[Erik Brooks raced as part of the Team NordicSkiRacer.com at Master Nationals in Marquette this year. Our "virtual" team member (he actually lives in Seattle, Washington and comes to Traverse City, Michigan for summer vacations), I thought it would be interesting for Erik to share his race stories with those of us who made friends with him this winter. - Mike Muha]
I focused this year on Masters Nationals, and I trained hard and smart from April until Nationals. I had some minor setbacks along the way, but for the most part it went well. I’d planned for the 2 previous years to make it to Nationals, but it hadn’t worked out, so I was pretty serious about making it happen this year.
My memorable setback occurred when I decided to get my first physical checkup in several years. I’ve felt fine for years, but I recently passed the half-century mark and I thought I ought to do this. With one exception I’m quite healthy, but Doc told me that I have a hernia. I’d felt nothing wrong ‘down there’. He agreed I could put off the needed operation till after ski season, so I put it out of my mind and went back to ski training, and in fact I didn’t begin to actually feel anything wrong until shortly after Nationals.
Before Nationals, I got in a few good local ski days. I tried to limit myself to the flatter trails around here, because I’d been told that most Midwest trails are flattish to rolling, and I’d managed to fit in a day at Crystal Mtn in Michigan a few seasons back, and that’s how I’d describe those trails. So I tried to concentrate on DP, which is a personal weakness, and I avoided the steeper trails, and the power drills I’d done in previous years. Of course, when I got to Marquette and skied the Nationals race courses, I found that I’d been training for the wrong terrain – the 30K FS and Duathlon courses especially featured lots of short but steep sections that were ideal for the kind of skier I’d been 2 seasons ago. Oh well.
OTOH, I was very pleased to learn that I could ski classic pretty well in the cold temps that prevailed that week. I’m used to skiing in the ‘broad’ range of 28 to 33F, and the course that we race on for 80% of my races is really not a striding kind of a course. So I’m a better skater than strider, like most of the other skiers in my area, and I even resort to wax-less skis for most of my classic races, as they are good enough to win against the local competition. Most of the course is double poling; tough downhill corners (many crashes), and climbs that many folks have to herringbone, and with the wax-less I can just run up them. The course just has no flow to it, sadly. You Midwesterners are lucky to have fine striding terrain!
I had pretty good results at nationals, and met a bunch of good folks. OTOH, I also missed 2 of my favorite 4 local races, and that was sad. I sure wish that Nationals had come later in the season. The 30FS race there was my first skate race of the season, and that’s not what I wished for. I know it was the same for others, but still…
The other thing to do while at Nationals was the 51K Noquemanon classic. We have only one race over 30K in driving distance for me, and it's freestyle. When else would I have a chance to do a long classic race? I entered from afar, knowing I'm not great at striding. Before leaving the Seattle area, I asked Per Johnsen for some tips. Per grew up in Norway and is a Birke birch legger (did I get that correct?). 6 years ago he started going to Masters Nationals instead, and has racked up about 15 championships in those years. I expect he's the most successful master skier in recent years. I nip at his heels in local races, but I'm nine years younger. Who better to ask for advice? We never did actually get a practice session together, but Per asked me if I'd like to ski with him during the Noque, and I was happy to do that. We agreed that we'd do it as a fast tour instead of seriously racing.
The Noque was another really cold race. We were fortunate to get a ride to the start so that we were only waiting around for maybe five minutes before the start. We lined up behind the elite and were happy to let them ski away when the race started. There were 166 starters in the classic wave, more than I've experienced by far. We had no problems with the start or early going. Mostly I just stayed behind Per. When I did take a turn at the front, I upped the pace a bit, and Per talked me back to a more sensible pace. See, I have a bit of a problem with going a bit harder in the early going than I should. But Per kept me sane for the duration. I felt fine for the first 50K, then ran out of gas on the final kilometer and watched Per pull away while I struggled in.
The skaters in the race started 45 minutes behind the classic wave. I was looking forward to glimpsing the best skaters go by, but only one actually did. The second skater finished scant seconds behind me.
