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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.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

My European Racing Adventure

It’s hard to believe I was only gone for 2 weeks. In that time span I traveled to Europe, raced 5 times in 3 different countries, survived a stomach flu, got to know some of Canada’s best cross-country skiers a little better, learned the ins and outs of European ski racing, and flew back home again. That’s a busy 2 weeks if you ask me!

Before I get into any details I want to thank our trip leader, Eric Bailey, for running an extremely smooth trip allowing us athletes to give our best each day. I would also like to thank our wax chief, Patrick Moore, and assistant, Fraser Mills-Connery. No complaints out of those two, they did their job and they did it extremely well. In fact, Fraser was working so hard we caught him trying to catch some zzz’s during team meetings! And no, surprisingly it wasn’t because Eric was rambling on for hours.

Ok, now time for the details. Upon arriving in Munich, Germany we hopped in two vans and drove, headed for Belanio, Switzerland. A short drive up switchbacks from Belanio brought us to Campra. Here lay a beautiful network of trails situated in a valley below high snowy, windblown peaks. The trails offer a wide variety of terrain ranging from flat valley skiing to steep pitches climbing the valley walls. Of course, the race course favoured the steep climbing sections. I felt good considering the hefty travel and 6 hour time change. The weather was windy and cold, but we’re used to that being Canadians, right? Well, actually not so much this year. It’s been warm in Canada!

Scenic skiing in Campra, Switzerland

The first race was a 1.4km classic sprint and the start list included the German National Junior and U-23 team, several good skiers from France, Italy, and Switzerland. At the top of the list was a name I’m sure you’ve heard of; current World Number One Dario Cologna. I was unsure of what to expect, but I went out there and skied a solid qualifier. In retrospect I should have skied more out of the tracks because the high winds had blown them in making the tracks a bit slow. Nevertheless, I qualified for the heats in 29th place. With a nothing to lose attitude I pushed hard in my quarter-final heat. It was aggressive and everyone stayed together right to the end. A German dude took a spill before the final climb and I passed one more in the finish stretch to finish 4th in the heat and 20th on the day. I was psyched! My first international heat and I was right in the mix! Tomorrow is going to be even better I thought to myself.

When I woke up the next morning my stomach felt off. I was especially wary because Fraser and Alana had both already had some kind of stomach flu and Brian was currently feeling rough as well. It took me 45 minutes to eat breakfast but I got it down. I warmed up and decided to start the race. If I felt bad I would drop out after one lap. I actually felt pretty decent on my first lap around the 2.5km course so I decided to finish the 10km classic. That may have been a bad decision. My energy was low to begin with and it only got worse as the race progressed. On top of that, the conditions were ridiculously slow and the weather was cold, sucking away any remaining energy I had. I finished 53rd. I attempted a cool down ski and almost didn’t make it back to the wax room. Upon arriving back to our accommodation I lay in bed, exhausted. Over the rest of the day I emptied my stomach, slept a lot, and fainted once. There would be no 15km skate race for me on Sunday.

Sunday afternoon we drove back to Munich and stayed the night in the Movenpick Hotel. It was a short turn around for a sick guy with little energy or food in his stomach. Fortunately my appetite was back to take advantage of the morning feast the Movenpick offers guests. Monday we flew to Riga, Latvia, hopped into two new vans and drove to Madona.

Tuesday we checked out the ski trails in Madona and I instantly liked it. The 1.7km sprint course offered little rest and some long working climbs. They weren’t steep, but they were more than long enough to be a challenge. The 5km distance course was one of the hardest courses I have ever skied. In total it had 198m of climb with the feature challenge being three consecutive long steep climbs with fast, twisty descents between them. I did some intensity to wake up the body and planned my strategy for the next day.

My trip roommate, Brian McKeever, testing out Fraser's hilarious arm chair bed in Madona. Fraser's thoughts - "It's the most comfortable arm chair I have ever slept on"

Wednesday I had my best sprint qualifier of the season. I didn’t have amazing power but I paced it perfectly and worked every section really well. I thought maybe I’d qualify in the top 20, but I finished 29th again. Being a Scandinavian Cup as opposed to last weekend’s Alpen Cup, the field was entirely different and I think a little stronger. There were many strong Norwegian, Finnish, Estonian, and Swedish skiers in attendance as well as a team from the U.S.A. My quarter-final heat started fast. After the first climb I was sitting in last. I hung in there, conserving what energy I could, then put the hammer down on the final climbing section. I moved into 5th place and came around the final corner closely following the four guys in front of me. Again I managed to pass one guy in the finish stretch for 4th place in my heat and 20th on the day. I was right in the mix again.

