MWC Report -- Rob Corkran
We've had Masters World Championship reports from racers David Evans, Suzanne Corkran, and Rune Harkestad. Now it's time to hear from our observer-in-chief and chief photographer, Rob Corkran, with his eye on the larger perspective.
The Masters World Cup 2023 was held in another beautifully situated mountain town, Seefeld, Austria. For Suzanne and me, it was surprisingly accessible. Departing from Seattle in late morning, we arrived in early afternoon the next day, local times. We took flights through Chicago to Munich and a three-hour bus ride direct from the airport.
The head of American XC skiers is John “JD” Downing. He does a great job of organization for these events, arranging lodging and transportation options and providing the coaching functions for the entire group. We chose an apartment complex at the start of the xc ski trails, our particular unit with a balcony overlooking two ski lifts. We found ourselves amidst skiing royalty, among whom was our own Rune Harkestad accompanied by Augustina. Next door were Mary Heller Osgood and husband Chris, New Englanders. She is always at or near the top of her class, now FO8. Above us was the second fastest female in the entire event, a friend of both Rainey Hoffman’s and Jeff Hashimoto’s from Dartmouth. That would be Alison Arians, an F05 from Anchorage. Joy Cordell and Jeff Clark were across the hall from us. David Evans shared an apartment in town with a local, he and Jennifer having visited Seefeld regularly in the course of their teaching career in international schools. The local got sick and moved in with his parents, sparing David the exposure! [ed. note: Rob mentioned that David seemed to know everyone in the finish area!]
All this was foreseen by David Tower, who cancelled his reservations in February. I had been buoyed by a 25-centimeter snowfall in mid-February which enabled the area to open most of its hundreds of kilometers of tracks. Rain had ended that a few weeks before the event.
The result was a continual struggle by organizers and track crews to keep the trails in operation. Our first night sump pumps were up and running and by morning new tracks had been set. There had also been two inches of snow. Rather than tilling it into the slush the snow had been pressed down, making for some semblance of hard powder in a wintry scene. It was the only time in our visit that it looked remotely like winter in Seefeld, and it lasted about four hours!
The struggle to maintain the tracks was further complicated by 861 skiers training and racing on 7kms of track, with the addition of tourists for whom this was the only available track for their spring vacation! As the week progressed, limitations on use of the track increased dramatically. By the last races, if I wished to get to spots along the course outside of the immediate stadium area, I could not ski and was reduced to wading through water-logged grasses and jumping small impromptu streams in the open fields.
Organizers had to revamp the traditional schedule. The first day featured the short races, classic in the morning and freestyle in the afternoon. Thereafter races were only in the mornings. With races limited to 5- and 7-kilometer courses, traffic was heavy and sections could deteriorate rapidly. The trail crew had some success hardening the track by using salt. That was particularly successful on relay day. Skating the first day in the afternoon was for some the greatest challenge of the week, even though it was the short race! Joy described slush shooting back from the hole in the shovel of her Fischers and hitting her in the shins!
The course starts at the base of the jump hills and within 200 meters begins a prolonged leftward descent of modest pitch but considerable length. Two-thirds of the way down racers were already at pretty high speeds. Untracked, the downhill would become slush-rutted.
M05, 06 and 07 are extremely competitive and this meant scores of skiers practically shoulder to shoulder at high speeds. I witnessed one disaster. One of the lead skiers started to go up on one ski, but caught himself. I breathed a sigh of relief too soon, because another skier somewhat back in the pack suddenly went down, causing a 25-skier pile-up. Part of the whole mass slid off the course, taking out 40 feet of fencing. Fortunately everyone got up, though some had to find new poles. It would seem that there was no part of the courses that did not offer potential hazards in one race or another. Face plants seem to have been a relatively common occurrence. David Evans hit dirt, I believe in the initial charge out of the stadium. Gina Campoli of Vermont was forced into standing water at the bottom of a downhill.
After the initial downhill, the course made two 180-degree turns such that skiers were skiing back and forth in opposite directions before heading out of the stadium area on to the course proper and a large meadow, after which it became hillier and separated into the different distances.
In the afore mentioned M05, 06 and 07 classes, I would hazard the guess that their races can be more competitive than some World Cup races. That is partially because there are no restrictions on the number of entrants from each country. David Evans has proven himself in other sports to be one of the toughest competitors out there, and he seemed amazed by the level of competition. I did not see Rune after his sixth place finish but he was reportedly quite pleased and we can understand why! If you are in the top ten in those groups, you are undoubtedly one of the best in the world. I located myself such that the start of M07 was one of the most impressive moments of the entire week for me. I was at the far end of the stadium where the left downhill began. After the gun went off, a wedge of scores of skiers (all 60+!) flew toward me, with Kent Murdoch at the apex. I later complimented Kent on his start, but with a rueful smile he said that that had also been about the end of the race for him! He had fallen back somewhat as the race progressed. The top women in those age classes are also awesome skiers and there are a lot of really good skiers. Alison Arians, for one, skates the uphills with formidable power, scattering skiers of all levels as she ascends. In the older classes, there are many fewer skiers. A few outstanding skiers dominate the competition, often competing against each other by choosing the same discipline in which to race. There can be a number of good skiers, some extremely proficient technically, at the next level, making for exciting racing among themselves. That is the situation in Suzanne’s class, where Berit Hoyvik of Lillehammer, a previous gold medalist, but no longer the fastest, has beautiful technique.
