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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion
  December 8

After a week and a half at home, I am back on the road. After my less than stellar performance in Silver Star, Torbjorn recommended that I take it easy for a couple weeks. I could rest and recharge my batteries and be ready to rumble when I got to Val Cartier for the next Continental Cup races. So here I am in Quebec after 10 days of easy training, with only one local race and one interval session thrown in to help speed me up. After one day of skiing at Mont St. Anne with my brother and father, I headed down the road to Val Cartier to see if I could figure out the deal with the upcoming races this weekend.

If you ever wanted to know how NOT to put on an important ski race, you are in luck. Because what I am about to describe is the most amazingly disorganized, ill-conceived race weekend I, or any of my fellow racers, have ever experienced. All weekend, the most commonly heard remark was "This is ridiculous! Something has to be said!" Well, since the race organizers wouldn't listen and I have a semi-captive audience I might as well be the one to say it. So here it goes:

This morning Chris Klein, Pat Weaver, Coreen Woodbury, Erik Stange and I traveled from Mont St. Anne, which has beautiful skiing, to a logging road in the middle of nowhere about an hour north of Quebec City, where the races are to be held this weekend. Why are some of the biggest races in North America being held on a logging road on an out-and-back course? I am glad you asked. The races were originally scheduled for Val Cartier, an Army base just outside Quebec City that has a very good network of biathlon trails. Unfortunately, there is not enough snow to hold the races there, so they had to be moved. Why not move them to Mont St. Anne, which has good snow and some of the best race trails anywhere? Another good question. Apparently, there is a feud between the ski clubs at Val Cartier and St. Anne, so they refuse to cooperate with each other. So because of some sort of local dispute, 300 of the best skiers in North America have to travel an hour to a race site that has minimal facilities (one logging camp lodge about one kilometer from the trails) and race on a trail that is not only horrible terrain (the course drops downhill for two K then climbs slightly before turning around and going back exactly the way it came) but also so narrow that I am very skeptical of being able to hold a skate race on it. To make matters worse, the temperatures this weekend are supposed to be borderline legal for racing. If the temperature is below -20 C (-4 F) it is not legal to hold an FIS race.

So after skiing for an hour or so and listening to everyone complain, I headed to the logging camp lodge to see if any one there knew anything about the races. The US and Canadian National Teams are staying in the dorms there, so I figured that maybe someone would have a clue. I will have to go down Val Cartier to register for the races, but I figured that the more I know now the better. Me and a couple other skiers wandered around the place until we found a room where a few people who look like race officials were setting up what looked like race registration, even though all the information the racers have received says that registration will take place at Val Cartier. A little asking around tells us that they have moved registration up to here, only about an hour away from where it is supposed to be. Good thing we decided to stop in here before heading down to the base. So we try to pay for the races. They say that registration does not open until two o'clock (it is now 12:45) and ask if we could come back later. Now let me think here. Every racer I have ever met always tries to ski the race course the day before the race at the time the race will take place, to get into the routine a bit. I don't know of any athlete or coach who would rather ski at a different time. So not only do they move registration to a new location at the last minute, but they hold it 4 hours after most people are skiing the course? They expect people to ski, drive an hour to get some lunch and a shower, then drive an hour back up to register, then drive an hour back to their accommodations? Maybe this is some French-Canadian race tradition that I am unaware of. It is painfully apparent that the only people who were consulted in this decision, if anyone was, were the National Teams staying right at the lodge. Of course they would be in favor of holding everything right there. Why should they care about the other 95% of the racers?

