The first race on the schedule was the team sprint. I had a blast racing with friend and wax tech, Timo Puiras. We didn’t let the sloppy conditions ruin our day and skied a strong semi-final to squeak into the Final as lucky losers. I was feeling pretty rusty racing today, but Timo was on fire! Together we represented Lappe Nordic Ski Club well with an 8th place finish in the Final, beating our Thunder Bay rivals, the Big Thunder team of Chris and Dudley, in the process. Sorry boys, better luck next year.
The team sprint turned out to be exactly what I needed to get the body ready to race hard again. In Monday’s classic 10km I rocketed out of the start gate and didn’t let up. Everything came together for me. I picked a stiff ski that I knew would glide well, plus our team nailed the wax, so they were ripping fast. Being a short distance race I figured if I skied with good technique and had good energy I wouldn’t have difficulty kicking the skis. I executed my plan perfectly and finished the day on the podium in 3rd place! It was my best classic ski performance of the season and one of the best of my life. Honestly I was shocked I had made the podium in this race. All the hard work I’ve put into my classic technique paid off today. I finally felt smooth on my skis and was initiating my kick earlier in my stride.
Above: Striding it out in Monday's classic 10km (photo credit James Cunningham)
Below: On the podium! (Left to right: Erik Carleton, Ivan Babikov, me!)
Tuesday is when the weather really started to get absurd. The younger categories raced in the morning, leaving the Open categories to deal with the +20 degree afternoon heat. The race trails were a deep slush fest and to say the conditions were slow would be an understatement. I was tired from yesterday’s effort and my body did not respond well at all to the hot sun. I paced my first lap of the 15km skate somewhat conservatively and had difficulty getting my head into the race. I crashed around the 3.5km mark when my ski got caught in the deep slush and if it weren’t for a helpful official I would have skied straight into the finish stretch instead of the lap lane. On my 2nd time around I snapped out of my stupor and caught a ride with Thomsen D’hont who was starting his first lap. At some point the heat really started to affect me, but there was nothing I could do to prevent from overheating. The third lap was tough. I pushed through it and crossed the finish line with mixed feelings. I finished 9th place and after cooling my body’s temperature down I realized I had a solid performance. The competition was simply harder today with World Cup stars Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Len Valjas returning from World Cup Finals to race Nationals along with several strong French, Norwegian, and U.S. skiers in attendance.
A hot day for ski racing (photos courtesy of Bernard Pigeon)
Thursday is when the strength of the field at this year’s National Champs really hit home. I was ranked 24th going into the skate sprint event. My biggest goal for the sprint was to ski a strong qualifier and I did just that, finishing 16th place. Unfortunately I didn’t have the same energy for my quarterfinal heat and was unable to advance past the quarterfinals, finishing the day in 21st place.
Saturday was the big day: the 50km classic event and my final race of the season. It was nothing short of an epic battle for me. Once again my skis and my body were feeling great. I skied around the middle of the lead pack for the first 10km. While leaving the stadium to head out for the third lap I found myself stuck skiing outside of the tracks. Rather than standing up to wait for an opening I did a few hard double poles and stepped into the lead. That’s right, the lead. This definitely was not part of my race plan, but by skiing at the front I was able to avoid the yo-yo affect in the back and set my own pace. Surprisingly no one went by me and I ended up leading the entire 5km lap. A little voice in my head told me I shouldn’t be leading when guys like Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Ivan Babikov are in the pack following me, but at the same time it felt pretty cool to be at the front.
That's me, bib 11, leading the pack. Directly behind me: Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey. To my right: Ivan Babikov. (Photos courtesy of Bernard Pigeon)
As we came through the stadium again Ivan took control and the pace crept up until I realized this was a decisive move. I knew it was now or never and I went for it. The lead pack split quickly and I was dangling several meters off the back. It took me the entire 5km loop to regain contact with the back of the lead pack. As we entered the stadium to complete 20km I thought, “Ok, this is it. I made the break. The pace is going to slow down now and I’m good”. I thought wrong. As soon as we hit the first climb out of the stadium I was struggling to hang on again and on the next big herringbone climb I could no longer do it. My legs were filling with lactate and I was close to bonking only 21km into the race. Game over.
I let up and caught my breath while assessing my current situation. I have 29km to go, I’m tired and there is no one in sight ahead of me or behind me. I did all I could do. I kept the pace up as high as I could without blowing up with the hope that the lead pack would slow down significantly and I would be able to catch back up. For the next 19km I skied alone. Every time I lapped through the stadium I would see the pack that dropped me a little further ahead and the pack behind me a little closer. At 38km I took a glance over my shoulder and was startled to see a National team suit a little ways behind me. On second glance I realized it was Jesse Cockney and thankfully he was alone. I had worried the pack behind me would swallow me up and spit me out so I had done my best to keep a steady pace hoping someone would splinter the pack in an effort to bridge the gap to me.
At 40km Jesse caught me and he didn’t wait around for me. I think he had planned on rolling straight by me, but I had saved some energy for the final 10km and was able to follow him closely. He was skiing a strong race and all I could do at that point was follow. Together we pulled away from the skiers behind us and finished strong. I had little energy for a sprint finish and was more than happy to cross the line in 8th place a couple seconds behind Jesse. He had pulled me for the final grueling 10km and definitely deserved 7th place. That was without a doubt the hardest 50km I have ever done. Yes I could have made it much easier on myself by skiing more conservatively however you’re never going to surprise yourself if you don’t take some risks. It was a great race to end the season with.
Overall I had a really good National Championships. I had two big goals for the championships; one was to win a medal and the other was to ski consistently well all week. I accomplished both of those goals winning a bronze medal in the 10km classic and finishing 6th place in the aggregate points standings for the 4 individual races. The top three aggregate men were Canadian World Cup athletes, Alex, Ivan and Devon, so really I was the 3rd domestic racer in the standings.
A big thanks to the Thunder Bay Training Centre staff for making the trip an awesome time. Eric, Timo and Lisa did an outstanding job giving our team a competitive advantage with fast skis to race on every day. Tracey Laroque kept our team limber with massage therapy throughout the week while Carey Crooks kept our bellies full with tasty nutritious meals. Our accommodation was just ridiculous, staying in the Mont Saint Anne Manor equipped with a sauna, games room and more bedrooms than we could fill. I’d also like to thank the Mont Saint Anne race organizers and volunteers for making the championships a success. The weather was far from optimal and they did a great job getting the race trails into race-able condition. Maybe next year we can move Nationals to the beginning of March?
NDC TBay's ballin' accommodation - Mont Saint Anne Manor
There ain’t no snow here in TBay anymore so it’s time to put my feet up and rest. We’ll see… I might even dust off my bike on a sunny day this week.