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The Cliff Notes:

First World Cup weekend kicks off with a bang in Gällivare, Sweden with an individual skate race and relays. Despite freezing cold temperatures midweek, things warmed up in time for some hot action out on course!

I may have been a little unsure of how these first few races would unfold, but I have been able to put my nerves at ease with two more solid performances. In the individual skate race I skied a really consistent pace for 19th place, less than a minute out of the podium. It was one of my best World Cup distance skate races.

In the relay, Ida skied a courageous first leg but hit the wall towards the end and tagged off to me in 19th place. I had a good battle with Ukrainian Valentina Shevchenko and together we reeled in a few teams to tag off 1 second out of 10th. In the end we lost a photo-finish for 12th, finishing 13th. I had the fourth fastest split on my leg, another encouraging result.

Now onto Kuusamo, Finland for a new mini-tour during Thanksgiving week. Happy Turkey eating to everyone!

The Full Story:

Technically the race season began last week with the FIS races in Muonio, Finland. But realistically those races were just a warm-up for the real start this weekend, the start of the World Cup season in Gällivare, Sweden. This time all the big dogs would be there, and prize money, World Cup points, and rankings would be on the line.

While we had a pretty mild introduction into Northern Scandinavia during our days in Finland, when we got to Sweden, we got a real taste of life above the Arctic Circle. By midweek the temperature had dipped to -20 C (below 0° F), and with the days getting shorter 9 minutes at a time, it was feeling pretty dark!

You have to wear so many clothes when it's cold!

Most of our team skied an intensity workout on the race course on Wednesday and we all agreed that the cold, slow snow and the multiple layers we were wearing to stay warm didn’t exactly inspire the confidence we were hoping for before the big races. Since it has been eight months since my last World Cup race, I had plenty of anxious feelings.

Thankfully, the day before the first race the temperature warmed up to a balmy -7 C, the snow sped up and a pre-race workout with my teammate Liz Stephen had me feeling optimistic and excited for the 10km skate race.

10km Skate

Race morning was light hearted as my teammates and I drove ourselves out to the venue to the tune of our new favorite Rhianna song. Peter and I tested skis, ultimately choosing one of my favorite pairs. I had a good rest of my warm-up, although I had strange feeling that I was actually getting colder. I would later find out the temperature had dropped from -5 C to -10 C before race start.

I started as bib 64, four places ahead of the Red Group (top 30 ranked distance skiers). My higher bib number meant that I would possibly encounter some racers on their 2nd lap during my 1st and would also have all the best skiers chasing me from close behind.

As I cruised out of the stadium to a nice introduction from the stadium announcer, I focused on an aggressive start. It was a deceptively tough course, with shorter, steep climbs and not much rest on the curvy, technical downhills. The second half of the course was mostly gradual terrain that required speed and power.

Going up the climbs in the first two kilometers I found a good rhythm and felt like my body was energetic and the muscles were open and ready to go. We had decided to not have the coaches give us splits during the race, so I would have no idea how I was skiing in relation to others. I just had to focus, dig down and ski hard.

Coming through the lap at halfway, I was racing hard but still feeling strong. No one had caught me yet, which I took as a good sign. I focused on picking up the tempo and attacking each section ahead.

With 2.5km to go I had finished most of the bigger climbs and now had to concentrate on skiing powerful and gliding well on the gradual sections. The effort was setting into the muscles and it was a challenge to keep the speed up.

Over the last kilometer I tried to imagine being in the final round of a sprint race to inspire myself to dig into my last energy reserves. At last I came sailing into the stadium and powered down the home stretch. As I slid across the finish line I was immediately satisfied with a good effort. The announcer had me in sixth place of the finishers so far. With all of the Red Group behind me, I hoped it would hold for a top 30.

I set off on my cool down in a good mood even though I did not yet know my final result. My big goal for the race had been to go out there, ski aggressive and focus on giving a really solid effort. I didn’t really have a particular result goal. So when I did finally hear the results, I was pleasantly surprised with 19th place, less than a minute off the podium. It ranked as one of my best World Cup distance races to date, and it was the start to the season I was hoping for.

4x5km Relay

Last season at the opening World Cup weekend in Beitostolen, Norway, the US women’s team had to sit out the relay because we only had three racers instead of the necessary four. It was such a bummer to have to watch the relay from the sidelines.

Fortunately this year we lucked out when fellow American Ida Sargent skied well enough last weekend in Muonio to accompany us to Gällivare for the relay. We were unbelievably stoked all week.

