Thursday, February 9, 2017

Tour de Twin Cities Man-Made Snow

    Over the past 2.5 weeks I’ve been lucky enough to do one race at each of the 3 man-made snow loops in the Twin Cities. Some might disagree with the choice of the word “lucky;” however, if we didn’t have this manufactured snow, we wouldn’t have any snow for racing or training. And that would be a bummer because skiing is fun, at least if you let it be.

   Race #1: Fulton Team Race at the weekly Elm Creek Time Trial 

    This is a 5 kilometer skate followed by a 5 kilometer classic race with the races starting half an hour apart. This race series runs all winter long, but it is best to do it on the week designated as the team night when the competition is fast, fierce, and plenty. For the team scoring, 3 skiers from each team (including at least one woman) count toward an overall team score. There is also free beer afterwards sponsored by Fulton. Even though the mass start is hectic, having everyone out on the trails makes this really fun. Also, Vakava had won the past two years so we had a title to defend.

    I was coming off my not so stellar (at least to me) Seeley Hills Classic race but had good vibes heading into the time trial. Weather was in the mid-30s and calm. During my warm up I learned the snow was incredibly fast and borderline icy. I could get an edge everywhere, but with conditions so firm, it didn’t suit my technique flaws. I still have a long ways to go in learning to ride a flat ski efficiently, especially under icy conditions, so my goal for the race was to work the uphills and corners as hard as I could and then to not flail on the flatter parts of the course. I was aiming for sub 15 minutes which is by no means awesome, but something I’ve never done.

    The mass start was crazy. Someone stepped on my pole and then my teammate jumped in front of me and my skis were caught in hers so all I could do was glide for about 20 feet. Once out of the mayhem, I tried to remain calm and ski hard but couldn’t gain any places. I pounded the uphills as fast as I could but it seemed fruitless. I couldn’t catch anyone save for one guy. The race went by so fast. Way faster than the same time running. I ended up skiing 14:51 but placed way down on the results list. Despite this, I didn’t care because I know a 5 kilometer skate on a relatively flat course under exceedingly fast conditions (I think many people had an all-time PR that night) is not my strong suit so I was happy with my sub-15 minute time.

    Interestingly enough, due to the fast conditions and my plan to somewhat relax on the flats and try not to waste too much energy flailing, I wasn’t able to work the full course and therefore, not only was this my fastest 5 kilometer time ever, it was also the easiest!

    Fortunately fewer skiers did the classic race so the start wasn’t as chaotic. I was able to get into the tracks early. I was skiing with my friend Kitty from the new LNR Master’s team (the LEMONS). Most of the racers had decided to just double pole on their skate skis. I used my classic skis and was a bit worried I had made a bad call until I got to the one steep hill at Elm Creek. I’ve had a bit of luck in the past with using warm hard wax for kick even during above freezing conditions and this race was no different. I did not have good kick by any means, but I had some and when we hit that steep hill I just took off running out of the tracks up that hill. I did have to herring-bone run a bit but by the top of the hill I even took a few strides. I totally put the hammer down, passed a few people, and even though it jacked my heart rate up, it left me feeling incredibly strong and I was actually excited to do it again on the next 3 hills on the course!

Striding over the steepest hill at Elm Creek after putting the hammer down! Photo: Kira Stolen
 
    After I passed that group I only caught one more guy and pretty much skied by myself. I still ran up all the hills and it felt amazing. Conditions were so fast I double poled the smaller hills without even realizing I was going uphill! 

    Vakava won the team competition again. The full team results were never posted and we recruited Caitlin Gregg, which may be considered cheating, but I think it is likely Vakava would have won anyway. I was too lazy to try and re-calculate the results myself, taking Caitlin out and substituting our next fastest female skier, and with a bunch of skiers getting “unknown” times this would have been impossible anyway. 

Vakava Racing Team + Caitlin pose in a goofy photo after winning our 3rd consecutive victory at the Fulton Team Race. Photo: Kira Stolen


 Race #2: Three Rivers Rennet 26 kilometer 20 kilometer skate   

    For the second year in a row, the course was shortened to four loops on the man-made snow for a total of 20 kilometers. Anticipating this would happen and playing to my strength of skate climbing, I decided to do the skate race again. 

