US Nationals! I had high expectations for my racing, and for once in a blue moon, I actually met those expectations or possibly even exceeded them! After all, considering that I won both distance races of the series, what more could I ask for?
I arrived several days before the first race, ample time to reacquaint myself with the Michigan Tech ski trails. I’d raced on the trails before, in fact quite a few times – at my first Junior Nationals in 2006, as well as my first Senior Nationals in 2007, and subsequently at Senior Nationals in 2008 and 2015. I had spent the holidays at my parents’ new house in Bozeman with my immediate family and ample snow, and all of the ski world was a bit concerned as we headed towards Houghton, hearing that the snow was thin. Due to the great work of the volunteers with shoveling and raking and careful grooming, the trails were actually great, thin snow but fully covered and clean. Which is exactly what we skiers want to see when we show up to a new venue – clean, dirt-free snow on which we can have fair competition and where we won’t be likely to scratch all our nicest race skis that we pull out. Thanks Houghton volunteers and race preparation crews!
So, after a few days of ski testing, low-key distance workouts and a few quick speed workouts to wake up for racing, we reached the first race day – 10k individual start classic.
Did I think I could make the podium in the 10k? Yes, absolutely, if I could nail my race-day preparations and ski my best. I had plenty of doubts though, all the way through my warm-up, but I kept my confidence, tested my skis calmly, and once the race started everything pulled together nicely. Oh and I had a little pre-race confidence boost (if he can do it, I can do it) combined with increased pressure (yikes those are high standards to live up to) when my brother Scott won the 15k classic men’s race early in the day. Racing my 10k, I felt strong, I was able to hammer each uphill and rest adequately on the downhills to be able to do the same thing on the next hill. My skis were excellent, fast and with great kick thanks to my wax techs Nick Brown and Ollie Burruss, and I had enough energy to make my strides powerful and effective.
At the beginning of the 2nd 5k lap, I had heard coaches yelling splits that had me leading the race, including back-splits that I was leading even including the women who had started after me. However, as I continued around the loop towards the finish, people were cheering but no longer giving me numerical information. “Go, Caitlin, this is for the win!” could mean that I’m ahead, or it could mean that every second counts and a bunch of us are very close and whomever finishes strongest will win. I had an idea that the nature of the cheering meant that things were going well, but you can never be quite sure, so I powered through the end of the course with everything I had. As it turned out I won the race by 36 seconds, followed by my teammate Kaitlynn Miller in 2nd with an awesome race of her own. This was my first National title (including Junior Nationals and NCAA Nationals, I never did win either of those) and it felt great, making all the hard work I put in this year worth it, and boosting my confidence going forward with the season!
In the next day’s skate sprint, I used that confidence to ski well throughout the qualifier and early heats, earn a spot in the A-final, and finish 3rd place! My first Nationals sprint podium! This race wasn’t without its flaws, I felt that my jump-skate was decidedly sub-par, but I skied well enough on the rest of the course to be in contention, falling slightly behind Jennie Bender and Annie Hart in their furious sprint down the finishing stretch, but holding my own in 3rd.
After two days without races, a nice opportunity to re-energize but also to build up nervous tension, we lined up for the women’s 20k skate mass start. The course was 2 laps of a 10 kilometer loop, including plenty of large climbs as well as fast descents and rolling sections. The pace started out moderate, at least compared to some mass starts I’ve been in, but maybe I’m just adjusting to it. By part way through the first lap the lead pack had separated down to a group of 6, and by the end of the loop we were down to four – Chelsea Holmes, Katharine Ogden, Annie Hart, and myself. We traded off leads occasionally, but for the most part Chelsea did the majority of the work at the front. I hit a low point at about 12k when I nearly got dropped, falling maybe 5-10 seconds back from the others, but a long descent allowed me to catch back up and strengthen my resolve to persevere. Mental toughness is definitely crucial in a 20k, and against the adamant complaints of my muscles and physical body, I mentally challenged myself to keep going through the pain, to live up to my expectations, to fight my hardest until the very end. With 1k to go, we were still all together, beginning to jockey for position in earnest. With about 500m to go, Chelsea and I were both attempting to pass Annie, and Chelsea successfully passed on the left and made a break for it. It’s all very fuzzy but I had to maneuver around a bit and begin the chase, kicking in my finishing sprint, maybe 5 seconds down with less than 300m to go. Surprising even myself, I caught up and pulled ahead with about 100m to go, crossing the line in first!
The 20k was followed by one day of easy skiing, then a classic sprint race the next day. The strain of 3 previous races was starting to tell a little – I like to think of myself as well-trained, a strong skier, easily can handle 4 races in quick succession – but realistically I need to work on my stamina, I was quite tired by the classic sprint! Still, after such a great week of racing already, I was excited to put on the bib once more in Houghton and see what I could do. I qualified in 11th, feeling rather sleepy while racing, but solidly in the heats. As a testament to the strength of our women’s team right now, my teammate Kaitlynn won the qualifier, and Liz and Heather were close behind in 2nd and 9th. All four in the top 11, which we improved during the heats to all four within the top 10. I struggled from a poor start somewhat in the finals, but still finished a solid 4th place at the end of the day. It was extremely exciting to watch (and yes, even as I was double poling myself to the finish, I was watching the race for the win playing out in front of me) Kaitlynn win the classic sprint!
An amazing week overall, surely not one I will forget. Thanks for all the support, encouragement, congratulations from everyone I’ve heard from since then! And most especially thank you to my coaching and waxing support crew, Pepa, Nick, and Ollie, who put in long hours testing throughout the week and did a fantastic job of nailing the wax every race day.
And there are video recaps here from the USSA Dartfish channel of the 20k and the classic sprint:
Based on my race performances at Nationals and in the earlier season, I’ve earned start rights for races in Scandianvia for the cross-country skiing World Cup during February, and then the World Cup Canadian Tour during March!! I’m greatly looking forward to the opportunity to ski race on the world’s biggest stage. Currently back at my home base in Craftsbury, VT, I’m putting in a hard training block to prepare, and looking forward to my departure on February 2nd for Oslo, Norway.