I feel confident that not one single person (even the ski guru Zach Caldwell himself) could have predicted the past nine days at Soldier Hollow for US Nationals. What is normally a very straightforward venue- both for waxers, coaches, and skiers alike- became anything but. Each day brought some new form of precipitation, often changing every five minutes. And in a sport where (like it or not) skis and wax make almost as big of a difference as an athlete’s fitness, this made the last week, in a word, hellish.
Waxers quite literally made beds under wax benches before classic days (Pat did an absolutely amazing job all week long- he cares so much and I am so lucky to have him on my side), and dealt with a myriad of logistical obstacles. To start, the wax trailers were 2 days late. Then the morning of the first race, there was no power to any of the wax trailers, forcing an hour delay. The grooming plan wasn’t clear, and for athletes there was not a warm up course that at all represented the actual race course. The timing site often crashed, leaving waxers, coaches, and athletes waiting till the last minute on sprint days to find out if they were in fact lucky losers. And finally, the wax cabins were about a 5 minute run and a 10 minute brisk walk to the start, which when combined with changing conditions (and coaches waiting until the last possible minute to make a wax call to try and ensure the best possible skis) certainly resulted in a couple of pre-race stress tears (GUILTY).
I don’t normally like to complain about race sites, but for this to be a standard for US Nationals competition is unacceptable, especially because U23 and Junior World Championships will be held at the same venue in just over two weeks. While it is a massive bummer that this had to happen at US Nationals, I think there is a lot that can be improved when the world’s best descend on Park City.
For all of these reasons (combined with the 5,000 foot elevation), this week did in fact put every single athlete, coach, waxer, volunteer, and parent through both hell and high water. Despite all of this, I’m pretty happy to report that I had two great race results, one medium result, and one result I just really have no explanation for at all.
The first day of racing was the 10K skate, and I will give that day an A+ for planning and a C for execution. I have always struggled with distance skating at altitude (I seem to always have a spectacular blow up), so I wanted to really pace the day. I went out conservatively, and for the first time in my life almost even splitted (went the same pace each lap), and also for the first time in my life missed the finish lane and instead headed out for another lap. I wasn’t the only one (the course was not well marked), but I feel lucky that even in my race haze I remembered to pull a 180 and go backwards to finish. So while the plan was a good one- pace and don’t blow up- I never got going fast enough to be competitive in the race. I think this is an important lesson. When you make a race plan, it will probably only work 75% of the time. It doesn’t mean that your plan was necessarily bad or you should never make a plan again, but it is worth recognizing what went right and what went wrong so you can make a better plan the next time.
Despite the added variables on a classic day, both the classic sprint and the classic 20K were great physical and mental efforts for me. I ended up racing the “A” Final on the classic sprint day to end up as the 4th American, and then went the opposite distance and finished as the fifth American on a very challenging and mental resiliency testing 20K day.
The new classic sprint course at Soldier Hollow is awesome. It is a course where double poling really isn’t a viable option for four rounds of as-hard-as-you-can-go efforts, and requires both tactics and fitness to prevail on top. The course is a combination of a minute of climbing, a fast downhill, a big kicker, and then a long stretch into the stadium. The lead up to the qualifier was I think the most nervous and stressed I’ve ever been before a race. The conditions were absolutely out of control- a combination of fresh powder, glazed tracks, and icy climbs. I chose to race on klister. I exploded out of the gates and was really excited about how I felt and the ratio of kick to glide (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO5LNExTPrU) on my skis. But part way up the last wall, I realized that I was starting to accumulate a lot of snow on the bottom of my skis. This is particularly dangerous going into a big downhill (think face plant), and I decided to stop at the top of the climb and quickly scrape off my skis. I’m happy to report I made it down the hill on my feet, and also feeling really mature about myself as a racer. I know if that had happened last year I would not have even considered making a risk analysis (stop clean skis and lose seconds, or fall and lose more seconds) two minutes into a three minute race.
I qualified well, and throughout the heats learned that my fitness is right where I want it to be, but I got a little out-tacticted on the final climb. I was at the back of the pack as we descended into the stadium, and put down maybe my best double effort+lunge to date to clinch fourth American. Also, it was pouring outside the whole time (with no dry space near the start for either athletes, waxers, or coaches to go between heats- another thing to fix before U23/Worlds), and by the end of four rounds everyone looked like drowned rats or wet kittens (depending on your facial expression).
The 20K classic was a course with three distinct huge climbs, followed by fast downs with almost no flat or undulating terrain. It was clear to me at the beginning of the race that I had amazing climbing skis. I was able to stride right up most of the hills, and spent most of the race leading a group of four to close down a gap to the leaders. While I didn’t quite catch third place, I was really excited with my mental strength throughout an hour-plus of racing. I never gave up, and while I ended up fifth American on the day (not quite the first I was hoping for), I gave everything I had and have to be satisfied with that.
The final day of racing- a skate sprint qualifier only- I really have no answer for. I felt a little flat from the 20K effort two days prior, and the waxing conditions were rather difficult (heavy falling snow over wet snow over ice), but still I’m not sure what happened there. Typically my skate sprinting is one of my strengths, but I ended the day in the 20s, disappointed and scratching my head.
By the end of eight days of “hell and high water” (according to Caldwell Sport), I was exhausted and having a really tough time getting past the negatives and variables and focusing on the things that I did really well. I was having a hard time finding the silver lining. Driving to dinner with my mom through yet another snow storm, one of my favorite songs came on:
It’s worth listening to a couple of times (I’ve listened to it at least five times this morning). My three favorite lines are (1) “Hey, don’t write yourself off yet” (2) “It just takes some time, little girl your in the middle of the ride, everything everything will be alright” (3) “Live right now, yeah, just be yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else.”
Skiing, and US nationals this year in particular, felt like the most puke inducing roller coaster ride of my life. It was supremely challenging both physically and mentally, and I certainly had some seriously questioning moments. But it would be unfair to me to completely write myself off- at the end of the day I still had two top five races. I felt good, and I continue to feel strong and fast. I’m controlling the variables I can control, and getting much better at shaking off the variables I can’t. After all, it just takes some time, I’m going to keep on being myself and everything, everything will be just fine, everything, everything will be alright alright