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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

January 4
I arrived in Bozeman last night and today was my first day of skiing at Bohart Ranch - site of the 2002 US Nationals. Tomorrow is the first race, the sprint. I skied the 1 kilometer sprint loop about 5 times, then decided that I might as well ski the 10K loop that we will be doing in Monday's 30K race.

To me, these races are the Olympic Trials. Most people who will probably make the team did so on the strength of last season's spring series, so in many cases that was the Olympic Trials. I, on the other hand, haven't had the races I need to make the team, but I feel like I am starting to ski very well. Though my placings in the Gold Cup and this week's sprint race weren't quite what I wanted, I skied well in both and I think I am getting stronger with every race. I have to approach these races as a do or die situation. Surprisingly, my main goal for this week is not to make the Olympic team. I have seen too many ski-related politics and people playing favorites in the past few months to set a goal that lies in someone else's hands. Instead, I just want to ski my best. I want to have my best races ever and know that I did everything in my power to ski fastest when it mattered most. Then, let the chips fall where they may. Even that is a lofty goal, but one that I think I am up to.

January 5- Sprint
Today is the first of five races at Cory Smith's 2002 Olympic Trials. After last week's sprint, I am brimming with confidence for this event. I used to be a good sprinter. Until a year ago, I had never missed a preliminary cut-off and always advanced to the elimination heats. Then, seemingly overnight, I forgot how to go fast. I haven't made it past the prelims ever since. But today I was going to change all that. The course was hard, and I was ready.

In the prelims, I skied very well. I hammered my brains out the whole way. At the top of the big hill, Torbjorn called out that I was skiing really well. This fired me up for the rest of the race. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but happy with my performance. I thought it would finally be good enough to advance. I went to warm down and fight off the annoying post-race cough I had.

When I returned to the stadium area twenty minutes later, I saw Torbjorn. He had just seen the results and informed me that I was in 13th spot (top 16 move on). I was happy to hear this, but not surprised. It was about where I expected to be. Torbjorn did also mention that some people were protesting some of the times, so I decided to wander down to the timing RV and see the results for myself. Meanwhile, Torbjorn started waxing up another pair of skis for my heats. By the time I reached the results, all hell was breaking loose. By now they had a new list up that said I was 19th! Just as I working myself into a fit of rage, I heard a couple coaches say that those results weren't right either. I sure hoped not! I went back to our waxing garage and waited for a half hour for some new news. At one o'clock, when the heats were supposed to start, I trekked down to the results again. Now, they had put up a third set of results, which had me in 15th, but again people were mumbling that they STILL weren't right. This was ridiculous! I then heard that the men's heats would take place at 2:40 PM, if at all. IF AT ALL!?!?! Are you kidding me? This is a National Championship race and it might not take place because of a timing screw up?

Now, for the most part, I try not to complain about race organization (well, except for a certain place in Quebec, but they have suffered enough). It takes hundreds of volunteers to put on an event like this and I am thankful to all of them for doing all this work for free so that we can have ourselves a little ski race. Without them, we could not pursue our dreams. But the timers are professionals and get paid to do their job right, so I feel justified in venting my frustrations. Hundreds of athletes have trained all year for these races - the most important races of the year for most of them. There are Olympic berths on the line. There is a National Title and prize money on the line. And now the race might not happen because they couldn't calculate the times? I was furious. I should be getting ready for a race (that should have already started), yet I was still standing around waiting to see if the race was going to happen and to see if I would even be racing.

Finally, just after two o'clock, they posted a FOURTH results sheet and rumor had it that this one would be official. I couldn't believe my eyes. This sheet had me in 17th spot. After all that bullshit, I had now finished 17th - 0.1 seconds from qualifying. If this result sheet had come out two hours earlier (when it was supposed to), I might have reluctantly believed it, but not now. They can't put up three results sheets that are completely wrong, then put up a fourth and expect me to believe that somehow they magically found all the right times. Adding to my doubt was the fact that during the race, Torbjorn was doing informal split times on skiers he was familiar with. About 2/3rds of the way through the race he had me 2-3 seconds ahead of Scott Loomis. Now, on the final results, Scott was two seconds ahead of me. I refuse to believe that I could lose 5 seconds to anyone in forty seconds of racing. That just doesn't happen. There was still some grumbling by others that the results weren't perfect, but they seemed at least close to accurate, and everyone was so anxious to get the show on the road so they went ahead with the heats and I was left standing there, extremely angry. Torbjorn and I tried to talk to the timers but they could see no errors.

