“And finally Winter, with its bitin’, whinin’ wind, and all the land will be mantled with snow.” -Roy Bean
I am sitting on my bed in the Athlete’s Village in Whistler on this sunny Monday morning. I still feel a little bit hung over–I had a dull headache, a grumbling stomach, my body aches all over and I’m pretty sure Oscar the grouch would appear to have the countenance of a Rockette compared to me. Was it all that rye I drank last night out at the pub? The bottle of wine at dinner with friends? No, of course not, it is sadly the aftereffects of the Selection Race #1 the day before yesterday.
I went into this race more prepared than I ever have been. The months of hard dryland training now over, I had other details to focus on when the on-ice training began. Equipment preparation was a big one this season, including testing of runners, top sheets, new race clothing, helmets, etc. In a sport that can come down to hundredths of a second, minutia like the fit of a race suit behind the knee could matter, so I did not overlook a single detail that I could control.
Training went well. I had a plan for each sliding session, looking to perfect my equipment and lines in hopes of bringing together a well tuned formula for execution on race day. The nice thing about racing in Calgary is that I have so much experience with the track, and I can get down with so much consistency, that I can work on small details that on other tracks, with only 6-8 runs before a race, always take the back seat. Three weeks of on ice training before the race allowed me time to learn and experiment. It was a luxury. I also was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to Whistler the second week to bank a few extra training days .
On race day morning, I looked out the window and to my shock for the first time this season saw snow. The weather forecast had been particularly inconsistent leading up to the race, predicting anywhere between 15 degrees and cloudy to colder and 15 cm of snow! Of course, I had not yet had the opportunity to slide in snow yet this season so it did give me a small feeling of anxiety. That being said, I usually perform well in snow conditions, so on the flip side I also got a small boost of confidence.
I had a great warm up and was second off the line (our order based on last year’s FIBT points). I pushed off fast and strong to a cheering crowd. The snow had stopped, and the track was swept, which was great because the conditions would be the same for everyone. The groove did not feel fast, but I used the strength I developed in the summer to get my sled moving quickly. Once I loaded comfortably onto the sled, all the planning and testing of the past few weeks, with the experience of the past few years, meshed together and I had one great run. Everything I had worked on came together and I executed each turn as I had planned. Of course there were tiny little adjustments here and there I could work on for the next run, but overall I was content. I crossed the line in 1st place and maintained that position for the rest of the heat.
That’s when the fortunes changed. 15 minutes before the start of the second heat, the skies opened again and it began to snow. Hard. Placing first in the first heat meant I would be last off the second heat. Every extra minute of delay for me would mean more snow on the track when I finally got my turn to slide. I hoped for a reprieve, that the snow would stop if even for half an hour, but no. Regardless I was focused and calm and continued on with my planned routine.
One decision that must be made every skeleton run is which groove to push in. We push in the bobsled tracks, which are wider than a skeleton sled, and therefore we can choose either the right or left groove. It is always safer to push in the same groove as which side of the sled you run on. That way you are pushing into the groove with the runner in it and have a significantly less chance of popping out. Popping the groove, as I wrote about in my race from Sigulda last year, is pretty much the kiss of death in a race. However, pushing “off groove” is normally a bit faster as the sled is elevated slightly. It’s a trade-off and a difficult decision to make when the balance of potentially making a World Cup team is at stake. I normally push on the left side of the sled and therefore the left groove. In the first heat I chose the left groove, as usual, and pushed almost a personal best despite the sticky groove. Also, the groove put me in a good position for entry into corner 1 so was happy with that decision. However, 4 people were not as lucky and popped the left groove in the first run.
With the snow coming down hard, I tried to stay inside the start house as much as possible to stay warm and loose. However, I did notice that more people than usual ahead of me were using the right groove. I ventured out to ask a coach about what was going on, but couldn’t find anyone. I asked an official about the groove and they seemed to think both were fine. However, my spidey sense was going off.
Finally it was my turn to go, the last slider off in the women’s race. I felt strong and confident on the line. Given my history of consistency on this track, I expected to not slow down significantly and hopefully retain my 1st place ranking. I had intended to use the left groove again, but noticed it looked full of snow compared to the right groove. One of the coaches hastily brushed some snow aside with his hands, noticing the same thing. Then the bell went off, and it was time to go. I put my sled down, into the left groove, because that it what common sense dictated. It was the “safest” bet and the groove should have be maintained as well as the right one in a race. I didn’t let my doubts get in the way, and blasted off the block with strength and speed. However, shortly into the push I knew something was wrong. The groove was slow and I was running on snow that had been brushed to the side. I carried on and squeezed every little bit of force and energy out of my legs and ran as fast and far as I could. I loaded onto my sled, believing my push would indeed be slower, maybe by up to a tenth of a second, but pushed that aside and hunkered down into race form.
That thought only lasted a few second though as shortly after loading onto my sled, I hit headfirst into a snow drift. I felt my sled almost come to a stop. I remember thinking “this is not good”, but there was nothing I could do about it at that point. I continued on with my race form and proceeded to once more have a pretty great run. When I crossed the finish line a “3” flashed across the timing screen. With great disappointment I picked up my sled at the finish dock and shrugged my shoulders. I was prepared beyond belief, physically and mentally. I executed my pushes and driving very well. I however, could not control the weather.
It was not until much later that I was handed a time sheet. To my horror, my push was 3/10ths of a second slower than the previous one. I pushed slower than I did when I had the torn calf, and much slower than many training runs the previous week. More importantly, my push speeds were almost 3km/h slower than the first run. That is almost unheard of, unless one pops the groove or goes down with runner guards on. I learned that because of the wind and snow, and the number of people using the right groove, all the snow piled up in a bank along the left wall over the crest. That was the mountain I hit right before the timing eye. Even though I continued to gain speed and positions down the track, I finished over 2.5 seconds slower than my first run! Most athletes were less than a second slower. Once I put my sled down in the left groove my fate was decided. No one could see over the crest, so it was impossible to know that a huge snow bank was obscuring the left side of the track.
I was not the only athlete that suffered because of the snow conditions. In fact, I was lucky to finish so well, considering the circumstances. My heart goes out to those who despite being great drivers and athletes were affected by the cruel twist of fate when the skies opened.
Now sitting on my bed looking over the fall colored mountains of Whistler, I have to put everything behind me and look forward to the second race this week. This race is still worth 50% of the overall points. The basic tenants of being physically and mentally prepared will not change. I have put the work in and the dice will fall as they may.
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than success. We often discover what we will do, by finding out what we will not do.”