Taking the Luge Challenge - and the Green One Too
by Mitch Kaplan
"And the winner, with a time of..."
How unlikely was this? The 13 year-old had not only won his age category in the Luge Challenge at Waterville Valley, he'd had the fastest overall time of the day. This from a kid who initially couldn't figure out how to stay on the little sled, no less steer the thing or drive it to victory.
The Luge Challenge is a series of timed races staged at a variety of downhill ski areas, utilizing plastic, luge-like sleds. USA Luge athletes and coaches teach civilians age 10 and older the basics in luging.
I'd come to Waterville with my friends Mark and Robin to re-introduce their kids to skiing. Scott, 13, and Neal, 10, had done some skiing, but not much, and it had been a while. The luge challenge provided an extra lure. Luging, we reasoned, would add something novel to the mix, and might reduce resistance to attending ski school.
We arrived early, the better to attain ski rentals and sign up for school and luge. The luge people manned a sign-up desk in the base lodge, and we quickly registered and signed away all their liabilities.
At the big white tent dotted with the large logos, the boys and their dad were outfitted with helmets, introduced themselves to the members of the national luge team, and were each given a sled. (Mom eschewed sliding; I played journalist/photographer/spectator.) The sleds are small. Not as small as real luge sleds (which, for those who've never ridden one, are tiny). They're constructed of heavy-duty plastic, have broad plastic runners that curl up and come together at the front something like ram's horns. Ropes fix through holes near the top of the runners' front end.
Placed in a line to receive driving instructions, everyone lay down on the sleds, splaying flat on their backs just like real lugers. To steer, you pull on the ropes. Simple enough. Except that to go left, you pull on the right rope. And vice-versa. A lot of helmeted head-nodding ensued, but on the track steering confusion reigned.
Scott, acting like the teenager he was rapidly becoming, paid little attention, professing complete understanding. Off to the top of the short, straight practice run he scampered with sled. He started down the hill. He immediately veered and crashed. Undeterred, he did it again. And again. Like a traffic cop giving a ticket, the pro luger pulled him over and took him back to basic training.
In short order all three of our racers were cleared to practice on the main track. Flanked on both sides by high snow banks and orange net fence, the track ran about a hundred, curvy yards long and was tricked out with timing equipment. The start stood on a raised snow platform. The starter gave a push and - whooosh - down the hill you went.
Luger after luger steered themselves directly into one snow bank or the other. This steering business was difficult.
Our boys practiced for half an hour. Mark made a few successful runs. Neal got it going after a try or two. Scott never reached the finish line. Then, ski school beckoned.
Mark and I used ski school time to make turns. Robin played ski widow in the base lodge. We re-grouped at lunch.
Neal, Robin reported after meeting the boys at ski school's drop-off, had suffered something of a setback. He'd been dropped down a skill level. We reassured him that this didn't equate to being left back in school; placement in a class is only a guess, and lots of people - kids and adults alike - move down once they settle in. Somehow, he wasn't convinced.
But, the Great Luge Race provided a useful distraction. Back at the track, things were already in motion. Bibs were being distributed; a PA system was blasting announcements; and expectation and hype filled the air. The boys obtained their bibs, donned their helmets and joined the line that trailed uphill alongside the track.
You get one shot at it here in the Big Race. Best time wins.
The line was long. We had time to study others' techniques. Big kids, little kids and adults of all sizes and genders zoomed past. Well, some zoomed. A fair share crashed into the snowbanks, twirled into circles or just plain stopped midway. A few rocketed full bore across the finish line, crashing headlong into the end-run snowbank. If not for that snow pile, some of those guys would still be going. A select few steered straight and arrived in minimal time.
Neal smashed the snowbank about halfway down. Dad didn't make it much further. I figured Scott to do the same (since he'd done it all morning). But, before I could even finish that thought, he crossed the finish line running straight and true. Could that timer's announcement be correct? That's the best we'd heard so far.
I checked with Mom. She agreed. I checked with Dad. He agreed. Well. Now we had to stick around to find out.
We'd been right, alright. The kid who'd barely made 20 feet on the tiny sled that morning had won. Best time of the day. Among his rewards - a fleece, a CD player and an Olympic-style gold medal.
Scott was basking in his moment of fame. But Neal? Feeling a bit too much like the not-ready-for-prime-time little brother. (I knew. I'm a little brother.)
The Green Challenge
The Luge Challenge ran again on Sunday, but once you've won the whole shootin' match, why not work on your turns? We turned the kids over to the pro teachers, again to re-group at lunch.
Now a parent will suffer many dilemmas in raising children, and here was one. One kid's raring to go and wants to be taken to the top. The other's feeling unsure, is intimidated by his big brother's presence, and clearly must stay in the beginner's zone. How to be in two places at once?
After enduring a few runs on Stemstation, an ultra-green, as a foursome, we sent Mark and Scott on their way. Neal clearly understood the basic concept. Problem was, he resisted that key split second in the turn when you must face straight downhill. We worked on it until it seemed possible to go bigger.
"Want to try the big chair?"
"Okay." No great certainty there.
We boarded the Valley Run Quad. That first run down Valley Run, a long, wide open green, took a good half an hour. Much stopping. Great timid pondering. Several falls. But, we made it.
"Try again?" I asked.
"Okay." No great enthusiasm there.
Run two went more quickly. Fewer hesitations; only two falls.
"Okay." A touch more affirmative.
Run three: No hesitation. No falls.
The boy was wedge-turning that trail like a pro. He wedged it almost til last chair. Holding that snowplow killed my knees, but the smile on his face salved the pain.
Big brother had captured the luge title. Little bro had conquered the greens. Everyone went home a happy.
The 2010 Luge Challenge schedule:
January 30-31: Blue Mountain Ski Area, Palmerton, PA
February 27-28: Thunder Ridge Ski Area, Patterson, NY
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...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.