Sweden to Germany

The past two weeks has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, great success and tough defeats.  The second stop on the IPC World Cup circuit was Solleftea, Sweden.   I was excited to go since I had never been to Sweden and had heard great things about the country; ABBA, furniture and meatballs, just to name a few.  The previous year teammates had gone to Sweden and raced at the site and the overall impression was that the courses were challenging and the weather usually cold.  Getting there didn’t really set the mood well to the remainder of the trip.  With flight cancelations and further delays, our expected arrival of supper time turned out to be nearing breakfast the following day.  Fortunately transportation had been arranged and we could all get some sleep on the two hour drive from the airport to Solleftea.  The outside temperature wasn’t the only thing a little cool.  It is usual practice to turn down the heat in hotel rooms if no one is in them, so we have learned that the moment you get into your room you crank the heaters.  That was what we did but the results were a little slower than we had hoped.  After five days of both heaters cranked the room finally became warm enough that we could wear just a t-shirt and could take off the sweaters or parkas we had been wearing occasionally.  The food was interesting but that too is expected while traveling.  There were a few nights that variety in the meal was an issue.  Boiled potatoes and some breaded fish just doesn’t cut it for athletes.  For the races, they went well.  I started things off with some clean shooting and victory in the Biathlon Sprint with a race time temperature of -19.  The next race was the 20km classic; I would end up 11th on yet another cold day.  The final race in Sweden I did was the Biathlon Individual.  I had done this race before but there was one difference and that was I was wearing the Red bib (signifies the leader in the points standings).  Like so many things before, learning to race, learning to get onto the podium, learning to stay on the podium you have to learn to race with the Red bib on.  To further explain this, I would miss two shots during the race and finish second.  I know I became a little complacent in my first two bouts of shooting; as a result I missed a shot in each.  Do I blame the color of my bib, no!  I wasn’t in the perfect mindset and that was what cost me two misses, or two minutes of penalties (I was only 12 or so seconds behind the winner.)  The winner was a Norwegian, and with that win he takes back the leader’s bib with ten points separating us.  This was setting up for an exciting World Cup Finals in Germany.

With a long week spent in frigid temperatures and learning the meaning to ‘Welcome to Sweden’, the entire team looked forward to getting out of the cold and into the hopeful warmth and sunshine of Finsterau, Germany.  The World Cups Finals started for me with a Cross Country Pursuit.  This is a new race format and I had enjoyed the previous classic pursuit in Finland, but was somewhat disappointed with the 9th place finish.  This time the race was skating.  The morning’s prologue finished promising for me, with the sixth fastest time.  The combination of a course that makes you consistently work and a short distance left me pretty beat after the first race.  The afternoon’s final was double the morning’s distance and that suitable me much better.  Based on disability and the morning’s results I would start eighth.  I fought right from the start.  I was a little worried when the starter behind passed me dropping me to ninth, all within the first kilometer.  A further 2.5 km I had taken back my eighth position, I continued to surge ahead and was on the heels of six and seven in no time.  Successfully overtaking them put me in sixth and I could see the fifth place skier.  On the final climb, I closed the gap and slipped into fifth as we came over the top of the hill.  I would end up closing in on fourth place but unfortunately ran out of course.  A fifth in my first skating Cross Country race boasted my confidence that I was in great shape.

The next morning I woke up with a sore throat.  As a precaution I took the day off and used it to get some rest.  The next day I felt better and went up to the race site for a very short training and to become familiarized with the range.   By the next morning I was feeling much better and ready to go.  That day was the Biathlon Pursuit.  The race plan was simply ski fast, shoot clean, ski faster, shoot clean and ski even faster.  That’s what I did.  After a bit of refocusing from the last race, I was back to shooting the way I should be.  With a fast ski time and zero misses, I won the morning’s prologue.  That was a great start but I had to do it again in the afternoon.  Interesting enough the Norwegian finished second behind me and with his percentage started 30 seconds ahead me in the final.  My focus was on the range; that was where this race would be won or lost.  I closed the gap to 15 seconds as we entered the range for the first time.  Both of us shot clean, and so did the guys right behind us!  This was shaping up to get a great race.  I would close the gap during the second lap.  That set up one of the greatest things in Biathlon, a head-to-head, side-by-side final shooting bout.  I stayed focused on myself, my rifle and my target.  I would clean once more and took off, a tight group of strong skiers came in right behind me and if they went clean, the race wouldn’t be over yet.  I turned up the afterburners and didn’t dare look back until I had crossed the finish line.  I did it again, shooting clean and great skiing led me to my third Biathlon victory of the season.  I again earned the lead in the points standings.  Everything looked set for a Biathlon World Cup overall victory but my health had another idea.  I was hit with a stomach flu Saturday morning and I didn’t leave my bed all day.  Racing the final Biathlon race on Sunday looked almost impossible.   Life is unpredictable!  I awoke Sunday feeling better and decided to go for it.  It is a Biathlon race after all and anything is possible.  It was not to be this season.  That race, I did everything I physically could to get a result.  I shot clean, but ran out of energy I had nothing left.  I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours and you don’t do a road trip on just fumes.  That was one of the toughest races I have ever done.  After all the racers had come in, the points were tallied and I fell four points short.  It was an incredible World Cup season!  The last race wasn’t what lost the overall for me?  I look back and know I missed three shots and to me two of those were actually more significant to my second overall then the last race.  I’m extremely proud of second place; I was 12th in the overall last year.  Prior to this season I had two podiums, two thirds.  I finished this year with six out of seven Biathlon podiums and three victories.  There are many things I learned that will better prepare me for the upcoming World Championships and for next year.

Time to get back to Canmore and prepare for the final event of the year; World Championships.   If the last few races did anything for me it was make me hungry for Worlds!

Mark


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