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Welcome! My name is Michael Somppi and I'm a competitive cross-country skier. I developed this blog so sponsors, family, friends and fans can keep up to date with my life as a full-time athlete. You can expect regular blog posts about racing, training, and life in general. Check out other sections of my blog by clicking on the tabs above.

Monday, 7 February 2011

My First Taste of International Racing

Sure I’ve raced in the States and I did race the classic sprint at last year’s Canmore World Cup, but Estonia was my first real taste of international racing. It marked my first trip overseas for racing and I’m thrilled to report it was everything I dreamed it to be.

Only three days after arriving in Vierumaki, Finland it was on to Otepaa, Estonia. Two days skiing on the race courses and on my sixth day in Europe I was racing a Classic 15km Individual Start World Cup on what is touted as one of, if not the, hardest race courses on the World Cup circuit. That distance course was the hardest race course I have ever done. The majority of the course was very flowing, with challenging climbs but nothing ridiculous aside from one monstrous climb. This particular climb started at the base of the Otepaa ski jump hill and ended right at the top. It was so steep even the best World Cup athletes were forced to step out of the track and herringbone. The boisterous crowd and TV cameras lining the side of the entire climb were intimidating and acted as motivators to get up that mountain of a climb as fast as possible. With 3 laps of the 5km course my lower back was left aching for 6 days afterwards. Even that didn’t stop me from smiling once I cross the finish line. In my mind, I just conquered the hardest World Cup course; what else do I have to be afraid of now? I finished 62nd out of 75 competitors. Not exactly a note worthy result, but hey, I’ve got to start somewhere right?

World Cup 15km Classic. The fans were loud and the course was intimidatingly hard. Guess who the German is behind me? That's right, Axel Teichmann!

The next day I managed to climb out of bed and race the Classic Sprint World Cup. The race course was much tamer and had some cool elements with bridges and laps through the stadium (which by the way is massive). My race again was nothing spectacular, finishing 66th out of 77 competitors. At least I wasn’t last! It was impressive watching Daria Gaiazova race to a personal best 8th place, huge props to her for an awesome race.

Daria on the big screen duking it out in her semi-final.

That is one cool bus. I've heard the stories but seeing it in person was something else.

With only 4 days until my next race and the major focus of my trip, the World U23 Championships 15km Skate Individual Start, it was time to utilize all the recovery techniques available to me, the cold tub, sauna, stretching, foam roller, and Normatech and rest up.

Thursday was the big day, the Skate 15km. My lower back was still aching however I did my best to forget about it and focus on racing. Thankfully the race organizers did not include the monstrous ski jump climb in the Junior/U23 race courses so the 3.75km race course for Thursday was much more manageable. I started strong up the first climb out of the stadium then settled into my race pace. The individual start format made it easier for me to dissociate from where and who I was racing and focus on myself. By the 3rd lap I was struggling to maintain a high pace. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Kevin Sandau blew by me at the start of the final 3.75km lap. I knew this was a decisive moment in my race and my competitive instincts kicked in, go with Kevin. It was exciting skiing behind Kevin who was getting splits that he was challenging for a medal. I was careful not to step on his skis or poles because every second counted for him. We came into the finish with the cameras trained in on us. I crossed the line and was surprised to see 7th place beside my name. I knew 15 fast guys were still coming behind me… how many would beat my time?

When all was said and done, I finished 14th place! Big props to Kevin for a very impressive performance finishing 5th. It was a bittersweet result for me as the Cross-Country Canada selection criteria states you need to place top twelve to qualify for the National Team and I was only 10 seconds from 12th. Initially I was somewhat disappointed. Afterwards I took as step back and I realized I have to be satisfied with all I have accomplished this season. 14th in the world isn’t too shabby. I mean I was super pumped just to qualify to race here. I had never really given much thought to what my goals would be if I happened to actually make Canada’s U23 Team.

Awards ceremony in the stadium for Wednesday and Thursday's skate races.

I was exhausted after the race. Completely wiped. Though I desperately wanted to race the classic sprints, I knew one day off wouldn’t be enough to recover and race fast again. So I made the decision to skip the classic sprint and focus on the 30km Pursuit. It was exciting watching the U23 guys and gals duke it out in the sprints. Congrats to Jess, Lenny and Allyson on their awesome races, finishing 6th, 7th, and 12th respectively.

After 3 training days I was feeling very good again and ready to race fast Monday. I hopped on my warm-up skis and headed out on the Tartu Loppet trails to start warming up. The tracks were rock hard. The day before the classic tracks were soft and dry with no moisture. How did they firm up so much in one night? Surely I thought with how little moisture was in the snow on Sunday the track would still break down on race day. I was wrong. I had picked the wrong skis. I should have picked a soft, easy kicking ski to race on, not a stiffer, soft track ski. After testing my race skis and confirming I had no grip, my next plan was to load up on grip wax. Surely with enough grip wax I would still be able to kick them and at least get by in the classic portion of the pursuit. Nope. After plenty of layers of kick wax my grip was only slightly improved and to make matters worse the sun came out and the classic tracks started to marginally glaze over.

A race that didn't go my way. The 30km Pursuit.

I’m not going to go into detail about the race. Let’s just say it was a long day and I would rather remember my 14th place result in the skate than my 40th place in the pursuit. I crossed the finish line pale white and feeling sick with disappointment. It seems for every high moment in racing a low moment emerges to bring you back to reality.

Besides the pursuit race my European racing experience was phenomenal. The team was great and the coaches were very helpful. My first taste of international racing was a delicious one and I’m craving more.

After a brief training period here in Thunder Bay I’m off to race the Eastern Canadian Championships on Feb. 11th – 13th.

Until next time,

Michael

Race photos courtesy of fasterskier.com

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