READFIELD — It was the first Nordic skiing meet at Maranacook Community High School in three years, and for the team’s skiers, Wednesday marked a long-awaited return.

“This is my favorite place in my favorite sport with my favorite coach,” said senior Sophie O’Clair, who last competed on the Maranacook trail as a freshman. “Our teachers can either watch from their windows, or we can have the staff walk around the loop and watch us. It’s so nice.

“Being able to be here … and be on snow, especially this year, I’m just so fortunate and really happy.”

The venue added to what was an unusual day in an unusual year. Maranacook, which hosts meets each year but usually doesn’t have enough snow to hold them at home, this time got to have a race in its backyard. Temperatures reaching the mid-to upper-40s saw skiers in short sleeves in February. And, of course, there were the masks, a permanent reminder of the pandemic in which all of this was taking place.

“It’s dramatically different, there’s no question about that,” Maranacook coach Steve DeAngelis said. “The biggest difference has been that the focus, without question, has been … to have fun and enjoy doing something that’s fairly normal.”

There’s no state meet this year — the season will end with conference championships — so with the primary objective dashed, a new perspective has taken its place.

“Normally, we’re really gunning for that,” DeAngelis said. “But I’ve got to say, this year, I really feel super strongly that the No. 1 thing is to have fun, and enjoy being with your teammates, because you can be with them more here than you can in a lot of other situations.”

One of DeAngelis’s seniors, Tom Poling, said he is enjoying the different feel to this season.

“I’ve appreciated this season in that things seem a little bit lower stakes. It seems more like we can ski for fun,” said Poling, who was 13th. “It seems almost like we can ski to enjoy the sport, more than it is to ski really well. Obviously we always want to do well, we always want to improve. But I think not having the same stakes is nice.”

There have been some challenges to the different season, however. One is the masks, which skiers after four or five races have started to mind less and less.

“The beginning was pretty hard, but we’ve kind of gotten used to it as the season has gone on,” said Mt. Ararat sophomore Parker Libby, who finished 25th. “It feels kind of normal. … When you’re going hard, you can definitely notice it. You can’t really breathe that hard through the masks.”

Maranacook skier Lily Cannell competes during a race Wednesday in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“The masks have been a little rough,” said Edward Little’s Katherine Garcia, who finished third and whose team didn’t start competing until February due to Androscoggin County’s yellow designation. “But now we’re used to them. I’m just glad we have (a season). For a while, I didn’t think we were going to get to actually race. I’m really glad we did.”

Masks aren’t the only difference. Skiers can’t use the lodges or warming facilities at races. Bus rides have been less social, as capacity is lower and more spread out. Even getting skis ready for the race is different than it used to be.

“Waxing is pretty tricky,” said O’Clair, who came in fourth. “We can only have five people in our wax hut, and we have 40 kids on the team. So captains and coaches have really had to step it up with waxing, and making sure everyone comes with what they need.”

And then there were the challenges presented on Wednesday, most notably the mild temperatures that turned Maranacook’s course from a cold, speedy track to a soft, slow trail.

Being able to be outside in short sleeves is nice, but for skiers, that’s where the benefits end.

“I would definitely say it’s a lot harder, physically,” said Mt. Abram sophomore Jeff Warnock, who was 19th. “Last year, there was the Roy Varney Memorial, that was like 50 degrees. That was extremely difficult. This wasn’t that hard, but it was also very hard. … I would definitely much rather have it be a cold day than a hot day, personally. But I’m a lot better in the cold, whether it’s running or skiing.”

The soft snow meant skiers couldn’t glide, and instead had to pull and push their way through the 6.3 kilometers.

Maranacook’s Max Olmstead crests a hill during a race Wednesday in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“It was not ideal conditions,” said Maranacook junior Max Olmstead, who finished fourth. “Out here on the field, it was just so slow. And it was a longer course too. I was just so tired at the end. … When you’re out here on the soft stuff, your poles just sink through like four inches. So you can’t get any push.”

Olmstead, however, said the conditions were worth it.

“It was a lot of fun to have a home race,” he said. “I’ve never had one here.”

According to O’Clair, the same is true for all of the difficulties of this season.

“It adds challenge, for sure, but it’s equal between everyone,” she said. “We’re facing this, but so is literally everyone else. We’re lucky to be able to face it and still race when we can. It’s honestly just added so much unity throughout all of it.”

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