A Parents’ Guide to Race Day

By:

Rick Ruback
Mad River Ski Club
December, 2000

This guide is for parents. As a parent of three ski racers and a coach, I have come to believer that ski races are a wonderful learning experience for both racers and parents. The intent of this guide is to help you plan your race day to make it safer and more enjoyable, to provide young racers the best opportunity to test their skills and training, and to make the day a successful learning experience.

The race day is highly structured for the racers and they are responsible for being at the right place at the right time. I have attached a typical race day schedule at the end of this guide and you should review it to understand what the racers will be going throughout the day. I have organized the guide chronologically because from the parents’ perspective much of the what, when, and where of race day is determined by what the racers are doing.

The Weekend Before Race Day:

Training is essential to race day performance and safety. Racers need to be familiar with the type of course and the level of difficulty. An unprepared racer will not enjoy or learn from the experience. More important, it is simply unsafe to let an untrained athlete participate in a race. As a general rule, if a racer misses training, the racers should skip the race.

Parents should also make sure that equipment is in good working condition. That means that skis, boots and bindings are appropriate and properly maintained. Encourage racers to maintain their skis and to train with the same skis that will be used in the race. Skis are expensive, and skis can get wrecked on rocks during aggressive free skiing. Racers love to ski, and love to ski hard. If there is a rock on the mountain, be confident that a racer will find it. But the solution is not to keep the race skis just for racers. Use race skis for drills and practice courses. Use rock skis for free skiing and when the coverage is thin.

Race skis should be tuned for practices as well as races. Racers cannot learn to effectively race on sharp, waxed skis when they train on dull, dry skis.

Bindings should be tested at the beginning of the season, and re-tested whenever the racer suspects a problem. Do not allow the racer to adjust their own bindings. Racers hate to lose a ski in a race, and may be tempted to re-set the bindings for the race. That is dangerous. If skis are releasing in practice, bring them to a ski shop for adjustment or replacement. Racers should train and race at an appropriate binding setting. Parents should know the settings of the racers bindings and be sure that the racers have not re-set the bindings for race day.

The night before the race

Clothing is important on race day. Racers need to decide what they will wear during the race itself and what they will wear while they wait at the race start. For racers that wear a racing suit, be sure that it fits over long underwear and that the racer can get it on an off by themselves. After all, everyone has to use the bathroom eventually.

Assuming that the racer wears pants over the racing suit during course inspection and while waiting at the race start, be sure the pants unzip without having to take off a ski — or worse — a ski boot. I have seen the sad and silly sight of racers standing in their socks at the race start trying to get their insulated pants off. Make sure the pants unzip completely and that your racer know how to get them off by themselves. Some unzip at the top; others unzip at the bottom; some have snaps on a snow gaiter. Make them practice. It will be one less thing they have to worry about at the start.

Check gloves and goggles. If anything is wet, get it dry before packing it for the race. Racers sometimes have to endure delays, and wet clothing means a cold body during those delays, which is uncomfortable and inhibits performance.

I ask my racers to be responsible for their own clothing and equipment. I have them write out a checklist of everything that they plan to bring. Have them start with their underwear and go outward. A typical list is:

Clothing:
Ski Socks
Long underwear
Race Suit
Turtleneck shirt
Insulated zip pants
Fleece vest
Jacket
Neck warmer
Helmet
Goggles
Gloves

Equipment:
Boots
Skis (race and inspection, if appropriate)
Poles
Wax scraper and brush

I check the list with the racer, and then have the racer collect and pack their own equipment. This makes the racer responsible, but they will make mistakes. My kids have arrived at races without socks and long underwear more than once. If you can secretly check the bag, you’ll save some time, money and inconvenience. It also pays to pack extra mittens, goggles and socks. Mittens because racers never believe they will have cold hands until they do; goggles because they often get lost, broken on race day; and socks because they often get wet at lunch.

