are our thoughts on what worked, what we’d do differently and why we even wanted to do this sort of thing in the first place…
So, are you ever going to ski again?
Alex: I already skied again! Not just skiing, but specifically skimo skiing with my same little boots and little skis. Taped up a blister and rode around some of Anchorage’s finest single track trails on skimo skis
M: You are a better person than I. I am going to ski again…but I haven’t yet…
We both have had less than ideal GT experiences in the past…why were you excited to race again?
M: At least with this one, because it was so tough last time, I wanted really wanted redemption.
Alex: I’d entirely forgotten how hard it was. And I enjoy skiing so I was like, why not? Also, I think there’s something fun specifically about the GT is that I’m chasing the feel of the perfect race. And the perfect race doesn’t mean my fastest time or anything like that, but the smoothest race of feeling that it’s dialed, and easy and fun as it can be for that big of a thing.
Were you dreading anything about the race?
Alex: The big unknown for me was the altitude. I’ve never done a big race at altitude while living at sea level and I was dreading it if it turned out bad. My stoke also grew as we got closer to the race.
M: My stoke was very bipolar. I was so excited the day we signed up but then the day we got back to Colorado I was like “Oh my God what have I done?”. I was so afraid I was going to let you down or my stomach would go haywire again.
Alex: My stoke dramatically dropped just before the race when I was like now I’m really tired and just want to go to sleep. Like minutes before the race I was like, it’s midnight. We could just wake up at six in the morning and do this as a fun thing.
What was your highest moment of the race?
Alex: Moving to Taylor Pass when we were just booking it, and it was after a little bit of a lull when we had slowed down for a bit, it got hard for a minute, I pooped in the woods. And then we just started cruising and we slowly got faster that whole time. I was looking at my watch and our pace was just steadily increasing and then we started passing some teams. That was the most in the zone I felt during the race.
And then sunrise was just incredible up there. The moon was setting over the Cathedral and that whole string of the Elks and the sun was rising out toward Independence Pass. That was awesome.
M: The moonset, sunrise was huge. I also had this really cool moment when we were approaching Friend’s Hut and we had had our headlamps on for a bit because we were in denser timber and we were getting into the alpine and the moon suddenly became so bright again. I turned my light off and there were these sparkles everywhere. The moon shadows from the evergreens were so dense and black it almost looked like there were little ravines in the path. It was like we were in this whole other world.
What were your darkest moments of the race?
Alex: I definitely felt the altitude coming off of Star Pass. My stomach didn’t feel awesome and I was a little light headed. I felt like it could’ve gone a different way for me there but it didn’t. And I pooped in the woods which is always a solution to a lot of problems in the mountains. If you can, just go poop and you’ll feel better.
M: When we were slowing down between Star and Taylor, I was starting to feel low energy. By the time we got to Richmond Ridge I was…just there, just moving. I had tried to get down an espresso Gu which really wasn’t working. It was getting harder and harder to fumble with food and get something down so it just turned into a bit of a slog. But there were no disastrous low spots, no deal breakers.
Alex: Neither of us saw Elvis.
What’s one thing you wish you had in your pack that you didn’t have?
Alex: What I say just about the GT is that I wish I had the truly lightest possible version of everything. But there was nothing I didn’t have a version of, I just wished that whatever I had could’ve been made lighter. The crazy thing is that you barely use anything your bag. We put on and took our wind shells off a couple of times. And mittens, but that was it.
M: I wish I had another pair of mittens with wind stopper. I also had Spring energy gel that I really liked, right before Taylor Pass and I just wish I had one more of those. I think it would’ve helped a lot with the end of the race.
What about something you had in your pack and you wish you did not have?
Alex: Everything. Our packs were not the lightest. On the spectrum of how light our packs are, we’re in like the top 100. There wasn’t anything that was particular other than the general, I wish I didn’t carry anything.
M: I had kind of a silly thing. When I bonked last time all I wanted was peppermint. So this time I brought a bunch of Junior Mints. But I didn’t end up eating them.
Alex: The weird thing about the packs is that its so standardized because it’s a race. So maybe that’s a tip for readers looking to do it: really just bring what’s on the gear list and don’t bring more. Measure out the duct tape. Really bring what’s on there, because you hate what’s in your pack no matter what.
What did you end up eating?
M: I actually lost sleep leading up to the race thinking about my food strategy. I only brought stuff that I had used in races before because I knew my stomach could handle them. I ended up with four Honey Singer waffles out of the package in an open bag in my race suit and then two packets of caffeinated chews. I ate three of the waffles and all of the chews in the first five and a half hours. Then I had half a soft flask of ramen which I’d brought but it was harder to eat then expected. And I switched over to energy goos, had one and a half of those and a mini Snickers.
Alex: I ate a dark chocolate Milky Way bar, three little chocolate covered biscuits, three packets of gummy bears, and half a piece of pizza. I didn’t eat that much but I ate consistently. That was half of what I brought. I had another Milky Way Bar and Snickers in my pack, I had a Kind bar and more biscuits but I just didn’t want it.
M: I find it’s so hard to chew, especially as you progress. I don’t know if it’s because you’re getting cold and your body just doesn’t want to do anything extra. But that’s part of why I moved over to more liquid things in the second half. I just didn’t want to deal with chewing.
