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A Novice goes to Ruhpolding

Kati Wilhelm, Sven Fischer, Julija Tchepalova and many more... I’ve followed their progress eagerly on British Eurosport for two seasons now as I get hooked on both biathlon and cross-country skiing. I’ve come to recognise Ruhpolding, with its crowds lining the ups and downs of the notoriously undulating course. I remember feeling so sorry for the Chinese who came to grief on an infamous corner as she was leading one of the World Cup races last year, only to have the chance of victory snatched from her by Olga Pyleva.

But if you had told me then, that twelve months later I would be competing in a XC skiing race, I would have smiled wistfully and thought, “Yeah, right!” Oh ye of little faith...

Of course Dave had it planned all along when he suggested we enter the British Champs in Ruhpolding towards the end of January this year. Still fresh from our Christmas holiday in Susjoen, Norway, (my fifth time on snow) I was really excited at the idea. The races there are organised by and for the military but civilians can enter too, and the women’s 10km classic race sounded just right for a first attempt.

So, typically for Dave, we started training tout de suite: no more Sunday strolls around Draycote Water for us, nah, it was Saturdays, Sundays, cold, dark evening sessions of hill reps, arms only, keep those tips in, herringboning, ski ganging, mile and a half pieces x 3, all of which had me near to throwing up. This was progress according to Dave and I learnt quickly not to argue. (Didn’t have the breath actually) At least I was getting plenty of sleep at night!

Two weeks later we found ourselves lugging our kit round Coventry Airport. A cosy little joint for those who have never had the pleasure. It’s been described as a shack, hut, hangar. Basic is a word that springs to mind but it got us to Salzburg without any hiccups, apart from the extra £60 for the skis. (It’s all in the small print sir! Tut!)

Once in Salzburg, we jumped into a nice Audi estate courtesy of Budget and with the obvious presence of snow all around, temperatures of about -8 degrees, the holiday feeling soared, though tinged with a helping of nervous anticipation on my part I have to say. Forty minutes or so later, and we snucked into our gästehaus, which sported autographed posters of the German biathlon team, all with cheesy grins, even Uve Müssegang managed a curl of the lip. I touched Kati for luck!

After a couple of grosse biers and a bite to eat at the Hotel Post, we came across some familiar faces in one of the other hotel restaurants. George Gabriel and Adam Pinney, I knew, along with Steve, who I have got to know a little since, on a super weeks’ skiing with the Yorkshire Dales club in Finland (Beautiful place!) George filled us in on the course details and next day (Friday) we were all up there at the Biathlon Zentrum, Dave sussing out the best wax and getting it right as usual, whilst I gaped at the climbs as they stared back at me, appearing far steeper than they ever did on the telly! I knew the course had plenty of them but how could they fit so many hills into 10km? “How indeed!” thought I, mentally adjusting my race plan. “Just survive it Lou, forget about the time!”

And yet, once out on the tracks, happy on my skis (new Madshus racing skis we had bought in Lillehammer at Christmas) I grew in confidence as we did a couple of laps, just enjoying my skiing, practising the herringbone technique, even trying to jump it a bit. “I can do this,” I said to myself and wow! - I got round the sharpest bend/descent successfully three times!

There were plenty of groups of army skiers preparing for the race of course, and some very helpful people too. I began to feel more at home, and less like a fish out of water.

Inevitably, race day dawned, and I did my best to ignore that sicky feeling in the pit of my stomach, by putting on my Norwegian colours (well, you gotta look the part ain’t ya?)

Up at the Biathlon Zentrum, it was all loud speakers, race commentary, music (Tom Jones?) and it really tickled me for some reason to see the little starter gate (wand, Lucy, wand!) just like on the telly, where the biathletes get ready for the off, smiling and waving (or just looking menacing in Claudia Kuenzel’s case) before they set off! Yup! I was going to be doing that!

Athletes were going off at 30 second intervals, which suited me, having done a good few time trials on my bike. There’s something about racing against the clock whilst at the same time trying to “pick off” as many people as you can. Gotta be preferable to a mass start – poles and skis everywhere!

The men’s race preceded the women’s so Davy went off before me with 5km x 3 to complete but he was up for it, still got the oul’ magic as I watched him double pole sturdily out of sight. Little did we know that he would become the British Masters Champion before the day was over. Wow!!!

