This morning started very well, with news from the Czech Republic that Kikkan Randall (Anchorage, Alaska) finished second (by a toe!) in the women’s freestyle sprint at the Nordic World Ski Championships. Kikkan – who is a prolific and adept blogger as well as a hellaciously fast skier – thus earned the first-ever medal by an American woman in cross-country skiing, and the first medal by an American cross-country skier since 1982 (the same year she was born). In winning the silver, Kikkan completes a decisive comeback from a blood clot that nearly killed her last summer.

What’s more, Kikkan’s medal puts the United States near the top of the medal count at the Liberec Worlds – one medal behind Norway, which literally invented modern skiing, and ahead of countries like Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Russia where many, many citizens ski at a very high level and where governments and companies rush to sponsor racers. By comparison, Kikkan’s biggest sponsor (besides the U.S. Ski Team) is her hometown Subway restaurant chain!

But years of hard work by the athletes and coaches are paying off at Liberec, and in a big way. As a longtime fan of U.S. nordic skiing (and someone who’s sent them a couple donations), I couldn’t be happier – not least because the championships calendar still includes a number of events in which Americans could conceivably medal.

Kikkan Randall, Arianna Follis, Pirjo Muranen
Kikkan Randall (USA; silver), Arianna Follis (Italy; gold), Pirjo Muranen (Finland, bronze)

(Photo from Universal Sports, where you can watch videos of all of the Nordic World Ski Championship races – including Kikkan’s silver.)

The U.S. Nordic Experience

American nordic skiing has a short list of great days, including Bill Koch‘s silver medal in the 30km at the 1976 Olympics, Koch’s World Cup title in 1980, Kris Freeman taking fourth place in the 15km classic-style race and Johnny Spillane winning a nordic combined gold at the 2003 World Championships, and the recent top-three finishes in sprint races by Torin Koos (Otepaa, 2007), Andy Newell (Lahti, 2008, and Changchun, 2006), and Kikkan Randall (Rybinsk, 2007).

Today’s excellent results by Americans at the World Championship in Liberec topped everything. Lindsay Van (Utah) won the first-ever gold medal in women’s ski jumping with the day’s longest jump. Todd Lodwick (Colorado) won a gold after finishing first in both the cross-country and the ski jumping portions of the mass-start nordic combined event. And – best of all, at least given the depth of competition – Kris Freeman finished fourth, just 1.3 seconds from bronze, in the men’s 15km classic-technique cross-country race. Recently diagnosed with a severe case of compartment syndrome, has had to curtail his racing over the last months, but he pulled off a great race today. Starting 21st, eight slots ahead of the best racers, Freeman worked his way into the race, moving up steadily at each checkpoint (his placings: 48, 42, 34, 21, 14, 10, 8, 6, 4, 4) but failing, finally, to find the 1.4 seconds he needed to move into third and the medals. (For a really good analysis of Freeman’s race strategy, see my friend Colin’s post over at our Nordic Commentary Project blog.)

Even so, the accomplishment is superlative, and bodes well for other races Freeman can run this season. It should also give the American team a good boost as the World Championships continue with ten more races between tomorrow and March 1.

Kris Freeman (image via Universal Sports)
Kris Freeman (image via Universal Sports)

(Crossposted to Nordic Commentary Project.)

Nordic Ski World Championships

I know that baseball fans are pumped up over the start of spring training as well as that whole World Baseball Classic thingy, and I suppose that basketball fans are getting excited about the buildup to March Madness, but I’d be a poor fan of cross-country skiing if I didn’t also point out that I am jazzed about the Nordic Ski World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic.

Between now and March 1, Liberec will see a colossal slate of competitions that encompasses men’s and women’s cross-country skiing, men’s and (for the first time) women’s ski jumping, and men’s nordic combined (a mix of ski jumping and cross-country skiing). The racing will include the largest-ever complement of nordic-sport athletes and countries, with athletes from the usual powers like Norway, Sweden, Germany, Russia, and Italy; middleweight nations like Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and France; and even places like India, South Africa, Brazil, Peru, and Mongolia.

Unlike in 2007, when I blogged the hell out of the Sapporo world champs, I’m going to keep my ski blogging over at the Nordic Commentary Project. Click over if you’re curious or interested. For what it’s worth, both the United States and Canada have sent strong teams to Liberec, including numerous legitimate medal contenders in men’s and women’s cross country and in nordic combined. If anything, the Canadians have a slightly better chance to win some hardware. Writing as a fan and a skier, it would be exciting to see any medals come back to North America.

