Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rubber boots, hill climbs & an upcoming 30k!

Another mini-tour is under the belt, this time in North America.  I returned to the states a little more than a week ago to finish off the season on US soil with my club team, APU Nordic Ski Center. 

Speaking of that team.... how's this for enthusiasm? 

The week started off with a massive heat wave. In fact, some of us were so un-prepared for the close to 80 degree weather that we had a "team outing" to a local thrift store to buy shorts and tank tops. I also bought myself some mud boots at the local corner general store. You'll see why here...... 

I feel like I've heard about Vermont Mud season from Liz and Newell for a while now.... Driving on the dirt roads here can be similar to driving on ice - except for the fact that you're fish tailing on mud - beware!

The mini tour here at Craftsbury consisted of four races, a skate prologue, classic 10k mass start, classic sprint & the grand finale, a hill climb UP Jay Peak, the local downhill ski area.  If you want to know more about the races you can check it out on the event website HERE.  My efforts ended up with a 2nd, 3rd, 4th & 9th place........ this combined to equal a third place finish overall in the Mini-Tour, just 3 seconds out of second. Here are some pictures from the race week: 

Race #1 Skate Prologue - notice my mud boots and the brown grass everywhere!

Some US Ski Team & APU Ladies (l-r) Sadie, Jessie, Ida, Liz, Rosie, Holly & Becca (photo compliments of the Sargent Family)

 Racing the 10k Classic mass start

This was a special race because the APU ladies SWEPT the podium.  It's pretty special when a club can do that because more and more, the level of competition has become higher and higher.  The last time I remember this happening was 2011 Nationals: 

In the 10k we skied well but we also had some awesome skis with great kick and awesome glide.  We have this group of hard working guys to thank for that:

Erik Flora, Eric Strabel, Sam Sterling, Casey Fagerquist & Mikey Matteson

Next came the classic sprint. I was happy with my qualification ski but failed to make the A final.  I made a tactical error that lead to poor positioning. Also, nearly the last third of the course was flat double pole.  Double pole has never been my strength but ever since breaking my wrist and skiing with one pole (and mostly my legs) I've really struggled with it.  I've been waiting to celebrate the last classic race for this reason and now I can look forward to rebuilding my upper body strength & double pole for next year. 
 Skiing the heats with Jessie Diggins

While the classic sprint wasn't my best day it was AWESOME to see some of my teammates pick up the slack.  APU skier Reese Hanneman skied to a Silver medal in a stacked field and APU Junior, Celia Haering won the Junior Women's race. 


Celia showing her apple pie award! 

The final tour standings were decided with a 2k hill climb straight up an alpine area. 

Overall Tour Podium - Me, Susan Stephan (Liz's Mom!) & Jessie all share a good laugh!

Coming up tomorrow is the National Championship 30k for ladies.  We are racing on a 1.5k loop, potentially in what Easterners call a "wintery mix."  It should be interesting.... stay tuned and thanks for reading! 

Holly :) 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Engadin Battles and OPA Podiums

Once again, sorry for the delay in posting. I suppose I've been busy hopping time zones, countries and racing scenes.  Surprise, surprise, racing takes it out of you and add some intense travel on top of that plus the new-found 75 degree heat that greeted us in Vermont and I'm tired. But don't worry, not tired enough to pull out a few more good races on good ole USA soil! 

Pretty happy to be back on US Soil!  

To rewind... My last post was right before the Engadin Night Sprints in Downtown St. Moritz.  This was my first night sprint ever and it didn't disappoint.  There were no qualifiers or times, just elimination and head to head battle.  As in any night sprint, there were some good crashes, it was almost impossible to pass and there was some nice cash on the line - in the form of Swiss Francs.  

Night sprint course - most of the spectators were "in town" at the start and finish.... As you can see, the upper section was QUITE dark, living up to it's name (Night sprint!)

Here we are on the podium.  The two other girls are Swiss, from just over the mountains.  Lauren, the girl that won had her first World Cup podium back in December in the Davos Skate sprint. 

With Clark (left) who made fast skis and team leader, Tony (right) who had all the answers!

While in Switzerland we did some serious spectating and cheering from the Telly. A big group of us would pile into a room and yell at the TV, cheering on our friends. Highlights were abundant and we had a blast cheering on Susan Dunklee when she claimed 5th at Biathlon World Championships, Bryan Fletcher (Nordic Combined) when he won the Oslo World Cup and the Hoff (Noah) when he was leading the 50k Holmenkollen!

