So after the Olympics it was back to racing for me, but it took a while to get the groove back...
March 3 - The Great Ski Race
The Great Ski Race is one of my favorite races, and not just because I won it on my first try in 1999. It is a super fun course - climb uphill for 11k, spend 2 seconds gazing around at the amazing Tahoe scenery, then fly back downhill for 19K thorugh some of the fastest, gnarliest turns you will find on a cross country ski trail. This year it was the perfect place to get back into racing for me.
But instead of getting my groove back, I got food poisoning. The night before the race I ate a bad meatball and was up all night puking. Fun, fun. I wasn't even going to race, except that I REALLY wanted to at least ski the course because it is so much fun. I was nauxious and dizzy driving to the race and could barely get out of the car. I put on my skis just to see if I could ski, and to my surprise, I actually felt BETTER skiing than I did sitting around.
But to make matters worse, I had also brought the wrong poles with me: one skate, one classic, both left-handed. Yes, I am a professional ski racer. Why do you ask? Anyway, Salt Lake racer Rob Lange was nice enough to let me borrow his poles, which were a few years old, but still much better than anything I had.
So considering all that I was just happy to hang with the leaders for the first 25K of the 30K race. My new narrow Beta skis were super-fast with Solda HP05 on them (and very stable- even in the hairy turns I might add) We had quite a pace line going on the super-fast descents. I got dropped when I ran out of energy at 25K, probably because I had no fuel in my system. So I finished 4th, behind pat Casey, Peter Webb, and Tav "Tahoe Legend" Streit. All four of us also broke the old course record. Not bad for a sick guy on borrowed equipment.
As if enough didn't go wrong on the Tahoe trip, I caught a cold on the way home. I fought it all week, but I was not well in time to do the West Yellowstone Rendezvous this weekend like I wanted. Instead, I stayed home. So instead of driving to W Yelly on Friday, I went to work - where I got laid off. Damn, it just hasn't been my week. Getting laid off was especially a bummer because we approaching the time of the year when I need to start making money to pay all teh bills I rack up all winter. Plus I had just yesterday bought a couple of plane tickets to the last few races of the season. Not real sure how I am going to pay for those... Anybody need a website?
March 17 - California Gold Rush
Even though the Great Race trip was less than successful, I still had fun. The Gold Rush on the other hand, was miserable from start to finish. I headed out there in a bad mood because I knew the whole trip would be spending money I didn't have. Airfare, ridiculously priced rental car, etc. Then, when I got there, instead of the usual sunny Tahoe spring weather, it was a blizzard - with two feet of snow expected the night before the race. Great now I needed expensive chains for my expensive rental car. Knowing this, and my less than pleasant state of mind, I decided to sign up for the 30K Silver Rush instead of the 50K. I have a hard time in soft snow and I wanted nothing to do with 50K of soft snow.
But at least if I had done the 50, I wouldn't have been beated by my coach. During the race, I was tired, frustrated and unmotivated. I got beat by at least 5 Masters, including Torbjorn. First time that has ever happened. I knew I was having a bad day, but I didn't think it would ever get that bad. I had to work hard in the final K so that I wouldn't get passed by Barb Jones!. Ouch. So we put that day behind us and looked forward to traveling east for the last races of the year.
March 23 & 24 - Rangeley Lakes Eastern Cup
I flew to New Hampshire on Thursday and almost immediately headed to Rangeley, Maine for my first race at sea-level since November. I would like to ski well at Spring Series, so I figured I needed a crash course in racing to get me back up to speed. My plan was to race in Rangeley on Saturday and Sunday, then in Presque Isle, Maine on Tuesday and Wednesday. 4 races in 5 days. Then on to Spring Series. That would mean a total of 9 races in 14 days on this trip, but hey - I've got two months of racing to catch up on
In Rangeley, I managed to eak out a victory in teh 10K skate mass start by pushing the pace early, then following Jason Lemiuex (Williams) when he made a move at 8K to leave behind Andy Newell and Nick Trautze. I passed Jason at 9.5K when he began to tire and took the win.
In the 10K classic individual start the next day, I was feeling confident after my victory. But it wasn't until I got out on the race course that I realized the last classic race I did was on January 22. Two months without any hard double poling was coming back to haunt me on this flat course. I pushed hard, but my arms were weak. I had a feeling I would be beaten. And indeed, both Andy and Jason got me. I was bummed that Andy got me by 45 seconds, but I tried to tell myself that I was doing these races as training. I still had a week to get fast.
March 26 - Verizon Sprints
The Maine Winter Sports Center opened their newest facility in Presque Isle this week with the Verizon Nordic Heritage Sprints serving as the debut event. The event was a huge success, which is an impressive feat considering that this community had never held a cross country ski race before. The MWSC staff had organized a few test events in the days leading up to today's sprints, and as a result, the volunteers (many working at their first cross country race ever) were very organized and ran the event like a group of seasoned veterans.
I had been debating whether I should bother driving to the end of the earth just for a couple races. Presque Isle is about as far north and east as you can go in this country without speaking French. I was not psyched to drive the 7 hours from Littleton to get there. But I was able to hitch a ride with Dave Chamberlain and Dave Stewart, so I figured I'd make the trip. Once I was there, I was sure glad I did. The drive was not bad at all, and the facilities they are building up there are impressive. Plus, the entire community is supporting th efforts. They want to hold Nationals up here next year, and after I had taken one ski around the 5k loop, I was hoping that they would get it. Anyway, the sprints...
The format was a preliminary sprint at 4:00 pm, with the top 16 racers moving on to race in evening heats under the lights. The heats would be four racers at a time, with the top two moving on. And just to make things really interesting, Verizon donated a lot of prize money: $1000 for first, $500 for second, $300 for third, $200 for fourth, and $100 for fifth.
