After a week of acclimating to the smog, food, and general environment in Almaty racing had arrived. The excursions, long days sitting around the hotel reading or watching movies, and the endless speculation how the courses were going to ski ended on the morning of February 3rd. For the first time in my years of U23s and World Juniors, I was actually starting in the first race: a classic sprint. Every other year I attended, we had enough real sprinters to fill the four start spots allocated for each race, but this year only two members of the under 23 team were really interested in racing the sprint. My chance had arrived to demonstrate that all the time chasing my teammates this summer in speeds actually paid off. Even so I felt quite out of place as I lined up to start behind the some of the top sprinters in the world.
For many years my sprinting has been a teeter-totter between frantic high speed desperation and normal distance race pace. I have never been able to find the balance to have a sprint race pace. Usually I just end up spinning my arms and legs too fast and lose all my power. Thus I tripped the wand at U23s almost shouting at myself to ski smooth and powerful.
Lactate flood and lung burn defined the race once my clock was ticking. I charged up the first hill somewhat frantically, repeated this process on a second smaller hill, and then twisted down to the low point readying myself for the pain of the final climb. Halfway up, the flood arrived and my leg power began to melt. Luckily, my distance prowess kicked in and I managed to cross the finish line before being totally blown. After that, it was just listening to myself hack and going to check the results board. Unfortunately, the results board indicated that my day was over. At least it was just a warm up race to get my body going and several others had made the heats including Ben Saxton racing to 6th on the day.
The next day raced by with attempts at recovery, some ski testing, and the onset of more nerves. Although I had blown some nerves in the sprint, my approach for that race was a little too casual to get rid of everything I would be experiencing for my first distance race at U23s. As I woke up on the second race day, again I needed to ingrain a message: start slow. I knew from past races that the race atmosphere would get me going fast no matter what so I needed to balance that by believing I was starting slow. Through my warm up and getting to the start gate, I kept things under control but as soon as the start clock started beeping at me I was in the mindset racing my fastest and ignored any thoughts of a conservative start. Thus I blew out of the gate ready to charge around the course in the lead. 1.7 kilometers into the race I was tied for third with the whole field through; however, the cost of this fast split was already inching into my legs and arms. For two additional laps, I struggled to stay strong while imagining the whole field flying by me. At each progressive interval, my splits dropped: 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 8th until finally I was nearing the finish line. With an intense US cheering squad about 500 meters out from the end, I gave it my last energy fighting for what I thought might still be a top ten. I fell across the line in 8th my body totally blow and my head starting to waver. In rapid succession, the eight competitors who started behind me bumped me back to 13th.
After sitting higher for so much of the race, ending in 13th was quite a letdown. Even so, I know I can ski with the top and have one more chance to prove it in the U23 skiathalon.