Let me start by saying this; no, I was not cold racing in shorts and short sleeves, yes, you should try it sometime, and yes, it was refreshing to have the cold slush hitting my legs! Somehow, the sight of me racing in a short suit was more interesting and befuddling to most reporters than the actual race itself. Clearly, they haven’t ever experienced a Minnesota cold snap. Now THAT is cold weather!
Honestly, it’s hard to describe the amount of distress overheating puts me in, but let me put it this way; racing is already one of the most painful things you can do. If I have to deal with being incredibly uncomfortable, dizzy, and feeling my body start to shut down because I’m way too hot, it becomes even harder to continue pushing my body to the limit, because it’s already that much closer to the limit! And besides, everyone needed the laughs by the time we got to the end of the races.
Seefeld World Champs was full of ups and downs, hot sun and slush, disappointments and a lot of joy. Also, the realization that Devon Kershaw is the best media zone person ever, because of his total compassion for the person behind the athlete bib. He knows what it feels like to give it your absolute best and either get what you came for (and be overwhelmed by the ensuing attention) or come up short…and then still be overwhelmed by the ensuing media asking you what went wrong. Either way, you don’t get any time to process your emotions in private and decide how you truly felt about a race. Which was why I had to remember my rule for myself – before looking up at the screen I take a few seconds to think back on the race, my mental toughness, pacing and technique goals for myself, and decide if my race was a “success” or not.
The amount of pressure I put on myself was almost crushing. In any given race, there are only three medals, and at least a dozen competitors with a legit chance at getting them. In every race, there are so many uncontrollable factors that you as an athlete can’t change; the course design, the weather, the speed of the snow, the wax on your skis, among other things like broken poles or falling. And I definitely struggled with some of the uncontrollable factors! For example, we missed the wax in the individual start 10km, and I was also burning up from the inside in the heat. My first thought when I crossed the finish line was “awesome, I just killed myself out there. There’s nothing left in the tank, I’m overheating like crazy but I think that went pretty well!”. Then, despite my assessment that it had been a good effort from me, when I saw the results I had a little confidence crisis. What happened to my fitness? Am I not in good shape? What the heck just happened here?
And this right here is a great example of why results never tell the whole story, and why we shouldn’t judge our performance or our worth based on results alone. My fitness hadn’t disappeared overnight, nor did it suddenly come back in time for the 30km skate. I don’t suck at classic skiing (although sometimes I hate it, but that’s different). A combination of missing the wax and then overheating had pushed me farther down the results than I’d been in nearly every World Cup all year, but I had to believe in myself and remember that I still had reason to have confidence in my fitness, even when it seemed crazy to do so!
The next individual race I did, the 30km skate, I had simply amazing wax and amazing skis. I’m totally biased, but I think they were the best out there! Our team absolutely knocked it out of the park. Now, wax doesn’t always make or break a race, and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse if that’s not really what was going on there. But every ski racer in the world has experienced having skis that are running better than average, and skis that are not competitive with the field. Learning to deal mentally as well as physically with those situations is a challenge, and can leave you unsure of where your fitness level really is. That’s simply part of the game! However, realizing that my fitness hadn’t suddenly disappeared overnight was such a relief that I started to have fun again, because I wasn’t spending any energy doubting myself or second-guessing my training!
Why I am writing all this? Because we need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Trying to assume responsibility for the uncontrollable factors in life hasn’t ever gotten me very far, and worrying about it is even worse. That 30km race I finally stopped putting pressure on myself, expecting nothing and racing like I had nothing to lose. I let myself have fun without feeling like a result was the only thing that mattered, and ironically, that resulted in my best result of the week. Life is so weird.
Speaking of weird…the following is a transcription of the conversation that my brain had with my body with about 7km to go in the 30km:
Brain: Ok body! Let’s go! LETTSSSSS GOOOOO!
Arms: Going! I’m going!
Core: Ehhh, fiiiiine, I’m going. Woo-hoo and all that.
Legs: ……shut up, I hate you.
Lower quads: *spazzing uncontrollably and cramping up* …can’t….process…what’s….happening…
Brain: *sighs* Good lord! As usual, I’m going to have to drag you along on willpower alone!
Arms: Sooooooo….we’re not just going to double pole this in to the finish?
