Last weekend we had a classic double header in Otepaa, Estonia. Saturday was a classic sprint and then Sunday was a 10km classic. We’ve had a lot of skate races and especially skate sprints this winter so I was excited to switch it up. Just a week and a half ago we had heard that Estonia was warm and snowless but then a big snowstorm hit and there was so much snow that our shuttle bus from the airport got stuck on the way to our hotel and we had to trek all our luggage the last half kilometer.
On Thursday we previewed the race courses while the snow continued to fall. I immediately fell in love with the distance course. It was a 5km lap and every hill was followed by another one that was longer and steeper. It was one of the most challenging course I had skied yet this year. The sprint course on the other hand was very flat. With only one hill and the longest finishing stretch ever, it was time to get the double pole on. After skiing both courses I was pretty sure that the 10km was going to be awesome and that the sprint race was going to be a tough one for me. When the opposite happened, it was a great lesson to expect the unexpected. Anything can happen in this sport.
On Saturday I tried a new approach to the qualifier with a game plan to ski controlled and relaxed and gain momentum throughout the course. I had done some intervals around the course the previous day following Kikkan and it was awesome practice to copy her intensity throughout the different sections of course. During the race I imagined her skiing right in front of me and tried to be Kikkan. It was really helpful and I crossed the line in 27th. I was worried that I would get bumped back as more skiers finished but my place held and I qualified for the my first ever classic sprint heats.
My strategy for the quarterfinal was to ski conservatively in the pack saving energy for the hard finishing stretch. I was in the outside lane from the start and came into the hill in last place. The striding speed felt really slow so I considered passing on the outside but decided to wait. I soon realized my mistake as we hit the first big hill and the girls took off. Wow they were fast! I lost contact and but was able to get back on in the last little striding bump. Then it was back to double poling and I didn’t have the same jets! I crossed the line last in my heat but with great motivation to see where I need to go.
On Sunday the girls race didn’t start until 3:15 and I wasn’t starting until after 3:40. It was basically dark by that time. I was really excited to race and I felt like the morning was dragging by so slowly as I hung out at the hotel, jogged, watched the men’s race and tried not to get nervous. Finally it was time! There is a new seeding system this year where they intersperse non-Red group skiers into the top 30 soI was starting between Kristi Lahteenmaki and Marthe Kristofferson with Charlotte Kalla, Therese Johaug, Justyna Kowalczyk, and Marit Bjoergen hot on my heels. My plan was to start conservatively and pick up pace, catching a ride whenever a speedy skier caught me. Unfortunately I was very flat and still feeling yesterday’s race. The hills were longer than I remembered and I never had the energy to catch a ride from the skiers who passed me. The only redemption of the day for me was outsprinting Kowalczyk in the final 100 meters of the race. She entered the stadium just behind me and was closing quickly but I was determined to not let her pass me. We both lunged for the line and I got her by a few boot lengths. So while she started celebrating her second win of the weekend, I cherished my own victory.
Andy Newell and Alex Harvey racing in the men's semifinal. Andy narrowly missed a Russian crash in this heat but broke both of his skis in the process and finished 7th on the day.
On Friday night we watched the annual coach/wax technician sprint relay. This is a big event that everyone takes pretty seriously. Russia had four teams as well as a service pit. Tor Arne Hetland raced for Switzerland. It was a blast to be on the opposite side of the racing and cheering for our coaches. Here is Erik Flora starting out for the US and just before he got in a big crash with a few broken poles.
Estonians love Nordic skiing so even there were tons of fans out and the race was even televised. Here is our US cheering squad.
Oleg "Blue Steel" Ragilio is an Estonian superstar who used to be Kristina Smigun's wax tech so we are pretty lucky to have him waxing for us now. Oleg also had the fastest 200 meter splits in the field as he skied the second leg.
Matt Whitcomb finished strong for our team in one of his first classic workouts back from back surgery.