Most races require USSA and VARA cards. Be sure they are kept with the race stuff. And keep a photocopy of the in your car.

Also be sure the racer’s name and club is written on any clothing that may be left at the race start. Coaches ask kids to put their clothing in a bag but the clothes often don’t make it in the right bag. Most racers just throw their clothing in a pile at the race start, and sometimes they don’t even bother with a pile. After the race, coaches collect stray jackets and pants and try to get them to the right racers. A label helps. If clothing does get lost, be persistent; if often gets packed in the wrong racers’ bag and shows up at the next race.

The night before is also the time to touch up skis. If you or your racer tunes the race skis, make tuning a weekly event. That will make the tuning the night before much easier. Check the temperature and iron on the right wax and let it be absorbed overnight.

The nigh before a race should be an early night because it will be an early morning on race day.

The drive to the race:

Perhaps the most important parental contribution to race day is getting the racers to the race hill safely on time and relaxed. Assuming that the race starts at 10:00AM, most coaches will want the racers at the race hill by 8:00AM. Being there by 8:00AM gives the racers time to register and get dressed before meeting the coach at 8:30 AM to inspect the first course. Being late means a frazzled racer that does not have enough time to slip and study the course. Racers set their strategy during inspection, try to memorize the course, and flag difficult gates. Racers that don’t carefully inspect courses are at a serious disadvantage.

About 25% of racers arrive to racers late and many more arrive stressed from a grumpy parent struggling to drive a bit faster than they would prefer to get the racer at the race hill by 8:00 AM. Before I started coaching, I was a late parent, and I’ve tried to figure out why. I’ve come up with three reasons. The first is that I substantially underestimated driving times. The second is that I didn’t believe how long it takes a sleepy kid to get out of the house even after packing the night before. And the third is that while I didn’t want to be late, I never wanted to be early knowing that once there I would have to wait a couple of hours before the race started.

I estimated driving times under ideal conditions – dry, sunny days when I am rested, undistracted, and know the directions. But I always drive to ski racers on cold dark mornings. Often the mountain is unfamiliar, directions are vague, and the racer is tense. Then there is the inevitable confusion of getting to the right place at the right time at the mountain.

I now use a simple rule to get me to the race hill time: I take the ideal driving time and increase it by 50%. It should only take ma one hour to go from Waitsfield to Stowe. But I leave at 6:30 AM and haven’t been too early yet. Also, be sure to check the weather. You may be traveling before the roads are plowed and stranded so that a couple of inches of snow may add another 50% to the driving time. And if I have never been to the mountain before, I add some time for getting lost.

Kids take forever to get out of the house on race day. I now base the time required to get the racers out of bed, dressed and fed on the time it take them to get ready for school. If it takes them a half-hour to get ready for school, figure on 45 minutes on race day. If it is the first race of the season, add 15 minutes for dealing with the stuff forgotten or lost.

here is my “when to get up” calculation for the first race of the year at Stowe after a snowy night:

 The time to wake up the racer and start the day arithmetic


When the coach wants racers at registration:                                            8:00 AM

Less: time to get out of the house

Time to get ready for school                   30 minutes

50% extra for race day                             15 minutes

15 minutes extra for the first race         15 minutes

60 minutes

Less: travel time

Travel time on an ideal day                     60 minutes

50% for cold dark morning                     30 minutes

50% for snow/sleet/ice                            30 minutes

Get lost time                                               0 minutes

120 minutes

Time to wake up the racer and start the day                                              5:00 AM

 Once at the race, parents have about two hours with nothing to do. As the typical race day schedule shows, the racers are busy registering, getting clothing and equipment ready and inspecting the race course. But the parents aren’t part of that process. Some parents resent this hurry up and wait of race day. Others, like my wife, treasure it. She arrives at the race with her own equipment: slippers, a novel and copy of newspapers and magazines. She gets comfortable and cherishes the quiet. There are other solutions. Parents can ski and get a chance to enjoy first tracks on freshly groomed corduroy slopes. Some mountains even give discount lift tickets to parents of racers, usually available at race registration. If you don’t want to read or ski, you can carpool, sending the racers early and the watchers two hours later.