I concede that MAYBE the times were right, and the information we had on Scott was wrong. But it is hard for me to believe or accept that given the uncertainty surrounding the times today. I left the race without watching the heats. I was too mad to watch other people race without me. This was something I had not prepared myself for. I came here thinking that I would either race well and be happy, or race poorly and be disappointed. I never thought that I would race well and leave so utterly dejected. I worked my ass off for 10 years so that, when all was said and done, I would have no doubts about how good I could be. But now, after all that, doubts remain.

If you want to see the results, such as they are:
Men's Sprint Results
Women's Sprint Results
Salt Lake Tribune Article on Sprints

January 7 - 30K Skate
I have to admit that my strategy for this race was not the best. For the past couple weeks, Torbjorn and I had debated whether I should even do this race. Over the years, the 30K skate has been my weakest event and we thought that maybe it would be in my best interest to skip it, and save my energy so that I can ski REALLY well in the later races. On the other hand, in the past few weeks I have been skating just as well as I have been classic skiing and with the cancelled races last month, I need points everywhere I can get them. Eventually we settled on this strategy: I would do the race, but if I am not skiing well after 10-15K, I should bag it and rest up for the 10K classic. This sounded like a good idea to me at the time, but looking back I think it affected my approach to the race.

When I arrived at Bohart Ranch for the race, it was about 40 degrees. The women's race was just concluding and the snow conditions were getting softer and slower. This did not bode well because I usually struggle in soft and/or slow skate conditions. But I remained hopeful that the fluorocarbons that Torbjorn was putting on my skis would overcome the slow conditions. When I tried my race skis just before the start, they felt great. Maybe I could get some glide and have a good race. But as I skied out of the start, it quickly became apparent that my skis, despite having large 2mm rills and lots of fluoros, were still being sucked back by the melting slow. [Side note: It is important to understand that if I say my skis are slow, it is not the fault of the skis or the wax or the grind. Usually I have very good skis. I am confident that my Atomic skis and Solda wax give me an edge over the competition in most situations. I would not use a product if I didn't believe it was the best available. But sometimes, usually because of decisions made by me or my coach, the skis are just not fast. It does not happen often, but it does happen.] I was fighting for every inch of glide and losing the fight. This is where my pre-race strategy began to sap my motivation. Usually I don't even think of dropping out as an option. I just don't do it. But today I was thinking about it. It was slow, so even if I skied well, the race would leave me completely exhausted. While I wrestled in my mind about the subject, I continued to trudge onward, hoping that everyone else's skis were slow also. At 7K, Scott Loomis, who started a minute behind me, caught me. All season long, Scott and I have always finished within 30 seconds of each other. Now I was already down by a minute. Maybe I should drop out. But after Scott passed me, I was having no problem staying with him. I was starting to feel good and thinking maybe I would do this thing. But then, at 8.5K, James Southam came flying by me on a downhill. James had started two minutes behind me and even though I was skating down a hill, James came cruising by in a tuck. This killed me. There was no way I was going to fight through 22 more kilometers knowing that other people had much faster wax/structure than I did. At that point, I was pretty sure I would not finish, but I just could not bring myself to stop skiing. There is nothing I hate more than dropping out. I kept putting one foot in front of the other. On a couple of occasions I put on short spurts to see how it felt and see if I could ski faster. No can do. I felt like I was skiing through quicksand and it was just getting slower and slower. Finally, at 12K when I was in the woods with no one else around, I pulled over and stopped. Clearly I was not going to have a good points race in these conditions. If I continued, I would just be tiring myself out for the next races. It is a long week of racing, better to save my energy. I tried telling myself all these things, but it still hurt to drop out. Instead of dwelling on it, I immediately started looking forward to the 10K. That is my race and I will be ready.