Alex: When I moved to gummy bears I was using them mostly like hard candy. A slow drip of sugar. It’s really hard to figure out food for it. Like no one’s stomach wants to work after Star Pass.
M: And no one’s stomach wants to work in the middle of the night.
How much water did you actually drink?
Alex: Two soft flasks and a Red Bull
M: Two soft flasks and the ramen at Barnard Hut. Not that much. It’s just kind of hard to drink. I didn’t have freezing problems this time because I kept my soft flask in my race suit, so that was good.
The winners came in at a blistering 6:06 (new course record from Cam Smith and Tom Goth) and the slowest team finished in 18:08. Do you think it’s harder to be the fastest person on the course, or the slowest?
M: They’re different kinds of difficult, but you’re not going to go that fast of a pace unless you’re fit and prepared to some degree and are used to that kind of pain. But I think the people that come in super slow probably were looking into a yawning abyss for like 10 hours as they tried to finish the race. And that takes a lot of mental fortitude.
Alex: The fastest team, what those guys do before the race is undoubtedly harder. You’ve got to train like an absolute savage to be able to do something like that, and it’s still unfathomable to me. Some hard things you can imagine. Like I understand how people can do the race in seven hours but once you go from seven to six, I have no idea how it’s possible. It’s the two-hour marathon. So it’s harder beforehand because you have to make something impossible possible, and you have to train so much and be so diligent. The flipside may have involved a lot of training, no doubt, but it’s such a display of grit to stay out for 18 hours.
We both signed up last minute, do you think that’s a good or bad way to do it?
Alex: We’re lucky because we were able to get a spot last minute. It’s not uncommon for people to be looking for a partner last minute. I did that one year and it worked out. I guess I like it.
If it’s a bucket list thing, like you’ve been wanting to do the GT for a decade then definitely plan it out, dream. Especially if you don’t live in a ski town, take it seriously and train to have a good race. A lot of teams don’t finish, whether it’s gear or illness, but at least some folks who don’t finish do so because they underestimated the course. That’s the avoidable one. But, I liked not knowing I was doing it and then just doing it.
M: I agree, if its your first time or you legitimately want to put your all into a fast time and you’re dialing in your partner and your gear. But if I could do it this way every time, I would be so psyched if I could not have the GT hanging over me for an entire season, which I did last year and then it got cancelled. My friends were really surprised that I ended up signing up this year because this winter there were so many times when I was like “I’m not doing the GT and I’m so happy about it.”
It comes down so much to who you do it with also. We were so lucky because we were really well aligned out there. I think also what was good, which is good in a lot of applications, is we went in with no expectations. And then we were just psyched with the outcome.
We didn’t know we were doing the race, so what was the kind of prep days do you think helped in being able to finish it?
M: Honestly, I felt all of my winter activities fitting into different moments in the race. I had done a lot of uphill skinning, and so going up Star Pass it was just clicking into that mode. I’ve also done a lot of low angle kick and glide skinning, which is so much of the race, which was awesome. And also, the Gothic Mountain Tour with the distance and the difficulty was a great lead-up.
Alex: Everything you said, for sure. Other things were just long days in the mountains, without any particular distance in mind, just being out for hours helped a lot. In Alaska in the middle of the winter it’s hard to be out for a lot of hours because it’s dark. I’ve gotten used to skiing with a headlamp which was helpful. This year I’ve skied a lot of vert, so the amount on the GT felt really easy compared to other stuff I’ve done. A lot of people train more vert than distance, and I haven’t done a lot of big mile tours. Just a handful. But I was so glad for those. Just doing a few days over 20 miles was huge for doing the GT. The other thing that helped was just consistency in little boots and little skis.
What advice would you give to people thinking of doing it?
M: In terms of basic advice: do everything in your human power to get some light gear.
Alex: Totally. Say somebody is budgeting a few new pieces of gear before the GT. What would you would say to make sure they lighten up?
M: Skis and boots for sure. If you have less drag and mass on your feet, ultimately that’s the thing that’s going to keep you moving when you really feel awful. But having deadweights on your feet is going to be hard.
Alex: I agree, I would even say boots over skis. Reducing the friction in your stride is so huge on something like that. Over the last 10 years, a lot of people have gone from nordic and tele gear to skimo skis in the race. In the middle there were a few years where there was a healthy spread and a lot of people in heavy metal setups, and there’s fewer and fewer of those setups now. I did see quite a few resort uphill setups, like Speedfit 80s. And I think a ski like that is totally fine especially with light boots.
M: Otherwise, my advice is expect it to be five times harder than you think it’s going to be. Train your mind to handle that reality, but know that if you just keep moving, you’ll get where you need to be.
Alex: I was actually going to say the opposite. This is unlike anything else that people do en mass every year. It is so much harder than you think that it’s kind of untenable if you really accept that. So I was going to say, you know, it’s not that bad. Just go do it.
Think you’ll do the race again next year?
Alex: I think…definitely maybe.
M: Yeah, I think it’s the kind of effort where a little space is good. But if an opportunity came up next year I would do it.
Alex: How about this? If neither of us decide to do it, a week before the race I’m going to call you. And we should do it again. But it has to be the exact same circumstance. Like it didn’t even occur to us.
M: That sounds great! So we’ll talk again next year.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.