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Six Days in China

12.Mar.2019 by Liz Guiney

Oh, the places ski racing will take you! Most recently: Beijing, China, for the 2019 edition of the China City Sprint Tour. Ida, Corey, and I decided to make the journey to China for three freestyle city sprints, which are part of China’s plan to hype up winter sports in their country before the 2022 Olympics. We were part of a US contingent which included 13 athletes from all different clubs. The races also included athletes from Sweden, Norway, Italy, Russia, and Germany, and the host country, China. If you really don’t like reading and want the highlights, here they are: dumplings, extreme jet lag, racing next to the Olympic stadium, SMOG, Great Wall of China, more dumplings, ramen, right hand turns. For everyone else, here’s the day by day!

Day Zero

We were only in China for about 3 hours on this day, so it doesn’t count in the official tally. However, travel days are always fun, right? This one starts with a 3 am wake up for Corey and me, then a 6 hour layover in Toronto, a 13 hour flight to Beijing, and 9 pm arrival at our hotel, the night before the race. Oh, and that’s actually over the course of two days, but who’s counting. Ollie and Ida have slightly more civil travel days from Boston and Munich, respectively. We have a team meeting and pass out, completely exhausted from the day.

Day One!

Our first real day on the ground in Beijing, and also, race day number one. Air quality today is…. not good. The kind that hurts your lungs when you step outside, and cuts visibility to around a quarter mile. Our race course for the day is a two lap 1.7k freestyle sprint. It’s in the plaza right next to the Bird’s Nest, the Olympic stadium from the 2008 Games. Most of the race courses we’re used to from SuperTours and World Cups wind through the woods and climb and descend steep hills, so this course is something very different for us! It’s essentially a giant rectangle with one short bridge hill. Lots of right hand turns, and a lot of flat. Speaking of flat, that pretty much describes how we feel! The snow is slow and baking in the 60F sun. Racing in a literal fog from pollution, and a figurative one from jet lag, we push through anyways.

I squeak into the rounds in 29th and finish 29th in the heats. Ida is battling some food poisoning, but still races hard and finishes 16th in the qualifier and 18th in heats. City sprints are interesting because they really limit the amount of time on course for testing and warm-up. Our wax techs get about 20 minutes to test, and we get 25 for ski testing and warm-up. It’s an extra challenge, but the techs overcome it and give us great skis nevertheless. Other fun things from the day include “Chinese style” portapotties (no seat! no toilet paper! minimalism!) and our athlete lunches, which include, of all things, Subways sandwiches, Coke, and Snickers bars. I can tell I’m really tired because somehow I only manage to take two pictures for the whole day.

Arriving at the Bird’s Nest stadium. The race course is in the plaza to the left
Smog masks for the win!

Day Two

Day two on the ground in China also happens to be our second race day! Instead of racing in downtown Beijing, our race venue is in Shougang, which is about an hour drive from our hotel, in the industrial district. It’s also where they plan to put the Olympic village for the 2022 Games, so we’re all really interested to see it. Upon arrival, we can’t decide if we’ve arrived in a run down amusement park or a post apocalyptic scene. Apparently the steel factory there shut down over 15 years ago but the buildings are still intact. They plan to keep many of the original structures in place while building the village. It will be fascinating to see what it looks like in three years!

Unfortunately, we also wake up to an air quality index of over 300. For reference, most major cities in the US hover around 50, anything over 150 is unhealthy, and 300 is deemed “hazardous”, with outdoor activity strongly discouraged. Luckily, after a day on the ground, we all seem to get our bearings and feel better in the race. The course for the day is just one lap, and includes a fast, icy start, as well as a very gradual climb with rollers. Ida qualifies in 10th, and then powers through to the A Final where she places 2nd! Corey also qualifies, and then finishes 3rd in her quarterfinal, for 16th overall. I’m happy to feel good in my qualifier and finish 26th.

