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No Regrets Part 6

I described speed skating training a bit in No Regrets Part 5.  But ultimately you don’t train to train.  You train to race.

Ice Speedskating Racing: An Overview

People used to ask me all the time when racing season started and in this regard, ice speed skating is that much stranger.  Outside of a few events that nobody cares about, there really isn’t a racing series except for the top skaters at least not in the United States.  They skate World Cup and World Championships (both the overall and individual distances) and there are a handful of other events at most.

For everybody else, here’s how it works:

You train your brains out to skate practice time trials.  Once these started they were usually held at least twice per month from about October to March.  Typically you sign up for two distances (you really can’t physically do more than that) and go race to post a time butt-early on Saturday.

The only goal of skating these is to meet a qualifying standard, either for World Cup Team Tryouts or National Team Trials/National Championships in December (which doubles as Olympic Trials in the December before the games).  There is also an end of year finale that is about the only real race that you do outside of practice time trials.  It’s weird.

But if you don’t qualify for World Cup or National Trials, there is no race circuit to attend.  It’s just a grind of training to do time trials to train some more to do more time trials.  If you qualify for something you race that.  If you don’t, you just keep training and time trialing.

This is capped off by the finale at the end of the year where you’d taper and try to end on a high note with PR’s in all of your events before you start the next cycle of summer training, winter training and more time trials.  I’m told there is more racing (and pack style has more races) back East.  But we were in Salt Lake City.  There were no races in the classical sense.  Just practice time trials.

How We Race: Part 1

There are actually several different types of ice speedskating races.  Short-track speedskating is the one folks are the most aware of (it’s what Apollo Anton Ohno skates).  It’s skated on a hockey sized rink with 4-8 people on the track around a 111 m track, it’s the one where they put their hand on the ice and lean over like maniacs.  There’s lot of passing, sprinting, crashes and the first guy across the line wins. I didn’t race that.  It’s this and for the first 3 years I did it for training, it scared the absolute crap out of me.  I’m better at it now and it still scares me.


There are also ice marathons either held on canals (when they freeze), big lakes and occasionally maniacs will do 100 laps on the big 400m oval.  I never did any of that.  These guys are nuts.


On the long-track, which is what I skated, there are two primary types of racing.  The first is pack-style.  Like short-track, it’s 4-8 guys on the line and the first across the line wins.  There is a lot of drafting, tactics, end sprints, that kind of thing.  I never raced that.  It looks kind of like this.

Pack Style Speed Skating
No witty caption.

I was drawn to ice speedskating since it was an individual sport.  Though I retired from inline mainly due to overtraining, I also didn’t like where the team tactics were going.  I wanted to win or lose on my own merits without having to rely on a teammate to help (or hurt) me.

What I raced is called Metric Style Long-Track Speedskating which is raced on a 400m ice oval (think a running track made out of ice).  Races are contested at distances of 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 3000m (officially only for the women), 5000m, and 10,000m (officially men only).  They are respectively, 1, 2, 3, 7, 12 and 25 laps around the track after the start.

World record times for the men are along the lines of 34 seconds, 1:07, 1:43, 3 minutes and change, 6 minutes and change, 12 minutes and change from shortest to longest.  Rather than another picture, here’s a video of one of my awful 500m races.  It not only will give you an idea of just how boring watching racing is (this is a sprint and it still looks slow as hell) but shows you my absurd two-handed down start.  I’m the short guy in the black suit.

Each race has a different start position (the 3000 and 5000m are the same) with three of the races starting in the corner.  After the start you simply race the number of appropriate laps and skaters switch laps on the backstretch every lap (if you’re in position you can get a draft off the skater in front of you) with the skater in the outer lane having right of way if he’s in an overtaking position (since he’s travelling faster).

If you forget to make a lane change and skate in the wrong lane, you get disqualified.  This is what happened to Sven Kramer in the 10k in Vancouver when his coach had a brain fart and yelled at him to make an illegal lane change at the last second, costing him the gold medal.

That might have been the singular mistake I didn’t make in my entire career (I made the rest): I never forgot to switch lanes.  And I never got DQ’ed from a race.  I did almost get in a fight after one of them though.

