The 2017 World Championships

It’s been about two weeks since my last blog and a whole lot has happened since then. Namely, the 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland!

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The opening ceremony. Photo: Lauren Fritz

So bear with me because to fill you in properly, this blog is going to be fairly big! Consider yourself warned, read on at your own peril!

After racing 15km in Estonia the whole team flew to Helsinki, Finland and from there we caught a bus north to Lahti. It was quite a long evening, especially after racing, and I crashed into bed around 1 or 2am that night. The reason we pushed so quickly to get to Finland was because two of our team members were racing the qualifying race before the world championships officially started the day after. The qualifying races takes the top 10 finishers and lets them start the 15km the following week.

For the rest of us, we just went for an easy ski on the trails, and got to start to figuring out where everything is. For those that haven’t ever seen the ski stadium and tracks, it’s quite a sight to behold. It almost seems like the stadium is build in a old quarry but certainly it’s cut into the side of a huge hill. Towering over the stadium are three massive ski jumps that are lit up in the blue and white of Finland at night. Then encompassing all of that is a huge grandstand and surrounding buildings. Almost every day there were 35,000 spectators or more watching the races. It made for quite an electric atmosphere!

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Phil, Lauren (taking the photo) and I cruised through one of the many areas created by the organisers. Many were beer halls and BBQ areas but this one was more for the kids and had ski jumping, hockey and other games for them to do. Photo: Lauren Fritz.
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Just a portion of the stands. Photo: Lauren Fritz.
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A wider view of the stadium.

 

My first race of the championships was the skate sprint. The first day or two in Lahti we had perfect, hard fast tracks. But the day before the sprint a storm rolled in dropping a good 15-20cm of snow and turning the tracks soft. There were 158 starters for the mens sprint, the biggest world champs race I have ever seen. My sprint was solid but nothing amazing. I simply held my rank in the order, but didn’t ski as fast as I really wanted to. I just didn’t fly up those hills, my legs just don’t like skating at the moment!

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From the stadium looking out towards the jumps through all the coaches before the start of my sprint race.
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Skate sprint in soft, fresh snow. Photo: Lauren Fritz.
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Trying to power up the hill and find that pop in the sprint! Photo Lauren Fritz.

The following few days I had off from racing. Phil and I both skipped the 30km Skiathlon to prepare for the classic team sprint the following day. The team sprint was something I was really excited about. It’s such a fun race, each of us do a lap of the sprint course and tagging off to each other three times. But for each heat there are always loads of teams that you’re racing against so it’s really fast and furious, but fun. We both skied well and managed to move up quite a way in our rankings. We finished 19th which is quite a bit better than what we did at world champs 2 years ago and certainly being in the top 20 was awesome! I look back at the race a lot and think about what could of been if I had of done this or that instead. I still feel like I could of done a little bit better in my laps but it’s always hard to say.

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The next race for me was the one I was most looking forward too: the 15km classic. Lahti gave us a full range of weather. Some days it was amazingly cold and sunny, some days it snowed, and for the 15km it rained the night before (a lot) and the tracks were a sloppy, wet mess. Almost identical to the 15km in Otepää so it actually gave me confidence because I knew I had great skis for those conditions and that I can ski well in them. Skiers started every thirty seconds and I was the very last to go. I really like the courses in Lahti, they are hard but rolling. After every big hill is a solid rest, so my aim was to just push it hard and try to recover after each hill. So my time came and I sprung out of the start pen going for it. Fairly quickly in the first few kilometres I started passing starters that had begun just in front of me. It always gives me a big boost to hunt down people and pass them, I really like chasing people so it worked well for me to start at the back. However my hard start caught up with me at around 11km and for a little while I was in trouble and I was hurting badly. Luckily I got a few splits from the coaches about 1km later which got me going again. I was just outside the top 60 by a few seconds and right behind Phil. Both in the end just got away from me by about 18 seconds. I finished 62nd and Phil ended up 60th. However it’s actually my best ever world cup or world championships finish in terms of time behind the winner so that was really exciting. It was all quite tight in front of me so with some more work I hope to really move up the list!

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15km. On such a difficult waxing day we had perfect skis. One of our techs, Brian skied around 40-50km that day testing waxes to make sure we had perfect skis. It was awesome!  Photo: Lauren Fritz.
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Racing the 15km. Photo Lauren Fritz.
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Randy and Brian, two of our techs cheering us on course side. Photo Lauren Fritz.

