Being a Minnesota sports fan is nothing short of exhausting. Take the Minnesota Viking’s most recent loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card round of the NFL play-offs. After successfully kicking a 47 AND a 48 yard field goal earlier in the game, it would appear as if a 27 yard field goal to win the game would have been a given. But Minnesota sports fans know better, so it almost came as no surprise when Blair Walsh missed the field goal, hammering the final nail into coffin of the Vikings 2016 Super Bowl bid.
I’m willing to bet that Blair Walsh was hyper-aware of the fact that his kick would be the winner- if it went through. Instead of focusing on kicking the ball, like he has done a million times before successfully, he was thinking about the 22 seconds left on the clock, and the knowledge that this was his team’s last drive. Thinking about the last drive, he knew if he didn’t score his team would lose. And then he was probably thinking about what the loss would mean for every single one of his teammates, and all of the die-hard Vikings’ fans. That’s a tough mental place to execute a kick- even an easy 27 yarder- from.
Heading into the 2016 US Nordic Nationals in Houghton, Michigan, I had quite a bit going on in the pressure cooker. I wanted to prove to myself and faceless others that all of my hard work had paid off- that I had made big gains and could put them to show on snow. The first race, a 10K individual classic start, is actually one of my favorite races. I had a good result (8th place), that was to date my best ever National’s distance result. At the finish line I was tired, and while I was satisfied with my race I was by no means ecstatic.
With a skate sprint the next day, I put the classic result on the shelf to be examined at a later date. Warming up for the qualifier (sprints include one individual qualifying round, and then three group elimination rounds), I felt good. I had good spring in my legs, and felt confident stepping up to the line. And then, I skied like last-season me. I knew I wasn’t using all of my power, and I knew I was skiing frantically, and despite knowing this I couldn’t stop doing it. I crossed the line qualifying 5th, which objectively was perfectly fine, but I was internally frustrated.
Expressing this frustration to my coach Pat, he told me to take a couple laps on the course and just focus on each individual push, not thinking about results or other people, but just thinking about using my entire body in every skate I took. Lining up for my quarterfinal I didn’t think about anything other than skiing well. I took it out of the gate, easily advancing to the semi-finals. I did the same thing in the semi-finals, moving on to the final round. In the final I wasn’t focused on other people, but instead just worried about how I was going to get myself around the course as fast as I possibly could. I gave it everything I had, coming across the finish line second, less than one second from the win.
After two days of resting, we faced an entirely different beast of a race- the 20 Kilometer mass start skate race. Historically, I was relatively terrible at this distance and technique. It seemed painful, unnecessary, and just not that fun. But I took what I had learned from the sprint day (relax and focus on making each push as perfect as possible), and half way through the race found myself in the breakaway pack of four. I continued focusing on skiing technically and tactically well, and the four of us made our way around the 10 Kilometer loop for a second time, and with a kilometer left things were gearing up for a sprint finish. Unfortunately as I went to sprint my left leg completely cramped, but no matter I made it to the finish ending the day in fourth, 17 seconds back from the winner. To put this in perspective, last year I finished the 20 Kilometer race 12th, two minutes and fourteen seconds from the winning time.
The last race of the week, the classic sprint, marked another personal best for me. After a conservative qualifying round to save energy for the heats, I raced my way all the way to the final. Everyone was very tired after a week of racing, and I got bested in the last 200 meters, ending the day with my second podium and second second! While disappointed that I didn’t win, I can’t help but be satisfied with my effort. If you had told me last year I would be bummed with second place, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’ve made big improvements in lots of areas, and now I have some new things I can focus on and improve.
Each time I got to the start line, I made a big mental effort not to think about the result, or what the result could mean for me. Instead I put a lot of mental energy towards skiing my own race, and skiing to the best of my capabilities. Was every second of every race perfect? Absolutely not. In both sprint finals I wish I had waited a little longer to make my final push. In the 20K skate I wish I had actually made an attempt to break away sooner. But every second of the last three races I was so focused on the moment, I didn’t even have time to consider the potential outcomes. So while the actual results themselves are wonderful and the best I’ve ever had, for my development as a skier the mental fortitude I gained from the week is far more valuable. I’m trying not to fall into the trap of professional Minnesota sports teams, and priming myself to make the ski equivalent of the 27 Yard Field Goal.