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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

December 3
The past few days have been the epitome of uncertainty of life as a ski racer. We all know that our sport depends heavily on the weather, and every once in a while Mother Nature decided to let us know that it is still her, and not us, who will decide when and where we have ski races. This is one of those times. I signed off my journal from Silver Star by saying that the midwest really needed snow. Well, since that time things have only gotten worse. We are supposed to race in Thunder Bay this coming weekend. But for the past couple weeks, we had been hearing through the rumor mill that there was some skiing in T-Bay, but not much. Then on November 29 (last Thursday) word came that the races might be moved. Sure enough, on Saturday around noon, the race organizers announced on their website that the races had been moved to Iron Mountain, Michigan. So I started searching the web for places to stay in Iron Mountain. Then, an hour later, the website changed the location to Ironwood, Michigan (maybe just a mix-up on their part). Then, a few hours later the website said that races were going to go on in Thunder Bay, but with a schedule modification. Good thing I hadn't made any lodging reservations! Then on Monday, after more warm weather, they decided to cancel the races completely. But there was still a rumor circulating that USSA, or CCC (Cross Country Canada), or someone was trying to put the races on in a different location and a final decision would be made Tuesday. Meanwhile, all the skiers who had planned to be in Thunder Bay waited by their computers for a final word.

December 4
On Tuesday, there was no word of rescheduled races, so I scrambled to change my ticket to the midwest. After all, I have three feet of snow outside my door here in Park City, so I am in no hurry to go anywhere. I spent most of yesterday and this morning making calls and scouring the Internet for snow conditions in Minnesota and Wisconsin and looking for cheap airfare within seven days notice (ha!). See, as much as I would like to cancel the trip entirely, we are still scheduled to race in Cable, WI next Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, so I need to get there at some point. I tried to change my departure date to this coming Sunday, instead of this Wednesday (tomorrow), but for some reason not only does the airline charge you a $100 change fee, but they also rebook the ticket at the current going rate, which meant it would cost me a cool $1000 to arrive a few days later. I could cancel the ticket and rebook on another airline for about $500, but it would send me through Phoenix on a very long travel day. Finally I gave up and went to bed, resigning myself to travelling tomorrow while hoping for the best.

December 5
Then, this morning, I was woken up at 7:00 when Erik's dad called him to say that it was 60 degrees in St. Paul, Minnesota and all the snow was gone. Hearing this bad news, I got up and went back to my Internet search with renewed vigor. Not only was it 60 degrees across the whole region, but it was also raining in Cable. It looked as if, by the end of the day, there would be no snow anywhere in the midwest. I debated the $500 ticket some more, figuring that at least that way I would buy myself a few more days of skiing in Utah. And if they cancelled the races completely, I could stay put (for another fee). But on the other hand, if I changed my flight, which was now scheduled to depart in a few hours, I would be out a couple extra hundred bucks no matter if I actually made the trip eventually or not. So it came down to a question of how likely it was that we could race next weekend...

The backup site for the Telemark races is a 2.5K man-made loop at the Telemark Lodge. I checked the weather report and it said that it was supposed to cool down and remain below freezing for the next week. This meant that even if they didn't receive the minimal new snow in the forecast, they could still make snow. This was enough to convince me that there was a good chance that there would be some sort of racing in Wisconsin next weekend, and I packed my bags and headed to the airport with Erik for our flight.

Confused? Good. We all are. All I really know is that, after all that, I am in Minnesota as I originally planned. But there is no snow, which was not part of the plan. Maybe tomorrow will bring better news.

December 6
You know, maybe I should have been a swimmer. When someone schedules a swim meet months in advance, the athletes all know exactly which pool they will be racing in, how many laps they will have to do, and the temperature and depth of the water they will be racing in. It doesn't change. They don't need to pack an old speedo in case of poor water conditions. They don't need to worry about the race being moved because of lack of water. But then again, they do have to go back and forth over the same 50 meters thousands of times in training and all the scenery they get to see is that blue line on the bottom of the pool. Ski racing can be a pain when there isn't much snow, but it still beats the alternative.