Winter? I Hardly Knew ‘Er

I’m sad to see all the snow vanish in one 36-hour span of warmth, wind, and rain. Monday morning, our backyard was almost covered in snow – to be sure, a thin layer, worn through in a few spots, but still more present than not. By dusk tonight, only a narrow strip of snow remained, and it’s likely to disappear tonight if this rain keeps up. Thus ends the ski season – or at least this part of it. I hope there’s a second winter coming, and soon, but the forecast doesn’t give me much hope.

February 10-14 Forecast
February 10-14 Forecast

Honestly, I’m not asking for much here: just some reasonable weather for February (and March!) in Minnesota – enough snow for a little more skiing, to make another snowman with the girls, maybe do a bit of sledding. Is that too much to ask?

City of Lakes Loppet Race Report, or, That Really Hurt

Today’s City of Lakes Loppet took place in warm sunshine under robin’s-egg blue skies. The springlike weather was pretty much the best part of the event, because my race was pretty much a disaster. It was fun in a “the worst day skiing is better than the best day lying around” sort of way, but otherwise, it was a sufferfest. I didn’t so just spelunk in the “pain cave” that racers talk about; I was there so long I practically evolved into one of those eyeless transparent cavern-dwelling fish they show in National Geographic.

And I skied about as fast as one of those fish would. I simply couldn’t go, and for no other reason than the most straightforward one: I didn’t train enough or correctly. (I also missed my wax, but the Swedish national ski team’s wax servicemen couldn’t have saved me today, and I dressed too warmly, but I could have taken off a layer before the race started.)

In more detail: the first half of the City of Lakes Loppet course (which you can see in its entirety here) is very hilly, a relentless rollercoaster of lots of short, sharp “walls” covered (this year) by the deep granular snow that skiers call “sugar” but which is not sweet to ski through. After going up and down the 1,000 hills (plus or minus) between the start and the five kilometer mark, my legs were already screaming, and they never recovered.

On the flats, much later in the course, I was able to pole quite well – indicating that my doublepoling sessions to build upper-body and core strength weren’t for naught – but my legs would not cooperate, and instead alternated between achingly stiff and painfully wobbly. Not a good combination, unless you’re looking to watch people pass you in droves, and neither latch on nor pass anyone back.

The final result wasn’t pretty: a finishing time of 2:10:49, “good” for 450th of 840 racers (putting me in the bottom half), 44th of 83 in my age division (ditto), and 397th of 678 men (ditto ditto).

So I’m chalking this race up to “an important lesson, painfully learned.” Next year, I’ll hit this City of Lakes – and who knows: maybe more than one race in a season! – after many, many more uphill workouts, and a least a dozen sessions of at least 25 or 30km. If I do, CoLL 2010 will be a bigger personal success than 2009 was.

Minutiae of some slight interest:

  • According to my heart-rate monitor, I completed my 130 minutes of skiing at an average heart rate of 161 beats per minute and hit a high of 174 (respectively, 88% and 96% of my maximum heart rate). In the first hour of racing, I only briefly saw my HR under 165. Also according to my HRM, I burned 1900 calories between the start to the finish – that’s roughly equivalent to one large thin-crust pepperoni pizza from Dominos. Snacktime!
  • Last year’s men’s winner, Andrey Golovko, finished in 1:13:15. This year’s winner, Bjorn Batdorf, finished in 1:22:20, 9 minutes or about 12% slower than Golovko over a slightly shorter course. My time this year was about 20% slower than last year’s time (1:48:16). Apparently the course was slower for everyone, my terrible fitness aside.
  • In the first 5km, I saw at least a dozen good crashes (none involving me), including at least two by the same guy, who kept trying to snowplow from a very deep tuck (the Italian-style sitdown, for those who know what I’m talking about).
  • This race is ridiculously well run: the course is superbly groomed and marked, the website and other printed materials are highly useful, and, most importantly, the zillion volunteers are omnipresent and wonderfully energetic.
  • I did get into the photo collection published online by, the Midwestern ski-racing website, though. In this shot of the third wave on the start line (i.e., before the suffering started), I’m on the left side, in bib 3100. Nice shades, huh?
Wave Three on the Starting Line
Wave Three on the Starting Line

Skiing the Arb Some More

Cold weather forced the cancellation of the race which I anticipated doing on Saturday. I know, I know: canceling a ski race due to cold weather? Yeah. It even happens to the pros.

