Thursday, February 28, 2013

Kazakhstan - the adventure begins

The World Ski Orienteering Championships this year are in Ridder City, Kazakhstan, which is in East Kazakhstan, where it meets Mongolia and China. To get there, it takes ~40 hours of travel time, with some pretty long layovers, since there is one flight a day that goes between Almaty (the international hub) and Oskemen (nearest airport to Ridder City). I'm currently sitting in the Almaty airport, where there is still internet and all things modern. I have no idea how much will change as we get further into the country. With me are five other Americans, four of whom are here - Ali Crocker, Greg Walker, Scott Pleban, and Adrian Owens. Anna Voegele gets here tomorrow. So far, skis are all here and unscathed, but we have one more leg of flying to go, so I'm not counting my ducklings too soon, or however that saying goes.

I was on the same flight as Adrian from Boston to Amsterdam, and since we had something like an 8-hour layover, and neither of us had been to that city before, we checked our skis through to Almaty and went out exploring a bit. We did a little loop around the old city, very pretty, and I got to sample some cheese, look at the flower market, and eat a tasty croissant while there. After a few hours we took a break in a Mcdonalds, for the bathrooms and because Adrian wanted french fries, and while sitting there, a pigeon wandered in.

Only six pair of skis, and a bunch of clothes and other accessories... came out to just shy of 45lbs.

The following photos are all random shots from wandering around Amsterdam. Enjoyable way to spend a layover! Better than our sketchy napping in a corner of the Almaty airport that we all just woke up from... Hopefully there is internet at the sports school where we're staying, so I can keep you updated! In the mean time, the event website is here, and you may get more instant results here. You can also follow our training logs on attackpoint, which will hopefully (given internet constraints) have the play-by-play of the races. Greg, Adrian, Ali, Anna, and me.

This was a tower showing you the direction of the wind. I suppose a useful thing for a city built by merchants...

This was cool - they had a vending machine for city maps! It didn't work, but still, awesome idea.

Bicycles, bicycles, everywhere!

A drawbridge! Tons of canals around here, looking at the map, it's sort of like the Amstel river hit one of those sink drain things, came in as a big flow, and then had to filter through all these little holes and leave the trash behind.

Rembrandt square - Rembrandt is that large brass statue in the background.

Adrian with a kid from the night watch.

This is probably why Adrian wanted those french fries.

Flower market. There were like two blocks of little stalls selling tulip bulbs. crazy!

Cheese! Lots of different kinds, and this shop had samples. Of the fresh goudas, I really like the one that was made with pesto, it was green. I also liked the aged goat, sheep, and cow cheeses, as well as the smoked cheese. They eat cheese with mustard, over there. I sort of liked it better without the mustard.

Horse, in a square with random people offering free hugs. Free pickpocketing, too, I bet.


Cheese! In all the windows!

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Birkie

Last weekend, I stood on the startline of the biggest ski race in America - the American Birkebeiner. 4000 people finished the skate 50k, 2000 in the classic 50k, 2300 in the Korteloppet (half-distance) races, and another 400 in the Prince Haakon (12km) races. That's a lot of people! I signed up for the skate race, because one of my life goals is a top 15 at the Birkie, and last time I did this race, I was 16th. This year, I'm in the best shape of my life, and have been skiing pretty well, feeling pretty good, and I'm on some wicked fast boards from Madshus. Gonna be a good one! The timing for this race worked out well, too, as it's the weekend before I fly to Kazakhstan for the ski orienteering World Championships, so fits right into the peaking schedule. I was pumped, confident and ready.

Fast forward to race day morning, and similar to last year, I did not have enough time to warm up. I got about six minutes of running, enough to get my hands warm, but not quite enough to get to the feet or legs. Next time I do this race, I'll just rent my own car - I think I've learned my lesson that you can't rely on others for race morning transport when they start hours later. Anyway, the first few km are pretty flat, so I figured I'd start easy, let myself warm up, and then start to move up on the powerlines hills. There was an inch or two of light fluffy snow on top of hard-packed corduroy for those first two km, so I was totally fine with hanging out in the mid-pack, letting others smoosh down the slower new snow for me. I was happy that the base under the new fluff was so hard; I have a hole in my ski quiver when it comes to soft powder skate skis, so the skis I was on were quite speedy, but a bit stiff, hence my relief at having a firm base to push off of.

