Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bye Olympics

The athletes have probably cleared out of the Olympic Village by now, and either they're heading home or back on the gypsy circuit on the World Cup.

For the US, the 20th Winter Olympics seemed to be up and down, and in the end somewhat forgetable. There were a few heroes, like Ted Ligety, Julia Mancusco, the Flying Tomato, and Joey Cheek, but some goats as well. These were the Hate Bode Games, and that's too bad. Watch for Bode to drop in the World Cup standings from third to about fifth. He might make up a place or two by the end of March. The future is anybody's guess, but I have an inkling he'll come back ready to dominate over the next year or two--if, and that's a big if, he can stay healthy. With alpine skiing, it's not a matter of if you're going to face some major injuries. Julia Macusco went from tiara'd downhill goat to hero in just two minutes of intense giant slalom racing. Good on her. Ex-Olympian Picabo Street came across as a bit of a goat for criticizing the team, especially Mancusco, on the day that Mancusco won the Gold.

The biggest goats in my book were the whiny speed skaters Hedrick and Davis. Don't these guys receive any training on composure while on camera? Hate each other in private but show some grace in public. Lindsey Jacobellis the snowboarder who wiped out at the finish in that odd new event, the snowboard cross, will have to live with that little faux pas for the next four years if not the rest of her life. To the press she's a goat. To Gen X, she's a hero. Whatever.

Now to my true love, nordic. Although the Olympic venue looked spectacular, I'm not sure if the trails or race formats were great. Since when has nordic skiing become a pelaton sport, like cycling? The men's 30k pursuit had a pack of 40 through the entire 15k of classic, and the race didn't break open until the last few kilometers. And the 50k was worse, with the top 15 finishing within 15 seconds, and U.S. skier Andrew Johnson was only 1:44 back from the DiCenta's Gold medal run, but in 34th place. This was the first time they tried a mass start, and the course may not have have had enough major climbs to separate the field.

Photo of men's 50k finish borrowed from Fasterskier.com

The entire format of nordic skiing has changed in the past couple of Olympics. In the past they had a 15k, 30k, and 50k, and that was it. Then they added the two day pursuit (classic then skate), which changed into the same day, and now it's the instantaneous with a mass start and a triathlon-like transistion between techniques. The sprints have been a big hit, and it's an area where the North Americans did well. The Canadians won three medals and the U.S. women's and men's team posted a top 10 and top 20 in the sprint. Seems that a good all-around U.S. athlete could train and excel at the World Cup and Olympic level. The format is okay, but in the longer races the courses might need to be tougher to separate the pack. Otherwise they should keep the 50k as an interval start.

My favorite Winter Olympics has to be the 1994 Games in Norway. Watching them on CBC helped. The Canadians were markedly better at coverage than the U.S. networks. Forget the figure skating scandal, those games were about Norwegian speedskater Johan Olav Koss and the great cross country relay matchup between Norway and Italy. Unheralded Tommy Moe came in and won two medals, including a Gold in the glamour event the downhill.

In spite of some very exciting moments, these Olympics seemed packaged. I used to watch some of the figure skating, but no more.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Double Trouble Pursuit Weekend

This weekend was a Nordic fest--perfect for the ongoing Olympics and my upcoming birthday this week.

Due to the cold weather a few weeks ago, an 8k "pursuit" race was rescheduled for Saturday, the day before Sunday's 30k pursuit. If you watched the opening day of Olympic competition you saw the pursuit race, where the skiers do half the course classic, switch to new skis and poles, and then do second half of the course freestyle.

First up, on Saturday, however, my kids raced. Tristan at 8, held his own against 9 and 10 year olds to take 5th in the 3rd and 4th grade race. Then Mikko, 10, entered the 5th and 6th grade race and showed good form throughout--in spite of having to ski with his brother's short poles for the first half (he'd forgotten the longer ones at home, so whe had to make a switch at about the 1k point).

Pursuit racing in it's modern format is hectic but exciting in its own way. Ten or 15 years ago, they had two-day format, where skiers would ski a given distance on the first day and then their start time on the second day was based on the first day's time. So on day two the leader went out first and the stagger for remaining races was based on how many seconds or minutes behind the others were. First to the finish would win the race.

Now the pursuit is instantaneous. Skiers start classic, and they have their skate skis set out in an exchange area, so after their leg, they hop onto the skate skis and head out for the second half. They now even make "pursuit boots," which accomodate both techniques. Otherwise you have to compromise. Classic skiing on skate boots is awkward, stating in classic boots is not a bad way to go, but, you don't have quite the level of control. The final option is to switch boots--not ideal but if you have different boot-binding systems then that's your only choice. That's what I had to do for the two weekend races and it cost me.

An 8k is a sprint. I wanted to ski decent but also planned on avoiding excessive oxygen debt and lactic acid buildup for Sunday's race. Over the 2nd kilometer, I was somewhat surprised to be in 2nd place for a bit, and so backed down and settled into 4th. The 4k was over quickly! And I came into the stadium in 3rd place feeling good. Changing my boots was a disaster. Got cramps and fumbled with boots, poles, and gloves. Everyone else used the same boots, and I was in 8th place by the time I got out of there (after about a minute and a half or two minute layover). Passed two guys on the skate leg, and was closing in on another, but ran out of hills and real-estate. Turns out I had the 3rd best classic leg, and 3rd best skate, but took only 6th overall (1st AG) due to the extended time changing boots. That could cost me in points standings at the end of the season.

