A little over a week ago (Gold Rush weekend, wished I could have done the Gold Rush too) I raced the final 3 races of the US SuperTour in Fort Kent, Maine, along with a very solid representation of the country’s best skiers and a bunch of top Canadians as well. There were really only a handful of elite US skiers missing from the field, it was possibly the most “stacked” field I’ve ever seen at a spring series / long-distance nationals / supertour finals (they keep changing the name but it’s always the last block of races of the season, in late march.)
I came hoping to improve my USSA points and see if I could pop some good ones and get in there with the best skiers in the country and hold my own and learn as much as I could too. It was a super tough trip getting up there, having to pull an all-nighter (after 2 weeks of tons of hard training and tons of late-night gigs to earn money) in order to pack up everything I owned and move it into storage again for the next several months, take care of everything I needed to do in Truckee before being gone for at least a couple months, and then get on the plane, fly to Boston, arrive at 1am, then drive to the tippy top of northern Maine the next day which takes about 9 hours.
Despite all that, I think I would have been ok in my first race on Friday (an 11k classic mass-start) if I had had more kick wax…we didn’t manage to nail it that day which is a bummer. Even though the course didn’t feature any real steep climbs, there was plenty of striding on long, long gradual grades. I did my best with slick skis and still manage to come in ahead of some really good skiers like Glenn Randall (10th at nationals in the 30k classic) and Mike Sinnott (one of the top skiers in the country, fresh off a 4th place on the OPA cup in Europe which is a series just under the World Cup level.) I ended up 39th or so, only about 1:45 out of 1st, but probably about 1 minute behind where I should have been and could have been if we’d managed to get the kick wax / skis figured out better.
The next day was a classic sprint at the same venue, and this time Janice (the NENSA waxer who provides wax support for anyone without their own wax support or team…pretty awesome that New England has that support for ANYONE at every major race in New England!) and I were able to learn from yesterday and went with a much thicker layer of klister on my skis. I was also a bit more rested. I cranked it out of the start and was surprised to find myself NOT feeling the utter death-burn you normally get from sprinting, even at the top of the course after the long sustained climb. I guess I had a little too much respect for the long climb, but it worked out ok, as I was able to crank it over the top and across the flat and into the finish. I was psyched to end up with the 17th fastest time for the prelim! Despite a couple mistakes I still managed to ski faster than a ton of top guys including Dave Chamberlain, Garrott Kuzzy (who went to the Olympics this year for the US), Brian Gregg (overall distance supertour winner this year), Bryan Cook (CXC - 3rd at Nationals, a great classic sprinter, top American in the Madison SuperTour classic sprint), and a whole bunch of others including a bunch of good Canadians like Ivan Babikov (5th in the Olympics pursuit, though he’s definitely not a sprinter.) This was more like it!
In my quarterfinal heat I was matched up against Mark Iverson (APU), Mike Sinnott, (Sun Valley), David Norris (Fairbanks - 4th at Nationals), a Dartmouth skier, and Bryan Cook. I got a good start and tucked into the ideal 2nd-place position right behind Mark Iverson, a big strong guy who I knew would ski the opening downhill and flat section fast. That he did, and he continued to totally crank it the whole way. I managed to stay in second most of the way up the long climb, but with pressure from behind and on all sides. I slipped back just a tad up the last part of the climb, but was able to make up a bit of ground into a virtual tie for 2nd coming into the final downhill corner. Mike Sinnott, Bryan Cook, and David Norris were all behind me, while Iverson had gotten a second or two lead on me and the Dartmouth skier. The Dartmouth skier managed to cut me off heading into the turn and I actually had to brake a bit to avoid completely crashing into him and skiing over his skis and probably taking us both out. Meanwhile Sinnott used this to his advantage and drafted up on us and slingshotted through on the inside of the turn and was in 2nd ahead of both of us by the end of the turn!
We hit the straightaway and I got to work on the double pole and was REALLY, really close to pulling ahead of both Sinnott and the Dartmouth skier, but couldn’t quite do it. I ended up 4th in the heat, still ahead of 2 of the country’s best classic skiers, and only 0.4sec. from third in the heat and I think only 1.4sec. from 2nd in the heat which would have put me into the semifinals for the first time in my career. So it came down to a bad tactical decision on my part heading into that final corner…I had tried to pull up next to the Dartmouth skier to try and pass him, but in hindsight I would have been much better off to stay behind and draft him and then slingshot past him after the turn, thereby carrying my momentum into the turn rather than having to lose it all when he cut me off.
Anyway, despite being a little dissapointed to miss making the semi’s, I was pretty psyched to feel so strong and be right in there with some of the very best in the country, and even more psyched that my time in that heat was one of the fastest in the quarterfinals, and would have been good enough to win the B-final by about 2 seconds (which would have been 7th place overall.) Mark Iverson, the winner of my heat, went on to win the B-final with a time that was about 3 seconds slower than what he skied in the quarterfinal, and conditions were definitely not getting any slower. My time was the 12th fastest of anyone in the quarterfinals, tying with Lars Flora. I ended up ranked 16th for the day.
