Competition ended with the long-awaited classic sprint at the US National Cross Country Skiing Championships Thursday. The colder temperatures finally gave way to warmer weather, but while the wind picked up and made the stadium a tough place to be. Spectators kept warm by wearing face masks and running laps along the course while volunteers double-wrapped competitors right up until they approached the start line for the gun. Nordic skiing really is like no other sport.
Over the past few days the race jury had noticed a warming trend that ran into each evening and decided to roll generator-powered lights onto the course to construct a nighttime race venue. But, while the air temperature was warmer than it had been, the winds continued to strengthen throughout the day, kicking up dried snow and freezing the daylights out of the spectators.
Nevertheless, the races were exciting. Mike Hinckely of Denver University skied strong throughout his heats, out-poling Chris Cook of the US Ski team by a boot for second place overall. “For the qualifier I tried to hammer the first hill, and I got a good boost after I saw my time,” Mikey said about his individual qualifier. “I just tried to make sure I wasn’t ahead going under the bridge for every heat.”
Thursday’s sprint course was a Kincaid standard – the last strategic component marked by a climb up under a large spectator bridge 300 meters out. “I felt better and better as the heats went on,” he said happily.
Amy Glen of UAA showed her true colors finishing fourth in the women’s A final in a very close fight with US Ski Team’s Lindsey Dehlin for third. The 17 year old Anchorage native managed a mere second-place in the qualifier, but still played the rest of the day by ear. “I was looking for top ten going into the week. It was cold and out there and you can’t push as hard, but I played it by ear and everything seemed to work out.”
“The hardest part was thinking you are going to race for 9 days,” Amy said, referring to the six attempted race days for the national championships along with an additional three days for the UAA invite which continues into the weekend.
Both Mikey and Amy will decline their spots on the World Cup team that will race in Whistler next week in favor of continuing with school and the collegiate season, which has just begun.
Kris Freeman, Kikkan Randall, and the rest of the US Ski team wore “Jenny’s Light” shirts to the podiums and announcement of the World Cup team, which were created to promote awareness of postpartum depression, and other perinatal mood disorders. More information can be found at www.jennyslight.org.
The scene in the stadium was nothing less than humorous at times, and was a real reminder of how unique nordic skiing is. Air temps hovered just below zero, and the wind chill blew considerably colder. As the sprint course circles the stadium, the spectators are herded into a cereal bowl of fan frenzy, which strangely enough only adds to the fun.
As the racers come off the first hill and cruise back into the stadium at full speed, the positions start to spread and the cheering starts to take effect. “Get up there, Get up there!” seemed to make it into the din at a scratchy-voiced top volume just about every round.
And suddenly, here we go! Coaches, wax techs, parents, and hard-core fans would break into a full-on sprint to the next vantage point as the sprinters flew by to get one last look at the action, and one last chance to shout at their favorite competitor. The closer it was to the finals, the larger the stampede and the louder the shouts, until everyone is running after the skiers, including the coaches who finally get to unplug their waxing iron and join the melee.
So here it is: I dare you to find another sport where a rampaging herd of fans run at full speed through a speckling of the nation’s finest athletes while they warm up for the very event being cheered for. For extra dare-credit, remember the fact that no one seems to think there’s anything wrong with it. THAT’s what makes for an immersive sports experience.
Former Olympian and local ski racer Adam Verrier held the honor of announcing the week’s races. Untrained spectators might not have noticed Sir Adam covering twice as much ground as the rest of the crowd so he could cover the blind spot behind the last 200 meters, but there he was every time without missing a single detail. He was so on the ball that sometimes he would start announcing details before he made it to the hill overlooking the final stretch! Shhhhh. Don’t worry Adam, I won’t tell anyone…
“Every now and again I’m talking away and don’t even realize that my hand is completely frozen! I say to myself, ‘Oh look, that’s interesting, my hand isn’t moving very well. Better pay attention to that a little better next time.’ I just sort of shake it out, and try to get back in sync, since the races move so fast.” How he can run that fast in bunny boots and freezing wind while talking into the mic unwinded as if he was in the timing building is beyond me.
Once again: this, kids, is sports at it’s best.
The hardest of the hard-core fans were out thursday, wearing bunny boots, fur parkas, and down dresses. Some spectators stood on foam sleeping pads near the the starting/finishing area, citing anecdotal evidence about the mats helping keep their feet warm. At least it warmed up a tad before the event was over. If you didn’t notice, just try to remember that there was ice on most everyone’s face when the races started, and it was pretty well clear by the time they ended. I remember, because I forgot my boots.