Soon enough though, my name came round - number 200 as I was called. Much calmer now as I lined up, I just thought “enjoy it, ’cos you love skiing and try to maintain your technique.”

Five, four, three, two, one and off I went, double poling to start then with a kick before I went into diagonal stride round the bend. That was it. I was on my way, no nerves now, just ski like you’ve been taught.

But before long the cold air hurt my chest as I breathed deep and hard. The many things Dave had said during training came to me: “Nothing can actually prepare you for the race feeling, it’s the tension,” “Technique goes out of the window” “Remember to save 20% to kick right over the top”... so easy in theory but my legs were full of lactic. My arms and legs were burning, my heart pounding and lungs gasping in the cold air.

As I approached the first climb the tension predictably prevented me from staying in the tracks and to avoid slipping I chickened out by reverting to herring bone to get me up and over.

Uffff! – and there at the top was this Australian veteran in national colours shouting encouragement to all and sundry. He had a list of all competitors’ names and as I hobbled over the top he shouted “ 200 — Lucy Ryan! C’mon Lucy Ryan! Sha’ass hairts dan!” What a superb piece of encouragement! I’d never heard anything like it before and it made me feel ten feet tall!

Whoosh! Down the other side into one of the descents where we’d been told at the race briefing we had to stay in the tracks to avoid dq-ing, no snow ploughing here, in case we cut any corners. It was a straight, fast descent with a left hand turn at the end and I felt dizzy and faint like when you go over a hump back bridge in the car and leave your stomach behind... but I concentrated hard, and thought “stay in those tracks” and I did it! I stayed in! I couldn’t believe it! Is this the effect of positive thinking, self belief? Whatever it was, it worked. I was feeling so good now, so competent and in control. I was racing! Round the next bend to pass somebody, and then somebody else! “Scalps!” I thought “Let’s be avvin’ ya!” I was on a charge now, maybe not as fast as Kati but for me I was shifting!

Remember the sharp bend/descent I did three times yesterday? Here it was again. I approached it with caution, thought “stay upright” and I got round and right up the other side, momentum carrying me forward. Could there be anything better than this?!

On my return to the stadium to complete lap one, I strode up that first climb in reverse, past me Aussie friend to show ‘em how it was done with a kick over the top before I tucked in for the descent.

More encouragement next from the many soldiers who had positioned themselves at the top of the toughest climb, aptly named the wall (doesn’t every race have one?!) As they shouted “C’mon 200! Use those arms! Keep your head up! That’s it!”. I passed yet another skier – uphill! Now my legs were wobbling – literally!

And so round again for another lap of pain. This time I got tracked by a young soldier on the way out, but I wouldn’t let go, and stuck behind her ‘till I eventually tracked her uphill! YES!! – This was magic! I was stretching the gap between us now. This was soooo good!

As I began that gradual descent to the stadium, the sharp bend came into view, but this time there was a spectator standing there. A moment’s lack of focus and down I went. Bugger! I was going so well. Precious seconds lost as I righted myself and of course who should come flying past but the aforementioned soldier! After my effort up to now, it was all I could do to keep her in my sights for the rest of the race.

(It would be a while before I learned to see my tumble as useful experience for future adventures! Here’s hoping!)

Still, the sun shone and glistened on the snow as I double-poled with bunny hop into the finish. What a joy to stop moving as an official unclipped me from my skis and relieved me of my bib. Purposefully, yet oh so slowly, (I couldn’t actually move any faster!) I headed for Dave and a well earned drink, unable to speak. No other race I have ever completed, not even my one marathon, has sapped me to that degree, but I can say with complete honesty that it was worth every bit.

There were still plenty of athletes around, and there was just a great atmosphere. Here I was in Germany, on a normal winter Saturday, having just completed my first ever skiing race! It didn’t matter that I was exhausted - I was on an incredible high!

The results were published later that day at Army HQ and there I was:
L.Ryan – MXCSC, finished in a time of 42:59 – 21st out of a field of 32.

Pretty respectable for a novice I reckoned. Dave agreed and I had a happy little feeling inside – how lucky I am to have such a coach! I’ll be up for it again next year, and once I’ve sorted out my skating I’ll be up for the double pursuit as well.

“So C’mon 200! – Lucy Ryan git ap thir!”

author: Lucy Ryan
publish date: May 2006

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