US Nationals Aftermath

Topher SabotJanuary 12, 20099

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

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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  • Jon Underwood

    January 12, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    With great respect, I can only classify the Nationals as a debacle. Untold hours of training, preparation, volunteer work, money… much of it wasted. There were a couple of races, and we will send some fantastic and well qualified athletes to various international competitions. But in the end, this temperature cut-off has harmed athletes and the sport by narrowing the selection criteria too much. The standard must change or it will happen again. So while it is important to be positive, perhaps our national association can extend that to being proactive in the international political arena.

  • skiheidi

    January 12, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    The definition of zero degrees F is the freezing temperature of saturated salt water. That means water that has so much salt dissolved in it that if you put one more grain of salt in it, it would not dissolve. Human body tissue (including the mucosa that line the insides of the respiratory tract) is made of basically salt water, but it is not saturated. It is less concentrated than that. The freezing point of human body tissue is above 0 degrees F. It is between 0 and 32 (the freezing point of plain water), closer to 0 than to 32. When I was living in northern Maine and skiing with Maine
    Winter Sports Center, one of the coaches found a scientific study where it was found that significant long term lung damage happened if athletes trained at high intensity in weather that was too cold. From what I remember, this began to happen starting at temperatures slightly above 0 degrees F. Wearing clothing to breathe through helps a little, making it marginally safe (but not really advisable for health) to ski hard at and slightly below 0 degrees F while wearing the appropriate equipment such as a mask or other thing to breathe through to warm the air. (I believe this appeared in a MWSC publication in 2004-2005.) My understanding is the FIS temperature limits are based on real health information and are already stretched to accommodate temperatures that are only safe to ski hard at if wearing a mask or other such equipment. I do not think we should change the temperature limits for our convenience, because the eventual result would be harm to athletes’ long term health. (At which point, we would say, oops, we should change the policy back. AFTER some promising young skier has a tradgedy. That would be a bad chain of events, let’s not err in that direction.)

    If we want to have reliable snow AND reliable temperatures, we are always gambling somewhat, but we should consider changing venues, not change a good health-protection policy. Why not choose a venue that almost never has such extreme low temperatures AND has snowmaking capabilities, such as Trapp Family Lodge, VT, or Grafton Ponds VT. Trapps even has a homologated course.

    We should consider changing venues before we consider a policy change that puts athletes’ long term health in jeopardy.

    I think it would be irresponsible and destructive to lower the temperature standard. We are not football, or any other sport where athletes routinely sacrifice their long term health for their athletic results. We are a healthy sport where athletes’ well being is a priority and is safeguarded. Let’s keep it that way.

    I think the success of some athletes at this past event is a wonderful demonstration of their ability to handle a tough situation and make the best of it.

  • Scott Jerome

    January 14, 2009 at 1:39 am

    skiheidi: I call foul on your “study”. I have heard many stories, anecdotal evidence, and claims of “studies” regarding the danger of performing heavy exercise at cold temperatures, but strangely, no one seems to produce peer-reviewed, published studies from reputable journals to back their claims.

    Let’s see the evidence, not hearsay. –Scott Jerome

  • Martin Hall

    January 14, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Last weeks Nationals in Anchorage were not a debacle, but the proof that a system that has been in place for at least 50 years of my skiing career still works when the Competition Jury follows the criteria they have to work with. I have dealt with the temperatures -4F and -20C as a skier, coach and technical delegate and they have served the health of the skiers fantastically over a very long period of time. Those founders were some smart people. Norway and Sweden both use warmer temperatures—I think like -17 or -18 C so they are even more protective. Some of the changes over the years to the criteria as we get to know more about the weather are the addition of a doctor to the jury in temperature related considerations, terminology to deal with the wind chill factor, and the exposure of the course, all important considerations.
    I commend last weeks jury on it professional behaviour in trying to make the right decision, especially where we are early in the season and don’t want to end a skiers season. I know of only one athlete who blew up in the skate race, Ida Sargent, placing in the numbers she probaly doesn’t realize exist in a race—back in the 100s—but raced 4-5 days later in Vermont in very cold conditions and was 2nd in a very competitive field.
    I think the short distance Nationals are very well placed in the competiton calender year for the importance they bring to choosing teams for the World Jrs, World Cups, U-23 and Scandanavian tour. Also, to comment they are too early and people are not in shape yet, then they do not want to be international or even national level racers—racing now starts in mid- late November everywhere and if you have aspirations to be as good as you can be someday—you don’t have a choice—you have to be ready. Over 50 racers were chosen from those events—oh, yes they could be held somewhere else that would have better temperatures! Where–how about Lake Placid (-37), Minneapolis (-41), Sun Valley (-37), Durango (-35) and, oh yeah, Anchorage (-30)—those numbers in the parenthesis are the record low temps for all those cities and most of them have held the National Championships over the years. We are a winter sport and sometimes the weather just gets nasty out there and then we have to depend on the rules to keep us on the right track.
    We have the leading or one of the leading authorities in the world here in the US on exercise induced asthma (EIA), Dr Ken Rundell. You want studies, you want professional information on EIA head for Google and enter Dr Rundell’s name—you’ll get the whole story and you might be surprised by what is really going on.
    If you consider this topic so important and you have any kind of professional involvement with this sport you have a responsibility to do this research.
    That’s the way I see it!!!

  • JimGalanes

    January 14, 2009 at 1:32 pm


    Well done.