In the men's race, the field was very strong, featuring some of the top racers from the United States and Canada. US Olympians Kris Freeeman and Andrew Johnson were there, fresh off a European World Cup tour, as were Canadian National Team Skiers Chris Jefferies and George Grey. Other top skiers included Dave Chamberlain, Phil Villeneuve, Eli Enman, Dave Stewart, Colin Mahood, and myself. Dan Campbell, 2002 Olympian, headlined a strong contingent of elite biathletes in the event as well.
In the men's preliminary heats, Kris Freeman edged Andrew Johnson for the top spot. They were followed by eighteen year old Minnesota Biathlete Steve Scott and Dave Stewart. I had an equipment problem that kept me off-balance through my prelim, but I skied just fast enough to squeak in with a 14th place finish. Most of the other top names moved on in the top 16 as well, with the very notable exception of Dave Chamberlain. Chamberlain's 17th place finish was mystifying considering that he has consistently been one of the country's best sprinters over the past couple of years. Some of us were thinking that it had to be a timing error, but since all the other times seemed correct and no errors could be found, the time stood.
On the women's side, the field was much weaker. There were only seven women in the field. Wendy Wagner and former NCAA Champion Ekaterina Ivanova were the top names, along with Christa Case and Sarah Dominick. Ivanova won the prelim, with Wagner right behind her. They were clearly ahead of the rest of the field, with Case third and local racer Kelsey Bouchard fourth, and Dominick fifth.
In the men's quarterfinals, all of the top four seeds advanced. In addition, Sergei Vinogradov advanced by outsprinting Phil Villeneuve to the line, I advanced by edging out Colin Mahood, and Chris Jefferies and George Grey also moved on.
In the semis, Andrew Johnson and Steve Scott skied away from me and Alexi to move to the final. Kris Freeman also won his heat handily, while George Grey just edged out Dave Stewart by couple feet to take a spot in the final.
I then had to go into a "B" Final - which I think is the worst idea in sprint racing. Why do they make us do another race, even after we get eliminated? I don't like it. But in my B final, Dave Stewart crashed in the first turn, taking out Alexi with him. That left me with a pretty good gap on Chris Jeffries, but Chris was just too fast. I held him off until the final hill, when he went by. I stayed close in the sprint, but I didn't have enough left to pass him. I finished 6th.
In the final, George Grey took the early lead, but Kris Freeman came storming from the back of the pack to take the lead and win going away, while Johnson and Grey were locked in a dogfight for second. Johnson had the upperhand entering the stadium, but Grey pulled it out at the line to nip Johnson. Steve Scott finally ran out of steam and finished fourth.
On the women's side, it was no surprise that Ivanova, Wagner, Case and Bouchard made the final. In the final, Wagner took the early lead and had a gap over the others, but Ivanova was able to close it . Then, on a sharp turn near the end, Ivanova tried to make a move to pass and got herself tangled up. Wagner got clear and went on home for the win, while Case also managed to get by for second place.
It was a very successful and exciting event and all the spectators were clearly impressed with a level of skiing that they had never seen before. The entire evening was well planned and well executed and made for a great event, both for the racers and the spectators.
March 26 - Verizon Classic Race
Only a short 14 hours after the night sprints, we were back at it again today in the Verizon Nordic Heritage Sprints 10K Classic race. This was the first opportunity for top racers to try out the brand new 5K loop at the Maine Winter Sports Foundation's new Presque Isle facility.
The weather was doing its best to throw the racers into a panic. Overnight ten inches of new snow fell, but as morning came, the precipitation turned to rain, which continued until just before race time. The forecast was for the rain to turn back to snow during the race, but fortunately the precipitation had stopped completely by that time. I woke up with a sore throat, so I had decided that I wouldn't race if it was raining. It wasn't worth getting really sick by racing in the rain. But 40 minutes before the start, it started to let up, so I reluctantly grabbed my skis and began to wax.
In the women's 5K race, the same three ladies that dominated the sprints were on top again. Wendy Wagner took the lead early and held on for the win in 16:23, despite having Ekaterina Ivanova and Christa Case start right behind her and chase her time. Ivanova finished second, 24 seconds back, and Case took third in 17:06. Also winning prize money were Sarah Dominick (19:31) and Kelsey Bouchard (20:11).
The men's 10K race was hotly contested by members of the US and Canadian ski teams. Mainer Dave Chamberlain was skiing fast on the first lap, right up near the lead with Andrew Johnson and Kris Freeman. But on the second lap, Canadian George Grey turned up the heat and moved past Freeman into second place. Grey's teammate, Chris Jefferies managed to hang on when Grey came by him at 6K and moved himself up to 4th place. Meanwhile, Chamberlain's skis began to lose kick and get slower, causing him to drop to fifth. Andrew Johnson, the next to last elite starter, fought off the challenges from Freeman and then Grey to take the win in 28:22, 14 seconds ahead of Grey and 25 ahead of Freeman.
I skied much better than I did on Sunday and was happy with my race. Considering that I didn't feel 100% I was happy that I finished in 7th position. I think my skis were a bit slow because when Grey and Jeffries went by me on a flat, I could not keep up at all. But when we hit a hill, I was able to maintain the gap. Of course that could have been my weak double pole again too. I was two minutes behind Johnson, but in these slow conditions I wasn't too worried about that.
Once again the race was run smoothly, under less than ideal weather conditions. After the race, the organizers, volunteers, and racers all headed to a banquet at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where prize money was handed out for the two days of racing. All in all, it was a great couple of days and many skiers went home with quite a bit of cash in their pockets. Maine Winter Sports Center has a bid to host U.S. Cross Country Nationals next winter at this venue, and after these races, I think everyone, including myself, left town hoping to be back next January.
But for now, on to Spring Series!