(You can see me fuzzily behind these people, in the Madshus suit).

Under the powerlines, I started to speed up, moving with a few masters ladies towards the front, which was already spreading out. But I quickly discovered that today was one of those days where skiing just feels like hard work. Nordic skiing isn't easy, I mean, you need to have the lungs of a racehorse and thighs of a cheetah to be any good at it, but some days, it just feels harder than others, and apparently today was one of those days. Damn. This realization that I'd brought the mental game but not the physical one was a downer, but I figured I'd just get tough, and maybe my legs would come around later in the race. I was working hard up those first hills, and the race was separating itself out, looked like this year I wouldn't be skiing with the lead pack at all. One of the masters ladies picked it up another notch, and I couldn't go with her, just put my head down and got my sustainable suffer on, waiting for the hills to end.

Eventually, we made that left turn into the woods, around 6km, and the rollers began. I could see two women dangling ahead of me, and there were a few behind me, so I pulled the train for a couple k until we caught up to the GearWest skier, Jan Guenther. She may be in her 50s, but she's a fast racer, and she latched on to our train. There was another woman ahead of us in blue, going about the same speed, so I settled into a comfortable pace, not too worried about catching her, knowing I had a pack to work with. There are some seriously steep little climbs in this race, and that was when I'd notice the true tiredness in my body, but for the flats and transitions, I was fine. The blue woman's teammate took the front of the pack somewhere in there, and upped the pace, skiing a slower tempo but higher speed than I'd been doing, and I found it was a struggle to hang on going up hills. But, skiing with this pack would be way more enjoyable than slogging it out alone, and I was recovering on the downhills, so it was definitely worth the effort to keep up. Before the big climb at 11km, we caught blue woman #1, Mary Beth Tuttle, another speedy midwestern master. We were down to five, now, Megan, Mary Beth, Jan, Kathleen (blue woman #2) and myself.

You can see my left foot, swinging out from behind the paceline.

The climb to OO I thought I might lose them, but hung tough, and got through the feed in front this time. Unfortunately, after OO, the snow changed, and got waaay softer. I guess maybe they groomed that half later in the morning, and it hadn't set up as hard. I knew I was in trouble then, because with every push-off, my skis were digging into the snow, rather than riding on top. Dammit. I was now riding in 5th in our group, playing the accordion, having to push hard over the crests of hills, then riding up on people on the downhills; I've skied enough Tuesday night races to know that being 5th in a group of 5 is a bad place to be. But I couldn't go up hills fast enough to stay at the front of the group, and I started setting small goals for myself. Make it to 39k club, then you can let them go. The elite men caught us somewhere around 35k, after some sweet downhill rollers, definitely my favorite part of the course. Unfortunately, I let myself get gapped as the guys were going by, and I just didn't have the oomph to close that gap after their pack had left. I could see my midwestern ladies pulling away up a hill, and I just had nothing left to yo-yo back up to them, again.

So, the lonely slog began then. I tried to keep pushing the pace, putting my skis in existing ruts so that I wasn't pushing too much snow backwards, and when I got to bitch hill at 40k, I just put my head down and started counting V1 strides - 10 left, 10 right, 10 left, 10 right, oh hey, it's flat enough to V2 now. It was an insultingly long flat stretch at the top of that hill, but the next climb, I saw a skier ahead who didn't look strong enough to be a man. Oooh, you're a woman, you are dropping off the pace, and I am coming to get you. Having a carrot was a helpful distraction from my lonely slog, and discovering that it was a very bonked APU girl also raised my spirits - I may have left my speedylegs at home, but at least my feeding strategy is working and I don't have any body parts threatening to cramp. I caught Lauren on a flat, and at first, she tucked in behind on the uphill, and I was worried that I'd actually have a ski race on my hands. Luckily, she dropped back again, though I continued running scared for a couple km.

