Ride the Nearest Bone-Rattler
Sometimes we all need a good shakeup.
You might argue that life itself does that job quite well on a regular basis, thanks very much. So let’s try that again. Sometimes what we need is a controlled shake-up – one we know is coming, can prepare for, and be certain the whole deal will be over by tomorrow. Think of it as a reboot, the better to return to work Monday morning feeling like you just got unplugged and plugged back in. And, in this case, to get primed for the fast-approaching Winter Olympics in South Korea.
The Whistler Sliding Centre, home of the toboggan-y events at the 2010 Olympics, is the fastest bobsled track in the world. Officials actually tried to make it slower after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritsashvili tragically flew off, at 144 kpm, and struck a steel beam during a practice run. But it’s still plenty fast.
I can tell you that first-hand.
That’s because the Centre, a mecca for national-team training and international competitions, lets paying customers take a spin down the track. This is a bit like duffers getting to knock a tennis ball around at Wimbledon, but a fair bit scarier. To try bobsledding at WSC, you sit in the back with an experienced driver up front: nothing required of you but to hang on for dear life.
But skeleton, man. Skeleton is another animal.
Skeleton is like luge but for one small detail: you go head-first. And because it’s a solo event, there is some training involved, as I would discover after my first — and let’s be honest, my last — Big Skeleton Day.
The newbies muster in a room at the Centre. First order of business: acquire the mindset of an Olympian. This means banishing all notions that this is not a serious sport, that it’s some sort of beer-league goof, even for Olympic champions. That it’s just glorified sledding.
In fact, sledding is to skeleton what baseball is to ballistics. In sledding you don’t hit speeds that, if you were caught doing them on the TransCanada Highway, would net you a $135 ticket.
We will spend the morning learning the basics. Blitzing through the core curriculum.
History: skeleton began as a macho race through the iced-over streets of St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Physics: “You will be pulling several g’s and that will have a different effect on the body,” says Skye, one of the instructors. (Wait, several g’s? That sounds … astronautical. How many g’s are we talking here? Professionals starting from the top pull around five, which is actually more than a space-shuttle launch. Starting from curve 10, we beginners might pull two.)
Question in the back: Are we likely to get hurt? Nah, says Graham, the other instructor. Occasionally a slider can bash an elbow, but that’s rare. If it’s going to happen, it’ll probably happen on Curve 11, called “Shiver.” Most of the curves have names. Curves 12 through 15, known as Gold Rush Trail, are the make-or-break part of the course. Curve 13 is known as 50/50, because Night Train captain Stephen Holcolm said that’s your chances of crashing there. Curve 16 is where the Georgian luger flew off. And then the tough stuff’s over. The last straight bit is actually uphill, to bleed speed before you stop and count your bones.
We practice positioning ourselves on the sled. It’s as simple as lying there, and it isn’t. The trick is to be soft. To sink into the sled like a bag of sand. The pros actually steer by tiny shifts of their shoulders, or even just by turning their head. But we aren’t to try any of that. “The best thing you can do,” says Graham, “is exhale and just slump.”
After a light lunch, we gear up. There’s the option to wear a “speed suit” — one of those sausage-skin full-body coverings, complete with hoodie, that reduce drag. In competition this shaves precious fractions of a second, which could be the difference between a podium finish and a Greyhound ticket home. But few of us can be bothered to girdle-squeeze into the thing. We go with our ski jackets. Old school, baby. The main thing that needs protecting is the noodle, so everyone wears a motorcycle-style helmet with full chin covering.
It’s like doubling the weight of your head. Holding my head up is actually going to be an issue, I realize, as I belly onto the sled and ease into the start position, staring down the half-barrel of the track.
The ice is six inches from my face. It’s pebbled like a curling rink, for maximum speed. You really don’t want to put your head directly on that at highway speed. “Think of trying to grasp a pencil with the back of your neck,” was Skye’s worthwhile advice. A gentleman named Wiley holds me in position by my shins. This is what it must feel like if, having failed to pay your gambling debts, you get escorted to the edge of a bridge.
A traffic light shows red. Red. Red. Then green.
What the next thirty seconds feels like is tricky to sum up. It’s like clinging to the undercarriage of a freight train, facing down. The overall impression isn’t so much speed as vibration and pressure. You don’t see the curves. They announce themselves, with filling-loosening g-forces.
The weirdest thing is the position of your arms, straight back behind. That’s not where they should be at these speeds. The world’s most experienced diver would be spooked by having to plunge from the 10-metre platform with her hands by her side — yet that’s the deal here. You feel unbelievably exposed.
Actual Olympic skeleton competitors are too busy concentrating to be scared. Make a mistake early and it’s reflected in every subsequent turn; the off-kilterness of your line is magnified. (Another way that skeleton is like life.) It’s scarier for us newbies because it’s simpler. Exhale and slump.
On the other hand, who can’t benefit from feeling more intensely? We spend too much time in our heads. On your first skeleton ride, I guarantee you – and this may be the prime benefit of the whole venture — that for 30 seconds you won’t be worried about your credit rating, or the gaffe you made at work, or the scoundrel your daughter is dating, or anything else. This is pure animal in-the-moment aliveness.
I hit 94 kilometres an hour in the final straightaway. Not Olympic speed, but decent.
It took halfway through the drive home to realize I wasn’t shaking any more.