Monday, December 18, 2017

Fort Kent Eastern Cups

The last time I was in Fort Kent, it was for the U16 Championships in 2015, and the Massachusetts Team was on a coach bus that couldn't quite handle the snowstorm that hit Sunday afternoon. It took us 16 hours with a brief (4-hour) stint in the Aroostook County Mall in Presque Isle, but we eventually made it back to Massaschusetts around 5:30am, just in time for me to head to work on Monday. Maddy, Kathy, Peter and I were the coaches on that bus, and I don't think we've ever fully recovered from the trauma, but the kids who were U16s at the time developed a bond that has carried them through highschool in a very tight-knit group.

In good weather, Fort Kent is only 6.5h of driving time (a mere 430 miles) north. It's on the northern border of Maine, across the St. John River from New Brunswick. I annotated a map of northern Maine for my readers:
I think most people sort of forget that Maine exists north of Katahdin. There's lots more of it, and it's beautiful! It's also remote, rugged, and quite often frigid, but the people are friendly and the potatoes are top notch.  

Us soft southerners may complain about the drive, but it does make sense to occasionally have a race up there, considering that for every other race, the northern Maine skiers have to make the drive down to the southern venues. There is also reliable snow in the early and late season, an important quality for race venues! 

I drove up with Rob and Kathy, and we got there in time to test some skis on Friday. I'd forgotten what it was like to be in truly cold weather. It just about broke me, in the little one-hour ski we did. With the sun going down and the wind picking up, zero degrees has never felt so terrible. I didn't actually break down and cry (because frozen tears really hurt), but it was close. Somehow, the cold really just knocked me back on my heels. Time to toughen up! My goal for Saturday's race was now two-fold: 1) qualify for the open sprint heats, and 2) don't let the cold get to me; stay positive and focused.

Saturday Skate Sprint
My early-season preparation has been better than some recent years, but definitely not particularly ski-specific. The main thing that's been missing are high-intensity efforts, so I knew I'd probably struggle with trying to find any extra gears and using them. It was a fun sprint course, though, playing out with some work in the beginning and some fun rollers in the end. If I could stay focused in the moment, maybe I'd produce some speed. 

I started out 15s behind Meg, one of my ex-CSU skiers who is now at Colby. I picked up good speed out of the stadium, and then there is this winding flat stuff leading up to the wax-cabin hill. I probably did a little too much V2-alternate there, not accelerating the whole time, lulled into complacency by the fact that I could tell I was gaining on Meg. Into the hill I was hop skating, but not at full sprint speed, and that was a mistake. I was winded at the top, but definitely hadn't emptied the tank as much as I knew I should have, which led to a bit of a sinking sensation. You screwed that up. Oh well, fight for those seconds in the fun part! Over the rollers, whooshing down the whoop-de-doo, and again I probably shouldn't have been tucking around the corner into the stadium, but that felt like the right thing at the time. 

I ended up qualifying in 16th, and still feeling pretty fresh, leaving what I felt was a good 5-7 seconds out there through sheer lack of oomph. With the lucky loser positions going through to the semifinals based on bib number, I had probably ruined my chances of luckily losing by not qualifying better. Can't change that! Now it's top two or bust. 

Photo credit Brian Burt. So many layers I couldn't actually velcro my boots shut under the boot covers...

I was in the third heat, with bib numbers 5, 6, 15, 25, and 26. Bib 5, Silje from UNH, has some crazy sprint points, and is built like a sprinter. As I expected, she started out fast, and I slotted in behind after a sort of slow start. Coming up through the gradual rollers, we were moving a lot faster than I had in my qualifier. Oh. It didn't feel like too much work yet, but I could definitely tell that I was starting to near that point of no return, and as we started to climb I backed off a smidge. The Canadian with bib #6 squeezed by, and as I was jump-skating behind her up the hill, I knew that this was it - this is the point where I have to make a move, pull up even with her, and punch it over the first camels hump. I had more gears available, I could physically do it, all it would take was a little mental toughness to tolerate the pain. But the race voice couldn't seem to override the voice in my head telling me this was fast enough, third place is fine, maybe you'll catch her later in the course. Do you really want to do another two heats after this? And I didn't make a move. 

