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(Kikkan Randall, #9. 3rd place. World Cup)
We are in Otepaa Estonia now, which feels like home after our five day Russian odyssey. The Russia trip began in Davos on Wednesday the 17th. We trained twice and then five of us drove to Zurich. The five were Roar Lillefjell, Kikkan Randall, Torin Koos, Andy Newell and me. We crashed in Zurich for the night and then flew to Stockholm. I say flew but grabbing a flight isn’t really that easy when you have huge ski bags, a heavy wax box, a wax table and personal bags full of the gear we will be using and wearing until the end of March. It’s a heavy and awkward load to carry around airports and to get checked in. Anyway we flew to Stockholm and were boarding our flight for Moscow when Roar was stopped from boarding due to a Russian Visa issue. Russian Visa’s must be applied for a long time in advance and they cost hundreds for each person.
We land in Moscow with no Roar. We do have his bag though. Our attaché, Oksana, meets us at the airport, which is a swirl of bustling people in dark clothing and fur caps. Oksana is the perfect attaché. She speaks perfect English and she is pushy and loud. We make our way through the crowd with all our gear and find a bus waiting. Prior to boarding the bus we speculate on who will be on the bus with us. We always seem to travel or stay with Italy and Japan. I don’t know why. We put our gear in a separate van (good by skis?) and board the bus. It is full of Italians. Full… of Italians. There are 4 seats left, we are four people… that’s ok the trip is supposed to be four and a half hours – according to the race organizers. Well, that was just a lie.
Lukily Italian racer Christian Zorzi brought movies. Shortly after getting on the bus we were watching some Johnny Depp movie about a satanic book. Zorzi chose the Italian version so the actor’s voices were dubbed over in Italian. It was terrible. Then the group of attachés (who didn’t speak Italian) changed the setting and we watched the rest of the movie in English. It was still terrible. But without it the bus ride would have been intolerable. The Italians talked over the movie, yelled and carried on and it was very entertaining. Outside it was pouring rain and dark. The bus was rolling along slowly, swerving around big potholes, stopping every now and then so the driver and the attachés could take a smoke break. And we drove. And drove.
After four hours we stopped at a non descript building in a small, dark town. Bathroom break. The bus unloaded into what turned out to be a very run down hotel. The hotel clerk gave us one key. The whole bus was to use one bathroom in hotel room 50 down a long, dark corridor in a dark and grungy hotel in a small, dark town on a dark and rainy night in the middle of nowhere between Moscow and Rybinsk, Russia.
How much longer I asked? About three hours.
Torin Koos and I stocked up on goodies and water at a small market for the rest of the drive. We settled in and watched the movie “Hulk” dubbed over in Italian – Zorzi said he’d take his disk back if we didn’t watch it in Italian. Fair enough.
Outside the road was at times chaos and at times deserted. Cars were passing on the right, on the left, passing into on coming traffic. The weather was rain, then snow, then rain. There were brake lights lined up in front of us cars behind us, cars coming toward us. And then it would be dark and we’d be alone. And then we’d be passing brightly lit booth after booth selling huge stuffed animals wrapped in plastic. And then dark. And then a town of decrepit buildings. And then dark and trees and trees and trees. And then a city of huge apartment buildings, block mass after block mass. And then dark. And we drove and drove.
At 2am we climbed into bed in the Domino “resort” near Rybinsk somewhere far north of Moscow. The rain was pouring down. There was no snow anywhere. Just ice.
I had put the skis and equipment in our wax room the night before so when the athletes arrived for training the following morning we were ready to go. They all wanted to classical ski and so we waxed up with the only two klisters we had on the trip. It wasn’t going to work very well – and it didn’t.
I had to break into our wax box as Roar had the key on him. I guess it wasn’t safe even locked, but for a second, when I realized it was locked I thought we were sunk. The athletes went out for a ski, which is incredible considering there wasn’t any snow and the rain was coming down hard.
I am starting to be of the opinion that if you want something impossible done you should enlist a few Russians to help out.
There was a 2.5km loop created out of lake ice, slush and mud. And you could ski on this thing. The klister worked where there was slush, but where there was just ice it slipped and where there was just mud it stuck.
The ski course was literally a cobblestone path of football sized ice chunks laid down and covered with ice cubes. In places the ice cubes were covered in slush. I imagine the slush at one time covered the whole course. But it was plus 3c and raining both cats and dogs.
(Ice cobbles - what the course was made of... here after it began snowing)
I attended the coaches meeting that night for the distance race the next day even though we didn’t have any athletes in the distance race just to hear what was going on. The meeting descended into chaos as soon as it began. The speaker was speaking Russian – which only the Russian coach could understand and the translator was speaking heavily accented English. Before the translator could finish translating the speaker was speaking again. The speaker spoke much louder than the translator and never let her get through half the translation. I have no idea how she could keep speaking and hear what he was saying so she could translate it when she finished translating what he had already said. Not that it mattered because no one could understand any of it. It was fine though because racing is fairly simple business. I personally loved it because I didn’t have any racers the next day anyway and it was a jovial and riotous occasion.