Men's 30K Skate Results
Women's 15K Skate Results
Salt Lake Tribune Article on 30K/15K

January 9 - 10K Classic
After two races filled with bad luck (in the form of bad timing and bad weather), I figured I was due for things to go my way. When I woke up today, it looked like that was about to happen. It was about 20 degrees, meaning that the soft snow from the past few days would be frozen and hard; perfect conditions for me. I drove to the race in good spirits. But my good luck was short-lived. When I arrived at the race the parking lot was full (they have a parking lot that will fit about 100 cars. With 400 racers, as well as coaches and spectators, it is not nearly big enough) and I wasn't allowed to park on the side of the road because the police were ticketing cars parked there. I was told I would need to drive down the road a few miles and take a shuttle. I explained that I did not have time for that, but then I was told that the race was delayed by an hour because the course was too icy. So I drove down to the shuttle lot and waited. And waited. And waited. After 45 minutes and no sign of a shuttle, I was again running short on time. I decided that I had no choice but to drive back up and park on the side of the road and take my chances with a ticket. Right about this time, it began to snow. Heavily. New snow on top of glare ice would not be easy to wax for. When I found Torbjorn in the waxing tent, the women's race was well underway and the first few women to start were at a distinct advantage because they had beaten the snowstorm. Over the course of the next hour, I tested all sorts of waxes: Klisters, binders, hard wax, hairies, and combinations of them all. Nothing was working well, but the snow was still coming down heavily. With about 20 minutes before my race time, it became apparent that there was enough snow to use just hard wax, but no one could find one that would kick and glide well. For the next 15 minutes, we tried about 8 different combinations and I eventually ended up with a concoction that would have to work. It wasn't perfect, but I was out of time. I ran to the start and began my race. The race was a battle. The snow was dumping and covering my glasses. I couldn't see, and my skis were icing up on every uphill. I was running down the hills, hoping that eventually the icing would break away and I could glide. I fought hard for the entire 10K, hoping that others were having the same problems (most people were, but a few were not - you can tell who they were by looking at the results). I finished knowing that I had skied well, but also knowing that I lost a lot of time because of the lack of glide. Today was supposed to be my best race and it was nullified by crazy wax conditions. I am beginning to feel like the gods are against me. After three races, I feel like I have been skiing well, but because of factors beyond my control I have no results to show for it. Today I was 28th, 19th American. I will have to take consolation in knowing that I could be much higher if my luck would just turn around.

Men's 10K Classic Results
Women's 5K Classic Results
Salt Lake Tribune Article on 10K/5k Classic

January 10 - 10K Skate Pursuit
If I was thinking yesterday that maybe I am cursed, today removed any doubt. I am definitely cursed.

Today when I arrived at the race, I was immediately brought aside by John Downing, who told me that Solda's HP05 fluorocarbon was running "unbelievable." He had put it on Julie Southwell's skis for the women's race and her skis were ridiculously fast. This was great news. I had been hoping that our HP05 would run well in these conditions, because when it works, IT WORKS. So I tested the three pairs of skis I had brought with me, then handed my best pair to Torbjorn so he could put on the HP05. Now I felt really good. The skis I gave to Torbjorn are a pair of Atomic Betas that are always very fast. In the past two years, I have raced about 80% of my races on that one pair because they always run well. I call them "The Fastest Skis On Earth" because so far, no one has been able to prove to me that they aren't. Those skis, combined with the Solda wax, would be untouchable. And therein lies the proof that I am cursed: my skis were not fast today. It makes no sense.

When I started the pursuit, the guys starting right behind me caught up quickly. On the first couple downhills, three people glided by me. After about 3K, I settled into a rhythm and began to ski well and pick off people. I skied the whole race with Casey Ward and Pat Casey. I felt like we were skiing easy, but every time I took the lead, I would tire quickly and they would always be right on my heels. By the time the three of us had made it to a sprint finish, we had move up a few places and were slightly ahead of where we started the race. In the sprint, I was last heading into the stadium. I tried to go right and get around Casey, but he took that lane before I could. So I had to slow down, move over three lanes, then start sprinting again. This was enough for Pat to get away, but I caught Casey and nipped him at the line. Or so I thought. Irrevocable proof that I am cursed: As Casey and I crossed the line, the official yelled out my number, to signify that I won the sprint. I thought I had won and Casey even admitted after we caught our breath that he thought I got him. But when the results came out, they had Casey ahead of me. Are you #@%&*! kidding me? How many times can I get the short end of the stick in one week? I didn't protest because the difference between 26 and 27 doesn't mean much, and my previous experience told me that it wouldn't matter anyway.

