It all began a couple of years ago when I started skiing regularly at Forbush Corner. I was looking over the race jerseys peppering the walls of the shop and I asked Dave, “What is the Merino Muster?” His eyes lit up and he smiled that David smile and he was only too happy to answer my question. “Well, the sheep are usually grazing way up in the hills of the Pisa Mountain Range and when the snow begins to fall the sheep farmers work the flocks down off the range to the shelter of the Cardrona Valley because the sheep are too stupid to move on their own and will end up starving. So, this annual Merino Muster became the inspiration for NZ’s inaugural Cross Country Ski Race in 1995. You have to go!” Yes, I do, I thought to myself….and on the back burner it went.
Australia national flag
I observed one of those milestone Birthdays in November, 2014. So, I decided that I was going to celebrate the whole year and do something out of the norm for me that was associated with skiing. There it was on the back burner, The Muster. The more I thought about it and researched it, the more real it became to spend a couple of weeks at Snow Farm and do the 42k Race. Yes, this is what I wanted to do!
New Zealand national flag
When I shared this with Ann, she looked at me and said, “If you are going, you should go for a month. It’s such a long way down there. A week after the Muster there is another 42k race in Australia called the Kangaroo Hoppet - loppet. You get a chance to Explore New Zealand and Australia”. That was it. I asked her if she would go with me. There was no hesitation at all. The planning started in earnest after the Birkie. We joined the World Loppet Ski Federation and received our passports. In May we started running and the roller skis came out early.
We agreed on the dates and headed to a travel agent in Petoskey to line up the flight and rental car itinerary. They also put together the Visa for of us that was required by Australia. The airline allowed us to check two bags each at no extra charge. That meant we would each have a personal suitcase, a suitcase for wax, waxing equipment and ski boots, and finally a ski tube for the skis and poles. Since we only had one ski tube for both our skis we decided to only bring one pair of skate skis each.
We also had to decide which waxes to bring. So we watched the ski and weather reports for Snow Farm starting in June to get an idea of what kind of wax we would need. It turned out that New Zealand doesn’t get very cold. The coldest reported temperature was 15 degrees (F) and that was a deep freeze for them, so the really cold waxes were out of the running. It soon became apparent that the temperatures at Snow Farm were mostly around freezing. We decided that the wax of the day would be Toko yellow, their warmest wax, but took some red just in case. We packed the Jetstream and HelX too. Also brought along some HammerGels and individual packets of heed.
We left Detroit the evening of July 31st and arrived in Auckland on the North Island in the evening on their Sunday, August 2nd. NZ is 17 hours ahead of Northern Michigan. Once in New Zealand we worked our way down to Snow Farm exploring the countryside, sightseeing, and acting like tourists. We ran trails early every day to keep up with the training and to experience the more natural areas (rainforests, gorges, lakes and the coast) that NZ has to offer.
We arrived in Cardrona the evening of August 11th. We booked an apartment near the entrance to Snow Farm for 5 nights and after all the traveling it was nice to be in one spot for a bit. We tried to book a room in the Lodge up at Snow Farm, but they were full. However, we discovered that it was better being in the valley and not on top of the mountain. We were within walking distance to the Cardrona Hotel, which was the race headquarters and local watering hole, and it was an easy drive to Wanaka. We were also able to make our own meals at the apartment which was not an option at the lodge.
We had three days ahead of us to acclimate to the elevation (4,265 feet) and to get comfortable with the transition back to snow. The dirt/mud road going up to Snow Farm was 13k of narrow, twisty switchbacks with the snow line around 10k. Sheep were plentiful, grazing and standing on outcroppings of rock. Chains were recommended on Friday, but the 4 wheel drive Toyota that we rented did just fine. We skied parts of the course each day, in high winds and cloudy to sunny conditions. The temperature remained around freezing and dipped just below at night. The terrain at Snow Farm was very open with no trees. The trails were like mountain roads in that there were many switchbacks with long sweeping climbs followed by sharp turns and descents back into another sweeping climb.
After skiing in the morning on Friday we headed to the wax room. There were four waxing profiles available, but only one of them handled our skis with NNN bindings (Salomon bindings were definitely favored).The one profile we were using turned out to be the personal profile of the Madshus Distributor for Japan. He was very gracious to us and was pleased to find out that Ann was a Madshus dealer. He even knew our local Madshus distributor Ben. As planned we waxed in the yellow range using Toko LF and HF with course rills and a top coat of HelX. As you can imagine, the wax room is pretty busy, so no time to fuss. I would have liked to have used a base layer of graphite (I was surprised at how dirty the snow was) and some Jetstream under the HelX. While skiing in the morning I experimented with my Xcelerator NIS bindings and set them to the neutral position.