We crested the first camels hump, Silje solidly in the lead and me on the tails of #6, but not close enough to really catch the draft and slingshot on the little dip. The next camels hump was the only other option to make a move, take the right-hand lane and try to carry more speed through the corner, and I didn't do it. I could hear the cheering for the SMS girl in 4th, and I'd shifted into defensive mode. Tucked around the corner again, and wasn't even close to fighting for 2nd. 

Mostly what was missing there was the confidence that I can totally put myself under and come back up for air while still racing, that confidence built on the back of hard intervals, race starts, and a burning desire for results. I wasn't surprised to end up 3rd; after all I had qualified eight seconds behind the Canadian gal, so on paper that was an unlikely scalp. I also wasn't all that upset by it; what upset me was the lack of will to make those moves. It's possible that it'll come back - the first races of the season are always a little tentative. By the end of last season I was totally capable of pushing myself into the pain cave, so I'd say there's hope before World Masters at the end of January. 

My final placement was 15th, which earns me one NENSA point. I'll take it! Also of note: My qualifier time beat Rob's qualifier time. I only ever beat Rob when he waxes my skis... 

It was fun to watch all my skiers race the heats, once I was out. With Fort Kent being so far away, the fields were a little thinner than usual, which meant most of my skiers qualified for either the open or the junior heats. Three of my big boys got into the open heats, and I think everyone got to learn from racing with people in tight quarters. Good stuff. 

Sunday classic mass start
This was probably one of the easiest races I've ever had to wax for. The combination of frigid temperatures on perfect snow and an indoor waxing facility meant that picking a kick wax was a quick and easy process, and the fact that the temperatures weren't changing meant we had every ski waxed for all the classes before the U16 boys had started. So simple!

The 5k course was a fun one. The first kilometer was uphill, cresting at 45m above the stadium, before bouncing around the high point for another 2km and then it was pretty much downhill with a couple kickers for the final 2km. With a mass start 5k, I knew it would start pretty hot, and the main goal was for everyone to avoid getting tangled in any trouble, and hang on through that first hill. 

I was seeded (USSA fixed the coaching license non-seeding issues, yay!) 25th, and had a clean start, narrowly avoiding the inevitable crash on the first gentle downhill out of the start. After cresting the first little steep pitch, I left myself look around, and realized I was hanging out at the back of the lead pack, with a separation behind me. My first thought was "Ooh! Kathy is back there, so hold her off as long as possible!" My second thought was "Dang, that sucks for everyone who was in or behind that crash." Mass start 5k races are chaos, and there's no avoiding that. 

Photo credit Brian Burt. Still got that forward lean.

I slowly worked my way to the top of the first hill, not losing too much ground to the rear guard of the pack but we were all losing ground to the leaders. Classic skiing up hills is hard, yo. I could see one of my U18s ahead of me, and she had clearly started too hard, and was fading backwards a bit. 

I felt like I was recovering nicely on the gradual downhill after the first hill, but as we started climbing again towards 2k the you-started-too-hard feeling hit me. I was starting to pack slide myself, and right around the 2k mark Kathy stormed by. I didn't have the energy to keep contact, and was at the back of a loose pack heading into the downhills. Definitely struggled a bit to relax my feet as we negotiated the corners, and I was too tired to make up places down the hill. One more climb approaching the top of the alpine mountain again, and Laura came striding by, looking nice and composed. I tried to increase the pace, while maintaining actual technique and not just running, and hit the downhill with palpable relief.

Photo credit Brian Burt. 

From there, there are mostly flats with one gradual striding/kick-double pole hill. Up that gradual track I was starting to hit the second wind, and was closing down to Madeline. I had just about made contact as we hit the final kickers into the stadium, and closed the gap to Madeline and a UNH girl over the camels humps. A half-hearted double pole sprint, and I was done, in 23rd place. Improved my seed! 

I was pretty pleased with the race. For an early-season classic race, that was one of my better ones. I could use better top-end fitness, and a lot more intensity work to give some oomph where it matters, but I felt like I was skiing well for the whole race, with pretty good strength. I ended up about 7% behind Leah, the day's winner, which is quite reasonable. 

