Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Training and Racing

I started the New Year in Bemidji where there wasn’t much snow. The holiday/weekend was about lowering my expectations and enjoying time with family since the skiing was far from ideal. Trails were ski-able meaning 100% thin snow coverage (rock skis recommended) and each venue we went to I said “well, I’m glad we went there, but I don’t want to go back.” Fortunately, thanks to a trail report from Michael Meelhaus, he reported the best conditions in Bemidji could be found at the high school and so that’s where we headed the last day in Bemidji. Finally, a trail I wouldn’t mind skiing another day!
Back in the Twin Cities natural snow conditions remain sparse and so the bulk of my training has been done on the man-made snow, to make use of the deep tracks. I’m glad Hyland has its full 5 kilometer course open. Also, since a couple races have been cancelled or postponed this has really increased the amount of skiing I’ve done on man-made snow. Otherwise I had an enjoyable ski on natural snow at Highland Golf Course in St. Paul and some skis at Battle Creek on my old Peltonen skis from high school.

January Race #1: Elm Creek Time Trial/Fulton Team Race January 13th
Last year Vakava won this race and we were back again hoping to repeat our victory. The format of the race is the usual time trial format- 5 kilometer skate followed by 5 kilometer classic with the races going off half an hour apart (aka not a skiathlon but allowing for just enough time to change boots and equipment). I’m not very good at 5 kilometers but have taken on the challenge of trying to get better and also wanted to help my team to victory.
After a few cold days, temperatures warmed into the teens and I was excited the snow skied much faster than it had in the past few days. My two previous workouts had both been at Elm Creek and for both workouts (one classic and one skate) I mostly skied easy with pick ups along the course to simulate 5 kilometer speed. So, in other words, I know this course really well, but I don’t think this is any kind of advantage because I think everyone in the race knows the course really really (maybe too) well!
Over the past few years I’ve become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses. My definite strength is climbing hills (although perhaps a mental weakness, although since I’ve learned this is my strength I have learned to enjoy climbing hills more). Unfortunately, the Elm Creek course is not terribly hilly. My weakness in skating is gliding well on flat or gradually downhill terrain. In classic my strength is double poling- but not at high speeds (aka fast flats or gradual downhill). I get really out of breath striding uphills and am still working on my striding technique but I have good endurance and I think even in classic climbing hills are a strength.
So I’ve been trying to “race my strengths and train my weaknesses” but I still think it’s important to train my strengths to maintain. I’ve been working very hard on my double pole this year and this was the first race to see if it has made any difference.
As seems to be typical, the skate race field was much larger than the classic. I think I lined up in the second row and went hard off the gun but was disappointed to see Dave, Kathleen, and Cheryl get away from me early on during the long gradual downhill early in the course. I guess this should be the technique I focus on next. Cheryl somehow got tangled up with some non-racers on the south donut early on and fell. I shouted some encouragement to her and was glad when she caught me on the big uphill on the north donut. She was breathing hard and although she is faster than me I tried to stay with her as we moved to the more flat section of the course. She got a bit of a lead on me that I was able to close on the steep hill and then eventually pass her V-2ing as the course gradually climbs back up to the chalet. Conditions were pretty perfect and I feel really confident on the north donut hill so I tried to get as much speed up as I could and then climbed the hill as fast as I could to get whatever lead I could on Cheryl but once we hit the flats again Cheryl caught me under the bridge and pulled ahead of me on the gradual downhill to the finish.
I ended up the 4th woman overall and the 4th woman for Vakava so we were very well represented. I was proud to have stayed with Cheryl but still 3 minutes behind the male winner and 90 seconds back of the top women (Vakava skier Angie Robinson).
For the classic race I again lined up in the second row. I had some aspirations of being the first Vakava woman and was doing really well staying with her (Kathleen DeWahl) for about the first 200 meters but then as the trail went gradually downhill, all hopes of this were dashed. This was really frustrating for me, because as mentioned above, I have focused my efforts on double poling on gradual downhills. I raced as hard as I could and really pushed the uphills (it was another classic race where the tracks were slower...I always seem to do all the classic races where the tracks are slower). After the first lap I caught a couple guys and so it was fun to have some people to race (as a female skier, I often ski amongst mostly men) but was a bit disappointed to not be able to stay with the one guy (Dan Luoma) who is much better at striding outside the tracks, which reminds me of another goal I have of actually being able to GLIDE outside the tracks and not just run up the hills.
I finished as 2nd woman and 2nd Vakava woman. Overall Vakava won the team title (thanks to some speedy guys) although we did [almost embarrassingly] have twice as many team members show up compared to other teams.
This team format is fun (and most people enjoy the beer afterwards) and it would be great to see more of this type of racing in the Twin Cities. Fulton is also sponsoring a Master Blaster Sprint series in conjunction with the MYSL Wednesday night team sprints at Wirth, with a team category, and so hopefully there will be some interest in that race and some competitive team racing.