How We Race: Part 2

.There are traditionally two different “types” of skaters and event: sprint and all-around.  Sprinters skate the sprint program which means skating the 500m and 1000m.  They skate each distance twice starting once on the inner lane and once on the outer; each has a slight advantage and the switch is to make it “fair”.  The scores are totalled up with something called a Samalog which I won’t even try to explain.  Lowest score (indicating fastest overall time) wins.

The other type of skater is an all-arounder and you skate 4 distances.  Men race 500m, 1500m, 5000m, and 10,000m.  Women race, 500m, 1500m, 3000m, and 5000m.  Apparently women are too delicate to skate 10,000m.  Their ovaries might fall out or something.  I’d note that my friend Eva Rodansky set and holds the official track record for the women’s 10k at the Utah Olympic Oval even if they won’t post her time anywhere because they are a bunch of dicks.

The overall all-around winner of the few races that exist is determined by the same Samalog score that I’m still not going to try to explain.  This is also how the overall World Champion is crowned: by the best Samalog score over those 4 distances.  So you have to be competent from 500m (34 seconds) to 10,000m (12 minutes and change) or that range depending on your skill level (for mortals it’s more like 40 seconds to 15 minutes).  It’s like that old 400m/800m/1500m/5000m spread in track and field that so many have dominated. Wait, what?

There are also single distance events including the Olympics and the World Single Distance Championships and World Sprint Championships. There it’s once race, one winner (except the 500m which is raced twice and totalled; lowest total time wins).   This is how Eric Heiden won five gold medals, by entering and winning all 5 major distances at the Olympics : 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m.

In recent years, a new event called the team pursuit (taken from track cycling) has also been added.  In it, 3 skaters work together and two teams are on opposite sides of the oval. Women skate 6 laps, men 8 and the goal is to either catch the other team (which never happens) or simply skate the fastest time.

Teams switch off lead every lap or so and the total time is determined by the last skater of the group crossing the line.  This is how the US Women managed to lose a bronze medal, Catherine-Raney Norman fell off the back and lost just enough time to lose the women a medal because the other team stayed together.  An injured Chad Hedrick cost the men a gold in the same way.

How We Race: Part 3

During metric style, two skaters race at a time. Technically you are racing the clock.  The event is structured so that the entirety of the skaters racing (anywhere from 10-40 or more) are paired according to approximate ability (and from slowest to fastest in terms of the order you skate) and then go race two at a time.  At the end of all the pairs, whomever has the fastest time wins.  While you obviously have to beat your pair to come in first overall, beyond that beating them means nothing.  It’s you versus the clock: best time wins.

The way I describe it is like this: imagine auto racing but if you raced the cars two at a time and whoever had the fastest time at the end was the winner.  How boring would that be?  Well that’s metric long-track speedskating.  It is a lot like watching paint dry (unless you’re Dutch) but without the inherent excitement of paint.  I think this is a lot of the reason Americans have no appreciation for it.  It’s boring and doesn’t make sense to the American mindset.

There are no crashes (rarely anyhow and then it’s just some guy sliding into the pads when he catches an edge), no exciting passes, just two tall guys in lycra racing on a big sheet of ice two at a time against the clock.  It doesn’t even look that fast even though the top guys are going 35 mph.  This is a weird optical illusion due to the length of the ice, the slowness of the push.  Only seeing it from the side view camera gives you a sense of the speeds involved. Or my behind the butt video from yesterday.

There’s not even the risk of anything blowing up like in auto-racing, not more than metaphorically anyhow.  To be honest, it’s pretty boring to do.  I think it’s boring as all hell to watch.  Unless you’re Dutch.  They love it for some reason.  I think there’s something in the water over there.  Maybe paint.

In that vein, I can think of a lot of good ways to liven it up for the non-Dutch.  They just need some alternate types of racing.  I could see fusion with competitive eating: skate a lap, eat a hot dog.  The track would get slow after 15 laps or so.  Or how about skate a lap, take a shot of Vodka?  The Russians would dominate but the distance races would get fun about 12 laps (shots) in.

Jumps, landmines, jousting, make a figure 8 track and make people skate corners to the right.  Let’s see who the real all-around skaters are.  Rex once suggested bringing back barrel jumping.  Let a guy dial it up to 35 mph and I bet he clears a lot of barrels.  Before flipping over the pads anyhow but you could score extra points for style on the crashes.  But I’m getting off topic.

