HOUGHTON, Mich. — It is the eve of the first day of racing at U.S. Cross Country Championships and racers have arrived from around the country and brought an air of excitement and energy to the town of Houghton.
Houghton is situated in the Keewanaw peninsula, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, near the northernmost tip of the state. Since it is not “on the way” anywhere, and many hours from any major city, you are not likely to find yourself in Houghton unless it is your destination.
However, Houghton is a cross-country ski mecca of the Midwest that draws skiers from around the country to enjoy 25 kilometers of world-class groomed trails on the campus of Michigan Tech University. The Michigan Tech trails are homologated, according to International Ski Federation (FIS) and U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) standards, and thus able to host high-profile races.
Nationals are held at the same venue for two consecutive years and this is Houghton’s second year hosting the event following a frigid and snowy 2015 nationals. Houghton also hosted U.S. nationals in 2007-2008, the last time the event was held in the Midwest.
“We have a really good trail system that provides a good challenge to racers. I think we can have fair races because generally we have consistent conditions across the day,” said Joe Haggenmiller, head nordic coach at Michigan Tech University (MTU) and co-chair of the race organization committee.
Although coordinating a team trip to Houghton can be a logistical challenge, Houghton provides a great race venue with no shortage of community support.
“Our community is really excited to host it. We have a core of 20 people who are really dedicated and put a lot of time into this event and we have a group of about 100 volunteers who are ready to help,” Haggenmiller said.
The community support of the event was illustrated last weekend when nearly 100 people attended a work bee at the trails. Despite snow shortage concerns in mid-December, Houghton was reporting great ski conditions as of two weeks ago. However, Mother Nature was not finished throwing curve balls. On Dec. 23, Houghton weathered heavy rains and 50-70 mile per hour winds which created an icy, debris strewn trail. The race organizers sent out a call for help and the volunteers came out in force.
Volunteers took to the trail in groups assigned to a section of trail they would rake clear of debris. Together the teams raked all 25 k of trails just before another four inches of snow fell. This made the distance courses viable instead of the “low-snow” 2.5 k course that was beginning to look like reality. To ensure the courses would withstand a week of racing, work crews hauled 30 cubic meters of snow onto the course, mostly on the downhill corners.
“The conditions are really nice. They tilled last night and we set full depth tracks today,” said Jim Tervo, chief of competition. “It is really mid-season form, we are really pleased with the way it turned out.”
“Tomorrow should be a really fun day for the athletes because I think the kickwaxing should be pretty straightforward and it should be pretty fast,” Haggenmiller said. “I think the athletes will enjoy getting around the course well in mild conditions.”
The entire schedule of races for nationals week will utilize the sprint course, 5 k course, 7.5 k course, and 10 k course. Each course is a variation of the same core loop. Sunday’s races: the women’s 10 k classic, will be 2 laps of 5 k,and the men’s 15 k classic will be 2 laps of 7.5 k.
The course features significant elevation change both in the form of steep, short climbs and long, gradual grinds. Several downhill sections require technical finesse, especially in fast conditions.
Several sections of the course will likely prove to be decisive:
Hairpin loop: This section is part of every distance race and includes a long gradual descent to a hairpin turn and then back up a grinding 7 percent grade for 0.3 miles. Racers will be carrying significant speed into the hairpin turn and will have to be prepared for the possibility of washed-out sections.
Peepsock climb: This is a 4 percent grade over 0.4 miles leading into the finishing stadium which will likely prove decisive in the mass start races. The 5 k course cuts off a portion of this section but still features a significant climb into the finishing straightway.
Racing kicks off with individual start classic races on Sunday. The men’s 15 k begins at 10 a.m. Eastern time and the women’s 10 k at 1 p.m.
New to the FasterSkier team, Kaitlyn is a silent sports all-arounder, competing in cross-country skiing, cycling and triathlon since graduating from the University of Michigan, where she ran cross country and track. Kaitlyn is intrigued by the complexities of cross-country ski racing and is excited to start in the elite women’s field at the 2016 Birkie.