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‘The Mind Usually Wins;’ Skiers with Ties to Westford Compete in Mountain Marathon


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The outlook was favorable on Feb. 6 for Ben Eck and about 80 others when they slid to the start line of the “Last Skier Standing” and pushed off. The snow-covered Black Mountain would occupy Eck for the next 61 hours.


Just like Eck, Jerimy Arnold was set to compete in the “Last Skier Standing” competition, gliding to the bottom of Black Mountain and then skiing back up, taking only a 20 minute break before zooming down again. Each lap of the run must be completed within 60 minutes.

“This course was going up Black Mountain in Jackson (New Hampshire)…It was about 1,000 feet of vertical gain. The fastest people could do it in about half an hour,” said Eck.

Eck and Arnold pushed their bodies for 60 hours, until Arnold called it quits. Eck did one more run for the win — the last skier standing. In all, he pushed through at 61 total hours, 150 miles, and 64,000 vertical feet.

Two Guys From Westford

Complete strangers to each other, Eck and Arnold discovered they had a couple of things in common  besides a ski race — they are both connected to the town of Westford. Eck, 28, graduated from Westford Academy in 2011.  Arnold, 40, moved to Westford about six years ago with his family. He serves as vice president of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association. The skiing group is pushing for their sport to be included in the 2026 Winter Olympics scheduled for Milano Cortina, Italy, Arnold said.

From Start to Finish

The skiing competition began on Friday, Feb. 6 and ended on Monday, Feb. 9, long after the third place skier dropped out at 4 a.m., leaving Eck and Arnold as the last of the contenders.

“It was morning, so I figured I could make it until sunrise, and then it was a bright, beautiful day — a good motivator. So it really came down to what’s going to happen Monday night,” said Eck.

The Gear

Having the endurance and agility to compete in this mountaineering sport rests somewhat, on having the right equipment. The owners of the ski mountaineering shop in Jackson, which sponsored the ski competition, posted the following description of the types of boots and bindings needed for skiing up a mountain:

“Today’s top-shelf mountaineering boots are made from advanced synthetic materials, making them lightweight, warm, waterproof, and breathable. The soles of modern boots are also designed so crampons can be clipped on instantly. Often made from aluminum to shave weight, modern crampons have foreword-facing front points, allowing alpinists to efficiently climb on vertical ice.”

Eck said he had been living in Colorado when he first heard about the competition. But now, back in the Boston area for a Northeastern doctoral program in environmental engineering, he was ready to try it.

“I was pretty excited about being around this year to do it,” he said.

Ben Eck collapses on a chair after spending 61 hours climbing up Black Mountain and skiing down it. COURTESY PHOTO


What were they thinking?

Arnold had competed in the endurance test last year. Asked what he thinks about while competing, Arnold said, “First you’re thinking ‘why am I doing this’…?

But then, he said, he relaxed into the rhythm of the challenge.

“Just let my mind wander a little bit. Just let the body do what it’s trained to do,” Arnold said. “You don’t have to focus at all. You’re in the zone just cruising.”

Eck said he never intended to continue until the bitter end.

“It was more like setting personal goals, like 20 laps would be the most vertical feat I’d ever done in a day,” said Eck. “And then 24 hours seemed like a good goal and then 29 laps would be like (climbing) a Mt. Everest — vertical.”

Eck estimated that he and Arnold had skied about the same distance as if skiing from Black Mountain to Westford.


What they learned

Reflecting a few weeks later on what he learned from the adventure, Eck said, “If there’s some big thing you want to do, you start doing little things and they build on each other…You can’t fathom the idea of going two nights without sleeping…you just do one more lap…you just do that over and over again until you get far.”

Arnold said he viewed the competition as a fight between the body and the mind.

“At some point, the mind usually wins,” Arnold said. “I was probably in the same state from hour 30 to hour 60, physically, but…sometimes the mind wins.”

Update — A sentence in the section with the subhead, “What Were They Thinking” was deleted on March 1 because it was repetitive.

CORRECTION — March 26, Ben Eck is enrolled in a doctoral program at Northeastern University, not MIT.