U.S. Nationals

In order to qualify for Sochi I am trying to race as many FIS distance races as possible before January 19th. I also try to ski the highest calibre races possible to gain experience and because they can be slightly more favourable in terms of FIS points (I may finish farther from the winner, but the “race penalty” is lower due to more high calibre athetes participating). This Saturday I had the opportunity to ski a 15km classic race at the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships which are also serving as an Olympic Qualifer for American athletes.

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Good morning Utah! It’s always strange to fly and drive someplace in the dark only to wake up in the mountains.

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Welcome to Soldier Hollow!

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The cross country and biathlon events of the 2002 Winter Olympics were held here.

This was the third Olympic venue which I have skied at over the years (the other two being Lake Placid and Canmore) and there is always something special about the atmosphere in these places. This one was even more special because the organisers flew the flags of all the countries racing. It’s not very often that you see an Irish flag flying over a ski race! I thought this was  especially classy considering that these are US National Championships and there is really no obligation for such a gesture.

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Irish flag flying over Soldier Hollow.

I must admit that this race made me more nervous than any other race so far. This was because I was waxing my own skis since Petr was unable to join me, and I had sunk close to 2000 dollars in flights, hotel, car rental, food and excess baggage fees into a single race! Upon arriving at the race site there was lots of confusion as to how waxing space was allocated. I would like to than Team Soldier Hollow for setting up a public waxing area which made my life a lot easier.

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This was the first time in the last 9 months that the road to Sochi has been expressely labelled as such.

The stress of this race began two nights before the race when my skis failed to arrive to Salt Lake City. Fortunately I had an extra day in my schedule and the airline delivered my skis prompltly the next morning. This meant that I was able to test waxes and pre-ski the race course as planned. I tested glide waxes, monitored snow temperature throughout the day and prepared my race skis.

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Beautiful weather at Soldier Hollow.

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Looking down on the stadium.

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“Tubing” is wildly popular at Soldier Hollow. In some ways it’s sad that so many people drive from far away and never ski the wonderful trails.

Soldier Hollow had very little natural snow, but the infrastructure from the 2002 Olympics has left the site with amazing snow making capability. Though this snow was very fast, it was also extremely abrasive. With lots of climbing on the 3x5km course, losing kick wax later in the race would be disasterous. I began my pre race prep by testing two different options of binder for kick wax.

I was starting my race at 12:50pm as the midday sun was beating down on the course. I realised that the snow temperature was rapidly rising during my warm up so I made some last minute changes to my kick wax before starting the race. By the time I started the first (and fastest) racers had finished their race so I had an idea of what sort of lap times I needed to achieve.

Besides my normal desire to ski fast several factors motivated me to ski a good race – the Irish flag flying, many skiers wishing me good luck, the announcer enthousiasticaly introducing me (and pronouncing my name correctly!) and the financial investment I had made in this race – and the chance to move another step closer to qualifying for Sochi of course!

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Seeing my result on the big screen after my race was pretty special.

The landscape at Solider Hollow is quite different from anywhere else I have skied due to the lack of trees. I imagine this made it much easier to televize the races during the 2002 games. The bare landscape also has the effect of making the climbs seem smaller. I can assure you that as soon as I started racing these hills felt very big! I tried to ski my first lap with a bit of reserve and then increase my speed as the race progressed. Unfortunately I really began to suffer on the second lap and skied it 50 seconds slower than the first. I managed to hold on and ski the third lap at the same pace as the 2nd. This race was unlike any other I have seen in that I passed no fewer than three skiers who had collapsed at the side of the trail (all were being helped already so I kept skiing) and several more simply stopped on the uphills and rested on their poles. Though the hills were big they were long and steady and had very few extremely steep pitches that would require absurd arm strength or herringbone technique. I was able to do a good job of skiing with my head up and constantly focusing on technique. My wax held through all three laps and I was able to pass many skiers on the striding sections of the course.  I’m still waiting for official FIS points but I believe that I scored well within qualifying criteria.

With the race complete, I was able to watch some of the sit skiers race a sprint qualifier. There were some incredible athletes racing, and I was dissapointed that so few spectators stayed to watch their races. I’m certainly no expert but in many ways I believe that the true Olympic spirit is no longer found at the Olympics, but at the Paralympics which unfortunately still receive much less press coverage. The day after the races I was able to ski most of the trails at Soldier and take some pictures. I’m currently in Canmore for Canadian Olympic Trials. The frigid weather has moved east and I’m looking forward to another 15km classic race on Thursday. The race will be 4 laps of a very intimidating 3.75km loop. The climbs are big, and 4 laps is more than I would prefer but I’m feeling healthy and eager to put in another good race.

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Sit-skier rounding a corner at speed.

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There were many volunteers on hand to keep the course in top shape and generally keep the races running smoothly – hat’s off!

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Heading towards the finish.

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Repacking skis and waxing equipment. The road to Sochi makes many stops in cold lonely parking lots.

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