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Thursday, April 12, 2012

2012 National Championships with Canada's Nordic Knights

My second Nationals in Québec City and Mont Sainte Anne since 2007 proved to be another successful racing campaign. Although I have matured a lot as a racer and as a person in the last 5 years, the race venue remained fresh in my memory.

Last time that Nationals was in Québec/MSA, I skied to a career highlight silver medal in the inaugural club team sprint competition with Mike Argue. Alas, Mike Argue has since retired from an illustrious ski career so I found myself without a partner from the Yellowknife Ski Club. Missing out on the casual and boisterous atmosphere of the team sprint was maybe a good thing in the end as it allowed me to be primed and rested for the 4 upcoming races.

The tuesday was a 10 km individual start classic race on stiff klister skis. I lacked energy on the few climbs on course but had great skis. In a strong field of Canadian, American, French and Norwegian skiers, placing 32nd was a good start to the week.
A solid start to the week in the 10 km classic. Photo cred: Bernard Pigeon

The 10 km classic was but a warm-up for the next day's 15 km skate individual which ended up being a very notable race for various reasons. First of all, the previous day's +8 C temperature broke my previous record for warmest ski race ever. With the mercury reaching +20 C in the stadium for our afternoon start in the 15 km skate, besides this absolutely shattering my previous record, I knew it meant body temperature management would be crucial to having a good race. With that in mind, I focused on hydration throughout the morning, skied a short warm-up so as not to overheat, clothed myself in only shorts and a bib, and pre-cooled before the start by stuffing my shorts' pockets with snow and also rubbing snow through my hair. I even decided to take feeds on the day, but not in the conventional sense of the word "feeds". I had my girlfriend on course with bottles of ice water with which I would douse myself each 5 km lap.

My race strategy worked to a tee. Where others suffered in the unruly heat, I had glorious cool water constantly dribbling down my legs and a refreshing splash of ice water once per lap (I stupidly dropped one, however). I was able to ski controlled for the first 10 km and was able to turn it on in the final 5 km. Seeing where I was compared to others on course, I knew I was maybe in contention for a good result. It was a little frustrating never getting a split, though. I finished the day 19th, as 14th Canadian and by far the best Nationals distance result of my career so far. It was one of those few days where I had a smile on my face crossing the line instead of a grimace of pain. Everything came together nicely. Even now I keep wondering whether I should have pushed harder in the early stages when everything felt so comfortable. I was skiing with the eventual 9th place finisher very comfortably while he was on his 2nd lap and I was on my first, but I was prudent with my pacing out of fear of the furnace-like reflected heat of the climbs. I could feel the potential to go much faster, but at times it felt like I was holding back. In the heat, maybe that was a good thing. I can tell you one thing that's for sure, +20 C feels like +35 C when you are on a white surface with no air flow such as it is on many of the hills as you churn through the sugar snow. When you are a stocky endomorph fine-tuned to the cold and raised in the arctic such as myself, that becomes a daunting thought. Regardless, the race was great and very encouraging in that it proved I am within striking distance of the upper echelons of distance skiing in Canada. With age comes endurance.

Skiing through sweltering heat in the 15 km skate at Mont Ste. Anne. Photo cred: Bernard Pigeon. 

Speaking of upper echelons, the pinnacle of skiing in Canada, and in the world for that matter, in the form of Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey, were in attendance at this Nationals. After an incredibly successful World Cup season culminating with running rampant winning medals left and right in the World Cup final, our Nordic Knights (CBC's Scott Russell's name for our skiers has been made fun of a little, but I still think it's sorta cool) returned home to Canadian soil after what can only be assumed was a legendary after-party in Sweden, followed by a full day of tiring travel, and yet amazingly they still threw down in the 15 km that day, particularly Alex Harvey who won by a wide margin on his home course beating yours truly by an astronomical 4:43 with his winning time of 40:54. I can see myself getting much better in this sport in the coming years but getting another 4 minutes faster in a race where everything already went extremely well seems like quite the lofty objective. He is the best in the world, though...