Watching the first run

The first run usually begins at about 10:00 AM. At about 9:30AM, parents have to decide how and where they are going to watch the race. There are usually two choices: walk or ski.

Walking is often the simplest choice. You can usually quickly walk to a spot that lets you see most of the ages as well as the finish. Because you walkup the hill, you don’t risk getting in the way of the race. And, if you are not a confident skier, you also avoid skiing a tricky slope in front of lots of people. The best part of walking is that you can dress as warmly as you want. Watching a ski race can be a bone-freezing experience on a cold and windy day, and there is no better outfit than lined boots. heavy long underwear, layers of clothing and something to block the wind. You can even carry a small pack with a hot drink and a camera. If you decide to walk, be sure to bring snowshoes with built-in crampons and a pair of poles because the slopes can be deep or slippery.

Skiing often gives parents the most mobility. You can ski to the start, give your racers a word of encouragement, ski to the side of the race to watch the run, and then ski to the finish to compliment your racer. If you decide to ski, remember that the racers are there to race, not to ski with their parents. Sometimes, racers miss their race starts because their parents encourage them to free ski instead of waiting for their starts. that puts the racer, the parent, and the coach in an uncomfortable position that is best avoided. Also, be sure to stay clear of the course and race officials when skiing on the race hill. The race hill is a busy place on race day.

However you decide to watch the race, be sure that you keep track of the ongoing race schedule. Races can be delayed for many reasons, an you should be sure the race is starting on time before going to watch it. Once, when my son was at the J3 state races at Stowe, I arrived at the race about 10:30 AM to watch his run which I guessed would occur at 11:15 AM. My son carpooled to the race, and I was concerned that I would miss his first run. Instead of checking in when I got to the slope, I rushed to the race kill, which was about halfway up Mount Mansfield. After a spirited snowshoe trek, I arrived at a deserted start. When I went back down to the lodge, I discovered that the race was postponed due to high winds. I got some much needed exercise and learned to leave enough time to confirm the race schedule before hiking.

Before the first racers, there are usually forerunners that run the course and get times but are not part of the competition. Often, forerunners are older than the competing racers so that the competitors can benchmark their performance.

The girls run the course before the boys. In races that mix age groups, sometimes all the girls run before all the boys, and sometimes the order is the youngest girls followed by the youngest boys and then the older girls followed by the older boys. As a race official or your coach to find out the order.

The racers run in order. In the younger groups (ages 7-10) the order is either random or chosen by the coach. In older groups, the order is randomized in the first few races and thereafter based on prior race results. Your racer’s bib gives the starting order. But beware: not every number is assigned and not every racer who pre-registered for a race actually starts. That means that you have to be watching carefully for several bib numbers before your racer’s bib number to be sure you don’t miss the run. given that you are spending a long day to see two runs that are hopefully very quick, it pays to be attentive.

The most common place to watch a race is at the finish, although it varies a lot. A knoll might allow you to see more of the race than the finish. Usually, there is no sport that lets you see the whole race so you have to decide which section you want to see. Walkers often select the finish bother because it easier to get to and because they can congratulate their racer at the finish. Skiers often pick a mid-course spot. If you watch from the hill, don’t scream or otherwise distract the racers as they pass you. I have seen racers miss gates because they turned their attention to a ringing cowbell.

The only pace not to watch a race from is by the scoreboard. Parents should avoid the scoreboard area. The racers watch their parents. Hanging around the scoreboard send the message that the results are important, and that is the wrong message.

After the first run

The toughest part of being a parent of a ski racer is figuring out what to say after the first run. I’ve tried many different approaches, some have worked better than others, but none have worked really well. I have some general rules that might help.

