By Martin Cleary
Please excuse Jennifer Tomlinson, if she has her eyes glued to her laptop and cell phone these days.
There’s one good reason for it and the fate of the three-day Eastern Canadian cross-country skiing championships rests on the numbers she is scanning over and over and over again.
Tomlinson is the chief of race for the major regional nordic championships for almost 680 high-level youth and senior skiers. Races are scheduled for Friday through Sunday.
She is carefully watching and trying to understand the weather forecasts so the skiers can be sent into a safe outdoor racing environment at the Nakkertok Nordic Ski Centre in Cantley, PQ.
At the moment, the bitter cold temperatures, which have the power to delay, cancel or postpone a race, are winning. There’s not much the race jury and the Évenements Nordiques Gatineau Nordic Events organizing committee can do for the first two days, but hope.
“I have an app called Windy and it consolidates the different weather models to create the weather forecast,” Tomlinson said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m looking at five weather models and three weather forecasts.”
A polar vortex is on the horizon and could bring temperatures in the mid-minus 20°C range by early Friday morning. And the feel-like temperatures would be much worse in the mid- to high-minus 30°C because of extremely bitter and dangerous wind chills.
The daytime high air temperatures for Friday are expected to range between minus 24°C and minus 26°C. The accompanying feels-like temperature is around minus 37°C.
On Saturday, there’s a chance for racing. The daylight morning temperatures are forecast to climb from minus 29°C to minus 22°C by noon. Still too cold and dangerous.
But in the afternoon, the skiers could be snapping on their skis as the forecast is for a temperature of minus 20°C at 1 p.m. and warming up to minus 16°C by late afternoon. If they compete, then it becomes a race to beat the darkness.
The final day of the Eastern Canadian championships is Sunday and the bitter cold is expected to be replaced by snow and milder temperatures (minus 2°C is the high, feeling-like minus 9°C). Those conditions are more skier friendly.
Extreme cold temperatures and cross-country ski racing don’t mix because it’s too dangerous on the respiratory health of the young and adult athletes.
Under the rules set by FIS, the world governing body for skiing, cross-country races under 15 kilometres cannot be started if the air temperature is colder than minus 20°C and is measured at the coldest point of the course without a wind factor.
If the competition is 15 kilometres or greater, the race jury must cancel or postpone the race if the air temperature is minus 18°C or below without the wind factor. If the temperature is minus 15°C or worse, U14 age group races must be cancelled or postponed.
On Tuesday night, the Eastern Canadian championships’ race jury met and “made the difficult decision to cancel the U14 (age group) races for Friday and Saturday” as the temperatures weren’t expected to be warmer than minus 15°C.
“Everyone is watching the forecast closely,” Tomlinson said. “Friday and Saturday are not encouraging and we had to cancel the U14 races Friday and Saturday. It doesn’t make sense (for the U14 skiers) to race.
“The jury will make the decisions for (other) races the day before. For Friday’s races, we’ll decide Thursday and for Saturday’s races, we’ll decide on Friday. For Friday, there’s a high likelihood the races will be cancelled, but you never know. People have made plans to come and people can make their own decisions.”
The decisions about the Friday and Saturday races will impact skiers in the men’s and women’s U16, U18, U20, senior and para classes.
The Eastern Canadian championships are expected to have skiers from Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland Labrador.
“We’re an outside sport and subject to the environment,” Tomlinson continued. “We have a member on our jury from Thunder Bay and this happens to them frequently. There can be delays and waiting, but I don’t like that.
“We have more information than in the past, so we can make the call early and wait to be within a 24-hour window.”
As the jury considers whether to stage, postpone or cancel a race, it also considers how the skiers will stay warm before and after their races as well as how the weather affects the volunteers and officials on the course.
The Nakkertok Ski Club has a chalet, but not large enough to house hundreds of skiers or the 150 volunteers. But the club also will provide two more warming venues for the athletes and one for the volunteers.
Each ski club attending the championships will have its own waxing tent, which will have a heat source.
“With almost 680 registered skiers … we want to give them an event. We’re trying to get them something,” said Tomlinson, a long-time Nakkertok coach and former board of directors’ chair with Nordiq Canada.
“There’s a glimmer of hope for Saturday, when I look at the weather models. On Saturday, the winds shift. We definitely want the races to happen. If there’s a window of opportunity, we’ll be ready.
“Friday will have cold winds. That’s great weather (for recreational) skiing, but not for racing as it can damage your lungs.”
The Eastern Canadian championships are a stepping stone for each skier plus the senior racers, who could be competing for almost $12,000 in prize money.
A Hall Mark of Excellence Award, which is funded by former Canadian cross-country ski coach Marty Hall and his wife Kathy, Cross-Country Ontario, Ski de Fond Québec and Évenements Nordiques Gatineau Nordic Events will provide the prize money.
Marty Hall, who formerly lived in Aylmer but now resides in New Hampshire, and Kathy are in their third year helping to develop Canadian skiers and funding various Nakkertok projects. This season, A Hall Mark of Excellence Award of $25,000 was presented to Nakkertok for its snow-making system as well as prize money for the Candy Cane Cup and the Eastern Canadian Series in December.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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