A Really Great Weekend!

So it’s probably self-explanatory from the title of this blog post, but hey I’ll say it again because I like it: I just had one really great weekend!

It was one of those weekends that was gratifying on multiple levels: an overwhelming reiteration of why I love coaching so much and why it can be so rewarding, pride in the job I have done in that regard, the unexplainable feeling of achieving nearly the “perfect race day” and the high that comes with it, and yet another reminder of just why I love skiing so much. Let me tell you why…

The weekend started off with a bang, as the CNISSF State Championships were being held Friday and Saturday up at Auburn Ski Club. If you haven’t been up there to watch one of these season culminations, let me tell you, you should! It is such an amazing event. It is so cool to see a. how many young racers there are out there – it’s really a positive sign for the expansion of the sport, b. how much drive and desire and passion they have for the sport already – it’s so evident, and c. how hard they are working! These kids are awesome! They are all competitors, but they come together so well here at the final event, each sharing in the effort they have put in all year long to get to this moment and the desire to reap the benefits of that effort.

It’s especially neat for me to come back and be a part of the State Championships now, from a different perspective. I remember so well all of the years I competed in the event and how much it meant to me to do well there. To now see that same thing in my racers, and know that I am helping them to make it happen, is really special. I feel like I am totally able to understand what they are feeling, and I think that helps them – or at least I hope!

We spent the last two and a half weeks (well, the whole season really, but the last two and a half weeks were on a specific peaking plan), preparing for just these very two days. The kids put in so much work, probably hating me for about a week and a half as I made them do interval after interval in between races trying to get into top form. I wanted so badly for them to be rewarded. It is kind of an amazing feeling, realizing just how much you can want something for someone else because you are so invested in them, despite wanting the same thing for yourself simultaneously. I had confidence, though, that the kids were ready, and even more confidence that they had the motivation and desire to totally throw down. They were fired up! And let me just say… they killed it! There was not one athlete who didn’t totally rise to the occasion and surpass anything they had done all season in at least one of the two races.

I felt like a proud mother of all of these five kids, emotionally stressed out on the racecourse as I watched them go by and in preparation, and then so totally psyched when they finished and turned in awesome results! Despite stormy, just plain nasty weather, the kids brought their A-game, determination in full-force. The classic day was tough waxing with wet snow and continual storming despite the warm air, but I gotta say, we nailed it (or so the kids tell me… maybe they are just trying to make me feel better ☺). And let me tell you… there are few things more gratifying than really nailing the wax on a challenging day with varying conditions. Feels awesome! Or maybe it’s just right now because I’m such a rookie… Nonetheless, it was a relief at the least, to know my wax job was not hindering the kids’ performance and hopefully helping it on the contrary.

Melanie Swick (soph.) came in first place for the JV girls, in front of several varsity girls at 13th place overall, continuing the dominance she has progressed toward all season. Close behind her in second place for JV was our freshman, Maddy Kwasny, with her best race of the season… up until that point at least! Ashley Vomund (soph.) came in eighth place on the day (JV), another strong effort, and sophomore Julie Falke finished 25th. Our lone male for the weekend, Ryan Collin, was the eighth JV boy on the day. All in all, it was an awesome day. Everyone felt like they raced well and gave it everything they had, which is the most important thing. A couple were slightly disappointed with their results, but remained hopeful and determined that they could turn things around on Saturday.

And Saturday came, bringing the pursuit start Freestyle race. For those who are not familiar with this format, the racers start based on their order and times from the day before, so someone who finished third and 35 seconds back from the leader, that is the way that they start on day 2. The finish order is the final order, regardless of starting time differences. Needless to say, it allows for an intense and exciting race, but it’s a lot of fun, both as a racer and a spectator. The JV athletes were dispersed in with the varsity athletes (based on their overall place), which I thought was great because it provided them the chance to try to push themselves to reach the level of these athletes around them. I encouraged my kids to push hard and try to catch varsity athletes in front of them, or stay with any who may pass them from behind. Especially for my girls who were 1-2 in the JV race, I told them to pretend like everyone around them was their competitor and they needed to try to beat them. The team had another really great day. In fact, almost all of them had an even better race than the day before, showing true grit as they pushed themselves to the absolute limit trying to knock off those around them and move up in the ranks. Maddy actually threw down an even better race than Friday, now truly her best race of the season. She went above and beyond anything I had ever seen her do, and you could see in her face how much of it was just purely mental and driven by sheer determination. It was so fun to watch! She turned in the fastest time of the day for JV in the skate leg, 13th fastest overall, also holding off the third-place girl who started just 20 seconds behind her. She was truly on fire!

