2023 US Nationals Classic Sprint
Updated: Jan 13
Boy, what a day!
In Houghton, Michigan, all the way up on the upper peninsula of Lake Superior, things can get funky. Yesterday's classic sprint was no exception and was full of difficult waxing conditions, inclement weather, and broken poles. Despite all that, there were those athletes that handled it well and others that didn’t. I personally, despite having done this more times than I can count, did not handle all the variables very well.
Yesterday morning, the men’s qualifier started at 9:30 a.m. after an evening of snow, freezing rain, and sleet. Luckily, it wasn’t too heavy and had cleared up by the morning. So, as always I headed out to test skis, get my warm up in, and start my race. Yesterday, unfortunately, didn't all go as planned. I spent most of the hour prior to my race trying to pick the right pair of skis. By the time I had picked a pair, I only had 20 min left to prep the body for the qualifier. Looking back, I should have known better and just picked a pair quickly so that I could have focused more on my pre race intensity.
The reason ski selection was so tricky was that there were three kinds of skis in play given the challenging waxing conditions: traditional classic skis, zero skis, and skate skis. Classic skis were kicking well up the hill of the double lap sprint course (which really only had one hill that involved striding) but were slower on the descents. Zeros (which have a soft sandpaper like material in the kick zone in lieu of kick wax) were potentially faster on the descents without the drag of klister under the foot but had slightly less kick up the hill. And finally, skate skis; Which involve double polling around the entire track. The biggest benefit of skate skis is that they are considerably faster on the downhill but command either high tempo double pole over the hill, or herringbone up the hill while trying to keep your skis from gliding.
The most challenging part of choosing to go on skate skis was that the race course contained a “technique zone.” In which, all athletes are required to use a traditional classic technique to get up the hill in that part of the course. So, on skate skis, that means you have to herringbone, which proves to be quite challenging. If your feet slide forward like in skate technique, you can be disqualified from the race. For this reason, I didn’t want to risk it, and chose to go on my zeros. They might have been slower, but I knew I could still qualify without receiving a technique violation. I finished in 10th.
Unfortunately, there are a number of issues surrounding yesterday's technique zone, and technique zones in general. Most of the top ten qualifiers ended up double polling the race. To me, it was disappointing that there was a technique zone in the first place. If the technique zone was implemented to preserve the classic striding technique but most of the fastest qualifiers still double polled, then the technique zone was either incorrectly implemented or shouldn’t have been implemented at all. I think athletes should be able to double pole a race if they feel that it’ll be faster on that course. To make matters worse, there was no technical delegate on the hill watching the technique zone and the camera on the hill only watched the climb rather than the crest of the hill where a skate push would be most advantageous. After all was said and done, the technique zone in yesterday’s race was not executed well.
In the heats, things were a bit different. This time around, more people went on classic skis with wax. In heats, with 5 other skiers around you, choosing to go on skate skis is risky. You need lots of space to herringbone on skate skis and have enough of a lead to account for other skiers with kick wax catching up to you on the climbs. Luke Jager executed his quarter final perfectly on skate skis and used his fast skis to gain a lead on the downhill so that both times he entered the technique zone, he had the ability to go over the climb at his pace and renounce some of his lead. I admire how well he handled the situation and executed his race. It goes to show that the most adaptive and well rounded skier can win races in many conditions. I happened to be in Luke's quarter final heat. Going out of the start, I tried my best to keep up with him on the descents despite the kick wax dragging under my feet. I knew that if I was close at the start of the climb, I could catch him by the top of the hill. I managed to do that on the first lap. The second time around, I was in a similar position but planted my pole on the inside of my left foot and broke it near the top of the hill. For me, that was the end of the road.
Yesterday left a lot to be desired. I wanted to, and felt like, I had the energy, technical ability, and confidence to fight for the win. Sometimes, there are other factors in play that change things. It was just not my day. On friday we have a 20k classic mass start and on Saturday we have a skate sprint. I am really excited to give it another go on Saturday. If I can avoid broken poles and falls, I should be able to have a great day.