Today was one of the most exhilarating and exciting experiences in my athletic life. To put things in perspective, I have participated in skiing at high levels my whole life. I was on two Cross Country World Junior Teams, skied in college, was on the US Ski Team for 4 years, was on the 1992 US Olympic Team, was on the US Biathlon team for 4 years, won national championships, and also have won American Marathon Series marathon events. I have had a fulfilling ski career. Today was at least as rich an athletic experience (and achievement) as I have ever had.
I was entered in the World Masters relay event in the M3 category (40-44 years old) with Rune Harkestad, Dale Niggemann, and Eric Jensen. Alternates for the team were Mike Myers and Chris Humbert, both of whom were an awesome help. The Norgwegian team, in an effort to load their M3 team took the gold medalist from Monday’s M4 10k Classic race and put him on their M3 team. The German team with the same idea in mind, took their ace Classic skier (2nd in Monday’s M4 10k Classic) and put him on their M3 team. The Russians were a really tough team as well. We knew that we were going to be in a dogfight with these teams at least. I know there is more to these athletes than their athletic achievements and abilities, but I don’t know about that. What I do know is that these are really successful and fast ski racers. Our team goal was to win the relay and hear the Star Spangled Banner while on the top step of the podium, regardless of the competition.
Rune started and led for the first 2.5 kms. When the others picked the pace up on the prominent climb on the course, he loaded up with lactic acid and fell back a bit, at least the way he related it to me. He must have recovered pretty quickly as he tagged off to Dale Niggemann in 3rd, about 15 seconds out of first I guess – a great result. The Russians and Germans were in front.
The second leg classic skiers were deadly from these two teams. The Russian guy had won the two skating events that had been held. The German was the guy who had been pulled down from the M4 team. He had been the defending World Masters Champion in Classic. The two skiers worked off each other and built up a large lead on Dale who was still having a good race. These guys are fast and had the advantage of working together.
That guy in the green suit is a fast and hungry Norwegian eyeing me!
Dale tagged me about a minute after the two leaders came in together. I started while full of emotion and even some desperation. I know the dangers of letting the emotions run wild. Generally it results in a very fast and inefficient start followed by a slowing pace. I didn’t have the liberty of working into the race though as we needed to make up time quick.
My first split about 2 kms into the race was 35 seconds back and “they’re just up there”! The next split at the bottom of the second prominent climb was that “the others were dying”, “I was catching them”, and I needed to “hammer the whole hill”. At the top of the hill, I was able to see the German skier tucking down the other side! Of course I was completely loaded with lactic acid and at this point even a bit unsteady.
The rest of the way to the finish was a gradual down followed by a flat to the tag zone. Alternating between skating in a tuck and doing a “Gunde Skate”, I flew by the German hoping to catch sight of the Russian. I tagged our anchor skier, Eric Jensen, who has been on fire this season 14 seconds behind the Russian. Eric is a super capable and tough guy. I knew he was ready for something extraordinary. Some 12 minutes later after throwing on my warm ups and running to the finish, I was ecstatic to see Eric screaming into the finish some 6 seconds ahead! We had won! He had caught the Russian and then passed him on the second hill and was able to stay away from him all the way to the finish. I slipped by security and celebrated with my teammates before they caught up to me and kicked me out of the finish area.
Eric wondering what is taking me so long
I’m looking forward to tonight’s awards so I can climb the podium to the top step with my fellow ski warriors. This time the Russians are going to have to listen to our national anthem.
What made this so special was not just the victory. It was the reward of being fully committed to the fight. I think each of us skied above ourselves. We raised our game as the competition raised theirs. Had we finished just behind in second, it would have still been a magical day. Each of us gave every ounce of strength that we had and then, noticing that it wasn’t going to be enough, found a little more. When a team does this, it becomes special regardless of the finish. When it yields a desperately close victory against such competition, it becomes even more memorable, especially in an event such as the World Masters. This is an awesome event. Give it a try sometime.
Congratulations to the other American skiers on a successful day and some great performances. Thanks to my teammates Rune, Dale, and Eric for giving it all and coming up with the goods.
Eric gettin' 'er done!