The reason I first did the North American VASA Nordic ski race in Traverse City is because my husband, Pete, loves competition. He loves it so much that I think it’s stunted his intelligence. I mean there is more than one way to get to the finish line. Like on most race courses, don’t start in the first place—just wait at the line, all those hot, sweaty racers will come back eventually. But every now and then I come out of my dormancy to momentarily suspend his belief that he married the one loser marshmallow that absorbed too much hot chocolate and sank to the bottom.

So one year not long ago, I raced in the 12K in the North American VASA Nordic ski race in Traverse City. There was really no way I could opt out after my husband set me up with an old pair of my daughter’s xc skis—skate skis. “They’re the wax kind—and look at these cool boots,” he cooed, like I was getting my first pair of Mary Janes.

I have to admit my first VASA was fun. How could it not be with that magic trail and crowds of hearty folks embracing each other in rosy-cheeked smiles and bear hugs? I won a bronze in my age group, and got to stand on the stage with my then-15-year-old-daughter, Cassidy, the overall female 12K winner. I realized, there on the podium, that if I was going to race, the 12K was my kind of cushy niche. An easy dose of glory for not a lot of work—the truly serious women skiers around my age (and older) do the 27K. Like my friend Ginny Coulter who is equal parts mother of four, grandmother, and Energizer bunny.

So a year later, there I was again at 6 a.m. the morning of the Vasa trying to dress. I never know what to wear to these events—and I couldn’t remember what I wore last year. Finally, I choose a long underwear top, the Goresomething-or-other-wick-off-sweat-jock-top my husband gave me for Christmas, a fleece, and fleece pants.

By 9:40 a.m. we’re lined up at the start, and my husband is beaming at me. I look around at the other women and realize they’re all wearing Lycra. “I don’t have on Lycra—but then I don’t have a Lycra body,” I say to him.

“Yes, you do,” my husband says soothingly. It’s good to throw the old dog a bone before her race.

Watch the video of the 2010 North American VASA, a premiere Northern Michigan nordic ski event run on a spectacular day

At the shot, I’m off. I love the first hill. That’s when I pass those big beefy guys who spend all winter downhill skiing and smacking steak grease off their lips, then come out for the VASA to prove they still have it. As they fade behind me I call back (mentally, of course), “Ever tried tofu?”

But the men don’t worry me. It’s the women who are my competition. So when I hear the soft sound of skis behind me, I listen for the breathing, the stray cough. Is it deep and manly? Gentle and female? If it’s female, I look sideways, spy-style, for telltale signs of age as a woman pulls up beside me. Crows feet? Gray hair straggling from the cap—or is that just snow? A widening in the Lycra? If it all adds up to 40-something, I pick up my pace. Give her the powder.

By the eighth K, I’m thinking they added another hill to this trail, that Ginny is one crazy granny for doing the 27K, and forget the Lycra—I’m so hot and sweaty I wish I were naked. Finally, Cassidy (who finished eons ago and is changedand eating bons bons) is cheering me on. My fleece looks like a snow fence from the frozen sweat, my eyeliner is in raccoon rings, and I really hope I don’t have one of those snot mustaches.

Tim Brick, the longtime Vasa MC, announces over the loudspeaker, “Here comes Lissa Edwards, Cassidy’s sister.” He did that last year, too. Cute, Tim.

I’m pleased to be finished, but I have not a clue as to where in the pack I rank. So, I sidle up to Cassidy’s friends in the Traverse City Nordic Ski Club and ask, “Any other fat-hipped old women come in yet?” They blush and look at the snow.

When the times post, I learn I’ve won the gold in my age group. The next woman was 19 minutes behind me, and another three were in back of her. At first I’m jumping around humming the Olympic anthem, but then I get to wondering if those women skied classic—a way slower method, which would mean equipment not physique was the only reason I beat them. So I put the question to my husband: “Probably,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “And on fish scales.” (Translation: and their gear sucked too.)

But that’s okay, because the next year I’d be in the 45–49 age group, which means most of my competitors would be pushing 50. And I’d be at my primo, middle-aged racing zenith.

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

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