But I partly made up for this gap in my last week of preparation for next Sunday’s City of Lakes Loppet by skiing a nice out-and-back loop in the Lower Arb. The conditions were great, and I had a ridiculous amount of fun, but the best part of it was how great the Arb looks on a sunny winter day.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Glowing in the Dark at the Edge of Town

Thanks to the combination of good bedtimes for the girls, decent snow cover, and (relatively) warm temperatures, tonight I could finally ski my all-time favorite trail in the Lower Arb, which runs from the trailhead on Highway 19 near the West Gym out along the river to Canada Avenue. Year round, it’s the perfect length (a 6.8km/4.2 mile round trip) for either a short out-and-back workout or a longer session – out-and-back more than once or out, then back along other trails elsewhere in the Arb.

Blah blah blah, the real reason I like this route is that it’s so beautiful, especially in the winter, especially in the dark, and especially tonight. There was the huff-huff of breathing and the sssssh-sssssh of the skis, but there was also the snow falling continuously, shadowy trees looming above, the bare-looking oak savannah, the iced-over river, a trail shared by raggedy ski tracks and footprints and cut across by animal tracks, a few open spots where the wind happily blasted me, a few glimpses of glinty eyes off in the underbrush… Even the train whistles in the distance contributed to the experience of effort and solitude.

Ski Season

Today was my first ski of the season in the Arb, a nice session tooling around the only good snow in the Upper Arb. I was happy that my arms didn’t fall off, since this suggests that I might have a chance to get in decent skiing shape for the the City of Lakes Loppet. Having my arms fall off would have definitely impeded my ability to ski in the race.

Just as exciting is that tomorrow will see the culmination of the third Tour de Ski, a multi-stage cross-country ski race that is one of the two high points of the World Cup. I’ve blogged embarrassingly extensively on the Tour in previous years on my previous blogs and this year on the “Nordic Commentary Project” that I share with another ski fan. Suffice to say here that tomorow’s last event is the hardest one in skiing, a race up a steep ski hill, the Alpe Cermis, in northern Italy.

Here’s the overall stage, 9k for women and 10k for men:

Final Climb Profile
Final Climb Stage Profile

Here’s the big climb itself:

Final Climb up Alpe Cermis
Final Climb up Alpe Cermis

The first man and the first woman to the top of the Alpe Cermis are the respective winners of the Tour de Ski. Last year’s race was good, but not as good as this year promises to be: for the first time, both the men’s and the women’s titles are up for grabs. I can’t wait to see what happens. (And I can actually see it this year: NBC’s “Universal Sports” service is webcasting the men’s and women’s Final Climbs shortly after the races end.)

CoLLing Me

City of Lakes Loppet

Today, there is exactly one month until the City of Lakes Loppet ski race in Minneapolis. I skied – and enjoyed – the CoLL last year, enough that I asked for the entry fee (and some discretionary time for training) as my Christmas gift last week.

My goal for the 2009 race is simple: go faster than last year, when I finished in 1:48. If I can cut ten minutes off my time, I’ll be pleased. Doing that should be good enough to move into places that will be the high 200s overall (last year, I finished in 322nd place overally, 297th among men) and maybe high teens in my age group (where I was 26th).

Compared to last year, I’m substantially more fit, though I’ve had much less time on snow. I hope to fix the latter problem in the next month by skiing on anything this side of crushed ice.

Also in my favor is that last year’s time will move me up to a earlier, faster wave – perhaps the fourth or even the third, up from the final, sixth wave last year. Being moved up a few waves will put me alongside faster skiers from whom I hope I can “get a tow,” as they say. We’ll see in 30 days…

Ski Skid

I skied around the “backyard”* for an hour this afternoon, having a grand time and feeling like I was actually doing some decent work. After about half an hour, I was deep in the zone when I heard a weird mechanical shriek. I looked up to see a rusty blue Acura Integra fishtailing as it came toward me down the road, then twisting itself into a long sideways skid that ended, thankfully, with a sudden stop in the middle of the road. Just about when I realized I’d stopped skiing to watch, the driver nonchalantly straightened out and went on his merry way.

* I put “backyard” in quotes because we share a few acres of green space with everyone else in our townhouse association, and this space is both like and unlike a real backyard.

Hopeful Thoughts

From the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, Rune 30, “The Frost-Fiend”:

Frost, the son of wicked parents,
Hero-son of evil manners,
Hastens off to freeze the ocean,

On the first night of his visit,
Freezes he the lakes and rivers,
Freezes too the shore of ocean,
Freezes not the ocean-billows,
Does not check the ocean-currents.

When the second night Frost lingered,
He began to grow important,
He became a fierce intruder,
Fearless grew in his invasions,
Freezes everything before him;
Sends the fiercest cold of Northland,
Turns to ice the boundless waters.
Ever thicker, thicker, thicker,
Grew the ice on sea and ocean,
Ever deeper, deeper, deeper,
Fell the snow on field and forest,