Strafe Outerwear co-founder John Gaston is the fastest ski mountaineering racer in the country. He proved it two weeks ago, when he swept all three races at the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Nationals in Crested Butte. Prior to that, he raced his second World Cup race in Europe, placing 30th in the individual race at the Font Blanca in Andorra in January and third at the Alpiniski in Switzerland in February. He recently celebrated his 29th birthday by skinning 12,000 vertical feet at home in Aspen. On Saturday, Gaston and local Strafe athlete Max Taam will compete in the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering race. If the duo wins, it will be John’s fifth consecutive victory in the grueling event that races up and down Aspen’s four ski resorts. Gaston credits his success in the sport to his mental toughness. “There are guys who are physiologically fitter than me but at a certain point, it comes down to how long can you spend in a non-comfortable environment.”
T: How did you feel going into Nationals at Crested Butte a couple of weeks ago? J: I hadn’t raced in the U.S. this winter and I put a bunch of pressure on myself because I didn’t win last year. Last year, I was in the lead though the final climb, then I took a wrong turn where you put your skis on and drop down the peak. I had to hike back uphill a little. I skied fast but lost by six seconds.
T: What was your strategy this year? J: Because there are three races over three days, my coach and I came up with a plan to win the Friday night vert race, by using as little energy as possible to leave as much in the tank as possible for the next day’s race. Last year, I had to battle hard in the vert race—I wanted to puke. This time, my biggest lead was only 200 feet and I pulled back to win by 10 seconds. In the individual race, it’s more just a war. Regardless of who you are or your strategy, you’ll end up totally blown at the end of the race.
T: What makes the Crested Butte race unique?J: Crested Butte is the most technical course in the country—even more than some courses in Europe. In two hours and 10 minutes, there are only six minutes of skinning on a groomer. But unlike Europe, if you’re setting the pace, you don’t just have to deal with creating a gap [behind you], you have to deal with setting the skin track half the time. They did a good job and set a skin track Friday night for the Saturday individual race, but it was really hot, turned to mush, then froze over. It was glazed ice. That’s always tricky. Some of the bootpacks were heinous. I had to set the track up the third climb, and I was wallowing up to my knees. It was super frustrating. The final climb is a 15-minute class 4/5 scramble along an exposed ridge. It’s like a via ferrata. You have to climb and manage the equipment. You don’t get to practice that on other races and courses. And being the last climb of the entire race, you could show up to the bottom of that with a three-minute lead and if you aren’t confident and fast, lose it all.
T: How did it go?J: It was me, Max and Tom Goth from Utah. We all race very different. Tom goes out of the gate faster than anyone and Max is a rather slow starter, but he’s very good at pacing himself. He’ll never blow up. Tom often goes too hard. I have to decide whether to hang back and conserve or go with Tom, get a big gap and hold on for dear life. My brain often doesn’t let me do the smart tactic—we sent it from the start and had a two-minute lead at top of first climb. I thought we maybe overdid it and were going to pay for it later. Tom set pace the first climb and we built a gap as we skied the first descent. Some of the north-facing stuff was edgeable, but some of the aspects were some of the worst skiing I’ve ever seen. We made up a lot of time on the descent, but then I lost most of that breaking trail on a bootpack. I was able to get a bit of a gap from Tom on the fourth climb and on Guide’s Ridge, I was moving better than I expected. I think Tom started to feel the altitude. We were at 12,200′. That’s the No. 1 thing. For the really technical stuff, whether skinning or climbing, you have to use the ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ mantra. If you get panicky and move quickly, you’ll end up jamming you’re ascender into an anchor or catching your ski tips on overhanding rock. You can’t afford to waste energy at that altitude. Halfway across the ridge, I knew I had it. The last descent goes from the peak to the bottom. It was the worst snow I’ve ever skied on rando skis. Tom broke a boot. Max broke a ski. And these are guys who know how to ski. Max caught Tom on Guides Ridge and put a two-minute gap on him in the last descent and finished second.
T: What does the win do for your U.S. standings? J: When I made the decision to go to Europe in January, that put the nail in the coffin in terms of my overall U.S. ranking. I knew by going to do a World Cup, I was going to miss races. And when I go back over to race the Pierra Menta, I’ll miss the Powder Keg in Utah. I’ve been first in the U.S. overall rankings the last four years. That’s nice to say, but I’d rather get the experience in Europe.
T: So, the Power of Four is this weekend. It’s a five-hour race, compared to the two-hour races you’ve been competing in this year. What’s your strategy in racing a longer race like this?J: I find the longer races more controllable. You’re trying to conserve and hold back for as long as possible. You’re not worried about losing a couple seconds in a transition. It’s a little more relaxed. On the start line, you kind of joke around with people and when you go out, you go fast, but nowhere near the pace for a regular race. For Max and me, that’s a good thing. We’ll still go crazy, but we’ll try to be patient. There are so many hours ahead and we only so many matches to burn. The race doesn’t start until you get to the bottom of the [Highland] Bowl. If you’ve made it there with all your equipment intact and your fingers aren’t frozen and your skins are working and you’re eating and drinking well, then you can start putting the hammer down.
Our hometown advantage is the Bowl. It’s the No. 1 place we can make up time on a descent. We can carry that that to Congo Trail, where you can make up a lot of time because it’s so technical and scary for people. Our strategy is to wait. No matter how good you feel for the first two hours, you still have three hours to go and it only gets harder. If you can’t talk to your partner or eat or drink, you are definitely going too hard. We are always really good about that. We communicate well and stay on each other so that pace is comfortable for both of us. We remind each other to drink and eat. Instead of competitors, we are teammates and the key is to figure out a way to make the two of you faster than you can be on your own. In a race like this that’s so long, there’s much more of an adventure element. It’s a long day and there are ups and downs no matter how you feel, but if you stick together, you’ll probably get through it.
That’s when all the training and prep in November and December comes into play. That’s the reason we put in huge hours and huge days so that we’re not cramming before the race. A lot of people with limited time send it too hard before the race. I like race week—I pretty much kick back on my couch. You can’t get any faster race week.
T: So how do you train?J: The last two months, I put heavy emphasis on intensity over volume. I don’t have as much volume in me as I usually do, but I probably have too many high-intensity efforts. You should go to a race and the pace should feel easy. If you can look around and wonder if you’re going hard enough, that’s when you know the training is working. I’m a firm believer that you should train harder than you race. When you’re training, you can get away with blowing up. You can finish intervals cross-eyed because you don’t have to ski back down like you do in a race. Racing when you aren’t prepared sucks. You need that confidence to do well. Crested Butte was a good example things of things falling into place.
T: What will you do the day before?J: Max and I are going to set a short piece of skin track for the race on the backside of Aspen Mountain. I’ll go to bed early because a 6 a.m. start time is a whole different animal.