Alex Harvey and I racing as Juniors at MSA Nationals in 2007. We skied neck and neck through the heats that day. Unfortunately I faded in the final to finish 5th. He of course won. photo cred: Angus Cockney

The next race was the skate sprint, previously scheduled to be held at the Plains of Abraham in Québec City but later moved to the higher location of MSA after the Plains greened up to more of a soccer pitch feel than a ski race feel. I heard they even hauled in a hundred truckloads of snow to the Plains in a last ditch effort to "see what it would do in +20", as sponsor funding for next December's Québec World Cup races were contingent on a successful test event hell or high water notwithstanding. The new venue meant a shorter 1.4 km course compared to the proposed 1.7 km, and the extensive salting and fertilizing the night prior meant a rock hard and icy chemically altered track even at +12 C at 9:00 in the morning.

This year has been an odd year. There has been a noticeable improvement in my distance skiing, but my sprinting speed, especially in qualifying, has remained largely unchanged from the past few years. I am 8-10 lbs lighter than I was at my peak 5 years ago, so perhaps less muscle mass is to blame for the lack of power. On a day that I hoped to rediscover some qualifying prowess I ended up barely qualifying for the heats, being 27th. For my heats I was at a distinct disadvantage from the start. On the course that day there were two ugly parts to the loop. One being the rock-strewn section bordering the venue's access road, and the other being that due to the week's tropical heat, there was no longer adequate snow-cover in the stadium to start 6 skiers abreast as is proper FIS regulation for sprint racing. Instead we had a 3 lane start grid, 2 skiers deep. Being #27, I had the worst start position in the 2nd row and was effectively relegated to last, nullifying any attempt at jockeying for position with a good start as is the norm when everyone starts side by side. The pace was hectic from the start and with the boiling mass of frantic skiers in front of me, I was at a loss to find the punch to get around guys. I hung in 6th the whole way around until the last 3 meters of the course where I managed to claim 5th with a good spurt in the high speed finish stretch.

Free skating like mad on the finishing straight. I placed 5th in the heat of 6 skiers to claim 25th on the day.

The skate sprint at this year's Nationals had to have been the best quality field ever at a Canadian Championships sprint. In the A-final of 6 we had 4 World Cup skiers, 3 of whom have won multiple WC medals and 2 of whom are World Champions, in addition to a young Norwegian 4-time World Juniors medallist and another top Canadian sprinter who has had great World Cup results in the past. A stiff final and very impressive to watch those guys duke it out.

With my main focus of the championships, the sprint, being over, I felt a weight removed from my shoulders. I approached the 50 km classic race stress free, enjoying every bit of Québec life in the old town with some of Kajsa's extended family, and enjoying the pizzeria-turned-rental-home that was our phenomenal accommodation for the 2 weeks that we were up at MSA.

Off the gun in the 50 km I had a sinking feeling. No grip. I had been told to "trust" the skis as conditions were changing quickly and wax testers were waiting until the last minute to make a wax choice, meaning no time to test my skis to determine whether I needed more grip or not.

In the end, the race went fairly well. As well as skiing 50 km can go with extremely minimal grip in no man's land the entire time. Early on I was sure I would pull out by the halfway mark as I was apprehensive about my arms lasting through 50 km of hard double poling. Lo and behold, my arms were up to the challenge and performed most admirably right to the end, even being able to increase the pace a little on the last lap. Although I was disappointed with my naiveté in not testing my skis at all before the start, I was happy with my pacing for the day and with the fact that I endured. Some days you just take what you can get.

Flopping up a hill in the early stages of the 50 km.

My top-two best National Champs have been in Mont Ste. Anne. It's something about the race courses, or the unique culture of french Canada that brings out the best in me. I can't wait until the next time I am in Québec City. Who knows, if early season racing goes well next year maybe I will be back for the December World Cup.