Cross-country ski racing is never a cakewalk, with competitions that demand hours upon hours of preparation and hard work from participants. But the low-snow conditions in Rumford, Maine are presenting an extra-big headache for everyone involved in the 2011 U.S. National Championships.
As the clock ticked down to the start of the event’s opening race on Sunday, organizers were hard at work preserving and augmenting the remnants of the snow on the course—and they were already looking ahead to contingency plans for the next race, on Tuesday. Meanwhile, coaches and athletes were being forced to adapt to the challenging conditions.
The first race of the championships should go off as planned, according to Chief of Competition Carlie Casey. But thanks to the weather—and some early-season challenges with snowmaking—the courses, formats, and even the dates of the remaining events were still uncertain.
As it is, Sunday’s sprint will present a challenge. The 1.4-kilometer course is currently the only skiing in Rumford, save a miniscule warm-up loop and a portion of the alpine slope that adjoins the cross-country trails.
The women, who begin their qualifying round after the men, will not have access to the course before the start, which means that many will resort to doing their warm-ups on foot.
“[We] try to keep kids in good enough running shape that they can do a running warm-up,” said Matt Boobar, who coaches at the Stratton Mountain School.
Volunteers, race staff, and even coaches worked throughout Saturday afternoon and into the evening to move snow around the sprint course, and Casey said that his groomer would arrive around 3 a.m. But immediately after the conclusion of Sunday’s race, focus will shift to the next event: classic distance races scheduled for Tuesday.
Organizers were confident that they would be able to pull together some kind of distance course—whether it’s a longer, 3.75-kilometer loop that includes some of Rumford’s usual trails, or whether athletes will be sent switchbacking up a portion of the alpine slope. Reportedly, better conditions exist at a small handful of ski areas in the region, but Technical Delegate Matt Pauli said that a change in venue hadn’t been discussed.
While the low for Saturday night was predicted to be a balmy 35 degrees, temperatures for the rest of the week are forecasted to drop significantly starting Sunday evening, which should stem the melting and also enable the use of Rumford’s snowmaking system. However, Casey said that high humidity—which renders snowmaking more difficult—could interfere with those plans for another day.
“It it’s really humid, you have to get down into the teens in order to make snow,” he said. “The humidity is not supposed to fall…until later on Monday morning.”
While there should be some kind of a window for snowmaking before Tuesday’s race, Boobar questioned why Rumford hadn’t stockpiled more snow when temperatures were low earlier in the year.
“It’s been cold. Snow could have been made,” he said.
Indeed, Casey acknowledged that the organizers, Chisholm Ski Club, had struggled earlier this year to maximize the use of their snowmaking system, which it shares with an adjoining alpine ski area.
“There’s always the possibility of making more snow. We have to juggle the responsibility of the mountain [wanting] to make snow to open the alpine area,” he said. “They want to make it on the mountain; we want some of the guns. We’re very underpowered. We have six big guns—four of them are always up on the mountain.”
The club faced other problems with lines freezing and breaking, as well as challenges in raising the funds necessary to pay for the snowmaking. Casey said that money allocated to Chisholm by the town of Rumford was not confirmed until Thursday.
“We’re operating on a shoestring budget here,” he said. “The bills for snowmaking come to the mountain…we’re holding back a little bit because of that. That was part of the mix.”
Regardless of what kind of a course Rumford can put together by Tuesday, it won’t be open for inspection until the day of the race.
According to U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Nordic Director John Farra, Monday’s official training session has been cancelled. While there may be a small loop open in Rumford for skiing, teams are being encouraged to search out better conditions to the north, in Rangeley, ME, or to the west, at Great Glen Trails in New Hampshire.
“We’ll figure something out,” said University of Colorado Head Coach Bruce Cranmer—though he noted that his team, which didn’t arrive until Friday night, would not get a chance to see any of the venue’s distance courses until the day of the race.
If things don’t progress well with weather and snowmaking over the next few days, Farra said that the date, or format, of Tuesday’s classic race could conceivably be changed.
“We can make that decision that we could put on an amazing event if we had another day,” he said. “Or we could decide that we can’t do classic.”
While 2011 is the third time in five years that the national championships have faced serious weather-related problems, Farra said that he hasn’t heard much broad criticism about the timing of the event, or its format.
He argued that the key to a successful event is for organizers to have a snowmaking plan—and in this case, “they just had bad luck.”
“They had [a plan]—some of it worked,” Farra said. “We have 750 meters of good snowmaking, but the rest of it just didn’t play out.”
Cranmer, on the other hand, said that skiers might just have to get used to contending with climatic challenges every year.
“I guess that’s maybe the new Mother Nature paradigm,” 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.