To race or not to race? That is the question.
The end of November is early. It falls more than a month before the first major races of the season, U.S. Nationals, which are held in the beginning of January.
And yet, for many skiers, late November is the start of everything. The SuperTour series kicks off in West Yellowstone, Montana, offering up valuable points for qualifying and seeding races later in the season.
Thanksgiving races provide an opportunity to test your fitness and to get on snow – if there’s going to be a race, there has to be somewhere to ski, which is more than you can say for most parts of the country.
These starts can help clear the jitters, remind you how to push yourself, and, one always hopes, get any disasters out of the way before the races that really count.
There are, nonetheless, some negatives about early-season racing. It would be unfortunate to start the season off strong, but to tire by Eastern Championships in late February because you’ve been racing for too long. Both from a physiological and mental perspective, racing is a tiring business.
For college skiers, too, it’s a challenge to travel and find ample time to adjust to on-snow training while missing as little class as possible.
Because there is seldom snow in the East until December (or, as it was two years ago, January), many people overlook the negatives and see West Yellowstone as a golden opportunity to get on snow and readjust to racing.
Meanwhile, I am sitting here in Colorado, doing some intervals by myself. What gives? If I made the commitment to finish the term early and travel to snow, why aren’t I in Montana?
Last year, I did make the pilgrimage to the SuperTour races. Our entire women’s team did. I was beyond excited to be able to race the best skiers in the country. Traveling made me feel like I finally made it as a skier.
When we arrived, there was no snow in town. We crammed into various vehicles to drive up to the plateau, where we skied an out-and-back swatch with what seemed like a hundred athletes from Duluth, and that’s not even counting the other teams.
The races didn’t go particularly well, but since it was November and I wasn’t used to starting my season so early, I was told not to worry, that better results would come.
Instead, I fell into a continuous mental loop of pressuring myself to keep up with my teammates, expecting that I should be able to do it, having anxiety attacks, and racing horribly.
Oops, there went my season.
All right, it’s unfair to blame my demise on West Yellowstone. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But understanding the challenges I face – that I’m in great shape and racing is 95% mental – made me plan a different November and December this time around.
Maybe my body isn’t meant to race in November. Maybe I need to keep doing what I did every year besides last year, which is training. I spent a week doing two-hour distance skis, and once I was adjusted to the altitude, I started alternating these days with intervals.
I may not have training partners, but my trusty heart rate monitor keeps me honest in my workouts.
I can spend this time getting used to how it feels to be on snow. Even though I don’t have anyone to shoot video, I can try to improve my technique – something that is always shaky when on-snow training begins.
Yes, I’m racing while I’m out here. But not until next weekend, not against the usual slate of top college and professional racers, and, for the most part, not against my teammates.
I’m hoping that starting the race season against unfamiliar opponents will remove some of the pressure that I always find a way to place on myself.
I’m hoping that spending time training alone will clear my head and boost my confidence.
And I’m hoping that when I return to racing in the East, I will already have a good finish under my belt. I’m trying not to turn hope into expectation.
I peeked at the results from the West Yellowstone races. There, bam bam bam, where three of my teammates, who all had great races and finished within 10 seconds of each other. I sucked my breath in, thinking, maybe I’m doing this all wrong.
And then I remembered that many of our other top skiers weren’t racing either: Vermonters Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, and Hannah Dreissigacker. I exhaled, and thought, what happens happens, and I’m in great shape, so go get ’em when it counts.