First, do not criticize the run. Racers that have slow runs are usually overly critical of themselves. Your role is to help them build confidence and make them appreciate their effort. “I’m no expert, but your run looked great” helps; “Too bad you didn’t carve” hurts.

Second, do not compare the run to other racers. Again, racers quickly learn their rank, and wear their results in the form of a bib number. Instead, emphasize the improvements in your racer’s performance. “You’re getting better race” helps; “You’re still three seconds behind Johnny” hurts.

Third, encourage good sportsmanship. Racers tend to collect around the posted results. Encourage your racer to congratulate these with good finishes, and you would do the same without belittling your racer. “Johnny, you have a great run” helps; “I wish my kid could race like you Johnny” is a disaster. Also, be supportive of decisions be race officials and don’t allow cursing or other inappropriate behavior. Remind your racer the such behavior simply isn’t tolerated on the race hill and most coaches will not let racers have a second run if such behavior occurs.

Fourth. be optimistic. This is especially important if your racer did not finish the first run. Your racer may want to call it a day and not take the second run. That is almost always a bad idea. It further erodes confidence and denies the racer valuable experience. “I’m sure you’ll do better next run, and I’ll be proud of you for just trying” helps; “You can’t win without two runs, so let’s not waste any more time here” hurts.

This advice all seems straightforward. But it is sometimes very difficult to be a supportive parent. I remember vividly once driving to Jay Peak in a snowstorm for a race. We awoke before five for a two-hour drive. Then we waited on the hill through several long delays during the girls’ run. At about 11:00 AM my kid finally got his start and went on the wrong side of the first gate! We were both very cold and in very bad spirits and I’ll admit to an unpleasant comment. Something about my job was to get him to the race and his job was to remember where the first gate was. Years later he still reminds me — jokingly — that I could have been a lot more supportive.

Lunch

Time is often short, and the lodge is often crowded. Buying lunch is often very slow and very expensive. My advice is to pack a lunch, including a drink. Keep lunches simple and digestible. the racers will still seek out french fries, universal nutritional supplement for ski racers. But a packed lunch will still be quicker and a lot cheaper. Racers eat like wolves and then go out on the slopes almost instantly. If possible, parents of the girls (who race first) should try to get a team table after watching their daughter’s run. Parents should help supervise lunch. The coach often has only a few minutes to both eat and talk to parents. If you have a concern, try to catch the coach after the first run but before lunch. You’ll find the coach either helping at the race course or at the scoreboard waiting for the decisions of the gate keepers on disqualifications.

The Second Run

The second run is much like the first, although it is a bit more compressed in time. As the schedule shows, the course inspection is rally only a half-hour instead of the hour before the first run. Also, the run seems to go faster. There are a couple of reasons. First, any kinks in the timing or the start over are worked out in the first run. And second, the second course is often intentionally straighter and faster. This makes the racers feel like they have improved. But the parents should recognize that times can only be compared across runs on the same course at about the same time. Changes in the course or even in snow conditions make it very difficult to compare times. Also, the course gets more rutty and icy as more racers race so that racers with high numbers face a harder course than racers with low numbers.

The Awards Ceremony

To stay or not to stay is the question for most parents. It extends an already long day by about an hour, and if your racer or a teammate is not getting an award, most racers will not want to stay. Some races give a lot of awards. At races for the youngest racers (7-10 year old) awards are given for the top five boy and girl racers in each run for each age group. That is a total of forty awards. If your racer does want to stay, you should stay to promote good sportsmanship. If you racer doesn’t want to stay, it is a closer call.

The Ride Home

The ride home with a happy racer is wonderful, but the ride home with a disappointed racer can be very long.

Disappointment is often a result of unreasonable expectations. Some racers believe that the only measure of success is winning both runs, and are disappointed with any lesser accomplishment. Accepting that definition of success means that virtually every racer is a loser — clearly a silly way to view race results. The parents’ toughest battle is to fight this “all or nothing” view and to teach our racers to find positives.

