ANCHORAGE — A start line is freighted with significance for a cross-country ski racer.
The ratio of time spent training to time spent ski racing, for a professional athlete, can be over 100:1. On the other side of that start line is where that one occurs, where you get to pursue that one minute of racing that the 100 minutes of training made possible. Add in the Pavlovian response evoked by the beep–beep–beep–BEEP of a countdown timer, or the ritual donning of a cloth race bib, and there’s a lot going on when you’re standing on that start line.
The start line was informal, but the effort and emotions were real, at Kincaid Park on Saturday morning, where the ski teams from the University of Alaska Anchorage and APU Nordic Ski Center gathered for a joint time trial. Senior athletes contested a 10-kilometer interval-start skate race; some younger athletes in the APU program went only five or three kilometers.
Conditions were officially early-season, but were also, frankly, really good. Those aren’t this year’s Speedmax Heliums underfoot for the Fischer athletes in Adam Verrier’s fine race photos, for example, but they are high-end Speedmax skate skis of recent vintage. (This year’s new Fischer skate boots also feature, if you want to geek out about gear.) Scott Patterson is on what look like high-end Rossignols from only a year or two ago. And so on.
The time trial may have officially been a low stakes affair — and it was — but a quick glance around the fringes of the unofficial start area at 9:53 a.m., seven minutes before bib no. 1 headed out on course, was telling. It revealed a group of athletes who in street clothes are some of the nicest and most gracious people you will ever meet, but who were in that moment, quite appropriately, focused on the task at hand, and in no mood for idle chitchat. A start time, like a hanging in the grim saying, concentrates the mind.
Soon enough, 10 a.m. loomed, and APU assistant coach Jack Novak counted off the final five seconds before the start. (Disclosure: Novak is one of my coaches with APU Masters.) APU skier Garrett Butts headed out in bib no. 1, luxuriating in maybe the only 50-meter stretch of flat terrain on the entire 5km homologated race course. At 10:00:30 a.m., APU skier Natalie Hood followed in bib no. 2, then UAA skier Sigurd Rønning at 10:01 in bib no. 3. And so on down the line, culminating in, well, a few APU Masters athletes with start spots and/or ages in the forties and fifties.
The stakes were low, but the field was deep. There are 22 athletes on the U.S. Ski Team this season; seven of them were in this time trial, and an eighth was also seen nearby. (Rosie Brennan, Michael Earnhart, Zanden McMullen, Scott Patterson, JC Schoonmaker, Hailey Swirbul, and Hunter Wonders all raced. Gus Schumacher did a parallel intensity workout with his longtime club team, Alaska Winter Stars, 100 meters up the trail.) Five athletes in the field had Olympic starts to their name; at least seven had World Cup starts. There were dozens of national championship podia present, and a handful of World Cup podium finishes.
Alaska’s season-opening race last November featured many of the same athletes. I calculated the unofficial FIS penalty for that contest as 23.7 for the men and 30.3 for the women, and predicted, accurately, that 2022 U.S. Nationals in Soldier Hollow would have a higher number, reflecting a less accomplished high-end field. This year’s time trial weighed in at 31.4 and 47.4 for the men and the women, respectively, per Nordic Insights’ unofficial math (but if you really drill down on the numbers nearly all FIS points were readjusted higher for this year’s first list, so those numbers would have been a lot lower a few months ago).
At the back end of the field, meanwhile, this reporter is, like, a decent athlete; I qualified for the Elite Wave in my first-ever Birkie and have won lowkey citizens races, blah blah blah I’m so great. I was third to last in the men’s field, and in a solid race for me was nearly nine minutes back of the winner. Over 10 kilometers. LOL.
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This article is conspicuously silent as to who had that fastest time on Saturday, in either the women’s or men’s fields. This is by design; it seems unfair to the athletes to publicize results from an internal competition, when ski prep and race prep may have been somewhat heterogenous. “Rock, training, and race skis on course,” as the Google Doc with unofficial results, which I received only because I raced, cautions at its top. Think of this piece as the process goals of race reports, not the results goals.
And speaking of process: The physical start line at Kincaid on Saturday morning was literally a line scraped in the snow between two propped-up skis. But for every athlete there that morning, that humble line marked one step in a process toward something bigger. Watch for these skiers at a World Cup, World Championship, or national championship near you later this winter, and as they move through the season know that they have, quite literally, already put on a bib.
Please enjoy the rest of these photos from Saturday. All thanks to longtime UAA volunteer assistant coach Adam Verrier for the race shots.
— Gavin Kentch
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