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The Cliff Notes:

Despite some hurdles with travel, lost baggage and variable weather, I made it to Dusseldorf, Germany for a World Cup individual skate sprint this past Saturday.  The women raced just 900m around a tight and fast man-made loop in the heart of downtown.

In the qualifying round I focused on keeping a high tempo and secured 8th place to advance to the heats.  I then went on to lead both my quarterfinal and semi-final heats to make it to the A final.

In the final, in spite of a terrible start and coming out of the lanes in fifth, I never relented and worked my way into the top 3 off the final turn.  I had a strong finishing kick and was able to sneak into 2nd place right before the finish line for my fourth career World Cup podium!

After a short celebration, I’ve moved on to Davos, Switzerland to prepare for another skate sprint, along with a 10km classic, this weekend.

The Full Story:

Dusseldorf is a pretty unique stop on the World Cup tour.  Since there is not usually natural snow within the city limits, the organizers make the snow in an indoor alpine ski hall and then truck it onto the city streets.  The race takes place right next to the Rhine River, in the heart of downtown and with a sprawling Christmas market going on nearby, the atmosphere is always loud and lively!

My journey to Dusseldorf began on Thursday.  We were supposed to have a pretty easy itinerary leaving Kuusamo around noon, and getting into Dusseldorf by dinnertime.  But thanks to the threat of a strike on Finnair, we had to rebook our tickets at the last minute, forcing us to spend a night in Helsinki.  The next morning we had to catch a 5am shuttle back to the airport and heavy snowfall caused our flight to be delayed.  This meant that we almost missed our connection in Berlin and our bags didn’t arrive in Dusseldorf with us.  Thankfully, Grover had reminded us to bring our essential race gear (boots, suit, gloves, hat, etc.) in our carry on just in case.

The organizers don’t lie out the snow on the race course until the night before the race, so we usually do our pre-race workout on rollerskis.  This year however, the weather had been unseasonably cold and there was 2 inches of the snow on the ground upon our arrival.  So the pre-race workout was done on foot.

Coming into the Dusseldorf race this year was a big question mark.  In my two previous starts here, I had been 40th and 28th, and the flat course didn’t really play to my strengths.  Yet I had opened the season with a skate sprint win in Muonio, and my distance racing has been going better than ever.  So, I was really anxious about how I would feel and how I would race.

On Saturday morning I woke up expecting to feel the flutter of race nerves in my stomach.   But strangely, I felt very calm.  The fact that I didn’t feel nervous for the race almost made me feel nervous in a different way.

Packing my backpack to head to the race was the easiest it’s ever been since I didn’t have anything except for the gear I had brought in my carry-on.  I had one of everything I needed: boots, suit, long underwear, warm-ups, gloves, hat and glasses, but no extras.  It was a good thing that it wasn’t raining!

Before the start of the prelim we got a very short 50-minute window to ski on the course, test skis and warm-up.  Of course everyone else would be doing the same thing, so it was pretty crowded on the narrow 900m loop.

Peter and I tested skis, selecting the pair that was cutting best through the sugary snow.  Then I went about getting my body revved and ready to race.  This was all done to the heart-thumping beat of a live band playing on stage in the middle of the track, and to the smell of bratwurst and sauerkraut.

With such a short and flat course, I knew it was going to be imperative to keep the tempo high and ski with power.  So heading to the start I just kept repeating to myself, “Tempo-Power-Tempo-Power.”

Once I got on course for my qualification lap, I focused on skiing each section at top speed.  I flew through the first 150m and carried good speed into the gradual uphill slant of the first turn.  The snow was deep and sugary.  I powered my way around the tight turns and reminded myself to stand tall in the open sections.  I scampered up and over “Mt. Dusseldorf” (the rise over the small spectator tunnel that provided the only real incline on the course).

As I came off the final turn and onto the homestretch I was feeling the burn in my muscles but still had lots of power.  I crossed the finish line a hair over two minutes.  “Man that was short!”

Walking out of the finish area, I had no idea what place I was standing in the qualifying.  Yet, I had the satisfied feeling that I had finally laid down the sprint effort I was capable of, and I was confident I would be moving on to the rounds.  I jogged a 15-minute cool-down along the river and then came back inside to rest for the heats.  When the results were posted, I had the 8th fastest qualifying time.  Good enough!

Since I didn’t really have a full change of dry clothes, I changed as much as I could and then put on all my jackets and my big puffy parka.   I had a little over an hour until it was time to warm-up again.

This weekend we had a special treat, in that we had a PT traveling with our team.  Fredericka or “Fred” was being loaned to the cross-country team from the snowboard team.  So, I was able to get a rubdown to help my muscles recover before the heats.   During the rubdown my body was cooling off and combined with the race nerves that had finally shown up, I was shivering on the table.  This was a good sign.

The course opened up for another short window of 25 minutes for ski testing and warm-up before the quarterfinals, so I loaded on a bunch of jackets and skied a few laps. It’s amazing how sleepy the body feels after just an hour of inactivity, and it’s always a chore to get going again!  Since I was in the 5th quarterfinal, I also spent some time jogging back and forth before getting into my boots and heading to the start.

Last year I got skied over coming out of the start lanes and ended up face planting instead of advancing.  So I knew a good start would be critical.  After a short introduction to the TV cameras, we crouched in our double-pole positions and waited for the gun.

I reacted quickly and got off to a quick start.  As we came out of the double-pole lanes, I was at least even with the others and built momentum quickly in my opening few skates.  Coming through the opening corridor I glided into the lead and remembered thinking, “Holy cow my skis are fast, I am flying!”  I got the lead going around the first turn and focused on keeping the tempo high.