Once again, I woke up this morning thinking things were back under control. Erik and I would stay at his parents' house in the Twin Cities for one more day, then head to Ironwood, MI for a couple citizen races this weekend, then head on to Telemark to prepare for next week's NorAm races. But then more bad news threw us into uncertainty again. The warm weather and rain yesterday did even more damage than expected to both Telemark and Ironwood. Both are closed until they get more snow. Saturday's Ironwood race is cancelled, and Sunday will not be decided on until Saturday morning. So now we sit and wait, and dryland train.

For this trip, I did something I swore I would never do: travel to a ski race with rollerskis. Sure, if there is no snow at home during the winter months, I might pull them out occasionally. But to go through the hassle of packing them to bring on a trip when I should theoretically be skiing? I never wanted to do it. But this time I had to. I knew that there was a good possibility I would be stuck in snowless suburbia for up to a week, and I could not go without specific training for that whole time. So I squeezed them into my ski bag when I packed. And this morning I was glad I did. Because of the warm weather, Erik and I were forced to do a ski on pavement this morning, rather than on snow. And honestly, it wasn't too bad. Sure I would rather be skiing, especially when thinking about the snow I had to leave behind in Utah. But the roads in Erik's neighborhood were winding and rolling and fun to ski. After two hours, my arms were very sore from pounding the pavement with my poles, but other than that, it was a good workout. But I don't think I shall be so upbeat if I am still doing this next week.

December 7
It has become a daily ritual... Get up, check the internet for signs or reports of snow, go out and train, come back and check the internet again. My hope when I got on a plane on Wednesday was that things could only get better. The worst of the warm weather was supposed to be over and there was a chance of snow in the forecast. But I was wrong. Things have only gotten worse. The snow reports on only get worse with each passing day. As we headed out to run at Battle Creek this morning, I was beginning to wonder if the whole trip had been in vain. Meanwhile, back in Park City, they received so much snow today that they called off school (which almost never happens in a town as used to snow as Park City).

Then, finally, when we returned from running, I received the only good news I had heard all week when I received the following email from Luke Bodensteiner.

Athletes and Coaches,

The Telemark Nor/Am will take place as scheduled, Dec. 12-16.

Snow conditions are thin, but a manmade loop (2.5km) is being prepared, and will be ready with minimal snowmaking. Snowmaking will begin at 8:00pm with 4 snow guns, and current forecasts predict at least 36 hours of snowmaking temperatures. Additionally, snow is predicted for Friday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The World Cup trails need approx. 4-6 inches of additional snow to open, which is likely. If they can be opened, the races will take place on those trails.

A good training loop of about 5-6 km is skiable right now, about 10 minutes from Telemark at the Drummond Ski Trail. Terrain there is very easy, and not ideal for racing, but the snow is skiable. More updates will come as necessary.

So maybe things will turn out ok after all.

December 8
This morning I woke up excited. The decision on tomorrow's Ironwood races was supposed to come this morning and I was hopeful that we would be packing up and heading towards snow. As soon as I woke up, I rolled over and picked up my laptop and immediately logged onto the Ironwood ABR Trails website.

"All Races Cancelled." I was crushed again. I rolled over and went back to bed. No need to get up today. Eventually I did get up and Erik and I went rollerskiing. Since we wouldn't be racing this weekend we did some intervals, and I have to say that it was very nice to do intervals at sea level. If nothing else, this trip has given me the chance to train hard and fast, which is hard to do during the race season and at altitude in Park City. I was feeling pretty good about my training and not even bummed about the lack of snow as we returned home after the workout. That's when we got the news...all the Telemark races had been cancelled. We would not be racing in the Midwest at all.

I was angry, depressed, and strangely relieved all at the same time. Angry because I had heard only a day before that the races would definitely happen. Depressed because I really needed these races in order t better my position on the ranking list. And relieved because at least now I had some certainty. I was no longer wondering when and where I would be headed next. I would head back to Park City on Monday, where I could ski and start to prepare for the Gold Cup and Nationals. It sucks that I came all the way out here for nothing, but at least its over and I can look ahead.

