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.

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