When James Southam lined up for the start of a 30 k pursuit race at the Olympics in Whistler in February, it was the first time he’d done so all year.
At the 2009 World Championships in the Czech Republic, Southam faced a similar challenge: the pursuit race there was only his second of the season, following a World Cup in Whistler earlier that year.
Of the 24 SuperTour races scheduled by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) in the winter of 2009-2010, not one was a pursuit. (The format has athletes racing half the designated distance using classic technique, then switch to skating with the clock still running.)
Southam acknowledges that the discipline presents a challenge to organizers, who must lay out a meticulously-designed stadium to accommodate athletes’ equipment and ensure a smooth switch between techniques. But he still thinks that the country could use a few more. The last time Southam raced a pursuit domestically, he said, was in March, 2009, at distance nationals in Fairbanks.
“I think it’s worth doing at least once,” he said. “Coming into a championships, it’s really nice if you have something like that, even though it’s a totally different style of racing [at the international level].”
Pursuits haven’t played much of a role on the U.S. domestic race circuit for the last decade—the International Ski Federation’s results database turns up only nine competitions since 2003.
Up until 2006, however, the race was a part of the U.S. National Championships program. And as recently as 2009, a pursuit event was included at distance nationals, which is held at the end of the season.
But with the demands the discipline places on race organizers, and the advent of the mini-tour format that has replaced distance nationals, the pursuit race appears to have evaporated from the country’s competitive landscape.
As the nordic director at USSA, John Farra helps to set the domestic racing schedule, and he took full responsibility for eliminating pursuits from country’s championship program.
The purpose of those events, Farra said, is “to determine who the country’s best racers are, and give them points.”
Staging a pursuit, Farra continued, just isn’t necessary to do that. A 30 k/20 k distance race has replaced the pursuit at nationals, which “is nice and simple, and provides the same results that you would otherwise, if it was a pursuit.”
“We’re not against them—it’s just not necessary to figure out who the [best] athletes are,” Farra said. “To me, it has no relevance whatsoever, except if you’re deciding that you want your World Championship and Olympic team members to have a chance practicing changing their [equipment] under fire.”
Noah Hoffman, a member of the U.S. Ski Team’s B-Team, said that he had occasionally struggled in pursuits at the international level, and that he thought he might benefit from more racing opportunities. At the World U-23 Championships in Germany last January, Hoffman skied well during the classic portion, leading the field at one point, but then struggled after switching to skate, calling it a “shock to the system.”
“I tend to get into a rhythm…changing it up has been tough for me,” he said. “I just never got comfortable on that skate leg. Who knows if that would have been something, if I did it more, would have been comfortable?”
Like Southam, Hoffman also acknowledged that pursuits place big demands on organizers. But according to Caitlin Compton, who also raced in her first pursuit of the 2010 season at the Olympics, the event isn’t just challenging for organizers. With twice as many skis to wax, pursuits can be a major challenge for service staff.
“It’s a huge headache for them, just having so many skis to prepare,” she said, noting that athletes also have to take extra time testing their equipment before a pursuit race.
Unlike Southam, Compton had no problems with the dearth of the pursuits on the domestic circuit. Competitions, she said, are not the only way to prepare for a given format—athletes can just as easily work with coaches during training sessions to make sure they’re ready for an event.
“Just because you don’t race it—you can make an effort to train that way,” she said.
Travis Jones, the head coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Olympic Development Team (ODT), said that his athletes don’t do much focused training specifically for pursuits, since “it’s not a priority on the domestic schedule.” Only one ODT member, Morgan Arritola, races the format regularly, he said.
However, Jones acknowledged that when athletes compete at the international level, clubs have a responsibility to prepare them for the formats they will be racing.
The ODT does perform a number of workouts that include a switch from classic to skating midway through, similar to the transition made in a pursuit. As for the exchange—the actual switch of skis and poles mid-race—Jones says that “it’s something you want to practice,” if you’re racing pursuits on a regular basis.
“The athletes that we have that compete in a significant number of pursuits emphasize exchange time,” he said.
While the pursuit is raced regularly on the World Cup and at major international championships—there were five scheduled last year—most other domestic circuits eschew the format.
Of the 13 Scandinavian Cup races held last year in northern Europe, none were pursuits. In the Alpen Cup, another domestic European circuit, there was only one pursuit scheduled for the entire the 19-event series, and it was cancelled. Closer to home, Canada also held just a single pursuit last year.
Farra said he has heard no complaints from athletes or coaches about the current makeup of the domestic schedule. That suggests to him that nobody is missing the pursuit format.
“I don’t remember anyone bringing it up and arguing otherwise,” he said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.