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Nationals Notes: Conditions Suboptimal Three Weeks Out, But Time and Hope Remain

The logo for 2018 U.S. Nationals, featuring a subtle “Road to PyeongChang” Olympic motif in the upper left corner

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Just over three weeks out from the first race of the 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships, organizers are responding to warming temperatures with a primary goal of providing athletes with a challenging course and as much good skiing as possible. The first races are set for Jan. 3 in Anchorage, Alaska. 

The current state of the trails

There are roughly 50 kilometers of ski trails at Kincaid Park, the city-owned park at the western edge of the Municipality of Anchorage. Approximately three kilometers of trails, centered on the Stadium, have the capacity for snowmaking. Roughly two out of three of those kilometers currently have a decent base of manmade snow. That said, dirty spots are already emerging in several areas of the loop, and there is an increasing amount of dirt and debris in the snow – racers in yesterday’s citizen race tended toward Swix HFBW, Toko Moly, or other additives to help combat dirty snow.

The other ca. 48 k of trails in the park have a base of roughly 1.5 inches of hardpacked, snowmachine- and skier-groomed natural snow. Coverage is good; virtually no rocks or debris are visible on any of the trails, though long grasses and weeds are sticking through in several spots. But the 48 k of non-snowmaking trails are effectively impassable right now, following temperatures above freezing for most of the past nine days as well as intermittent rain that together left the trails icy and foreboding. (Before that, there was great skiing throughout the park for most of the month of November, following Anchorage’s first real snowfall on November 5.)

There are two sprint and two distance races at U.S. nationals. The sprint races are run on a course starting and ending in the Stadium; the sprint course is currently 95 percent covered with manmade snow. (Stay tuned for FasterSkier’s preview later this month of the new sprint course, set to make its competitive debut at Besh Cup #1 this weekend and its championship-level debut at this year’s U.S. nationals.)

The distance races are planned to occur on 5- and 7.5-k courses homologated by the International Ski Federation (FIS). If you’ve done a FIS distance race at Kincaid in the past decade, such as U.S. nationals in 2009 or 2010 or the college races last spring (but excepting Spring Series 2014, which was on different trails due to snow conditions), you probably raced on these courses.

If U.S. nationals were to happen tomorrow, the 5- and 7.5-k FIS courses would not be usable, barring sufficient scarifying to enable skiers to get a purchase on the 95 percent of each course that takes place off of the snowmaking loop.

What happens next

Given that firm base and good coverage on the FIS trails, it wouldn’t take much snowfall between now and Jan. 3 to make the full courses available. If it snows 6 inches in the next two to three weeks, and returns to seasonable temperatures of well below freezing, then the rest of this article is presumably moot, and the distance races take place on the FIS distance courses as originally planned. (Sample longterm Anchorage forecasts here and here, if you’d like to play armchair meteorologist. Short-term, here is a discouraging article from yesterday’s Anchorage Daily News headlined, “Ready the rain gear, Anchorage, we’re headed for a warm week.” Though temps are supposed to cool down again by the end of this workweek.)

Kincaid: not very cold right now. Screenshot from Kincaid weather station on Monday morning.

But if the weather doesn’t change, there is no meaningful snowfall between now and January, and the whole race series has to take place on manmade snow, what happens then?

“I do have a plan,” Matt Pauli told FasterSkier in an in-person interview Friday morning. Pauli is chief of competition for the 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships. He has been an operator/groomer for the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (NSAA) for many years, and has been involved with NSAA events dating back to at least the World Cup weekend in March 1983.

“I don’t want to call it a homologated snowmaking loop,” Pauli explained, but his goal would be to feature some climbs and to make the snowmaking loop as challenging as he can.

“I want to still make it as competitive as possible,” Pauli noted, “at least put some ‘B’ Climbs into the equation and we can have at least some height differences that are acceptable.” (The current version of the snowmaking loop includes the climb to the top of the Gong Hill, which is a climb of 24 vertical meters. This is by far the largest climb on the snowmaking loop. According to the FIS Homologation Manual, a ‘B’ Climb has a partial height difference of 10 to 29 meters.)

“I just don’t want to have to create distance,” Pauli clarified. “We can create lots of distance out here, but then it’s basically flat. … I don’t want it to ski like a golf course.”