We were very hungry and growing more irritable by the minute so we explained our situation, and then we were reluctantly allowed to take care of registration business. We had all registered online on the race website weeks ago, but there was no way to pay online, so we needed to take care of that. But they had no records of any registration, so instead they took down our names and other vital info for further review. As we went began to pay, yet another headache came up. Housing had been offered to us at the Army barracks at Val Cartier for the cheap rate of $12.50 a night. This seemed like a very convenient, if not luxurious option, back when the races were to be held there. But now the idea of staying in room full of 8 bunkbeds, with communal bathrooms and showers, no phones, and cold tile floors an hour away from the race was less appealing. Our plan was to look for an affordable place to stay after we left the race site. If we didn't find anything, we would continue on and check into our place at the barracks. If only it was so simple. As we each wrote checks for our race registration, it was explained that if we wanted to stay in the barracks at Val Cartier we also needed to pay for that at the race site and pick up our keys there. All of this information came to us slowly due to the language barrier. So we went out to a payphone and called a couple of potential places to stay. When nothing worked out, we went back to get keys for the barracks. But by then, the race officials were eating lunch and they refused to take our money and give us keys until they were finished. Sure wish I could have eaten lunch about then. Finally at about 2:00 we were able to leave the race site and head to the barracks, via the grocery store for lunch stuff.

After moving into the barracks we began asking around among the other racers if anyone else knew anymore about the race than we did. We found out that the coaches meeting for that night was taking place, you guessed it, up at the lodge. This really upset me. Most of the racers and their coaches are staying at the barracks, but they decide to hold the prerace meeting an hour away? How are we supposed to get any info? How are we supposed to voice our many frustrations if they effectively prevent us from attending the meeting? We explained some of our biggest grievances to the US Ski Team coaches, who were staying at the lodge and would have no problem attending the meeting. But the only response we got was, "That sucks. Something should be said." But they weren't going to say it. Why should they? Everything had been moved right to their front door. They didn't have to travel more than 10 steps to get to anything, never mind drive two hours for a meeting. They were all too happy to sit on their butts and listen to all the racers whine, knowing that those problems didn't concern them. Appently all I buy for my $110 in USSA fees each year is a little token sympathy. The more I go to these Continental Cup races, the more I feel like the race decisions are made in a smoke-filled room by old men who don't give a rat's ass about what is best for the racers. And there is no way for racers to get into that room and give them a piece of our minds.

Had enough? I'm not done yet. After a dinner of mystery meat and pasta with some sort of orange colored sauce at the Mess Hall, we wanted to wax our skis. But it turns out that even though it had been advertised that we would be able to wax in the 20 wax rooms at the Biathlon stadium, there were no keys to these rooms. A couple of Canadian junior coaches had been able to get keys from the race organizer earlier in the day, but there was no one around now who could help us. They were all up at the race site. And since it was about -20 F outside, there was no way we were going to wax outside. We had also been told that there was a $500 fine for waxing in the barracks. So instead we made a deal with a junior coach that we could use their room when all their skiers were done waxing. Finally around 10 PM our skis were waxed and I could go to bed and put this day behind me. Can't wait to race tomorrow.

December 9

We received word late last night, from one Canadian coach who had made the trek to the coaches meeting, that because of the anticipated cold weather, the race start had been delayed until noon. At 11:00 AM, the race officials would make the decision on whether or not to hold the race at all. Yesterday morning, when everything was so screwed up, I made a prediction that the race would not happen. It would be too cold. A few people were impressed that I would make such a statement so early, but Chris Grover thought otherwise. He said that simply stating that there will be no race means nothing. In order to REALLY call the race you have to go out and party that night, not wax your skis, and not even bother showing up at the start. THAT is calling the race. And while I agree with him, I did not have that much confidence in my prediction. My desire to race kept me from being that sure. At 10:00, we left the barracks and did the drive up to the logging road. We arrived there at 11:00, just in time for the race decision. But after waiting until 11:25 with no word, I figured the race was on, so I put on my boots and pulled my race bib over my head. Just as I got my bib on, someone came through the lobby where most of the racers were standing and waiting and yelled "Race Canceled!" It figures, my favorite race, the 10K classic, canceled. But what is even better is that no one from the race office came out to tell us about the cancellation. The person who yelled out was just another athlete who had heard from someone who heard from someone else. Once again, the race organizers could have cared less about the racers. Did I mention that there is beautiful skiing at Mont St. Anne?