So it showed me that I am right in there and while I do need to figure out how to go 12 seconds faster in order to WIN and be on pace with Andy Newell (often the fastest or 2nd-fastest qualifier in World Cup sprints), I am in the hunt and able to hold my own with the best in the country. I know there are still lots of things I can do to improve.
One of the biggest things for me is technique. I was fortunate to have my fiancee there videotaping so I could directly compare my technique to the top skiers, and wow, I think I have the WORST technique of any of the guys in the top 20, hands down!!!! Which is actually quite encouraging in a way because it means that I already have the fitness and mental toughness to be right in there in the top 5 if I can just get my technique to a similar level as those guys (or even get it in the ballpark.) So that is very exciting!! I just have to get on snow as much as possible this spring and summer and do as much video as possible every week all year long and continually compare what I’m doing to what the best skiers in the world are doing and make adjustments, video the results, and analyze again, etc. 4 times a week is my goal for a minimum.
Anyway, heading into the third and final event the following day, I woke up feeling quite tired. In hindsight I probably should not have gone for such a long “cool-down” run/walk for an hour and a half in the afternoon after the sprint…but I was really enjoying being out there! I felt pretty beat and my legs were pretty stiff heading into the race, which was a 7.5k murderous hill-climb, sort of like Billy Dutton but with a shorter, much steeper 1.5k climb up a downhill ski area. That main climb came about 2/3rds of the way through the race, after the course did about 4k of rolling stuff at the base of the mountain. Then when you reached the top you still had another 1.5k of rolling/gradual uphill to get to the finish.
The race started in an old-style pursuit format, based on how you did in the first 2 races (bonus seconds were awarded according to your final ranking in the sprint race. I think I got 15 bonus seconds for finishing 16th overall.) I was starting in 34th position due to my not-so-good race in the first race. So I was hoping to really move up a good 10 spots or as much as I could manage, and go for the best time on the day that I could (USSA points were being awarded based on your isolated absolute time for the hill climb only, so for example someone could conceivably start 40th, ski really fast, be the 15th person across the line, but have the 3rd fastest time of the day and get really good points for that.)
I started right with Noah Hoffman (US Ski Team) who ended up having the 2nd fastest time of the day. He took off at a pace that I thought was pretty stupid (and he is known for not being the smartest sometimes in terms of pacing and technique) so I didn’t go all-out in the first 1k trying to hold onto him. I did manage to pass a few skiers in the first 4k of rolling terrain, and then 1 more at the beginning of the big-a** monster climb. I was able to drop the pack of skiers behind me in the middle of the climb, and then my legs were pretty much blocks of wood and totally done, but I kept doing everything I could do, and managed to hold them all off except one: Glenn Randall.
I had pushed super hard in what I thought was the 2nd half of the climb, but as we crested the steepest part of the hill, I realized that that had only been the middle 3rd of the climb, and there was still a lot more to go. Even though the top section was more gradual (more like Rough Rider at Tahoe Donner or something like that), I couldn’t muster a very successful V2 as my legs were so utterly drenched in lactate from the first seven hundred feet of elevation gain or whatever it was! I kept hammering though and it wasn’t until the very, very top that Glenn Randall got by me and put about 2 or 3 seconds on me. I kept charging as best I could in the very twisty rolling section that followed, knowing the finish line must be close. I wasn’t quite able to close the little gap down though and as we came up one last gradual uphill I realized that this was it - only about 2 or 300m to the finish line. I could hear people closing behind me and I put in a bigger burst over the top of the little rise than I thought I was going to be able to get myself to do, and then hammered the V2 into the finish as hard as I could, not wanting to leave anything to chance.
It was good that I gave it everything as I ended up just barely holding off a couple skiers by something like 1 second or so. One of the skiers was Russell Currier, who had just won Biathlon Nationals and is especially good at climbing. He started a ways behind me in the handicap start but not that far, so it felt like a little bit of an accomplishment to hold him off. I also passed and/or held off some other good US and Canadian skiers like Tim Reynolds (Craftsbury Green Team) and Karl Nygren (CXC).
Overall though it wasn’t the day I’d hoped for, and I guess I only finished 32nd and had the 34th fastest time that day. In thinking about that race and the prior 24 hours and things I could have done better and looking at the results a little more, it REALLY became apparent to me just how crucial it is at this level to do EVERYTHING right and really take care of every detail and take everything seriously. I estimated that if I had:
-gone for a 20min. shakeout walk instead of a 1:30 run/walk in the cold the previous afternoon
-done a bit more stretching
-taken a nap right after the classic sprint the day before
-gone to bed a little bit earlier the night before
-figured out a way to really know the entire course including exactly how long the hill was
-paced the race better based on knowing the course better (I went out too easy for the first time ever, and in hindsight I would have been way better off if I’d skied less conservatively in the first 4k, and then not quite so all-out in the first half of the climb, and then been able to hold it together better in the top half of the climb and the last 1.5k as a result),
…then I think I could have easily been 30 to 40 seconds faster. 40 seconds would have put me right around 12th or 13th as far as times for that day, only 50 seconds behind Babikov who had the fastest time and is generally considered one of the top 3 if not THE top hill climb skier in the world. It would have been my best skate race of the year both in terms of the result and in terms of points. When I think about that, it seems like that could have been very achievable if I’d just been more on top of those important details. So it was dissapointing but an important lesson for all my races next year - and actually even for my training season, which started about 3 days after the hill climb.
