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The Cliff Notes:

The inaugural ‘Ruka Triple’ took place this weekend despite desperate attempts by Mother Nature to foil the races with cold weather. We did 3 races back-to-back, with daily stage winners and a final overall ranking.

My mini-tour got off to a rocky start with a non-qualifying 42nd place in the classic sprint. While disappointed, I was able to pin-point some explanations for the lackluster performance and use it for fuel in the next two events.

I rebounded well the next day, finding my attack and tempo in the 5km classic race. I finished in 17th place, just seven seconds out of the top ten. I skied aggressive and managed to escape the below 0 F temperatures with just a little frost nip on my nose and cheeks.

On day 3 in the handicapped start 10km skate race, I moved up from 22nd place to 19th in the overall standings and put down the 20th fastest skate split. Feeling strongest on the third day gives me good confidence for the Tour de Ski!

Now we move on to Central Europe with a sprint weekend on the city streets of Dusseldorf. Skate sprint coming up on Saturday, yeehaw!

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!

The Full Story:

In an attempt to keep up our sport exciting for our fans and the TV audience out there, the FIS Cross-Country World Cup introduced another new race format this past weekend called the ‘Ruka Triple.’ We did three races back-to-back, crowning an overall winner after the 3 days of competition.

The temperature was pretty chilly when we got here to Ruka, Finland, and steadily dipped coming into the races. The good news was that the cold made for nice classic conditions. The bad news was that you got a brain freeze on every downhill!

A couple quick notes about this place… No matter where we stay, we always end up walking at least ten minutes round trip to every meal. This year we stayed down near the venue, which meant a five minute, solidly uphill hike for 3 meals a day. At least it was downhill afterwards! I actually saw the sun for the first time in Ruka this trip, although it only lasted for a couple hours. Nothing like full on darkness by 3:30pm! And lastly, this year there is a SUBWAY here!! It was so refreshing to be able to grab a sandwich (and my favorite cookie) and feel a little closer to home!!

Classic sprint

The first competition was the classic sprint race. After not qualifying for the quarterfinals in my last two starts here, I was anxious to reverse the trend and kick off my mini-tour by getting in the mix.

On the morning of the sprint, the first major task was to select skis with good kick! Last year I had slick skis on the main uphill and couldn’t keep my momentum going. So this time, as Peter and I took a couple pairs around the course, I opted to go on the pair that made me feel as if I could run straight up a tree. The glide felt pretty good too.

My mental plan going into the sprint was to attack the course and ski aggressive. The course started out in an elevated stadium, dropped down a fast descent, ducked into the woods for a couple hundred meters and then came back to rescale the massive climb back up to the stadium. Once over the top of the hill, there was still another 200m of flat and ever so slightly uphill into the finish.

I hammered hard out of the stadium, staying out of the wind blown track. I carried a low tuck down the fast descent and burst eagerly into a double-pole up the first rise. I focused on keeping my tempo quick across the flats and coming into the big climb, I felt I was in good contention.

Going up the big climb I was thinking about driving up the track and making quick kicks. I carried good momentum until the steepest part, where I had one small slip. Not deterred, I kept the weight on my arms and felt strong over the top. I then tried to keep the foot down on the pedal and push the pace all the way to the line.

When I crossed the finish line and slid to a halt, I felt satisfied that I had laid down a good effort. Not a perfect one, but a good one. However, that initial feeling of satisfaction quickly melted away when I saw the scoreboard. I was already in 14th, almost 15 seconds off the lead. With only 27 out of 99 starters finished, I knew I was in trouble.

By the time I got my warm-ups on, I had already dropped out of the top 30 and thus would not be advancing to the quarterfinals. “Ahhhhhh, not again,” I screamed in my head. Immediately, I began analyzing the race in my mind–what had gone wrong?

During my race I’d had this subtle feeling that while I was thinking about attacking and being aggressive, somehow I wasn’t getting 100% implementation with my movements. When I discussed with the coaches what they had observed, they said that my tempo looked lackluster and that I didn’t look as snappy as usual.

I spent the rest of the day running over and over the race in my mind, trying to give myself a reason for why I hadn’t skied the way I know I am capable of. I also spent a lot of mental energy trying to stay positive, put the sprint race behind me and focus on the next two races.

Watching my teammate Andy Newell make it into the final and finish a valiant sixth place helped me escape some of my disappointment, as did watching several episodes of Glee with my roommate Ida Sargent.

5km Classic

On day two, the temperature dipped again, dangerously close to the legal limit for racing of -20 C (-4 F). It hovered between -15 and -19 around the course. I prepared for my chilly lap around the 5km course with two layers of my warmest IBEX wool long underwear beneath my suit, 2 buffs and thick hat on my head, Dermatone smeared all over my face and full on mittens. I almost wore my boot covers too, but then took them off at the last second when I saw everyone else in the start pen take off theirs. This 5km was serious business!

Usually the women race 10km classic here in Ruka, but this year, with the mini-tour format, the individual classic race was just 5km. So I knew this time there would be no working into the pace, I had to be fast and aggressive from the start.

I took it out hard and carried a fast pace up the first two big climbs. I felt good going around the flat loop at the top and then sailed down the fast descent with my hands in front of my face to block the cold wind. I heard one of the coaches yell at me that my nose was white!

As I came under the tunnel and up the hill around the halfway mark, I was working in a fast rhythm and pushing the red line. I got a split over the top that I was tied for the lead with Swede Anna Haag. A good sign!

