Racing at Junior Nationals this year in Fairbanks, Alaska was exhilarating. The snow was perfect, packed-powder (a dream, especially for classic skiing), the air was cold but not too cold (although, when walking to breakfast it was usually around negative 20), there was bright sun and blue skies pretty much the whole time, and on the last night we saw an amazing show of the Northern Lights that even had the Alaskans out in the hotel parking lot cheering at the sky!
The opening race for JNs this year was a skate 10 kilometer individual start. Last year in Utah the first race was a classic sprint. Traditionally at Junior Nationals the sprint has been first, the two distance races second and third, and the relay last. For me personally, this reorganization of the schedule meant that, instead of the first race being what is typically my worst event (sprinting), the week of racing would be opening with the event in which I usually perform best (skate distance). While the general goal in ski racing at championship events is--of course--to always be ready to perform at your best, this year it was especially important for me to be race-ready upon arrival.
Last year I was not totally ready for the opening race of Junior Nationals. Of course, it was thrilling to be there racing on the best JN team in the country at the site of the 2002 Olympics. However, that year I had qualified as an almost "surprise" alternate and was the last guy to make the team; I was feeling the pressure of racing against all the best juniors in the country and performing to the standard set by Team New England. So, it was not that I was not physically ready to perform--I was--but that I was not completely mentally prepared. This year was different. Throughout this past year I have practiced relaxation, visualization and affirmation/auto suggestion. Two weeks before Junior Nationals I made a plan with Rob for what I would do for those 14 days in order to be fully ready to perform in Alaska. Mental preparation was the second most important thing in that plan (number one was rest and recovery). Each day, I visualized for 10-15 minutes, wrote down a JN-specific Affirmation 15 times, and did a relaxation session before bed. I focused on fine-tuning my technique for JNs when I was out on the snow skiing, but I also worked on technique in my mind through visualization (this was something I had never tried before, and, although it might sound strange, I found it quite useful. The science behind this kind of visualization is also really fascinating). I used the videos at the event website to get a visual idea of the race courses and then imagined what it would feel like to ski them. All this mental preparation boosted my confidence and helped me keep myself in a focused, positive space throughout the days leading up to my departure and during my time in Fairbanks. I still felt the same test of my confidence that comes from skiing with the best; the difference was that, instead of losing my head and skiing badly the first day and then getting my confidence back together for the rest of the week like I did last year, in Fairbanks I was able to focus through the challenges of each race and let go of the things that did not matter or were outside of my control. This enabled me to ski my best.
The races themselves were extremely fun and exciting. I also learned a fair amount from each of them. To give you an idea of what these races were like for me personally and what I took away from them, here is some of the analysis from my race logs:
3/11/2013 - Skate 10 Km Individual Start
I paced the race well; I was light, quick, and steady on the uphills; and I worked the flats and the downhills hard. I got a ride with a skier who was moving a little faster than I was for a while, and also had the opportunity to draft behind another skier on the last downhills and then blow by him on the final climb and flat. Most importantly, mental frame during the race was very strong and positive, as was my focus and connection to my performance. I got a split from a coach on the steep climb near the start of the second lap; he said that I was leading for New England and currently top ten overall (out of those skiers who had started at that point; the seeding was slowest to fastest). This was a very exciting split. A few minutes down the trail, it only served as a point of motivation but, at the time I received it, the split divided my focus for a few moments. I think that maybe if I had just taken that split for what it was at the moment, not allowed myself to think it over so much, and just maintained the connection to my skiing, then I could have had a bit stronger focus as I finished the climb and possibly skied a little faster overall. This was in no way a big mistake or problem in the race; it is just a point to use for refining my reaction when I receive splits like that in the future.
Something else that I think maybe I could have improved upon was my descent of the final downhills. As I mentioned earlier, all the way down those hills I drafted in the slip-stream of another skier. This was good because he broke the wind for me. However, he was also skiing somewhat conservatively--especially on the corners--so, by skiing behind him, I could not ski as aggressively as I wanted to. It was a trade-off, and I still cannot decide whether tucking in behind like I did was faster or if I could have gained more speed if I had skied around and dropped him at an opportune moment (or if I would have just wasted energy and ended up providing him with a drafting opportunity instead). I can't help thinking that maybe it might have been faster to go around him earlier though, and blaze my own trail. Again, this is a rather fine point; overall it was a very solid race for me and a great start to an exciting week of racing.
