It’s a tricky line of work to be in, this professional ski racer business. At the end of the day, we’re judged primarily on the quality of the racing results we produce as individuals, simple numbers on a page of exceptional athletes. Are results always a true reflection of the work done by racer and support staff, the process of getting to the present moment, the potential of a given individual?
Results, times, finishes are just a shadow copy – a way for the world to judge and rank, but not the full picture of the individual. Or at least that’s what I have to believe, to stay positive and whole and realistic. I love competition, the sport of the chase, the fact that at the end of the day there is only one winner. But I also love training all year, simply skiing in the woods on a winter day, the teammates and competitors I meet, the places I travel, and the common bonds forged by the trials and tribulations of ski racing. And I like to be able to appreciate moments from any given race, to separate out the good feelings or stellar passes or nicely climbed hills, and value those snippets apart from the eventual result outcome. Of course I do always want to be as high up on the results sheet as possible, and I have high expectations for myself, but these feats have to be accomplished in steps.
As seems to be usually the case, my recent venture onto the World Cup circuit in early winter 2016 has been fraught with ups and downs. This is the third winter that I’ve raced on the World Cup in Europe, only ever for parts of the season, and the first time I’ve been over for the season start of World Cup period I. After scoring points (top 30 finish) last winter, perhaps I thought I had a few of the tricks of the circuit figured out and would have smooth sailing this year… not quite so much! New venues, travel logistics, variability in how my body is feeling and reacting to training, variability in wax, a variety of courses and race distances… this World Cup race circuit is still forcing me to learn lessons every day! I hope to be a receptive student, and I do feel that I’m becoming more comfortable here, but true success is going to take more expertise at adapting and dialing in preparation in the week leading up to the races than I’ve shown so far.
First was Ruka, Finland. I saw reindeer, enjoyed a few arctic sunsets mixed in with the snow flurries, glimpsed the Northern lights faintly, and absorbed the World Cup festive atmosphere that helped propel me to a 28th place in the 10k classic race.
In Lillehammer, I admired the wooden bridges dotting the ski trails, and enjoyed swooping over them. I practiced the fast downhills, did speeds through the stadium, had a great pre-race warm up on the day of the first race, the classic sprint. And then I let myself ski frantically during the qualifier, which is always going to be a disaster in classic sprinting, and was frustrated to feel like I could hardly make progress up the tracks, and to see the results reflecting a misdirected effort. The 5k skate the next day I skied with much more composure, but it was over too soon, and I left the race feeling mildly disappointed with some mistakes I had made in cornering, transitioning and a slight heaviness in my climbing legs. Sunday we closed out the Lillehammer minitour with a 10k classic pursuit, and on slightly-slick skis, I fought to find my rhythm and enjoy the pain of the race, but never quite found the gears I was looking for, moving up slightly from a start in 46th to a finish in 42nd.
After Lillehammer the World Cup circuit moved on to Davos, Switzerland, a land of sunshine and chocolate. Davos was so nice, albeit lacking natural snow, and I had great days and training sessions leading up to the race weekend. And then in the 15k individual start skate, the longest individual start race held on the World Cup all year, a race that should by most markers play to my strengths and be a good one for me to do well… I felt extremely bad. I started out of the gate optimistic, determined to ski smoothly and powerfully… and my legs gave me some smoothness but the power was that of a mouse, not a human. In a race with relentless climbing and hardly ever a rest, how can you shake out the legs and regroup? I tried, mentally restarting, willing my body to wake up, but with the accelerator pressed to the floor I remained the powerless mouse. Altitude has a funny way of suddenly striking the un-acclimatized, and I have to believe that what I felt was just a bad altitude effect, because I know I can ski so much better. The next day we raced a skate sprint in Davos, and I felt so much better, skied a very good race, and was only 9 seconds back from the winning time and 3 seconds from qualifying, in 47th place. While one good race doesn’t necessarily erase the sadness from a bad race, it does help me begin to rebuild and remember that I can in fact ski well, I just have to get all the pieces of the puzzle in order.
And in La Clusaz, France, I admired the snow-dusted mountains, although wishing they were more deeply snowy. The light filtering through the mountains and steep hillsides in the mornings and afternoons was beautiful, and there are well-kept French houses up and down the hills, and lovely shops tucked into the towns. The skiing was quite good on the impressively-created 2km loop in the field at the venue – the organizers extracted ice chunks from a lake nearby, perhaps with excavators, crushed it up and put a 20cm underlayer of ice around the whole loop, and then covered that with manufactured snow. I had traveled to La Clusaz with a little cold, but I recovered quickly with forced rest, and on Friday joined several of the USST women for a race-prep intensity workout on course.
Then Saturday we raced a 10k mass start skate race, 5 laps of the 2k loop. It was fast and furious, and 80% of my race was really excellent! I started with bib #27 but kept my cool, stayed out of trouble with out getting into any tangles, and skied smoothly but aggressively up into the pack early in the race, rising to 19th place at my best and holding 20th through the midway point of the race. It felt fast but comfortable, and if I had to do it again knowing what I do now… I’d race pretty much the same way. However sometime shortly after the midpoint, I think at the beginning of the 4th lap, I may have put in a few gentle surges over the tops of hills too many. Or maybe it had to do with having been sick earlier in the week, or maybe to do with the moderate altitude – for whatever reason, my skiing started to fall apart with about 2-3k left to go. I held on ok, and dug as deep as I possible could to keep skiing well, and descending into the final uphill before the finish I was still skiing in 27th place. But then my legs were so wobbly that even though I had a clear line through the fast downhill corner, and no one was around me, I couldn’t stand on my feet anymore and I fell, right at the bottom of the hill. Getting up and restarting, forcing myself to move up the final hill with no momentum and while I was really terribly bonked was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I fought for it, but about 8 skiers passed me on that one uphill, and I ended up finishing 37th place. It was a disappointing finish to what had started as a really great race, but still an extremely valuable and fun experience overall, once I absorbed and could move past my crash.
The next day it was on to the team relay – unfortunately I was not selected to race any of the legs, so I went on a great morning hike to the top of a mountain. It didn’t feel much like the week before Christmas even up high, with very little snow and warm sunshine, but it was a great hike nonetheless. In the afternoon I watched the women’s relay up at the venue, which certainly makes me want to earn a spot in one of these some day soon… And with that, my time racing in Europe had come to a close, and it was back to the US. I’m spending the holidays with my family, and then I’ll be travelling over to Soldier Hollow Utah to race in US Nationals in early January.
Thank you to:
Bryan Fish for the excellent waxing and ski support
All of the USST coaches, techs, athletes for the encouragement, good company on the road, and inspiringly hard work and fast racing
My team, the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, and title sponsor Concept2, for helping me qualify for this World Cup experience and to get to the races
Personal sponsors Fischer, Swix, and Toko for keeping me well equipped and ready to toe the start line
All the family, friends, current and former teammates and coaches who’ve helped me rise to the World Cup level of skiing, and who I know will encourage me as I keep pursuing excellence in this challenging sport. I’ll be back to the World Cup, I have to be, because my high expectations won’t let me settle for anything else!