The week of nationals is always a trying time of the year for Nordic ski racers. I have had my fair share of stressful race weeks throughout a 15-year racing career ranging from junior nationals, to USCSA collegiate nationals, and a few endeavors overseas to the world university games. Nationals during the spring of 2020 was a new experience for me though, I would be approaching this week through a new perspective. I was now a coach.
While some races are forgotten almost as soon as they are over, others stick in the memory bank like klister to the base of a ski. I’m unsure exactly what criteria my brain chooses to filter which races are special enough to remember. Maybe it is specific accomplishments in the race, or events that unfolded between teammates within the race, or even such challenging conditions that grittiness plays a bigger factor than any wax ever could. I may never know exactly, but I do know that the 15km classic race in Lake Placed during nationals will forever stay in my mind. One of the few races that has made its way in since transitioning from athlete to coach.
That race started as it always does for coaches, in the wax room the night before. We had tested glide waxes over the racecourse at various times of the day, and finally decided on the perfect wax for the morning. The conditions were supposed to be very challenging the next day. Just about freezing, rain/snow, and as always in the east, very icy man-made trails. We needed wax that was warm, tough enough for surviving being slowly ripped off by ice for 15km, and that had the ability to repel dirt since it hadn’t snowed in a few days. Yellow black wolf was the choice for the day. My fellow coach Bryan and I spent hours in the wax room putting 3 layers of wax on each ski. A warm base wax to help open the ski pores, slightly cooler wax to harden the base, then the black wolf to make the skis rocket fast. The skis all still needed kick wax and structure (grooves in the ski base to help the ski base better repel water and reduce suction), but that was a job for the morning and for the wax goddesses Christi Boggs (snowflake) and Rachel Watson (the cougar). Rachel had been testing kick waxes all week long and had a series of waxes ready for the morning testing to hopefully find the perfect wax for our skiers.
We got to the racecourse about 2.5 hours before the race that morning and got to work. Bryan and I set up the waxing station while Christi and Rachel slapped on some wax and did initial tests on a few of the nearby hills. After they had narrowed in on the wax it was up to Bryan and I to test out some toppers, or the very last coat of wax applied. We went through our normal wax-testing motions. Ski a section of the course, change each ski to the other foot, ski again, trade with the other person, ski again, change skis to the other foot, and finally one person gets the best ski from each pair to hone in the best wax in the group. We are looking for how sticky the ski is, how much glide it has, if it changes drastically with different snow conditions (shady or sunny), how durable it is, and how it does in vs. out of the tracks. We had found what we were sure was going to be the winning wax but there was a problem, it had started precipitating. It felt like half snow half rain and was coming down in a way that we just knew would last all day.
Back at the wax bench we gave Rachel our wax recommendations. I could see a little panic in her face as she was contemplating the wax with the new weather conditions but being one of the most knowledgeable people about klister in the world we all have nothing but confidence for her incredible wax decisions. One of the best things about Christi is how she somehow manages to think of any possible options and have something up her sleeve to handle things as they come. So, while Rachel was thinking about endless klister combinations to give the skis the perfect combo of kick and glide, Christi sent Bryan and I back out to test both zeros and hairies. Zeros have a strip of what looks like sandpaper on the base where the wax pocket is, and hairies are made from roughing up a normal ski kick zone with sandpaper and then adding a hardening substance like silicon so that the hairs on the sanded surface stay standing. Both these options are used when the snow is right about 0 C and there is new snow falling. These options both turned out to have slightly worse kick than the klister, but seemingly better glide. We provided Christi and Rach with our new results and now the coaches race was about to start.
As the male athletes arrived (they raced first) and started warming up we gave them a few options about their race skis, slightly less glide but more kick or slightly less kick but more glide. It seemed like we had an almost even split of racers wanting klister, zeros, and hairies. We spent the next hour applying wax as fast as humanly possible. Rachel and Christi were applying klister, Bryan and I were preparing the zeros and the hairies while also adding structure to the glide zone of all the skis. As mass start classic waxing always happens, it was right down to the wire. We were finishing the last of the men’s skis as the racers were lining up to start, and I even ran the last pair down to one of our athletes named Leon and got him clipped in with about 2 minutes to go. They were off!
The weather did not let up throughout the men’s race. I believe the conditions that day were the most challenging racing conditions that exist in the world of Nordic skiing. Absolutely drenched from the rain, skiing through pine needles, leaves, and puddles, dealing with washed out icy downhills and chopped up slushy corners, the skiers all fought with everything they had. I have images burned in my mind of Nathan and Silas striding up the hill, both having great days but basically skiing blind from soaked hair in their eyes. Ben and Matthew were each slipping but showing what we lovingly call grit and giving the race everything they had anyways. All our racers from Shanghai, who had just started skiing that year, were looking so strong! Harry smiled as he ran past a racer from another team on the steep uphill I was standing on. Shortly after, Andy came whizzing by on a downhill right behind James and yelled at me “I didn’t fall this lap!”. It was easy to see how much fun everyone was having even though the conditions were less than ideal. A common theme began to appear. Every one of our skiers was actually enjoying themselves, despite the adverse weather, some not having much kick, and poor snow conditions.
Maybe this race stuck in my mind because it was such a hard day and yet all our athletes seemed to truly love being there in that moment. It’s easy to be happy as a racer when your skis are fast, the sun is shining, and you are feeling on top of your game. But is a true test of character to enjoy the race when every external factor sucks. I was so proud to be a part of the Wyoming team! After the guys finished they all changed clothes and got back out in the weather to cheer on the ladies. We went through the same waxing challenges with the ladies skis, but most of them ended on klister after getting tips from the guys. Ella looked strong and poised, Kat was beasting her way up the hills passing girl after girl, and Maddy was looking smooth in her stride, and gave me a confident smile when I cheered for her knowing there was a lot of double pole in this course which is one of her strong suits. The rest of the girls followed the same trend as the guys, each one looked in their element despite the rain still coming down strong.
While I have had very memorable racing days due to similar weather situations, that feeling of overcoming everything stacked against you and still racing to your fullest isn’t really something you can really explain or teach an athlete as a coach. That specific feeling must be earned. I think this day was so special to me because I got to watch each skier find that feeling through the 6 laps on the rain-soaked course. Getting to observe that growth from the coaching view was 1000 times better than any achievement I have had as an athlete. Even though the results from that day weren’t exactly what everyone was hoping for, it is still on of the favorite races of my life.