Name: Jesse Crandall, Syracuse, N.Y.
Event: Birkie Freestyle, 4:40
Hometown distance from the Birkie Trail: 11 miles
Best Birkie finish: 80th
What is his excuse this year: Guiding blind skier Shawn Cheshire
NCAA teams coached: 2
Skis provided by: Madshus
What is your background in XC Skiing?
I grew up in Northern Wisconsin skiing at Telemark and on the Birkie trail. I raced in college for Macalester College and then was an assistant coach there for 2 years. Following that, I took a job as the XC Ski Coach at Western State College of Colorado (now Western State Colorado University) and was the head XC ski coach for 4 years and the Head Ski Coach for 2 of those years. The NCAA team was cut in 2009 and I am now in grad school in Syracuse, NY pursuing a PhD in Chemistry. I’ve been coaching some high school skiers this season and guiding and coaching Shawn as she works to be selected for the US Paralympic Team in Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon. Before this year, I’d actually only skied 1 full Birkie, but I’ve trained on the trail my whole life.
How do you guide Shawn in the races?
I wear a small speaker around my waist that has two audio inputs. One is connected to a headset microphone so that I can give her instructions on what is coming up ahead of us and the other is connected to an iPod so that there is some music playing. Shawn has no vision at all and relies constant sound to follow. Without the music playing, I’d have to be talking constantly. I think that would get pretty boring for her, and be pretty exhausting for me!
How long have you been skiing together?
I started skiing with Shawn in January. She’s pretty new to cross country skiing and I’ve been able to serve as her guide and coach. She is one of the quickest studies of technique that I’ve ever seen. Despite never having actually seen any technique demonstrations, we work together to improve her body position and power application every time we ski. We train together a couple times a week and do as many races together as possible.
How were the Madshus skis for the Birkie?
I worked with Ben Dubay to pick out skis for both Shawn and I to use in this year’s Birkie. With the fresh snow on Friday before the race, Ben recommended some softer flex skis for both of us and I went with his selections. I waxed them up Friday night and on Saturday morning they were sliding very fast. We raced on Rex Blue and were flying by people on the downhills! The flex of the skis made both Shawn and me very confident on the slightly soft track. They skis climbed very well, despite some soft, chewed up hills and were stable and fast on the downhills. We also used the Madshus race poles which were light and had very comfortable handles. I raced in the racing skate boot and I recommend it highly. It is very supportive and very comfortable.
How did the race play out for you?
Going into the race, I knew that Shawn was very fit, but we hadn’t done any skis of over 3 hours. I know the Birkie trail well, and I wanted to be pretty conservative for the first half because I didn’t know how things would go when we went past 3 hours after all of the big climbs in the first half. We got great support from the volunteers at the food stations and drank plenty of electrolytes. One of the highlights for me was cruising by the drummers at the end of the power line. My parents have been drumming there for years and it gives me a great lift to ski by them. Once we crossed OO, I started to push her pace a little bit and asked her how her energy levels were. She said her legs were feeling a little fatigued, but she still had plenty in the tank. We made it up Bitch Hill and then started the last push to the finish and I was pretty excited.
I had hoped that we could do the race in around 5 hours, but we were ahead of that pace and moving well. Once we got on the lake, I told Shawn to just let the skis run and push as hard as she could. The speed of the skis helped us out when we passed a double line of skiers on the lake. I guided Shawn to the left side of the trail and had her hop in the tracks. I told her that we were going to double pole HARD for about a minute. In that minute we cruised right by about 20 skiers and then we hopped out of the tracks to finish off the last 500m of the lake. As we came off the lake Brian and Caitlin Gregg were there cheering for us! Shawn had met Caitlin and Brian at the expo on Friday and having the winner of the Women’s race there cheering for us as we got ready to sprint up Main Street was just awesome.
What challenges did you see as a guide?
I’m really confident in Shawn’s skiing and maneuvering, but I was pretty anxious about how things would go with the crowds of skiers and the fatigue that was sure to set in. I learned that when I’m 35km into a race, I probably shouldn’t try to do too many things at once because I get tired too! I was trying to open some energy food and managed to catch an edge and I went down hard. Luckily Shawn must have heard me hit the ground and didn’t run me over. We got slowed up for a few seconds, but we got our fuel and kept cruising along. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I crashed, but I’m so proud of Shawn for not crashing even once in the whole race.
It was also challenging because a few of the other racers didn’t realize that Shawn was a blind skier. There were a few times we got cut off, or she got bumped, but that is a part of ski racing. The skiers that we were around were amazingly supportive and most of them enjoyed the music playing and my narrative from the loud speaker as we went along. The shouts of encouragement from all of the competitors was really a boost to both of us and made the whole race a lot of fun.