Savouring the thrill of victory on Whistler’s skeleton track
You win some, you lose some.
It’s been mostly the latter for me lately (in this space at least). I was soundly beaten – some would say embarrassed – by ski-cross gold-medallist Ashleigh McIvor in a head-to-head ski-racing simulator in downtown Toronto a few weeks back. Then, after touting Toronto’s Grey Cup festivities and trumpeting my team’s chances, the Calgary Stampeders wound up on the losing end of their tilt with the home-town Argonauts, to the detriment of both my pride and bank account.
That’s why my triumph on the skeleton track at B.C.’s Whistler Sliding Centre earlier this week tasted that much sweeter.
Even if I hadn’t scored both the best time (30.45 seconds) and the fasted speed (97.76 km/h) out of the eight novice racers on the track that morning, the experience would still have yielded thrills unlike any I have known.
The Whistler Sliding Centre's "Public Skeleton" captured via helmet cam.
In case you’re not familiar with skeleton, it was reintroduced to the Winter Olympics in 2002 after a 54-year hiatus. It takes place on the same track as the luge, but instead of riding feet-first on their backs racers fly down face-first on their stomachs. The heavy metal sleds (pictured at left) are said to resemble a human rib cage, which explains the sport's macabre moniker.
In my experience, when a thrill ride of this type breathily states that participants can "reach a maximum speed of 100 km/h,” it means this kind of velocity is technically possible, but only with a strong tailwind and only if you're wearing a skin-tight spandex unitard. And wouldn’t you know it? My unitard was at the dry-cleaners and the sliding centre didn’t rent them.
Aside from this minor oversight, the former Olympic venue takes care of everything else. For $159, the two-hour “Public Skeleton” includes two trips down the track, all the gear you need -- gloves and a helmet with face shield -- and a half-hour orientation session.
The overarching message of the orientation was to lie completely flat and still, like the proverbial sack of potatoes, with our heads tilted slightly upward as if we were trying to hold a pencil behind our necks. Once it was established that under no circumstances should we attempt to stand up, roll off the sled or ride it like a crazy carpet, our group of novice skeletoners began the short climb to the top of the 500-metre-long Maple Leaf track. It sure seemed like a long way up, even though the public section is merely the bottom third of the full Olympic course.
After the start procedure was demonstrated – staff gently release sledders much like an angler releases an undersized trout (pictured at left) – a test run was conducted while the newbies shuffled nervously about and speculated jokingly about the origins and allure of the doubles luge.
I was the third to go. "Sack of potatoes, sack of potatoes," I mumbled to myself. "I can do that."
I watched the first two sledders being released, trout-like, from the starting gate. About thirty seconds later, their top speeds and track times blared from the PA system.
Then I was lying on the sled, a staffer was asking me if I was ready, I replied "sack of potatoes!"...and I was off.
The first gentle turn felt almost leisurely. But it got wild in a hurry. By turn three (of five), my speed was beyond belief, having reached highway levels (again, 97.76 km/h!!!). And with my chin juddering just a couple of inches above the ice and the rest of me held in place by nothing but gravity -- the force of which was tripled in the turns -- it felt like a cross between astronaut training and the wickedest roller-coaster on Earth.
In short, if I could distill the wildest moment from anything I've ever tried, that first skeleton run would be at the top of the list.
Then I did it again. This time, however, I knew what to expect. I didn't clench my shoulders, teeth and sphincter (as much). I had my eyes open the whole time. In fact, I experienced a moment of transcendental calm as I reached my top speed. For the first time in my life, I felt at one with a sack of potatoes.
It was this tuberous oneness that I credit for my stunning double victory. Thanks to the skeleton, it seems I'm not a luger after all.
-- Adam Bisby
Read all of Adam’s Tripified posts here.