February 08, 2013 (Italy) – Arriving late at night Sochi, Russia looked a lot like my other Russian experiences. The roads were still bumpy, the air still had that taste of pollution masked as progress and the view out the window could be defined as “a tad grim.”
Waking up the next morning in Krasnaya Polyana (the valley bottom “town” they are in the middle of creating), I was bowled over by the sheer amount of construction that was going on around me – cranes a plenty, heavy machinery everywhere (even a couple in the river!), gondolas being built – everything was just humming and the outfit of choice seemed to be muddy coveralls (we were told there were upwards of 60,000 construction workers in the valley).
There are more people around and you quickly figure out things are a tad different. You see countries skiing around with head mounted GoPros. Not normal. Teams with laptops out while staff/athletes ski around with doo-dads, reporting back and transferring data. Not normal. There are people in National Olympic committee regalia around teams. Not Normal. Larger numbers of ski technicians that seem to be able to ski all day long – testing everything – everyday. Not normal, to name just a few.
Then there’s that first ski on the courses themselves. It’s different. You are awe-struck (at least I am, haha) with the stadium. You pause longer when taking a drink – visualizing what it will be like in a year’s time when the World comes to town. You get goose bumps after a sprint to the finish line in training. I guess it’s a definite sign of aging – but I was catching myself saying, “really – the Olympics are only one year away?” over and over again for an entire week differs from almost every other normal World Cup weekend.
Back to the venue itself – below in the valley it’s a mess. Sorry to sound harsh. But it is. You have to bend your mind into pretty tight spaces to believe they’ll get it all done in only a year – there’s so much work left to do. Yet, up at the cross country venue – a short 15-min gondola ride up the mountain from Krasnaya Polyana it’s a whole new scene.
Situated at around 1,500m above the sea, nature smacks you across the face. Hard. Gone is the gloomy, grey, noisy construction site (although there is still a huge amount of work going on up there too, haha) – replaced instead with 360 degree stunning views of snow plastered peaks begging to be skied.
Then there’s the ski trails themselves, which seem to be the only thing actually completed – the trails are cut and impeccably groomed. The trail systems for next year’s big show are the hardest and most challenging race trails I’ve ever skied. After climbing steady for 6-7 minutes at race pace it’s pretty evident who these courses are made for: Russia.
The sprint course is the most gnarly, leg-crushing course around – topping out around 4 minutes with two substantial climbs and for the skate course they didn’t even hide who it’s made for – you just tuck out of the stadium for about a minute, then turn at the bottom and start cranking back up the giant hill you just descended.
As for the race weekend itself – it was a mixed bag. The sprint went ok and I finally felt some spring back in these old legs. I ended up 8th when it was said and done, and I was happy to be back racing in at least the semi-finals. Not where I want to be – but much better than not making the heats at all like some other outings this year. While the sprint course is a total monster – I love it. It suits my strengths and the length distance skiers who have the jam for a sprint like myself.
The following day’s pursuit on the other hand was notta-too-good. It dumped about 40cm of snow and was snowing during the race as well. The classical side/course is beauty – flowing, exciting and I felt good for the first 15km of the race. Switching to skate though, things turned a bit ugly. The first time up the beast of a hill I was already struggling as my boots disappeared in the soft, slow powder below me. Not good when you have to climb that thing four times…
After straggling at the back of the lead group for two laps, I finally popped and limped in for 38th. Rough. I was so beat down and tired – the course was insanely hard. Steep climbing in skating is not my forte and I haven’t felt feelings like that except for up Alpe Cermis in the Tour de Ski. My legs just turned to complete concrete and with no reprise for 6-7 minutes every lap it doesn’t suit my strengths. I was both disappointed and frustrated, but at least I have something to work on and focus on for the next year!
The last day’s race – on Sunday – was the team sprint with Lenny. It should have been the race I was most looking forward to of the weekend – instead it turned nasty. At 3am Sunday morning I awoke with tummy troubles. Yep – you guessed it – I was struck down with food poisoning AGAIN only two weeks after the first experience. My bowels were not happy, and after six trips to the restroom to evacuate … I ate a small white bun and dragged myself up to the venue. And raced.
I know. I know. I should know better. But it got the better of me – I wanted to feel what it felt like to race the sprint relay on the Olympic course. It was of course not good. I’ve never raced feeling that depleted and just straight up bad in my career – and I won’t do it again – and to boot Lenny and I struggled with our kick – not a good thing on a beastly climbing heavy course like Sochi. We narrowly missed making the finals and settled for 11th. I was secretly happy – I wasn’t sure I could start the finals and mentioned that to Justin upon crossing the finish line regardless.
I had just turned 20 and I’m embarrassed to say I had my training bib signed by Bjorn Dahlie (yes, the one you have to wear everyday to ski on the courses and mine had a big signature on the front of it) and it was all I could do not to ask Per Elofsson and Thomas Alsgaard to do the same – seeing how I had to race them. I got smoked in Val di Fiemme in 2003, but seeing how the year before I piled into a van with some buddies and drove 16 hours south to watch our heroes race at the 2002 Olympic Games, I was just in shock that I was on the same start line as those dudes…
Yes – quite the journey indeed. I’m a little older now, a lot more experienced – but I still get stoked to race and I try not to take any of this for granted. I’m training away, feeling decent and enjoying the best food going – Italian – under the Italian Alps. I can’t wait to suit up and race in Val di Fiemme. Maybe I should ask Thomas Alsgaard to sign this year’s training bib – since I no longer race him, haha. I actually think I might…
That’s the news! Peace,