Nationals: Immunodramatics and a Small Epiphany

When it comes to Nationals I seem to have a bit of a pattern.  I often get sick on the morning of December 25th, so, as I am opening presents with my family I feel a little postnasal drip that flourishes into a full-blown sore throat by the next day.  I spend the next 7 days or so getting over that cold, although a few times I have had to fly to Maine on a redeye which has certainly impeded my immune function.  At the start of Nationals I have a lingering cold that refuses to go entirely away, but I race anyways because I need to in order to make World Juniors or U23s.  The purpose of ski racing is to qualify for the next race, so that decision is a no-brainer.  By midweek I am doing alright, but as fatigue grows and my immune system withers, I get another illness towards the end of the races.  When I get home, I am very sick and take at least a week to recover.  Last year I even managed to come down with pinkeye in conjunction with my gnarly cold. 

Luckily it was really fun to take horror-movie photobooth shots, so I didn't get bored as I recovered.  Isn't this just fabulously frightening?

Luckily it was really fun to take horror-movie photobooth shots, so I didn’t get bored as I recovered.  Isn’t this just fabulously frightening?

My goal this year was to completely throw out that trend.  No more colds, no more pinkeye, and unfortunately no more Fairbanks Christmas.  I still managed to get sick after the World Cup in Canmore, but I was done with that in 5 days and had time to train some before Nationals.  Everything was running according to plan, and I even scored a great Christmas dinner at the Crawford family abode.  After a very easy travel to Utah (it’s just amazing how much more enjoyable a two-hour 10am flight is compared to a redeye) I settled with the team into the APU mansion.  By mansion, I basically mean castle.  Quirks like a lack of egress or ventilation aside, it was a sweet house.  Who can complain about a little stuffiness or fire-safety when the place sleeps 30 people and has a pool, racquet ball court, and 6-car garage? I was even ready for the altitude: after spending almost two weeks in Canmore at 4,500ft, the transition to 6,000ft was smooth.

The races started off well: my 4th
place qualification in the classic sprint blew my previous best right out of the
water and I subsequently made my first A final. I also emerged from my first
USADA antidoping test unscathed and somewhat matter-of-fact about peeing in a
cup in front of strangers. The skate race repeated Wednesday’s personal best (6th
again), and I made peace with Hermode’s hill.  I was already having my best Nationals ever! However, the
morning of the 20k I knew I was in trouble.  My whole team had been fending off a sneaky little cold and
I felt it coming on. Imagine a guerilla of malevolent pathogenic cold-gremlins
that was rejoicing at our lack of ventilation and our close living quarters, and I
had been fighting them off for a couple of days.  I decided to race anyways, but thought I would probably sink
my chances of racing the following skate sprint.  After the 20k my body felt abnormally wrung-out and I knew
that I had given the patho-gremlins a gaping opportunity.

Sadie leading my first A final in the classic sprint. Photo: Sarah Cresap

Sadie leading my first A final in the classic sprint. Photo: Sarah Cresap

January 8th dawned warm
and clear.  I woke up in my
Homestead immune-refuge (a last-ditch retreat from the vicious little
cold-critters in the APU palace) feeling officially ill.  I had just begun coughing and was stuffier
than ever, symptoms that usually designate any XC athlete as both a contagious
liability and ineligible for hard training.  However, when I arrived at the venue and talked to my coach
he didn’t make any attempt to stop my racing.  I was pretty sure I oughtn’t race but felt that I couldn’t
decide to sit it out without feeling like a pansy.  Not when my coach thought I was ready to race.

I did the qualification round,
feeling like I was skiing through cotton balls and couldn’t breathe
properly.  I qualified 17th,
6% back from the leader.  I was
also 6% back at the Quebec World Cup in December, so 17th was not a
very solid start to the day.  The
debate began again: I felt that I could not drop out without my coach’s urging,
and it seemed that he wanted me to keep racing. Previously I assumed his job
was the brake-pedal and I was the gas; I kept pushing for more and he kept me
from running myself into the ground. 
Now I was looking frantically for a runaway truck ramp because my brakes
seemed totally gone.

One of the questions that I asked
Erik as I tried to sort through the situation, was “what’s the point?”. This
was the first year that I didn’t have U23’s to make, I didn’t seem to be in
position to make World Champs, and I wasn’t on the verge of leading the Super
Tour.  There was no team to qualify
for.  What then, was the purpose of
racing when it probably wouldn’t go well and I was sick anyways?  Besides this fundamental question, I
was so mixed up with trying not to be a pansy and speculating about exactly how
sick racing would make me, that I couldn’t see straight.

*Cue Fanfare*

Reese to the rescue! Photo: USSA

Reese to the rescue! Photo: USSA

Reese to the rescue!  He’s the one who helped
me cut through all the confusion.  He
asked me what I, as a person, wanted to do.  Regardless of whether anyone would think I was a pansy or
what might happen afterwards, what did I really want to do.  This is a
toughie because racing is scary, and I almost never want to race beforehand. But on this particular January the 8th,
2013, I realized that I really wanted to. 
Racing is fun. I didn’t want
to do it for the valuable experience, for the results, to make my coach happy,
or even to show off.  In all my
confusion I honed in on one millisecond of imagination that made it all
worthwhile: I had a mental image of skiing mid-pack in a heat,
comfortable with the pace, planning an attack at the finish, and having the time
of my life.

That kernel of moving color and
intention sat in my mind, keeping me inspired throughout the heats.  I blew by the runaway truck ramp, waved, and kept right on rolling! Moving from 17th to 4th, my first top 5 finish, I set a new personal best at Nationals and had some of the most enjoyable racing of my life.

Living it up in my Semi Final! (I have a red hat, Fitz has a black one) Photo: Alex Matthews at FasterSkier

Living it up in my Semi Final! (I have a red hat, Fitz has a black one) Photo: Alex Matthews at FasterSkier

It may be ironic that my best
racing happened when I stepped outside the pressure of Nationals, but it also
makes a lot of sense.  I made a
decision for myself, I knew what I wanted, and I skied because it’s fun.  I just hope that I can remember that
next time all the details and pressures of racing threaten to overwhelm
me. 

Epilogue:

It has taken me a few days to get
this blog written because I felt like my miniature epiphany needed to be shared
in a decently-written (albeit a little too long) blog post.  I have been recuperating at the Homestead,
preparing to head to the Minneapolis Tour de Twin SuperTour.  I am definitely not healthy yet, but am
practicing patience and the beautiful scenery is definitely relaxing.  Thank you for reading, and stay tuned
for Tour de Twin updates!

A relaxing breakfast view at the Homestead

A relaxing breakfast view at the Homestead

Walking with Mom in the sunshine!

Walking with Mom in the sunshine!