But despite her valiant effort, Maddy was unable to move into first as Melanie held her off with the help of the big lead she earned for herself on Friday, earning the title of JV Girls State Champion – so well-deserved, I must say. Hard work and a great attitude lye behind that title. Ashley also stepped up big time, coming out with a vengeance and ready to capitalize on her opportunity to skate (her favored technique) her way to a better place more deserving of her capabilities than that of Friday. She pushed so, so hard! And she skied great, passing several girls on the course and moving up to sixth place in the JV category, also earning the 3rd fastest skate time!! (Behind only her teammtes!!!) Awesome effort! Julie and Ryan both also moved up on the day with strong performances and confidence in their skating, from 25th to 23rd, and 8th to 7th, respectively. Overall, another great day, very worthy of celebration.

In the end, the girls’ team finished the meet as JV STATE CHAMPIONS!!!! Yay!!! Small little Incline High School, only in its second year with a Nordic team and multiple first and second-year skiers, emerged as the state champions! Sure, it may not seem like much to those on the outside, but to these girls, and to me… it was amazing! What an honor and an accomplishment. The best thing about it is that it was truly a team effort, and the result of a whole season long of dedication and effort on everyone’s part – myself, Kathy and Peter on the coaching staff, and each of these kids coming out and giving 100 percent everyday, and most of all, skiing with heart. They set the bar high, and they achieved their goal. They really do inspire me, and I am so proud to be one of their coaches and say that I helped them get there!

While the state champs were awesome to be a part of, I cannot deny that the experience was also exhausting. Two days of scrambling, stressing and running around frantically to keep everyone organized and see everyone’s effort on the course did have me feeling wiped out by Saturday afternoon. I opted out of my usual pre-race L3 1-minute intervals because I felt like I had already done them and more with sprinting around the course trying to catch all my girls at different points.

So, needless to say, when I arrived at the Royal Gorge Mid-Season Freestyle Race on Sunday, I was feeling less than tip-top. Warming up, my legs were tired and I just felt sluggish. I was preparing for a painful race, but focused on telling myself to just start out relaxed and ski into the race and see what happened. And to my surprise, it turned out really well!! In fact, this was undoubtedly one of my best races of the year – if not the best! And it was an AWESOME feeling!

The course was extremely flat and fast, a 10k loop in the Van Norden Trail System with long, power-based flat sections and only rolling hills that you can still rely on power to get up. I think the course was really tailored to my strengths, as a power skier, so that probably helped me to have a good day. Nonetheless, I am proud of the way that I raced smart and really pushed myself through the end. I got out to a good start for once, probably because I was really trying to emphasize the importance of that in my head and prioritize it. It was nice starting with the men, but in a separate corridor, so that we could get on a train with them but also get out in the front – ideal. I got out fast and got on the back of the front train, pushing myself to stay up there and close to the top female competitors, Beth Reid and Ekaterina Vinagradova, so that I was not racing a different race from the start and could give myself the chance to rise to the challenge of keeping up. Even though the pace was fast and I was breathing hard, I felt relaxed the first few kilometers out on the flats because I tucked in well on the back of the train, taking advantage of times to rest by no-pole skating. The only disappointing thing about this first section was that while I was getting off to a good start, Beth got taken down just in front of me and lost a ski! I had to ski by, leaving her stranded in the middle of the trail, so as not to fall off the back! I felt so bad, but knew she could probably ski her way back up!

After the first and only big hill, things started to spread out. Hitting the hill was so tough after the long section of flat, throwing down big, powerful strokes. As soon as we hit that transition, my heart rate seemed to go through the roof! I told myself just to push over the top (even though it was steep, the hill was short), so that I could stay with the racers in front of me. I dropped back a bit, but was not out of reach, and pushed myself through the next rollers to gradually work my way back up. As I skied along, I did start to work my way back up, and noticed I was starting to feel really strong! I was pushing hard but still felt like I had good energy. I felt like I was skiing well, with good technique and doing a good job of utilizing the terrain to my advantage. I realized that I must be almost halfway, as the turn-around point was nearing. As my body started feeling stronger and I was able to push harder and faster, Beth came up behind me and blazing by! I was psyched that she had made her way back up, but also forced myself to focus on trying to stay with her as long as possible. While I dropped off fairly quickly, I was still able to stay close and focused on watching her skiing and doing the same thing. Beth is someone who skis the transitions so well (one of my weaknesses) and is just so efficient, so having the chance to just keep her in sight and mimic exactly what she was doing was not only great for the race, but also just really eye-opening. If I can remember some of the changes I was making, I think the experience could benefit me in the long-run as well. (Usually Beth is too far in front of me by just a few k’s in that I don’t get the chance to try to hang on for long!!)

