On January 30-31st, I traveled from Sweden to South Korea to compete for the USA in 3 days of World Cup cross-country ski races. It was exciting and a little surreal to travel to Asia for a weekend of racing. It’s taken the 2 weeks since I’ve returned to the US to process what I saw, did, learned, felt, ate, and to compile my photos of interest… Without further delay, here’s a collection of photos and commentary about Korea!
On one hand, travelling to race in Korea was similar to many ski trips – fly to an airport, take a bus to a hotel, learn who I’m rooming with and settle in, figure out meal and training schedules, and prepare to race. On the other hand, we were in Asia this time! I’d never been to Asia, never been to a place where the alphabet is made up of characters rather than whatever you would call these English symbols… probably letters. It was also particularly exciting because Pyeongchang, South Korea is the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, to be held one year from now, so the venue is in the last stages of development gearing up for next year’s big event. Most winter sports are holding test competitions at the Olympic venues this year, and so our group of 10 US athletes and nearly as many techs were part of the group of international skiers going to race and check out the scene in Pyeongchang.
The races were a 1.4k classic sprint on Friday night February 3rd, 15k (women) and 30k (men) skiathlon on Saturday, and a skate team sprint on Sunday night. Fortunately I was able to race all three events, which was a great experience for many reasons! In the classic sprint, I qualified for the heats for the first time on the World Cup with a 22nd place qualifier. Due to the timing of the Pyeongchang event, and the long travel involved to get there, relatively few of the regular World Cup skiers competed, and the field sizes were quite small and a little less strong than normal. There were still some extremely good skiers in attendance, like Justyna Kowalcyzk of Poland, who won her 50th World Cup race in Saturday’s skiathlon. But I would be the first to say that the smaller field sizes opened the doors to a lot of opportunities that someone like me, on the bubble, bouncing between the World Cup and the domestic field, could take advantage of. So it was really cool to qualify for the sprint rounds, and to race in the quarterfinals! The quarterfinal was (mostly) fun – it was cool to stand on the line, behind the starting gates and in between banners like I’ve seen so many times on TV, and have the camera pointed at me while they announce my name. Cool to sprint race with some really fast people, and to feel the energy of the bright lights and the crowd of a World Cup event. Not quite so cool to… let myself get boxed into the back on the first uphill, take an awkward line on the first downhill that forced me back into 6th position, pass my way up to 4th, and then lose those gains by catching an edge and falling at the bottom of the last downhill corner… Come on Caitlin, you’ve done this classic sprint heat thing before!?! It’s funny how being on the big scene of the World Cup really exaggerates some mistakes, and even though I’ve done sprints many times before, every course is a little different and I wouldn’t exactly consider myself an expert at the most sensible or well executed tactics. My GRP teammate Ida skied strong throughout the day to take 3rd in the final, so that was exciting! …Musings on the skiathlon and team sprint to continue, after a few photos.
On the skiathlon day, women raced at 2:30pm, enough for a leisurely morning before we rode the shuttle bus from our hotel to the venue. For a skiathlon, we start out classic skiing, but we wear pursuit boots that are in between skate and classic (in stiffness and overall design), and after 7.5 kilometers of classic skiing, we switch to skate skis and poles in the stadium to finish out the race with 7.5k of skating. With bib 6, I started in the 2nd row of the mass start chevrons, pretty close to the front. Although I was fine right off the line, at a track switch about 30″ in another skier and I tangled briefly and I found myself trying to smoothly work my way back up to the front. Classic skiing in skiathlon boots has a slightly different feel, and I struggled with not being able to kick my skis quite as well as I would have liked. Luckily I had good energy, was able to use my upper body, and as the transition to skating drew near, I was ready and excited to ditch the kick wax and do some skating! I made the transition in around 8th place, and was able to ski with a Norwegian woman for part of the first lap of the skate, as we drew nearer to several others. I never let myself think too far ahead, just kept my body working the hills and transitions, with an eye on the skier ahead and an aim to close the ground between us, passing one and then another. And as the top of the last hill approached, I closed in on the Swedish woman skiing in 4th, slingshotted around her on the final downhill (take that, downhill where I’d fallen the day before!) and held my own in a sprint to the finish to place 4th! It was really cool, to be just a step away from the podium, and 21 places better than I’d ever finished in a World Cup before. After my race I gave a few interviews to media people in the mixed zone, and then was pulled into doping control to give a urine sample. Close to 2 hours later, after having watched the entire men’s skiathlon on a TV monitor from the doping control room (and seeing Scott ski to a 9th place finish!), and finally drinking enough water to pee the required amount for the test, I headed back to the hotel to eat and rest for the next day.
