Tuesday, February 17, 2015

World ski orienteering championships

Warning - this is a long one. I meant to update more frequently while in Norway, but the internet was bad enough that I'm just posting the whole shebang all at once!

I'm skiing!! In Norway!!

I just got back from Norway, wrapping up a week of racing at the World Ski Orienteering Championships (Ski WOC). This is my fifth time racing at this event, which happens every other year, so I'm starting to feel like I maybe have a handle on what's going on. Coming from North America means coming from a serious disadvantage, since we don't have the track system or the numbers of races that they have in Europe.  The main difference between NA and Euro ski-o is the lack of little narrow-trail mazes at home. Even if we're racing at a ski area that is willing to groom some extra trails with us, the trees are too close together to put in a ton of trails. And it's a lot of work to put in all the extra little trails, which you aren't going to do for an event that only attracts 50-100 people.

These little narrow-trail mazes are challenging in two different ways. Physically, they give you very little wiggle room for your skiing, with tight corners and nowhere to bail if you aren't 100% perfect with your line. Uphills are difficult because the trails are narrow and we're on racing skate skis. Downhills are difficult because the trails are narrow and we're on racing skate skis. There's no room to mess up, no room to check your speed, and often pretty sketchy and rutted conditions, because they can only groom a narrow trail with a snowmobile. Lots of broken equipment in ski orienteering.

Navigationally, the narrow-trail mazes are a thing of terrifying wonder - you have a decision every few seconds, and if you lose contact with the map, you very quickly get lost.  They can make crazy mazes with narrow trails because wide trails give you more time to react to changes, and where's the fun in that? So the challenge becomes staying on your feet, while reading the map, while trying to ski fast. It's a bit overwhelming, and totally freaking awesome.  Needless to say, the more time you spend skiing in narrow-trail mazes, the more comfortable and confident you become. Needless to say, most of us Americans only get to experience these mazes when we go to Europe, which is rarely more often than once a winter.  Basically, I knew that as this was my first ski-o trip to Europe of the winter, I was setting myself up for failure.  Well, moderated expectations are the key to happiness, so moderate my expectations I did.

(What's happening here is that I'm checking my touch-free EMIT card to make sure it is flashing, proof that I punched the control. The touch-free system is great!)

Sprint Relay
The first race of the week was a mixed-gender sprint relay, and I was chosen to race for the women, tagging to Adrian Owens, the candidate for the men. We each skied three laps, tagging off in between.  I got to scramble, which is always fun. It seemed like a clean start, no tangles, and I very quickly headed off into the woods to navigate my way through the first maze. I made some goofs, this being my first time racing a "real" ski-o in two years, but I kept seeing the same women flitting in and out of the trees, so I knew I was holding my own.  Despite the mistakes, I tagged to Adrian in 10th place, with a good pack of skiers and a little over a minute out of the lead. Solid.  Unfortunately, he made a big mistake, visiting his control 7 before control 2, and there isn't room for an eight-minute error in a race with an eight-minute winning time.  We reeled in a few more teams, but definitely had had higher hopes than 15th of 19 teams.
Results. Click the map below to view the course.

Here's a quick photo of some of the gear required for this silly sport. The compass I wear around my arm, and don't really use unless I'm lost, and need to double check that a trail is going in the right direction, or if I'm making a long shortcut down a hill and want to make sure I'm going the right way.  The red thing is the touch-free EMIT tag - that is both the punching and the timing system.  You have to get it 50cm away from the controls, and if it registers, it will keep flashing, so that you know you got it.  This is a major improvement over needing to physically punch the control.  Finally, I like to have a watch, both so I know what time it is and don't miss my start, and to track heartrate and whatnot for post-race analysis.

Sprint Race
With the first race out of the way, it was time for the sprint, and I was excited to visit the same terrain again and this time try not to screw up as much. Of course, if your process goal is to not screw up, you think about not screwing up, and that causes you to screw up.  I struggled to get into the map, and blew something like five minutes between controls 2 and 3. In a race that should be finished in 14 minutes. No good. I was flustered and unsure of myself the rest of the race, never finding the flow I needed, and after watching a Finnish girl break both her skis in a ditch, I was even more flustered. This led to a finish in 30th place, and I was pretty upset.  The results were confirming what I feared, that I wasn't prepared to compete here, and that I didn't belong.  Well, tomorrow is another day and another race. Time to turn it around.

The bright noontime sun. Weather conditions were fantastic for most of the week, with temperature hovering around zero degrees centigrade. Fast and fun!

Long Distance
I went into the long with the word "EXECUTE!" first and foremost in my brain. No more headless chicken skiing - I was going to make a plan for each control, and follow it, come hell or high water. The start was at the base of an alpine area, but it was a small alpine area, which was good, considering one route choice took me over the top. Things had been foggy overnight, but the sun came up and burned off the fog, leaving ice crystals all over the trees and a glorious view from the top. Definitely one of those "I LOVE SKIING!!" sorts of days.

