Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eastern Highschool Championships

Each season usually wraps up with a championship race for the juniors, whether it is Junior Nationals, U16 Championships, or Eastern Highschool Champs. The U16 and EHS champs are where the states are pitted against each other, and CSU makes up a large portion of the Massachusetts Team. I love coaching these events, because it is always fun to watch my skiers really throw down when it matters.

Last year I coached the U16 trip, and this year it was EHS. We were up at Rikert Nordic, which harvested snow masterfully through this bleak season, and despite the weather stay above freezing for the entire week before, we managed to have our four races. If it hadn't dropped below freezing on Friday night I think we might have been SOL, but they worked some serious magic defying mother nature last weekend.

Conditions were seriously treacherous each day, for varying reasons. There were the deep ruts in the slush, grabbing your skis and sending you sideways into the woods. There was the icy mass start on a downhill into a 180-degree corner with 110 skiers. There was glare ice on the uphills, glare ice on the downhill corners, and glare ice in the tag zone of the relay. We had one broken thumb, two broken skis, a slew of broken poles, a sprained wrist and a lot of bruises from some pile-ups in the mass start. We had skiers fall off the trail into the mud, bounce back up and keep skiing without skipping a beat. We had crashes in the tag zone. It was a weekend about rising above the challenges and reaching past your limits, and I saw some seriously impressive performances. Of course not all my skiers were happy with their races, but you could tell who had kept training through the last month of crappy training conditions, and who had given up. The Mass team showed their mettle, and I was impressed.

Matt and Oliver slogging through the ankle-deep slush and mud.

My job as head coach this weekend was really easy. We had a large coaching staff, and the parent wax team for in the trenches. I mostly stood around and leaned on my poles. Got a chance to watch all the races, talk to each kid before and after the races, and even go on a couple course tours! What a treat. It's easy to run a large team like this when they're so good at what they do.

The view from the "team" side of the team photo.

That definitely marks the end of a painful ski season. We were struggling pretty hard to keep doing this sport all winter, and it is actually a huge weight off my shoulders now that I no longer have to worry about what we'll be doing for practice. Ironically, it snowed 4" on Sunday night in Boston...

Here's to the spring racing season!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

North American Ski Orienteering Championships

This blog has been pretty quiet lately, as all the ski races kept getting canceled due to lack of snow. We had a long break between the final Eastern Cup and any other important races; I'd signed up for Rangeley Loppet, but even Rangeley lost too much snow to hold the race. Jess and I headed up for some skiing anyway, and it was 90% superb, 8% pretty bad, and 2% rocks. So I guess it's good they canceled the race, but that's always a bummer.

So after many weeks of not-racing, it was time to head north to Aroostook county for the ski orienteering champs. Not only had I not done any ski-o yet this year (see the above paragraph about lack of snow), I was feeling slow and out of shape. It'll come back to me, right?

Ed was one of the three organizers, technical director, so he'd been up there most of the week before, setting everything up and skiing a lot. He and Greg and Ken did a spectacular job, cutting new narrow trails, setting great courses, and getting us going with touch-free punching, which is a big improvement over having to stop and punch each control. So I knew that regardless of how I skied, the event was going to be awesome. We managed to get about 40 people up to the event, which, for a niche sport of two niche sports, in a remote location, is pretty darn good.

Sprint race
Friday's race was an afternoon sprint. It was warm, and even Presque Isle had gotten rain on the Wednesday of that week, so the stadium was largely a puddle. Luckily, the snow had been transformed enough that it was still fast, despite being slushy. I broke out a pair of skis from 1998 that are just totally designed for slush, and that was a good call. We had one-minute start intervals, and somehow I managed to leave myself barely enough time to get into all the necessary paraphernalia before starting. I managed not to get too flustered, but this being my first ski-o of the year and all, I never felt like I could really push the pace. Decisions were just coming up way too fast! Luckily I managed to avoid overskiing any junctions, and I made the right decisions, and I even managed to be fast enough to win the race, barely a minute ahead of my US Junior Teammate Melanie Serguiev (who, I should mention, just got back from a week of racing at the Junior Ski-O World Champs in Austria!). I was pumped - it's always good to start a race weekend with a clean race and a top step of the podium!

Long distance race
It froze up hard overnight, thankfully, and conditions were a mix of frozen granular on the big trails and ice on the narrow trails. This was good, because I never felt like I could really push the pace, stuck moving at marathon pace, so at least the fast conditions kept me moving well. Below is the first map - we had two map exchanges, for three total maps, and this spread the competitors nicely. The organizers made this individual start again, so I had no idea of how I was doing, and I think I got a little too comfortable out there. US Teammate Anna Voegele (from Tahoe, a land of snow) was winning the race at control #9, and more worryingly, took the lead back again at control #19. Luckily, I managed to pick up the pace for the final loop, and ended up in the lead, by a scant 5 minutes over a 70-minute race. That's tight, for ski orienteering!

There was some really nice route choice on this map, and the fast snow made things really fun. I took a couple short cuts that might have been ill-advised had I actually gone over the edge of the trail (it was damn close), but the crust was really good skiing today, thanks to the freeze-thaw cycles of the last few days. I had a ton of fun skiing that race.

Skiing through the woods on the crust in the long distance race

Ed was so psyched with the timing hut! He could unload all his technology into an indoor space, with a 360 degree view.

Start gate

Middle distance mass start
The final race of the weekend was the middle distance race, run as a mass start. We had one map exchange, and the courses were "forked", meaning that although everybody goes to the same controls, they might not do it in the exact same order, to discourage following. My goal for the day was to really race, push the pace and end up tired. Naturally, this led to more mistakes than the previous two days, where I had navigated cleanly. I was flustered off the start, skiing by the wrong first control before getting it figured out, and then on the descent to the east side of the map I couldn't figure out how to get out of the stadium, losing even more time. Argh! 

Thankfully I got it sorted out after that, and started racing more aggressively. Maybe too aggressively - I was taking a narrow trail through the woods, and there was a small wooden bridge (for the mountain bike trail that this narrow-groomed trail was following), over a deep little gully. The bridge had lost most of its snow, but I tried to jump the part without the snow, and while I mostly made it, I miscalculated my momentum, and one ski hooked on the opposite bank while my body slammed into the icy snow above it, left hand first. 

That hurt. I couldn't move my left hand, and pain was stabbing through my fingers and wrist. I wriggled up onto the bank, and managed to get back onto my feet, wondering if I'd broken my hand. After what felt like 3 minutes, I discovered I could wiggle my fingers, so I sort of poled along the trail with my right hand until I could punch the control and decide what to do. By now, adrenaline had kicked in, and I could move my hand, so I tested poling on it, and while it didn't feel awesome, it was doable, and adrenaline took care of the rest. Let's race.

Now I had some time to make up, so I hammered up the hill with a lot of gusto. I caught back up to Anna, who had passed me during my little hand episode, and then had a series of really clean legs, coming into the map exchange with a clear lead. I cruised through the final map with no mistakes, but I had probably 5 minutes of mistakes on the first map, which is frustrating. It was still good enough to take the win again, making three for three! I call that a successful weekend. And the hand appears to only be sprained, recovering quickly in the next few days.

Elite class results

Skiing by a control in the middle distance. 

This shot is from Jess, when we went skiing at Rangeley the week before ski-o champs. The lakes were nicely frozen! 

And, we had time to do a little hiking - almost looked like winter up there! Not often that you can climb a 4000 footer in sneakers in early March, though.