Ski racing is a combination of strength, quickness, flexibility and skill. Racers acquire those traits at different times. Some racers get good results throughout their careers. But many racers go through periods of weaker results and they group and adapt to their growing bodies and skills. A season of DNKs (did-not-finishes) can easily be followed by a season of great results. The key is to label the weaker results as learning experiences and to learn from them. I try to get them to think about what they did best and then what they could improve the most. Focus on what they will do better next time, and what they need to work on in the next practice. For example, get the racer to say “My turns were better, but my start was slow. Next week, I’ll work on my starts.” That is much healthier than “I’ll never get better.”

There are some tricks to finding improvement. Recognizing that the bib order is a ranking at the start of the race, you can try the ‘under-over’ game. Look at the results  and see if your racer was faster than racers with lower numbers or slower than racers with higher numbers. Beating those with lower numbers means you are getting better.

Whatever the result, find something to celebrate. One of my favorite rides home was after one of my sones had a great run only to be disqualified by a gatekeeper for missing a gate. The run followed a series of DNFs, and my racer was sure he didn’t miss the gate. In one of my rare insights into parenting, I got him to focus on the good run instead of the gate or the gatekeeper’s vision. We celebrated with some chocolate bars and we both felt a lot better.

Throughout the years I have celebrated all kinds of little successes and a few bing ones, and I am beginning to understand the little ones were the most valuable. A race is like an exam. Racers are asked to put it all together, to combine their ability, training, skills, courage and focus to excel in two short runs. That is a huge challenge, and learning to do that is one of the most valuable and long lasting skills that racers will get from the sport. Those skills are easily transferred across sports, school and more fundamental life experiences. Our racers need t be taught to appreciate progress, and to recognize that their goal should be improvement, not perfection.

A Typical Race Day

8:00 AM Registration Racers get start order and racing bibs. Racers need to show their VARA and USSA cards as well as pay an entry fee, if applicable.
8:30 AM First Course Inspection Racers slip (snowplow) through the course with a coach. Racers are not allowed to ski the course.
9:30 AM Final Preparations for First Run Scrape wax and brush skis. Make sure clothing and equipment is appropriate for waiting at the race start and the start.
10: 00 AM Race Start All girls should be at the race start. Boys should watch forerunners.
10:05 AM Girls’ First Run Girls are in bib order and ready to race. Boys should watch top girls and then meet coach at the race start.
10:30 AM Boys’ First Run Boys are in bib order at the start and ready to race. Girls should collect any clothing they left at the race start, watch the top boys and eat an early lunch or snack.
11:30 AM First Run Complete Boys should collect any clothing they left at the race start and eat lunch or a snack.
11:45 AM First Run Results Gate keepers report disqualifications (DQs) and did not finishes (DNFs).
12:00 PM Second Course Setting Racers should be completing lunch and preparing to inspect the second course.
12:15 PM Second Course   Inspection Racers slip (snowplow) through the course with a coach. Racers are not allowed to ski the course.
12:45 PM Final Preparations for Second Run Touch-up edges and brush skis. Make sure clothing and equipment is appropriate for waiting at the race start and the race
1:00 PM Second Run Starts All girls should be at the race start. Boys should watch forerunners.
1:05 PM Girls’ Second Run Girls are in bib order and ready to race. Boys should watch top girls and then meet coach at the race start.
1:30 PM Boys’ Second Run Boys are in bib order at the start and ready to race. Girls should collect any clothing they left at the race start, watch the boys or free ski.
2:30 PM Second Run Complete Boys should collect any clothing they left at the race start.
3:00 PM Second Run Results Gate keepers report disqualifications (DQs) and did not finishes (DNFs).
3:15 PM Awards Ceremony Racers should be at the awards to cheer those that had the fastest times.
3:30 PM Race Complete