I traveled to Homer, AK this past weekend with my son, Team FAST, and a contingent of Fairbanks Nordic skiers and their families. I'm just supposed to be the assistant coach, but Bill couldn't make the trip so Tag suddenly you know who was was IT.
We flew in on Friday evening and prepped for two days of racing in the "Besh Cup" series, which are the qualifiers for the US Junior National Championships to be held in Maine this March. Saturday was a 1 km sprint race and Sunday a distance race of 3K, 5K, or 10K, depending on age.
We were up early and at the race venue by 7:00 AM on Saturday to prep skis for the classic sprints. Sprinting is exciting to watch, but everything else about it is a pain. Racers do 3 or 4 rounds in a day, and these are super intense anaerobic efforts--about like doing as many heats in the 800 meters if you are a runner.
Opening round was a qualifier with an interval start (racers go out one at a time every 15 seconds). The top qualifers for the respective divisions advance to semi-or quarter finals later in the day. These typically have 6 to 8 skiers going head to head. Under this format there are heats going for 5 or 6 hours. It's exhausting to watch let alone to be a coach, official, or racer.
But as a spectator/now coach, watching sprint races is also addicting.
I went out at 8 AM to check the snow. Being Alaska in January, it was pitch black at that time--navigating an unfamiliar trail was dicey. 18 degrees the snow was crusty (wwahhahaahha! Get it, like Krusty the Clown) and hard. Waxing was pretty straightforward.
All our kids made it through the qualifiers and into the semis. Barely for most, but Wyatt, a J1 was 8th overall.
Start of a J2 semifinal
With the sun rising higher and warming temps (mid 20s), waxing conditions had changed by the time we got to the quarter finals and semis. The J2s struggled in the semis and failed to advance. And due to a timing snafu, we had to appeal to get Werner into the quarterfinals. Good news, but they made him start 3 meters back in a bad lane. That's a tough margin to come back from on such a short race with no major hill to separate the skiers, and with a track that is not conducive to passing.
Wyatt would provide the excitement for the day. He sprinted to the lead of his quarterfinal right from the gun, and led the heat of 6 skiers until the final 20 meters. But he was knocked down, hard, by another skier and we had to file a protest. Everybody in the stadium saw the foul, gasped collectively and most everyone spent the next 10 minutes shaking their head and talking about it.
Wyatt leading the quarterfinal with 400 meters to go
He was reinstated and advanced but the tumble was wicked. Wyatt was 4th in his semi and in the B final--good enough for 10th on the day, but he looked to be in a state of shock. Wyatt's sister, Ema also nabbed a 10th for J2s, while Erich and Kuba went 11th and 12th.
Okay, but we felt we could do better.
Sunday dawned cloudy. This time we moved up the ridge to an amazing race venue, designed by 1988 Olympic skier Bill Spencer. This was a gnarly European type circuit with huge climbs (460 ft) and scary S turns right next to steep ravines. Although the site had no permanent infrastructure--let alone trailers or temp buildings--just a couple of Yurts and a tent or two brought in for the weekend. But it did have a giant gong, which could be banged by anyone willing to swing the giant mallet, to lend an other worldly, if not Tibetan feel.
My son Tristan did 3K in J3s, and skied fearlessly on the downhills. His technique was good, and he placed 11th in his age. Maybe not quite what he'd hoped but at his age it's all about getting the experience and learning to race at different places under different conditions and course layouts than we're used to.
The J2s bounced back wonderfully on the tough 5K course, taking 4th, 6th, and 7th. They are now all are in the top 8 in the state. Three bangs on the gong for Erich, Kuba, and Ema. Wyatt and Werner also will have a good shot at qualifying in two weeks here in Frozen Fairbanks. The local courses are tough but fair, perhaps not as spectacular as the ridge above Homer but designed to ensure that the most fit skiers make the qualification.