42-46k felt like they took forever, but eventually, I hit the lake, and I knew it was almost over. I just kept V2ing, trying to be speedy and snappy and failing miserably, but at least the lake wasn't uphill. I could see the figure of a woman ahead of me, near the end, but I wasn't closing the gap fast enough to catch her - it was Megan, from my earlier group. They'd put nearly 4 minutes on me, by the end. I should have chosen a softer pair of skis, but for the first 25k, the pair I was on was the right call. I couldn't have known that the grooming would suddenly get way soft. Too bad it wasn't icy sugar slush... I can ski on that =)

In the end, I'm disappointed. I finished 22nd, which is really neither here nor there - I wanted a top 15, but if I had felt good about the race, good about my effort, my attitude about the race would be drastically different. Instead, I'm left wondering why I felt so tired, from the gun. Many possible reasons, and many actions I probably could have changed, may change in the future. I think I'm getting old, and what used to work for peaking, no longer works in the same way. Luckily, one uninspired race result can't take away the best fitness of my life, and I am ready to bring everything I've got to the World Champs, next week!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Quarry Rd Eastern Cup

The last weekend of Eastern Cups just went down, and these were the last races to choose the New England Junior National team. We had quite a few kids who are in a fine position, leading their respective age classes, definitely going to Fairbanks, but we had just as large a number of kids who were "on the bubble". These are the nailbiter races, these kids are the ones for whom a few points in one direction or the other make all the difference. Emotions were high, this weekend.

The wax army arrives!

The quarry rd courses were awesome - very physical, though none of the hills were all that steep, they were relentless. We also had blinding blizzard conditions, and I was a little worried the smaller juniors would get blown away.

What do you mean, waxing at 30F and falling snow is tricky?

Day 2, we got smart with the tent, and lashed it to some cars.

Leah, Kathy and I hiding from the wind

The J2 girls race went off first, and I was very excited to see Leah right up with Julia and Katharine, and Sonya, the bubble girl in that class, right with them! Because of the poorly-labeled finish zone, Julia, Leah, and Katharine all went down the lap lane and had to turn around, bringing them right back to Sonya, who nipped Katharine to sweep the podium with CSU colors. Not a great turn of events, but mistakes happen every once in a while, and in this case, it was in our favor. The next race was the J2 boys, and Gavin continued his strong showing in 3rd, while Lewis took a fall, but still came in 5th. Unfortunately, one of his rival bubble kids from a different team snuck ahead of him, getting better points for the day. Eep!

J2 girls podium

The mass start races for the J1s and older were next. Because this race was only lightly attended by college skiers and professionals, I got the #2 start spot, right near the front of the chevron. I had planned on using my hairies (skis with no wax, only a very roughed-up base, perfect for when there is falling snow around freezing), but the tracks were glazing a bit too much, and there was a lull in the snowstorm, so I was nervous. Luckily, one of my J1s, Zoe, had decided not to race, so lent me her zeroes (a ski like a hairy ski, only the base has a special material in the kick zone, giving it a slightly wider range of conditions where it'll work). Zoe's skis worked much better in the tracks, so I went with them, not having quite enough time to put the wax we knew was sort of working onto my waxable skis to test those out.

The start was clean near the front, and Cate (one of my J1s) and Heidi (J1 from GMVS) took the front, at a comfortable pace. A Dartmouth girl tried to make a move at the low point of the course, and going with her, I felt like I was going too hard, so I backed off and let a large number of people surge past me. This meant negotiating some of the downhill corners before the relentless climb in a pack, and a UNH girl kept attempting to put me in a ditch, but she didn't know who she was messing with. We started up the relentless climb, and this was just running, not skiing, no arms needed, so I moved up from what felt like the back of the entire pack to the front of the chase pack, trailing behind the lead pack of Cate, Heidi, UNH girl, and two Hannahs, one from Craftsbury and one from Proctor. Luckily, I made a move at the top of the downhill with all the corners, and Dartmouth girl who I'd moved past was bad enough at downhills that clearly her snowplow blocked the chase pack from following me, and I made contact with the lead pack by the bottom of the hill.

