Thursday’s weather in West Yellowstone was a big improvement from earlier this week, but race timers still found themselves in a perfect storm during the season opening SuperTour races.
Coaches and athletes were in the dark all afternoon Thursday, when results from the double sprint qualifier were delayed for hours due to timing snafus. Two different finish lines, a skeleton crew of volunteers due to the holiday, a tight racing schedule, and an overambitious timer all were ingredients in a recipe for problems, if not disaster.
Ultimately, according to Technical Delegate Al Pokorny, “it worked.” And results did come through, thanks to a volunteer who diligently recorded finishers with a hand plunger with impressive accuracy. But race timer Ernie Page still said that he could “write a book” on what he would do differently.
“Today was not my best day,” he said.
The problems on Thursday started with the cold. With highs in the single digits, race organizers wanted no more than an hour separating the start of the classic and freestyle qualifiers.
“We talked about actually extending it out ten more minutes,” Pokorny said. “It was really an athlete safety issue…we felt that having them out any longer than an hour would not be in their best interest.”
When organizers originally made their plans, there were some 180 athletes signed up for the two races—making for roughly 45 minutes of racing. That left a 15-minute window for Page and volunteers to move equipment between separate finish lines for the classic and skate courses.
“That obviously would have been more than enough time,” Pokorny said.
But at the last minute, another batch of entries came in, cutting the time between races down to some six minutes. For many timers, that margin would be a deal-breaker. But Page said that he relishes a challenge.
“They weren’t pressuring me to do it faster…It was my optimism that was the problem,” he said. “The six minutes was tantalizing—we almost made it.”
As the last female finishers trickled across the line in the classic sprint, Page had already begun digging holes in the snow at the end of the skate course, to set up a pair of photo beams that automatically record finishers. A few minutes later, volunteers began moving the timing equipment.
When the first men’s starter, CXC’s Garrott Kuzzy, flew past on his way into the final 500-meter finishing loop, things got frantic. Officials were overheard shouting expletives, and one volunteer even cried, “where’s the finish line?!”
As the first six men crossed, Page’s photo beams were not quite in place. But he had backup in the form of Jeff Fereday and Mark Pastore: two volunteers with hand plungers, who recorded each athlete’s finish time with the press of a button.
In the end, organizers used Pastore’s times, since his plunges were never more than a tenth of a second off when cross-referenced with the times that did get recorded by the photo beam, Page said. Both Pastore and Fereday, Page added, were “close to perfect.”
The man with the closest finish among the top six starters was the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’s David Norris, who was ninth, .12 seconds behind Central Cross-Country’s Brian Gregg. The winner, Drew Goldsack, the third man to cross the line, was nearly seven seconds ahead of second place, Alaska Pacific University’s Lars Flora.
““I’m confident in the hand plunges,” Page said, though he added that he’s “gratified as hell that there wasn’t a really close finish for first, second, third.”
Page engineers his own timing systems, and he said that he designs them “to work on a bad day”—which is clearly what happened Thursday.
If he times the races next year, Page said he would bring another set of photo beams—and a Leatherman, which he could have used Thursday to loosen a screw that wouldn’t budge.
But according to Pokorny, the technical delegate, the systems still did their job in the end.
“It was probably not ideal, but it wasn’t a disaster, either,” he said. “That’s why you have backup.”
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.