By Annie Pokorny
Few moments define the beauty of Nordic ski racing better than the silence before the start gun of a mass start. In that 10 seconds of stillness, where lines of racers lean over their poles and pause for the start, potential is tangible.
Unfortunately, so is race anxiety.
The challenge is to learn how to use that excitement to your advantage.
To many veteran racers one of the best aspects of Nordic skiing is racing a mass start. It epitomizes the appeal of modern racing. They’re fast paced, tactical and, sometimes, a little dangerous. From sprint heats to marathons, confidence in the start will set the tone for the rest of your race. That confidence is important, because while you can’t win a race in the first 100 meters, you can lose it.
When you walk into a big race, two mindsets will ensure that you walk out safely: tactics and tranquility. It all starts with a plan.
Tactically, whether you’re sprinting or in a marathon, it’s never a good idea to empty the tank in the start. Especially now that most mass starts are distance races, you must find a way to make up ground while not exhausting yourself. Whether you’re in the first wave or the last, working your way up should be a goal in the start, but you should do so in a way that won’t toast you for the rest of the race.
Additionally, if you have the choice, start towards the outside of the chevron, and always keep space in view where you can go if you start to get boxed in.
If you’re in the center of the pack, own the space in front of you. If someone tries to take that space, don’t let them have it! That said, if the space in front of you happens to be the entire course, it’s almost never a good idea to lead out of the start unless you are absolutely certain you can drop the pack immediately.
For distance races, work your way to the lead pack and sit in and wait until later to make a move, because leading requires much more energy than drafting behind someone.
While a good understanding of tactics is great, knowing that you can calmly execute your plan is better.
In order to make those tactical moves without panicking, enter the race with a healthy dose of self-confidence. Part of that confidence is a sense of calm. Instead of trying to move as fast as possible, darting from side to side or obstructing competitors, the best racers in the world weave through mass starts with a sense of grace and ease. Trust yourself, your skis, and the training you’ve done. They will all get you to the finish line.
Walking into the start, stand up tall, take deep breaths and gather a sense of calm before the storm.
Because racing can be like a storm. One of my former coaches told me that racing is like a twister where the racer is at the eye of the storm. When you step to the line, music, announcements, stress over conditions and energies from other competitors, spectators and coaches will all swirl around you.
What great racers do is take that energy and convert it into something tranquil. Something called confidence. That, combined with a good plan, will get you to the finish line safely and efficiently, maybe even first.