Around the stadium loop, and the pace felt quite comfortable. I saw no need to push it faster, as the closer everyone finished to the front, the better points my bubble kids would get. But the snow had truly stopped falling at this point, and I discovered that I no longer had any kick in the tracks. The tracks were considerably faster than the fresh snow out of the tracks, but I don't have the arm strength right now to force a classic kick when there isn't any to have, so by the low point of the course, I resorted to running/jogging out of the tracks, and that just wasn't very fast. At the bottom of the relentless climb I could see that Hannah from Craftsbury was also popped from the lead group, so I made an effort to catch her, but only made it within 7 seconds of her. Oh well, it was good enough, and felt good for the first real hard effort since catching at cold at Trapps two weeks ago. My bubble kids skied pretty well, too, so that was good.

Spectators on one of the awesome sketchy downhill corners

Prepping skis for the next day - you mean I was supposed to do that at home?

Sunday was just as windy and snowy, but colder, because we haven't really had enough real winter yet. Just a 5k skate, and I was excited to just hammer up that hill. Unfortunately, my feet got really cold warming up, and instead of changing socks and taking my boots off to warm up my feet, I just went with it. This meant that my feet fell asleep and my shins cramped up, and because of that I had no balance, as evidenced by this sad photo of my attempt at V2.

There were even more nonstarters in the field today, but I started 15s ahead of Cate, which meant I was running scared. She made short work of me on the initial flats as I bobbled around wondering why I couldn't ride a ski, and had caught me by 2k. Damn. Now just hang on. I stuck to her up the sustained climb, and it was certainly work, but I was starting to regain some feeling in my feet, and V1 is just a bit easier for the balance. I could see my 30s girl, from Dartmouth, and Rebecca, one of my juniors who'd started 45s up on me, ahead on the hill, but people look closer when you're climbing. It was nice to just follow Cate up the hill, no pressure to try and figure out your own pace, and I didn't really feel the need to redline it just to pass her, since someone had just given her a split that she was the race leader. At the top, she gained a 1-2s gap on me, which I'm fine with; I'd much rather have my space to play on twisty downhills, and I just couldn't V2 fast. Arms! Unfortunately, I caught her quickly on the downhill, and should have passed, but didn't want to do something sketchy and cause her to crash. Then she snowplowed on the sketchy icy corner with the fence, and I was kicking myself for not getting past her before that. Grr.

Short uphill, and we zoom past Dartmouth girl, hammer over the hill and into the next fun turns. They're good - you can step them all, and they make the course more interesting than just a straight shot down. At the bottom, carrying tons of speed into the final climb in the woods, I'm next to Cate and passing her, but we're coming up on Rebecca, and Rebecca is on the bubble for JNs, so I really don't want to mess up her race, so I told Cate to lead, and stood up to get behind Rebecca, at which point I start yelling at her to go with Cate. She does, thankfully, and we're more or less together down into the stadium, though Cate's now gotten a gap. I get around Rebecca at the bottom of the hill, and make up a ton of time on Cate floundering up that last hill in the deep snow drifts, then pathetically wish I had arm strength as I try to V2 finish hard.

I was fine with what I did out there - this race mattered to both those girls, and passing and being passed takes time for both people. On a short course, every second counts, and I think yelling at Rebecca kicked her into another gear and gave her quite a few seconds. It is frustrating to be closing a gap at the end when you know you could have been on the other end of that, opening the gap, but missing the podium by 0.3s meant I could go home early through the blizzard.

Junior nationals points won't be posted until this afternoon, so there's a bit of nailbiting going on, but all my skiers really skied great, regardless of whether or not they made the team. And if they don't make the Junior Nationals team, then I get them at the Eastern Highschool Champs!