As the calendar turns from July into August, most people are packing the shorts for a weekend getaway. Not me, I’m packing skis, gloves and a parka for my next trip. The team’s annual on-snow training camp at the Snow Farm on New Zealand’s South Island. The first sign that the winter season is fast approaching and before long it will be time to compete once again. This camp has traditionally been one of best camps of the year, with huge gains made by all. A fantastic springboard to launch from for the remaining camps and into the competitive season. This year will not melt from memory that easily.
After finding my fitness late in the earlier Bend camp, I worked hard between the two camps to be ready for New Zealand. I arrived in New Zealand feeling fit and eager to put in a great camp. Don’t get me wrong this year’s camp was one of the best but it had a rocky start, literally and figuratively. The first day we arrive was warm and that warmth was melting the little snow the trails had revealing a few brown patches. The surrounding hills as well were less white then most other years. By Day three the weather turned the following week was overcast with most days a light flurry gradually adding to the base of snow. Throughout that time there were a few periods of snow that made it difficult to ski. The snow was getting better and better as each day went by. The rocky start to the camp was in part due to my foolishness. Day two we were in the gym and I tried to unjam a squat rack collar, but instead sliced open the palm of my hand. So, for the first week I could not even hold a pole. Leaving me with only one choice, to ski legs only for some longer workouts. This was not all bad, I learned a lot from my ‘injury’ time. I was still getting in some big hours and some great technique focused time as well. I was still checking off both goals for the camp. Legs’ only skiing in deep, soft snow is not exactly the easiest on the body. I paid the price, by the end of the first week I was not recovering as well as I should have. I had to watch and control my energy if I wanted to continue benefiting from this camp. The first weekend that I was up at the Snow Farm there were two FIS Continental races. I had to sit those out because I couldn’t even grasp a pole yet, let alone race.
In the following week I was able to ease back to using a pole again and start to manage my fatigue level. As the second weekend rolled in I was ready for the second racing opportunity of this year’s camp. For the past 20 years the Snow Farm has hosted New Zealand’s only distance (42km) cross country event. This year the Merino Muster earned international recognition by becoming an Associate Member of the World Loppet Tour. I was looking forward to this race since last August. Last year was my first year to race in the premier 42km race. Unfortunately the weather conditions didn’t cooperate and the organizers were forced to modify the course. With the weather and course changes it resulted in one of the hardest courses I have ever raced. As I finished the 2013 edition of the Merino Muster I was already looking forward to getting another opportunity to race on the proper course.
The 2014 edition of the Merino Muster was what dreams are made of. The sun was shining, the temperature was near perfection and the snow was in great shape after a fresh snowfall a couple of days previous. As the field lined up I thought I was in a perfect spot, right behind the fast leaders. But as the race began I got sandwiched back behind a few guys that took off like a shot but quickly faded. Before I hit the first kilometer I had already lost contact with the leaders and was zig-zagging across the course to find gaps and get around. As everything was settling down I found myself skiing with my wax tech, Ian and a Norwegian. We were skiing well together, sharing the lead. To me it felt like a good pace, something I could hold. The only group ahead were the leaders, including Brian McKeever (CAN), Noah Hoffman (USA), Maciej Kreczmer (POL), Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Sylwia Jaśkowiec (POL)- I wasn’t going to simply ‘close the gap’ to those skiers! The trio I was in worked for me. Around the eight or nine kilometer mark, it had become Ian and I and the Norwegian just off the back but not giving up. Ian and I were moving well together, making the race very enjoyable. We stayed together for most of the race, but around the 29km mark, I took the lead on a long gradual climb. Ever so slowly I inched away from Ian, as we both hit the long downhill section I could tell that the moment was right for me to crank it up towards the finish. I was really pleased with the pickup in pace I had left at the end of the race. It was a long race but I was feeling good, able to push to the finish. I would be the sixth finisher in the 42km (I was the fourth male to finish). I was super pumped after the race. It was an awesome event, fantastic weather, amazing course and I skied a solid race. I could not have asked for anything better. Big thanks to Ian first for the great skis and second for the great ski.
As the camp turned towards the final stretch, there was not more I could have asked for. The weather for the final week could only be described as from a dream, with bright sun shining, picture perfect classic tracks and windless, no breezeless shooting conditions. It almost felt bad to take a nap in the afternoon and not be out there skiing more. With everything working out I was able to put in a huge final half to the camp. The skiing was that good I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Though, I did take the opportunity one morning to go for a long run in Mt. Aspiring National Park. I’ve run a few times there but only up to the Rob Roy Glacier. That is one of my all-time favorite runs but this time I ran with Graham further up the valley to Aspiring Hut and beyond. On the run it is hard not to look around and just be in awe. The sheer beauty is almost overwhelming. We were on the lookout for some Orcs, or the very least run into some Hobbits, but no such luck.
For our day off we had the opportunity to experience something quite different- taking a helicopter ride from the parking lot at the Snow Farm to the Queenstown Airport. Not too many ways to top that start to a rest day! For me there was a slight sentimental aspect to this ride. It was 17 years, almost to the day, since my last helicopter ride. The day I lost my arm I was flown by helicopter from Charlottetown to Halifax. This year’s ride was much more pleasant for everyone as we flew over the Crown Range, Arrowtown and onto to Queenstown.
It is amazing that every time I go to New Zealand that I come away amazed. It truly is one of the greatest places that I’ve ever visited. The diversity in the landscape from majestic snow-capped mountains to endless grazing pastures. Rainforests to palm trees, oceans to magnificent lakes. New Zealand has it all and much more. I feel it is one of my greatest places to be astonished and inspired by nature. I leave Middle Earth after another very success camp. It had its moments early on but all together it all worked out to make me a stronger skier. I feel ready to continue through the fall and the final stepping stones before another competitive season kicks-off.