Four...! Three...! Two...! One...! Lift-off.
We were gone to a chorus of whistles and howls.
As expected, the hotspur double-poled ahead of the other two of us and was down the road and out of sight by the first bend. I never saw him again, either during or after the race.
At the urging of the Steeler fan, I claimed our group's second place and was soon traveling at speed around the switchbacks with their weathered slatted safety fences and down the linear passages of the Toll Road. The aptly named snowplow is the cross-country skier's most-used defensive turn, and 200 racers can plow a heap of snow. On the curves the berm was so high you either slowed and rode outside around it, or dropped down into the very heart of the curves and rode high inside their banks much the way luge racers do to gain speed and centrifugal force around the curves.
At the narrowest switchbacks stood spotters to make sure none of us skied off into the woods, and photographers, opportunists all, waited with a ghoulish eye for that inevitable picture, "The Agony of Defeat."
I let my skis run to that fine edge between high-speed control and rampant insanity and was surprised by how many skiers I passed and even more surprised by the fact that I didn't fall. I have no idea how long I took to do the Toll Road's four miles, but it seemed only minutes before I was out of the trees.
It was fun. I was on a very slight incline now along a ridge cleared for power lines and could double-pole to hold my speed and rest my shins, which were numb from four miles of braking and banking down the mountain. Then I was in deep woods, alternately poling and diagonal-striding over bumps shaped like channel rollers...and surprise! Racers began passing me! I thought I was holding a fairly strong pace, but I was wrong. Others were coming down the mountain faster and picking up even more time in the woods.
There are just about as many ways of telling another cross-country racer that you want to pass him as there are gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral. Polite racers usually say something like "Passing left, please!" but tougher-minded racers usually just bark "Track!" and by the etiquette of cross-country racing you're supposed to get out of their way. But no matter whether spoken politely or churlishly, a request for the track amounts to only one thing—somebody is skiing faster than you are.
I must have yielded the track six times in one furlong, and every time I did, some serious adjustment of perspective was required, such as, maybe I won't finish in the top 50 after all. The passers poled by as if fleeing Godzilla, and I began wondering if the race actually finished in town.
But all right, I thought, that ebb and surge is part of the dynamics of any race, and in cross-country racing, I had been told, it is not uncommon to be passed early on, only to catch up and battle the same skier the last 100 yards to the finish.