Over the past ten days I’ve returned to familiar ground. Returning to Vuokatti, Finland for the sixth time, it’s almost become home away from home. You get that feeling if for a race venue; you are nearing triple digits for the number of days you spent there. You pick up on the routines, how things are run. Cleaning ladies come on Monday and Wednesday or Thursday, and if you are lucky maybe Friday afternoon for some clean towels. You start to be able to predict the meals. There is always potatoes, a fish dish of some sort, some other meat dish changing between beef, pork or reindeer. A pasta dish usually every third day. Creating different dishes from the leftover food is a specialty of the Vuokatti Sport Centre. They are the masters and the food tastes good too. Getting over jetlag is a multi-day chore at the best of times; this fact is made very difficult by the lack of sunlight. Guess what Vuokatti doesn’t have a lot of? Sunlight! The majority of the days are overcast with no direct sunlight. The two days that we did see the sun, it rose about 9:45 and was set before 1:30. We joked within the team that with two days left in our stay in Finland we had finally gotten over jetlag, but it was the truth.
The trip started normally, smooth flights, maybe slight delays but nothing too major. The weird started once we arrived in Kajaani, a town about an hour flight North of Helsinki. Half of us saw our luggage in Helsinki and connected it through to Kajaani. But only four bags showed up at our destination. To put that into perspective, each person on the team will travel with a minimum of three bags and two had four bags with them, so a total of 22 bags. The plane we took could seat over 150 (I figure). That night I could count the passengers on that flight on my fingers and toes. The question is: there was room on the plane so why didn’t our bags arrive, who knows? Spending the first day without anything, wasn’t very productive but things like this happen.
With an extreme cold front coming in for the first few races, the schedule for the World Cup changed. The first race, the Cross Country Sprint was moved indoors. Yes, indoors! The very first ski tunnel ever built is in Vuokatti. Saturday morning a race course was set up, a simple out and back totaling 1.2km. From the very beginning I was using this race to prepare myself for the Biathlon races that would follow. I was very pleased with my qualifier but after an unlucky quarter-final, found myself done early for the day. With the schedule changing, the Biathlon races were now pushed back.
I struggled to find my top gear during the next Cross Country race, the Pursuit. This was a new format and I enjoyed that aspect of the race, something new, exciting and the thrill of more head to head competition. I just could not push for that extra speed needed to challenge the podium. I was disappointed with the start to the World Cup season. It wasn’t all bad though; I wanted the results now and was determined to push hard for them.
The first Biathlon race I wanted it badly. I focused on the shooting in the range and laid down the best time I could on the skis. I was the first to finish but with all the best starting at the end of the field, all I could do was wait and see where I ended up. I figured I was top-5, more like third, fourth. The stronger finishers came in, there were some fast times. The announcer said that the Norwegian was the winner, and then said “from Canada…” I was shocked! I came in second, my best ever result. I was over the moon.
The next Biathlon race, the Sprint Pursuit has always been a favorite of mine. With some rest and two days of good training I was hoping to continue and prove I had the form to compete with the best. The morning’s prologue was a good race but that is where I’ll leave it. My legs felt heavy, I had no speed, and with a miss in the first bout it was bound to hinder my start in the afternoon. I would start third after finishing fourth in the morning. I did the best recovery I could and prepared to come back in the afternoon. I pushed hard from the start and again had my focus back on the range. The Russian, one of the best skiers in the World, missed three shots in the first bout and with me going clean, I had him only a few meters ahead of me as we headed out for our second lap. He pulled away from me over the lap but added another miss to his total. Now I had the upper hand (so to speak). I pushed as hard I as I could trying and put a gap on the Russian, but I was feeling it again, and he was right on my heels. A quick pass around me on the last little wall and that was how it ended. I finished third. A good race but the one shot cost me a lot.
Then Sunday arrived. I woke up and immediately was focused on one thing, putting together the best I race I had in me. I can’t explain it but I could feel that something different. Someone suggested that with a second and third there was only one color missing! Being an Individual, each missed shot costs a minute penalty. It is a shooters race, you can’t out ski a minute penalty. I had two goals for the day; shoot very well and long, powerful kicks. I accomplished both! I shot clean, my best shooting performance in an Individual ever. I knew I was challenging for the lead and as I left for the final lap, I was told that I was leading and no one else was clean, there was a chance. I gave it everything I had left, with only the final climb left, a coach told me I was up by 3 seconds. I found something extra and dug in, I fought for every second I could. Crossing that finish line I knew I had done everything possible. Whatever my finally ranking was to be I was going to happy. The worst was waiting; the Norwegian still had to come in, and was just off the lead, he would be pushing hard! Waiting for him to finish was bad enough but the worst was waiting for the confirmation. Finally the announcer said it, “Mark Arendz has won his first World Cup…” That was incredible, I jumped up, yelled out, got a hug from my coach. I couldn’t believe it. I completed the set! It had taken four years to get my first victory and to do it in Vuokatti, the same place I began my World Cup career.
All the teams are a tight knit community; I was getting congratulations from every team, for the win and for shooting. I had to cool down from the race but also the sheer shock of it all.
From a respectable but disappointing start to ending with some of the best races I have ever had, this trip to Vuokatti has been memorable. I’m sitting back on the plane, excited to get back to Canmore. It has been over a month since I left for Whistler and I look forward to putting in some solid hours training and preparing for the next set of World Cups. With everyone deep into their competitive seasons, I wish all the best to them whether it be Canada Games, World Juniors, Senior World Champs or whatever races are next for you!