The Reality of Long-Track Racing

There is also a conceptual issue for most people who are used to seeing the winner as the first guy across the line.  In metric style, you can skate the race of your life and destroy your opponent and still come in next to last because everybody else in the event skates a better time.  You can have the best time up until the last pair and if the last guy pulls out a magic trick or skates an amazing race, you can lose. There are few guarantees unless you’re near the bottom.  Then you know you have no chance.

If you skate early in the pairs, you basically have no chance of doing anything but horribly in the standings, everybody ahead of you is faster.   Not that it really matters.  Unless you’re towards the end of the pair list, or simply have some massive breakthrough, you always know exactly where you’re at.  It’s both freeing and a bit demoralizing.

You never have to worry about your “opponents”.  Everyone is usually within 5-10% of their best at any given time trial.  No tactics, no come from behind racing, no amazing tricks because you can predict to a great degree where people will finish by the pair list.  It makes for an odd environment but at least you can control your expectations.  In a racing sense, the ideal is if the person you’re racing is just a little bit faster than you. That will often pull you up to the next level as you chase them down.

But it can be really demoralizing.  If you race first pair, you can basically be assured of coming in near last unless you have a huge breakthrough or someone falls or gets disqualified.  Even there, at best, you might move up a few spaces with a big breakthrough of a second or two or whatever.

You’re not going to jump from last to first overnight, nobody comes out of nowhere (well, maybe Chad). It just doesn’t happen.  Rather you try to march up the leader board as you get better and hope the folks at the top aren’t improving at the same or a better rate.

Of course, little of that mattered for me, it was clear early on I’d never be near the top.  I had resigned myself about year three that simply qualifying for the Olympic trials was my only realistic shot.  But that was enough.

But it can be hard to get motivated when you know what’s going to happen on any given race day.  Hopefully you PR but usually you’ll be within a few percent of your best.  You’re not technically racing your pair, but rather the clock.  You just want to post a time to meet a qualifying standard to race another event where you might actually be in competition with someone (for a spot on the team).

Oh yeah, in metric long-track speed skating there are no style points, no judging, none of that subjective crapola.  It’s a pure time-trial sport (my friend Eva would disagree but read her book Winter of Discontent if you want to learn more about that) and there are only a few things that get you disqualified (impeding the other skater on the crossover, missing a lane change, stuff like that).  It’s pretty rare although some skaters simply stop in the middle of a race and get a DNF (did not finish).

This is unlike short-track where races can be decided based on a judging call about an illegal pass or cross-tracking or whatever (this all happens after the race on video replay), which leads to all kinds of silliness and argument about who really won.  Readers may have seen Apolo’s luck finally run out in the 500m final in Vancouver when he got disqualified for impeding.  That’s short-track.

In metric long-track speed skating it’s simple: whomever has the best time after all the pairs skate is the winner.  But only in the few events that matter.  In practice time trials it’s you against the clock to set a time to qualify for trials to…..

How I Raced (aka Inline to Ice: Part 4)

During my years racing outdoor inline, I always raced well. I had an uncanny ability to redline it right at my threshold without blowing up and always raced at my best.  It was an aerobic sport without much importance on corners and even though my technique sucked, I didn’t have to think about it.  I could just go.

As I joke now, I’m built for being aerobic and going straight and the ice is about being anaerobic and turning left.  And with a 20 minute race, there is no pressure to get off the line fast or go all out.  You can settle in, find a pack going your pace and just go.  It was great.

On the ice I had none of that.  My technique was awful and unstable and I was pressuring myself to race well.  I wasn’t just skating, I was trying to go fast.  And that’s when the badness happens.   I absolutely detested racing for the first 4 years.

As well, when you’re starting out, your technique isn’t stable enough for the longer stuff.  So I was always racing the 500m, 1000m and 1500m early on and I’m simply not built as a sprinter: mentally or physically.  My coach trains everyone as an all-arounder (even sprinters need some endurance) in the beginning but you race primarily as a sprinter for the first couple of years.   And I hated it, especially the 500m.

There is this sense of “I MUST GO FAST BECAUSE I ONLY HAVE ONE LAP” and you tighten up and skate like crap.  This is especially true when your technique is unstable and moreso when you have no corners, which I didn’t.  You’d go faster skating at 90% and actually skating well than trying to go at 100% and skating terribly.  I did the latter.