When I returned to Seattle, I felt a real letdown. The focus of my season was behind me, and it was still January! I also began to feel some slight discomfort from the hernia – not during skiing or biking (I ride or run to work), but I did feel it during running or strength workouts, so I mostly stopped those. During my remaining races, I could clearly feel a decline in my fitness. I also skipped some of our Wednesday night race series. I’d just lost the hunger to compete, which was new to me.
I did have 2 important local ski races to look forward to. The 15K FS Kongsberger Stampede has been a personal favorite, even though 15K is a difficult distance for me. This race draws quality racers from around the state, and I’ve enjoyed some good competition in previous years. This year though, no significant competitors in my age bracket came, and I had an easy class win. It’s sure more satisfying to do well against a strong field, even when I don’t win.
My last big race was the Kongsberger 50K FS. I got sick 2 days before the race, and considered skipping it, but decided to just ski it without racing. I confess that I didn’t check the web page before the race, and assumed that it would start at the normal 11AM. When we arrived, the leaders had just completed the first of 5 laps. Damn! I’m so embarrassed. Hopefully I’ll never make that mistake again.
The race director said, “just ski the course and track your own time”, and we did that. I hurried into my boots, etc, and was underway in a few minutes after arrival. I didn’t mind skipping my warm-up – I don’t do much of that for a 50K anyway. More ominous was that I skipped the topping up of the fuel tank.
I’d expected to do a fast cruise with my friends, who were now WAY ahead of me. And I felt much better than I expected to, considering my recent sickness. So I started skiing race pace. I took a quick energy drink at the end of each lap, but at about 33K I could feel my fuel stores were drained, and knew I had to slow way down to have a hope of finishing. I did do that. I should also have stopped for a few minutes at the end of lap 4 for more substantial refueling, but I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly, and just took the same one cup of energy drink. My last lap was about 30% slower than the first 3. I was not surprised to learn afterwards that my total time was minutes behind folks I usually beat. I think that I was not far enough gone to consider this a true ‘Bonk’, but it came close. My worst race to date.
Luckily there was one more race on the calendar. I’d hate to end the season with a downer. The last Wednesday night race was an 8K FS and I had a race long duel with 2 longtime rivals from different age groups. I led until the last climb, when the smarter racer slipped by. I’d still rather lose a race that has some suspense until the end than win one where I ski alone the last part of the race.
That’s my season. I’ve now scheduled the doctor for the hernia operation, but not before one last hurrah – Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia each have the unique situation of still having lots of snow at the downhill ski areas, and there is a long tradition of multi-sport relay races starting there and going for hours. I’ve done all 3 of the Washington ones, and this year my brother and I will do the Ridge to River together on April 18. We do 5K FS, then 10 minutes or so on downhill skis, then 5 mile run downhill on the ski area access road, then 19 miles of road biking, about 1 hour of canoeing, and lastly a 200 meter dash to the finish. These races feature LOTS of different classes – something like 30 different ones. Usually about 400 teams, and maybe 50 ‘iron men and women’. Lots of fun.
I’m also thinking about what’s next. Recovery from my operation comes first of course, but I’ve spoken to others about that, and it sounds like I’m good to go in 6 weeks or so, so that’s not too bad. I’m thinking that XC will remain my main sport, but I dabbled in others last summer, and I plan to do more of those, and less specific XC race training. I’m going to have more fun this year. I’ve lost the fire for XC racing at the moment, but I expect it to return. Til then, the Seattle area has lots to offer the outdoor lover. Last summer I did more trail running, including one race, and I plan to do more of that. I also dabbled in Adventure Racing, and want more of that. And I did some Alpine Scrambling in the peaks nearby, and that was superb. Also my son has become heavily involved in rowing, and I’ve dabbled there and plan to do more. I’d expected to hit that pretty hard this spring, but the hernia deferred that. But it would be pretty convenient to just ride a different route to work and get in a rowing workout on the way – Seattle is one of the best places I’m aware of for rowing.
So many things to do, so little time! Jack of all trades, master of none! I may find myself rollerskiing on occasion, just because I quite like the motion, but I’m not going to stress when I don’t have the consistency that I had last summer. I’ll just see how all this other activity translated to XC next winter. All the activities I have in mind are really pretty good cross training activities, so I think I’ll still do OK next winter.