In Houghton Michigan, at our nationals, they like-wise didn’t have much snow and the town came together to truck 200 dump trucks full of snow to the course and spread it out. In Russia the entire 433’rd and 620th platoons of the former Red Army “volunteered” to lay – by hand – a cobblestone street of ice and muck and then, bucket by bucket drain water from the low parts of the course. I’ve known counties to throw in the towel on a race because the race promoter’s espresso machine broke – but, how can I live without espresso? This 2.5km track showed a frightening tenacity.
The morning of the distance races we tested wax and skis as if we were racing that day. We found the best wax, and the best skis for that condition. The women’s race got off before the conditions changed and then it started to snow. Still their race was a tough one with pure ice here and slush and mud and beside the trail nothing but green grass and moss. But then it stopped raining and started snowing big wet flakes. The course went from slushy ice to fresh wet snow on top of slushy ice. It was a nightmare 30km for the men.
(That's racing in 2007)
(The leaders in the women's race.)
(an image from the video screen of the course and racers in the fore-ground. the actual thing and some fans in the back ground.)
(and then it started to snow. All these images were taken on little breaks from the wax room that I took to watch the distance races.)
That night the temperature went from +3c to –6c. I got every single pair of all three athlete’s skis ready to test the next day. I had no idea what was going to happen. Some have mentioned in their articles about our sprint race that I was there as the lone coach. This is was no one man show. I had Kikkan, Torin and Andy all of whom helped out at every step – and raced themselves into the top 20 in a World Cup. I called Roar for ideas on things to test. The other coaches all called numerous times, while they themselves were working hard with other athletes as well as coordinating our travel plans which were changing daily due to snow conditions being bad all over the world. Everyone, even on this weekend, played a huge role. And of course prior to the weekend – in the really important work – there were hundreds of people helping the USA become a better ski nation. Erik Flora up at APU has taken that program to a new level and has helped Kikkan reach a new level as well…the organizers in Houghton pulled off some very important races for us… Luke Bodensteiner answers 300 emails in one day… Junior coaches all over the country get their kids out skiing…there is no such thing as a one person show…
And I had many examples of coaches doing it all. Most youth coaches’ jobs have a much broader focus and have many more tasks to take care of, many wax for a dozen kids every weekend. Brian Fish of the CXC team has been leading his team mostly alone all season. We have come this far together and we will go further by working even more closely together.
The Russians are not the only tenacious ones.
(the author. Wax room, sweet wax room.)
And so race day comes. I am really missing my fellow coaches. But I also feel calm and confident. Last year it was just Vidar and I with Andy in China and we got a medal – and so I know I can do it. But mostly I am confident in my racers. I have seen them in training all summer and this past week in Davos and I know we can have some great results. There can be no true confidence without this training. I do not have faith in things for which I cannot witness evidence. And I have seen what I need to see to believe in these skiers.
Busloads of fans have been pouring into the venue. There are stands of vendors selling everything from wooden dolls to grilled meat. They are stomping through the mud, they are waving flags, they are drinking, they are yelling, singing and chanting.
‘Is there much of a crowd?” the skiers ask me. I tell them that today they will feel like gladiators.
(Russians get into it)
(you know... those little dolls where there's another little doll inside and then another one inside and so on)
(Mud will not stop them.)
The race begins. Newell is not feeling well but is skiing as hard and well as he can in each heat. He keeps moving on and ends up 4th in the B-Final and 10th on the day. Koos sticks to a race plan we both decide plays to his strengths and can therefore work – but which is risky. It doesn’t really work, though he puts in a solid race – his best effort on the day. Torin’s fitness is good and improving very quickly. It will just take more races.
(Torin enroute to winning an OPA cup last season)
Kikkan skis fantastically in her first heat. It is on.
In the women’s final my heart does not beat once for 2 minutes straight and then it catches up in the final 10 seconds of the race, beating 20 times a second. Kikkan stretches for the line. Was she 2nd, 3rd… or did she get edged for 4th?
She is 3rd and that is historic.
We put all three of our skiers in the top 20. We did – US.
It is 2pm. Our bus for Moscow leaves at 4pm. We wax, pack, shower, collect the winnings and hit the road in less time than it takes most teams to file into the dining hall. We stop in Yaroslav… at McDonalds. It was packed. The customers were dressed up in their finest. It was a sweet scene at the Yaroslav McDonalds. I want to return to Russia sometime... The drive was shorter this time because we had a small bus and we were the only passengers, but it wasn’t short.
(late night long road)
The line to check in at the airport hotel took an hour. I figured out why when I saw all the documentation needed. When you go to Russia you fill in a customs form on the plane. Do not lose this form. You need it to get into Russia, to check into your hotel, and to get back out of Russia. We got to bed sometime just before 1am (today). At 7:30 am (today) we were on the shuttle to the airport. We’d monopolized the shuttle with all our gear and so the driver had to take two trips to get the other customers. At the airport we went through security two times with all our gear, avoided paying any fees for the 110kg of overweight baggage (an ethically gray area there, but…easily, if not rightly, justified) went through customs (no one lost their customs form) went through security a third time, got on the plane to Tallinn, Estonia, rented a car in Tallinn and drove down to Otepaa. There is no skiing in Otepaa… but there will be in two days. And this weekend we race again. I can’t wait.
(Arriana Follis, Italy. Cloudia Kunzel-Nystad, Germany. Kikkan Randall, USA)
Check these old stories out including one about Alison Owen-Bradley:
(Vordenberg Story and Images)