Does riding a camel count as a post-race cool down? For nordic competitors in the 2016 China Tour de Ski, it definitely did.
“The last day [of the China Tour de Ski], we had a sprint race in a place called Xiwuqi. Then in the afternoon we got to go and ride camels and see a camel race. I mean who does that?” exclaimed Holly Brooks, an Alaska Pacific University (APU) elite team member, two-time Olympian and most recently, a China Tour de Ski competitor, in a phone interview.
Torin Koos, who also raced at this year’s eighth edition of the China Tour de Ski (TdS), shared in Brooks’ surreality of a post-race jaunt on an unusual four-legged friend.
“There was a camel race going on and the athletes got wind of it and wanted to go. So the [event] organizers arranged a bus for us to go out there after the final races,” Koos, a four-time Olympian and currently an investigative news producer for KSL TV, the NBC station in Salt Lake City, said on the phone. “When else are you going to do your post-race recovery at a camel race in Mongolia?”
On top of camels, this year’s China TdS involved five stages of racing: a 1.2-kilometer freestyle sprint for Stage 1, another 1.2 k freestyle sprint for Stage 2, 50 k classic mass start “Vasaloppet” for Stage 3, 3.8 and 5.7 k mass starts for Stage 4, and finally a third 1.2 k freestyle sprint for Stage 5.
“Each stage was unique in and of itself. I mean, we had five races in three different venues,” Brooks said of the race schedule, which spanned from Jan. 1-7.
Another American racer, Lauren Fritz of APU explained on the phone, “They don’t block off a lot of time for travel. [Koos, Brooks and I] flew into China and got in at midnight” on Dec. 30.
“We had all of the next day to chill … then we raced the first stage [on Jan. 1]. The next day we took a 6 a.m. bus to a train station, took a two-hour train ride to the city, then another bus to our hotel. We raced two more days and then we got on a bus for 17 hours to Inner Mongolia for the last two stages of racing.”
While a 17-hour bus ride the day before a race does not appear in most skiers’ training logs, neither does a 3.8/5.7 k freestyle mass start race in Inner Mongolia.
“A 3.8 k prologue mass start is a pretty crazy race,” Fritz recalled. “It was a 1.9 k loop and the girls did it twice.”
Racers in the fourth stage launched into a steady 500-meter incline out of the start, especially unforgiving after 1,500-kilometers of bus travel the previous day.
“You could V2 the whole hill if you had good skis, so it was a hammer-fest out of the start,” Fritz said. “It was pretty cold out, I didn’t really warmup that well and because we had a 17-hour bus ride the day before, I was pretty tired. Definitely got to the top of the hill after V2ing the whole thing and was just toasted.”
The 27-year-old went on to finish 10th overall, 43.31 seconds back from the women’s prologue winner, Terese Andersson of Sweden, who topped the 3.8 k freestyle mass start in 10:10.76.
Just 1.22 seconds behind Andersson in third place, Brooks felt that with more closing speed the prologue title could have been hers.
“It was kind of fast and furious,” Brooks said. “They had a really good course and I was up there to start, but without the training I just didn’t have the finishing speed for the last 200-meters.”
Brooks spent much her fall unable to train, due to a rollerskiing accident that left her needing reconstructive surgery in her thumb’s ulnar collateral ligament.
“I rollerskied into a pile of sand and I got up and my thumb was bent backwards … so I had surgery in late September and was in a cast for two months,” she explained.
This year, Brooks has also been working to complete her masters degree in counseling psychology, which she said has taken priority over ski training.
“Last year I chased the marathon scene and really kind of raced myself into submission,” she said. “I did 11 marathons and traveled by myself for four months in Europe … and at the end of the season I was just exhausted. So I ended up taking a lot of time off this summer. Then this fall, I was working full time on an internship and in grad school.”
The other American to finish third in Stage 4 was Koos, who crossed the line just 1 second after Swedish skier Lukas Johansson, who won the men’s 5.7 k freestyle mass start in 13.56.5.
“I definitely felt like I could have won it. I kind of got taken out on the next-to-last climb so I was battling back up [to the front] for a bit,” Koos explained.
However, both Brooks and Koos felt that as the Tour progressed, so did their ski racing.
“I was starting to feel better and better as the Tour went on. I think I was also getting further away from having the flu,” said Brooks, who spent much of the final week in December battling illness.
“That last qualifier somehow I was able to win it by eight seconds which I was super pumped about, but then once again, I just didn’t have the final finishing speed,” the 33-year-old Washington state native added. Brooks placed second in the Stage 5 freestyle sprint.
“Definitely the highlight was going to Inner Mongolia,” Koos said. “I’ve never seen so many cameras out on a race course. There were hundreds of people out there taking pictures. It had this big-time feel, but in the middle of nowhere.”
“I also raced the best in Mongolia and it didn’t hurt getting on the podium [in the mass start],” he added. “I won the the sprint [qualifier] there, but couldn’t quite get it done in the rounds.”
On Jan. 7, the final day of racing, Koos advanced to the quarterfinal in the freestyle sprint. However, since only the top four advanced to the final in all of the China Tour de Ski sprint events, Koos missed moving past the semifinal and finished in fifth overall.
“All in all, it’s a little bit different when you’re working full-time and your priorities have changed a little bit,” 35-year-old Koos said of his training coming into the China TdS. “But I think as the Tour went on, I was getting stronger and I think I left there at a pretty high level.”
