Men racing in Thursday’s 30 k freestyle in Rumford had better hope that temperatures don’t necessitate lobster mitts. Because they’re going to need all 10 fingers to keep track of their progress.
On Wednesday evening, the race jury for the U.S. National Championships chose to switch Thursday’s race format, from mass start to interval start. Men will race 11 times around the 2.7 k loop in Rumford, for a total of 29.7 kilometers, while women will complete six loops, for 18.9 kilometers—and each one will have to counted, somehow.
“It is not our responsibility, nor are we allowed, to tell the athletes what lap they’re on,” said John Farra, a jury member and the nordic director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). “That’s going to be the responsibility of the athletes…For sure, it’s a challenge.”
In an interview, Farra that Thursday’s planned mass start races would not have been the “appropriate format” given the length and width of the loop in Rumford, where organizers and volunteers have labored with snow guns, heavy equipment, and shovels for the better part of a week to combat for dwindling snow conditions.
Over the past few days, a number of coaches and athletes had argued that organizers should still run a mass start, and pull lapped athletes.
“It’s a championship—it’s not about who gets 68th place. It’s who gets first,” APU’s James Southam told FasterSkier.
But according to Farra, there are no guidelines in the USSA for removing lapped athletes, and a quick turnaround between Wednesday and Thursday’s races left little time for planning the implementation of such a system. Plus, Farra added, the long races and short course could have resulted in up to three-quarters of the field being pulled by the finish.
“The reality is, it just wasn’t the right thing,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, prior to the announcement of the change in format, Sun Valley Olympic Development Team Head Coach Travis Jones said that while he had his own preferences—which he declined to reveal—he understood the dilemma faced by race organizers.
On the one hand, he said, it would behoove the country’s elite athletes to have an additional mass start race to serve as a qualifier and preparation for the 2011 World Ski Championships. On the other, there are the athletes at risk of being lapped.
“They’re in a little bit of a hard spot, because they’ve got hundreds of people that have paid to be here, and they both expect and deserve to have a legitimate point result tomorrow. Because of that, it’s hard to justify pulling more than half the field,” Jones said. “I don’t envy those guys their decision. It’s a tough call to make, because no matter what you do, somebody’s going to be pissed.”
Farra, however, said that while many people had expressed their opinions on the various options under consideration for Thursday, everyone ultimately understood the necessity for the change.
“We all wanted to stick with the mass start, but I don’t think there was anybody that was frustrated with the situation,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, CXC’s Tad Elliott, a favorite in the men’s race, acknowledged that the format was out of his control.
“I’ll just find out tonight, and race as hard as I can,” he said. “You gotta take what they give you—I know there’s low snow, and I know they’re working hard.”
Farra said that organizers would be out on the course Wednesday night to widen the loop, to provide more room for skating.
“It’s going to be a ton of traffic at times, but it’s as fair as we can imagine,” he said.
Tracking rules will be in effect, and the first of the major climbs on the loop will actually have two corridors marked out that athletes must use, Farra said—unless organizers can widen it sufficiently overnight to support three lanes.
Chief of Competition Carlie Casey did not immediately return calls Wednesday evening.
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.