Note: This story has been updated to include quotes from third-place finisher and overall NorAm leader Brent McMurtry.
If there’s one thing an athlete dreads besides injury, it’s sickness. Kevin Sandau felt the latter coming on Saturday in Canmore, Alberta, the night before the last race of the Western Canadian Championships.
With most other NorAm races, the Alberta World Cup Academy and Senior Development Team skier would have found it easier to simply sit one out. However, Sandau was in the middle of a mini tour and with just two on the NorAm circuit this season, he needed to finish out the three-day series.
His push to capture the lead in the overall NorAm standings depended on it.
Fortunately, the body is an amazing thing. As Sandau shot out from the start of the men’s 15 k freestyle pursuit, he felt his body match his intentions. He was the second man to start, 41 seconds behind the mini-tour and overall NorAm leader Brent McMurtry (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre).
By about 8 k, Sandau said he caught McMurtry and extended his gap on 77 others, racing against only the clock and winning the pursuit by 32.3 seconds in 1:07.10.1.
Sandau’s teammate, Graham Nishikawa, was the overall runner-up after starting 1:26 behind McMurtry. Nishikawa caught the man in the leader’s jersey on the second lap, and despite McMurtry hanging with him until the end, Nishikawa managed to edge him in the final sprint. McMurtry was third by 0.8 seconds (+33.1).
“I don’t really know what the reason is, I just had low energy and bad legs right from the start,” McMurtry said in a phone interview on Monday. “Once Kevin caught me which was pretty quickly, he skied right through me and there was nothing I could do.”
He regrouped by focusing on second, but with about 3 k to go, Eric Carleton (Rocky Mountain Racers) and Nishikawa caught him. From there, McMurtry dug deep to stay with them to the finish and ultimately edged Carleton, who was fourth.
While Nishikawa and Sandau acknowledged some racers, like McMurtry, didn’t have their best races on the World Cup course, they were pleased with how they felt throughout all three laps.
“I think things started working together and when I started catching time on [McMurtry],” Sandau said on Sunday. “My coach told me before the race, ‘There’s 15 k, you don’t need to make up the time all at once.’ … I didn’t think I started that quick and I was already making time up.”
Sunday morning when he woke up and decided to race, Sandau thought he might be contending for second.
“I thought first was too far gone,” he said. “In the race, I felt pretty normal … I was surprised by that and my legs actually felt good. It was kind of a mental thing, like, think about it after the race.”
On the downhills, Sandau felt his body respond well to the recovery and he sensed a shot at winning.
“I knew I could make up that 41 seconds and push it at the end,” he said. “I think I was the fifth-fastest time of the day. That was still a heck of a day for me.”
Nishikawa posted the fastest 15 k split after starting six places back. He made the winning the time trial his goal and hoped his body would hold up. On Friday, Nishikawa said he had an unusual experience in the middle of the 10 k classic interval start.
“I don’t know if I ate enough food and I got really, really tired out there and kind of had to pull over for a bit,” he said. “It was really bizarre … all of a sudden I was really out of it.”
His coaches told him to keep racing and he finished ninth. With the snafu out of the way and a double oatmeal in his stomach for Sunday’s 15 k, Nishikawa wanted a better result, but was unsure how his body would react.
Throughout the race, he gradually increased his pace so as not to rock the boat and blow up. By the last climb, Nishikawa moved to second place just ahead of McMurtry and Carleton.
“As it happens, I skied really well today and managed to catch up to some guys,” Nishikawa said.
He pointed out another racer on the course, Canadian National Ski Team member Ivan Babikov, as a motivator. Babikov, who is on break from the World Cup circuit until the end of the month, jumped into the NorAm race as sort of a tune up. He started close to the end as a result and skied the second-fastest time to finish 28th overall.
“[I] wasn’t planning to race because I don’t have any race skis here with me,” Babikov wrote in an email from Canmore, where he’s recovering after the Tour de Ski with his expectant wife and 9-year-old son. His second child is due in April.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” he added. “That was simply for training, another hard workout.”
The two-time Olympian was also nursing his wrist injury after a crash in Stage 4 of the Tour. He finished out the event, placing 27th overall, and took some time off with the team in the Canary Islands before returning to Canada. While Babikov said his wrist, which suffered soft tissue damage, was not 100 percent, he explained it was much better than the Tour: “just a bit sore.” He estimated the healing time was four to six weeks since; he was on Week 3.
On Jan. 31, Babikov wrote that he would fly to Russia to compete in the Rybinsk World Cups on Feb. 4-5.
Note: The NorAms have a break in the schedule next weekend and will resume with the second of two mini tours this season at the Nakkertok Nordic Centre in Cantley, Quebec, on Feb. 3-5.
With one win and two third-place finishes in Canmore, Brent McMurtry remains on top of the NorAm standings with 854 points. Sandau trails by 40 points, and Nishikawa is third with 529. Jesse Cockney (AWCA) ranks fourth with 516, and Michael Somppi (NDC Thunder Bay) was fifth with 419.
Rounding out the top 10 on Sunday, Brian McKeever (Foothills) was fifth, Somppi was sixth, Cockney was seventh, David Greer (CNEPH) was eighth, Phil Widmer (AWCA) was ninth, and Pate Neumann (AWCA) was 10th.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.