My rep from last year was only good enough to get into row 4, but since the plan was "make the lead group, hang until you can't" it was a totally workable start spot. When the tracks ended I used my cyclocross-start-freakout skills to dart around a row of people and settled into around 10th. After the prologue lap ended, I noticed some free space behind me -- make the front group: check.
Two minutes in, it felt just like last year, skiing behind the same guys with the same questionable technique, feeling the same burn accelerating, so I reasonably assumed it would all go the same as last year -- hang on to the last lap and sprint it out!
Four minutes in, I noticed with some consternation that every single muscle on the outside of my leg was on fire. I noticed this at the same time as I noticed the gap in front of me had reached three skier lengths. I grudgingly closed the gap, but the writing was on the wall.
Turns out cycling doesn't require strength for lateral motion or stability for a push off, and
The lead group dropped me and I went into time trial mode, losing a good 80 yards on them in a lap. No matter, still holding down my place, I thought, except a five-man group was suddenly bearing down on me. There's 88 people on a 1.3k loop, did you really expect to ski in alone?
Right. I tried far too long to hold off the group until I eventually gave in and the leader came around, reacquainting me with my good buddy the draft. This immediately improved the situation, but I continued to slip back, until I found the one and only Kris Dobie suffering at the back of the group, where I joined him. I could tell he didn't recognize me, giving me an unfair amount of "gotta beat that guy I know" motivation.
With the end fast approaching, Cary popped up spectating and started cheering for Dobie. He also didn't recognize me, I guess, or else was wise to my plan and didn't want to blow my cover. In any event, the yelling got Kris moving up from the back and I knew I had to do the same. And just like a cross race -- I didn't.
Instead, I double-poled down the third-to-last shallow descent while trying to reduce the burning in my... cheeks, remaining dead last out of our six-man group. I started bargaining with myself, making deals, maybe you can win a six-up sprint from the back, off a hairpin corner, in lapped traffic. Yeah, this can totally work.
I'm not 100% sure that my decision to double-pole for a good 20 seconds to rest my legs was why the group appeared to slow on the next climb, but I'd like to think it was. They fanned out, but left some room on the inside, so I jumped from last to first, and it became suffertime.
Luckily if there's anything I still have going from cross it's hurting really badly for the last (or first) two minutes. I wove through lapped traffic (not because I'm dirty, they were just everywhere, I swear) and counted down the strides until the last hairpin, got a quick rest on the final downhill to hold back the time bomb in my legs, and trashed across the finish line.
Whereupon I nearly threw up, and my lungs didn't recover for 24 hours. A scant three weeks removed from cross season, and a 20-minute effort already qualifies as boot factor five... dear god.
End result? 12th place, 55 seconds behind the lead group, 2 minutes behind the solo winner. To answer: "How bad is my fitness?" -- "Slightly worse than last year."