Watching races live in Europe is a blast..... 


 We had a cappuccino or two... 

 And also gawked at the amazing abundance and selection of Swiss chocolate

 The night before the race we had a big pre-race meeting and Tony delivered our bibs.  Here is the whole crew, minus Billy Demong who flew in directly from Oslo, arrived in the middle of the night, slept two hours, raced the race and flew back to the states, all in the span of about 24 hours!

 Front row (l-r) Lars Flora, Clark, Torin Koos, Bettina Gruber (Swiss/Torin's girlfriend) Back row (l-r) JD Downing, Evelyn Dong, Caitlin Compton Gregg, Matt Liebsch, myself, Nicole Deyong & last but certainly not least, Tony. 

So, unfortunately I don't have any pictures from the race itself. Or the finish line for that matter.  The entire experience was one part battle, one part exhilarating, one part frustrating, and one part learning experience.  Basically, I wasn't quite prepared for the flash mob of skiers that overwhelmed the trail once the starting gun went off.  Basically, the "elite women"start with the elite men at 8:30 in the morning.  Well, there are multiple other waves of "elite" people that start at the same time, simply 50 meters behind us.  So basically, you have a bazillion people starting at the same time - skiing into a headwind.  There is no where to go and nothing you can do except for try to protect your skis and poles from being broken and anticipate gigantic crashes all around you.  As a female skier, its difficult to keep track of where the other females are because there may be 20 master-aged men in between you and them.  The first 15k or so of the race are on big, flat lakes and we faced a ten mile per hour headwind the day of the race.  What does this mean? It means that the guys in front don't go very fast and this has the effect of a carbonated drink about to explode.  Let me just say this:  It was pure battle and I wasn't exactly prepared for what I faced.  

A Steinbock, native to the region.... 

Luckily I made it through without any broken equipment but at some point, leading up to the bottle neck of the course (big steep wall of a hill) I got separated from the lead women.  Shortly after, a gap formed with the female leaders skiing in a pack of 30-50 men - simply along for the ride. I was in a pack one group back.  Because of the headwind I was simply unable to bridge the gap to the next group and no one in my group was competent or fast enough to pull us back in.  In fact, all the men we were skiing with simply pulled over with a "ladies first" attitude.  There was simply no where to go and the race was over once I lost the female leaders at the 15k mark.  It's unfortunate because for the majority of the race I didn't even feel as if I was skiing hard.  I just missed the train, or the pack - literally.  

Houses in Europe and particularly Switzerland seem to be obsessed with exterior decor and specifically, window shutters.  This is one that I really like... 

After the race, others compared the Engadin to a road race. In fact, I think there was a funny comment about it being similar to a road race in that you saw people out there of "all funny shapes and sizes" doing well.  It wasn't really a race of fitness or ski skill (I am certainly not trying to take anything away from the folks that did well) but more a race of positioning, marathon experience and a bit of luck.  

It wasn't until the end of the race that I also learned that some of the top marathon girls ski with men to help get them through the pack and if need be, provide a draft to pull them back up to a group.  Coming into this experience I had no idea how many similarities this would have to bike racing.  I promised myself that when I come back to race this race again, I will bring my own domestique!  

In Switzerland they also love their window lace tapestries.  

All said and done, I was frustrated because I had goals of making the podium but instead finished 8th.  But, next time I will be better prepared.  Nonetheless, it was a great time and a nice change of pace to experience a European World Loppet.  There is a huge circuit over here for these big races and I certainly hope to hit up more of them in the future. Thanks so much to Tony for leading our group and providing great enthusiasm and vision for the US crew!  

Following the big race half of the crew was scheduled to fly home and the other half was scheduled to continue onto Toblach Dobbiaco Italy for Europa (OPA) cup finals.  OPA is basically like the central European Super Tour and we had a huge group of Americans that participated.  

First, we had to GET from St Moritz to Toblach which included four trains, one bus, one car ride - narrowly escaping Italian jail and load upon loads of gear and awkward ski bags that never seemed to fit in the trains properly. 

This picture doesn't do justice for the amount of gear we had with us.... Upon our arrival in Toblach we felt very accomplished yet exhausted!

Along the way I got a good chuckle from the choices in the vending machine.  From left to right your choices are party stix, a "Maybe Baby" pregnancy test (15 euro), condoms & lighters.  Europeans are certainly more liberal about some topics.... 

