It's been a few years since I rode in a mass start. The last was a poor experience in 2011, but before that, two in Hungary which I rather enjoyed.
My mistake in the sprint cost me a medal, and I should have stayed with Ingrid and Maja. So, I chose to play the mass start tactically. With the long distance being the 'extra' race for me, I knew I would have to do something special to pull a top 6 again. But I wasn't feeling in a special mood. The intense focus on the sprint (that was cancelled) and middle, really took it out of me mentally, so by the time I stood on the start line, I decided my race was to let the others do the work.
It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but those were the tactics. Say with the faster group but at the back, let them make mistakes and for me to hit the controls cleanly. If I rode at a slower pace than normal, I should have enough energy and speed to maintain control at the end. Past experience has taught me most athletes in a mass start will lose time in the last controls, when they switch off/get tired/get distracted etc.
The first part of the race was to make it first to the gate out of the field, enough for 3 bikes to pass in a row, but it could potentially cause a small pile up! At the start gun, I grabbed my map and legged it towards my bike, hurdling one in front to get there smoothly. Map in, jump on bike and ride. Suddenly I realised I was the second athlete leading out of the field, not the position I wanted. Since being first to the gate was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, I slowed down and passed out of the field in 4th. I was second on my gaffle to the first control, but with the longer forking, came in a the back of the pack at the common control. Still in the first 10 mins, everyone was still riding fast. I stayed with a group of riders who I normally beat by a good margin, but I wasn't too concerned. I planned some controls and slowly picked my way up the field. A lot of other athletes were biking very fast here only to make mistakes later.
At the 4th control I was surprised to see Hara and Laurila on their way to the next, only about 40 seconds ahead. These two are the super fast women so I knew they must have been biking fast and made a mistake. A few more controls and they were only 15 seconds ahead. Again this re-affirmed that the front pack were having a bad day and exploring the woods.
On the hill climb I didn't lose any ground to the small pack 50m ahead. Some Russians and Finns came past breathing heavily, but I just maintained my speed. At the top of the hill, the group that had gone past reappeared from a track after having made a mistake. It's all very well to bike fast, but to then lose the time on a mistake is far more mentally draining than sticking to a game plan!
A bit further on and Hara appeared from my right, another mistake from the lead group. Now I knew I was back up with them, and by the next control I was in the group again.
My plan of staying together only failed once on the course, where the map showed a valley, and on the shortest route, it was a perfectly viable option. In reality the massive ravine which was almost unclimbable in both directions, presented a bigger problem. My plan of descending on another path and shortcutting was put on hold when all the others took this path (before the ravine could be seen). Everyone lost 90 seconds here, but on the second forking it could be corrected. The only problem is that more time was gained by having the longer forking at this control second, so athletes who had the shorter control first, then gained 30-1 min on the next round. My gaffle only gained 20 secs later on.
Coming into the finish I knew I wasn't in the lead, but it seemed the field had really spread out after the ravine controls. Heading onto the next loop I tried to maintain speed but was really struggling with my legs tightening up. I was caught by Jaggi on this loop, but while she pulled a gap, a mistake in the later controls saw me finish ahead.
In the end, despite my less-than-optimal feeling I was 10th, about 2 mins behind the medals and 4 mins behind first. It's my closest long distance to date, and as expected I gained 5 places at the end of the course by keeping a cool head. There's a huge amount of room for improvement in long distance races, but for the rest of 2013, sprint and middle races will remain my focus. As for 2014, maybe I will change focus, but we will see. After a successful 2 races, the 10th in the long was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, but up there with some of my best long results. I know I'm capable of more in long races, I believe it's just a matter of focussing more mental effort on them.