Even in the 1000m, you figure that you’ve got two laps to get it right and relax.  I’d often skate a faster first lap in my 1000m than in the single lap of my 500m.  Because I’d relax and skate.  Less effort, faster speeds.  Go figure that one out.

The 1500m was actually my favorite race.  It was long enough that I could settle down and skate but short enough to be over before I fell apart technically.  I’m also a bit of a masochist and the 1500m is like the 800m in track: it just hurts.  It’s short enough to be all out and long enough to hurt like hell.  You have what’s called the 1500m hack for the rest of the day.  I think you kill lung tissue.

Some will hurl after it because acidosis is so high. I never did that.  I did have a little sit down in the last 50m of one of my first races.  No clue what happened.  I was skating the final straightaway one moment and then everything slowed down and my knee hurt and my butt was cold and I was sliding into the warm-up lane. I apparently just tipped over as my left leg collapsed underneath me.  Everyone was yelling at me and I got up and finished the race, which I did.  You always finish the race.

I skated a bunch of 3000’s and a couple of 5000’s.  I never manned up and raced a 10k officially (they actually won’t let you if you’re not fast enough because it takes so damn long) although I did one hand-timed one year.  I did it because I wanted to say that I had but I would never want to do that again.

About lap 20 your low back locks.  If you skate through it, it just goes numb.  I suspect nerve death.  You just keep talking to yourself “If I just don’t stop moving, I can do this.” When you’re done, you can’t stand up straight because the nerves in your low back are dead (I may be exaggerating slightly).

But for the first 4 years, racing was always anxiety producing for me.  I’d never sleep well the night before, get to the ice and fumble through warm-ups.  I’d rush on my starts, slip, try to make up for it and just skate badly, rushing my strokes, not building pressure, reverting to old habits.

It didn’t help that I was under a tremendous amount of pressure to improve my times.  I’d try to race fast and forget to skate.  When I would settle down and just skate, I’d go fast.  It’s easy to say and tell people to relax.  It’s real hard to do when the gun goes off.

Ultimately, I wasn’t built for this and, as I noted in the technique section, this is still my biggest disagreement with my coach: I shouldn’t have been racing so early.  His argument is that newbies need as much race experience as they can to get used to it.  I don’t disagree but until you have decent technique dialed in, you can’t race well and all it does is break you down mentally.  You can’t keep having bad races without getting really discouraged.  Failure starts to beget failure and the way he had us racing just wasn’t setting us up for a lot of success.  Not me anyhow.

It didn’t help that we trained afternoons and raced mornings.  There are circadian rythms involved and you tend to perform best at the time you habitually train.  I wouldn’t even be warmed up by the time we started racing on Saturday morning because apparently playing on the Internet all morning was required for me to skate well in the afternoon.  I didn’t even have time to check email on trials mornings, much less argue with Internet people to ramp up my CNS.  I never felt ready to race.

Almost Hanging It Up/You Always Finish the Race

I came to dread racing, it would not only mean another lost workout (two actually as we’d lose a normal workout for ice prep during the week) but another day where I’d post crappy results and feel terrible mentally and physically.  Still, I’d dutifully go and give it my best.

Except for one time.  One Saturday morning, I walked away from one race about 3 years in. I had raced another terrible 500m, was already questioning why I was wasting my time with this crap, and I scratched from the 3000m.  It’s a miserable painful race, a hard start into 7 laps of pain.

I knew it wouldn’t go well.  I couldn’t face it, I couldn’t hurt that much for another poor time.  So I decided to withdraw from the time trial.  I didn’t even tell Rex who was on the far side of the oval.   I let the race organizers know since it affects scheduling and walked out of the oval in tears, nearly throwing my skates in the trash and leaving SLC right then and there.

I’d never done that before.  I never quit, I never stop in a race no matter how much it hurts, I never stop in a workout unless I’m physically injured.  Sometimes not even then.    Because every time you quit, it gets a little bit easier the next time.  You know that you can just stop when it gets hard.  You can’t let that habit develop.  You always finish the race.  If you fall, you get up and finish.  If you feel like you’re doing to die, you keep going until you cross that line.  Or you die.  But you don’t quit.  EVER.

