Meet the Toughest Skiier in the Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Race

By MARK VOSBURGH

I have great memories of ski racing in the Over Seeley’s Creeks and Ridges (OSCR) race over the years. This year’s race was unforgettable for a very different reason.

Making the Connection.

Last month my friend Claudine asked if I was racing in OSCR. I said no, mainly because I wasn’t trained up for the 50k ski race, but I told her I was thinking of volunteering to help out.

That innocent comment lead to a cool series of connections and experiences. It turns out that Claudine skis with Ute, who is married to Heiko, who went to school in Bozeman, where he met David, who skis with Liz Ann, who is an adaptive sit-ski racer, who was coming to Seeley to race the OSCR 10k, and who would become the first ever adaptive ski racer in the 30-year history of the race.

Liz Ann and was looking for a volunteer to race with her. Was I interested?

Mutual Rapid Assessment.

Liz Ann called me early the week of the race. I explained that I didn’t have experience helping adaptive skiers but that I was a skate skier and I knew the course. Liz Ann told me that she had ski racing experience. She just needed someone to ski with her to assist her on the course.

Even on the phone, I picked up on her positive energy, focus and determination. Going largely on instinct, I agreed to race with her. Liz Ann, apparently comfortable enough with me, agreed to meet me in Seeley Lake. The race was on!

Liz Ann Kudrna.

While I didn’t know any of this when I we first spoke on the phone , Liz Ann has owned and operated Body in Balance Pilates Studio in Bozeman since 2000. Extremely fit and active, in 2008 she was involved in a serious mountaineering accident, as described in an article titled “Brushes with Death” in a 2009 Women’s Adventure Magazine article:

“These close calls also seem to enhance, not diminish, passion for the outdoors, although survivors may approach their sports a little differently than they did previously.

This has also been the case for Liz Ann Kudrna, who suffered a spinal-cord injury on her descent of southwest Montana’s Mount Cowen and spent a night on the mountain before being rescued. ‘I was in pain all night, but it was a beautiful night, a full moon,’ she says. ‘I knew I was never going to be camping under the stars in this kind of spot again, so I kept my eyes open and savored the sky as much as I could.’

Even after her accident—and still wheelchair-bound—Liz Ann bikes, swims, and does Pilates and yoga, ‘I’m still passionate about the outdoors … it’s important to my being alive,’ she says. ‘It’s one of the things that feeds me.’”

We Meet.

Liz Ann Kudrna skis the Over Seeley's Creeks and Ridges race.

I meet Liz Ann in person when she pulls into the Seeley Trailhead parking lot in her Toyota van. She strikes me as friendly, kind, fit, and with the obvious determination and focus I sensed on the phone.

I’m pretty clueless about how to help her but she puts quickly puts me at ease and we put together a plan to get registered, transfer her into her sit-ski and do a little practicing before the race. I like her immediately.

We Prepare.

As I help Liz Ann transfer from the van to her sit-ski, she explains that every setup is customized for the racer’s injury. Her ski has a seat with straps and buckles that function as a “ski boot” to transfer her upper body movements down, through a frame to her skis. She steers with a combination of techniques, including leaning and reaching her arms out to the side, or dragging or jabbing the snow with her carbon fiber racing poles.

Liz Ann explains that my job is to ski directly behind her on the uphills. If she loses momentum, I should put my ski pole on the back of her seat to keep her from sliding backwards. If we get to a hill that is “too steep and scary” for her to descend unassisted, I will attach a long strap to her sit ski, hold on and snowplow to control her speed. Finally, if she tips over, I’ll help get her upright and back on the race course.

We Practice.

It’s 10:00 am and Liz Ann wants to take me out on the course to practice our technique before our 10:30 start. We start out and find that the track has enough unevenness that Liz Ann has some trouble balancing. She explains that a well-groomed coarse is really important for sit ski racers. Canted turns make for a big challenge and uneven and soft tracks tend to dump her. I nervously picture the course with its steep hills, curves, and bends that I know lay ahead of us.

On our first little downhill, she practices her steering technique. From my perspective, her sit-ski looks like a well-waxed rocket, with no steering or brakes, designed to fly straight down the fall line and off the ski trails. I start to wonder if I’ve vastly underestimated the challenges of this race course.

Liz Ann quickly sets me straight. She tells me that I won’t need to push hard on the uphills. As for the downhills, she’ll handle steering and will tell me when to tie on the braking strap. It’s almost race time.

We Race.

We start near the back of the pack. Liz Ann experiments by moving in and out of the groomed track to find the best conditions. After a few more corrections from her (“You don’t need to push so hard.”), I’m amazed that she is powering up the hills. Liz Ann encourages me by saying that I’m doing great and she can tell that I’m intuitive about how to assist. I’m feeling MUCH better and start to relax a bit. We catch and pass a few skiers.

First Crash.

We navigate some rolling terrain and come the first “real” down hill. Liz Ann uses her poles to reach and steer, but her skis get caught up in the uneven tracks and she tips over.

I fumble around until Liz Ann instructs me to lift her up from under her arms. She calls out “1,2,3 lift” and she’s back on her skis. We share a laugh, Liz Ann thanks me, we’re back on the course and racing, no big deal.

More Racing.

We carry on, experimenting with our systems for communication and technique. I’m starting to feel competitive and I wish we could have skied the course ahead of time to work out the bugs and improve our time.

