So far this year, those in the Open category at Nor Am races have participated in 3 separate pursuit races, all of which were contested on 2.5km loops. It is my view that this format lacks something from the perspective of the essence of a sport that we often refer to as 'cross- country' skiing.
It would appear that there are essentially two camps when it comes to the issue of whether or not small loops are good for our sport. I will outline, as best as I can, while not being a member of this camp, the arguments in favour of racing on short loops.
1. It is better for tv and spectators.
2. It is easier to prepare high quality conditions.
3. It is more convenient for race organizers and coaches.
The arguments against this format are (once again, from uniquely my point of view)
- Short loops are less interesting and inspiring to race.
- In most cases in
North America, tv and spectator presence is not strong enough to justify altering a race format in that interest.
- Racing on these kinds of loops in not in keeping with what I will refer to as one the key aspects of cross country skiing, that being to challenge one's self and others over what is essentially 'natural terrain'.
I will try to elaborate a bit on these points. Most racers that I talk to don't seem particularly thrilled to complete multiple loops of a 2.5km course when this is not necessary. Years ago, the only times we raced on loops that short were when nothing else was possible because of the conditions. I would argue that there were good reasons for this line of thinking. Recently, it has become acceptable practice to race on 2.5km loops regardless of what other trails are available.
So what are these good reasons? I think it is inherently less interesting to repeat the same terrain over and over again instead of being confronted with something new at every turn. It is the same reason that we don't typically organize half marathon running races on 2.5km loops. There is something interesting and pleasurable about actually 'going somewhere' so to speak.
To some degree, the challenges of varied terrain and conditions are part of the essence of cross country skiing. It is a sport that, until very recently, placed a priority on these aspects. I for one, chose cross country skiing from among a few sports that interested me when I was younger, notably, running, cross country skiing, cycling, and speed skating. Cross country skiing seemed to be the 'most interesting' of the three, largely because of the incredible variety of challenges it involved, including racing long distances over varying terrain and conditions.
Sadly, over the course of my skiing career, I would say that cross country skiing as lost a little bit in this department, and has become a little bit more like some of the sports I chose to stay away from. It seems that race courses, formats, distances and grooming have been increasingly standardized to the point that if you ask me, a little bit of what is great about our sport is beginning to be lost. I would argue that racing 2.5k loops with increasing frequency is a part of this regrettable pattern.
For sure, I don't want to overstate the point. I still like cross country skiing more than any other sport, and I still enjoy racing, even if it is on a FIS homologated 2.5k loop with perfect, rock-hard tracks. Also, there do remain places and races where you can find some of the old school greatness, such as the gems that are places like Nakkertok and Lappe, and the multitude of traditional loppets and marathons that have taken place on the same courses since well before I was born.
I would encourage race organizers to allow themselves a bit of room for creativity, and to not feel so constrained by emerging trends in international level racing that don't necessarily have to apply at all levels of the sport. Even Nor Am races, I would guess, could get away with some formats and courses that would shake things up a bit. For those of you who have continued to organize the 'old school' events despite mounting pressure to do otherwise, let it be known that your races are valued and cherished by many, and will continue to be for many years to come!