Relay days bring out my inner Disney Princess. What can I say? I have always had a profound love of glitter and all things sparkly, but on relay day I get to put the USA and some stars or a flag on everyone’s cheeks in face paint, too! I glitter it up to high heaven and put on the striped socks that make me feel like I can go do anything. Magic can sometimes happen on relay day, and perhaps it’s that stubborn belief that “miracles happen, you know?” that makes me laugh and realize I do in fact sound like a Disney Princess. But like, one of the new-age ones that goes out and does cool stuff, not one of the original ones that just lays around waiting for a strange man to kiss her.
I was so proud of our teams for how we skied today in the relay. All you can ever do is your very best shot, and as a team we tend to work into the season. So a 5th place finish felt very solid with a lot of potential to come down the road, and everyone skied their glittery faces off! There were some seriously gusty performances out there and it was so exciting (and nerve-wracking!) to watch with one eye on the jumbotron as I kept jogging around to stay warm and ready in the start pen.
I was tagged in with a 46 second gap to the podium, and closed it down to 9 seconds from 2nd place by the time I crossed the line, which was a huge confidence boost for me and a sign that I’m coming back into the race form I know and love. Racing with Ida (SWE) and Tiril (NOR) was really awesome. I went out super hard to try to shorten the gap to the next group up (here goes that “anything’s possible if I want it badly enough” attitude again…) but when I realized that I wasn’t going to drop the girls with me and that it was a really flat course with a ton of drafting, I changed tactics after about 2km and slotted into third to conserve energy and plan my finishing attack, which I barely eeeked out before Ida crossed the line behind me. We all pushed each other hard and it’s good old gritty racing like that that helps me find my sharper race form later in the season!
Speaking of finding my form, finding my normal life rhythm while hopping countries takes a little while, too. I have to laugh because sometimes when I’m talking to my sister on the phone, about 10 minutes in she’ll sometimes pause and say “wait a second…are you still in Norway, or….?” and I can’t blame her – I’m always on the move! Case in point: I used to have a little feature on my website that was the “Where in the World is Jessie now?” button. I had to take it down because I could never remember to update it when I was changing countries all the time. See? Even I don’t know where I am half the time!
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be living more than half your year on the road, never quite in the same setting, but at the same time always being in a predictable rhythm once the season begins.
We almost always travel on Monday to the new venue, train Tuesday-Thursday, do what we call “race prep” on Friday which includes testing a bunch of skis with our techs. We’ll also meet up to do some intensity training on the race course to get our bodies fired up for the hard efforts ahead. Then we race Saturday and Sunday, and start the whole process over again next Monday by traveling to another country. Even though our location is never stable, you’re always doing the same things every week, and that feeling of being in a pattern and having the same habits keeps me from feeling totally lost when I’m gone from home for 5 months. It’s even easier over time because we’re often coming back to the same venues year after year, so I don’t even have to re-learn the race courses, my favorite running loop or a new gym setup. I can literally tell you what aisle the baking soda is (and I can picture what it looks like in Finnish) in the Ruka grocery store. To be fair, the store only has like 4 aisles, so that’s less impressive than it sounds. My memory’s not THAT good. I can, however, visualize each course on the World Cup if I’ve raced it a few times, and it’s nice to know what you’re going to get.
Last week in Lillehammer was such a strange one for me. I love racing there and the courses are what I describe as “swoopy” (and I realize I made that word up, as my computer keeps trying to change it to “snoopy” on me). But I firmly stand by the adjective “swoopy”! The course is always turning and winding its way up and down the steep hillside, with some sharp turns and fast downhills. When it’s not icy it’s never so fast that it feels dangerous, just incredibly fun. The races on that snoopy (oops, my computer changed it on me again) course were also a mini-tour, meaning if you don’t start the first race, you can’t continue with the ones after it.