Inaugural Three Rivers Ski Rennet, January 23rd
I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t “feeling” this race but it’s one of our designated Vakava team races and so felt compelled to do it. After a couple other January races got cancelled, I was more excited for an opportunity to do a bit longer race. I had a difficult time deciding whether to classic or skate. I thought the proposed two loop course would be nice for classic but not without tracks (several off-camber hills) but in the end decided to skate because there is a lot of climbing on the alternate course (I was pretty sure due to low snow conditions we would be skiing the alternate course) and on that course skating just seems easier.
We did indeed race the alternate course which consisted of four laps on the man-made loop with a jaunt onto the downhill at the far end of the course (replacing the steep climb and by doing this made the hill climb less steep). I failed to submit a qualifying time. I was REALLY OVERTHINKING this as one of my friends said. I thought about using my Birkie time but that’s twice the distance in the classic technique; I thought about using my City of Lakes time, but that was shorted and half the distance last year so in the end just left it blank. I didn’t realize there were wave starts but there were so I wasn’t too surprised or upset when I ended up in the 3rd of three waves for the skate race. I was actually glad to be in that wave because I figured I could get a spot on the front row and not have to deal with so much traffic. Also, it would give me more of an interval start and so instead of directly racing other fast women I would kind of be playing catch-up.
There’s not too many races when I don’t wax my skis but this was one of them. I already had Fast Wax Green on from the Elm Creek Time Trial/Fulton Team Race 1.5 weeks earlier and since the forecast was about the same I didn’t bother to re-wax. I did indeed line up in the front row and the guy next to me jumped the gun. There were some fast St. John’s kids who skied off the front quickly but there wasn’t much traffic at all heading out of the start area. There was a St. John’s girl who I let get ahead of me too easily. I just struggle skiing on the flats but the snow conditions were pretty perfect (very easy to get an edge) and I mostly skied efficiently rather than flailing. I had to go around some slow wave 2 skiers on a couple of the hills heading to the far part of the course but largely the course was traffic-free. When we headed up the downhill I made short work of the St. John’s girl, easily catching her in the left “passing” lane while blowing past many wave 2 skiers. 
Then we headed into the big downhill on the course. I’ll admit this downhill has scared me since the man-made loop opened two seasons ago. I’ve been practicing it though and what I like to do is get on the outside of the corner and go outside the burm where there is no ice. I always seem to get a bit of a rush on this hill as I go around the first corner. This plan worked well all four times in the race and I actually stopped worrying about this hill for the most part (I was a bit worried someone might fall in front of me but fortunately this never happened).
I skied behind the St. John’s skier on the next uphill but as we made the next right turn and encountered the two-way section (skiers going downhill on the way out and uphill on the way back) I moved to the left side and passed a whole train of skiers including the St. John’s girl who I never saw again. The rest of the race I worked on riding a flat ski and getting a good push. I tried to push hard but don’t race 20 kilometers very often and don’t have a good sense of how hard to push. Some wave 1 skiers lapped me and I never tried to ski with any of them. Otherwise I was largely skiing by myself. There were a couple wave 1 women I know and where the course came together each lap would try to pay attention to whether I was gaining or losing on these women which gave me good motivation.
I tried to ski really hard up the last hills on my last lap and did a good sprint into the finish. There was a glitch in my time when I finished (they didn’t account for me being in wave 3) so my time was initially posted as 6 minutes slower than I actually skied. I feel my results are fairly consistent with where I would have placed last year- I’m not sure I’ve improved much which is always a bit frustrating. It’s also hard when some really good people show up to the race. I was wearing my heart rate monitor and my average heart rate was only 156 with a max of 168. This isn’t very impressive. My strength is definitely marathon skiing and this wouldn’t have been so bad over twice the distance but I need to go faster in shorter races! It makes me think if I could push myself harder I could ski faster. It might also be better for me to do a bit more V-2 where I keep my skis pointed down the trail rather so much to the side. I know my core and arms are strong and the V-2 may suit me better.
There was some world-class competition in the race as well. Matt [Liebsch] is once again in impressive form- blowing past me double poling in the classic track up the Willow Creek Hill even though he was in the skate race. The next skier to lap me was Caitlin Gregg, fresh off the Tour de Ski. It’s easy for me to feel like a pretty bad skier compared to these two but they are really world-class as noted above. I shouldn’t compare myself too much to these two but instead focus on people four minutes in front of me. That’s a minute a lap and over a 5 kilometer course that’s like 12 seconds per kilometer. It sounds much more attainable to ski 12 seconds faster per kilometer than a minute faster per kilometer. I keep trying to tell myself “Elspeth, you’re not trying to make the Olympics,” but seeing people in action skiing that fast looks really amazing and part of me thinks it would be fun to ski that fast! How good anyone is at anything is always relative to whom we compare ourselves.

