As luck would have it, that winter several citizens in our community revived a cross-country ski race that had not been run since 1954. Known as the Stowe Derby, the race would start, just as it did in 1945 when the legendary Sepp Ruschp and Erling Stromn originated it on a bet, at the summit of Mount Mansfield and then run for 10 miles over a course that dropped 2,000 vertical feet before petering out behind the Congregational Church in Stowe village. The first four miles on Mansfield's famous Toll Road would be pure downhill, the next six a tortuous composite of vertical and horizontal terrain. Prizes were to be awarded to the top three finishers in each of six age categories; pictures would be taken; fun was promised.
"Are you going to enter?" my wife asked me when the race announcement appeared in the local paper.
"I don't know," I answered.
But secretly I did know. I have always been haunted by a grim competitive penchant. Studied indifference has prevented me from actually saying to anyone what a tennis opponent once said to me, "I'm gonna whip your ass" (which he did not), but the sentiment was there in all its atavistic possibility: Winning and losing mattered to me.
But because hundreds of entrants were expected in the Stowe Derby, I had to couch my entrance as a form of just-havin'-fun so that when I didn't come in first (which I didn't have a rat's chance of doing), I could at least pretend to others that fun was all I had raced for.
The Derby was run on the last Sunday in February. It dawned warm, with temperatures expected to hit the mid-40s before noon. Snow had fallen earlier in the week; the course was groomed, the tracks set, but waxing for conditions that would range from packed powder on Mansfield's summit to wet tapioca in the lower flats promised to be difficult. Waxing cross-country skis, especially for races, has always been an arcane science. Choose too hard a wax and you'll slip backward going uphill and have no grip for your backward leg thrust, or kick, during your diagonal stride. On the other hand, if you use a wax too soft for snow conditions, your grip will be great, but you'll have no glide. In fact, you might find yourself bearing several kilos of snow under either ski, such is the adhesion factor of waxes that are too soft.
The day before the race I heard the forecast and did some asking around. The consensus from the tour center instructors and others in the know was that you could do one of three things: You could wax for powder on the summit with Ostbye blue mix or Swix blue or even the harder Swix green if it was cold enough, then wax again with the softer and better-gripping purple when you hit the flats. Or you could wax purple to begin with and sacrifice speed on your descent of the Toll Road, which, with its steady drop and hairpin turns, might require such a sacrifice. Or, if you were the adventurous type, you could not wax at all and pick up a ton of time on the downhill, time you could later use fine-tuning your wax for the harder up-and-down haul to the finish. To the adventurer stirring within me, this last tactic made the most sense.
The afternoon before the race I had my wife drop me off at roughly the mid-point of the course, where it crossed Route 108, and I skied the last five miles into the village. I took my time. I was looking for surprises, and I found some—a long ascending switchback through beech and pine followed by a schuss down a steep hill whose proximity to the local cemetery did not escape my notice. Thereafter, it was smooth cruising over the golf course, its undulant greens and fairways nullified beneath their seamless tarpaulin of snow, down lower West Hill and past a farm whose startled pigs snorted at me as I skied by; through Mayo's pasture, then across the flood plain behind the Grand Union from where, looking back, I could see the recumbent profile of Mansfield, white and implacable, behind whose angular granite schnoz the race tomorrow would actually begin. Then a quick dash to the Congo Church and a sprint to Lackey's Variety Store, where I unfastened my skis, and entered, on rubber legs, to phone my wife to come and get me.
"How was it?" she asked as I loaded my skis into the car.
"Easy," I answered. "If it stays as flat after Mansfield as the stretch I just covered, I shouldn't have any trouble at all."