December 9
If you had told me two weeks ago that I would travel to the Midwest, and all the races would be cancelled and I would have to dryland train for five days, I would have bet money that I would go stir crazy and be miserable the whole time. And while I admit that I have been frustrated by the lack of snow while I have been here, I have to say that overall I am in good spirits. A lot of credit for this goes to Erik's parents who have kept us well-fed with home-made goodies and given us a great place to bide our time.

Also keeping my spirits up is the fact that I have done some very good training. Every year I say that once I get on snow I want to keep up my dryland training as well. I think that circuits and double poling on rollerskis help you gain and maintain strength better than skiing alone can. Plus some running is always good to keep the legs fast. Now, due to the unfortunate weather, I have been forced to brush up on my dryland and I think it will do me well in the long run. Plus, I have been training pretty fast for the past few days ad doing more intervals, trying to increase my speed. I think that it was good to come to sea-level and refresh a bit. Sure I am pretty devastated that the races were cancelled, but I think it was a good idea to make this trip regardless. Now, was it worth the $400 it cost me to get here? That's another question entirely.

December 10
Today I made it back to Park City, where all was white and wonderful. It's good to be back.

But that was the only good news today. Today the news came in that the USSA Cross Country committee decided that the cancelled races would not be made up. This was horrible news for my chances of making The Team. I know that I need all the help I can get and that means as many races as possible. I am pretty upset about it. The logic was that in order to reschedule the races, they would have to take place before Christmas. They didn't think that there was enough time to reschedule. Maybe that is true. BUt why not expand the Gold Cup and include more races there? It also seems very unfair to only take 20 men and 20 women to the Gold Cup considering that only half of the qualifying races were held. They can rationalize the decisions anyway they want, but what it boils down to is that the U.S. Ski Team knows which athletes it wants to take to the games, and those athletes are in good position right now. The fewer chances for other skiers to knock them out, the better. I'm not asking for a spot on the team. I'm just asking that we all get a fair chance to see who the fastest skiers are right now. The sad truth is that the Olympic Team was picked last spring and the chances of that changing are decreasing with every new USSA decision.

December 15
The skiing here has been wonderful all week. I am convinced that the skiing at Soldier Hollow is the best skiing in the world right now. The trails are groomed about 20 feet wide, and are piled high with a ton of snow. The classic tracks are firm and I have used extra blue hard wax each day. The skate lanes are superhighways and are perfectly manicured corduroy every morning.

Today, instead of doing NorAm races in Wisconsin, a number of top skiers were here in Utah for a citizen series race. Rather than describe the whole race, I will just link to a local article about the race.

Newspaper Article On Dec 15 Soldier Hollow Race
10K Classic Results Soldier Hollow - Dec 15

December 22
Without any real races to focus on right now, I have been forced to make "important races" out of some of my workouts, just to keep sharp. By the time the Gold Cup starts on December 29, it will have been over a month since our last important race. I think that the people who will do best in that race will the ones who have managed to stay focused and make the most of the down-time. For me to make the most of this time, I think I need to do a number of races and hard interval sessions. I know I have an excellent base of training in me, now I just need to get faster. Torbjorn has been organizing interval workouts for me during the week and then on the weekend I do a race, like the Wasatch Citizen's race last weekend. This weekend there is no race on the calendar, but with so many top racers already arriving in town for the Gold Cup (and many of them sleeping on our floor) we staged our own time trial at Soldier Hollow that was more competitive than many races I've been to.