    Temperatures were in the 30s overnight and during the race with some rain. I waxed my skis for warm dirty snow with moly and HF8 (yes, that old HF8 I’ve wrote about before that I bought back in 2005 for the City of Lakes Loppet when the race got cancelled [before they started making snow]). I took a warm-up loop on the course and found it had set up nicely overnight and was very fast.

    By the time I skied to the start half an hour later, I found the course had already broken down and was slow slush. Fortunately man-made slush is a bit faster than natural snow slush, but still made for a slow race. While I do better under slower conditions, I don’t have much experience skiing in the slush and so am not sure it was to my advantage. 

    I started in the back of wave 1 (no elite wave) and tried to stay up with the back of the pack but found myself off the back of the pack before the first kilometer. I knew there were a few faster skiers starting in waves behind me (by 3 or 6 minutes) and that kept me motivated to keep going (and embrace slushy training conditions in the future). 

Skating in a train during the Rennet. Josh Doebbert was cheering hardcore at the top of this hill which was awesome! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
 
    During my third lap I started wondering when the fast skiers would lap me. I was a bit surprised to hear “on your left” because when Matt [Liebsch] laps me, he never tracks me, he just flies by. Indeed, Matt was not in the lead, it was Cory Ellertson (I later learned Matt was quite sick and dropped out). The 2nd and 3rd place racers, my teammate Alex Reich and Caitlin Gregg, caught me on the big downhill coming off Boulder Ridge. I always like to ski my corners on the outside but they were taking the inside line and I snowplowed a bit to let them by. Near the end of the lap the 4th and 5th place skiers caught me but no one else!

    I always struggle with the downhill coming off Boulder Ridge. I get up a lot of speed on those 2 corners (my GPS has clocked 27 mph under fast conditions) but there was so much slush during the race I was extra cautious. I definitely snowplowed and the last time did some snowplow carving but then I always took the outside line on the second corner where I found some fast hard snow and step turned the last corner. As I mentioned above, I need to ski more in the slush to get more comfortable with it. 
Apparently I'm not the only one who struggles with the big downhill coming off Boulder Ridge. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
 
But the yard sale award goes to Dave. Bruce Adelsman captured his entire fall in a series of 8 photos on Skinnyski.

    During the race I tried to focus on good technique and not bogging down on the uphills in the slush. I still skied reasonably hard and never took breaks but didn’t get motivated until the second half of my last lap. There was one skier ahead of me who I thought was a female and I was gaining on her but in the end ran out of real-estate. I was also aware there could be skiers from other waves skiing faster than me and that motivated me as well. I tried to ski that last half lap technically well which was difficult in the slush.

    In the end I was 8th of 29 women and 98 of 210 skiers overall. I’d like to chalk up the meager female presentation (29 compared to 181!) to the Women’s March, but this disparity is fairly common in ski racing.

I was pretty excited to be on the Age Class podium with a World Championships medalist! Photo: Karl Huemiller


   Race #3: City of Lakes Loppet 42 kilometer 30 kilometer skate
 
    Mother nature again did not cooperate and so we skied 5 x 6 kilometer laps on the newly expanded snowmaking loop at Wirth. (Here I would like to pause and say I think the Loppet Foundation has succeeded in the succession from the Minneapolis Park Board in terms of snowmaking with much improvement from years past. I also like their friendly rivalry with Hyland to now have a longer loop than Hyland and indeed one of the longest in the world).

I "cheered" out Saturday's classic race and wasn't too disappointed to have missed this pile up at the start! A few of my current and former teammates were involved. The expression on Waylon Manske's face (bottom of the pile up in the lumberjack suit) is priceless. Matt Nistler (also in the lumberjack suit) looks stoked that Cheryl Dubois is about to hug him! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
    I was mostly excited for this race because I thought the course suited me well. I know how to work hard and this course has some decent uphills. Under good conditions, I also feel comfortable on the downhills and corners. Instead of being nervous before the race, I tried to focus on how fun it would be to pass other skiers, and work the corners, downhills, and uphills. Heading into the race I was most nervous about forgetting to count my laps! 

    Fortunately I got to start in the Best of the Loppet (elite) wave (top 20% in the women’s and men’s fields). As one of the slower skiers in that wave, I didn’t have to worry too much about jockeying for position or getting a good start. Instead I skied relaxed off the back. This worked fairly well and as expected, I found myself off the back of the elite wave pretty fast. 