Unfortunately for me, I caught this mild cold that’s going around the World Cup right now. I was super excited to race but only if I thought I was healthy enough that I wouldn’t push the little head cold into my lungs and create a larger setback that would hurt me down the road. So the two days leading up to the race I didn’t do any of my usual training…I laid in bed drinking tea and only going outside my room for meals or to go for a walk twice a day. I CRUSHED Netflix like a pro, and drank an alarming amount of tea with honey. It was really discouraging to not be able to do my normal race prep and I knew that racing after not getting my body fired up wasn’t going to be pretty, but having the chance to race at all was more important for my overall season. And to do that, I needed to get healthier.
I think I wanted to race so bad that my brain convinced my body that I was healthier than I was! So I started skiing on Friday, telling myself that I’d first test skis, then warm up, and along the way I’d keep checking in with myself to see if it was a good idea to be racing. My body actually felt pretty good, so I qualified for the sprint but in the heats I didn’t feel at all like myself. I know that I always work into each season so that I can be in top form when it matters most (in late January-February) but it still isn’t fun to know that you’re nowhere near your best racing gear. I also realized after the race that while my cold was indeed very mild, I still wasn’t racing totally healthy, and on the World Cup in a sport like cross country, racing at anything less than 100% will make you bleed time in a race. The same thing happened the following day for the individual 10km skate…it was the strangest thing, but during the race I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I didn’t feel like I was there at all, and while I was pushing myself as hard as I could go, the spark wasn’t there.
And that’s when a much-needed mental pep talk came in handy.
For the 10km classic pursuit, I threw any expectations of feeling good right out the window, so that if I didn’t feel great during the race it wouldn’t throw me off guard. I expected to feel terrible, in fact! I just focused on doing the very best I could with what I had that day, which in the end is all we can ever do on any given day anyways.
I’ve been having this realization over and over again throughout my career, but it never hurts to reinforce it a little in my brain: People will still love me even if I don’t win. They love me for who I am, and ski racing is just a little piece of the complex puzzle that makes me the sparkly chipmunk that I am. I’ve always felt this from my family, team, boyfriend and close friends, but to feel it from the larger ski community and fans of the sport as well is humbling and overwhelming (in a good way). I finished my race and still had a smile and sparkles to spare on my face, and all the SMS Nordic kids that were there for a training camp were right outside the media gate, waiting to give us hugs and high fives! They were there for an awesome training camp in Sjusjoen, Norway, just a little ways away and they came to cheer for all the races. It was so cool to see the kids that I help guest coach in the summer at the World Cup, and to see that to them it didn’t matter what place I came in – although I know they were cheering hard for me to do my best – it just mattered that I DID do my best. And that’s one of the best things about this sport.
I also have to say how much I love and appreciate all the awesome fans that come out to cheer at every World Cup venue. It isn’t hard to find the motivation to push past what you think you’re capable of when there’s hundreds of people screaming your name!
As an interesting side note, I often have people asking me what it feels like right after crossing the finish line. I used to really struggle to breathe at the end of race after that final push to get my rapidly-falling-apart body across that finish line in one piece. When I’m laying in the snow for those first 20 seconds, I’m usually on the edge of blacking out, and I’m in incredible pain. Often in a gesture of “congrats” or “good job”, people will come over and rub your back, which is super kind and supportive. But I used to FREAK OUT at the feeling of a hand over my rib cage when I was hyperventilating. It became known on our team as a sort of weird rule that you never touch Jessie’s torso until at least 30 seconds after a race. It’s become a little bit hilarious because after relays, another skier will come over to say good job and reach down to rub my back, and Sadie or Rosie will shout “STOP!!!!”.
The skier will freeze, hand extended inches above my back.
“DON’T TOUCH HER!”
*hand immediately retracts*
“Sorry, she just….has this thing…just, don’t touch her.”
I adore and love my teammates for going out of their way to protect me and my weird little ways to fight off a panic attack.
These days, I’m proud to say I’ve gotten so much better at this and at controlling my barely-checked fear at the feeling of not having enough air. But I know my teammates will always have my back. (see what I did there?!?)