On December 17th, shortly after finishing the last Toblach World Cup, I booked a plane ticket for the next day. I was going back to the states to US Nationals in Anchorage. I had been offered a Tour de Ski start and Olympic selection through the world cup was still possible, I just didn’t see it as feasible. My path to Pyeonchang was going to go through Anchorage. After several days watching ticket prices and maneuvering in a state of limbo, I made the call. Returning to the US meant I got to spend some of the holidays with my parents in Bozeman in addition to racing nationals in my hometown.
Returning to Bozeman was great. While most of the West and Alaska was worrying about snow, Bozeman was stuck in a cold snap with plenty of snow. This made for some killer skis at a variety of venues around town. It was also a great opportunity to live somewhere else than a hotel for a few days. The little joys like cooking, going to Costco, braving the holiday traffic, or pulling my parents out of conversations with random strangers were all quite different from my existence for the last month. However, the holiday was over shortly and it was time to travel again, this time back to the cold dark North of Anchorage in January.
Snow was in short supply when I arrived. The approximately three kilometers of manmade at Kincaid was the only decent option for skiing. Every day before the races started, we heard new rumors of course options twisting through the snow guns trying to maximize the ascent per kilometer.
By the 15k race day a course had been nailed down, but a new variable was added to the mix: rapidly falling warm new snow. This change was awesome for me as it morphed the somewhat easy race loop into a grindy challenging course due to the slowed snow speed. From the start, I was confident that I could win the race. I received a boost to this confidence after the first of six laps when I passed another competitor. Normally this wouldn’t mean that much, but this certain one had won a couple 15k skate nationals in the past. Good feeling translated to good splits a minute later when my coach shouted at me that I was leading by 8 seconds. With steady but aggressive skiing, I built this lead up to 55 seconds at the finish. Crossing the line, I had my 3rd national title in the bag. Like my first, this one was made more special by my sister, Caitlin, winning her race earlier in the day.
While nationals started on a high note, the rest of the week was frustrating. I raced a mediocre skate sprint. I qualified and skied in the quarterfinal, but the racing was too close. In my sprint heat, all 6 of us came into the final 100 meters together. I don’t win races when they come that close, but I also don’t like being eliminated so early. However, the sprint was mainly a bonus for me. Plus, I got to watch my sister win again and catch up with friends while watching.
The second distance race, a 30-kilometer classic mass start, was the real frustration of the week for me. The night before, a cough that had been lingering since the fall, set in with a force. I spent most of the night hacking up my lungs and maybe accumulated 3 restful hours. Unfortunately, the 30k was too important for Olympic qualification for me to sit out. With the new snow from earlier in the week, the course was shifted to a 5-kilometer loop consisting of half natural snow and half manmade; however, challenging climbs were still absent. The slow snow of earlier in the week was gone as well. The manmade snow speed had increased significantly since the 15k and the natural snow had an ice layer underneath. In the race, this meant two things: first, it was fast and hard to break away and second, kick wax was quickly peeled from our skis by the ice.
From the starting gun, I lead the first 10 kilometers. My intention was to keep the pace high and string out the pack; however, about we still had at least 30 guys skiing together a third of the way in. When one of the sprinters took the lead, I shifted towards the back of the pack. I had realized how futile my efforts were to break away, especially when considering my health. Instead of animating the race, I spent the next 20k reacting to others. I watched as several of the other strong distance skiers tried to no avail to get away. Perhaps if we had worked together, it would have turned out differently. Instead, 8 of us came into the final 100 meters together. As in my sprint heat, I don’t win in the final 100. I ended up 8th. The ease of the race paid off for those with more sprint chops. The three people including myself, who I thought should have been able to break away ended 6th, 7th, and 8th. Luckily, I had the 15k win to ride on and ended up with a good position for Olympic qualifying.
My nationals finished quietly. Instead of racing the classic sprint to cap off the week, I started antibiotics for bronchitis and spent the day snapping photos with my sister’s camera as she swept her 4th national title of the week.
Being in Anchorage was nice, but with my health situation my backcountry skis and climbing gear never even made it out of storage. A few days after the classic sprint, I was flying back across the Atlantic pond for more world cup racing.
Next up is another World Cup this weekend in Seefeld, Austria.