A 30k is much more to my liking, but it's been a while. This would be my longest ski race in nine years and the course at Birch Hill is unrelentingly hilly. Although it had snowed at our house, just a few miles away, the precipitaiton had been rain at the ski center. I had barely enough time to slap on some klister over my kick wax and again no time to test--talk about speak now or forever hold your peace. Luckily I got it right although the glide was a tad slow, but the grip was good.

Usually the distanc races are a little more low key, but this one had an atmosphere of excitement, and several good racers were there, including Tyson Flaharty, who just returned from the Under 23 World Nordic Championships. He and local top dog Mike Kramer disappeared in a kilometer or two, and I was in a pack of three. We duked it out hard for 10k, then on a steep climb one dropped back, and it was me and Jim Lokken, a master's skier duking it out like a couple of old fighters. My kick wasn't quite good enough to pull away on the hills, but neither was his. We came into the statdium only seconds appart. He changed over within 20 seconds. My son timed me in 1:36. And that was the race. Lokken caught and passed former UAF coach Bill McDonnell for 3rd place. I stayed in no man's land for the skate leg. Felt great, after getting my legs back (it takes 2-3 km to start feeling decent after going hard classic). Covered the 30 k in 1:46 for 5th overall (2nd AG). Not bad for 48.

End result was very good:
1. Flaharty 1:33
2. Kramer 1:38
3. Lokken 1:43
4. McDonnell 1:43:30
5. Meself 1:46:30

Really my best showing against Kramer and Flaharty all year, despite losing more than a minute to them in the exchange.This, has been a surprisingly good season for an old geezer who 10 years ago was getting pretty much over the hill.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Winter Olympics: Why the Hate?

As a lifelong winter sports enthusiast, I've usually believed that the Winter Olympics are simply the equivalent to the Summer Games. But nearly every time the February version rolls around, you see a lot of bashing from the media, as well as (and I am typically very suprised about this) runners. I don't get it.

The two events are even somewhat complimentary. The Summer Games have gymnastics and the Winter Olympics have figure skating. To the American media, these are the marquee events. It's always interesting to see the stands only half full when the Games are overseas, however. Swimming and speed skating seem to be equivalent. Both are obscure, except for Olympic years, and somewhat technical events that take a lot of dedication. Americans tend to do well in both events, and the athletes look positively studly--Olympian--in their respective attire. Diving and freestyle jumping are also similar. And at the bottom of the barrel (respect-wise) you have rhythmic gymnastics and ice dancing to offset each other. Equestrian? Bobsled.

One big difference is that skiing, the other big-time Winter Olympic showcase sport, does not capture the attention equivalent to track and field. And I think that might be root to the distrust and resentment of runners. You would think that alpine skiing, enjoyed by millions, would fill that void. But it rarely gets much notice. And in this Olympics about the only thing you hear is Bode hate, in reference to the iconoclastic and outspoken skier from New England. Although many Americans ski, they are recreationalists, and ski racing seems inaccessible unless you live in or near a resort town.

Cross country skiing has tremendous crossover appeal for runners. The physiological demands are similar; in fact skiing requires more oxygen uptake and caloric burn. It's a non-impact sport that works your entire body. However, I remember reading about Joan Benoit Samuelson training during her peak years, and she disregarded cross country skiing as too slow and not as alpine. Slow? Top skiers can cover 4 minute miles for 50k, and on some courses reach 40-50 miles per hour on skis that are just 2 inches wide. The ironic thing was that she was injured at the time and could have benefited from a little training on skinny skis.

The critics do have some valid points, however. The Winter Games seem to have too many high-profile exhibition sports (figure skating, ice dancing, snowboard, and freestyle mogul competition). The figure skaters, their judges, and announcers are whiny, self-aggrandizing bunch. And the dude sports should be relegated to weekend exhibitions at your favorite mountain resort. Curling, while intriuging, seems a bit too much like bowling or shuffleboard on ice.

Another image problem appears to be the combination sports such as biathlon and nordic combined. To the learned afficianado these are actually very fascinating activities. The juxtaposition between having to cross country ski with heart rates at 170 to 180 for 10 or 20 km, and then stopping two to four times to shoot a little target from 50 meters away is pretty heady stuff--belive me, as one who has missed 10 for 10 in a 10k race, biathlon is much harder than shooting free throws. And to win the Olympics you have to hit about 90 to 95%, or you're off the podium, no matter how fast you ski. Likewise, nordic combined would be like having willowy high jumpers clear 7 feet plus, and then on the same afternoon, go out and run a 10,000 meters in 28 or 29 minutes. But the combined athletes typically get ignored or, worse, dissed by the general public.

And finally, I have to agree with Bode Miller. It's not just about the medals. Too bad some people don't get that. And too bad that the media and many of the public are hating Bode, the best all-around U.S. skier in a generation, and one of the best ever.