(The winning time in Friday’s Anchorage School District high school boys classic race, which did not climb all the way to the top of the Gong Hill, was 12:35 for a two-lap course that was a total of 5.4 k long. At 2:20 per kilometer for classic skiing, this may be said to be getting pretty close to golf course speeds. That said, a grain of salt is necessary there simply because the pacesetter, Gus Schumacher, is no ordinary high school boy; he won the race by more than a minute over a strong high school field.)

One unknown factor here is whether or when temperatures will drop cold enough for the NSAA operations staff to turn on the snowmaking equipment again. NSAA has historically said that it decides when to make snow in accordance with this temperature matrix. It most recently made enough snow during the month of November to cover, as explained, roughly 2 out of 3 kilometers of the standard snowmaking loop. NSAA has said that its snowmaking abilities are limited to roughly 1/3 of potential capacity due to limited water at the site.

There was not extra snow made and stored during November, as sometimes happens in advance of national championships.

Kincaid: definitely snow-covered, but getting a little dirty. A growing patch of dirt and ice is visible in the background of this capture from the NSAA webcam, taken Sunday afternoon and showing the center of the Stadium. (Screenshot: NSAA webcam)

“Hopefully we get those cold temperatures so we can get the snow guns running again on the west side” of the snowmaking loop, Pauli explains, “over by the play hill in front of the chalet. I’d like, certainly, to utilize that portion. That would expand the loop and what else I’ve traced out.”

He estimated that would give him about a 3 1/2 k loop.

“Certainly we can get up to 4 [kilometers] and such, but that’s kind of two-way traffic, flat, or adding extra flat, which I really don’t want to do. I think athletes want to be working the entire time … not to dispute that double poling is still defined as a classic technique. But at the same time, I think we’d like to see it expand out to the [normal] trails.”

Pauli’s goal for next month’s races is clear: “to have as much good skiing as possible.” But he is currently reluctant to run a PistenBully on the main FIS trails to try to chop up the ice.

“It’s hard to put heavy equipment on any of the trails we have now,” he said, “because we just don’t have the base. If this stuff freezes solid though, and with the rain we get, and any snow accumulation, anything we put on, then we’ll have a pretty bombproof base that’s going to prevent rocks and such.”

While Pauli cares deeply about protecting the base and covering rocks, he’s less concerned with “things like grass and leaves”, he said.

Other options

Pauli is also open to potentially snowmachine grooming on Elliott’s Climb, a sustained climb leaving from the north end of the Stadium that would space out a mass start field, add an ‘A’ Climb not available on the snowmaking loop, and provide another 2+ k of race course (counting the roundtrip up Elliott’s Climb and back down Rollercoaster to the Stadium).

“So if we can snowmachine groom going up Elliott’s Climb,” he notes, “that’s certainly gonna be in the mix. Because I think we can have a freestyle race, if it cools off, and we drag it with our snowmachine equipment. And then utilize the rest of the snowmaking loop, and dial that in.”

As for invoking more ambitious measures, those are still some ways off in the future. “Windrowing snow, meaning actually snowblowing snow and creating windrows and then snowblowing those into tubs and getting those out on the course? Not going to make that call for another week or two, probably two weeks or so,” Pauli explains.

“Firing up the snow guns” that are centered on the Stadium and trails immediately next to it? “We can’t haul that stuff out, but we can certainly fortify and expand what we’ve got out here. But hauling manmade snow right now, when we don’t have any base, just would wreck it.”

Bringing in snow from the nearby airport? That’s not on the table.

“I know people say, ‘Oh, why don’t you just haul snow from the airport?’ Nobody wants to ski on snow with deicing fluid, gravel, and sand in it,” Pauli says. “And I don’t think the city wants that type of snow dumped on their park. Because it all has to go someplace. So if we have to scrape out snow from the woods here, what we can, if we have to windrow and haul it by tubs if we can, that’s what we’re going to do, fortify those trails. Especially for freestyle events – it might be bumpy, but I think it’s still going to be raceable. So I think we can do a good job of preparing those non-snowmaking trails.”

According to U.S. nationals Organizing Committee Chair Joey Caterinichio, there are no plans to move the event elsewhere. She was optimistic about Kincaid’s base and snowmaking opportunities in the coming week with cooler temperatures in the forecast.

Gavin Kentch

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