The only thing extraordinary when I show up in Nove Mesto is the thirty Russians occupying the hotel. As I head to dinner, it doesn’t seem possible that this small Czech hotel, town, and large empty stadium will convert into the lively festival of my first weekend on the world cup.
With Monday transitioning to Tuesday a few changes are made. Signs for USA, Russia, Sweden, and Switzerland show up on the tables when I come down for breakfast. The thirty Russians settle down to at their table without much comment.
During the morning, the convoy of wax trucks from all the well-funded nations starts to roll in. Like their athletes, Russia is first followed soon after by Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, and Germany. With the Norwegian truck expanding to its colossal magnificence towering over the others, the circus seems to have finally arrived. A few hours later, the unmarked white cargo van and trailer of the US ski team shows up. With the arrival of the other US athletes a few minutes later, my schedule kicks into gear. Instead of simple logistics, suddenly there are people to meet, skis to dial in, and conversations to be had. Overall the stress level has significantly increased and it is only Tuesday. The races don’t start until Saturday.
Today continues the gradual trend as more teams show up, banners go up, and the TV crews are out placing cameras, positioning the banners, and then moving the banners a few inches in order to optimize television coverage. It also marks the first day of intervals for me. Increasing my ski speed, I suffer in trying to push the last residual fatigue from travel out of my muscles. I am not entirely successful removing all fatigue but still complete a good workout without getting to overawed by the fast people around.
Thursday arrives and most of the teams have poured into Nove Mesto. Training bibs come out and I get to become Athlete 94. I am not nearly special enough to get my last name on my training bib like those ranked in the top thirty overall.
Finally, it is Friday. The wax technicians are out in force along with athletes from every team. The day consists entirely of the final preparations for the weekend’s entertainment. Tents, banners, waxes, and athletes are all tuned in for the weekend.
And with that my first weekend of the world cup circus is here. Unlike the buildup, that seemed to move at warp speed, the morning creeps along. With the men’s race starting at 2:15, I spend an excessive amount of time looking out the window of my hotel room. Gradually the wax techs appear on course, the stands start to fill up, and the minutes creep by. By the time the women’s race starts, I am thoroughly bored with sitting around. My book, movies, or Eurosport fail to contain or capture the nervous energy going into my first world cup race. I take excessively long to get ready to burn up the final minutes before heading out to meet my wax tech.
New snow is accumulating on the manmade as we go out to test. Fortunately, it’s a skate race and testing (at least for me) is relatively simple. I make a ski pick, set a final ski pickup time, and shift into warm up mode.
After warming up, I change into my race suit, collect my skis, and head towards the start to get my bib and timing chip. Fifteen minutes later, the beep of the timing clock announces that my first world cup race is on. While the competitors are faster, the crowds are bigger and noisier, and the TV stations actually care about this race, overall it is just another race. I ski much of the race on my own trying to squeeze every second out of each section. A few hundred meters chasing Alexander Legkov shows that my hard fought seconds are not nearly enough. Though looking for more, I emerge with a solid 42nd place and move straight into recovery mode for my first world cup relay.
If there was nervous energy yesterday, it is nothing compared to today. Instead of just me, I have team pressures. Besides, racing is way more stressful in a mass start. The morning routine and warm are relatively unremarkable. I get a little excitement when my wax technician doesn’t quite realize that the men’s warm up course joins in with the skate race course. As he and I come barreling down the hill, I quickly ruin a perfect klister job with an abrupt hockey stop as Marek cruises across the course only a few meters in front of Therese Johaug. Oops.
A while later when I get to the start and the race begins, things get a little frantic. Previously this season, I have raced two mass starts. The first was at altitude and the pack naturally disintegrates over 15 kilometers. The second was a 30 kilometer race so there was plenty of time for moving around. Today’s relay, while only 18 people, never achieves tranquility as we are only racing 7.5 kilometers. I conserve energy gradually making my way towards the wrong end of the pack as others gamble on expensive accelerations to try and get to the front. Each time I think about making my own charge, I am reminded at how much slower the skiing was outside the track. In the end, I wind up too far back during the leaders accelerations on the third lap and get caught on my heels. I tag Erik Bjornsen in 12th but am slightly relieved that he has a good group to fight back towards the front. Three exciting legs later with extended periods in the fight for the podium, we finish in 8th.
As Bjornsen and I recuperate in the athlete dining facility, the scene is rapidly broken down. By the evening, Nove Mesto is back to the quiet small town and empty concrete stadium and the travelling circus has taken off to reconvene again in a couple weeks in Norway.