My attitude extends to workouts, mind you.  You race how you train and I never quit in workouts.  Rex used to joke that a good workout was one where you called out your god’s name for help.  And a great workout was when you asked him/her/it to take you from this mortal coil to make the pain stop.   In speedskating, this isn’t a joke.

In 5.5 years I think I failed to complete maybe 2 sets given to me the entire time.   That’s like a 99.8% completion rate.  I missed less than a handful of workouts and that was always due to reasons out of my control (e.g. I had to buy a new car one day because mine was about to explode).  Because you always finish the workout.  Always.

One summer I fell on right hand circles, had my left arm underneath me and cracked a rib plowing into the pavement.  Rex asked if I needed to go to the hospital.  I asked him to give me the main workout set though I could barely stand up straight or breathe without pain.

It was a gruelling hour of lap on/lap off  (skate one lap hard with a full circle at the end, rest a lap without the full circle) at 160-170 HR on the work lap.  Skating didn’t actually hurt but standing up between laps was excruciating.  I finished the entire thing and never missed a day of training.  You can’t do anything for a cracked rib anyhow.  You suck it up and go.

One workout I did not complete was when I fell on the ice in the corner and cut my ankle to the bone with my own blade.  Multiple stitches later, they had put me back together.  I was on the ice 2 days later and didn’t miss a single workout beyond the one where I fell.  It left a really cool curved cut where the blade got me.  But I’d have finished the workout if I could have.  You never quit.









And that trials day, for whatever reasons, I had just walked out on a time trial I was signed up for.  This was the first time in my life I’d ever quit (I had missed a previous set of trials with food poisoning, mind you, but I couldn’t even get out of bed).

It was psychologically devastating and, as I noted, I almost walked away from the sport completely that day.  I don’t really know what was going on, maybe depression, maybe something else.   I probably shouldn’t have added soy to my diet as part of a nutritional experiment I was trying.  I don’t know that it hurt, but it didn’t help.

But I manned up, got my act together and got back to training and racing.  It never happened again.

Progress or the Lack Thereof

Progress in both racing and training came in dribs and drabs.  A nice thing about being a newbie is that PR’s are easy to come by. But it doesn’t last.  I’d make a jump on the ice but it wouldn’t always translate to racing.  Under stress and such, you revert to old habits and that’s what I’d do.

I would set PR’s in training but they wouldn’t show up in races.   It would take 4 years until what I was doing in training would carryover to trials and I’d relax and just race.  When you try to go fast, you tighten up.  When you relax and just skate, and you go fast.   It’s easy to tell someone to be process oriented and a lot harder to do it.

It was a real struggle at times.  This was the only activity I’d ever done where the harder I worked, the slower I got.  Every year my technique was changing and that meant another season to try to become efficient at the new technique again.  And when you’re having to think about technique, you can’t go all out or your technique falls apart again.  I’d note that I was always improving on sub-maximal sets of laps or intervals because it wasn’t at 100% and I’d skate well.

But my top sprint lap was mired at the 30 second mark.  Mind you that’s 30mph and I had brought it down from a pathetic 47 seconds my first season. But I couldn’t crack through it.  For some reason, this seems to be the cuttoff where getting past it determines where you ever get.  Once you’re past it, you seem to make faster improvements. I think it means your technique is finally solid enough to get really good.

But getting past it was a stone bitch.  I skated exactly one 29 second lap (a 29.88 to be exact) in my career somewhere in year 4, skating behind Caleb (who would eventually do a 26.9) and not even trying to go that fast.  I just relaxed and chased him down.  But then I started trying too hard and never did it again.

Being Surrounded by the Best Is Not Always A Good Thing

I was constantly angry and frustrated with skating, racing was going badly and training at this particular venue was disheartening.  Even as I improved and got my times down it seemed irrelevant.  My coach told myself and Caleb that his and my times would be right at the top at any club back East.  Which would have been great if that’s where we were training.

But the Utah Olympic Oval is the official training center for the US National Speedskating Team.  The best US skaters train here and a 30 second lap seems pointless when they are throwing down 25 second laps on sprint day and skating sets at 30-32 seconds per lap.  They warm up with your max as the old joke goes.

