I accomplished part of my 2016 athletics goals yesterday by competing in my first Nordic ski race! Woohoo!
To be honest, I was a little terrified going into it. I feel like I’ve finally reached the point where I don’t face plant during every ski outing, but my technique is far from excellent and I don’t even have a great fitness base beyond a couple workouts and sporadic easy miles each week. I haven’t raced in any form since summer, so the competition nerves were already bad, and were then enhanced by the fears of face planting/getting stabbed with a pole/getting lapped.
I drove out to the course and the nerves were still in full swing. Registration and warming up helped a bit, but I still took my warmups off with trembling hands and had full on nervous weak legs as I did the skate ski equivalent of strides. The competition was mostly high schoolers, with a few masters racers scattered in, so I knew I was up against a field with much better fitness and/or experience. When we lined up I wisely took a spot in the 3rd row, behind the junior crowd.
We got the set command (during which I realized I really should have practiced starts…) and then ‘go!’, we were off! One poor high school girl ate it immediately, but was up and back around me and into the pack in an impressive few seconds. From the first 100m of flat we entered into a steep drop, and I flew out the back pretty quick on this first steep downhill-uphill-flat transition as I wasn’t as efficient switching gears as the other racers, but thought I might catch up with some folks as we hit a 200m flat. I tried to focus on calming my racing breath and convincing me legs that they knew how to do this skiing thing that suddenly felt so foreign, all technique gone to heck due to the overload of adrenaline.
I had just caught up to the group when we hit The Hill. The Hill was not exactly the type of hill I’d been envisioning. I knew Nordic courses were hillier than most running xc courses, but wasn’t really expecting the 2-minute (ok, some speedsters in the front did it in more like 1 minute, argh) slog on the 8% average (and 18% max) grade slope that confronted us less than half a mile into the race. I tried to copy the technique of the people ahead of me but struggled as my legs forgot I had skis on and tried to start running up the grade. I finally got them to calm down and herring-bone up, but lost the pack and my breath by the top. That hill was followed by a short downhill glide (with lots of skidding, because NERVES), and then two smaller climbs.
I passed one of the master’s men on the 2nd climb, grateful to no longer be bringing up the rear, but nervous to no longer have any competitors in sight in front of me to follow along the course. The course was marked with small flags, but they were dark colored and tough to spot at speed and in the narrow beam of my headlamp (it was dark by now). I made it down back to the flats near the start without incident, and then got briefly turned around going into the 2nd loop before a helpful yell from the small crowd of spectators steered me back onto the correct trail. I did the flat-downhill-uphill-flat roller again, pushed through the short flat section, still hyperventilating, and approached the big hill once again. I spotted another master’s racer in front of me just as I hit the base, but lost him a bit on the climb. By now I was just surviving, lungs burning from the cold air that I was gasping to breathe and legs and arms burning from the climb. I tucked into the final downhill and spotted the racer ahead of me again. I pushed through the last flat section to the finish and got within a few feet of him but couldn’t quite catch him before we glided through the finish line.
As I caught my breath two more racers came through – a master’s woman who’d slipped behind me without me noticing (probably at the start) and the master’s man that I’d passed in that first loop. I’ll admit I was relieved to not have been last, even though I was far enough off the main pack that place didn’t really matter. Mostly I was just relieved that I hadn’t gotten lapped or been so far back as to hold up the whole race. I turned in my bib singlet, chatted briefly with a few other racers as we did some cool-down skiing, and headed home with a nice case of skier’s cough and a mix of happiness at having finished and slight disappointment at having been so far off the pack.
Looking over the race, it was definitely worth the $10 entry fee even if I did end up just hanging on rather than really competing. First, I did realize that a 4k race is really not ideal for me at my current fitness level. I felt like I’d just gone out and raced a mile on zero speed training, and also felt like I probably could have caught at least one person in front of me if I’d had another 2k loop (the race had been advertised as 6k). However, the mad sprint and short course really highlighted what parts of my skiing technique need work:
1) First, I need to build more upper body strength. On the hills, poling is vital and I felt my arms wimping out on the 2nd lap.
2) Second, my lower body needs some work on the hills and in sprinting mode. With all the adrenaline every technique flaw came out and I was too frantic to focus on how to correct mid-race. Hopefully doing more drills, hill repeats, and sprints will make the technique more automatic so that I can maintain some semblance of form even under pressure.
3) Third, I could really use more general fitness – the fact that I never caught my breath in that race points to some serious aerobic underconditioning, which makes sense with the sparse hard workouts that I’ve been doing. It’s been tough to get out there in the dark and cold and bust out workouts, but if I want to stay in sight of the group that’s what it’s going to take. Time to write up a more regimented training schedule and prep for race #2 in a couple weeks!