What a difference a day makes. We went from 50+ degrees and sunshine yesterday afternoon to driving snow this morning for the Salomon Sprints at Snow Mountain Ranch. You can find all the results here: www.springseries.com. Now for the citizen's eye view of how things went down…
Today's course was a 1.5k loop that started and finished in front of the Snow Mountain Ranch nordic center. A very stiff wind (with snow) blew steadily all morning, and a short climb from the start gate was really tough because of the headwind. This was followed by a dive down and across a creek valley and then a 15 sec climb (steep enough so that at least the upper half was V1 for even the top men). Next there was some flat and gradual descent (definitely downwind) and then a short drop back into the valley, an almost technical corner, and finally a very punishing climb back to the finish tent, mostly due to the headwind. The driving snow was leaving a thin covering over very fast frozen corn snow underneath as the qualifiers got underway at 9 am. This meant that there were faster and slower spots here and there, often difficult to see because of the visibility. Even though a couple of inches of snow fell during the races, the continual skier traffic kept the course basically in this “mixed” condition all morning.
Spring qualifying consisted of individual starts for all competitors on 15 second intervals, with 16 men and 16 women advancing from there. The top eight juniors that did not make that top 16 also went on to their own brackets.
The timing and start crew must operate like a well oiled machine to make sprint format races work, and the beeping starting gate spit out a steady flow of racers for about 35 minutes. There was a slight pause in the action while the course crew reconfigured the start finish to accommodate 4 up start and finish lanes, and then the results appeared and the brackets were drawn up. Coaches scrambled to get their athletes ready to race and the competitors went from time trialing against the clock right into racing head to head. It was obvious that both competitors and the timing crew knew this routine very well, and if there was an organizational glitch or even a missed start, I did not see it.
Ok, so how does all of this look and feel to a homer like me? I have never done one of these before – just a couple of team relays, one of which was yesterday. My first thought is that “sprint” is a misnomer, in the sense that anyone might confuse a three minute race for a purely anaerobic effort. If you wanted to cough up a lung, this would be a good place to start. I was not wheezing yesterday after the team relay, but I can feel a little gurgling today.
As I warmed up on the course, I tried to think about how and where I could be smooth, knowing from interval experience how easy it can be to waste a lot of energy and speed thrashing. I knew from following others around during course inspection that it was a waste of effort to try to V2 down some of hills, and I also noticed that it paid to stay in a tuck longer than what felt “natural” at the bottom of the last downhill. I found that hugging the fencing along the finish climb did offer some protection from the head wind, but the deeper snow made the going slower than just battling the wind so I chucked that idea.
I have had it well drummed into my head that when doing a series of 3-4 minute intervals, the goal is to maintain an effort such that it would be possible to go a minute longer or do one more repeat. In other words, don't go too hard. The goal today, however, was to try to close some of the gap between myself and yesterday's relay partner the Big Shooter, who conveniently started 15 seconds in front of me. There wasn't going to be any minute longer or multiple repeat this time. We paid our entry fee for the chance to “use it all up” in one shot – we were not going to be one of the top 16 advancing on today. I think it came to around a buck's worth of entry fee for every six seconds of racing if I did the math right. In the end, he put 5 seconds on me and took home the swag.
Next came the most fun part about sprint racing: watching it. It reminds me a lot of bike racing. It was really interesting to watch the head to head heats as they progressed to the finals, and how the various strategies developed. Ivan Babikov took his quarter final heat out hard right from the start, apparently because his strength is not a short sprint. He was almost successful, but lost a chance to advance in a photo finish. Contrast this with other heats where the skiers stood up going down the first hill and looked at each other, waiting for someone else to lead it out. The most exciting heat I saw was in the women's final when Brooke Baughman and Sigrid Aas battled for position behind Karin Camenisch on the first climb and then Dasha Gaiazova put on a show for us all at the finish.
Sprint specialization is for real. I was amazed at the difference in times for the top 25 men, and who was ahead of whom. Some of these guys are natural sprinters and others have trained themselves to be better sprinters, and a few, like Torin Koos, have both going for them. When you look at bike racers, you can usually pick out the sprinters from the climbers, but I don't think this is necessarily the case in nordic ski sprinting, at least at this distance and with a few hills thrown in. A final thought – the sprint format is best suited for a nice day. I thought I was cold until the starter put his hand on my shoulder and shook me as he shivered. Five minutes later I was back inside the nordic center. He still had three hours to go.