One would assume with flying all the way to Korea for some ski races, there would be some sightseeing and cultural experiences as well. However, in the whirlwind experience of the Olympic test world cups, I got to see four places: the airport, the hotel, a temple, and the race venue.
First off the airport. After a 12-hour flight with a little sleep, the Seoul Airport was a little overwhelming. Korean people and characters were everywhere. Luckily, a few members of the Australian ski team came in around the same time as I did so there was a bit of congregating. Actually, the whole airport ended up being pretty easy. All my bags arrived intact, the shuttle bus to Pyeongchang was waiting for us, and we were even able to get “bread and toilet” as our shuttle coordinator explained in broken English. The trip to Korea had begun.
Now on to the hotel. I really have no idea why there was a hotel in the location in the first place. The 18 story Kensington Flora hotel was isolated in a small valley. There were no stores around, no town, and only a few slightly run down homes within the vicinity. The closest store outside the hotel, a small gas station, was about 3 kilometers away. In the midst of this little valley, the hotel provided the entertainment with amusing lawn features surrounding the main building. If feeling lonely, one could go visit French petting zoo and check out wooly sheep, overfed deer, rabbits, and the largest ducks that I have ever seen. Or instead one could go be a romantic in the tunnel of love with appropriate lighting for whatever occasion. However, the best entertainment may have been the Glamping village. We were quite disappointed that the entire world cup field didn’t get to reside in the canvas glamping tents for the week. These tents were nicely equipped with flatscreen TVs, lounge chairs, plush beds, and absolutely no insulation. In other words, everything a real skier needs. However, we learned on the weekend that winter glamping was still pretty popular amongst the Korean population.
Inside the hotel provided some entertainment as well. The food was drastically different then my expectations. Instead of brothy Asian meals we were given a full assortment of food at the daily buffet. Some of it was traditional Korean like bugogi beef and kimchi, but along with that they served normalish pasta and at least one fried item at every meal. We still were given some interesting culinary experiences along the way though. The black squid roll turned out being quite ordinary for a black bun and the Asian fruit selection including lychee and others did not disappoint. Of course there was also the entertainment of seeing how all the other teams handled meals including which teams went for the cereal breakfasts (lots of Americans) and who indulged in mussels to start their day.
Location number three was the Wolejeongsa Temple. This site provided one of the few opportunities to get away from skiing and recovery activities. On our second day in Korea, most of the US athlete contingent piled into the rented minivan and drove about 4 kilometers up the valley into a national park to visit the temple. We paid the 34,000 Won for 10 people to get into the park for a speed tour of the temple. (Without clear understanding of the exchange rate until after 34,000 was charged to a card). Since we did not have much time, we powered through the ornate 7th century temple ogling at all features and giggling at our ignorance of the culture as all the Koreans seemed to be bowing at every possible opportunity. Bow to the door, bow to the stairs, bow to us….
And finally the venue, which the real reason we were in Korea in the first place. Who cares about temples and culture when there is ski racing to be found? The Alpensia sportpark was about 30 minutes away from our hotel by bus. The Olympic village will be much closer as there are lots of winter sports that will take place in the area. Sliding sports, tech alpine events, nordic sports and biathlon are all quite closely centered around the Yongpyong and Alpensia (mini) ski resorts. The cross country trails are mostly located on a golf course. While this probably would mean they are quite flat in the US, the Korean golf course sprawled through the rolling hills. The only downside to it being a gold course was that there wasn’t much protection from the howling wind that greeted us the day before the race. While the stadium is a bit lower and somewhat protected, the wind was ripping through sections of the distance course making skiing parts of it a bit miserable. Wind turbines on all the hillsides around made a lot more sense after that day. However, things calmed down by the time the races began.
For me the classic sprint was more of a warm up for the later races than an event to actually focus on. It was a long and challenging course for a sprint, but I struggled with my normal sprinting problems including being too frantic, lack of power, overly worked up and thus unable to kick, as well as just not having many fast twitch muscles. I placed exactly where I was seeded going into the race and was done racing for the day just 3:30 after I had started. Not inspiring, but nothing unusual either.
The skiathalon the following day was the real reason I had travelled to Korea in the first place. Thus I was a bit nervous going in. For the usual full strength world cups, I tend to be seeded somewhere between 40 and 50, for this day I was bib 10. Going from trying to reach the top 30 to actually having a chance to be on the podium or at least in the top 10 really changes the perspective on the race. Also it was the first distance race at low altitude that I had done in quite a while just to add another variable to the mix. Add to that the normal chaos of skiathalon ski testing with both skate and classic and there was plenty to focus on instead of nerves.
