In yesterday’s blog, posted before the race, I said that our goal as a US Men’s 4x10K Relay Team was to finish the race, to avoid getting lapped out. Not even I would have guessed that finishing the race would come down to just a couple of seconds after an hour and a half of racing.
The 3.3K lap was taking the leading skate skiers just over 7 minutes. The race organizers will pull a team from the race before they actually get caught so that they don’t interfer with the lead skiers and don’t appear on camera.
Our lead skier, Andy Newell, was skiing the first leg for the US for the third Olympics in a row. He used his experience to ski a very respectable race. He lost just 1 minute and 29 seconds to the leaders. (Remember, we have just over 7 minutes to lose in 4 legs before we get pulled.)
Reese Hanneman skied the second leg for us. Like Andy, Reese is a sprinter. Unlike Andy, Reese doesn’t have much experience in World Cup and Olympic level distance racing; yesterday was his first Olympic start. Putting Reese in the second leg of the Olympic relay is a little like throwing him to hungry wolves. He fought like hell and held on for a little over a lap, and then he made it hurt to limit his losses after he was dropped by all of the other teams. In the end he dropped 3 minutes and 40 seconds to the leaders and tagged Scott Patterson 5 minutes and 9 seconds back.
I was watching all of this unfold while warming up, and I knew it was going to take some great skiing from Scott and a serious effort from me for us to finish. Luckily, Scott, skiing third, delivered. It is almost impossible for somebody skiing all alone in the back to ski as fast as the leaders of the race who are pushing and fighting each other. For the first lap Scott actually put time into the leaders. The next two laps he limited his losses. In the end he skied 1 minute and 7 seconds slower than the lead of the race and tagged me 6 minutes and 16 seconds behind the leaders. More importantly, he tagged me 55 seconds AHEAD of the leaders on the track.
I knew that I only had to stay ahead for 2 laps because then the leaders would finish and the last lap wouldn’t matter; I’d be allowed to finish. I set out to do 6.6K as fast as I possibly could. I was skiing “scared” and started about as fast as I’ve ever started a race. In my first lap I actually put a little time into the leaders and I had a minute and 5 seconds near the end of that lap. I was getting splits from our staff all over the course of how much time I had on the two leaders. I knew that even with a minute five it was going to be close because I was going to pay a price for starting so fast and they were going to be racing for the win. About halfway through the second lap I could see them on a switchback right below me on the course and they were unnervingly close. I skied the last two hills as hard as I possibly could. When I crested the final hill I was 12 seconds ahead of Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, the finishing skier for the winning Norwegian Team. Luckily, it was only a few hundred meters all downhill to the lap lane. Once I was safely in the lap lane and out of the way of the finish, I basically came to a stop. I felt and acted like my race was over. I was feeling pretty good for having made it. I watched Klæbo finish before taking off on my final lap. I relaxed and enjoyed the experience of my first time anchoring a relay. Because we were several minutes behind the second to last team, the jumbotron showed me and the entire stadium cheered for me all the way up and over the final climb and into the finish. Honestly, it was an experience that rivaled the Opening Ceremonies. I’m so glad I had that opportunity and that my teammates and I did JUST enough to finish that race. It took everything we had.
Backing up, I was able to join my sister for lunch yesterday before the race. We also played a game of cribbage.