COMMENTARY: Impressed By My First Nordic Event

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
January 29th, 2009

If you’re like me, there’s a good chance that the thought of standing outside for several hours in sub-zero weather watching skin suit-clad racers cross country ski around in circles for a few hours probably never made it to the top of your to-do list on a Sunday morning.

This past weekend with the Haywood Nor Am event going on up at Blackjack I assigned myself to photo duty for a project I’m working on with Tourism Rossland and headed out to the cross country ski park just in time to see the 10:00 AM start of the Women’s 10 kilometre Classic. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the bright-mid morning sunshine, the first thing I noticed was the professionalism of it all. The Blackjack event organizers and volunteers literally transformed the ski trails with banners, fencing, warm up and equipment storage tents, flags, PA system and their own parkies fitting in the cars of the expected crowds into a buzzing event site.

It could have been the beautiful blue sky and the much needed radiant rays warming up the minus double digit temperatures in shadow-free viewing areas, or the fact that our local Rossland talent had realistic shots of winning the races, but everywhere you looked there were smiling, happy faces. It would seem the Nordic ski racing world has a much friendlier atmosphere than the downhill ski racing world that I grew up in.

Kicking the event off right on time, Bib #1 sprinted out of the start gate to cheers and pre-requisite cow bells–out the straight away and off into the backwoods of the 5 K loop . Every 30 seconds thereafter another racer would head out onto the course in pursuit of the skier ahead. As the first women skiers of the day headed off on their first of two laps around the 5 K course, I couldn’t help but wonder if the buff bodies inside the ski tight suits were warm, or whether the limited attire was extra motivation to get the heart and warm blood pumping on a chilly day.

Switching my viewing and photo taking location after all of the women were out of the gate, I went over to the hump above the finish line. It was exciting to see who would come around the bend in sketchy semi-tucked high speed cross country corner taking fashion and into the finish stadium in what position not having seen what took place on the 4 K wooded portion of the course. Doing a bit of mental math with each skier calculating their starting bib number and then the order they were coming through the stadium on lap one to see who was gaining ground and who was lagging behind kept things interesting as the crowd cheered and encouraged their favourites to push it for one more lap.

Rocking out to the PA system’s various musical choices ranging from INXS through Enya, the funny MCs kept the crowd informed of who was coming through the stadium while the crowd danced and hopped around keeping warm to the tunes. An hour or so into the event, the first female racers began crossing the finish line, clearly exhausted from giving it their all. The first across the line looked to be holding back from throwing up, clearly having left it all on the track-set trails. One-by-one and occasionallt two-by-two, the female skiers crossed the finish line, and the crowd waited in suspense as the times were tallied up and the winners were announced part way through the men’s event.

Starting up just as the last of the women were crossing the line, the larger men’s field began rocketing out of the gate, coaches jogging with them up the first hundred meters of the course offering encouragement and last minute tips as they embarked on a three lap, 15K trip around the trails.

Starting last with Bib 63, Rossland local, 2010 medal hopeful and clear-cut crowd favourite George Grey bolted out of the gates, pushing hard with a big smile on his face to cheers and more cowbells. Something I didn’t expect to see were crashes in a cross country event, but these proved to be the most exciting portion of the course that was visible to spectators. The final 90 degree turn into the stadium provided at least three crashes as tired legs got a bit wobbly step turning semi-tucked around the corner and hopping back into the tracks. As the first and second laps progressed, the field got tight, with three or more racers often grouped tightly, drafting off one another. I was wondering myself, watching how close they draft behind one another, if the trailing skiers ever got poled in the face as there couldn’t have been more than a few inches between pole tip and face at the apex of the pull push.

Twenty minutes after the last male racers came across the line the suspense of the results was broken as the awards were handed out. True to form, the locals made Blackjack proud posting solid results. George Grey, after a third place finish the day before in the free technique sprints, skied his way to the top of the podium.

Chatting briefly after the awards were handed out, Grey cautioned Rosslanders not to get too excited on his career-best results so far this season (including a bronze medal at the World Cup race held on the new Olympic course in the Callaghan Valley south of Whistler). “You can’t place too much stock in this year’s results looking forward to the Olympics next year,” Grey noted. “We’ll see how things are going next winter and hope I’m in great shape leading into the Olympic events.”

As the crowds dispersed, and I headed back to my car–sunglasses tan getting a good head start from a day spent in the sun–I was proud to be a Rosslander. Seeing such a great event pulled off largely on volunteer efforts, hosting top notch skiers from around the continent on great trails was inspiring. Black Jack’s mandate to build a strong community of Nordic skiers through excellence in programs and services seems to be paying off in spades for spectators and local racers alike. It would have been great to see more locals lining the course to support the event, and I know I’ll be doing my part next year to add one more cheering body to the crowd as it truly was a great way to spend a Sunday.

Grey summed up the day perfectly. “The course was great, the tracks were hard and the weather was beautiful. It was a fun day!”

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