[Editor: Please note that the views below are those of the author and do not represent those of the Australian Cross Country Ski Team. Apologies to those nations, towns, and people who may be offended.]
Update November 2, 2005
'You know Mocky, if you pull this off, you'll forever change the way that Australian skiers prepare for major events. The conventional 'myth' that fast skiing is a product of lengthy and rigorous physical conditioning and ample on-snow training will be shattered like a delicate wineglass'. A prophetic statement by the national coach Finn Marsland, or evidence of his increasingly tenuous grip on reality? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you a compelling case for the latter.
The seeds of this half-baked mis-endeavour were sown around the time of the 2005 Mt. Beauty half-marathon. Freshly disgruntled with my ill-considered foray into corporate hell (apparently Australia never did abolish slavery, they just changed the name), I was a sitting duck for what can only be described as an indecent proposal. 'Come-on Mock, what's so crazy? Take a week's worth of leave and come and race Düsseldorf?'…'But - what about my self-respect?'… 'Self-respect?! You don't spend your weekends in Mt. Beauty if you're worried about self-respect!'. Incapable of disputing logic as compelling as this, I was left with no choice but to relent.
Flights were booked, legs were waxed, extradition laws were investigated and a comprehensive insurance policy was taken out. By early October everything had fallen nicely into place, with one exception. The small matter of physical preparation was still largely unresolved. I started to fear that I was in a moderate degree of trouble when I was reduced to recording walks to the photocopier in my training diary. In the end, only one clear strategy for overcoming this hurdle presented itself - get drunk* and wing it (coincidentally, this is the same fail-safe approach that I take to public speaking).
My flight to Düsseldorf via Dubai went without a hitch, until the good people at Emirates were kind enough to send my ski bag to Munich. My subsequent dealings with the airport staff made it quickly apparent that Germany had failed to develop a collective sense of humour in the year since I had last visited what must rival Turkmenistan as the least mirthful country on earth. As an aside, I was later discussing with a team member what the world would be like if Germany had won The War. Forget a fascist, totalitarian Aryan dystopia. The reality, I believe would have been much more mundane, but no less frightening. Think world culture dominated by grumpy fraülines in woolen slacks, cabbage salads and elderly men wearing leather overalls playing piano accordions. Chilling. In protest, I immediately boarded a train for Belgium.
Brussels is a lot like Melbourne; lots of restaurants, plentiful open spaces and a tram network that succeeds in transporting a large number of people to a large number of destinations very, very slowly. I instantly felt at home. The reason for my visit? To visit Lisa, my girlfriend, in order to prove that I really had shaved off my affro (thus saving our relationship). Being too jet-lagged to entertain the thought of intense training, I spent the majority of my time eating and speaking stilted German to some very confused (French-speaking) shop keepers.
My next destination was a small German village near Winterberg whose name escapes me - let's call it Krautsberg. After being picked up by Finn in Köln, we made our way to the sports school in Krautsberg just in time to meet Esther for lunch; Bratwürst. Immediately I knew that I was going to like this place. With the processed meat still sitting heavily in our distended stomachs, it was off to inspect Krautsberg's rollerski tracks - the reason for our presence in the town. The network of tracks could probably be described as not unlike the neural pathways of grade-4 student at Mt. Beauty Primary School - limited, chaotic and just a little scary. With three pairs of borrowed rollerskis and one borrowed helmet between Finn, Esther and myself, we were presented with somewhat of a dilemma. Or so I thought. Five minutes later, as Esther skied off into the sunset with our single precious helmet, I began to regret stealing Finn's Bratwürst at lunch time. Whether through luck or good management, Team Australia managed to survive three days of training in Krautsberg with no serious injuries or teary arguments (ok - so maybe Finn didn't take it too well when he caught me using his toothbrush to clean between my toes).