Heading up the far hill around the 3km mark, I was feeling the effort take hold of my muscles and really had to focus on quick movements. This hill had been one of my strengths in past years and I was looking forward to powering up it. Halfway up the hill however, my skis slipped a couple times and I lost my momentum and had to herring bone a few steps. This killed my rhythm and I had to fight to get over the top.

I made it successfully through the icy s-turn, but just as I was about to get back into the tracks, one ski started to veer off and then the other veered too. It was a close call and I barely saved myself from going down.

Going into the last kilometer, I was totally focused on keeping the tempo up and giving everything I had to the finish. I ran up the final hill into the stadium fighting the burning fatigue in my muscles and powered home. As I rounded the last corner I came shoulder to shoulder with the racer that had started 30 seconds ahead of me and we were closing in on Chandra, who had started a minute ahead. One final sprint and then I slid across the line. I had lost some time on Haag, but had the 4th fastest time so far, 15 seconds back.

When the race had finished, I was 17th. The field was tightly packed, as I was less than two seconds out of the top 15 and only seven seconds out of the top ten. Thinking back to those couple slips I had on the hill at 3km, arg (!!!!), that was the difference!

I went for a very brief cool-down ski with Chandra (even with the four jackets, I cooled down pretty quickly), and then hurried back inside to watch the men’s race on TV. It proved to be another great day for team USA with Kris Freeman taking 7th place!

After a good performance and several more episodes of Glee, I was in a better mood and anxious for the final race.

10km Skate Handicap Start

For Sunday’s 10km skate race, there was no mercy from Mother Nature! The temperature continued to hang right around -18 C with a light wind, and even a slight dusting of snow made the already squeaky snow even slower. The weather combined with a challenging 2.5km course that we would have to ski four times, made for a tough day!

As the final race of the mini-tour, the skate race was a handicap start based off each racer’s overall time from the two previous days. That meant head-to-head racing, a chance to catch skiers ahead and also the threat of being caught from behind. Just the challenge I needed!

After the first two races I was sitting in 22nd overall, 2:03 behind Bjoergen the leader. While I realized I probably wasn’t in contention for the win, I knew there would be good chances to try and hang with some fast skiers, and the potential to ski up a few places.

I once again bundled up in multiple layers of my thickest wool long underwear, covered every inch of exposed skin that I could including putting athletic tape on my face, and decided to go with the boot covers this time. While the cold weather is not my favorite, I did feel strangely comfortable. Running around in the start pen reminded me of getting ready for high school races back home in Anchorage. Alaska definitely prepared me for days like this!

I started in the same second as Britta Norgren Johansson from Sweden. Britta had been just a few seconds faster in last week’s 10km skate in Gällivare, so I was looking forward to a good battle. She took the lead going out of the stadium and I tucked in behind her. Going down the fast descent, I remember thinking, “I’m actually pretty warm.”

The pace up the first two big climbs was aggressive, but my body felt fresh and ready to go and I felt comfortable following Britta’s rhythm. I followed her around most of the 1st lap, content to get a little draft effect. Therese Johaug, who had started seven seconds behind us, caught us at the top of the loop and went blowing by. Her pace was so much faster than ours, and with it so early still in the race, I decided not to try and follow.

As we came onto the first climb up to the stadium, a pack of skiers caught us from behind and closed in around us. We responded to their pace and formed a train going through the stadium. 1 lap done, 3 to go.

Heading up the first climb of lap two, there was a surge in the pack and two skiers made a break. I had my head down and was stuck behind a couple skiers. Suddenly, I realized that I was feeling really good, and so I decided to break too. But I missed the ride. I steadily pulled away from the pack I had been with, but couldn’t seem to close the 10-15 second gap on the group ahead.

Over the next two laps I did manage to ski through a couple early bibs but no one stuck with me. Since I didn’t have anyone to ski with, I tried to focus on keeping the tempo high on the climbs and working the flats and transitions.

Going into the final lap, I was still feeling pretty good and was trying so hard to close the gap. I could see the top 15 (my goal for the day) just ahead but even though I was trying to dig deep and pick up speed, I couldn’t quite get there. My legs and arms were burning now, but I was still able keep up the tempo.

I jump skated up the final climb into the stadium and challenged myself in my mind to use everything I had left to the finish. I was disappointed not to have anyone to sprint against, but I pushed all the way to the line anyway and slid to a halt in 19th place. It was a good feeling to be done.

When the results came out a little later, I found out that I’d had the 20th fastest split for the day and had finished exactly 10 seconds behind 18th place and 10 seconds in front of 20th. Not quite the head-to-head racing I had hoped for, but a good test for myself!

Conclusions

Overall, I had a decent mini-tour. The dismal start in the sprint cost me a few seconds that could have possibly put me closer to the top 15, but I am satisfied with a couple more consistent top-20 distance results. I am also excited that I felt the best on the third day of racing, which gives me confidence for taking on my first Tour de Ski in just over a month from now.

After seeing some video from the sprint race, and thinking about it a little more, I realized that I probably just over-thought, and under-tempo’d my prelim and thus prevented myself from accessing my full fitness. So, moving forward into this weekend’s World Cup sprints in Dusseldorf, Germany, I will be thinking less and just skiing hard.

I really enjoyed rooming with Ida Sargent this week and it’s great to see her put down some solid results as a World Cup rookie. Unfortunately for me, Ida has to return to Dartmouth to take her finals this week so I won’t have a team sprint partner on Sunday. But, thanks to all the team showing some great potential this week, the future is looking bright for US skiing!!

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving holiday! (We had salmon and potatoes).

Thanks for riding along, and we’ll talk to you next week from Central Europe!

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