As I focused on continuing to keep Beth in my sight and match her pace as closely as possible, I saw that she was catching Ekaterina quickly. Meanwhile, we were now heading back toward the finish, the terrain flying by so quickly on the fast course. I knew we were getting close to the homestretch, and challenged myself to keep pushing and capitalize on my body still feeling strong. I was stoked just to be as close as I was to both Ekaternia and Beth (despite the fall! – I was hanging in there!). They are both SUCH good skiers. Even though I was psyched about this and knew I was having a great race, I forced myself to override these thoughts and remember that this still was a race, and I had to be competitive and go for it! I saw myself getting closer and closer to Ekaternia, and suddenly something kicked in and I told myself to make the push to close the gap. I told myself I could do it, and almost felt a sense of excitement, as though I had reached an agreement with my body, a final decision of sorts, that despite my satisfaction with the current position, I was going to do everything in my power to go for 2nd place. I mean, I might never have another chance for that!

I was determined. I had set my sights, and was not going to give in and settle like I have other times. I stepped on the gas just a bit more – now fully floored – just as I rounded the corner on to the long flat stretch for the finish. Even though the terrain was easy, in the last couple k’s of the race it felt hard as I tried to output as much power as possible and ski with maximum efficiency. But I still felt strong! I saw myself getting closer and closer. With about a k to go, I was just a few yards back, but really wasn’t sure if I could close the gap! We were both full-throttle, and my body was maxed out. I told myself that if I didn’t close the gap NOW, it wouldn’t happen, and I would end up just a few feet short. I dug deep and found the energy for one big push and sprinted right up to Ekaterina’s heels. I skied in her wake for several strokes, feeling out the pace and trying to get a bit of energy, preparing to make a move. I told myself to wait back there and continue conserving energy, letting her pull me to the finish when I could make a move. But my gut instincts kicked in and took over. The pace was comfortable, and I knew I had more and could give it right then. I got up next to her, and could hear that her breathing was harder than mine. I decided to go for it, also keeping in mind that I am a TERRIBLE sprinter, and made the pass. I knew that if I did this I had to push hard and accelerate away right then so that I did not leave the opportunity to become the puller and then get schooled into the finish, as is usually the story for me!! I did just that, intently, pushing hard when I got around, determined to ski away.

The bit of rest I had gotten seemed to be ample, probably aided by the strength I was still feeling despite being about 800m from the finish, and I was able to ski away. Even though I knew I had a gap, I kept the intensity high in my mind and sprinted in as hard and frantically as I could, envisioning someone right on my heels in the final chute. I managed to cross the line as 2nd woman, within 30 seconds of Beth for the first time all year (though she had a tough day!), and just about 5 seconds in front of Ekaterina. I couldn’t believe it! For once, I had done the right thing; made my move at the right time; gone for it, beyond the limit, and succeeded. I was stoked! I think I still lost some time in that final sprint, as she pushed her way back up a bit, but it wasn’t enough to cause me to lose the coveted spot I had set my sets on. Because I had made this a goal for myself in the race, at a time when I knew it would be a huge push, I was so happy to have accomplished it. I knew that I had given it everything I had and really challenged myself to go further than I had originally expected. I was overcome with happiness and satisfaction after crossing the finish. Even though it was only a small race where there wasn’t much stake in the results, I couldn’t have been happier to have this great day when I did. It boosted my confidence a ton, and I know that will carry with me, hopefully to the Great Ski Race! I will make it my goal to remember just how great it feels when you really do set your sights and go for it and push the extra mile. Hopefully knowing that feeling will motivate me to do it again and not back down!

One other thing I will take from this race is to remember that any day can result in a good race. Even though I went into the day feeling bad, it turned out good. It is important to put it out of your mind if your body is not feeling great and not throw out the possibility of turning it around. Sometimes you can surprise yourself!

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