Out of the start, I took things cautiously in the first maze, and then really started to find my groove. I was going a little slower than I should have on some of the wide trails, a fact I realized after the race, but given my plan to nail the navigation, I was ok with sacrificing some time on the skiing.  A very fast Finnish skier, Marjut Turunen (ranked 14th in the world), was starting 6 minutes behind me, so I was expecting to see her, but she didn't appear until I was well on my way home, around control 10 of 18. I hopped in behind her to catch a ride, and was pleased to find that her skiing speed was not any faster than mine - clearly, she does what she does with superior navigation, as demonstrated over the final technical maze sections, where I lost another minute to her. I managed to hold it together, though, making a very clean race and finishing in 18th.  It was a relief to have a result that felt like it matched the effort - no big mistakes, and a moderated effort - it left me definitely wanting more. Wanting a race that felt like a race, rather than a cautious interval.

Results - first time I've popped a top 20!

Click to view larger.

We used this church as a landmark driving up to Budor every day. Very pretty, and very Norwegian-looking.

Yep, this happens. I took a pretty big tumble approaching control 10 in the long distance, and I think that weakened the ski, so went I hit a bump skiing my cooldown, that was it. Better to break a ski in the cooldown than in a race, where it costs precious seconds.

We had a much-needed rest day after the long distance. Doing three races in a row takes some of the oomph out of you, and I was very happy to go for an easy cruise ski in Sjusj√łen with some of the team. The sun had given way to very solid fog, but that was also cool, in it's own way. The humidity chilled me to the bone, but after a waffle and hot chocolate in the warming hut, I was good to go.

Skiing into nothingness.

One of the warming huts along the way. Thatched roofs and everything.

I found a control!

Cristina, aka Master Captain Awesome (a throwback to her air force days), was our team leader for the week. This was fantastic, as she took care of all the coach stuff and seriously reduced the stress load for the athletes.  Not only is she a great leader, she's fun to be around, so that definitely helped. And, she has some pretty great frosted tips after skiing in a cloud for an hour.

We also paid a visit to the Madshus factory on our way back to Hamar from Lillehammer.  I was a kid in a candy store. Super thanks to Madshus for giving us a tour on zero notice at the end of the day.

The giant ski carousel. We weren't allowed to take any close-up photos, but overviews were fine.

Middle Distance
The final individual race was the middle distance, clocking in at approximately 10km skiable distance for the women. This one was a mass start, with three separate loops and a map change between each loop. This is one way the organizers can separate the pack, by having this "forking" mechanism to keep people from just following each other.  It also keeps the race near the arena, for good spectating.

After my 18th in the long, I had allowed my expectations to rise a little.  I was really itching for that top 15 that I've been chasing all these years, but thankfully I knew enough to focus on the process goals. Today's goals were to ski fast on the big trails, but always have a good plan for the narrow mazes. I had a good start, but unfortunately contributed somewhat to a pile-up in the start - a Norwegian fell in front of me, and I tried to go around, but she was taking up a lot of space, so I skied over her. Oops. Happens.

Things were fast and furious, and I felt very good about how I was able to actually read the map and make sense of the junctions.  I did, however, make two pretty bad mistakes, both times skiing past a junction of big trails when I should have turned. D'oh! That was frustrating, and put me behind two Czech skiers that I'd been in front of before that, but not making mistakes is part of the game, so I can't complain. I finished the race in a sprint against a Lithuanian gal, (which I won), and finally felt like I'd actually stressed my physical capabilities. Yay for ski racing! That was a really fun course, props to the course setter for the middle.


Click to view larger. The multiple placements for the different controls show the different forking options, for each map.


With the middle distance over, and two top-20s under my belt, I had high hopes for the first leg of the relay. The order was me, Anna, and Stina, and we had our eye on Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Estonia as the "reach" teams to beat. I was hoping that I could have a good first leg, putting enough distance between our team and theirs that we had a buffer. Unfortunately, that didn't quite pan out.

I started out by nearly missing the start of the race. Somehow, I counted backwards wrong, and thought I had 20 minutes when I really had 10. Luckily, I got myself into the start pen and all the various gear strapped onto me in time, but instead of the 15 seconds to look at the map before the gun, I had maybe 2. Well, no problem, I've got this, but that flustered start set the tone for the race, and I made multiple small mistakes and bobbles.  By the halfway point, Estonia had dropped me, and I was in a pack with Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, and Lithuania.  I managed to ski the final loop well, partly due to very fast skis, and managed to gain a small gap over the other girls. That was good enough to tag off in 8th place, but I really would have liked to have come in with the 5-6th place pack. If wishes were horses...

Anna went out, and skied a solid leg, losing a spot to Bulgaria and Lithuania, but unfortunately she also missed a control, one of those tricky three-in-a-row situations, and she just never saw the middle one. This sort of thing happens, but it's always a bummer. Stina didn't know that Anna had mispunched when she went out, and skied admirably, but unfortunately, it didn't matter. Going to all the controls matters, but at least we weren't the only ones - Norway and Finland both mispunched in the men's race, on the same control as Anna.


In the end, I call that a very successful World Championships. Obviously I would love to be contending for a medal, but without making some serious sacrifices in my life, that I'm not willing to make, that's just unrealistic. Don't get me wrong, I am totally satisfied with my results. Thank you to each and every one who has helped me to get where I am today. It may be an individual sport, but you don't succeed when you tackle it on your own.

The organizers created a very good event, and the sunshine and beautiful scenery helped to make me think that Norway is pretty much heaven when it comes to ski vacations. I can see myself coming back here, for more skiing and ski orienteering!