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I finally managed to win a race today! This makes my fifth Ski to the Clouds victory, and it was by a solid margin.
Given my season, I was not counting on a victory. This was especially since Bret Bedard was also on the start line, and over the past year or so I think I entered today 2 and 5 in head-to-head races against Bret, and worse when you consider only skate races.
The game plan to was let someone else lead on the first 4 km loop, and indeed to avoid leading until at least a kilometer into the climb, then attack on one of the “flat” sections and open a gap. But off the line no one even tried to get the lead, and being in bib 1 (and the four time defending champion) I felt obligated to set the pace. I skied very controlled, just fast enough to discourage anyone else from passing, at the front of an 8-strong pack. When we got to the climb, I attacked a bit right from the start and fairly quickly shook everyone but Bret. Then I pulled over and let him lead. It wasn’t too bad skiing behind him, but I don’t think I could say I was relaxed. He pulled for quite a while. I was thinking of abandoning my plan for an attack at 1 km and waiting until nearer the finish (which was moved a bit farther up the mountain this year). Indeed, I was thinking quite a lot. With all the new snow, the trail was narrower than usual and passing was very tricky–in a sprint, having the lead when the line came into view was going to be a huge advantage.
As I was sorting through all these thoughts, Bret pulled over to let me lead. I obliged, and I took over at about the same pace. But he slowed for a few strides to collect himself. I made a quick decision to return to plan A and I upped the pace. He broke immediately, and I steadily opened a gap over the next several minutes. After perhaps five minutes of leading, I looked back and saw that I had a gap of over 30 seconds. I tried to ski my own race, but I checked a while later and found that the gap was up to a minute. Even at that point, I felt I was not skiing very fast and I pushed hard to make sure that I stayed out of sight as much as possible. I was very nervous about the longer course.
Countless time checks and regrettable glances over my shoulder later, I came to the old finish line. From the site of the old finish line it was less than 200 meters to the new finish line. Still, it hurt to go that extra distance. I suffered across the line, making no effort to look good for the finish line camera.
Bret crossed about 1:45 later. I put on a jacket (they delayed the coach with the warm clothes bag so for a change I had warm clothes to put on) and skied down. 36 minutes up, 9 minutes down. It feels good to have a victory to point to this year, and to once again be able to claim that I am a professional cross country skier (the race pays prize money).