    I dont know about anyone else but I have never been to West Yellowstone, Biwabik, Lake Placid, Marquette, Telemark or many other US venues when it has been too cold!

    In my view the tempreature rule is a darn good one and yes it has been well researched and published in per reviewed journals. The dangers of cold weatehr racing are real and range from organ damage and tissue damage to well documented increased incidents of EIA, above those in summer sport, in cold weather athletes.

    I guess some feel we should just take the risk, even if we dont fully understand the long term consequences. As for me, I would love to have a pair of hand that could function better when the tempreature is bellow 25 degrees.

    I have spent hours and hours reading the research it is there and clear…

    Marty- young skiers, I dont remember the age group, probably J2 range and younger, in Norway and Sewden are not allowed to race in temps under -15 C

  • Jon Underwood

    January 15, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    I absolutely agree that the jury, the organizers, the workers, and the athletes were fabulous and did their job to perfection. It is not their fault that they were caught between the weather and the rules.
    Marty and Jim, Dr. Rundell is quoted in the NY Times article referenced by He said that it is the dryness of the air, not the cold, that causes bronchial constriction in people with EIA. This is a much more specific set of conditions than the -4F cut-off temperature implies- the problem is 1)dryness, not cold and 2)People with EIA, not the majority. So rather than a sweeping and presumptive temperature cut-off rule, perhaps a warning to asthmatics about low humidity, and a more frostbite-oriented temperature rule would suffice. Perhaps not the spartan -20 F rule (only Fairbanksans & Siberians are tough enough for that), but maybe -10 F? Just that small adjustment would avoid a lot of wasted effort and the necessity of naming teams without sufficient on-snow trials.
    In the end, when I compare claims of low-temperature lung damage with my own experience, and the experience so many others, I can only say that they sound bizarre and foreign. There are many people in Fairbanks who have lived these temperatures, trained, raced, worked in them, who are breathing perfectly well, even racing at high levels in Master’s races, decades later. I trained in temperatures colder than -20 many, many hours. If you want to say that is the reason I never earned an Olympic medal, then, sure, why not…

  • jiyuztex

    January 17, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    The jury followed the rules in the face of many objections – mine included – and for faithfully following the rules they do deserve to be commended.
    That being said, the rules are worth discussing. As Jon points out, there seems to be little in the literature to support a specific temperature cut-off. On the other hand, I spoke with a number of skiers who raced in the 10 km in Anchorage, and it seems many of us experienced significantly less “post-race hack” that would be typical in a race that cold. This, while quite anecdotal, suggests that air around the -4 cut-off can be quite safe to breathe. And of course, there is video evidence one can expose quite a lot of skin at that temperature without succumbing to frostbit!

  • Martin Hall

    January 23, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Jon—you hit the nail on the head—the dryness of the air is the problem—the x-c venue being under the influence of the ocean only hundreds of meters away from the ski trails—I’d like to think the humidity numbers were fairly high for those temperatures—but I say that unknowingly—-but this is from the Toko post nationals wax report:
    The conditions in Anchorage are unique due to the proximity to the ocean. Fog rolled directly onto the ski trails and hoarfrost covered everything. This frost covered the trails and slowed glide due to the sharp crystal structure.
    Also, the lack of post race hack indicates higher humidity—but that definitely is not a scientific evaluation.
    I think they, the organizers, did a good job of decision making, got in what they could for races and a whole lot of racers left Anchorage having raced safely.

  • Tim Kelley

    January 26, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Related to the xc racing temperature cutoff, there seems to be a psychological impact to xc racing that could be better managed. I’ll agree that there should be a temperature cutoff for racing (though I do agree with the Fairbanks folks that -4 F is not low enough). Anyway … with the xc racing (level 4 and 5 exercise) cut-off, it seems that many coaches and skiers interpret this as skiing at these temperatures, even at level 1 or 2, is dangerous. This situation is seen in Anchorage often. When the temperatures gets below zero the parking lots at trailheads are basically empty of skier vehicles (though dog walkers, runners and bikers are often out in these temps). High school and club skiing practices are often cancelled the moment the temperature dips below 0 F. So kids get the message – it’s bad to ski when it’s cold.

    But what does this do to prepare skiers for racing at or near the temperature cutoff point? If kids are taught that skiing at zero to -4 F. is dangerous and they are kept from going out on the trails at these temperatures, then how does that help them get ready for racing at these temperatures? To race optimally at the temperature minimum it should be no challenge for racers to go out and ski at this temperature. They should be accustomed to and have no problem at these temperatures, so they can concentrate on racing. Having racers in the situation where they are worried about results in a big race AND worried about being uncomfortable at racing at the minimum cut-off temperature is not a good recipe for success.

    So – racers, especially juniors, should be encouraged to go out and train, at level 1 and level 2, in sub-zero temperatures. It will get them ready for racing in the cold and likely help their results when it’s time for a cold race. I call this temperature threshold training. Back when I was skiing the major dog sled trails in Alaska, Bob Baker would call me up when it got to 50 below in Fairbanks. I would fly from banana-belt Anchorage up to Fairbanks and go skiing and camping out with Bad Bob in those temperatures. After doing that, 40 below in the middle of the Yukon Quest trail didn’t seem bad to us. And that is simply because we took the time to train ourselves to become accustomed to these low temperatures. I’m not saying xc racers should train at 50 below. But doing a 2 hour ski at 20 below now and then will make the -4 cutoff seem like no big deal. And by going easy at these temps there will be no health risk.

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