Based off their sprint race results from Stage 1 and Stage 2, Koos and Brooks were accurate in deeming themselves improved by the Tour’s finale.
In the first freestyle sprint, Koos qualified for the quarterfinal, but did not move on to the semifinal, ending the day in 11th.
Canadian Graham Nishikawa, the lone Canadian competitor at the China Tour de Ski, raced to sixth that day.
“I always wanted to compete in the Tour de China and this year it worked out. It was a great event! The organization was stellar and the racing was really fun,” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “We got to see so much of China and travel to places that I would have never otherwise seen. The racing was good for me. I had some bad luck with breaking poles, but raced fairly consistently everyday.”
Nishikawa, 32, is a member of the Para Nordic World Cup Team as a guide for Brian McKeever.
For Brooks, Stage 1 left her in fifth, just outside of the women’s final after qualifying for the quarter and semi. Fritz broke the bubble, moving all the way to the final, where she placed fourth.
“The sprints were my focus because I’ve had the most success in sprinting before,” Fritz said. “And they went pretty well, I had a few tactical errors and a little bad luck. Didn’t quite achieve what I wanted, but I was still pretty happy.”
Stage 2 brought the racers to Changchun, where they raced the second freestyle sprint. Here, Koos bested his previous result, finishing fifth overall, just outside of the final. Nishikawa moved into 13th.
Fritz once again advanced all the way to the final in the second freestyle sprint. Coming into the finishing stretch, she found herself in second, closing in on first place. However, with 150-meters to go, Fritz said someone stepped on her pole and she crashed, ultimately finishing the final in fourth.
Brooks qualified for the quarterfinal and semifinal that day, but didn’t advance to the final and finished the day in seventh overall.
“I’ve never seen so many cameras out on a race course. There were hundreds of people out there taking pictures. It had this big-time feel, but in the middle of nowhere.” — Torin Koos on the racing atmosphere in Inner Mongolia
The 50 k Classic Vasaloppet and More
Snow castles and carvings that might even put Italy’s Roman Pantheon to shame — if not for the risk of melting — marked the lap lane to the China TdS 50 k Vasaloppet.
“Some things about China you just can’t believe. People think that we do things bigger than anybody in the U.S., but in some regards, it’s definitely not true,” Koos said. “Like, at the Chinese Vasaloppet, they had these sculptures that we were skiing by and it was something that you could maybe envision Las Vegas doing.”
This year’s China Vasaloppet promised athletes 50 k of skiing through the Jingyuetan National Forest Park, located in the northeast Jilian Province of China.
“Racing through snow sculptures that are five stories tall, I mean it was magnificent,” Brooks described. “You’re doing a lap lane through pavilions, doves, and castles. I’ve been in a lot of stadiums in my life, and I’ve been in a lot of marathons all over the world and this was incredible.”
A total of 258 racers showed up for the two-lap marathon and while not everyone finished, most soaked up the sunny skies and spectacular snow artwork that surrounded them during the race.
In the women’s event, Brooks led the Americans in sixth overall in 2:43:33.9, about 9 1/2 minutes behind the race winner Qinghua Ma of China, who completed the 50 k course in 2:34:08.1. Fritz finished 11th (+16:23).
“I’ve been in a lot of stadiums in my life, and I’ve been in a lot of marathons all over the world and this was incredible.” — Holly Brooks on racing the Chinese Vasaloppet 50 k classic
The men’s field saw Czech skier Petr Novak take the overall 50 k win in a time of 2:19:26.3. Koos finished 12th, 8:05.5 minutes behind Novak. Nishikawa finished about a second after Koos in 13th.
Along with a marathon through snow mansions, the China TdS boasted festival banquets almost every night.
“On this trip, every other day we were having a banquet or a celebration,” Brooks said. “Just the atmosphere and the ambience, I actually turned to someone and said, ‘I see why the Chinese don’t come to the World Cups very often, they seriously do it up in their own country.’ ”
Brooks was not alone in thinking that the tone of the Tour made for an enjoyable racing experience.
“The whole attitude at the tour was so different and it was really refreshing,” Fritz said. “If you were in the top few you were gunning for some good prize money… but once the skis came off it was way more fun than a normal SuperTour race trip, because there’s no pressure and everyone’s there to have a good time.”
A couple Americans did pocket prize money, though for Koos, it did not stay there long.
“I won a few hundred bucks or something. It was enough to buy me a sweet custom made grey suit in Beijing, so I’m looking pretty dapper these days. When in China, you just got to live it up to the fullest,” he said.
“If I had skied just a little bit faster I could have made some real money,” he added. “Maybe that’s motivation for 2017.”
Brooks also came away from the week with monetary winnings. However, the all-expense paid trip remained more important.
“There’s a company called Nordic Ways, a Swedish Tour Company, and they do everything,” she explained. “The bought my [plane] ticket. You show up at the airport and there’s someone holding up a sign with your name on it. All the transportation, three meals a day, everything is covered.”
Overall, Brooks finished the Tour in fourth, Koos placed sixth in the Tour, Fritz was the seventh overall woman, and Nishikawa the 10th overall male.
“There are so many ways to be a cross-country ski racer and I’m just really enjoying having new experiences, having new adventures, and reinventing myself every season,” Brooks said. “I feel like I really accomplished that by going to China.”
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.