Last weekend, 120 ski racers competed at Sugarbush Resort in the disciplines of slalom, giant slalom and super G. The softening snow, sun, clouds, rain and wind were not the only changing and challenging conditions these racers faced. As Steve Foley of Killington puts it, "You have to fight back the rust every day."
Foley, 65, is one of some 3000 Masters ski racers in the country, a group of athletes aged 21 to 90 who spend their weekends flying down mountains at speeds approaching 70 miles per hour. Like Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves, they belong to the United States Ski Association and follow an exhaustive travel schedule; Masters athletes also zip up in speed suits, compete for gold medals, and celebrate with beer while swapping tales of their turns.
In Vermont, this pastime is becoming more popular as former collegiate and World Cup racers, along with empty nesters and office workers, seek ways to feed an addiction to speed. "I've seen a big growth in Masters racing," says P.J. Dewey, owner of Race Stock Sports in Waterbury. "It's the baby boomers who are getting into it."
Dewey, a former World Cup boot technician, outfits many New England Masters racers with the top equipment to tackle the tricky courses. But it takes more than sharp edges and properly fitted boots to send Masters racers sliding down the slopes swiftly and safely.
"You're using every single muscle in your body and lots of different ranges of motion," explains Steve Victorson, a Massachusetts trainer and former U.S. Ski Team conditioning coach who helps Masters racers maintain their edge. "You're constantly being challenged with different knee bends and forces," Victorson adds. "It's very athletic -- the level of fitness that racing requires is like sprinting a hilly, winding, 400-meter run."
Among the ski racers Victorson has helped put on the podium is Carolyn Beckedorff, 39. A banking job in Boston keeps her on her duff most days, so Victorson works on "dynamically" training her for the types of moves she'll be making on the mountain. "If you sit all day at your desk and then you go to a health club and sit on a bike or a bunch of machines, it's better than nothing," said Victorson. "But it's nowhere near what you need to do; you really have to do exercise that forces you to move your body in the same way you ski race."
Bode Miller came home from the Torino Olympic Winter Games without a medal, but he also made it back with his limbs intact. And safety is clearly another reason Masters racers have to stay strong, according to Victorson. "When you're at the top of a race course, you really need to know you've done everything you possibly could to prepare for this moment."
Even after six years of training with Victorson, Beckedorff still has moments when she might hesitate about her hobby, she admits. "Sometimes I'll be at the top of a race course and say to myself, 'What are you doing?'"
Racers' fears of injuries are right on, says Oliver Hall, a physical therapist with Poulin Performance in Waitsfield. "Knees and backs -- those are the areas that are going to take the biggest toll for skiers of any age," he points out. "Plus, muscles start to atrophy with age, so you naturally become stiffer and tighter."
Pete Donaghy, the North Hero-based president of New England Masters, says he's seen a seismic shift in the way he and his fellow racers prepare for an event. "When I started out, about 15 years ago, in the summers I'd do a little bit of biking and mow the lawn and be fresh for the season," recalls the 62-year-old, who competed for UVM and returned to racing when he sought a healthier outlet on weekends than going to a bar and watching football. "Now I have to stay in shape all the time; I can't take a couple of months off, because it just doesn't come back."
Donaghy has taken up rowing -- also the training program of choice for Bob Burley of Lake Elmore, another competitor in the Stowe ski-bum league. When it's warm, the 63-year-old racer rows his Adirondack guide boat across Lake Champlain and clears hiking trails. It's a better workout than he gets in the gym, Burley says -- "and I save on health-club fees!"
For some Masters racers, training to stay in control can sometimes spiral out of control. "When I started ski racing, I think I had more nerve than talent," confesses Bethel's Fred Dieffenbach, 48, who now trains through triathlons, soccer, weight lifting and karate. "I tend to approach skiing, and most other activities, with an eye toward performance . . . It seems that nearly every activity I have identified as a means to improve my ski-specific fitness has turned into a hobby itself."
The competitiveness among Masters racers can spill into these other sports, too. "I'm proud to say I'm one of the fastest guys my age at the Dartmouth track, where I train on Wednesday evenings in the summer," says Foley, a retired pilot and father of three.
In the winter, the Killington skier picks up tips from the high school team he coaches, jogs for 25-minute sessions, and does sit-ups, push-ups and leg presses while waiting for his shower to warm up. "If I didn't maintain my level of fitness, I'd be one tired buckaroo," he says.
Restocking energy is necessary not only for the race course but also for the post-race gatherings; the social aspect of their sport, many Masters athletes say, is what keeps them battling Mother Nature and Father Time. "I don't think the public quite understands how hard it is to be good at ski racing," says Donaghy. "But there do tend to be some fairly good parties."
When the Sugarbush races and awards parties wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, rest was far from many athletes' minds. Instead, they were planning road trips to Sunday River, Maine, where the Masters national championships will be contested next week. Among the racers headed to Maine is St. Johnsbury's David "Duffy" Dodge, 79, who's won his age class at the national championships for the past five years. "I'd like to win again," he admits.
Dodge's training approach doesn't exactly match his competitive drive, though. "I don't run or lift weights or anything like that," he says. "Too lazy, maybe."