This year was my best ever by a long shot. My bad races were as good as my best races in previous years, and my best races this year were almost twice as good as my good races in previous years in terms of points (which are based on percent back from the average of the top 5 finishers, and how highly ranked those top 5 finishers are in the country). I went from being about 100th on the USSA list to a year-end ranking of 50th. And this was despite several unfortunate equipment failures and no-kick on some important days, without which I would be ranked about 30th in the country (of course, everyone else could say the same I’m sure, though I’m not sure everyone else had QUITE as bad luck as I did this year and had their pole basket come off AND their pole handle come off in 2 of their best races of the season, along with having a binding malfunction and losing a ski in what would have been their best skate race of the season in terms of points, etc.)
Regardless of that it was absolutely a huge breakthrough year for me and I feel very “un-stuck” after several years of seeminly plateau-ing. And I have some very specific, concrete, clear things I need to improve in order to take a big step up next year (upper body strength, technique, getting some better-flexed classic skis, and a lot more 1-minute and 2-minute top-speed intervals at sea level.)
I was very, very fortunate this year to be able to really focus on training and reach a new level thanks to some generous financial support from my parents, Salomon’s financial and wax support, Far West’s financial support and coaching support including the amazing collaborative help of Ben Grasseschi, Glenn Jobe, and Jeff Schloss who worked with me several times a week all summer and fall and continued to guide my training throughout the winter, and finally the general, less-quantifiable but equally-important moral support of the entire Far West ski community which I have felt so grateful to be a part of.
This coming year I will be living a little outside of Boston with my soon-to-be-wife and plan to train harder than ever and use what I learned this year to try and catapult to a higher level. I want to get in there with the very very best in the country, and win. I’ve seen that I can do it. I had 2 SuperTour weekends this year where I believe I was in winning shape but had unfortunate equipment issues that put me down several spots. I am determined to not allow equipment to get in the way next year. But the important thing is that I know it is achievable now, and I know what I can work on.
Thankyou SO MUCH to everyone who has helped me this year and every year / any year. It has been amazing to have the opportunity to continue to progress and go farther and farther. It has been great training and racing in Far West and I’ve tried to do what I can to help others with their skiing, as much as I can while training full-time and trying to make ends meet. I hope it’s been helpful for some people. It has certainly made my pursuit of skiing excellence much more meaningful, being able to share the joy of this sport and share whatever I’ve been able to learn so far, with others so that it can hopefully add to their success and enjoyment, whatever level they are at.
I hope that the Far West Senior Team can continue to exist so that these kind of benefits can continue both for Seniors (having some much-needed coaching and financial support to be able to train and race at a national level and progress to the level where they can reach the Olympics, Worlds, make it onto a pro team, be at a level where they can earn enough prize money and sponsorships to make ends just about meet, etc.) and for the rest of the ski community (Juniors and Masters, being able to hopefully benefit from training with / skiing with / racing with / doing clinics with skiers who are at a higher level, whether the goal is to make the JO team, win a medal at JO’s, win States, learn from the general experience of working hard at a sport and learning how to make progress when you put your mind to it, reach a level where scholarships are possible and pay for some or all of college that way, improve your Great Race time, increase your skiing ability just for the sake of your own enjoyment, etc.)
It will probably take an increased level of support and investment in order to fully realize that kind of program and situation in Far West. I was able to make it work this year because of a one-time extremely generous gift from my parents out of the blue, and because I made it onto the Salomon team, and because after years of racing on the circuit I know a lot of people around the country and am able to not be in an expensive hotel every night or renting an expensive rental car every day.
The other seniors on the team are not quite making it work (as far as being able to fully focus on training and have the means to get around to many races around the country where they can race with the best skiers) which might be fine with them, everyone has different goals, and Kara, Chelsea and Phil all had some awesome results this year despite that but it would be cool to see skiers who want to reach a higher level, have the means to do that, somehow, and for them to be not having to work full-time and therefore have more time to give back to the community, do more clinics, or just more hours training alongside the juniors and/or Masters and offering what help they can, either by way of example, pure inspiration, practical ski-career / college-career guidance, tactical advice, training tips, or helpful technique suggestions/observations etc.
In any case, I’m really grateful for what we’ve had and bottom line is that I hope for the maximum of good for everyone in the ski community, one way or another.
I will definitely be visiting the Truckee/Tahoe area as often as possible! (Might even make it out to Billy Dutton at the last minute here, if I can). I still haven’t won the Great Race or the Gold Rush…and I still haven’t had enough of getting to ski with, bike with, and talk with all the great people there, or explore and enjoy all the amazing terrain and roads and trails there.
Hope you all have a really wonderful spring, crust skiing, biking, sun tanning, working, or whatever you end up doing!!!! Thanks for reading and sending best wishes your way ; )