Cross country skiing is not for the faint of mind

Waiting at the finish line with tissues and water, one volunteer offered to wipe the snot from an athlete’s nose as he struggled to breathe.

Waiting at the finish line with tissues and water, one volunteer offered to wipe the snot from an athlete’s nose as he struggled to breathe.

It was dripping down his face, mixing with the spit pouring out of his mouth.

He accepted the offer.

After skiing 15 kilometres in well under an hour during the Canada Winter Games cross-country ski races on Thursday, competitors collapsed in the snow, their bodies heaving as they gasped and coughed.

It didn’t look fun.

“It looks like we’re in so much pain,” said Yukon skier Emily Nishikawa putting her skis back in the wax room after the race.

“But there’s something about pushing to the max and feeling terrible at the end; then you feel so good when you’re done.”

Because he was lying facedown in the snow after crossing the finish line, it was hard to tell if Brendan Green felt good.

The Northwest Territories skier had just won gold in the men’s 15-kilometre race, and the NWT mission staff was screaming.

Green, once he could talk again, admitted he was surprised.

Ski racing is not his forte.

The gold medalist spent most of his winter in Europe racing biathlon, and also competed last week at the Games.

“Biathlon is more my focus,” said Green, who started Thursday’s cross-country race at the very back of the pack.

In the freestyle cross-country races, the athletes all start together. And based on past race times, the faster skiers are placed at the front.

The skiers at the back are at a disadvantage, said national cross-country team events co-ordinator Dave Dyer.

But if the slower skiers were put up front, they’d get over run, he said.

Swarming up the hill — a sea of bobbing heads and flailing poles — the 51 male racers struggled to stay upright.

Every now and then, one went down, sometimes causing a pile-up.

“Sticks get broken during these mass starts,” said Dyer.

 Coaches wait several hundred metres up the track to hand replacement poles to skiers in need.

“Usually the closest coach will give out a pole and they’re not always the right size,” he said.

The coaches are also responsible for choosing the right wax before the race.

But wax isn’t as important in skate-skiing races, said Yukon coach Alain Masson.

“It’s more important to have good skis under the wax,” he said.

The wax and the skis are chosen according to snow type and temperature, and local skiers have up to six pairs, each worth about $700.

Running with the front pack for the whole race, Yukon’s David Greer was holding his own.

“The pace was high,” he said, pulling clothes over his Spandex after the race.

“Those guys are really fast.”

Greer, who earned Yukon a gold medal on Monday, tried to make a move on the last hill.

“I held my speed to save some energy and tried to pass on the last tight corner,” he said.

But Greer went down after his ski caught soft snow.

“And Graeme (Killick) from Alberta crashed into me,” he said.

Greer, who came in seventh, was a little sore from the crash.

The Yukon’s Colin Abbot, who came in 30th, was happy with his race.

“It just feels so good when it’s over, and I didn’t give up,” he said, still catching his breath.

After the first lap, Abbot was ready to call it quits.

“But then I told myself how good it would feel to finish,” he said.

“And after that I picked it up and the rest of the race was OK.”

Having the mental capacity to push to the limit is as important as technique and physical ability, said Masson.

“These skiers have an amazing ability to push and focus for long periods of time.”

National team cross-country skiers all have their own psychologists, said Masson.

And thanks to special funding made available three year ago, the Yukon ski team also has a sport psychologist.

“We learn visualization skills, how to be mentally prepared and relaxation techniques,” said Nishikawa.

“I use the skills mostly for skiing, but they could help with anything in life.”

Few teenagers have the desire to push themselves to the limit, said Masson, who trains his ski team all year.

“These skiers pursue excellence,” he said.

“And with the mental skills learned from this sport, the ability to focus and set goals, these athletes are often great people in our society.”

 Watching the female 10-kilometre race from the sidelines, Helen O’Conner was excited.

Her daughter Heidi O’Conner-Brook was one of the youngest racers competing, and she was “just skiing her heart out,” said O’Conner.

“They really push themselves to the limit,” she said.

And on Thursday, some skiers pushed themselves past that.

Newfoundland and Labrador skier Andrew Casey started in first place in the men’s race but pulled off after a couple of laps.

“I threw up this morning,” he said.

“And I just lost too much energy.

“I shouldn’t have started.”

The Yukon’s Ray Sabo also disappeared from the course.

“He was sick,” said his mom Angela.

“He was pulled off the race, and I don’t know where he is.”

It’s a painful sport, said Green.

“But it’s satisfying.”

In the male 15-kilometre race, Ontario’s Gavin Hamilton took silver and Alberta’s Curtis Merry earned bronze.

In the female’s 10-kilometre race BC took top honours with Alysson Marshall winning gold and Marlis Kromm taking silver. Ontario’s Alana Thomas got bronze.

“I didn’t know I had it, even coming into the finish — I could hear skiers behind me,” said Marshall.

“I love this whole lifestyle,” she added.

“You push hard and you win.”