CALLING ALL SOLO FREAKS AND SIX PACKS, IT'S TIME FOR 24 HOURS OF TELEMARK
By Mark Parman

Why Don't We Get Drunk and Ski," "Our Wives are Smarter," "Chix and Hix on Stix," "SOS," "Back in the Day," "Numbskis," "Six Old Farts and Flatulence" a sampling of team names from last year's 24 Hours of Telemark speaks pages about the event.

Or they beg a lot of questions. Just why are the wives smarter? Because they're inside curled up with a wool blanket next to the wood stove reading a good book? Must a skier toss back a half dozen shots of vodka in order to numb himself or herself to ski one of these crazy races? Is a cell phone necessary to send out an SOS in the event of a late night mishap in the middle of the woods? And must a skier be old and senile to sign up?

Maybe not, but it does take a special Nordic type to compete in the 24-T. It's the fringe of a fringe sport. Chris Ransom set the bar in the clouds at the first 24-T in 2000 when he skied 330 kilometers in 24 hours like skiing from St. Paul to Green Bay in one day which was an unofficial record at the time. He returned in 2001 to ski 310K, the equivalent of six four-hour Birkies. The ageless skier from Lake Mills, Wisconsin, won the event again in 2002 skiing seemingly without effort, clicking off kilometer after kilometer at the same pace and through the long January night. His performance every year simply boggled the minds of those of us watching.

But the 24-T isn't just an event for solo freaks like Ransom; for the hardcore bent on getting the most pain for their entry fee dollars; or for those able to log lap after lap, regardless of fatigue and mental fog. The 24-T is geared for all types of Nordic skiers, from veteran solo freaks to the skier with three-pin bindings on touring skis sick of filling weekends with the NFL and NASCAR. Co-director Dennis Kruse expects around 200 skiers for this year's fifth annual 24-T, January 8-9.
"It is an event for skiers of all levels," said Harry Spehar, who with Kruse is helping organize this year's event. "Doing shorter distances with rest in between is great for practicing technique, at least for the first 12 hours." Spehar admits that after the first 12 hours, anything can happen sloppy technique, hallucinations, equipment failure.

For others, entering such an endurance event is more complicated. Keith Bontrager recently completed his 50th 24-hour mountain bike race, a goal he reached before he turned 50. Not only a well-known frame builder and bike engineer, Bontrager is also a confirmed 24-hour addict if not a 24-hour guru. Bontrager, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, has skied in two 24-Ts and hopes to fly back this month for the race.

"My motivation is probably the same sort of thing that pushes most people to participate in endurance sports," Bontrager said. "On the day there's the buzz from racing, a bit of suffering, weirdness at night and the euphoric feeling at the finish."
Bontrager also believes, like Spehar, that the 24 Hours of Telemark has an appeal for recreational skiers; to people who might never do a hectic ski marathon. "(24-hour skiers) want to challenge themselves, hang out with friends and come back with stories to tell. I think that kind of (skier) makes up the bulk of the field. It's very cool that this event appeals to them," he said.

Kruse said the camaraderie and the uniqueness of skiing through the night draws a loyal band of skiers to the event each year. "Teams tend to want to come back," Kruse said. "They like the fellowship aspect."

This goes for volunteers as well. Gary Crandall and his brother, Jim, have volunteered for every 24 Hours of Telemark, manning the rest stop at the midway point in the course. According to Kruse, they take the red eye shift at their outpost, usually from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. "They want the worst shift," Kruse said, and he's counting on the Crandall brothers to once again stoke the fire and ring their cowbells through the dead of night at Checkpoint 1.

Kruse, who has also volunteered for every event, says last year he and Tom Schuler of Team Sports were skiing around the course between 2 and 3 in the morning. "I've never skied at that hour. There's a certain magic to it."
This year, the event features 18 different categories for all types of skiers, ten of those running the full 24 hours from the Solo Freak category to the Six Pack, a category for teams of up to six. Theoretically, in this category each team member would ski for four hours. Eight other categories cater to skiers not up to the full 24 hour jaunt, providing three-, six- and 12-hour options for those who value a good night's rest.

Most 24-T skiers don't ski around the clock like Ransom. Most compete in either the team relay events or ski the shorter three- and six-hour races. According to Spehar, the self-acclaimed logistics duffer for the event, most skiers do 24-T for the spirit off the event. "The Zen experience of trudging to the warming hut at 3 a.m. and an opportunity early in the season to ski a lot of Ks to build up for other events," Spehar said. "The focus is on friendly team and individual competition."
At 24-hour events, camaraderie and teamwork replace the narrow individual focus of most cross-country ski races, which is simply to beat everyone to the finish line. A carnival atmosphere spreads through Telemark Resort and around the course, infecting skiers, support crews, volunteers and spectators alike. Some teams literally winter camp alongside the course and keep the party going throughout the night, while most opt for rooms and a base camp at Telemark Lodge, a few hundred yards from the course, which passes by the ruins of the old coliseum.

The 24 Hours of Telemark will use the same course as last year, a 5K loop in the rolling hills of the Telemark system. Skiers start at 10 a.m. Saturday morning and ski laps until their time is up. In case of low snow, the course will shift to the Fever Loop, a 2.5K loop with guaranteed snow. Telemark Resort began making snow for this loop in late November and opened it in early December. Barring a tanning weather meltdown, the event will go off as scheduled.

Many skiers, including Spehar who hails from Madison, enter the 24-T to work on a base for the rest of the season. Most competitors can count on skiing between 40K and 80K some more, some less training for later events such as the Mora Vasaloppet and the American Birkebeiner, which passes within a snowball's distance of the 24-T course. With the recent brown winters in the southern parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the race, with its snow-making capabilities, appeals to the snow starved.

The relaxed pace of the event appeals to many skiers as well, coming as it does so early on the calendar. The daunting task of what lies ahead tends to slow even the most caffeinated skiers, and pacing looms large in everyone's mind. In other words, there isn't a lot of broken pole flailing at this event. There's no pushing and shoving to get to the first hill, the first corner. Skiers ski well within themselves. They stop often for food or to change clothes. They hold long conversations during the event. A few years back, I skied an extra lap just to keep talking with a friend I hadn't seen for some time.

I plan to once again ski the 24-T and get in some long, friendly kilometers. But I don't plan on using "My Wife is Smarter" as a team name because she'll probably be out there as well. And I think I'll skip the shots of vodka, even if they're mixed with Red Bull. At least until I'm done skiing.

The 11th Annual • January 8-9, 2011 • cable, wi