Last week, a new race format debuted on tough courses, with freezing temperatures as a backdrop. Reviews from athletes and coaches were mixed.
The Ruka Triple, the three-day World Cup mini-tour in Finland? Nope. Try the SuperTour Sprint Showdown, the double qualifier held in West Yellowstone, MT, last Thursday.
The event was the first of its kind in North America, and so far as anyone knows, in the world. Thus far, other countries have not leapt onto the bandwagon and scheduled their own double sprint qualifiers for next year, but it appears that the Sprint Showdown is here to stay in the U.S.—at least for now.
“I think it will definitely be discussed,” said James Southam, who races for the Alaska Pacific University club program, and serves as the athlete representative to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA’s) cross-country committee. “We can’t do all sprint races like this, obviously, but I think, especially when we’ve got such a condensed SuperTour schedule…there’s a place for it.”
Up until 2007, West Yellowstone held a sprint with full heats as part of its annual early-season race weekend. But coaches felt that the venue’s narrow trails and high altitude weren’t ideal, according to USSA Nordic Director John Farra.
Last year, organizers introduced a single sprint qualifier, which was won by CXC’s Garrott Kuzzy and Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova.
This season, with organizers in Bozeman, MT, declining to host the sprint typically scheduled for the week after West Yellowstone, Farra said that he needed to find a slot on the fall calendar for a second event.
“I got approval from the USSA Cross-Country Sport Committee to sanction and score two races in one day,” he wrote in an e-mail. “West Yellowstone was open to ‘testing’ the double sprint qualifier this year, and the coaches were open to it.”
This year, athletes were given two shots at a time trial on a new, demanding course certified, or “homologated,” by the International Ski Federation. The skate qualifier’s finishing climb featured a grade of roughly 20 percent. (The route for each race was largely the same, except for the last uphill.)
Polled on their reactions to the format, athletes and coaches fell into opposing camps. One took the long view, noting the developmental benefits to giving athletes two shots at a qualifying round—especially considering the difficulty Americans have had making the heats at the international level. The other maintained that the only way to truly test athletes is to pit them against each other.
“It’s a points grab,” said Alberta World Academy coach Chris Jeffries. “You only get so many chances in a season to race, and it’d be nice if every chance…you actually got to do a real race. Because we could do a prologue-type workout in Canmore [the Academy’s home base]. You come to a race to get that competitiveness.”
Firmly on Jeffries’ side of the trail was his athlete Drew Goldsack, who won both the skate and classic qualifiers. Goldsack said he “definitely” would have preferred heats—although given that temperatures for the events barely nudged past zero degrees Fahrenheit, he said he wasn’t too disappointed to only race twice last week.
But while Jeffries and Goldsack didn’t hesitate to voice their objections, they were still in the minority. Most other athletes surveyed said that they were glad to have an opportunity to hone their speed in the early rounds.
“I think it’s great for us,” said CXC’s Brian Gregg. “Qualifying, at least for me, is something I need to work on quite a bit.”
Others, like Southam, said that the format fit well given the packed racing schedule in West Yellowstone—four races originally scheduled for four days, then condensed to three due to weather—and the altitude there.
“For this time of year, for this kind of race, I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s not super-taxing on the body, like I think some people were afraid it would be.”
APU conducted its own double sprint time trial a few weeks ago, which Head Coach Erik Flora said gave his athletes a chance to make adjustments and fine-tune their approaches on the fly.
“You go out and hit your first prelim, and even though you’ve changed techniques, you kind of have another chance to loosen up and do it again,” he said. “It’s kind of instantaneous feedback—really good for learning how to pace.”
While the West Yellowstone race weekend is the only one on the USSA SuperTour calendar until January, Flora said that his athletes would have ample opportunities to butt heads with each other at Canadian Nor-Am competitions in mid-December. Sprints are scheduled on consecutive weekends in Vernon and Rossland, BC, and most of the big American domestic teams are planning on attending.
Learning how to race heats, Flora said, is important. But, he added, “we also have to learn…how to prelim.”
“As long as we have sprints every couple weekends, it’s a good deal,” he said of the West Yellowstone races.
Aside from the opportunity to practice qualifying, Farra noted two additional benefits to the double sprint format. First, he said, the popularity of tour-style racing at the international level means that athletes must be prepared “to race many varied formats and often back-to-back.”
And, he said, now that organizers can schedule and score two races in a single day, athletes can get “more bang for their buck” out of a weekend of domestic racing. For example, Farra said, future events could include a sprint qualifier on a Saturday morning, a prologue-type race in the afternoon, and a distance race on Sunday.
“I am excited for…race organizers to try out a three-race-in-two-days format more often, where people drive from all around for a weekend of racing,” he said. “This makes for a nice weekend package.”
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.