It's dark, chilly and (sometimes) difficult to remain motivated about running at this time of the year. Thank goodness for YouTube and its seemingly-endless treasure trove of running clips. When I get tired of watching track races I'll pull up cross-country skiing, biathlon, and speed skating videos. After an evening of watching biathlon or cross country skiing I am less likely to complain about forty-something-degree weather on a Sunday morning; at least there's no snow. Snow is perfectly fine; I've lived in areas of the world where it tends to accumulate, the reason I'm in Florida.
The scientists and nice people in white lab coats have all the impresive numbers about cross-country skiers, that they're blessed with the ability to perform sustained exercise far beyond the rest of us mortals. Numbers don't always tell the entire story, especially when a cross country skier or biathlete boogies up and down hills for anywhere up to three hours...until they cross the finish line, when they collapse like they were struck with a pole-ax.
That tells me the brain plays more in this "swifter, higher, stronger" equation that we care to admit, my friends.
Last night I watched what I believe to be a two-pronged object lesson: While there are two different forms of cross-country skiing - classic and skate - and races - the mass-start (where everyone goes off the line at the same time; first one to the finish wins) and the pursuit (where each skier leaves at thirty-second intervals) - long-track speed skating is a two-person (at most) event, with the slowest seeded skaters going first and the fastest going last.
On top of the obvious conditions - those of a frozen, nearly-traction-nonexistent surface below - the skater must change lanes over the course of each 400-meter lap; if they skate on the inside lane this lap, they'll be on the outside lane on the next. If the pace between the two athletes racing in the pair are nearly alike, a skater can benefit, for brief periods, from decreased wind resistance.
And since each skater goes off either alone or with one other person, feedback from the coach about previous split, form reminders, encouragement to go faster, and the like is crucial. Especially in the longer distance races, where if not for the fact the skater is going fast for a sustained period, and making left-hand turns, they'd most likely "go to their happy place" until the race end.
The last heat I watched had the world record holder for the distance. The pair went off, and after several laps the skater was ten seconds ahead of the other skater on the ice, and the fastest skater in the competition. Victory was certain with a couple of laps left. The skater finished 250 meters ahead of his opponent, but they were both in the same lane; one of the two failed to switch lanes some time during the race.
After the finish a replay showed the lead skater had one of those "happy place" moments, drifting to the outside lane...and thought they were supposed to stay to the inside for another lap. Because the skater was so far ahead one of the two coaches didn't realize until it was too late and the judges were huddling to ensure they made the right call. The skater was livid, slinging his glasses across the track interior. No victory, no competition record, all because of a momentary lapse of attention. Minutes later along the track interior, the athlete sat sulking as he removed his skates; yards (and worlds) away, the coach knelt, punching a text message on a phone and most likely wishing the earth could swallow him whole.
Not much you can say during a high-profile event when you've prepared an athlete for everything but that one little thing which is certain to bite you in the behind. And more often than not that little thing lurks somewhere between the ears.