Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lost & Found — Skiers’ mishaps don’t dampen enthusiasm for Europe trip

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Sarah Riley got a brand-new set of classic cross-country ski gear during a trip to Europe to race in two ski marathons. Justin Moore got a broken nose. That’s still better than Pete Sprague, who didn’t get there at all.

Three Soldotna skiers planned to travel to the Czech Republic earlier this month to participate in the 50-kilometer Jizerská padesátka on Jan. 11 and the 60-K freestyle Dolomitenlauf in Austria on Jan. 18, but between lost baggage, cultural experiences and a Czech Olympic Nordic ski medalist saving the day, the races weren’t even the highlight.

For Riley, the races were going to be her first ever long-distance events, and she was anxious to see if she could make it through. She did, “despite the airport’s best efforts not to let me ski,” she said.

“Air France lost my skis. They said, ‘We have no idea where your bag is. Whether your bag is full of gold or skies, we have no idea where it is,’” she said.

She called her mom, who suggested Riley call her friend, Pavel Nuc, for help. But Nuc, who Riley met in high school when he was a foreign exchange student, lived three hours away so she didn’t figure he couldn’t help her. Turns out Riley and her mom were both right, and wrong.

When she got to Liberec, where the Jizerská was held, she quickly found out that with 4,800 people in town for the ski races and massive airline baggage handling snafus, she couldn’t find any skis to borrow.

“There wasn’t a rental to be had, but from what I heard, the rentals they did have looked like they skied across gravel,” she said.

She found a woman who considered her situation, then pointed to a guy and said, “This is a nice young man. He will help you.”

His name was Pavel, the same as her friend. He took her to a ski shop owned by a Czech 1988 Nordic ski Olympic medalist, who set her up with all the classic ski gear she needed. The shop’s name was Nyc, but she misread the sign and thought it was Nuc, the same as her friend Pavel’s last name.

“It’s like it was fated to happen,” she said.

The race went well, Riley said, with her finishing in 4 hours, 23 minutes. Her ski bag showed up the next day, so she was ready for the 60-K freestyle Dolomitenlauf. She’d waxed her skis before she left for the trip and had no idea if they’d match the snow conditions. They did — almost a little too well.

“I stepped on my skies and they were so fast, I was flying down the course. About 10 K in I was passing people and my ski tip got stuck in deep snow and in less than a second I was like 180 degrees around. I just flipped so fast, but I followed through with the rest of my body,” Riley said.

With her knee wrenched she didn’t get back up to the same speed as when she started the race, but she still finished in 4:01 which put her 17th in the women’s division.
Having an Alaska ski uniform on during the 60-K made her somewhat of a celebrity at rest stops.

“They would yell, ‘Yeah Alaska! Go Obama!’” she said.

People’s overall friendliness was one of the most noteworthy things about the trip, Riley said.

“All the tourism books say to watch out because people aren’t necessarily nice or helpful, but I don’t think I met anyone who wasn’t overly helpful,” she said. “Everybody was just so nice it kind of makes you want to go back. Everywhere else I’ve been they’re not so friendly.”

Interactions with other people were the highlight of the trip for Moore, as well.
“Just to talk to people around the world about politics and history and what’s like in other countries, especially central Europe, which we never really think about,” Moore said. “Every day was like a living history lesson, which Americans don’t get a lot of, so it was probably the best trip I’ve ever done.”

That’s not to say everything went off without a hitch. Moore’s skies got lost, as well. He found some gear to borrow, but the skies didn’t fit and the poles were about 6 inches too short. Luckily, his gear turned up the day before the Jizerská race, although his wife, Orie, didn’t get her bags until the end of the trip.

“Everything she meticulously packed for didn’t show up, but it really didn’t matter. It all worked out fine,” he said. “I suppose the lesson is, carry on everything you can carry on trips like that.”

Having the gear he was used to didn’t entirely make up for the fact that Moore wasn’t completely used to classic skiing.

“It was a four-hour learning event. I didn’t classic ski before this 50 K. I think I practiced for like three weeks, so it was my education,” he said. “Everybody I skied beside had a different technique, so I’d try this technique and try that technique.

“It was fun. I had a really good time. But I think I probably broke my nose. I spent all my time learning how to go uphill and not downhill, so I had four big crashes.”

He got in a few high-speed impacts going down hills in classic tracks surrounded by other skiers.

“I was over my head. I tried to slow down and I was running up on people’s skies and didn’t know how to slow down. Going up I did fine, and on flats, but going down —that was too much. … I talked to people afterward about what to do when you’re going too fast, so I learned a little late.”

The 60-K Dolomitenlauf went more smoothly. Moore saw about 10 broken poles along the course, but none were his. He finished in 3:28, and was resting at the finish line, feeling pretty happy with himself, when his accomplishment got put into perspective.

“About an hour later an 87-year-old man comes in, then right after him a blind skier comes in led by another guy with radio,” Moore said. “That was pretty inspirational to see a guy come in and complete a technical course with no sight. It’s amazing and pretty humbling. It’s like, so what?”

While Moore was getting a new outlook on accomplishment, Sprague was back in the U.S., getting a lesson in overcoming disappointment.

He had planned to go to the Czech Republic for a week do the Jizerská race, then come back to Soldotna so he wouldn’t miss a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, of which he is a member. But Seattle is as far as he got. His flight schedule to Seattle changed and he was only able to check his bag as far as Seattle. He got there, but his bag — with his skis — didn’t.

“It never showed up at the time that I had to get on the plane to Prague. I wasn’t going to go there with my passport and my camera and the clothes on my back for a week, which was very irritating and disappointing, to say the least,” Sprague said. “It just seemed like things weren’t working out. A lot of people said I should go anyway. It was a tough decision, but things were just piling up, unfortunately.”

Though he was dissuaded in his first attempt at international travel, it won’t be his last.

“Skiing for me wasn’t the focus, it was the trip and seeing someplace new,” he said. “I’m going to go, for sure.”

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