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Winter Has Come

November is an exciting time of the year. Sure, it can sometimes drag on or fly by in a blink of an eye. For most skiers, it has mentally challenging moments. November typically is the start of the new competitive season, but the training season is not quite over yet, either. A mix of skiing and on-snow adaptation, pre-race preparations, and racing while still attempting to squeeze that last little bit of training out of the body before the primary focus turns exclusively to the first racing block. There is a rush and excitement as the competitive season looms near, as well as dread and nervousness for the upcoming season. Plenty of questions, and only with racing, can those questions be answered. It's essential to know and respect that November is only the first month of racing of a long season, potentially lasting into April. That said, for some, the first few races in November can make or break their season. The eagerness to test a new level of fitness or strength, a change in mindsets or tactics builds the excitement of those first few races. At times, the pressure to start the season well can be frightening.

While those living in Canmore have been skiing for the past two weeks, others arrive days before trials and must perform to determine most of their season's direction. That can be stressful when your first race of the season is at Trials. It always takes a couple of races to work out the bugs and the rust, and most importantly, for the body to learn how to recover from racing and perform again the next day. I'm fortunate that these early races have minimal effect on my remaining season. I have emphasized the past years using these November races as opportunities to transition from the training to the competitive season. I always enjoy these early races and missed them last year when I wasn't quite ready to compete that early in the year. That not-so-subtle reminder mid-race of what it feels like to go hard. I know I don't have the same pressures as many others that I'm competing against, but I have my focus that I'm working on that will help me in my racing later in the season. I have the curiosity to see where I stand against others. Usually, these races are one of possibly two opportunities to race against the best in Canada. I hope I'm not at my season's best yet, but going through the routine and learning to perform on-demand skills any athlete needs and begin sharpening them for the new season.

This year was especially early; November 2nd was the first race of the Biathlon Canada Trials. I competed in two of the three races, a Sprint and a shortened Sprint. I competed in these races using my air rifle, as in any Para competition. And I don't carry my rifle, unlike everyone else. Historically, when I compete in a Senior field with an air rifle, my Sprints are not my best format. I tend to be better at the longer, four-bout races where stronger shooting plays a more significant role. But alas, here is something I can work on. The focus for these two races was to emphasize skiing and less on shooting. The first race, a 10km Sprint, was on a challenging course, and to add to the difficulty, it started to snow as the race began. I went hard on the opening lap and tried to hold on. The conditions nor my body were helping me perform that day. Though the range wasn't my primary focus, I was very pleased with how I shot and by shooting clean. I skipped the second race and raced again three days later. Another Sprint, this time shortened for the Men to 7.5km. I had much the same plan as the first Sprint. I had hoped for firm snow conditions, but it didn't freeze that night, and the warm, wet, and soft snow conditions made for very slow skiing. No one likes these conditions, me included, one pole and being a bigger skier. I'm not swift on my feet if you will. I didn't feel as light and snappy as I had in the first race, but I was very pleased and satisfied with my skiing part of the race, considering the conditions. The bonus was I shot clean again, while I felt the shooting was better than in the first Sprint.

The next race, three days later, was extra special to me. After my surgery last spring, I could barely classic ski and didn't race classic throughout the year. This was my first classic race since the Relay at the Beijing Games. I had put a lot of work into my classic over the year and felt good about where I was, but I didn't know where that level was compared to others. This would be the first test. It went exceptionally well. I qualified pretty much where I was before Beijing—and had some of the best heats I can recall. The course suited me well, and I could relax and not be too worried about a slower start as the back end of the course catered to my strengths. Usually, my speed of movement is not great, but that was perhaps my stronger component on this day. I lacked the stride length and power that I traditionally rely upon. I had a lot of fun that day. First, to test and see where my classic stood. Second, the King's Court format is perhaps one of my favourites. As well as the excitement of being out there racing again. I kicked off November with a bang, competing in three races in the first eight days of the month.

As I am in two university courses this Fall semester, the following week was reading week, so with the extra days, I put in some volume training as I prepared for the latter part of the month and continued this block of competitions. A shift in focus for the international calendar meant no significant international competitions before Christmas. Thus, there was a greater emphasis on domestic or regional racing. And so, Canada hosted a Continental Cup (COC) for Cross Country and Biathlon in Canmore. Most competitors were Canadian or American, but competitors from Australia, Great Britain, and South Korea also joined. It was an excellent opportunity to put on a bib and race. The first race was a 5km classic.

After that first classic Sprint, I felt I was missing some of that stride length and power. I worked on it over the following week, hoping to put it to the test for the COC race. It turned out to be a great classic race for me. I felt and saw improved stride length and power while maintaining most of the speed of movement when I needed it. That distance of 5km was not easy; I hadn't realized how hard I had started until I started my second of three laps. At that point, I was committed and held on as best as possible. I might have paid for it a little the following day in the 10km Free. The course demands constant work, with very little rest, and I felt the previous day's effort. I was not skiing as well as I had in the classic day; I was skiing tense and not letting myself ski relaxed. These races were on Tuesday and Wednesday, while the Biathlon races would be over the weekend.

Official Training Biathlon Canada Trials - Doug Stephen

In Canada, each year, we evolve the Para-Biathlon integration; this year, we were embedding our COC in the season-opening Calforex Cup. It's great to not only further the integration but have competitors from other countries joining us, adding to the quality of competition. Saturday was a Short Individual, so 15km, four bouts of shooting with a penalty of 45 seconds for each missed shot. It was fun to feel and notice how relaxed I was during the race. It was a slightly longer race, but I was relaxed and still focused on my race. On the range, I was automatic, almost auto-pilot in how I was shooting. It was a great feeling, matched by going clean and hitting all twenty targets. I was delighted with that performance. Sunday, again, the legs were feeling a little heavy. They felt I couldn't move fast during the race, but I thought I was generating plenty of power on the same challenging course as I competed on for the season's first race. My coach noticed I wasn't skiing as fluidly as the previous day, but I'm happy with how I skied the second day. The shooting on Sunday was what disappointed me. In my first bout, I thought that the shooting was going well, then realized I was thinking so, told myself to stop thinking, and then missed the next shot. Such a foolish thing to do, losing control of the moment. I did my penalty loop and made sure I hit all five in my next and the final about.

I am delighted with how the start of the season has gone so far. My focus and work in training is paying off and reflected in my performances already, but there is plenty to work on. It is early season, and there is time before the first World Cup races of the year, in mid-January. And even more time before the season's highlights with the Biathlon World Championships and World Cup Finals on home soil in Prince George, British Columbia, in March. Before I wrap up this competition block, I still have two weekends of racing here in Canmore. Next is the second Calforex Cup weekend of the season, and the following weekend, the first Alberta Cup cross-country races. I'll look for some rest before quality training around Christmas and start prepping for the World Cup trip in January.

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