Race day conditions were just below freezing and warming. A couple inches of snow had fallen over night. Skies were mostly overcast and the light was flat, but the sun did break through later, softening the snow even more. Winds were light and that was so welcomed due to the open and unprotected nature of the terrain.
Snow Farm is set up like an Olympic venue in that the race has a stadium feature, as well as, longer distance loops heading out of the stadium. The 7k race, the Straggle Muster, is skied entirely in the stadium. The 21k race, the Snow Rake, utilizes the 7k stadium loop, goes through the stadium lap lane, and shoots the skiers out of the stadium on a trail called the Snow Bar Express and onto the River Run Loop. After completing the River Run Loop the skiers come back into the stadium on a hard right- hand turn, up a short but steep hill to the Highlander trail and then on to the finish. The 42k Merino Muster skiers did the above and then were directed out onto the other distance loop, Hanging Valley, coming back around near the Stadium and heading back out onto the River Run loop for a second time, then finish via Highlander. Yep, we got that steep hill twice. Ann and I managed to ski the entire race together and crossed the finish line together at 3:02:27. What an experience! The skis were running pretty good and we even remembered to look around and enjoy the scenery. And both of us liked the 42k distance versus the 50k plus marathon norm. It’s just right.
We left New Zealand and flew into Melbourne. After driving the Great Ocean Highway and seeing some wild koalas and kangaroos, we made our way to Falls Creek arriving Thursday Aug 20th. The rental car company advised us against taking their car above the snow line (extra insurance, no road service). So we booked a coach out of Mt Beauty, a town at the base of the Bogong High Plains, to take us up the 30k mountain road to Falls Creek resort. The coach took us to a depot, where we had to book a snow cat, or Husky to take us and our luggage up to the apartment at Cedarwood that we had booked.
Trail view from the apartments
Mountain view from the apartments
We arrived before check in, but were able to lock up our luggage in their office and get a ski in. After a short walk we picked up a 1.5 k trail that led over to the XC ski center. We went in to get a pass and discovered that they do not charge a trail fee. (We paid $40/day at Snow Farm). Apparently the XC skiing is subsidized by the business community and the gate fee to enter the resort. They had been having nice weather all week and there was plenty of snow on the trails. We had 2 nice days of skiing, but that was to change for race day.
After skiing on Friday we headed to the wax room at the Nordic Center. They only had one waxing profile. Again, not much time due to the demand. We waxed the same as the Muster, except this time I did heat in some Jetstream. We took the skis back to the apartment, brushed and polished the Jetstream and then applied the HelX. I found I needed to set my Xcelerator NIS bindings 2 clicks behind the balance point for the best glide and stability for the soft snow conditions.
A front moved in during the night bringing with it rain, high winds and heavy fog. It never got below freezing. Rain was forecast for the morning as well but thankfully it did not materialize. It was an eerie ski over to the start in the Nordic Bowl. Skiers would emerge out of the fog at the intersections, some walking, and some skiing. It was very disorienting. We found our way into the second wave starting coral and waited. There were more skiers here than at the Muster. The Muster total for all races was 215. They had over a 1,000 here at the Hoppet.
Ann was not looking well at all. Her sinus infection/head cold was making her miserable and she knew the high winds on the open course would probably trigger an asthma attack like they did the day before. She told me to go for it because she did not know how her race would go. Soon we were launched into the fog one minute behind the first wave. It was difficult to see what you were skiing on and what was coming up.
Michael Bourassa (185) 1 kilometer into the race coming out of the Nordic Bowl
After about 7k of maneuvering through traffic, I settled down and got into a manageable pace. The Madshus Redlines were floating on the soft snow and wax was right on. I had good skis. I felt like I just might survive this and started to gain some ground. More than a third into the race, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the course had been rerouted away from a climb nicknamed “Paralyzer” that led skiers out to exposed terrain that followed a ridge. The race committee decided to remove that section from the 42k race because of 50km/h winds and the heavy fog. However, we did not know this. They do not hold the typical racers brief on the starting line. There was a sign posted at the Nordic Center, but we never saw it because we did not come through the center. And we never heard it announced on the PA either. This reroute shortened the 42k to a 34k. That was still more than enough in those conditions. When I caught back up with Ann, I found out that she retired after 7k and retreated to an internet café to catch up on line and get a warm pot of tea. She greeted me with a warm smile and wanted to hear about my race. I was disappointed for Ann, but that’s racing as we all know. And we move on.
We came away from New Zealand and Australia with memories for a lifetime. As far as the XC skiing goes, we gained a new appreciation of just how fortunate we are here at home. We can drive just a short distance to ski or ski right out our back door, and most of our trails are in beautiful woods that are well protected from the wind!