“I feel fine; I just have a big scar on my leg and I am still on blood thinners” seemed to be the tagline for each conversation as I jumped back into racing.
My racing season began a month late with a local Anchorage cup pursuit race. What might have accelerated slowly changed dynamic when several of my teammates threatened and then decided to double pole the classic leg on skate skis. Instead of gradually building into the race, they exploded off the start line. Instantly, I was left behind wondering if my ski racing ability had been left on the Girdwood trails the day I was injured. I had to quickly remind myself that this was my first ski race of the season and any expectation should be left at the start. Once moving, serious racing rapidly morphed into “casual racing.” I tested my body out, learned a few things about how I was feeling, and moved on right after the finish. With another week of training and a little intensity, I would be ready for the escalation of racing in the following weeks.
Besh Cup races were up next on the calendar. I had been looking forward to these races as the punctuation for my recovery phase. Although I sat out the classic sprint on the first day, being out there in the racing environment boosted my excitement. However, I wasn’t quite sure how I would be feeling. My warm up was definitely a bit on the sluggish side, but as soon as I tripped the start wand new sensations flooded through me. For the first time of the season, I was really racing. My excitement spiked. A couple kilometers in I flashed a big smile at my coach as I got my first split; Not only was I racing, but I was leading. Optimism morphed in confidence as I continued to post fast splits on each lap. Crossing the line with a first victory in hand cemented my removal from the injured reserve list.
A few more weeks of training brought US nationals onto the doorstep. While I was optimistic about my performance, the unknown factor also persisted. Two races was not a large enough sample to define my seasonal performance level. Adding to the lack of racing, Houghton, Michigan greeted us with noteworthy conditions. Instead of thin snow and fast conditions that have become the normal for Anchorage, Houghton was immersed in snow, wind, and cold for almost every day that we were there.
This environment defined my first race at nationals. Instead of focusing on the racing, I became preoccupied with the cold on my face and the slow snow. Each stalling glide seemed to sap any excess energy. Instead of a good race, I emerged from the cold with frost nipped cheeks at my glasses line and a 10th place finish.
After three days of training, testing skis, freezing, and watching my teammates in the classic sprint, my turn to race came up again, this time in the 30 kilometer classic mass start. Following my injury, I had definitely been a little jumpy when skiing around others and the 30 kilometer was my first real test of descending and cornering in a pack. For 29 kilometers of the race, I passed the downhill tests. Misfortune struck me in the last kilometer. The lead pack had dwindled down to around ten skiers midway through the race. Then with about 1.5 kilometers remaining Kris Freeman shifted to the front and began what would be the defining attack. As everyone reacted, charging behind at various speeds, the pack finally fractured. Cresting the top of the second to last hill, Freeman had a slight gap while Matt Gelso and I chased. In this moment, I shifted between the two classic tracks. Only one of my skis found the track and I never finished the transition. Descending the gradual downhill, I wobbled desperately throwing my poles and weight around to regain my balance. Eventually, I gave in to the inevitable and toppled. Sitting on the snow, I watched as five skiers zipped around me. Although the podium chances were lost, I managed to preserve some dignity by outsprinting those in my little group.
As the final day of racing was greeted with the first sunny dawn, my favorite races were already complete. The skate sprint was just a bonus. I managed to qualify for the heats for my first time at nationals, but was quickly reminded in the heats that I still need to work on sprinting. After a slow start, I took a thin line on an inside corner and charged to the front with the goal of making the race more challenging than just a drag race for the finish line. As we entered the finish stretch, four skiers blew by me to knock me out of the rounds. My speedometer clearly needed some calibration. With my racing over, I did get to see watch my teammates cap off an excellent week.
While I did not quite have the results I sought, I was happy to be out racing. Looking back to when I was laying in the hospital bed two months ago, perhaps that tagline needed a little few more exclamation points than “I feel fine” possesses.