Last week’s US National Championships were marked by the cancellation of two events and seemingly endless postponements. With temperatures barely reaching the legal limit for racing, it was all organizers could do to pull off one distance race and one sprint.
This has led to discussion as to what, if anything, should be done to avoid similar situations. Proposals include moving the entire Championship to the spring, avoiding venues susceptible to such frigid weather, and changing the minimum allowed temperature. All are problematic for various reasons. Snow conditions, always a concern, can often be a major issue as the winter winds down. And a late season event, may actually attract fewer skiers. Qualification races would still have to be held earlier in the winter, so there would be less impetus for athletes to travel to the Championships. The numbers from Spring Series and last year’s Distance Nationals support this.
It is also important to remember that the extended cold weather was not at all the norm. It is impossible to predict, and account for, all weather scenarios. And given issues of low snow, the US can ill-afford to eliminate potentially cold venues.
FasterSkier checked in with US Nordic Director John Farra to get his take. He is quick to point out that a knee-jerk reaction to this year’s battle with the forces of nature would not benefit the sport. In regards to the suggestion that the timing of Nationals be shifted, he says “Our national competition system has evolved over many years and I think most would agree the current calendar does a fine job of balancing the need to test our athletes, while not burying them. While this experience was very trying, it would be inappropriate to react with any aggressive shift in competition calendars without significant discussion and planning.” He adds that we are unlikely to see any major shifts in scheduling at this point.
There are so many variables out of the control of race organizers. Weather may very well be the biggest. Says Farra, “we start by making the best decision we can about the ability for the organizer to hold the event at the date chosen and then we hold on for dear life. What happened in Anchorage is luckily the exception… we have been very lucky over the years to run our major events without interruption… but we all know it won’t be our last challenge.”
By all accounts, the organizers, volunteers, athletes, and coaches handled the situation extremely well. Farra, who was in Anchorage for nearly the entire week agreed with this assessment, and considering the situation saw few issues. “The organizers, officials and volunteers were amazing, coming out to race every single day for 6 straight days…the jury pushed the decision as late as possible into the day to give us a chance to race every single day… this created a very tense and frustrating experience…but all in all the athletes, coaches, officials and everyone involved handled the stress remarkably well….always willing to be flexible. We are an outside sport, and we got beat up by mother nature last week, but the venue up there is wonderful, as was the skiing.”
All in all there is not much to do other than chalk this one up to bad luck and be grateful two races were held. There really were no options other then to manipulate the schedule to maximize the odds of hitting favorable temperatures at race time. Much was made of the minimum legal limit set by the FIS of -4 F (-20 C). This is another issue, but certainly a relevant one. It would not have been appropriate, regardless of circumstances to change that minimum once the event was underway, but the question remains – Is weather colder than -4 F too cold for racing? Many Alaskans pointed out that races are often held in such conditions – just not FIS sanctioned events. The FIS claims health concerns, but an article in the New York Times this fall states that it is not the cold that is a problem, it is the humidity, and that regardless of external temperature, by the time air reaches the lungs it is body temperature.
It is possible that USSA could mandate a lower minimum, but that might have repercussions from FIS. US Nationals are sanctioned FIS events, and act as qualifiers for World Junior/U23 Championships, and score as part of the Continental Cup series.
Farra concludes his summary of the week, “I feel grateful that we were able to leave Anchorage with one sprint and one distance event… given that those competition days were not warm, but just legal, we got lucky. All of us who were there experienced something unprecedented, in a beautiful place, surrounded by good people, and we ended 2 for 4. Not bad when all things are considered.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.