On the Thursday before the World Cup we packed up the Citroen and trucked into Düsseldorf. We then drove seven laps of the business district before swallowing our pride and asking for directions. Navigational issues averted, we checked into our inner-city hotel and headed down to the race course for an inspection. Now Düsseldorf is not your average World Cup. A lack of natural snow would probably cause most venues to think twice about their suitability for hosting what is, I am led to believe, an event that is highly dependent on the presence of snow. These enterprising Germans, however, had circumvented this dilemma by trucking in endless containers of a peculiar snow/dirt emulsion that they sourced from a conveniently located indoor ski tunnel. The truck drivers transporting this substance all appear to have become lost on the way to the race course, as I can't think of any other explanation for why they would have dumped their cargo in the middle of Düsseldorf's Old City before high-tailing it out of there. Not the kind of folk to be off-put by a minor set-back such as this, the organizing committee cut their losses and started pretending that they had always intended to hold the race in the middle of a metropolitan shopping district. Sneaky. The race course was to be a 750m circuit located on the pedestrian boulevard between the streets of the Old Town and the Rhine river. A winter wonderland? No. A spectators dream? Most certainly.
On the Friday before the individual sprint race, in a desperate attempt to get a fleeting taste of snow before strapping on our skis at the start line, we were forced to stoop to a new low (luckily, stooping is what I do best). By pretending that we needed to practice using the new start gates being introduced for use in World Cup sprint finals (never mind that this would require a lift in performance on my part of approximately 1273%), we were able to get access to 50m of the brownest and most pitiful looking snow that you'd ever hope to see. Exhausted from such a draining workout, I had no choice but to pick up a Bratwürst on the way back to the hotel.
Race day presented us with the kind of weather I have come to associate with Perisher Valley - 10 degrees and raining. Having suspected that it might come to this, Robert Fisher (our wax tech and seduction consultant) knew exactly what he had to do - go to the petrol station and purchase 5 litres of their finest diesel. Apply liberally. The race itself was one of mixed fortunes and sentiments for the Australian team (Finn's race report contains further, more accurate, details of the race). Esther came away disappointed. Paul felt that he skied below his best, but was happy to 'get the job done' and nail the C qualification standard. Personally, I was mildly disappointed. The conditions were difficult to say the least. Experience and strength were always going to win out in the end. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough of either of these qualities on the day. While I certainly felt that I didn't ski to the best of my ability, it is still a privilege to have the chance to ski in a World Cup and one that I am very grateful for. The other thing that I am extremely grateful for was the exceptional support that I (along with Paul and Esther) received from what has become a finely-tuned support operation. We may be a small and relatively under-funded team but we certainly are not left wanting for first class coaching and waxing support.
The 2-man sprint relay held the following day was, in hind-sight, one of the best experiences I have had in my racing career to date. I was afforded the dubious pleasure of starting against a field of mind-boggling quality. China and Croatia, the only two other '2nd-tier' teams in the field had unfortunately been drawn in the other semi-final. The feeling that I was overcome with on the start-line was probably not unlike the feeling experienced by an arthritic hamster upon being thrown into the big cat enclosure at the local zoo. Not to put too finer point on it, I was terrified. Considering my performance the previous day, I suspect Paul (my partner) was terrified too. Luckily, the starter's gun never fails to calm the nerves, and this was no exception. Anyway, it's hard to be terrified when you're hurting so bad. The noise around the back straight was quite incredible - it's amazing what 20,000 drunk Germans can do with 20,000 plastic ratcheted noise-makers. Anyway, we lost touch with the pack somewhere around the start of the 5th leg (my bad…), but up until then it was one hell of a ride. I'd quit my job tomorrow if you told me I could do a race like that every week.
Reality always has a way of sneaking up on you. I just think it was a bit cruel of reality to sneak up on me after only 7 days of annual leave. After wishing Paul and Esther good luck with their daunting Olympic qualification campaigns and giving Finn one last working over on the tennis court, it was time to say a teary good-bye to my last Bratwürst and return to my life as a faceless worker drone. Kids - don't make my mistake, stay unemployed.
* OK one Weiss beer and a glass of red wine in the evening after the race is sort of close.
[Note - for more examples of how to insult people from around the world, look to the Mock reports from 2002, 2003, and 2005.]
The Mock in action in Dusseldorf