Once we lined up and the gun went off, things went relatively normally for two laps. The Norwegians in the race clearly believed they were going to dominate and took control early on leading us around the 3.75k loop. On the third loop, the race started to become a little frustrating. While Noah Hoffman might have been having fun at the front of the pack, I quickly became frustrated from two skiers behind him as the pace slowed to a crawl, sprinted through a feed zone, slowed again, and then accelerated for a bonus prime. However, all of this was relatively inconsequential until the bonus prime acceleration. I made a large tactical error jumping in one of the unglazed tracks for a one kilometer downhill. Also with the acceleration I had lost the draft of the skier in front of me. Quickly 10th slipped to 15th and beyond until I was barely hanging onto the top 30. At that point skiing in the pack is not fun. There is too much accordioning going on over crests and through depressions that just burn energy with no gain. Two laps later, I had become succumbed to the energy fire and was skiing slightly detached from the lead pack going into the classic to skate transition.
The skate course was a little more to my style. Instead of a long hill out of the start, a long downhill, and some rollers, the skate was marked by several fairly significant climbs with fast downhills in between. Also, while I was off the lead pack, they were in sight most of the race so I had some chasing to do. Right out of the stadium, I charged past the two competitors that I transitioned with. A few kilometers later, there were some Germans and Russians dangling from the lead pack providing more opportunities to move up. However, all the time my focus was getting back into what had become a chase pack. Two skiers had broken away off the front with another two chasing. Then there was a group of five including fellow US skier Noah Hoffman. After that it was me chasing alone. However, the surges the group put in for the bonus primes mitigated any gains that I made throughout the rest of the course. I spent most of the skate hovering 20 seconds back from the group of five. From this perspective I was granted a prime spectator position as the eventual race winner pulled away from his companion and the group of five caught the other two. Suddenly, it was anyone’s game for the final podium spot, but I was still 20 seconds off. The dangling in the classic had cost me an opportunity. I did get a final carrot though as one of the Norwegians bonked and I rapidly closed the time in-between the two of us. On the final hill of the course I came along side expected a surge from him. However, my acceleration was marked with absolutely no response. I cruised into the finish in 9th still 20 seconds off the pack, but getting my first world cup points and first top 10 in the process. We’ll just ignore the weak field.
The final full day in Korea was the team sprint with Matt Gelso being my buddy for the day. I had not raced a team sprint since 2012 (while I was sick) and had not raced a skate team sprint since 2009. Yet, one of our standard summer training workouts on Eagle Glacier is a team sprint simulation so I wasn’t totally foreign to the tactics and format. Even so, I went into the day a little apprehensive. I was stiff from the previous race day and not really sure how we would stack up with the other teams. All that anxiety was unfounded though as I came to the conclusion during racing that team sprinting is pure fun.
In the semi, I led things out of the start, narrowly avoided a Norwegian crash and kept things tight in the top 5 for the first tag. Gelso fell back a little but we were solidly in the fight. For both of us, our second laps were fairly uneventful. Then lap three came around. While I still felt very in control, all the sudden the other teams were getting dropped left and right. A few gaps formed in front of me as the French and Norwegian teams charged for the final time in the semi, but we sat solidly in qualifying position. Gelso brought us home with a good finish to advance as one of 15 teams in the final. Then, we had an hour to recover and do it again.
At this point I was a little worried. The final was going to be much faster with double the number of strong teams and Gelso was looking quite tired. With our hour slipped by, I led things off again under the lights of the Pyeongchang stadium. Quickly it became clear that this was a little different. Russia and Norway pinned it from the line. In the course of a few hundred meters, I was dangling unable to move forward due to the chaos of 15 teams. Our race for the podium was over right there, but we waged our own little battle with Germany and other teams over the next five laps and emerged satisfied in 9th.
With that finish, racing was over in Korea. We shipped back to the hotel for an early 3-hour bus ride to the airport. The airport was much more manageable the second time. My sister and I even found some entertainment in the airport. After getting through security, we noticed that Korean Ministry of Culture store had free activities for foreign travelers. What better way is there to spend time in an airport than free cultural activities. I built a hanji (Korean paper) tray while Caitlin examined trinkets and made a print of the Korean alphabet. Only a couple minutes before leaving, we were finally experiencing the culture (in the airport).