2020 US Cross Country Ski National Championships should take the credit for changing my mind.
A recap of the 2018 edition
I had signed up for the Seeley Hills Classic in Cable, WI, in 2018 October hoping it would increase my familiarity with the Birkie Trail system. In turn, I hoped it would improve my Korte time a few weeks down the road. But general lack of snow and more than occasional rain in led to organizers shrinking the Seeley course. The final update, that came at the speed for Oppligers (trust me, it’s faster), hinted at hard and fast trails for the event – a no match for my current skill set. In lieu of plastering myself to an off-trail tree or breaking a few bones, I chose to participate in the Heikki Lunta 15 km (thanks to Christine for the distance recommendation) as part of SISU Ski Fest in Ironwood, MI. The weekend turned into a weekend getaway in Wisconsin’s Northwoods with the Oppligers (Shawn and Doug) and Greens (Kim and Greg). My newly acquired instant pot made the trip too!
After a hearty home-cooked meal and a full night of sleep, Kim and I were dropped off at the ABR Trails. My wave was the last one start and the start was delayed by a few minutes as one of the participants needed medical attention. I fell a few times over the first 3 km but recent lessons in skate skiing helped me stay upright rest of the way until I crossed the finish line. Trail conditions were good and so was volunteer support all along the course. My official time of 1:31:34, albeit 90 some seconds more than my goal, was good enough for 49/102 overall, 35/62 in gender and 4/7 in AG. After another home-cooked hearty dinner, a full night of sleep and yummy breakfast, we all headed back to the Yoop but with a pit stop in Ironwood … to ski some more in Wolverine Ski Trails. Weather and trail conditions were excellent. Shawn and Kim were kind enough to give up a bit of their time to coach me some more … to improve my skate skiing!
Once registered, I had to convince myself that racing 15 km (9+ miles) hard would be equivalent to running 12 LSD miles with 3 fast miles towards the end. This, in turn, meant that I didn’t have to worry about running long the next day or worse, the day before. A good hearty meal with friends (Rob, Shannon, Ellie, Ayden and Jan) and wrapping up waxing rituals per Toko’s recommendation marked the end of Friday night’s proceedings. The fact that Ironwood, MI, is only a 2-ish hour drive way and yet in Central Time Zone helped make it a day trip and get a relaxed start to the morning of race day.
A pretty full night of sleep led to a fairly relaxed morning even if it came around 5 am. With waxing and packing completed ahead of time, I hit the road at a leisurely pace around 7:15 am. A usual pit stop in Bruce Crossing included acquiring necessities to make a makeshift breakfast somewhere along M26. It was quick and with peanut butter, sugar-free strawberry jam and bananas, it had to be healthy too! I arrived in Ironwood around 9 am (Central Time) and finding a spot to park the car near the expo wasn’t difficulty either. Packet pickup was a breeze, and after a quick chat with Sam, I boarded the shuttle to the start area in ABR Trails with Kim and Sigrid. When we arrived, it was sunnier and warmer than expected!
This was the first time that I was part of wave #1 in a wave start event. I had learned the benefits of starting near the front, albeit accidentally, from the 2019 American Birkebeiner. Plus, the organizers had been cautioning us about the funneling nature of the course after it left the stadium. Taking all that into account and more importantly, not be a part of the tangled mess (or worse, be a cause for it), I moved to the front as much as possible. The event started on time and keeping pace with the moving mass of humanity didn’t seem difficult. Within about a kilometer or so, I got behind a really good skier (bib #1245). From the way she was stepping in and out of tracks, she seemed to know the course pretty well. I mimicked whatever she did to the best of my ability … until I she gracefully pulled ahead and disappeared around the 7 km mark.
Maybe it was starting out too fast or maybe it was not enough skiing so far or a combination of both, my form over the final few kilometers seemed to be off. I was pretty happy with putting to test, in a real race atmosphere, the technique lessons my friends have been graciously teaching me. The finish time, 1:24:55, was 10+ minutes slower than my goal time. But it was 6+ minute improvement over last year and good enough for 25/122 overall, 16/62 in gender and 2/2 in AG.?
After crossing the finish line and changing into warmer clothes, we (Kim, Rod, Sigrid and myself) stopped at Contrast Coffee and enjoyed a warm serving of SISU (a yummy beverage; thanks to Kristen for the recommendation!). We then made our way to the expo area for some more post-race nourishment (I had been waiting for their small but very yummy veggie pasties all day!) and awards ceremony. After another short pit stop in Cold Iron Brewing, the uneventful return journey home started around 3:30 pm (Central Time).
Many familiar and friendly faces made for a familial and homecoming-like experience throughout the event. Though several (much better skiers) confirmed that classic tracks and skate lanes were slower, starting slow and then picking up pace is something I need to keep in mind and work on. A good wakeup call came the morning after – delayed onset of hip flexor stiffness/soreness. If I wish to do as well as I plan to do in some of the nordic skiing events this winter, I do need to make time in the schedule to get out on trails a bit more often and occasionally, for longer.
Thanks be to
the rejections and opportunities life has brought my way, event folks (organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timing folks, law enforcement officials, photographers, fellow participants and spectators), and the family of good friends in and outside of my community for all the unexpected, undeserved and unrewarded acts of constant encouragement as well as offerings of constructive criticism to improve myself as an athlete and a person. I am eternally grateful to all those who let me train with them, who shared their invaluable tips with me, who helped keep my mind, body and soul in good health, who helped me stay the course during the training cycle, who continued to teach me the value of work-life balance, and who cheered me on from home or along the course.