This morning, Andrew Johnson, Kris Freeman, Scott Loomis, Chad Giese, Marc Gilbertson, Eli Enman, and myself all did a pursuit race to prep for the Gold Cup. We did a 5K classic race (individual start), then followed it up 15 minutes later with a 5K pursuit skate. The Gold Cup will be 10K/10K but 5/5 was plenty hard enough for today. Torbjorn had instructed me to not race all-out from the start. I was to go level III (just below threshold) for the first 2K, then gradually pick it up and hammer the last 2-3K at race pace. This worked really well in the classic leg. I felt good and in control for the first few K's. Then when I picked it up, I felt like I was really skiing strong for the last few K's, as opposed to merely surviving. Despite the "easy" start, I still finished 4th, which was surprising to me. I was sure that with seven good skiers here, my relaxed race strategy would put me near last place. I was about 55 seconds behind Kris, but only 25 behind Andrew and 14 behind Scott. And I was ahead of Eli, Chad, and Marc. Much better than I expected. In the pursuit, I tried the same strategy. For the first two K's I skied relaxed. Marc had passed Chad and Eli and was closing in on me fast. Scott was slowly pulling away from me as well. But when I picked up the pace I was able to hold off Marc and started to catch Scott. I never caught him, but I did maintain my 4th position, which surprised me.

On the way home, I was thinking about the results of this time trial. Was I skiing really well? Was the Soldier Hollow course so hard that going out easier would be faster in the long run? Were some of the other skiers still acclimating to altitude. Probably some of each of those factors. But the most important, for me, was to realize that the Soldier Hollow courses are demanding. You can't overpower them right from the start. By skiing relaxed and controlled, I had skied as well as, or better than, those who were racing all-out. Something to remember for next weekend.

December 25
Christmas in Utah with a bunch of skiers was definitely different than being back in New Hampshire with family. Me, my two roommates, and Chad Giese and Marc Gilbertson were all staying at our place for Christmas. I think all of us would have rather been at home with family, but because of the Gold Cup it was not going to happen. We did pretty well on our own though. Last night, we held a big Christmas Eve dinner for a lot of skiers in town, complete with a gift exchange. Then this morning (after training of course) we opened presents and then went over to another family's house for a Christmas turkey dinner. Our beautiful tree was decorated in Enervit energy bars and gels, and I am sure that we had the most expensive stockings anywhere (and least practical for stuffing presents into them). I had worried about being miserable because I was away from loved ones, but we actually had a very good Christmas. After all, the racing community is kind of like an extended family anyway (at least until race day).

December 29 - US Ski Team Gold Cup
After a month of waiting, the day is finally here. We are racing again. And what a doozy of a race it is. The winner of the Gold Cup gets $10,000 and an Olympic Team berth. Everyone else gets a souvenir sweatshirt and a "Thanks for coming." The format is a 10K Classic race - individual start - followed an hour and a half later by a 10K skate pursuit. This format is perhaps the most taxing, both mentally and physically, of any race we do. You go through the pre-race nerves, the waxing anxiety, and the total exhaustion of racing - then, as soon as you finish you do it all once more! Add to that the fact that the race didn't even start until 1:30 PM, and it adds up to one very long day. For the classic race, I had the misfortune of drawing bib number one. I would be the first one out of the gate. Just before the start, I was freaking out about wax. I had three pairs of skis, and I couldn't get any of them to kick well and glide fast. Fortunately, my teammate Erik Stange (who was not racing because of a leg injury) saved me. He and I frantically waxed two pairs of skis only about 10 minutes before the start. I did a quick test with them, then picked a pair, which Erik then finished waxing. Then I ran off to the start with only a couple minutes to spare. Looking back, it was probably good that the wax had preoccupied me. For most of the morning, I had been getting more and more nervous. This was a big race and it was starting to sink in. But when I started to worry about waxing, it took my mind off the big picture and made me focus on the details. It kept me from working myself into a nervous wreck. When I started the race, I was pumped up, but I was also thinking back to last weekend. I didn't want to start as easily as I did then, but I still wanted to be a bit conservative. After three k I was feeling good and I was starting to pick up the pace. But that's when I realized that John Bauer, who had started second, 30 seconds behind me, was closing in fast. At this point it was only natural that doubt set in. Had I started really slow? Was I skiing that bad? I tried to remain positive and focus on my race, but it was hard to do when the only measuring stick I had was kicking my butt. John went by at 4K and I tried to hang on, but he was too fast. He slowly got away and I went back to trying to focus on my race. At 6K, Erik saved my day again. He told me that John was having a great race and that I shouldn't let John discourage me. He said I could still do well and I was still in the hunt. It was just what I needed to hear and I kept pushing to the end. As it turned out, Erik was right. John ended up winning the classic race, just ahead of Kris Freeman and Justin Wadsworth. I finished 13th out of 22 people. This was a decent placing, but I was a bit disappointed because there were 5 people within 11 seconds in front of me. I am sure that if I had been in the thick of the race, rather than the first one, I could have been as high as 8th. Sure an 8th sounds a lot better than a 13th, but it didn't matter than much. After all, it is a pursuit, and I would have another 10K to move up into those positions. After warming down, I went to our wax trailer, grabbed a bite to eat and drink, then picked out the Beta skate skis I wanted to use, which Erik waxed up with Solda HP05. (Side note: Erik and Torbjorn also waxed Justin Wadsworth's skis with HP05. He raced - and won - on those skis. That wax was extremely fast today). A half hour later, it was time to go warm up again. I was exhausted and I just wanted to lay down and take a nap, but I had to focus on the race.

