At 5am the alarm blares. At 5:25am we’re out the door, into the sub-20 degree air, piling onto the bus in the darkness. We stop at a gas station convenience store for a hot drink and breakfast sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil. It’s too early to be hungry, but we eat anyway.
The sun creeps over the mountain, illuminating the ski slopes with golden rays. We drop the alpine team off. On the bus again, we travel forty-five minutes away. We follow the river. The bus pulls in to the Nordic center. We unload our skis. The cold air slips under and around and through our jackets and leggings.
Boots on. Clip in to skis. Poles in hand. The snow is icy and packed; we’re the first people on the course. We warm up, breathing hard, hills large and never ending. The trail is a 5.3km loop, winding up, up, up, down, and a bit of flat. But not much flat.
Go to the bathroom. Put our unis on. Stretch out. Find out the race is delayed to 9:30, then 9:45. Ten minute warning is called. We line up in the tracks. Gun goes off. Double pole like our lives depend on it, abs crunching. The tiny little waving flags end, and now it’s time to skate.
Lap one I try to stay up with the girl in front of me. She loses me halfway. That’s when the fun begins. It’s just me, the skis, and the snow. I fall, get up, continue on. Lap two, I smile. This is what I signed up for. No pressure. No stress. I relax and find my rhythm. To be both relaxed and working hard is the sweet spot. Let the skis take me, let my poles help me, let the hills be sets of twenty, that’s all. Twenty steps, then twenty more, until I’m up.
Lap three, final lap. It’s power time. This is for me, for my coach, for my teammate. Oh, it burns. I can’t feel my left foot. Crunch with each pole plant. Try to V2. Focus and move ever onward. The finish line is around the corner. Come into the straight away with the little flags waving in the wind. Cross the line, grinning, arms in the air, victory. I won. I lost, but I won. I came in last, but I won.
One and a half hours of non-stop exertion. Light-headed, drink water. My coach is there, waiting for me, excited amidst everything else. I couldn’t be prouder. I am officially in love with Nordic skiing after my first official race. We did it, coach. We did it, together.