MARQUETTE - Much unlike the rest of their season, the Northern Michigan University Nordic ski team faces atypical conditions in Utah for the NCAA Championships, including sunshine, rain and high altitude.
With temperatures nearing 50 degrees, Midway, Utah is having one of its warmest winters while Marquette is having one of its coldest.
The weather conditions will make the downhills of Soldier Hollow's 5-kilometer man-made course, the same venue as the 2002 Winter Olympics, extremely fast.
"People are going to have to stay on their feet because if you crash and go off the course here, you're basically in the boulders," head coach Sten Fjeldheim said.
In addition to the weather, the six NMU athletes have spent the past week trying to adjust to the altitude, which is just shy of the limit set by the International Ski Federation.
In order to accommodate the high altitude, the Wildcats have paced their races in Utah at a slower tempo than they are used to at sea level in Marquette.
"You don't want to risk oxygen debt, because that's the only think that will really knock you on your knees," Fjeldheim said.
"If you go into oxygen debt at altitude and start hyperventilating, you don't recover."
Despite the challenges, Fjeldheim said the 'Cats have skied a couple time trials and interval workouts, and they are healthy and in good spirits.
NMU was the only Central Collegiate Ski Association team to qualify six athletes - three men and three women - to the NCAA Championships, which is the maximum number of athletes that are permitted from each team.
"It's really hard to get a full team here, so it says something about the depth of our program, which I've been really happy with all winter," Fjeldheim said.
Two of the national qualifiers, junior Kyle Bratrud and senior Rosie Frankowski, finished as All-Americans last year, and sophomore Mary Kate Cirelli also competed in the 2013 NCAAs.
The other three Wildcats set to compete are freshman Adam Martin, freshman Frederick Schwencke and sophomore Hannah Boyer.
While the returners have helped show the underclassmen the ropes at NCAAs, they all have prior experience at high-level competitions, Frankowski said.
On the flip-side, the first-time qualifiers have helped the rest of the team maintain positive energy.
"It keeps a good atmosphere of enjoying the actual event and not stressing yourself out about getting a certain place or result or anything that really takes away from celebrating that you qualified for nationals," Frankowski said.
NMU finished fifth in the Nordic competition last year, and Fjeldheim said the Wildcats have potential to finish somewhere between second and eighth place this year, despite the challenge of high altitude.
"I've been at this a long time and I think this is one of the more talented teams I've had," Fjeldheim said. "I've been really impressed with their professionalism and their work ethic. These kids are a pleasure to work with."
The Wildcats kick off competition Thursday with the women's 5K and men's 10K classic races. The freestyle races take place on Saturday with the men's 20K and women's 15K mass starts.