Thursday, 5 February 2015

Kazakhstan

I'm now in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the world under 23 championships. Last week I race in Norway at the Norwegian championships. Which quite frankly I'd rather not write about, but I guess I have to say something about it. After having been ill for a week or so I got back into training and trained quite hard up to the Norwegian champs in Røros. I thought my form was ok and almost back to where I was before I was ill. But evidently this was not the case. I raced the 15k skate and the classic sprint, and finished 96th and 46th. Not exactly the results I was looking for. It is hard to put a single reason on who I skied so slowly, probably a mixture of several things.

After the sprint in Røros I flew to Oslo, only after having an argument with the security about the state of matter of peanut butter. My argument was that is was a butter, you melt butter and you can't melt something that is already a liquid. Therefore it was a solid. Their argument was that it was spreadable, therefore a liquid. At risk of causing an international terror incident at Røros airport, which is about the size of a cow shed, I gave up. Luckily the airport is so small and there was about 2 people on the flight, so I was allowed round the back to put my precious peanut butter into my check in bag.
I stayed overnight at the airport hotel in Oslo before flying to Almaty the next day. It was a long journey, and I'd say it was roughly similar to flying to Canada. I flew via Frankfurt before flying on to Almaty with a stopover in Astana to let people off the plane and refuel. For the final leg of the flight the plane was almost entirely skiers heading to Almaty. The Slovakians, Norwegians, Swiss, French and Germans were all on the flight. The flight got in to Almaty at 2.30 in the morning. But because of all the skis and equipment to be unloaded from the plane and re loaded into shuttle busses to the hotels, it wasn't before 5am that I was flopping into bed.
I slept for almost 5 hours, the ate breakfast before heading up the stadium to get in a quick ski session. The tracks are pretty good and look out from the top of a hill over the city.

Upon arriving in Almaty one thing was clear. Or perhaps not clear. There is a serious pollution problem here and smog is unbelievable. I've heard of smog, and seen some pictures on the news, but I've never experienced it before. The smog was is so bad that the airport arrivals hall is hazy and you can't make out the other end of it without squinting to see through the smog. This of course has an effect on the snow, breathing and pretty much living in general. It took me a few days to get used to it, but now I wake up and expect to only see a few 100m out the window. I've gotten used the smell and taste, yes it does actually leave a taste in your mouth, and I don't think it is effecting me too much.
Most of the smog sits down in the town. The venue is on the "smog line". Sometimes it is engulfed in it, but most of the time you can see out above the thick layer. Occasionally the lower down trails are covered but the upper ones are fine.

There isn't much snow here, just enough to hold a competition, although there are a few stones in the track. I've only managed to properly ruin 1 pair of skis on the stones. Most of my skis have escaped with only a few marks here and there which will come out when they are next stone ground.
The little snow that there is is grey. It's weird, it is still quite fast even though it is dirty, and it is really dry even though it is quite warm. The trails are all on old quarry roads which a carved into the hill. This means there are a lot of switchback/180 turns. There where 7 in the sprint loop, and 11 on the distance 5km loop. Thats a lot. In a "normal" you might expect one or 2 and the end of out and back sections.
The amount of bends made the classic sprint race interesting. All the downhill was in the first half before a massive hill back up to the stadium to finish. All the u23 guys played with double poling on skate skis versus kicking on classic skis with grip wax. The day before I was 2 seconds faster double poling, but I decided to kick the race. The grip for the race day was a bit better and the tracks where a bit more stable and I thought I'd gain more in the last hill. 1 Norwegian, 1 swiss, 2 Poles and 4 Italians double poled the qualifier. They all qualified.
My quarter final in the sprint was really good. I felt good and strong and my skis where really good. From the first hairpin bend I managed to lead the dictate the race. I got passed in the final 100m and finished second. After that I didn't feel so good though. I felt really bad between the quarter and the semifinal. All I could do was sit down, every time I stood up I felt dizzy and sick. About 5min before the semi I started to feel better, but ultimately I hadn't recovered enough. I went straight to the back of the semi final, and there I stayed. I ended up 12th overall, in what was my best ever classic sprint. My goal was to make the final, so I am a little upset I didn't make it. But when I look at the bigger picture it is actually a really promising race. I haven't managed to do as well as I had hoped in classic sprint this year. I thought I trained well enough during the summer to make a small jump in classic sprinting. But until now I've had nothing to show for it. So to get a good result under my belt was important. More importantly It shows I was back on track after the disastrous time I'd had in Røros.

After the sprint I had a pretty easy day with only a short ski testing session. And today was the 15k skate time trial. The race today went quite well. I started off at a pretty controlled pace and kept the pace around the same for the first 12k. I was getting splits that I was leading until roughly 12k where I was 2 seconds behind the leader. (splits where off those who started in front of me). The last 3k where rather hellish. The weather had warmed up and the sun was hitting the tracks for the first time (today was the first completely smog free day). The snow slowly began to warm up and turn wet. A lot of the last few k's where in direct sunlight and my skis slowed down a lot. And then I slowed down a lot. I wasn't feeling good for the last 2k or so. If you look at the live timing I actually went passed people at the end of the race. I was much better compared to the people around me, but compared to the leaders, this is where the race was won and lost. I still scored a pretty good result, but it could have been an amazing result if I'd kept it going.
And just like the sprint, it shows I'm back on track and taking a step in the right direction. It was easily my best 15km so far this season, if not my best distance race longer than 4km.

So far the championships has been pretty good. There are really only two things that aren't perfect, the smog and the snow. I've been to 7 world junior and u23 championships, and I'm struggling to thing of one that was better organised. The hotel here is only a 20min drive from the stadium and shuttle busses run every 30min. The food is basic but ok and the people are amazing. The people here really want to impress and pull out all the stops. Anything and everything is done to make sure we have a good time. The people in the town and having nothing to do with the event are friendly and all seem to have a basic understanding of english even if they don't speak it. We had a recovery run and stopped at the supermarket where we were asked for "selfies".
There has been a little "selfie" competition going on with people trying to get pictures with the military guards that guard the race course. So far my roommate James Clugnet is winning. I don't have a copy of the picture but if you find him on Instagram you'll see it.

There has been one other comical incident. Two days ago the cleaners came round the hotel and took all the towels... even towels that hadn't been used. Every single towel was taken. All the athletes came back from training at the same time and wanted to shower. Found they had no towel so descended upon reception. The towels were taken for cleaning and would be delivered at 7pm! We eventually got towels at around 10pm that night. But I know some other teams didn't get until the evening the following day. Before this we only had one towel in our room, as james had been here on his own before I came and they hadn't delivered a second set. So I had been using a small hand towel anyway. But only when the great Hotel Kazakhstan towel drought of 2015 kicked in did James produce a clean towel he had taken with him, so we did actually manage to get a shower after training.

I leave here on Sunday, but before then I have the small matter of a 30k skiathlon to negotiate.

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