Schuss-Booming with the Baby Boomers

🕔Jan 29, 2009
“Ready?” the race starter asks rhetorically. Thirty years since I last skied in a downhill race and in the moment’s delay before the final countdown, I decide I am definitely not ready.

“Five…four…” It’s too late now. “Three…” I don’t hear the remaining numbers as I rock backward, then lunge forward through the starting wand. For ill or gain, the race is on!

The occasion is the Schussboomer Downhill Race, held each spring at Hudson Bay Mountain. It is a fun race for “adults only”—which, my children point out, goes by age, not maturity. Still, the ages range from my daughter Nicole, age 14, who is forerunning, to a 65-year-old man puffing a cigar and dressed like Anne of Green Gables. His ample girth dwarfs his cigar-stunted height. If maturity is the measure, Nicole is way ahead of the lot of us. It is not required that your I.Q. exceeds your hat size; in fact, all you need to race in the Schussboomer is a crash helmet, entry fee, and some unresolved issues with your vanishing youth. Mind you, the Schussboomer isn’t rocketing off the fer de lance at Albertville, but speeds do reach 126 kilometres an hour (or, as they say at the course, ‘klicks’).

Supposedly, at its heart, it is a fun race, and the congregation around the starting gate looks like a medieval circus with knights and maidens in helmets (‘skid-lids’) from every realm: from the football field to a Harley hog clubhouse. There are men dressed like damsels, and damsels dressed like World Cup racers with a token piece of surveyor’s tape or a cotton tail pinned to their Stanfield long-johns.

Still, in spite of the merriment, not all is quite as casual as it seems. Take “The Mummy,” for example. Obviously, he—or she—is in the race just for the fun of it. The poor thing is so wrapped in toilet paper that it can hardly bend down. Five seconds out of the starting gate, however, the death-shroud tears free like cobwebs in a gale, leaving pine trees draped in toilet paper…and a Spandex rocket-woman shooting for the finish line.

The racer before me takes off in a froth of yelling and cheering, and as the crowd watches his descent over the first pitch, I move into the starting gate, trying, for good reason, to be inconspicuous. First, I’m hoping that no one notices my skis. That morning, when it was too late to do anything about it, I realized that my old downhill racing skis, long and heavy and perfect for holding a line at high speeds, and for staying on the snow even when my body is trying to take flight—the skis of my impassioned youth—are obsolete, and my more modern boots don’t fit the bindings. For lack of better options, I will have to run the race on my short, light, flexible pleasure skis.

My second dark secret is more damning, though no less dangerous—my feather-light, flimsy frame has been beefed up, not by steroids but with a strap-on thirty-pound belt of diving weights. My goal for the race is to break 100 klicks, a distant possibility for a 135-pound body, but well within the grasp of a 165-pound bruiser…though I wonder if, should I fall, the weights won’t be doing the bruising.

My concentration turns to the course and I run through it in my mind, trying to think of places where I can stretch my cramping legs, after being in an extended tuck (an egg-shaped aerodynamic position), without losing speed. Not on the flats, for sure; but not on the faces either—and definitely not in the air. But then, as my anxiety rises, I hear someone behind me complaining about the same problem.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” counsels another racer. “When you’re down in your tuck and your legs start cramping, try rocking forward and back and bouncing a little.” Then he adds, “and remember to breathe. It’s all about oxygen.”

Feeling better, I start warming up: twisting, stretching, stamping and generally switching on the adrenal system to pump blind courage into my cowardly muscles. Misreading hysteria for confidence, I settle down into position and the semblance of a coiled spring. I am ready.

“Relax, Champ,” says the starter, pulling off his headset. “Is there a ski patrolman here? They need a toboggan on the course!”
The news circulates to the far reaches of the circus. By the time it echoes back to me, the rumor is that the racer is dead! Though not before leaving lots of blood on the course, and a crater in the middle of the run the size of a hockey rink. Everyone is very glad they’re not the next racer in the starting gate. I smile broadly, because it would be unmanly to whimper.

Then the radio squawks again. They need a SECOND toboggan! This time the rumor bounces back in an instant. Not only is the racer dead, he has come apart! An arm here, a leg there, and some kids are off in the trees looking for his helmet, presumably still protecting his head. Again everyone expresses their relief that they’re not the next person in the gate. My focus is shot. I’m laughing so hard that the starter’s count catches me by surprise. “Five…” I’m not ready! “Four…” Suddenly, by instinct dating back to an ill-spent youth, I rock back and dive forward. The race is finally on!

It seems as if I skate down the starting ramp with the determination of an NHL linesman—although later, when I watch the video, a flailing, flapping, scalded chicken comes more to mind. Still, with the help of my new body weight, I get up to speed quickly and praise myself on how well I pre-jump out of the gully…only then realizing I’m still airborne.

There’s a crowd on the far side of the first control gate—directly in my line of propulsion should I fail to navigate the corner! A bad place to be, I think, since my soft, short, light recreational skis are dancing around like two cats on a hotplate. Predictably, we all have a heart-throbbing moment when I over-correct, throwing me for a instant into a side-slide, straight at the fans, before regaining my edges and getting back on track.

The next pitch is short and steep, and it is essential to tuck to pick up enough speed to carry one across the flats. My legs begin to smolder, then burn. Rock forward, I remember the advice, bounce a little. And breathe, stupid! I’ve been holding my breath since the first control gate. It works and soon the fire dulls to a numb endorphin glow.

But also something strange is happening. Though I’m accelerating, it feels as if I’m slowing down while the walls of trees and guard fences begin racing up the hill. The “egg” is just that, a shell of tranquility, no sound, no speed, and I watch spectators fly by as though they are projected on a screen and I’m in the audience, methodically picking my line with detached deliberation. The rapture of velocity, the Zen of speed.

Wham! I’m rudely snapped out of my reverie. On the last face, with the finish line in sight, the tips of my skis are starting to flutter like two nervous birds preparing to take flight…perfect for deep powder, but not for downhill, and I have flashes of boot-topping myself (one ski crossing in front of the other at about the height of your boot tops) or else having my skis separate in opposite directions, sending me into a high speed, spread-eagle face plant. I pick a point a few metres beyond the finish and flat-ski straight at it, afraid to give too much edge to my terrified skis. Whump! The compression of the dip at the finish line drives me down hard. The diving weights rip from my hips, kneecapping me, and I finish the race like a hurdler who’s caught both feet on the crossbar.

“97 klicks,” says Cigarman, a.k.a. “Anne of Green Gables,” and winner of my age group. He nods to an empty chair at his table in the lodge’s lounge. “Bassett, you’ve got a 97-klick body. See that?” He points proudly to his large gut pushing against the midriff of his race suit. “That’s a 107-klick belly!”

“You should train better.” He pushes a pitcher of beer and a plate of Nachos Supremo at me.

Oh, the second toboggan? Seems the first sled merely had a broken handle. And the racer? Well, I didn’t see any blood on the course, nor hockey rink craters, but the rumour around the lodge was that kids were still searching in the trees for his helmet… presumably still protecting his head.