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Navigating a World Cup Sprint Race


The word “sprint” conjures images of a short, speedy event, so if you’ve never seen a World Cup Cross Country Sprint race before, you might be surprised to learn that it’s an all day affair that can be as grueling for the athletes as any distance race.  It’s a wonderful event to attend as a spectator, but come prepared to be out in the snow for a few hours, not a few minutes.


Sprint races start with a qualification round.  All racers, typically 50-80 athletes per gender, get their chance on the sprint course.  At 15 second intervals, each athlete powers around the course in an effort that typically takes 3-4 minutes.  The first goal for everyone in the event is to be one of the top 30 racers in the Qualifier, thus allowing the finisher to move on to the Quarter Finals.  For racers new to the World Cup, making that top 30 cut off is a huge accomplishment: a chance to race in the heats with the best in the world and a near guarantee that you’ll score World Cup points.  Based on the results of the Qualifier, athletes who finish out of the top 30 are done for the day, completing their warm down routine and heading back to the hotel for rest and recovery.  


Following the Qualifier, the 30 athletes progressing to the Quarter Finals are issued a new bib based on the Qualifier finishing spot, #1-30.  Athletes will keep these same bibs through the Final.  For those qualifiers, race day has just begun.  


In the two hours between the Qualifier and the Quarter Finals, athletes need to manage their time and their bodies thoughtfully.  Experienced athletes know exactly what and when they need to eat and drink during that window.  They’ll change out of sweaty clothes to stay warm and may find a quiet spot to lay down, listen to music, rest or reflect on the course and what strategy they may try in the Quarter Finals.  Since the race course may be closed, as the Quarter Finals approach, athletes may warm up by jogging or taking a spin on a stationary bike, bringing both mind and body back to race focus.  Coaches and wax techs are using this time to fine tune skis, both kick and glide, and share their thoughts on the course and race strategy.


The Quarter Finals consist of five heats, each with six racers.  The first two finishers in each Quarter Final heat qualify for the Semifinals along with the athletes with the next two fastest Quarter Final times, affectionately termed “Lucky Losers.”  Quarter Final heat assignment is decided by athlete choice: the athlete finishing 11th in the Qualifier picks their heat first and that choice continues through 10th place up to first.  Once the fastest qualifier has selected their heat, the 12th through 30th place qualifiers choose amongst the remaining Quarter Final spots.  


Often athletes with the fastest qualifying time will choose the earlier Quarter Final heats, maximizing their rest ahead of the Semis and Finals.  A skier finishing in the middle of the Qualifier has to decide if they’d rather race alongside the very fastest qualifiers (generally early heats) or amidst those who qualified middle of the pack (generally later heats).  Racing with the top qualifiers may increase the possibility of a fast heat and thus an opportunity for Lucky Loser qualification, while racing with more middle of the pack qualifiers may present an opportunity to outski the competition and earn one of the top two spots in the heat, qualifying for the Semifinals outright.


The strategy of choosing a heat pales in comparison to the strategy of the race.  Where are there opportunities to pass on the course? Is there a tricky downhill likely to cause skiers to crash? Is there a particular segment of the course that plays to the strengths of the racer? Where should I sit back and where do I need to go? If I’m out late at the start, who do I want to ski behind?  Sprinting well requires athletes to engage both their bodies and their minds.  Anything can happen in a sprint heat and the athletes must be able to react.  Falls, broken equipment, poor choice of a downhill line, a surge at the wrong time – all can radically change the outcome of a sprint in a moment.  If a racer falls and accidentally takes out a competitor, there’s no “do over.”   It’s best to scramble back upright and start skiing as fast as you can in case others crash further along the course.   Given the unpredictability of sprinting, the mantra Never, Never, Never Give Up is a good one to embrace.  


Twelve athletes progress from the Quarter Finals to the Semifinals which is comprised of 2 heats of 6 skiers each: the top two racers from each of the 5 quarter final heats and two Lucky Losers.  In the Semis, heats are assigned rather than chosen.  The top 2 finishers in Heats 1 and 2 of the Quarter Finals are in Semifinal Heat 1; the top 2 finishers in Heats 4 and 5 are in Semifinal Heat 2.  The top two finishers in Heat 3, and the two Lucky Losers are split between Semifinal Heats 1 and 2.  


Managing the time between the Semis and the Finals is an important activity for the remaining field.  Athletes have about 20 minutes between the end of the Semis and the start of the Finals.   During this time, athletes moving from the Semis to the Finals may take a few sips of energy and will keep moving, jogging or walking around, keeping their bodies warm and ready.  They need to stay focused and positive, perhaps discussing with their coaches key learnings or improvements. Athletes who progress to the Finals from Heat 1 of the Semis have about 5 min more rest than those in Heat 2. It doesn’t sound like much, but the difference between 15 and 20min of rest for a World Cup sprinter can be significant.  


By the time a Sprint Champion is crowned at the end of the day, six athletes will have raced four times and managed nearly 5 hours of race emotion and engagement.  With that in mind, it’s obvious why Sprinters need quickness, power and endurance!


Although a seat in the stadium will give you a good view of the finish, I’d rather be out on the course where the sprint drama is still being written.  Look for a spot on the course that’s wide enough to support passing where athletes might try and shake things up.  Watching on an uphill or a tricky downhill will give you a taste of the incredible skill these athletes have both in their control of their skis and their ability to push their bodies.  Watch the athletes as they move through the course to see if you can gain insights into their strategies.  It’s not always the case that the athlete who starts at the front finishes in that same spot.  


Wherever you are on the course, the most important thing is to be ready to celebrate a day outside in the Minnesota winter.   Bring your hand warmers and hot tea, your positive energy and your cowbell to cheer on all the competitors and be part of a truly fun and amazing event!

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