Since we were there and dressed to ski, we all went out anyway and skied for 1:20. Sure it was cold (about -10 F), but with enough clothes on I actually worked up a sweat and had to unzip my jacket for a while. It was nice skiing, but I'm not sure anyone really enjoyed it because we were all upset about not racing and the way we were being treated, or more accurately, ignored. Before leaving we stopped in to the race office to get our hands on one of the elusive wax rooms keys. But we were told by more than one person that there were no more keys. There had been keys available for three rooms, but they had all been given to Canadian Junior coaches. Once again a brilliantly conceived plan by the organizers. There are hundreds of racers staying at the base, so we will only give out keys to three rooms, each of which can accommodate 3-4 waxers at a time. And rather than distribute the keys evenly among the groups, we will give them all to the coaches we know best. Who cares about the Subaru Fischer Salomon Factory Team or Team Rossignol or Nordic Equipment or any Americans for that matter? We have 12 year old juniors who have skis to wax!

For the rest of the day, it was more of the same. Back to the barracks, eat a calorie free dinner of tasteless slop at the mess hall, wait until 8:30 to wax our skis in an overcrowded room, then go to bed wondering if tomorrow's 10K skate race would actually happen.

December 10

Today was the first relatively normal day we have had. Once again the race start was delayed until noon, but this time the race did happen thanks to warming temperatures. After such a miserable weekend, it can be hard to put that all aside and race, but I think most people did a very good job of that today. My goal today was to ski relaxed and smooth and not blow up on the first lap like I did in Silver Star. Out of the start, the course drops for about 2K and by the time I got to the bottom, I knew I had fast skis. I had made up about 10 seconds on Pat Weaver without really doing anything but tucking and free skating a bit. I made the turn and started heading back up, feeling good. I skated strong up the hill, which didn't seem nearly as hard as it had in warm ups. Just after the lap, Marc Gilbertson, who started 30 seconds behind me, went by. Uh oh, maybe I am not skiing as well as I think I am. But as we headed down the hill, my skis kicked in again and I flew by Marc. But the second time up the hill, I knew that my race was not great. I still felt strong and felt like I was moving, but Marc had long since left me behind and now Nathan Schultz was coming up on me after starting a minute back. I managed to finish before he passed me but I knew that my time would not be very good. Nonetheless, I was silently pleased with my race. Sure place-wise I was embarrassed, but I felt good racing for the first time this year and time wise, I wasn't that far out. A minute faster and I would have been top ten. I know I can do that. Maybe not right now, but there is time and I think I am already beginning to make progress. It is all going according to plan. I hope.

December 14

It has been a great week of skiing at Mont St. Anne. We came over here after the race on Sunday and we have been enjoying lots of snow ever since. In fact that is the problem. We have received almost two feet of snow this week and the groomers here have not been able to keep up. The trails here at St. Anne are my favorite place to ski in the world, but they haven't been able to groom more than 15K or so because of all the snow. My hope is that they will have everything buffed out after our races this weekend so I can ski it all without worrying about tiring myself out before a race. I have skied at least two hours every morning and I think I am starting to get my groove back. I might not light up the competition like a Christmas tree this coming weekend, but I am starting to feel better about Nationals, which are suddenly only two and a half weeks away.

December 17

OK, all that stuff I said the other day about getting my groove back, well, uhh, never mind. I did a couple more Continental Cup races here in Quebec this weekend. Yesterday was a 30K skate race and today was a 10K classic race in the pouring rain. Ahh, the east, where one weekend it will be 10 below and too cold to race and the next weekend it will be 45 degrees and raining. If you want to see results for these races, click on the links you just went by. I am not going to write race summaries for these two races, because that would be more of the same depressing stuff I have been writing for a while. I felt good, skied slow, finished 36th and 38th, respectively. Yada, yada, yada. Instead I am going to write about what I am going to do to start racing faster, so that you no longer have to listen to me complain about being slow.