On I fairly long downhill stretch, Liz Ann picks up speed, loses control in the soft track, and veers off the course. I look just in time to see her tipping over and plowing into the deep snow. This is our biggest crash of the day and when I get to her, Liz Ann has a small cut on the her forehead.

I wallow around in the deep snow until Liz Ann says, “Give me some lovin’ Mark” – code for lift her up in a big bear hug. I do, and we sit for a minute of brushing off snow and regrouping. Liz Ann looks small and a bit fragile in her sit-ski, but after taking the crash and blood in stride, I realize what I should have seen from the start. This woman is really, really tough.

We Find Our Groove. 

Mark and Liz Ann after the OSCR race

We hit the long climbs on the course. Watching Liz Ann from behind I can almost feel the determination coming off her in waves. This is clearly very hard work. She reminds me of a Tour de France racer, climbing, head down, drenched in sweat, focused, relentless. I’ve never meant it more then when I call out to Liz Ann “Good work, you’re doing great!” as we crest the longest uphill on the course.

We come to a section of steep, curvy downhills and decide to tie on the braking strap. We begin to descend, and I snowplow hard to control our speed. From her perspective, Liz Ann can’t see what’s going on behind her. I realize how much trust she is putting in me.

About 6k into the race, we’re rewarded with a bit of flat stretch. Liz Ann recovers enough that we can actually do a bit of small talk. She tells me that the first time she tried sit skiing after her accident she didn’t really know how to use her body and she cried because it was so difficult.

Don Gisselbeck, who is racing the the 20k, passes us and calls out encouragement. Liz Ann says, only half jokingly, “Let’s take him!” and we pick up the pace. Even though slowly Don pulls away, Liz Ann has clearly come a long way from her first day back on skis.

The Finish.

Liz Ann puts on her finishing sprint to cheers from the spectators. Juan de Santa Anna, the official race photographer is stationed at the finish line capturing finishers. Before the race, Juan fitted Liz Ann with a sports camera programmed to take a picture every 30 seconds. Juan was gracious enough to let me publish his photos in this blog. Visit his awesome website to see more of his good work.

After the race Liz Ann lets me take her sit-ski for a spin. Climbing a tiny hill is ridiculously hard. There is no way I could have finished the course as fast as Liz Ann. She is clearly very strong and fit.

The Wrap Up.

We socialize with friends, Juan snaps a few more pictures, and we attend the award ceremony at the Seeley Lake Community Center. Liz Ann and I exchange contact info, pledge to ski together again, and say our goodbyes.

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I found myself thinking of Liz Ann and the race often the following week. I pondered, why I am so touched by Liz Ann and my experience? Well, there’s the obvious connection we share with skiing and the outdoors, along with the fact that she is one of the “good” people in our world.

But more than that, I’m struck by her remarkable strength and grace in dealing with incredible adversity. I’m inspired and humbled by her resiliency and her ability to adapt and change, her willingness to ask for and graciously accept help when she needs it.

She has clearly made the decision to live life head on. Her actions model for all of us how to pursue and live a rewarding, passion-filled life regardless of the challenges involved. And who among us can’t use a role model for inspiration when life gets tough?

Liz Ann sent me the following note in a correspondence after the race: “I think we all do what we have to do to get through, and we don’t know what that is until we are faced with it. Life, in that way teaches (forces?) us to pull up the proverbial bootstraps….even when you don’t really want to.”

Liz Ann Kudrna teaches Pilates from a wheelchair in her Bozeman Studio and is excited about teaching others in wheelchairs to use their bodies and find ways to transcend physical limitations. She also participates in teaching programs that provide therapeutic recreational opportunities, such as Bozeman’s Eaglemount program. She is a swimmer, hand bike racer, and, in March, she will compete in the 2012 Adaptive Biathlon National Championships.

Good Luck at Nationals, Liz Ann!

 

Liz Ann Kudrna in her sit-ski.
Liz Ann Kudrna in he...
Photographer Juan de Santa Anna fits Liz Ann up with the Sports Camera.
Photographer Juan de...
Liz Ann's view out on the race course.
Liz Ann's view ...
Liz Ann racing OSCR
Liz Ann racing OSCR
Liz Ann powers up the Seeley Lake Ski Trail hills.
Liz Ann powers up th...
The big push. Much harder than it looks!
The big push. Much h...
With that smile, Liz Ann makes sit-skiing look easy.
With that smile, Liz...
Liz Ann crosses the finish line.
Liz Ann crosses the ...
Liz Ann and Mark after the race.
Liz Ann and Mark aft...
Fun and games at the OSCR.
Fun and games at the...
Mark Vosburgh and Juan De Santa Anna after the race
Mark Vosburgh and Ju...
The rescue scene on Mount Cowen in 2008.
The rescue scene on ...
Liz Ann is lowered off Mount Cowen after her accident.
Liz Ann is lowered o...

 

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Read more posts from Mark about backcountry and Nordic skiing around Missoula: Montana Skiing Decisions? Choose Wisely, GrasshopperThe Rewards and Dangers of Backcountry Skiing and Cross-Country and Nordic Skiing in and around Missoula.

Visit the Ski It Missoula archives. Visit the Ski it, Missoula archives for more powdery goodness.

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Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan from Boulder and a 26-year resident of Missoula. He’s worked as a chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He plays in several local bluegrass bands and enjoys the usual assortment of Missoula’s great outdoor opportunities. Check out the Ski It Missoula archives for more ski posts by Mark and more local skiers.