I was surprised at how good I felt after the start of the race. I sprinted very hard out of the start to join the train of skiers 8-12 that was forming in front of me. By the time we left the stadium and were out on the course our group included: Pete Vordenberg, Scott Loomis, Chad Giese, James Southam, Rob Whitney and myself. On the first lap we were moving pretty fast, with Rob and James doing most of the work up front. I felt strong. The pace was not killer and I was hanging in the pack rather comfortably. As we started the second lap, I began thinking about how I would make my move to get ahead before the finish. Just then, Pat Weaver and Marc Gilbertson caught us from behind. We now had a pack of eight. I was worried that Pat and Marc would try to blow by us and thus break up the pack. I moved up towards the front, just in case. Going up the next hill, the pack was still intact and the pace hadn't increased. I then figured that Weaver and Gilbertson must have expended a lot of energy to catch us and now needed to recover a bit. I guessed that we would have another K or two before people started pushing for the finish. I had expended some energy to move up in the pack, so I took this opportunity to relax and recover. I drifted to the back of the pack. Then, when I least expected it, Weaver and Vordenberg took off. By the time I, last of the eight, noticed the move, there was already a considerable break. I sprinted past James and Marc and began to catch Scott and Chad. It took a lot of work going up a large climb to close in, and I think I tried to get it all back too quickly. I was exhausted at the top of the hill and I couldn't get any closer. Going up the last major climb I was maxed out. I was closing in on Chad, but Marc had found a second wind and had passed me back. I was too winded to counter the move and I had to push my exhausted, cramping body into the finish in 14th place. Initially I was disappointed. If I had only not missed the break, I might have been top ten. But the more I thought about it, the more I was pleased. I had skated as well as I had classic skied (13th fastest in both), which is unusual for me. Plus I was as high as eighth in the race at one point and I was only seconds from finishing there. It was a good race. Sure, 14th doesn't sound great, but I knew I had skied well. Everyone is peaking for these races, so everyone is very fast. I knew that I had been competitive and I had skied as well as I ever have. Regardless of how everyone else does, all I can hope for is my personal best and I had done that.

But on the other hand, this race also pointed out something rather discouraging. When John Bauer passed me in the classic leg, I remember thinking, "Wow, that right there is the difference between me and the best skiers. That is how far I am from the Olympic team." It was a clear illustration of how far I had to go. This was evident again in the skate race. Our pack was places 8-15. The top seven were clearly ahead of us. So if the Olympic team is seven or eight people, like most people think it will be, I am still one level below the Olympic caliber skiers. I've always known that it would take a lot of things going my way in order to make the team. It was always more of a dream than an expectation, but this is the first time that I have begun to accept that I probably won't make it. In order to have any shot at all, you have to believe 100% that you can do it, even if that means ignoring logic and evidence to the contrary, and that is what I did. For the longest time, I have not allowed myself to think that maybe I didn't have what it takes. I truly believed it could happen. But now, as time is getting short, I am slowly coming to terms with my capabilities. Now, please don't take this to be my acceptance of defeat. I still have Nationals left and I know I am skiing my best. I am determined to make Nationals a success and with, a lot of luck, it could still happen. But more than ever before, today showed me exactly what I have to do in order to make that leap to the next level.