As Matt drove us to the race venue that morning, the van ride was uncharacteristically quiet. I think everyone was pretty nervous. I was surprisingly calm. We had decided to try an experiment with Ida going out first and me second. I usually ski the opening leg but since Ida was skiing really well, and most teams put their faster skiers on the 2nd leg, we felt that this strategy might keep us in the hunt the longest.

Since I would be skiing a classic leg, the first order of business was to dial in the skis. Peter and I took two pairs around the course, one old favorite and one brand new pair. After a few kilometers it was apparent that while the old ski was the fastest, the new ski had the most solid kick. I opted for the kick. I finished off the rest of my warm-up with some harder skiing and ran to the start just after the race began.

While running back and forth in the start area I was able to watch the race unfold on the giant screen in the stadium. That’s when I got nervous. When I saw Ida right up there in the top five, skiing like a champ, and realizing that I would be going up against some of the fastest classic skiers in the world, I felt the butterflies get all worked up in my stomach.

As the first leg skiers approached the stadium however, my butterflies began to flutter to a different tune. Ida had laid it out there and hung with the pack for as long as she could, but the wheels had come off a little towards the end and we had drifted back in the standings. Now I knew it would be up to me to try and make back some ground on the teams ahead. I could also see the Slovenian team about 100m back just before I got the tag and that meant, Petra Majdic, would be hunting me down.

When I got the tag, the Ukrainian team was just ahead. I put my head down and sprinted after the racer in black. All that nervous energy got me off to a quick start, and I caught her by the 1-kilometer mark. It was Valentina Shevchenko, a World Cup veteran. I passed her over the top of the next hill but she was not willing to let me go. Over the next 3-kilometers we battled back and forth. I had more power on the climbs, she had more tempo on the flats.

Working together we caught and passed a few teams. Through two technical downhill turns in the last kilometer I pulled ahead of Shevchenko and sprinted the rest of the way as fast as I could slide my skis down the trail. Coming in just above the stadium, my glasses momentarily fogged from the campfire smoke of the spectators. I surged on blindly and caught a pack of three teams going into the final 200m.

I eased off a bit going into the tag zone so as to give Morgan a chance to latch onto the back of the train. It was a chaotic exchange zone and I had to lunge to tag Morgan and keep from getting run over. After the tag I stood up, tucked in my arms and waited for the frenzy to pass by. I looked over my shoulder just then to see Petra coming in for the tag. Amazing, she hadn’t caught me!!

Over the rest of the race, Morgan found a little more zip than she’d had in the individual race and kept us close to a few teams over her lap. Then she tagged off to Liz. After changing into a dry shirt, I ran up the hill to cheer Liz on. She was skiing strong and managed to pick up a couple places for us. She just lost out on a photo finish for 12th place (so we ended up 13th), but laid down the 7th fastest split for her leg.

Morgan, Liz, Myself and Ida - the Relay team!

After the race we all went on a cool down together and swapped stories. Ida had skied a gutsy 1st world cup race, skied stride for stride with some world’s fast skiers, and got a taste of that high-end speed. I had a fun battle with Shevchenko, and didn’t get caught my Majdic. Morgan had been blocked out on some of the downhills by a snow-plowing Ukrainian girl, and Liz had made a valiant lunge to try and get Japan at the line. A pretty decent day for the team we all decided, but definitely room for each of us to ski better. We weren’t that far off the top six, and it’s exciting to think that if each of us put together our best races, we could be in the mix!

I was excited about my performance as well. I had the fourth fastest split on the 2nd leg, just 12 seconds off the leader. Most importantly I felt like a World Cup racer out there.

With spirits high, we all bundled up and went out on course to watch the men’s race. It was quite a show!! Newell skied the best 10km classic of his career and kept the team within 15 seconds of the leaders. Then Freeman took over, bridged the gap and was even leading for parts of the 2nd leg. He tagged off to Noah Hoffman in fifth place, and Noah, or the Hoff as he is known, hung in with the top five teams through the 1st of 2 laps and didn’t loose too much time before tagging off to Chris Cook for the anchor leg. I have to say I felt a little emotional watching our guys ski so well!

The Hoff skiing right with the leaders!

And just like that, the first weekend of World Cup racing was finished.

Now we head on to Kuusamo, Finland for a new experiment, a three-day stage race called the Ruka Triple. In addition to the classic sprint and classic distance race we traditionally do in Kuusamo, there will be a third race, a skate distance event with a handicap start based on the overall time from the two previous races. It will be scored as a mini-tour with an overall champion in addition to each stage winner.

With my distance racing getting stronger and my sprint speed, I am looking forward to trying out this event and doing some head-to-head racing.

Since this week is going to be Thanksgiving back in the states, happy eating to everyone and enjoy some turkey for us, we’ll probably be eating reindeer instead!!

arthritis

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