Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kuusamo Awaits - No Quarter Given

The instrumental to Hey Jude plays in the background. Lightly at first, barely audible, then crescendoing to an unmistakable, all-encompassing audio experience al la Royal Tenenbaums.

Week out, my coach tells me to run through a whole practice in my mind, more or less in real time. The number one requirement he tells me is we don’t train physically if that gunk is still in your lungs. It reminds me of what all the best coaches I’ve ever worked with have said in their own way – that the body is trying to tell you something. It needs time to repair itself. It will. The body just uses its own timecard and rushing it usually just prolongs the healing process. Everything else, though, stays the same.

“Go ahead and challenge yourself. Do a workout in it’s entirety in your mind. See yourself at the venue. Talk to the service techs. Pick out your skis in the wax cabin. Run through a whole six-by-three-minute, double-pole-only intensity session. Don’t just see pictures in your head. Get the feelings of skiing. Get the feelings of motion. Feel what it feels like in your arms when reach high with the elbows. When you do this, your striding opens up. This gives you a higher starting position to start your kick from. This gives you a little more time glide. See yourself skiing big, strong and relaxed. Feel yourself becoming that purple wave of motion flowing and bouncing and gliding all the way around the course. When you ski like this, it hardly matters what’s going on around you (with the other competitors). You’re skiing so big, you’re going so fast, you’ll really be in control. Take forty five minutes, set aside an hour, and see if you can totally focus in on this and not lose that focus.”

Last year, I also came into Kuusamo sick. Only this year I’ve had a couple more days to recover, to get back all my health. Last year I knew I had, maybe, a C- body, for race day. Last year I knew if I wanted to be one of the thirty quarterfinal qualifiers I had to perform pretty much flawlessly. On that day, I did not leave myself a window of opportunity more than that if I wanted to score World Cup points.

In the prelim, I did it. The racing was super tight. I finished 2.3 seconds off the fastest time of the day on the two and three-quarter minute course, qualifying in 19th place. Another second faster and I would have been perhaps a top-five qualifier. Then again, another second slower and I would have been outside the top-30, an outsider looking in.

Making it into the next round I had the exact same chance to race for the podium’s top step as any of the other 29 other quarterfinalists. In that race, I blasted off the start, settling in behind Emil Johnsson of Sweden, the quickest prelim qualifier earlier that morning. Perfect.

Through the middle section of the course, I spent too much energy fighting with the other racers, jockeying for position. If I could change anything about how I skied in Kuusamo last year, this would be it. I burned up a few matches unnecessary. On a day when I was a ways away from having a full matchbox, that just doesn’t cut it. A Czech, a two time World Team Sprint medalist, cut ahead, though it hardly mattered. In Kuusamo, the final climb separates the winners from the pretenders.

On this climb I swung wide left and start getting into my specialty – skiing uphill fast. I catch Emil. Then I pass the Dusan the Czech. I’m in the lead. Over the top of the climb, as it transitions from climbing to long striding to double poling, Emil accelerates away. The Czech powers by. Luckily, I still have enough energy to hop in behind him, my tips right on the tails of skis. With 100 meters to go, I’m okay. With 90 meters to go, I’m still right there. In the final 80 meters, though, I am no longer challenging for a top two position and a chance to fight it out in the semifinals and the finals. Somewhere before the finish a Finn and an Italian go by. I died up the home straight, coming in 5th of 6th in my heat, 1.9 seconds behind the Swede, or 21st place for the day.

As a result, it was not great. Nor was it bad. But on that day I left the race venue and headed back to our team’s cabin in the woods satisfied with my performance, fade up the homestretch included.

“If I don’t have my A-plus fastball, I have to use my A-plus mental approach.”
-Jonathan Papelbon, Rex Sox closer

In Kuusamo last year I hardly had skiing’s equilivant to my A-plus fastball. In the past year, I’ve had a year to ski bigger, to get stronger, to build more fitness, and I have some concrete data points that say I’ve done exactly this over the past 52 weeks.

Every week presents unique challenges. Every week presents its own opportunities. Coming into Kuusamo this year, I’m at least as healthy as last year. Fitter; and a more complete skier too. Last year I brought an A-game approach to the race venue. This year it’s time to add a + to that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Grit ~ Equal Parts Passion + Perseverance

Last three years I’ve traveled to Europe for the early World Cup season. Every year I pack up on Zicam, Cold-Eeze zinc lozenges and the like. A certain type of insurance; a precautionary measure to combat any unforeseen, unplanned, strength-sapping ailments picked up on the road. The nasal mist is like the glass on the front of the fire alarm that reads, “Break only in case of emergency.” The zinc lozenges are tucked away in the back of the toiletry kit, just in case something bad happens. Every year, for the last three years, I’ve ripped into the plastic pouch of zinc-laden lozenges, unfurled the safety seal on the gelatinous nasal spray. Not because I want to. Because I have to.

The World Cup opens this weekend. Unfortunately, my goals have changed. This weekend the odds are stacked against me sliding into a race bib. This week’s personal competition does not include competing against the Germans or Estonians or Russians. It’s all about regaining the ability to breathe in oxygen deeply without restriction. It’s about getting my strength and snap back. It’s about lying low in my classic little red Swedish cabin in the woods and resting and reading and relaxing. And not going stir crazy.

Next week is another chance. Next week I head to Kuusamo, Finland. I’ve been in the game long enough to know the pursuit to the top will be fraught with a little turbulence. Now I’ve got to show a little perseverance, a little resilience. Now is hardly the time to become brittle in the face of adversity. Until the next time.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Deep, Dark Woods

To steal a few lines from Frost,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Takeoffs and Landings

At 6:17 I wiggle into a seat aboard a 757 headed to Newark. In New Jersey I am to meet up with three teammates, a coach, and a serviceman, hop the pond to Stockhol, take a commuter to Kiruna, Sweden, then drive to Munio, Finland.

If only travel were to happen perfectly to script. Lost luggage, plane delays, and their near requisite doppelganger, missed connections, give opportunity to remind myself that life is ten percent wha happens to you and ninety percent how you react to it. Still, the sexiness of travel once presented to the public, is gone. Long since gone.

For the next three weeks I will live at a time of terminating daylight above the Arctic Circle. The memory of seeing the lemon yellow sun must suffice. The time to embrace living among domesticated reindeer, eating dense, dark bread topped with lingonberries and listening to Finnish love metal has arrived. It has been a slow train coming. Now the train is at the station. Now, the ski racing days are here.

For some reason it is somewhat awkward to admit, but just knowing I would be in Munio or Gällivare, Sweden or racing through the old-town streets of Dusseldorf, Germany later this December kept the engines of aspiration and resolve burning hot. Knowing that, on a none-too-distant Saturday the opportuity to race Jens Arne and Emil up the big hill of Kuusamo with a World Cup title on the line fills me with the most ebulliant of hopes.

But, alas, hope is not the same as experience. The time to just peek through the cracks or around the corner to glimpse boyhood ambitions is through. The time to tear back the veneer between thinking and doing, to bask in the afterglow of high achievement nears.