 #36 - Maybe Baby! 

This was my second trip to Toblach this winter, the first being for the middle stages of the Tour de Ski.   This time around Toblach was balmy and the only reason we had snow was because most of the venue is in a valley, shaded during the heat of the day.  

 The Toblach sprint hill goes OVER the building!

 The series was also a reunion with the APU ladies team! 

The race was a three day mini tour with back to back races including a skate prologue, a classic 5k and a 10k pursuit start.  Prizes for the races included GINORMOUS chunks of meat and cheese. (The one pictured above is the small one)  

 With Olympic Champion, Italian Pietro Piller Cottrer. 

 Prizes from day 2 - Classic 5k win! 

 Erik Bjornsen throwing his glasses to us in the skate race while we cheered him and the other boys on!

 The podium for the final day!  Each of the three days of racing were surprisingly close between myself and two Slovenians, Barbara & Alenka.  In fact, the middle classic day less than one second separated the podium - in an individual start race!  This shows the importance of every second counts! Or in this case, maybe every TENTH of a second counts! 

The last day I won a beautiful 5+ kilo pound of local, Toblach cheese.  In lieu of trying to carry it onto my International flight claiming, "No, I do not have any animal products!" I decided to give it to our beloved waiter for the week, Bert.  He played awesome tricks on us all week included my favorite, pretending to spill a hot bowl of soup on you only to catch the (empty) bowl with a spoon!  

Racing the OPA scene was a great experience for me.  As many of you know, my rise to elite level ski racing was somewhat backwards.... OPA is usually seen as a stepping stone for the World Cup and Championship level skiing.  Instead, I qualified for the Olympics first, then proceeded to gain World Cup experience, followed by OPA. Most people attend these events/races in the opposite order.  Needless to say, it felt great stand on top of a podium and racing OPAwas a blast. Thanks a ton to Bryan Fish (team leader) and Casey, Clark & Colin for providing good boards!  Thanks also to NNF for helping provide support for the trip. 

WHEW.... that leads me to where I am now, Craftsbury Vermont.  I am back with the APU team and this weekend we will race Super Tour finals and the National Championship 30k.  Crazy as it sounds, temperatures are in the high 70s.... in fact, its so hot that our team had to seek out a thrift store today to buy shorts and tank tops.  My winter ski racing attire doesn't cut it here! 

That's it for now. Thanks for reading the novel. More to come from Vermont! Cheers, 
Holly :)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Moving 190 lbs of Awkwardness

There is certainly an art to traveling and traveling well.  There are tricks to traveling in a big group such as the US Ski Team, and there are tricks to traveling by yourself. Both have their advantages as well as their challenges.  With the USST coaches are there for support and almost always, they take care of every logistical detail. If you wish, you can simply act as a herd animal following others around you.  This doesn’t mean it’s easy and that doesn’t mean it’s not tiring.

View out the train window headed towards St. Moritz from Zurich

In comparison, traveling by yourself allows you to be on your own “watch” but it also means that its your personal responsibility to get from point A, to point B. If you don’t, you might not get your next meal or find a bed for the night! 

Take this past weekend for example. It was a test in spontaneity, last minute decisions, and faith that everything would work out!  Less than a week ago I flew from the states into Helsinki, Finland to compete in the Lahti (Finland) World Cups.  If I skied well, I would be invited to continue onto Norway and if I skied REALLY well, there was a small chance that I would keep racing through World Cup finals in Sweden. 

Well, I simply didn’t ski well in Finland. Blame it on the travel, the 50k a week prior, or just simply “not going fast enough” the options of racing in Norway and Sweden were gone.  Going into this period, I knew it was an option and had come up with plan A, B & C in theory (and theory only)! 

Leaving the Finnish sandwhiches of Lahti... 

I have recently decided that buying plane/train tickets and making reservations well in advance only costs money (especially when you have to change and/or cancel plans) and I can only afford to “throw away so many tickets” that I don’t use. So, on Sunday after sprinting poorly, I pulled my laptop out at the venue, and later the hotel to buy my ticket out of Helsinki for the following morning.  (As you might imagine, I was nervous logging onto, praying that tickets hadn’t tripled in price since the last time I had looked!)

The plan quickly and spontaneously came together: Share a shuttle to the airport with the French team, fly from Helsinki to Stockholm to Zurich. In Zurich I managed to meet up with my German Cousin Felix, whom I’ve met once, in 1995. I crashed on his couch for the night and he helped me navigate the bus and train station early the next morning on his way to work. (Thanks Felix!) 

