Dancing between the storms

Well my first trip down south to race is over. I flew back home to Alaska for a few days and then yesterday I packed my bags and this morning I boarded a plane heading for Europe. I fly to Stockholm and then up to Falun by train to race World Cups.

It’s been a whirlwind trip home, no sooner was I here than I left for a weekend of racing in Valdez. However before I get into all of that, US Nationals.

I flew to Salt Lake City, Utah and the plan was to rent a car and drive up to Heber. When I woke up that morning I already had a notification that my flights were already amiss. I got to the airport and sorted out the mess but my flights were altered and delayed by 3 or 4 hours. Pretty frustrating but nothing too bad. However once in Salt Lake one of my bags didn’t show up… my skis were missing. Not a great start to a racing trip. So I went to get my rental car, now let’s just say that was interesting… So another hour later I arrived finally in Heber and crashed into bed at 11:00pm when originally I was meant to arrive at 5:00pm.

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The daily dig-out of my hire car.
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Some serious Christmas lights in Heber.

The next morning I awoke to buckets of snow coming down. It was pumping snow! Already a foot of had fallen and surrounded my car. With directions in hand and no skis I headed toward a mountain bike area and went for a run on the packed bike trails. I have never felt so rough the next morning going for a training run. I was really achey and sore and not feeling good at all. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and hanging out with the wonderful Poirer family. The next day with skis in hand I headed up the Soldier Hollow to check out the venue and courses. Almost all the race courses were redesigned and so it was exciting to see what they had come up with. The sprint course was solid, it had a lot of good hills in it and yet wasn’t too crazy. The 5km loop on the other hand was brutal. It had some seriously long, hard, grinding climbs followed by bombing downhills that left little time to recover. 

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Skiing at Soldier Hollow

I spent the day skiing feeling like I was missing my lungs, it was my first time at altitude in 1.5 years so I was just adapting. I was one of the main reasons I arrived so early into Utah, to get used to that altitude over a longer period of time. So after a few days of easy skiing I tried my first set of intervals. Yep I felt terrible. I just had nothing and yet my heart and lungs were bursting through my chest!

The day before the race I did pre race and testing with the AUS team wax techs. The Junior team had arrived from Sun Valley and I had moved from Heber into a house with them. It was great to be back working with the AUS techs. We are really fortunate to have some fantastic techs on the team now that have been with us for over a year now and so things are starting to become familiar and easy with them. A massive thank-you for all the hard work the staff did over the week!

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Out running with Abe Wright in Soldier Hollow.

The next morning I headed down to the course ready to race. I went to the second major hill and watched athletes racing on it for a few minutes. It started to dawn on me then that everyone, and I mean everyone was moving slow. No one was skiing fast and I realised that my expectations of ski speed to effort ratio was way off. In my intervals and pre-race I was just expecting myself to be skiing at sea level effort and speed, and I was not logically realising how much of an effect being at 2000 metres was having.

With the proverbial lightbulb finally turning on I did my pre-race and focused on the race.

I went out conservatively, or what I thought was an easy race pace, and fairly quickly I was getting splits from coaches on the course that I was in the top 20. I was stoked to hear it but a little surprised to be up so high considering I was aiming to start slow and finish hard. Second lap went well until the last and hardest climb, I hit that and halfway just really felt my legs burn. By the final lap my legs were screaming and flooded with lactic acid. It was a solid race. Not my best but certainly not bad considering it was only my second distance race of the year. With a bit more confidence and excitement I looked towards the classic sprint and 30km.

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Finishing the 15km at US nationals. Photo credit: Georgia Merritt.

The next morning (the classic sprint day) I woke with my legs aching. The worst I’ve ever woken up feeling from a ski race. I had done a really decent job of recovery the previous afternoon but I guess the 15km took way to much out of them. The classic sprint was a disappointment. Instead of blasting the uphills like I had envisioned I slowly chugged up them it seemed, and I was missing the snap I really needed. It looked like all of other people suffered as well from either wax or bad energy. For the first time in 10 years no one from APU, whom I usually train with in Alaska, made it into the men’s heats.

Not making the heats gave me the added bonus of more recovery time and so thats how I tried to approach it. There is one day off between the sprint and 30km and I tried to do everything I could to get ready. That night however, disaster struck for me and a few guys on the team. Four of us got stomach bugs and were out. Thankfully I was the least effected by the bug but I still couldn’t race the 30km.

I flew home a few days after that having spent most of the time just regathering my strength.

The flight home was hit by another brutal winter storm and again I was delayed 5 hours, arriving home at 5:30am after a very long night.

That afternoon at 4:30pm I picked Lauren up from the airport. She had been racing in China for two weeks in the Tour de Ski China. She was pretty tired but informed me that she was going to drive 6 hours to Valdez the next day and race over the weekend.

I hadn’t planned to go at all. All I wanted to do was relax at home and train. But the idea of racing and trying to get some more starts under my belt sounded good and the lure of prize money too strong, so I decided to go with her. We packed our bags the next morning and headed down to Valdez.

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Driving into Valdez in the snow storms.

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They too were having massive snow storms and that night almost two feet of snow fell. Waking Saturday morning to race after receiving two feet of snow overnight we were shocked when it began to rain an hour before the start of the race. The first day was a 15km skate and I was starting bib 5. All the other strong racers were starting in front of me and so I just aimed to try and reel them in as much as I could. I started really hard knowing that the first half of the course is much harder than the second half.

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Start of the Qaniq Challenge. Photo Credit: Calvin Fifarek
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Heading out at the start of the Qaniq Challenge. Photo Credit: Calvin Fifarek

After the first half of the course I had caught and passed everyone who had started in front of me bar one APU skier. I was pretty stoked it was going so well and it just fueled me to keep pushing. I eventually caught the skier in front, crossing the line first. I was really excited to have won the race but it wasn’t quite over.

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Finishing the 15km in Valdez. Photo Credit: Calvin Fifarek

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The Qainq Challenge is a two day race with the final time deciding the winner. The second day was a 18km classic pursuit where each athlete went off depending on their finishing time yesterday behind the winner. So I went off first and then the next skier was off at 2:11 min behind me. Now that sounds like a bit, but over 18km that can disappear. To spice things up, there was two inches of fresh snow on the tracks and I was off first, basically breaking trail for everyone else. It meant everyone behind me had faster skied-in snow.

For the first few kilometres I could see behind that they were closing the distance. Perhaps at one point it was down to a minute. I managed to put a little more time into the second skiers in the latter half of the race finishing still 1:46 minutes in front. Mentally it was such a challenge and a battle to keep the focus and charging forward but I’m really pleased to come away with perhaps a pretty fortuitous win.

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Happy with the weekend!

There is a pretty decent prize purse from the City of Valdez for the win so I’m stoked to of captured that. It’ll really help to pay for some flight to Europe!

The drive home was another epic, 6 hours of blizzards with a foot of snow and a mountain pass making things pretty touch and go at times.

I’m in Seattle now a stop away from Europe.

Train hard, rest easy, live for the moment.

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