After the race, Torbjorn tried my skis and, despite there illustrious history, confirmed that they were slow. When he looked at the results later in the day, Torbjorn estimated that they could have cost me as much as a minute. I think that is overstating it, but I have no doubt that with better wax yesterday and today, I could have been close to the top ten. After all Scott Loomis, who this season has been pretty close to me in almost every race, finished 11th. So now I am frustrated. I still think I am skiing pretty well, but the combination of bad weather, timing errors and inexplicable wax snafus are doing a pretty good job of hiding my performance. I accept that this is all part of ski racing. But I never thought that it would all hit me during the most important races of my career. This week has tested my patience and my resolve, but I know I am a good skier and when I finally get a break to go my way, I want to be ready to take advantage of it.

Men's 10K Free Pursuit
Women's 5K Free Pursuit
Salt Lake Tribune Article on Pursuit

January 13 - 50K Classic Mass Start
I really thought this was my day. All year, Torbjorn and I have been looking toward this race as my best shot at the Olympic Team. After all, last year when nothing was going right, I still managed to pull out a 2nd place in the Canadian Nationals 50K. I am strong in this event and after a week of frustration, I was ready to pop a race. I might not make the team, but I would go down with one hell of a fight.

As we waxed for the race, the weather did the exact same thing it did for the 10K classic. The course, which had become very hard and icy overnight, began to get blanketed in a blizzard of fresh snow. I didn't panic because I had learned from my mistakes the other day and I knew what to do this time. However there was one decision to be made. It was about 25 minutes to race time. It was about 3 degrees, the snow was falling heavily and there was a dark cloud over head, but down the valley, it was sunny and it looked to be headed our way. Do I wax for the current cool, snowy conditions, or do I anticipate it warming up slightly and possibly getting sunny. Knowing that we would be out there for at least two and a half hours and that the sun was getting closer and closer, I decided to warm a little warmer. The wax I chose (a combination of Toko Bright red and Start tar) was very good, it felt good on the current snow and would still kick if it warmed up 5-10 degrees or so. I was happy with my skis as I went to the start.

For the first 10K of the race, I was feeling good. The pace was moderate (it was a mass start race) and I felt strong, holding my place between 6th and 12th. At 8K, Bauer, and the two Freemans charged up the biggest climb and tried to spread things out. I was stuck near the back when this happened, but I was able to pick up the pace and regain contact with the lead group fairly easily. The lead pack was now down to about 12 skiers and I was feeling good about my chances of moving well up into the top ten.

At 10K, I took a feed bottle from Torbjorn and the race changed completely. When I took the feed on a slight downhill, my skis slowed way down as soon as I stopped poling. Chad Giese, Pete Vordenberg, and one other skier flew by me and I was quickly losing touch with the lead pack as I drank. No big deal, you always lose some time when you drink, but in a 50K you have to do it, so you just sprint to catch up afterward. But when I dropped the bottle and started sprinting, I was not getting closer. It was mostly downhill at this point and the pack was gliding away from me. I had slow skis again! I hadn't noticed it while climbing, but now that we were on the downhills, it was clear that my skis were slow. The sun I had been planning on was nowhere to be seen. It was still snowing heavily and getting COLDER (it was 8 degrees colder when we finished the race). This is not what I had planned for. I continued to fight, but I could not catch up. Soon another pack of skiers caught me and I jumped in with them.

On the second lap, it was the same story. Going up the hills I was strong and leading our pack, but as soon as we started down again, I got left behind for the next pack to pick up. After two laps, I realized that I did not have the skis to compete today. I kept skiing, but I had lost some of my fighting spirit. For the final two laps, I skied with Lars Flora and we slowly got passed by even more skiers. I put on a sprint in the final three K to beat the guys I was with, but that was for pride more than anything else.

That makes it a clean sweep. Every single race this week was a disaster. I skied well in all of them but I have no results to show for it. Today, I was easily skiing with Pete Vordenberg at 10K, and he ended up getting 4th. I was 18th. I know I could have been up there if my skis had been comparable. It makes no sense. I always have good skis, how could I strike out so completely all week? I have no idea. Some things are just not meant to be.

I went home after the race and took a very long shower. This was the most important week of racing in my life. I knew all along that I would ski well. I view myself as a big race skier - I always ski well in big races. What I hadn't counted on was that luck would play a bigger role than my physical effort. Such is life as a cross country ski racer.

Men's 50K Classic Mass Start Results
Women's 30K Classic Mass Start Results
Salt Lake Tribune Article on 50/30K Classic



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