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While I still feel young at heart, this past weekend was the kick-off of my 12th full competitive cross-country season and the beginning of my 5th year on the World Cup. There were many familiar feelings of getting back into the racing groove and also excitement for a fresh and unwritten season ahead.

Just as November was getting started I packed my bags, said goodbye to my husband and my cats, and set off on a 2-month stint on the road. It took me 31 hours to get from Anchorage to Muonio, Finland, a ski center known for one of the longest snow seasons in Europe. En route through Amsterdam and Helsinki, I reunited with my US teammates and coaches, and we settled in to our little cabins by the ski trails.

We had just a couple days of training before we got right to business with the races. First up was a 1.1km skate sprint. With 8 months since my last real ski race, I was anxious and curious to see where my race fitness would be.

1.1km Skate Sprint
The morning of the sprint I was still feeling a little sore from the travel and jet-lagged from the 11 hour time change. But despite not feeling like a rock star, I was able to lay down a fast prelim time for 2nd place in a high caliber field. It was a satisfying start and also a very real reminder of how much those sprint prelims hurt!! It took me a good 20 minutes to shake the feeling that I might hurl at any second and to clear the searing lactic acid from my legs.

We had the standard 1.5 hr break until the quarterfinals started and since we are staying right at the trails, I put my feet up and occupied my mind with Dumb and Dumber on my iPad. Just a short reprieve and then it was back out onto the skis.

As I warmed up for the quarterfinals, I thought about strategy. Snow had been falling all morning, making the course soft. I decided that, with a big climb right out of the start, and a narrow course without many good places to pass, my strategy would be to try and lead from the start. I was also anxious to test out my endurance and I wanted to be pushing the pace every round.

In the quarterfinals I was able to grab the lead going up the first climb and control the race from there. My body had gone a little sleepy during the break and the 3+ minute trip around the course was a painful wake-up call. However, I held the lead and advanced to the semi’s.

In the semi-finals I was up against two of my Italian friends, both seasoned World Cup veterans. I took the lead once again going up the first climb. I could feel them close behind me the whole way around the course and when we came into the final uphill, I stumbled and almost lost the lead. I pulled it back together in the nick of time, held my line and stayed in front to advance to the final.

The start list for the final round of the day could easily have been a World Championships or Olympic Final–Petra Majdic, Justyna Kowalczyk, Arianna Follis, Magda Geniun, Pirjo Muranen and myself. An unbelievable way to start the season! I decided to go with my same strategy and went for the lead immediately from the gun. I got into the front going up the first climb and focused on light and quick movements.

The others were hot on my heels and I knew they would be looking to pass at any opportunity. So I focused on pushing the pace and not giving an inch. As we came into the final uphill, I could feel Majdic in my draft and felt her try to make a move. I countered with a burst of speed and held my line through the S-turn and up the hill, carrying speed over the top. I was able to take best line into the final sweeping turn and with a super short finish stretch I held the lead to the line to win the race.

It felt good to win. I hadn’t been sure of how I might perform in these first few races and I was pleasantly surprised to come out strong without intentionally having sharpened my race fitness. While it’s hard to put too much stock in these early races, the sprint win was a good confidence boost. The next day I would get my chance to test out my distance racing.

5km Classic
The next day the snow stopped, the tracks firmed up and we contested a 5km classic race. Five kilometers is not a distance we get to race individually very often and it’s the type of event where you have to be ready to go hard from the start!!

The waxing proved to be a little tricky as the humidity in the air was making the snow act warmer than usual. It was a tough to find a balance between kick and glide and I ended up deciding on the pair that was gliding best. I carried out a pretty hard warm-up so as to head to the start hot and ready. I was definitely feeling a little heavy and tired from the sprint, but the body seemed to switch on and I felt ready to attack from the start.

I watched the starters ahead of me go out aggressively up the first hill and I focused on doing the same. I carried good speed up and over the first hill and then coached myself to attack the next double-pole sections. With over 500 racers in the weekend’s competitions, there were tons of people skiing the course and the pole track was pretty soft. It felt different than the thousands of double-pole repetitions I had been doing all summer on firm pavement and I struggled to find the right power position.

Over the first half of the race I concentrated on keeping an aggressive tempo and working the transitions. As I got to the back side of the course, I came into the base of the main climb. I thought about driving my hips up the track and staying relaxed in my shoulders. My kick wasn’t totally bomber and I had to really hit the impulse right to keep from slipping. Although my technique didn’t feel as powerful as I wanted, I found a good rhythm and was climbing well. I was starting to come up towards the red line but I still had a half gear in reserve.

Then suddenly, I hit the top of the hill sooner than anticipated and realized it was mostly downhill to the finish. Panicking, I kicked into my fastest sprint pace over the top of the hill and skied the final kilometer in a mad frenzy to the finish. When I crossed the finish line it felt like the race was over way too fast.

When the results came out I ended up 14th, about a minute back from the winner but only 10 seconds out of the top 8. The result wasn’t quite as exciting as the sprint from the day before but a solid effort and a good indication that my distance racing is on track as well. Shortly after the women’s race ended, the men took to the course and my teammate Kris Freeman showed that he is in good form by winning the men’s race. It’s not so common for the US team to take two victories in a weekend so our team was in a good mood!

After two good race efforts, I chose to sit out the third race and get in some distance training instead. I have plenty of racing coming up over the next five weeks and it’s important to keep some training volume each week to ensure I can race strong through the whole season.

So now with the first weekend of racing under my belt, the season is officially started and I will have races every weekend until Christmas. This next week we head over to Gällivare, Sweden for the official start of the World Cup season with a 10km Skate race on Saturday and on Sunday, thanks to the awesome skiing by American Ida Sargent, we will have a 4x5km relay team!

I have high hopes for another fun season. It’s off to a great start and I look forward to sharing the adventures with you!!

Happy Trails everyone!

Kikkan 🙂


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