3/12/2013 - Classic 3x3 Km Relay
My warmup for the relay was very thorough and left me well prepared to hammer right from the start of my leg (anchor). I always adjust my warmup according to feel; today I did easy skiing for around 20 minutes, then 2x3 min L3 intervals, then finally one 2-3 minute race pace interval. Between the various intervals, I included longer recovery segments of easy skiing than I usually do. Total warmup time was probably 1 hour or a little less. I hammered harder and faster today than I have in any race to date, sprinting at top-speed for all 3 km. For the great majority of the race, my mind was blank; I thought about nothing. I can only suppose that is what it is like to become one with a performance. It felt incredible. My pacing was excellent today, and my tempo (especially in striding) was faster than it has ever been before. Calvin and Devlin (my relay teammates) also had ripping races. Unfortunately, Dev broke his pole scrambling; if he hadn't, I am pretty sure our relay team would have been in the top five and on the podium. As for points of improvement for this race, the only thing I can really think of was a moment near the crest of the last hill heading into the finish where I was really feeling the pain and relaxed a little and--in doing so--maybe glided a bit too long for a small stretch and lost some speed. I may have been able to push a little harder there. Then again, perhaps relaxing into the glide like I did was actually the smart thing to do and resulted in an increase in speed instead of a reduction. In any case, it was a small thing.
3/14/2013 - Skate 1.25 Km Sprint
Did a good, thorough warmup for the sprint and maintained a clear, positive, mental frame through it. Despite this good preparation, I felt like I just never got into the "gear" needed for top speed. I found this gear for the first time at the Mountain Top EC Sprint earlier this year, but today it was elusive. My explosiveness was not what it needed to be to make the heats and neither was my tempo. I guess I simply did not let go enough to free myself to ski at top speed. I should have tried to ski the whole thing like it was a 50 meter speed, but I just didn't. I think I was trying to control my skiing too much instead of letting raw speed flow. I still cannot really explain why this was the case, but it was disappointing after being in the top twenty in the previous two races.
3/16/2013 - Classic 15 Km Mass Start
My start in this race was exhilarating. Somehow, the lane I was in stayed clear of all other skiers the whole way up the first climb, enabling me to ski right up the side of the pack until I was literally even with the top 5 guys. It was while all this was happening that I noticed that my boot had just become incredibly loose. This was strange because I had just made sure it was fully tightened before the start. It turns out that, during this last-minute tightening, the lock on my speed-lace had broken so that it no longer locked. Of course, I was not aware of this at the time. After most of the first lap, I decided that it was not a good idea to ski the course's large down hills and tight corners twice more with a super-loose boot and so tried to tighten it up mid-race. Not only did this not work, but my zipper also got stuck and I was left with a boot that was both untied AND unzipped. I only finally got it zipped back up after coming to a complete stop first. I then skied the final lap with one boot still quite loose but zipped up so that it could not physically fall off. I see now that my mistake was attempting to tighten the boot in the first place; if I had just ignored it and focused on my skiing, I am sure that it would neither have come off or even significantly impeded my skiing. I am a good enough skier that I can race 15 Km with one minimally supportive boot (after all, I did ski the second 5 km of the Hanover race course with only one contact lens back when I was a first year J1). If I had done that, I am certain that I would have finished in the top 15 or 20, maybe even top 10. For future reference, I created a "what to do when a boot comes untied/gets very loosened up in a race" entry in my distraction-control plan. A great positive for this race was that my capacity to refocus after dealing with the boot issue was better than it has been in any past situation, and I know that I skied incredibly well after I had gotten over the problem and regained my best focus. My last lap--and especially my finish--felt heroic; I hunted down and passed three of my New England teammates before the end, and, in the process, pushed myself harder than ever before in my life. The knowledge that, if not for the distraction, I could have achieved my goal of top 10 in a race at Junior Nationals, or at least come very close, is incredibly frustrating. I guess that is just how you learn.