 Me & Felix in Zurich 

After leaving Felix I was left to schlep 190 lbs of gear by myself, from train to train and train station to hotel. I developed a strategy: move one bag 50 meters, go back for the other one, then move the next, keep all 190lbs in eye sight the whole time. As you can imagine, this is slow, tedious and a workout in and of itself. Sometimes strangers take pity on you and offer to help and other times, they're just offended that your ski bags are in the way..... 

When considering the hardship & expense of traveling while competing as an American in Europe, it is certainly easy to envy the Europeans.  They have so many options, so many races to choose from and home is never that far away.  If they are racing poorly, it is always an option to attend a “B level race” and then return to the World Cup when they are feeling up to it. Everything is “close” for them and they’ve grown up navigating the autobahn of Germany and the ski trails of Val di Fiemme. Heck, they’ve probably even sampled the waffles of Holmenkollen since they were 13!  Being a ski racer in Europe could mean the equivalent of chosing between a World Cup in Anchorage, a World Loppet in Fairbanks, and a high level OPA cup race in Soldotna; all within the span of one weekend!  The Washington Equivalent would be a World Cup at Snoqualmie/Kongsberger, a World Loppet in Leavenworth, or an OPA in Spokane. 

With their knowledge, contacts, and know-how, it’s simply that easy. This past weekend while the World Cup was in Lahti, a couple of the top World Cup skiers opted to race the Swedish Vasaloppet instead. Vibeke Skofterud, one of the top Norwegians won the race to the tune of $50,000 and a brand new Volvo for setting a new course record! This is not to say that winning is easy but it certainly pays off over here if you can manage it!

Some US girls in the Engadin Valley! Me, Nicole Deyong, Caitlin Gregg & Evelyn Dong

What’s next for me? Night sprints in St. Moritz tonight followed by racing the Engadin Ski Marathon on Sunday! We have a great group of Americans here to take on the challenge. After this, it’s onto Toblach, Italy for OPA finals before heading back to the US for a domestic finale @ Craftsbury.  

That’s it for the 2011-2012 racing season!

A shot of the MASS of skiers in the Engadin (taken from the Internet)

Caitlin standing under the Rivella blimp on the Engadin race course

Friday, March 2, 2012

Quick thought from 30,000 feet..!

Well, I’m on a plane once again…. Based on my rough estimates, I have flown approximately 25 hours in the past week and 35 hours in the past two weeks (this is airtime alone!)  This is a complete experiment and this “travel heavy” approach is one that is usually NOT recommended.  If everything goes as planned, I will arrive in Lahti, Finland roughly 48 hours before Saturday’s 15k pursuit start. I’m hoping that the mental rejuvenation and time at home will supersede the time spent at 30,000 feet and the jet lag of the 10-hour time difference. 

Right now I’m simply feeling lucky that they let me on the plane.  As it stands now, I have no ticket leaving Europe, traveling home and apparently TSA and/or Finland (my arrival country) doesn’t like that.  Upon pulling up my itinerary, the lady at the Delta ticket counter informed me that I would not be allowed to fly to Finland without proof (a ticket) that I have firm plans to leave the country.  After multiple phone calls, and my firm negotiating skills, I got the go-ahead THANKFULLY.  That was a close one for sure….

What’s after Lahti? I’m not sure yet…. It depends on how I ski.  With six women and 4-5 starts for each race we must earn and/or share start rights.  Following the pursuit and sprint in Lahti there are two more regular season World Cups, the first being a city sprint in Downtown Drammen (Norway) and finally, the highly regarded, traditional “Holmenkollen” 30/50k race in Oslo.  At the finale of the regular season I will either make World Cup finals and stay on to race in Sweden or travel instead to OPA finals in Toblach, Italy.  Honestly, I am surprised that the points I scored in the first half of the winter have kept me within reach of making the finals. I missed lots of good point scoring opportunities rehabbing my wrist and traveling home for a short break back in the states.

At this point, all I can do is ski as fast and my body will allow me to ski. The rest will take care of itself.  Of course my goal is to make the World Cup finals but racing in Italy with a large squad from the US (including many of my APU teammates!) would be a blast as well.  I feel like I have two great opportunities and I am really looking forward to ending the season on a high note!
That’s it for now… thanks for reading and check back soon for more updates!

Holly :)