December 31- Utah Winter Games Sprint Race
On the first Gold Cup schedules to circulate last spring, in addition to the pursuit race there was also a sprint race scheduled for December 31. Shortly thereafter it was taken off the schedule. Whether because USSA didn't have another 10 G's to hand out, or if they didn't want to give away another automatic Olympic spot, I'm not sure. But no matter, the race still took place at Soldier Hollow, just without the $10,000 or the Olympic spot. There was still some money at stake: $250 for the winner of the preliminary heats, $250 for the winners of each semifinal, and $500 for the winner of the final. Many of the top skiers have already left town to head to Bozeman, so the field was pretty small, but still competitive. Especially since we all wanted that money.

In the preliminary time trial, There were nine people entered, and eight would advance to the semi final heats. So it was not a big concern to advance, but we all wanted that $250, so everyone gave 100%. I felt great in my heat. I was glad to finally do a sprint on a hard course. On a hard course, it is much easier to go all out. Sure, it hurts a lot, but at least the course demands that you use every last bit of energy. When you finish, you know that you have given everything, even if the whole effort was only three minutes. After I finished, my lungs were burning, I was coughing and my muscles ached. I had given everything and I was confident that I would post a good time. Sure enough, a few moments later my name bumped Scott Loomis from the top of the leader board, by only 0.2 seconds! I had just made a quick $250 and now had a chance to go for more. In my semi-final heat, I was up against Chad Giese, Dave Stewart, and Casey Ward. I got out quick and lead out of the stadium and up the first hill. I knew that I didn't want to lead the whole way, so going down the next hill, I stayed in my tuck longer than usual and let Chad go by me. I jumped on his heels and followed him up the next hill and down into the stadium. I was feeling strong, so as we rounded the turn into the final straightaway, I pulled out and made my move. I squeezed Chad to the inside a bit around the turn and we came out side by side. Down the stretch we went stride for stride, frantically poling as fast as we could. With about 50 meters to go, I got a bit of a lead and Chad let up, resigning himself to second place (top two move on). Another $250 for me! I was on a roll and confident as I headed to the finals. In the other semi-final Eli Enman came from behind to nip Scott Loomis by 0.3 seconds. Poor Scott had now missed out on $500 by a total of 0.5 seconds in two races.

In the final, no one wanted to lead. As we left the stadium at a fast, but not all-out pace, Scott got stuck in front and I slipped into second, exactly where I wanted to be. As we headed down a big hill, where Chad passed me in the semis, my skis started to glide up on Scott's. I was feeling strong, and maybe a bit cocky from my two wins, so I made a quick decision to try and break away. I glided by Scott and began to hammer. As we entered the stadium, I had a tiny gap over Scott, with Eli and Chad right behind him. I worked hard down the hill to the far end of the stadium, but my gap wasn't big enough. The guys behind me used my draft to catch up. Coming around the last turn, Chad had moved up to second and it was coming down to a sprint finish between the two of us. I still had a bit of a lead, and having just beaten Chad in the semis, I was confident of my position. I was sprinting hard, but CHad kept coming. I picked it up to maximum speed. Chad kept coming. Before I knew it, he was a stride ahead of me and the race was over. I had lost. I was pretty bummed. I had been too confident going into the finals, thinking that the same strategy I had used in the semis would not work against me in the final. But it did and Chad played it well. We are all so close in speed that a detail like when you make your move is the deciding factor. I had forgotten that for a split second, and it cost me $500. Oh well, I still made $500 in the first two rounds and skied well. This was a huge confidence boost going into the sprint at Nationals.

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.