Me at the finish. Photo: Gopher Timing

Fulton’s Master Blaster Series, January 27th
This year Fulton Brewing is sponsoring a new race series (called the Master Blaster) combined with the usual Wednesday night MYSL sprints at Theodore Wirth. Vakava decided to do one of these races instead of our usual Wednesday night practices. The format is the same as the Hoigaard’s/Breadsmith relays which is the same as the World Cup/World champs/Olympic Team Sprint whereby two skiers alternate skiing on a sprint course. My friend Emily Johnson and I (who I’ve skied the last two Hoigaard’s/Breadsmith relays with) decided to partner up again and wear our poking fun suits again. It was skate technique for this week’s race. The course ended up being 1.5 kilometers and on the starting line, amongst the 7 teams, consensus was to do the course a total of 8 times (4 laps per skier).
The temperature was about 39 degrees but for the most part the skate deck was glazed, bordering on icy, and pretty fast. The uphills held together well and overall the course was very fast.
Emily and I were the only women’s team, with 2 mixed teams, and 4 men’s teams. I skied the first leg and quickly found myself off the back of the pack. Going around the first corner there is no light and I’m no good at sprinting in the dark. I kind of tripped and almost took myself out. There was an additional hazard throughout the course of snow chunks falling off trees from snowmaking that we had to dodge or sometimes just skied over and hoped for the best. We had to ski the big hill with the sweeping left corner. Similarly to at Hyland, this hill always scares me. I’ve learned over the years a couple things about big downhills. First, I’ve learned if I feel confident on the hill, I will take it with a lot of speed even though I may snowplow on comparable, or even easier, downhills that I don’t feel confident about. Second, if my first time down that hill I snowplow, then I will always want to snowplow on that hill, at least for that day. And snowplowing = failure!
During my first lap in warm up I did some air braking on the hill but otherwise pretty much went for it. I’ve become more conscious of bending my knees, getting low, and keeping my weight forward as I go around tricky corners. I made it just fine in warm up, and during subsequent laps, and even though I felt a bit out of control during the second part of the corner (which seemed to require a lot more step turning than I previously remembered)l. During all 4 laps I maintained confidence on that hill, albeit on the second lap I had to go down behind a couple guys who weren’t racing and snowplowing and that made it more exciting! It still was a bit scary but I just took it with confidence each time and also talked to myself a bit. Back in high school I learned talking to myself can also be very effective!
There were a couple more challenging hills on the course given the very glazed conditions. Near the grooming equipment area there’s a couple right hand corners and the first one for a brief second feels like I’m heading right for a tree! They should probably put up some padding on that tree. Fortunately I was able to get an edge without a problem and missed the tree by several feet every lap. Finally, the last left turn heading into the stadium was also exciting, again, owing to the slick conditions. I never really had trouble on this corner but was always surprised by how wide I got slung as I tried to keep my feet step turning quick. Then we had to pull a 180 to come into the exchange zone which most of the skiers managed by doing a skid turn. I can skid turn but mine doesn’t seem very controlled compared to watching some of the guys.
Anyway, back to the race. I quickly found myself off the back. Then I tagged off to Emily and she missed the turn on the course and skied a longer course! Now we were really far back and would eventually get lapped. Oh well. Maybe if some more women showed up we’d have some more competition. I skied hard on each of the uphills but the uphills are pretty short and so my heart rate never got too high and since I can’t ski too effectively on the flats my heart rate was just never that high.
My average speed for each of the legs was right around 19 kilometers/hour. I think I handled the downhills pretty well but could have done a bit better with my transition coming out of the downhill. Again, this is tricky with glazed conditions but weight transfer is really key. I was able to go fast on the less steep hills but on the steepest hill my V-1 feels really bogged down. Last weekend Vakava was working on V-1 technique and I have some pointers from that but they are hard to apply when I’m trying to ski as fast as I can. Probably my biggest weakness is still working the flat section. I don’t think I did too much flailing as I really tried to ride a flat ski and chose to alternate or just free skate instead of V-2 a few times to have better weight transfer.
Emily is pretty excited that she still has a lot to get better at and I feel the same way. Good thing there’s lots of racing in February!

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