The last race of the championships is always the toughest. The 50km. This year it was skate (it rotates each world champs just like all the other events) and it was on the full 10km course at Lahti, basically utilising every piece of terrain the area has to offer. It was a good course and I was hoping to keep going with my distance form and have a big result again. Warming up I wasn’t feeling great and I just tried to put that down to nerves. The gun went off and for the last time the crowd roared as we all surged forward. For the first few hundred meters things seemed relatively organised within the pack. Then a Russian fell and just as he got to his feet an American slammed into him causing a second crash and more chaos. I wasn’t feeling fantastic, not bad but not good either. I settled into the fact that this was going to be a long, tough 50km but one that I could certainly handle!

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The start of the 5okm. Cal (63), Phil (65) and I (69) were all seeded in the back of the field.

I skied with a Kazakhstan skier for a long time, trading turns at the front or maybe each of us was attacking the other person, trying to drop them. I’m still not really sure which one it was. At about 29km I dropped him and thought I’d seen the last of him, but then he got a feed at around 30km and came zooming past me! So I pushed, trying to hold onto the back of him. Just as I went for it I realised my energy was starting to get pretty low and up the next climb I basically popped. However it wasn’t just low energy that was killing me, I was cramping really badly. At roughly 32km I got to the point where both my legs were in complete cramps and weren’t releasing. I went down a hill and simply glided up the other side with straight, stiff, immobile legs. I tried to skate a little but I just couldn’t bend my legs. The cramps wouldn’t release and so I hobbled off to the side to try and stretch or move my legs but I couldn’t. I just ended up falling over with two peg-legs. Thankfully an official came over and just started massaging my legs and after about 5 minutes of work he finally got the cramps to release and I could move them again.

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The 50km was on near perfect conditions. Photo Lauren Fritz.
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The 50 on a perfect day. Photo Lauren Fritz.
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Hanging on in the 50. Photo Lauren Fritz.

I considered skiing again and continuing to race but the leaders by this time with all my hopping about weren’t too far behind, so I decided to pull the pin. It turned out to be a really smart choice because between low energy and lying on the snow for quite some time my body became really cold and I just shook violently for ages. Even sitting in a warm room next to a heater with jackets piled over me it took a long time for my body to settle and regain normality.

I was quite disappointed not to finish the 50km. It’s such a hard and fantastic event and to be able to say you’ve finished one at world champs to me is a pretty big deal. On the other hand I skied until I couldn’t get my body to ski any more and there isn’t much more I can do than that.

Lahti was a pretty amazing World Championships and really positive for me. In the end I leave Finland with only good memories of amazing crowds, fantastic people and solid racing.

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Crowds. Photo Lauren Fritz.
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Everywhere you go, excited fans! Photo Lauren Fritz.
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Luckily athletes got to enter and exit the stadium via a different route so we didn’t have to always go through this but it was also pretty fun to walk amongst it and soak it all in.

Lahti was also really special for me in a number of ways. Lauren flew over to watch and cheer, which was just fantastic to have. Being able to spend some time with her and unwind from the racing world every now and again was great.

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Lauren and I only managed two photos with us together in it but here we are on the final evening before I flew back to the US.
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Some days Lauren was an Aussie supporter and other days USA. I guess it just depended on who was in the race. It was great to have her there. This was just after the USA put 3 ladies in the top 6 for the sprint!

But perhaps the biggest thing for me was that I wasn’t the first Kovacs to race in Lahti. In 1981 Dad raced at the Biathlon World Championships in Lahti for Australia. He has shown me photos of him standing under the same ski jumps with his team as I have now done and raced on the same trails as he did. It’s quite amazing and special for me to be able to have done that. Ever since Lahti was named as the 2017 World Championships I knew I would make it my business to qualify and race there.

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Dad in 1981 looking as fashionable as ever.
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Dad (green hat) with the 1981 Australian World Championship team in Lahti.
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Well, a few things have changed but the ski jumps are still the originals. Lauren Fritz.

Finally a massive thanks to all the Aus team and staff that were at the event and helping back in AUS. The trip worked extremely well and we had fantastic skis for all the races. The guys worked bloody hard and it showed! So big thanks to Valerio, Randy, Paul, Brian, Rob and Eevamari for all the hard work, and Finn back in Aus too.

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The 2017 World Championships team from back left: Callum, Phillip, Randy, Paul, Paul (me), Brian. From front left: Kat, Jess, Barbra, Valerio, Robert. Missing from the photo are Nick Montgomery and Aimee Watson. Photo Lauren Fritz.

I’m now back in the US and have three weeks to recover and train before US Spring Championships which conveniently are in Alaska this year.

Train hard, rest easy, live for the moment.

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