In each of her races, Suzanne dueled with another good skier, each from a different country; a Latvian, a Finn, a Norwegian and a Canadian. Because so many in her class chose to skate the prior day and there were withdrawals, only four started the last classic race. As is not unusual, the Canadian “super skier” ran away with it. But Suzanne had a great race with a Norwegian, which she writes about on the blog. Another American woman was behind them ready to pounce if there were a disaster, always a possibility on these courses.
Even if you are not with the best, you can have a great time at these MWC events. Bert Pschunder, a good local skier, usually finishes in the bottom third of his class at MWC. (But last year he had the most evenly timed laps of anyone in his class! This year there were no split times, an annoyance for me as an observer.) But Bert over the years has developed friendly rivalries, a Greek living in Australia being one of his cohort. This was Joy Cordell’s first experience at one of these things. Though she finished at the tail end of a very competitive pack, my guess is that she will try this again. Like all participants, she comes back with many tales. [ed. note: Joy's report is coming.] David Evans’ piece for the KSC blog on his trip was inspired. Even though Seefeld is a special place for his family and he took time from his career to return there, I might expect him to try another shot at this sometime. No matter where you finish, it is that fun an experience. It is just that unless you are a Rune, Kent or Ginny Price [ed. note: or Jan Guenther, in the photo below], you do have to approach the event with some humility. The top skiers are just that good!
There is the matter of waxing. Many top skiers and others choose to use professionals. Boulder Nordic was present and using them was not cheap and required reservations. Swix and Toko offered reasonably priced options and took all comers. Local ski shops had options. We used Boulder Nordic at Minneapolis and Beitostolen. The first time Suzanne put on her skis after their wax job the skis almost left without her. I heard her give a yelp and saw her struggle to stay upright, as the skis, and Suzanne, barely, were well on their way down the slight incline! We had them do both glide and grip. Usually that worked out really well, though Suzanne’s skis iced in the middle of the 30k! If I recall correctly so did those of another customer, Per Johnsen. He did a face plant off the top of a hill! A profound indignity for such a masterful skier! Also the only time that I have ever seen Per upset! Over the two years that we used the service I became a little frustrated with the suspense leading up to the delivery of the skis pre-race. Suzanne is unlikely to get her skis before Rune, for instance. For us, there was sometimes little time to test skis before the start. With the realization that, even at this level, Suzanne just wants skis that work and adequate time to get comfortable on them, I proposed resuming the waxing myself, to which she readily agreed. Rune, after the first races, was not particularly pleased with his skis’ performance. Rather than blame the pros, he opined that he had not anticipated conditions and did not bring the skis that were best for them. Some others working with Boulder Nordic were unreservedly happy. I respect those pros. Yes, they take your money for something you can do yourself. But they offer a valuable service to top skiers and others who want a superbly prepared set of skis as well as release from the time it takes to prepare them. However, it is ski waxing and anything can happen. It takes a certain moxie to carry on when anything or everything can go wrong. On the rare occasions when that happens on the Norwegian waxing team, with subsequent serious negative effects on their stars’ performances, it is called a “wax bomb.” All of Norway is exercised and the social and school lives of the families of the coaches and wax technicians are upended for days as they deal with the flak!
Spouses and partners were once again in evidence. Augustina held down the fort and looked after Rune. Her experience in health care may have been behind their decision not to attend the final banquet. COVID and colds were popping up with increasing frequency in the hotels occupied by other Americans, not to mention elsewhere. More and more people were wearing masks in public places. Jeff Clark and I waxed skis for our wives, not without incident. I have taken to roto fleecing our skis, and did not bring an iron.The first time I charged my battery, there was a small explosion and a puff of smoke! I was actually later able to extract another 30 minutes of charge from the charger before it totally failed. By brushing manually, I was able to wax with the remaining charge for three more races! When I reported the explosion to Jeff, he proudly showed me his trusty antique travel iron and offered to let me use it. Several hours later, he reported back that it too had failed when plugged into 220v!
Suzanne and I will have a diﬃcult choice for the coming year. JD is already enthusing about next year in Vuokatti, Finland. Suzanne is wary of the cold, as in the last few years she has had trouble dealing with it, even at SilverStar. Alison Arians of Anchorage, the friend of Rainey and Jeff H. from Dartmouth days, in inveighing upon her to go, rapidly outlined five things she can do to prepare for the cold. Meanwhile one of my best skiers at the Bush School almost fifty years ago, who also skied for Dartmouth, Lisa Ragen Ide, has invited us to come to Minneapolis for the World Cup event! What a choice, and we are lucky to have it!