Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mind, Body, Soul

Sorry this post is a bit belated but life happens and gets crazy sometimes!

The past few weeks of racing at at NCAA races and US Nationals has been a blur of excitement and exhaustion. Like many of my teammates something comes alive in my soul during ski season that lies somewhat dormant for the rest of the year. I have been embracing that awakening and trying to find balance in the rush of race season.

            I need to brag about my team for minute. Not only are they super fast, good looking, brilliantly smart and have great character but they are also incredibly brave. Meghan fighting her way through larger than life races at senior nationals, Leann finishing her first NCAA race ever not letting the fast Europeans scare her away, Bridget coming back and raging after a long hiatus from racing, Will and Sam inspiring us all when they represent the team strongly in every brutal 30k they finish, Taylor refusing to give up his great race even when the pack is no where in sight and the look of pure joy on Sierras face in a sprint.

            But despite these victories I think the bravery shows when the hardest choices have to be made. Sierra had to sit and watch from the sidelines the first few races as her knee recovered from an injury. Knowing Sierra, it caused her nearly as much pain not to race as it would have if she had raced. Ben listened to what his body was saying in the middle of two races and decided to drop out and rest for the next week. Taylor before the Bozeman 5k, and I at the nationals sprint, each decided not to start a race when and off day just didn’t feel quite right and the love of skiing just wasn’t in my tired body. Knowing when to sit out of a race and lay aside your pride and knowing your body well over the years is a honed skill that is perhaps more useful than the ability to finish every single race no matter what it costs you.

            Taylor and I cooled down in Bozeman after the 5k that hadn’t gone as smoothly as hoped for anyone on the team, we looked up at the Bridger Bowl mountain covered in snow and watched the flakes swirl in our beautiful snow globe.   We discussed how ski racing is mental, physical and spiritual, just like a good relationship. It takes everything you have every day you choose to do it whether it’s a good day or a bad day. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Steamboat races

The semester started this week so we have been busy with school as well as preparing for our next races. It’s a real pain being back in classes now after focusing completely on skiing for the last five weeks where we got to briefly live like professional athletes…

When organizers are planning their race courses they often will attempt to make the best course possible out of the existing trails. These trails often vary in their difficulty, so organizers have to come up with an appropriate course that will meet FIS/USSA standards. This is why we often do lots of laps. At Steamboat, however, organizers do not have to worry about coming up with a racecourse. 

Steamboat has a 5km course that is FIS homologated, and obviously was created for the sole purpose of hosting races, as opposed to having pleasant afternoon skis with your grandmother in mind. In fact, this 5k trail was cut into the hillside originally to host world class Nordic combined events, with its prime location adjacent to the jumps. Because the trails were built to be a race course, they are quite difficult, and their geographic location contributes to the challenge as well. Because the trails are built on a hillside, there is very little flat so you are always going up or down.

The trail. You can see the big hairpin ahead, which is also part of the race course
The actual race course sends you out the stadium, around a hairpin and almost immediately up a monster climb. It is extremely steep for the lower half, but it continues to be steep all the way to the top, which is a long ways up. Then it continues along some undulating terrain, down a hill, up and down another, and finally an extremely long, gradual up. This is at the 3k mark. From there the next 2k are all on one big roaring downhill back to the stadium. It’s a weird course because when you see each marker for another kilometer gone by, you ask yourself how it has taken so long to ski 1k, 2k, 3k. Then you do the last 2k in about three minutes. We did the same course both days, two laps the first day and four the second. 

It was another 10k and 20k for the men this weekend, and in the same technique as the previous races as well. The 10k interval start skate was held simultaneously with the RMN Junior National qualifier, so I was surrounded by juniors on both sides. I was a little perturbed by this because I would much rather be surrounded by the other collegiate athletes so I would have better rides to catch, but what can you do? 

Conditions for the race Saturday were great. Temperatures were in the low teens, which is fine with me, and there was a hard snow pack. This was the first day of the season that I’ve gone with my cold weather skis, my old Atomic WC hard track, over my warm skis, Fischer CarbonLite plus. The Atomics are significantly older and this is only the second time since I got the Fischers that I’ve used the Atomics. The Fischers usually run faster regardless of the weather, but I keep the Atomics around for days like these.

The town below us, with the resort in the background
When I hit the course I quickly caught up to the skiers in front of me. I took the first climb conservatively knowing that it would be futile to hammer that huge climb so early. But by the time I reached the top I was really suffering. I continued to suffer very hard through the rest of the race. I think I was not totally healthy, and I’m sure that contributed. Though I kept passing skiers I really didn’t feel so good, even though my first split had me in 20th in the college field. As the race went on it was nothing but pain. Now ski races always hurt, but I felt like I was about to die the entire race. Normally you shouldn’t be feeling like that until later in the race. 