First, why am I skiing slow?

Option #1: I am simply out of shape.
While not inconceivable, this is very unlikely. I have trained more this year than ever before. While total hours don't tell the whole story, it tells me enough to know that my general fitness is not the reason I am over a minute slower than I should be in a 10K race.

Option #2: I am overtrained.
Again, possible, but not likely. Yes I trained more this year than I have before, but only by a few hours over last year. If I was overtrained I think I would feel it more every time I work out. Right now I feel fine when I train, but I just can't race fast.

Option #3: My body is sluggish and does not remember how to go fast from spending too much time at altitude without enough fast training.
A decent theory. I did come down from the 7000' Park City air a couple of times this summer, like I wanted to do, but was it enough? Maybe not. Ideally I would like to be able to spend half of my dryland season at sea-level, but that is impossible when holding a full-time job. And was I training too slow in general? This is possible since I trained mostly on my own. This theory is supported by the fact that I feel strong when I am racing, but I just can't move as fast as I want to. I really didn't feel that tired after the races this past weekend.

Option #4: There is something seriously wrong with my body.
This option is kind of scary to think about, but it has been running around in my mind, so I have to consider it. Usually, when I have bad races, I know why. I am sick or I have trained too much or my legs aren't strong enough, etc. I can usually pinpoint some kind of reason. But the way I feel now, I have no idea what the problem is. And I am beginning to wonder if this problem has been with me for a longer time than I first believed. As you may remember, in October I wrote about not really knowing where I stood, as far as how my training was going and whether I was ready to race. Even though I had done my training for the past 6 months, I felt like something was off. Looking back, I now think that what I was sensing is that even though I was doing the training, my body was not responding to it the way I wanted it to. I never really felt stronger or faster from all the training, just more tired. Usually over the course of a season, I will have periods where I train a lot, but my body thrives on it. The more I train, the stronger I feel and then I want to train even more. This does not happen all the time, but it usually happens a few time throughout the year. But this year I never got that feeling. I felt like I was fighting the whole time (again, see my October journal). Could it be because my body is dealing with more serious issues? I hope to God the answer is no, but I am not sure yet.

Option #5: I am just going through an inexplicable slump and I have to be patient.
I really doubt this one. I have had slumps before. Even during my slumps I could pull off a decent 10K classic race. It used to be that I could be sick and blindfolded and still make the top 20 in a 10K classic race. But yesterday I was healthy and able to see where I was going and I barely squeezed into the top 40.

So these are the five options that seem to make the most sense to me. So where do I go from here, without knowing which one(s) it is? Well, if it is option #1, and I am out of shape. It is really too late to do anything about that. I can't make up 8 months of training in two weeks. The best thing I can do is make sure I am rested for the races and hope to ski myself into shape over the next month or two. If it is option #2, the best thing I can do is rest. If it is #3, then I should take advantage of my time at sea-level to do lots of speedwork and fast training to get my speed back. And if it is #4, thanks to the wonderful world of managed health care I can't see a doctor until I get back to Utah. Which means that I have to wait at least a week to have any tests done and the best thing I can do in the meantime is rest and ski like normal, which is also the best solution for #5.

So given all these possible scenarios, here is what I am going to do to get faster before Nationals in two weeks. For almost all the options, rest is highly recommended, so I am going to rest. I will still ski, probably 4-5 times a week or so, mainly because I would go crazy if I did nothing. But when I do ski, I am going to ski fast, in case it is an altitude thing. All my workouts will be either level II-III or intervals. I want my arms and legs moving quickly for sustained periods of time, to see if they can recall how to do it. And when I get back to Park City, I am going to see a doctor and cross my fingers that he can't find anything REALLY wrong. Until then, lots of speed and even more rest. I have put too much time, money and effort into this season to give up on it just yet.

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.