The team sprint the next day was wickedly hard, especially on somewhat tired legs. First we had the semifinal round, where only the top 2 teams automatically would move on, and then the finals if we made the cut. For each round, I would start, ski a sprint loop, then tag off to Liz Stephen, switching back and forth until we’d each skied 3 times. Liz and I knew pushing the pace would be our best advantage, so starting on my 2nd lap of the semifinal I accelerated and dropped the teams behind. By the time Liz finished, we were solidly in the lead and made the final! That was the first exciting step…now time to calm down and get off our feet for about 30 minutes, and then do it all again, with an even more competitive group of skiers as the best from two semifinal heats were combined into one final. We skied really hard throughout pretty much the whole final, and though I think both of us found that we couldn’t quite match the surges over the top of the last hill on the last lap, we finished a very nice 4th place! The other US women’s team of Sophie and Ida finished just ahead of us in 3rd, on the podium!
In the Seoul airport on our way to fly out, Scott and I stumbled across a Korean Culture booth/gift shop. Not only could we look at authentic crafts and gifts, and buy nice souvenirs for reasonable prices, but we could make a few of our own crafts – here Scott is making a paper bowl, while I made a wood block print of the Korea alphabet. See Scott’s blog post at scottgpatterson.wordpress.com for his story and the name of the paper bowl, I can’t remember what it’s called
Related to my previous blog post, did I make the most of my World Cup opportunities in Sweden and Korea? Yes, I know I did! The one 15k classic race I did in Sweden was slightly frustrating, but I learned a lot about racing at sea level after coming from a long stint at altitude, and I finished the race on a strong note even if my late surge only took me to 32nd place. I let myself get a little frazzled and out-of-whack with the time zone change in Sweden (+9 hours from Truckee, CA), but after travelling to Korea (+8 from Sweden, or +17 from CA which is also -7) I took on much more of a “ah, whatever, I’ll sleep when I can and figure it out” approach and actually slept really well through just about the whole night, all of them! In Korea I made the most of the small field size, and came away with two 4th places, the chance to ski and work out the kinks in an individual sprint heat, and an awesomely difficult but fun team sprint experience. And best of all, I had a great time, because everyone was really excited to be in a new place and see the Olympic venue, and we had a great team atmosphere that fed off successful results and the desire to explore a tiny bit of this new place. (Speaking of new places, I have a sideline post that I will put up quite soon after this one, with photos from the one non-venue-or-hotel-or-airport location we visited, Woljeongsa temple complex!)
Thank you to the US techs and coaches (especially Marek Sander who was my personal tech for the week!) who worked so hard behind the scenes to provide great skis, encouragement and advice, and cheering on course!
Quite recently I set up a Facebook athlete page, where I’ve been more likely to post short photo-updates than here on this blog. So if you’d like to see more frequent updates, follow me here: https://www.facebook.com/caitlinpattersonskier/
And then a few more links of interest…
Noah Hoffman made a great recap video of our visit to Korea which you can find on Facebook, or here:
Interviews and articles from ski news media about the weekend of racing in Korea:
Blogs on the experience from fellow skier-travellers!
And if you’re interested in watching replays of the World Cup races in Pyeongchang, or anywhere else during the season, there is a link to a Youtube channel at crosscountryski.us