Still leading across the backstretch and over Mt. Dusseldorf, I could picture the skiers behind me resting in my draft.  I made sure to accelerate hard off the final turn and keep pushing all the way to the line.  I took a quick glance over my shoulder as I skidded to a halt and realized the other skiers were actually several lengths behind me.  With the noise of the wind and the crowd, I hadn’t realized that I had broken away.  “Oh well,” I thought, “great warm-up for the semi’s.”

While jogging around in the start pen getting ready for the semi-finals, Grover informed me that my duffle bag had just arrived from the airport.  By that point in the day, I had already made it through with the little equipment I had, and so I was almost disappointed to hear my bag had made it.  It had been kind of fun to have to deal with the adversity.

In the semi’s, the competition got tougher.  Although I had won my quarterfinal, I had third lane choice and had to take a lane further to the outside.  When the gun went off, I reacted quickly.  This time coming out of the lanes, I was a step behind some of the other racers.  Not panicking, I took the outside lane and built momentum down the first stretch and went wide around the first corner.  I kept working the next two corners and was able to sneak into the lead on the backstretch.  Again I pictured the racers behind me resting my draft and I didn’t let up for a second.  Coming down the homestretch I still felt very strong and crossed the line in first place.  On to the final!

I only had about 12 minutes until the final, so I quickly put my warm-ups on and jogged around to stay loose.  My North American partner in crime, Chandra Crawford, who had just narrowly missed making the final as well, came bouncing up alongside me and gave me an energetic bear hug. “That’s what I was saving for the final,” she said, “but now I’m giving it all to you.  Go gett’m!”

Lining up for the final is a good feeling.  You know there is just one more lap, no more saving anything, just time to go for it!  When we step into our start gates, you can’t see your competitors on either side.  The TV camera comes up right in your face as the announcer gives your introduction.  It’s such a build-up, and it’s fun!  Then the last introduction is given and a clock-ticking sound comes over the loud speaker.  We crouch.  “Take your positions………Set………….Bang!”

A shot from the TV Introduction. Shout out to Subway!

On my first lunge forward, my pole hit the start gate and then as I went to plant my next pole, it slid in the deep snow and my weight threw forward.  I caught it just in time but lost a little momentum and came out of the start lanes a stride behind the others.  This time I felt a little panic and frantically tried to catch up in frenzied skate.  My weight continued to be a little too far forward and I didn’t build the opening momentum like I had before.  By the end of the opening corridor, I was fighting for fourth position.

Coming around the first turn I was determined to work back up to the front.  I skied around the outside through the next two right turns, side by side with Brodin (SWE) and then really accelerated onto the backstretch. Falk of Sweden had been leading and Follis had just made a move to the outside.  Fabjan followed Follis and I followed Falk.

As we approached Mt. Dusseldorf I suddenly realized that Falk appeared to be slowing down.  Not wanting to get stuck behind her up the incline, I made a move to get in behind Fabjan.  I felt another skier going for the same spot and so I made an extra push to sneak in the space ahead of her.  Falk did end up losing momentum over the top and so I moved into third behind Follis and Fabjan heading into the final turn.

The course was really narrow after that final turn until you break onto the homestretch with about 100m to go.  So sitting in Fabjan’s draft, I prepared for the break.  Once into the open, I made a move for an outside lane and ramped up my tempo as fast as my arms and legs would go.  As the final meters ticked down, I was gaining on Fabjan.  I still had plenty of power in my movements and just before the finish line I took over 2nd place.  Then we slid across the line (I did a quick lunge just in case) and the race was history.  I glided for a ways before doing a hockey stop and letting it all sink in.

Coming to the line. Photo: P. Vordenberg courtesty NCCSEF

The exhilaration immediately hit me.   I went over to Follis to congratulate her on the win and exchanged high fives with Fabjan.  We also shook hands with all the other girls in the final.  Whew, what a race!

After watching the men’s final we had a flower ceremony at the finish line and then I got a quick break to change into dry clothes before heading over to the press conference.  On the way, I pulled out my Sprint blackberry where text and emails were already starting to pour in.  My family and friends back in Alaska had watched the race live online, at the equivalent of 4:00am in the morning!

The podium! Photo: P. Vordenberg courtesty of NCCSEF

From the press conference we were ushered over to the stage located in the middle of the course for the official awards presentation.  They played a techno music intro for each of the top 10 finishers.  I made sure to do a quick impression of a sprinkler once on the podium.  Then we got giant checks, glass plaques and a teddy bear to commemorate the day.  When they played the Italian national anthem for Arianna, I took off my hat.  “Next time I want to hear the Star Spangled Banner,” I thought to myself.

On the way back to the hotel I marveled at how happy, positive and energetic I felt.  I wished I could bottle up this feeling for those days when it doesn’t feel as good!

When I got back to my hotel room, I flipped on MTV Europe for some background noise.  Pink’s new song, “Raise your glass,” was playing, and I thought that was quite appropriate!

Unfortunately, on this trip I did not have any female teammates and thus no partner for Sunday’s team sprint.   So after a nice evening celebrating the podium finish with the team, I packed my bags and headed on to Davos, Switzerland–the next World Cup stop.

Coming up this weekend will be two of my favorite race formats–a 10km classic individual distance race on Saturday and another skate sprint on Sunday.  The Davos course will be quite different from Dusseldorf, about 400m longer and with a couple solid climbs.  Should be fun!

And so the journey continues!  Thanks to everyone for all the notes and encouragement!

arthritis

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One Response to “Third Time’s a Charm in Düsseldorf”

  1. hanger wood Says:

    hanger wood

    Kikkan Randall » Blog Archive » Third Time’s a Charm in Düsseldorf

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