Ontario Cup race #3, Gatineau Park, Ottawa
Hosted by Nakkertok Ski Club
Saturday January 11th - 15km Classic
The day dawns bright, sunny, and cold. I wake up with a sense of dread, but also excitement. Dread because, thus far, the season has not been going according to plan. I was bitten by the Norwalk bug before Christmas and didn't race well in the first Continental Cup races out in Silver Star. Dread because I don't know if this is how I will ski the whole season, or if I can turn things around. But also excitement because, if I am going to turn things around, it will be today.
The conversation driving out to the race site, usually a lively mix of gossip and funny anecdotal incidents, is muted. But there's an energy in the car that increases when we reach the race site. It's the energy of race day- a tension of anticipation and expectation, but also of community- everybody is there for one purpose, to ski fast.
We head out on our warm up, bundled up with boot warmers, doubled gloves, layers of clothing over our race suits. The wind whipping across the open parking lot bites into the face. The snow is cold and dry, so cold it has that styrofoam quality. It squeaks when you walk over it. When the snow is this cold, there is no moisture in the snow, and the ski can't glide across water crystals like it usually might- this is a slow day. The tracks are rock hard, perfect, and will glaze a bit as racers start skiing on them. I choose my skis carefully, taking well over twenty minutes to select between a stiff ski or a softer ski, equally waxed. The glide feels the same, the grip a tad more grabby with the soft pair, so I choose those. They'll drag slightly more, but the course (on the gradual, long hills of the Gatineau Parkway) calls for lots of striding, and the snow is abrasive, so I put a premium on grip.
The start area is chaos, with racers trying to keep their warm-ups on as long as possible to keep warm muscles from becoming cold and stiff. I tell myself to go out smooth and hard. On this course, if you start flailing, the race is over.
The race begins well. Up and over the first small hill hard and smooth, trying to carry speed into the big downhill into P8. Down the hill, trying to stay small to the wind while not seizing up the legs. Now at the bottom, a quick turn around, and back up the hill- the work begins. I try to stretch my double pole-kick as long as I can, because I know I will be tired of striding. When it gets steep, I start the diagonal stride, trying to stay well forward with the hips, stay long with the glide. Thinking about technique all the time, staying in control. The legs feel good. The race starts to blur as I start to pass people and the heartbeat gets up near max. Down the next hill, and up the steepest climb, hurting the legs up near the top. The skis are running fast. The grip is effortless on the rock-hard tracks, the glide perfect. Down the gradual hill, and the second turn around to come back for the lap. Coming through the lap, I start to get that disoriented feeling, where I feel like I'm seeing where my eyes were looking two seconds before. That means that I am either going well or that I am not going at all. I haven't had a split time yet, just lots of " looking good, Tom" and "over the top, Tom", which means nothing. I'm early in the race, so I can tell people are starting their watches off me. Coming up the monster climb the second time, I can really start to feel the legs burn, and switch to double pole near the top, really trying to plant the poles hard.
Finally, at the top of the last downhill into the finish, I get my first split, from Steve, my old coach: "10 seconds down on Karl, Tom." I have been chasing Karl, a teammate and training partner, for three years now, managing to beat him only a handful of times, so that is not bad. Later I learn it was actually twenty seconds- coaches lie about splits a surprising amount to get you to work harder. I pole hard into the finish and run to put on my warm ups.
The tension of pre-race is now replaced by the collegiality of post-race. Everyone is talking and the warm-downs are done in groups, slowly. Once again, the sense of community shines through- everyone has a common, shared experience, and everyone has a race story. "How'd it go?" is the most heard question. The results don't come in until later, but no-one gets worked up. When they do come in, I finish third, 22 seconds down on Karl and 18 seconds behind Lee, another teammate. It is not a bad race to build on, and it is a confidence booster heading into the more important races. Now home for some rest, some food, and down to the basement to wax skis for tomorrow- the cycle begins again.