    There was a gnarly corner on the “Back 40” that I skied twice in warm-up. During warm-up this corner was hard pack and made for good hard step-turning. By my first time down the hill in the race though, it had already been snowplowed out. One of the tricks to navigating icy downhills is to not do any turns/snowplowing/etc until I get to the fresh snow. My strategy is usually to go wide and then cut in and start step turning once past the ice. This is when I say to myself “B...B...Be Aggressive!”

Triple wipe out on the gnarly downhill on the Back 40. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
 
Alice Flanders demonstrates proper downhill technique in rough conditions. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

    Mostly I skied with a couple slower guys from the elite wave. I always struggle skiing with these guys because they rarely have good technique. I’m always frustrated that I have better technique and yet they are able to stay up with me just because they have bigger muscles and more oxygen carrying capacity. 

    The course has lots and lots of transitions but overall flows very nicely. It reminds me about what Mark Twain said about weather in Minnesota: “If you don’t like it, wait 5 minutes and it will change” (someone has told me this is not an accurate quote but it reminds me a lot of the Wirth course). Don’t like flat sections? There’s a hill coming up soon. This hill is too steep for you? There’s a less steep one in 30 seconds. Tired of doing right corners? There’s a left one soon. Not a fan of the slight downhill? Wait one minute and you will be climbing a slight uphill. This is largely why this course suits me well- lots of variety and places to work hard. 

    As often happens in lap races, the laps went by really fast. Laps took me about 18 minutes. The newer manufactured snow on the Back 40 hadn’t been through enough freeze-thaw cycles or pistenbully tills and it was much slower than the snow on the regular man-made loop. I wasn’t too surprised that the lead pack didn’t catch me in my first two laps, but was really surprised to not be lapped in the third lap either. Indeed, it wasn’t until my fourth lap that the lead pack caught me.

    As I started lapping skiers (on my second lap, way before I ever got lapped) I like to cheer them on. I’m sure this makes them feel better (I always like when people cheer for me when they lap or pass me) but also because it makes ME feel better! While racing I can have “this is so hard, I want to quit” thoughts or I can have “this is hard but this is fun, let’s keep going” thoughts and cheering puts my mind into the latter thought pattern. It’s a win-win situation. I even lapped a few people I know which is extra fun except when they seem to want to talk to me (as happened with one of my coworkers...I waved a pole and since I was on my fifth lap there was no time for chit-chat). It was easy to cheer for people in the Back 40 but by the time I hit the regular snowmaking loop, that course is just up, up, up (obviously with downs in between but with much longer sustained climbs) I didn’t do as much cheering. This is where it was super helpful to have people cheering for me! I’ll give a shout out to Mike Kosowski, Joe Mitchell, and Xena Huff who had some amazing cheers as I climbed up and then back up to the upper stadium. (There were a few others cheering for me but I was skiing so fast I missed you...including my hubby). 

The Wirth course has some serious climbing...1,100 feet according to my Garmin in 30 kilometers!
   With many skiers out on course, I was prepared for lots of crowds and to practice my skills “threading the needle.” It turns out the traffic during the long skate race paled in comparison to MYSL on Sunday afternoons at Wirth. Everything is relative. I was actually a bit disappointed that the course wasn’t more crowded!

    Like my rennet race, I focused on technique and tried to ski hard and consistent for 30 kilometers. I’m never quite sure I go hard enough but my left quad screamed at me as I jumped over the homologated bump at the bottom of the sledding hill and then again all the way up the sledding hill by lap 4 (maybe I should start working on more quad strength next year). It did help to switch V-1 sides half-way up the hill and am glad I learned to V-1 on both sides. I skied hard up the hills but wanted to leave some energy and brainpower to navigate the icy but sugary downhills. With so much net downhill over the last kilometer of the course, it was hard to finish feeling completely exhausted; however, in that last kilometer I kept telling myself someone from another wave could be coming up on me and so I tried to ski as fast as possible. Indeed, my finish video shows me V-2ing to the finish line while everyone around me was just gliding in. I beat a woman in another wave by 3 seconds affirming that every second counts with wave starts!

    Overall I put in a solid effort but it is always humbling to see how fast some of my female teammates can ski (Bonnie and Kathleen). They are so fast! This always motivates me to keep training hard next year.

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