What. A. Week! The US National Championships took place last week in Houghton, MI and although I had high hopes for the series of races, I by far exceeded my expectations. I walked away with three podiums, a little bit of wind burn, and a full heart.
After one of the many races during the week, I decided to cool down with my brother, Anders (who CRUSHED the Junior sprint heats on the first day getting third place)! One of our long-time family friends, James Schneider, joined us for this cool down and the boys asked me about the 20k that I had just completed. I gave them the run down and James quickly asked if this would be a blog topic. Realizing that James is a Midwest Junior skier and still very much in the “know” of what is cool and what isn’t, I asked him, “What do you want to read about on my blog?” To which James rapidly responded, “I wanna hear about the grind!”
US Nationals consisted of four races: a skate sprint, 10k individual skate, 20k mass start classic and a classic sprint. We completed these four races in six days. Looking back on the first two days of racing, I really surprised myself. I was confident going into the skate sprint because I had previewed the course during a local race the week before. However, sprinting is not my strength and there is always a bit of unknown in the chaotic scramble of a 1.5k course, with lots of twists, climbs and descents. I knew I had to play the day smart and draft off of other people through the quarterfinal and semifinal if I wanted to have any energy left for the final, and that was assuming I would make the final! Up until this year, I had never even qualified for a final sprint heat at US Nationals!
Nonetheless, I made it through and knew I would already be happy with the day for reaching the final no matter what the outcome. The final heat went out hot and I was unprepared for the fast pace. On a two-lap course, I tried to focus on holding my own ground, staying out of trouble (like breaking a pole) and knew that an uphill finish would suit to my strengths. At the bottom of the last climb, the leader had gapped us and I was in the front of the chase group. I knew I could easily get swallowed up by these other speedy skiers so in my head I told myself, “Alayna, it’s go time!” And without further ado I sprinted as hard as I could up that last hill and surged forward, just trying to keep the other racers from catching me. I collapsed at the finish line without realizing that I had almost completely closed the gap to the winner and found myself placing second for my first podium ever at US Nationals!
I was giddy with excitement the rest of the day and found myself shaking after the award ceremony as I was whisked away to drug testing. This was another new act to me. At US National races the US Anti-Doping Association picks four of the top five finishers to complete drug tests to ensure that we are all competing clean. Hours later, I finally sat down at our host family’s house and had to actively tell myself to take deep breaths. I was still on cloud nine! All I wanted to do was celebrate, but we had another race the very next day that I had to get ready for.
I woke up feeling tired for a 10k skate, but the excitement from the day before allowed me to run off of adrenaline. I knew that there were about 12 women who could easily be on the podium that day and that I was going to have to work every single transition on the course. I was lucky enough to start toward the end of the A seed of the women so I was able to get splits off of the racers in front of me. I found this super advantageous because within the first two kilometers of the race I knew that I was in the running for the podium, but that it was super close between me and a few other women. At this point, I was so thankful to have the Midwest crowd there because I had someone cheering for me on every single hill! The motivation to keep pushing was almost constant and I kept receiving more splits that I was still in the mix with the leaders.
With about two kilometers to go, everything was hurting and I pretty much had to climb all the way to the finish line. My sister yelled out to me, “you’re in fourth place but only a second behind the next two girls!” For one second I thought to myself, “well fourth is fine, I could be content with that.” Instantaneously though, I told myself, “No Alayna! You’ve worked so freaking hard for this moment, you are not just going to let up now. This is the time that you have to go. You CAN do this!” So, I grit my teeth and I climbed and climbed and climbed, hearing cheers from every last corner. In the last 200 meters I started seeing stars and I think everyone along the course could hear my heavy, raspy breathing. But I kept telling myself, “You CAN do this!” When I finally crossed that finish line, I sat down, took a deep breath, and knew that no matter what the result was, I had done it again. I had left every ounce of energy out there on that course.
I received a pat on the back from a volunteer and he mumbled something to me. In a very delirious state, I just looked at him confused. Then I processed it. “You just finished in third, but the second American. Congratulations!” A rush of emotions overwhelmed me, but mostly I was in awe and just kept sitting there, staring at the volunteer. Still delirious… :)
I had dug extremely deep to find the energy and power during that 10k to make it on the podium. I was still feeling this fatigue two days later when we began the 20k mass start race. This was the race that I was most looking forward to all week. I absolutely love the energy in a mass start and have really improved my distance classic skiing so I was optimistic about the day. However, just before our race began a snow storm rolled into Houghton and brought with it slow, tough, grinding conditions. I hung onto the leaders for a lap and a half (of a four-lap race), but after a feed at about 6k I started feeling sick to my stomach. As someone who has experienced a boot and rally in a race, this was not something I wanted to go through at US Nationals. The leaders slowly pulled away from me and I couldn’t quite hang. I had burned a lot of matches earlier in the week and was left with a bit of an empty tank. I kept fighting by myself through the snow storm, not knowing where the women were behind me. In any race, you have no idea what is going on up ahead of you or behind you and when you’re out there all alone all you can do is put your head down and take on one hill at a time. That’s exactly what I did.
It was a grind of a race and my muscles in my arms and back started having spasms in the last two kilometers. I skied 12k in “no man’s land” and crossed the finish line in 6th place feeling oddly disappointed. Up until this year, 6th place at US Nationals had been my best result, ever! I put this into perspective as the day went on and decided to still be proud of how hard I fought by myself in the woods and recognized that you need to have “bad days” to make the “good days” feel so good.
By the last day of racing I was completely exhausted. I didn’t know if I could make it through an entire set of sprint heats and, of course, another snow storm decided to blow in after the qualifier. Through 35 mph gusts, nonexistent classic tracks, thick, fresh snow, we went out there round after round, when all anyone wanted to do that day was curl up into a ball and take a nap. Everyone who raced that classic sprint dug up the last bit of energy they could find and the races went by in a blur of white snow. The only thing that really stuck with me after the race was that the last 100 meters of the final heat felt more like a mile. Somehow, we did it though. In one of the closest sprint finals I have ever been in, three of us lunged for the line and completed the final podium of the week.
I was pretty fortunate all week to have everything come together for me on (almost) every race day. Sometimes, that’s truly what it takes! You can only control so much; your breakfast, warm up, ski selection, ski wax, mental preparation. This is a lot to get right on one day and sometimes mother nature likes to throw you curve balls with a few snow and wind storms. I was lucky to have these details fall into place for me on the right day and I recognize that this doesn’t always happen. However, I also recognize my attitude and my teammates/coaches attitude all week. I’m not sure what overcame me, but I went into the week feeling extremely calm and at peace with whatever the races were going to bring. My entire family was supporting me at these races, I was seeing Midwest friends, college friends, ski friends from all over the country, and this made me happy. My coaches, Pat O’Brien, and his wax helper for the week, Tad Elliot, only added to this peacefulness. They were so organized, prepared and relaxed that it wore off on me. We were cracking jokes to each other between sprint heats and laughing with each other in the wax trailer all week long. I was the only female racer from our team that week, but my SMS T2 male teammates were so supportive of each other and of me. We kept each other confident and having fun! I truly believe that I owe my race success to my family, friends, teammates and coaches. I couldn’t have accomplished “the grind” without any of them.