My splits later had me dropping places, and I ended a disappointing 28th in the college field. Sam was the only other male to race from our team, and he had a killer day, finishing 25th, 19 seconds ahead of me. We beat a handful of the NCAA athletes, which is a positive. Sickness has wrecked our team, and besides the two of us, only Sierra, Elise, and Meghan made it to the start line. 

Day two was the mass start 20k classic. I was looking to improve on my poor result from the 20k in Bozeman. We had great conditions again, a hard packed trail and temperatures in the low twenties. This made waxing a breeze. I went sticky on the day because there was so much climbing. Because the first 3k are mostly climbing, and we spent probably 80% or more of the race on the first 3k time wise, the right call was sticky. The little bit of time you lose on the downhill from the extra wax will be more than compensated on the front part of the course. 

The pack hammered the first part, but I was able to keep up without trouble. When the trails got steeper the pack tended to slow way down, but it would accelerate over the tops ferociously. I skied at the back of the pack but the pace was comfortable for me. 

At the last little up before the big downhill I lost connection just a little bit. I knew I was ahead of a few skiers, namely two guys who’d broken poles and lost a lot of time. One of them caught me and I skied with him and another guy for a while but eventually they dropped me on the second lap. The other broken pole guy caught me, and same thing. I skied behind him for a while before getting dropped. On the third lap I saw an MSU skier ahead, Noah Anderson, and I figured I could get him. There was a UAA guy, Marcus Dueling, even further ahead that I was hoping to get too. 
Christi got this shot of me on the last lap

I’m not sure how I ended up so far behind relatively early, after I had skied so comfortably with the pack on the first lap. I think I was worried I would blow up like I did in Bozeman so maybe I was holding back because of that. Whatever happened, I was basically on an island. I was ahead of Sam, who was the next behind me, and behind the guys I had been skiing with. Fortunately on this course you can see a long ways ahead of you at a lot of sections. For instance, in the stadium you do this weird out-and-back, so I was seeing the front guys go out as I was coming in, so I knew that even though I was behind I wasn’t that far behind, and that I was doing a lot better than last time. 

I eventually caught and passed Anderson, and I had my sights set on Dueling. As the race progressed, I wasn’t really gaining any ground. I hit the last lap with a significant deficit to him, but when someone is in eyesight you always believe you can catch them. I raised the pace a little at the start of the lap but still didn’t really gain. I was isolated but I now had him to push me at least. The gap stayed the same basically all the way around, and towards the end I think I gave up because I know he gained time on the later part of the course. So I didn’t get him.

I finished 26th, which is two places better than Saturday. However, to be honest this is probably because so many people DNS. Day one had 35 college skiers and day two only had 28. That being said, I felt much better on the second day, so that is a positive to take away from the weekend. I felt stronger and less sick. 

Results from the race can be found here.

Next week we have our first USCSA qualifier, in Mesa. This will be the first race of the season that the Competitive Team will be traveling to, so our numbers should be boosted considerably from this week! It should be a great weekend for us after so many punishing races in a row.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Skier of the Week: Montana State Invitational

Sam charging the last hill of the 20km
I write this skier of the week post from the passenger seat of Clifford as we drive to our second NCAA race of the season. This weekend we will compete on the cold trails of Howelson Hill in Steamboat, Colorado. CU piggybacks their invitational on a Rocky Mountain Junior qualifier and thus, the trails will be crowded with skier of all ages. It has been only three days since we all piled out of Clifford after our twelve hour drive home from Montana. At our recent bathroom stop in Walden, Sam turned and looked at me and with a sparkle realization in his eyes he said, “I think I’m still tired from Monday’s 20K.” A brutal race in which a pack of mostly sub-100 FIS point racers skied the first 5K at a pace that most good skiers could not sustain for 10K, Sam had held onto that pack for almost two laps. After missing one of his feeds, he was forced to keep pushing without the needed hydration and glucose. And despite this, Sam kept pace with an APU skier and skied to fine finish, some of his lowest FIS mass start points. Only one day prior, Sam had skied the 10km interval skate mass start at such a high pace that he had bettered all but one of his prior races. The course cut through the trees of Bohart ranch like an undulating serpant and enabled us coaches to be at three places all while also giving splits. At literally each of my six Sam sitings he gained in strength and it was in the last 3 K of the race that Sam’s most powerful ab crunches manifested. This is always the case with Sam. The harder it gets, the stronger he gets. The longer it gets, the more competitors wish they hadn’t heard the name Sam Wiswell. But today, as I write this skier of the week post, I am honored to shout Sam’s name to all and to bring him to a bashful blush as I not only recount his race strength in Montana but I relate that he is one of only five skiers still standing and, only three days later (an EPSCoR Grant Proposal written in the interim), ready to take on the harrowing hills of Howelson. A leader, a role model, a reflective practitioner and an ever-improving athlete and scholar, we are very lucky to be a part of Sam Wiswell’s journey.