Legs: I can probably make it down the men’s sprint hill. Probably. Most likely. At least a 6/10 chance this will go well.
At the end of the day, I’m leaving World Champs proud of the effort I gave, because that was the only thing within my control and I really gave it all. I prepared the best I could, held nothing back in each race, and most importantly, I had fun with my team. I’m taking a lot of happy memories with me! The excited atmosphere and feeling of team bonding we had while face painting and getting ready for the relays. The hugs from friends I haven’t seen in a while who came to support the team. The smiles that greeted us every time we came into the wax truck. The overwhelming amount of love and care I felt when I was overheating and dizzy and our volunteer staff were huddled around me pouring one cup of water after another over my head to cool me down. The fun atmosphere and laughs we shared at the dinner table every night. Every World Champs has its own atmosphere and feel to it, and whether you looked at the results sheet or not, this one was made fun by the people in it.
I want to take a moment to address the scandal that hit World Champs when 5 men; 2 Austrians, 2 Estonians and 1 Kazakhstan racer, were busted for blood doping. The news really hit everyone hard, but in different ways. I had considered one of the cheaters a friend, and I felt somehow personally let down, my first thought being “but…I thought you were a good person???” My second thought was that I felt so angry, on behalf of all of us who are doing our best every day and competing clean…so angry at the coaches who encourage cheating…so angry at the dopers for what they’ve done to skiing in their respective countries and for how hard they’ve made it on their teammates who were just here to compete and do their best. But after all that anger I tried to find a little compassion (I had to dig reaaallly deep for that) and perhaps some understanding. How can we try to prevent doping in sport if we don’t take the time to try and understand what drove these men to do it in the first place? Is there something more we can be doing to educate athletes at a younger age that this is not ok?
As shocking as this was, it would be crazy to jump to conclusions and declare in anger that sport is ultimately flawed or broken. It is not broken, because WE are not broken. As long as there are athletes who are competing clean and using their voices to say that cheating is not acceptable in any form, there is hope for the future.
So for what it’s worth, I do not look upon the news that 5 athletes were caught doping and shrug and say “well, that’s sport!”. I think that it’s so wrong. I think it’s even more messed up that there are coaches and doctors supporting this, perpetuating a culture where they tell the athletes they support that they should cheat and throw away their life’s integrity for the hope of having their name higher up on a results sheet.
I think you can be clean and win, but beyond that, I’m proud to be part of a team that values HOW you race more than the result itself. If you win but you’re a terrible person, that’s much worse than competing with integrity and good character, being a good teammate and friend, supporting the next generation of skiers and showing them through your example that how you pursue a goal matters so much more than whether you actually reach it or not.
For example, at the end of World Champs, I had so many people come tell me they loved watching me race…not because of where I landed on the results, but
because I raced in shorts because I put my heart and soul into it and even when the wheels were clearly falling off, I kept dragging myself up each hill as fast as I could. Frankly, they didn’t care if I ended up with a medal or not. It’s a gutsy, gritty performance that moves people and inspires them. It’s HOW you race, not if you win. But you only get to own the performance if you compete clean, because once you cheat, it’s all over. No matter if you win or not, no performance is actually truly yours anymore. It all becomes a lie. It’s hard for me to even fathom why you could choose to throw away everything for the chance of winning, when some of the races I’ve been most proud of are the ones where I didn’t even come close to the podium! But I also recognize that I’ve grown up in an amazing culture that celebrates a gutsy, go-for-it, give-em-hell try rather than glory alone, and that my whole view is shaped around the idea that integrity is everything.
So, to all the young athletes out there, whatever your sport is, I want you to know that the one thing you will always have throughout your career, regardless of result, is your integrity, the joy of competing and giving it your all. Protect that. Value it. Don’t ever throw it away, even if someone suggests that winning is the only thing that matters. Because it’s not, I can promise you that. Having both won races, lost them, and landed somewhere in the middle many times, when I look back on all the races I’ve gotten to do thus far in my career I have the pride of knowing that each and every one of them was my own, and they were real, and that it was my body doing it’s absolute best every time. So protect your integrity and race the right way, because someday when you retire you’ll want to look back at all the amazing memories you made of racing, traveling and training with a team, and you’ll want to know that all those memories and races are truly yours.