More great results from my team in the classic race, which always leaves a warm fuzzy, especially when it's kids who've worked really hard all year and are surprising themselves. Super work by the wax team and the food table chefs, too. 

Now it's time to pack up my life for the annual two-week odyssey to Rochester and then Mont Sainte Anne. Wheeee ski season!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ice Weasels

A few weeks ago, we were hanging out with Jess and Graham, and I'd clearly had one beer too many, because somehow the topic of Ice Weasels came up, and I agreed to do the race if Graham got into the Killer B field when registration opened that night. There was a text message from Graham in the morning with a confirmation number, so time to sign up for a bike race.

I last pedaled my bike with any oomph in 2015. And before that, 2010. But, I still ride bikes to get to work, and sometimes I even ride my mountain bike, so how bad could this be? 

Ice Weasels is a race that started ten years ago, brainchild of friends and former teammates Colin and Thom. I raced it the first two years, I think, and then life happened and I stopped racing bikes to focus on grad school and orienteering and here we are, ten years later, standing on a start line wearing an embarassingly yellow jacket and Frozen's Olaf tights in a snowstorm. Funny how when you're years removed from a sport you lose some of the obsession with looking like you know what you're doing. 

From what I remember of Colin and his 'cross preferences, the more like a mountain bike course we can get, the more fun we'll have. So, the Ice Weasels course was pretty wicked. A couple good descents towards a river, on loose sand with some large rocks, one sandy run-up, one "ride"-up which was totally a run-up for me, some stairs (also a run-up for me), and a log jump, which was in the "danger zone," code for slightly drunken spectators and a firepit and lots of heckling. Like most sports, I do well in this one when skill and finesse outweigh power, but there's still suffering involved. The more it snowed, the sloppier things were going to get, and I was stoked.

 I had a poor start, seeded in the last row, and then unwilling to be too aggressive in the corners. We got to the first drop into the danger zone, and all the girls were kind of track standing waiting in a line to descend this thing one at a time. Screw that. I hopped off, and dove down the hill carrying my bike, passing what felt like the entire pack. Not many places to pass, so take them where you can! 

We hit the run-up and I punched it to gain three places. Whee! By the end of the first lap, I was in a loose pack of 3-4 girls, and I was clearly pedaling better than most of them except the gal on the mountain bike, who had skillz. 

Second lap, I got around one girl in some corners before the pump track, passed another on the first run-up, and then got the third when she bobbled the corner before the log. MTB girl biffed it trying to ride the log, so I pulled ahead again, looking for new rabbits. Entering the third lap I was closing on what looked like a bigger group, but they had a good 20-30 seconds on me already. I caught a straggler on the first run-up, and then one more on the stairs run-up, and was left dangling behind a girl who was maybe 14. I couldn't quite close the gap, and knowing I just had two laps left I was shifting into defensive mode. 

The ground was getting increasingly muddy and greasy, thanks to the snow, and that made the bike handling super fun, but unfortunately also gummed up your cleats pretty badly. Every remount also involved trying to kick off mud before trying to clip in. Anyway, I thought I might be closing on the teenager, but then at the ride-up, I got fancy and did a step-through on my dismount and my left foot never unclipped. So I fumbled, fell down, turtled, and slid backwards down the hill under my bike. D'oh! Took me what felt like forever to get that foot unclipped, but eventually it did and I got myself and my bike up the lip at the top, not having lost any places, but having lost a good 30 seconds. 

Fourth lap was basically a game of trying not to get caught by MTB girl. She was riding technically well, but suffered a bit on the power sections. I stayed upright, nailed all the technical parts, and really, really, really freakin' enjoyed myself! 

I was pleasantly surprised with the result - 14th of 30 starters in the Jedi field (I believe that correlates to something like cat 1-3? maybe? it doesn't really matter). It was a good hard effort, and a ton of fun to ride my bike in that slop. 

Graham enjoyed his ride, too, stopping for a couple drink breaks in the danger zone. Can't complain about a party disguised as a race! 

Will I do more cross races? Doubtful, but if it looks like snow during Ice Weasels next year, I won't rule it out. That was pretty awesomely fun. 
We spent a large part of the weekend hanging out at the Saegers' house, meeting various babies and playing games.

And the skiing! It was fabulous. I found some Smiths