The race course on day two in Shougang
The steel factory buildings, with the race course to the left
Warming up in a hazy glow with my smog mask
My quarterfinal heat
Women’s podium with Ida in 2nd!
Finding fun things on a cool-down jog with Corey

Day Three

After two races in two days, we are very happy to have an off day on day three. We’re even more excited because we get to see the Great Wall of China! On our bus ride from Beijing to the Wall, we learn all sorts of fun facts about the wall. For example, it’s 3,000 miles long, and extends from the ocean towards the interior of the country. It was intended to protect the Chinese from attacking nomadic groups from the north, including the Huns. It also has really cool watch towers where guards would light signal fires to communicate. Most of the wall was built by the Ming dynasty, which ruled in the 1300’s to 1600’s. One thing they don’t tell you is that the Great Wall is steep!! We walked from the tour bus stop in both directions had some burning calves and quads as a result.

In the afternoon, a few of us go to the venue in Yanqing to go for a very short ski and to get our bearings. We’re very excited about this particular venue because it includes both left and right turns! They also put in rollers both out of the start and into the finish, so it doesn’t lack for interesting features.

Looking out from the Wall, which extends way past the far ridge
We had good representation of current and former GRP skiers on the trip! Three out of four of our wax techs (Ollie, Pat, and Bryan) are former GRP athletes
Course preview with Felicia, Heather, and Becca

Day Four

Day four of racing brings a new location with the most exciting course yet! (including aforementioned left hand turns and rollers). It’s nice to get out of the city to Yanqing, a future site for one of the Olympic villages, and also where they will hold the luge, bobsled, and alpine skiing events. The air is also slightly clearer for our third race day, but by that point, most athletes are hacking quite a bit as a result of the other race days.

I don’t have very many photos of the day, but it was a really impressive venue with tons of spectators. The course winds around the circular building in the first photo, which is also the athlete building. Racing goes decently- Ida makes the semi’s and finishes 12th in the heats, which puts her in 9th for the overall sprint tour. I finish 30th, and after racing, the exhaustion of the past couple days really sets in! It’s crazy to think that we raced three times in four days right after flying halfway across the world. Needless to say we are all happy to be done racing, and to enjoy the banquet, which features Chinese opera, traditional dancing, and a sweet raffle.

A bit of course prep on the day before racing in Yanqing. This was looking out from the start. The organization and infrastructure that goes into city sprints is seriously impressive.
Ida cruising to 2nd in her quarterfinal (Photo Forrest Mahlen)

Day Five

With our racing behind us, day five means that we can do some exploring. Unfortunately for us, a few days into our stay, the Chinese government called their annual meeting in Beijing, so the city is pretty much closed down. We can’t go explore the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, or any of the other famous sights. However, we’re still in a pretty cool area, and the pollution is also way down so we can venture out without masks! One group checks out some caves, others use the hotel bikes, and our group goes on a long run into the mountains to see what we can find.

Our run takes us to the backside of the mountains, where we find construction for the bullet train which will go in for the 2022 Games. It will take visitors from Beijing to the mountain venue in under an hour (usually a three hour drive). The concrete pillars are massive and jarring compared to the rugged landscape.
A solid adventure crew!

Day Six

Most of the team flies out on day six, but Corey and I don’t leave Beijing until 7 pm, so we have the whole day to explore the city! After successfully navigating the Chinese subway system, we pop out into a cool shopping district called Nanluoguxiang. It’s a narrow, twisting pedestrian-only alleyway with tons of restaurants and small shops. It’s a perfect way to see a little bit of the city but avoid the craziness of downtown. We eat ramen and rice bowls, drink matcha, and practice our calligraphy then hop on the subway back to the airport for another 13 hour flight back to the States.

We were extra happy to have clean(er) air on our day in Beijing.
Apparently we flew directly over the North Pole on our way back!

Reflecting back on the trip, it was a bit of whirlwind! Usually, when we travel to races, we leave for the venue at least a few days before the first race, even more when it involves a significant time change. It was a huge challenge for me to keep up with the travel, the time change, and the jam-packed race schedule, and all of the other athletes I talked to felt the same way. With the air pollution on top of that, it was definitely one of the more interesting race experiences I’ve ever had. However, I’m really grateful that Swix China paid for all of us to fly over and covered our lodging and transportation while we were there. On the whole, it was such a cool opportunity to see a country that I normally wouldn’t while ski racing, race against some really fast people, and appreciate even more being back in Vermont to breath some clean, fresh air!