Thursday was a 30km skate mass start on the grueling 5km course I described above. Off the gun everyone went like mad. Before the race I asked Brian McKeever about mass start strategy in a race like this and he recommended staying as relaxed as possible and conserving energy as opposed to constantly sprinting and making aggressive moves for position. I did my best to maintain my position in the 40+ skier pack without wasting energy. The pace wasn’t too fast off the start and for 18km I hung in with lead pack. There was a lot of yo-yoing going on and plenty of crashes to avoid. In a race like that you’ve got to have your head up! For sure it was the craziest mass start I have ever done. At 18km the pace surged and I didn’t have it in me to go so I joined up with a group of about 7 or 8 skiers, including Brian, and we skied it into the finish together. I managed to position myself fairly well coming into the final few kms and gave everything I had to finish 2nd in our pack. We also came up on a Norwegian metres from the line, but he was able to out lunge me at the finish. For the third time I finished 20th place.

Myself followed closely by Brian McKeever in the 30km (Photo Credit: Eric Bailey)

Sprinting to the finish at the end of a gruelling 30km race (Photo Credit: Eric Bailey)

Friday we drove to Albu, Estonia and went for an afternoon ski to check out the ski trails. Feeling pretty janked (new term I learned this trip – means exhausted/messed up) by this point I opted to sit out Saturday’s classic sprint to focus on Sunday’s 15km classic individual start. Once again the field was very strong with top Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Estonian skiers in attendance. I am sure glad I made the decision to not race the sprint for two reasons. I still felt janked skiing on Saturday and it was minus 20 with high humidity. My toes were freezing!

Thankfully Sunday was warmer and I was feeling good again. My goal today was to pace the race well. I have often been starting too fast this season. Only a few hundred metres after starting my race I came up behind a Norwegian skier, already one lap into his race, who was moving well. Although it was a bit slower than I would normally start I decided to hop in behind and take the ride. I followed him for my entire first lap of the 3.75km course and his coaches said he was in 2nd at that point in the race. I figured I happened upon a good guy to ski with. I took over on the 2nd lap and he followed. He took over again on the 3rd lap and I hung on. He finished strong and turned into the finish stretch as I headed out for my 4th and final lap. I faded a little in the first half of the 4th lap then found a second wind and finished fast. I winded up 30th on the day and was happy to accomplish my goal of pacing the race well.

Taking a look at the results sheet showed just how tight racing in Europe is. I finished 2minutes 5seconds behind the winner, Norwegian World Cup skier John Kristian Dahl, in 30th place. The third place skier finished 51 seconds behind the winner. In a 74 second span between my finish time and the 3rd fastest time were 26 dudes. That doesn’t happen in Canada.

Post 15km race, standing on top of the "big" ski hill in Albu and feeling satisfied with my racing experience in Europe.

My European racing adventure had come to an end and it was time to go home. Everyone on our B-Tour team had some awesome results and I had a great time hanging out with them for two weeks on the road. Special mention to Graham and Phil for their pairs of 5th place finishes. Impressive stuff!

Above: Phil skiing to 5th place in the Campra Sprint A-Final. It was a killer finishing climb!

Below: Phil skiing to 5th place in the Madona Sprint A-Final. Check out the sweet brand new ski lodge in the background!

Overall I’m happy with my racing. I took a lot away from this experience and am pleased with my consistency in all disciplines. I finished 20th in a classic sprint, skate sprint and skate distance race, then finished 30th in a classic distance. Of course the stomach flu situation sucked, but that was all part of the learning experience. You have to be able to go with the flow and adapt on the fly when your racing in Europe, that’s probably the number one lesson I learned. The trip also gave me a better idea of just how many fast skiers there are in Europe.

What’s next on the docket? With National Championships over a month away I found a new goal to focus on over the next two weeks, the American Birkenbeiner! I’ve never done a loppet before so this will be another new challenge for me and I’m looking forward to it!

Till next time,

Michael