The trolls on my forum loved to poke fun at my placing in time trials because I was always down near the bottom.  But coming in last when the 15 guys ahead of you are National Team, World Team and Olympic level really isn’t that bad if you take the time to think about it (which trolls don’t).  I already mentioned that, like swimming, this is a sport where a 15 year old can hand you your ass because he’s already been skating 8 years and simply knows how to move on ice.  Of course, I can buy beer.

It wasn’t that I sucked completely so much as the folks around me were just amazing.  But it was sure disheartening at times.  No matter what you do, when you are surrounded by folks who have been skating since they were 6 and are the best in the world, you suck by comparison.  Try to maintain your motivation in that scenario.

But progress was coming little by little as my technique caught up with my fitness.  The question is whether or not it would be good enough.  As I mentioned above, metric Speedskating is both nice and horrible in that you always know exactly where you are.

I knew what the qualifying times for the Olympics Trials (my only semi-realistic goal at this point, making a team was never more than a dream goal) would be, I knew what times I was skating.  You always know exactly where you are.  And there’s only so much improvement you can make in a given amount of time.

Ending the 2009 Season

The skating season runs from Mid-April to Mid-March with a month break in-between; the finale is Mid-March.  The entire final year there was a lot of question of whether or not I’d skate out the final part of the 2009-2010 season to try for Olympic trials for a number of different reasons I won’t go into here.

Rex still thought I had an outside shot but this is a place he has problems handling people.  He won’t be honest with them.  He’d said in one breath that he thought I had a chance of making trials.  And in the same breath that he’d only ever seen most people improve by one second per lap per year.   It was simple math and the math didn’t work.  Mathematically, it couldn’t be done.

At this point in time, my only  realistic shot was in the 5000m and the qualifying standard required something like straight 34.3 second laps for each of the 12 laps.  At the time my fastest lap was a nice consistent 30.1 when I didn’t skate like an idiot on sprint stuff.

Now, like many sports, there is something of a relationship between your top speed and what you can do for reps or laps sub-maximally. Clearly if you can only skate a 30 second lap in practice you can’t skate a 29 second lap in a race.  But if you can skate a 29 second lap in practice, you might be able to hold a 35 second lap or whatever for multiple laps (depending on endurance and such). There seemed to be about a 6-7 second differential between people’s best sprint lap and what they could hold for the 5k.  It’s in that range and I’m sure the Germans have endless data on this.

Realistically, to meet the qualifying times, I figured I’d need a 28 second top lap to have a shot at a 34.7 for 12 laps.  That would still be pushing it but was at least within the realm of possibility.  My best was a that single 29.88 and a low 30 was more consistently what I’d do.  If the best improvement Rex had seen was 1 second in a year, it was impossible.  And we didn’t even have the full year going into 2009.

When I told him this contradiction between saying I had a shot and saying he’d only seen 1 second per lap per year rate of improvement on average he said “You never know what might happen.”  Damn it, Rex.

But things can get weird in the distances, sometimes you find someone who doesn’t have the top speed but can crank it out sub-maximally because of their endurance or whatever.  I had a teammate for a little while like this: 30 second top lap and could do repeat 32-34 second laps as long as you’d let him.

Sadly, I wasn’t him. He had raced pro inline and beaten Colorado pros in bicycle time trials.  He had a motor that I lacked.  And better technique.  It actually wasn’t so much that he was great at submaximal laps as that he was bad at sprinting, he hated it and wouldn’t do it.

In All the Way

In any case, I had to make a choice at the end of that March whether or not to keep skating.  I could tell that my ice feel was coming and my corners had finally locked in that February, I was as fit as I’d ever been.  The times I needed to skate were daunting but I felt that I had a maybe shot at it.  I certainly wouldn’t know if I didn’t try.

At this point, I was pretty much all in and while there were reasons that would have made me quit that March (which aren’t relevant to this story), I sort of had to see it through.  Come December 2009, I was done regardless.  Whether I made trials or not, the journey would be done so it was only 9 more months anyhow.  I had to see what I’d started through to the end.

I showed up for summer training 4 weeks later and we began the final push.  At that point Caleb was effectively a lock for trials, I was an outside shot, my coach had a couple of other skaters who were still developing and weren’t even close.  So it was me and Caleb.  We’d started this together and we’d end it together.

Or would we?

To be continued in No Regrets Part 7.

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