Friday, February 9, 2018

Will Shortz

Last week was an off-week on the RMISA circuit. The team was in Anchorage, getting reacquainted with the classroom and getting some training done on our home trails at Hillside and Kincaid Park. But not all of the Seawolves came back to Anchorage from Montana.  A large proportion of the women’s team flew to Switzerland instead, to compete in the World Junior Championships. I'm talking about Hannah, Natalie and Hailey.

For Hailey, it was quite a week. 

A couple weeks ago, I had one of the more exciting experiences of my past decade with the UAA ski team.  Hailey, for the first time in her college career, was in the lead group of four in an RMISA race, and was ready to make an attempt at winning a college race.  It was a 15km mass-start skate race, on soft, slow snow.  The conditions were advantageous for Hailey, who’s at her best on this kind of snow, and she put herself into the breakaway group of six. Every time Hailey went to the front of the group, the pace quickened, another skier got dropped, and the group got smaller. Eventually, with a few kilometers left, it was down to four, with Petra Hyncicova, Guro Jordheim and Hailey looking relaxed, and Hedda Bangman clearly struggling to hang on.

I was pretty excited about the way things were coming together. It has been clear for a while that Hailey has the potential to win college races, though she hadn’t yet managed to put herself in position to do so. But here she was, nearing the finish line in what was clearly going to be a podium finish. It was only a question of which place on the podium she’d end up. 

Petra and Guro are both experienced in mass-start finishes and they’ve both proven to be tough and fast in the last 400 meters; Petra won both races at last year’s NCAA Championships and had an outside chance of being on the Czech Olympic team this year. And Guro is no slouch either; she’s usually on the RMISA podium.

In any group finish, you have to try to manipulate the race and your competitors, to the extent that you can, so that the race plays to your strengths.  You have to choose a strategy that you think will give you the best odds of success and then make a full, passionate commitment to that play, and let the cards fall as they may.  In a 400-meter head to head sprint against proven finishers like Guro and Petra, you could be forgiven for betting against Hailey.  Hailey herself has said that her finish-line sprint isn’t necessarily her strong suit. So I hustled myself out to a spot just within two kilometers of the finish and encouraged Hailey to forge ahead early and try to break the other two.  If she could get a seven or eight second gap, surely she could hold them off and reach the finish line first.  And even as I hollered my advice to Hailey, she immediately went into passing gear and committed herself to the attack.

All there was to do at this point was to listen to the radio because Andrew, Marine and Sara Studebaker were all spread out down the trail between me and the finish line.  Soon enough, Andrew was on the radio, shouting that Hailey had opened a gap of around ten or fifteen meters over Petra and Guro.  But he was in a position to see them twice, and a moment later, he came back on and announced that Petra was closing the gap. Eventually, Marine and Sara reported that Hailey had been caught, and that it was impossible to know who’d won the three-way sprint. As it turned out, Guro had come from the third position to win the race, with Petra second and Hailey third.

Regardless of how the final result came out, the race was a real breakthrough for Hailey; it was the first time she’s been in position to make a real attempt to win a college race. These RMISA races aren’t easy to win, by any means. Of course the first step is having the fitness and skills to be able to put yourself in a position to win. It’s pretty tough to win if you’re a couple minutes behind the lead pack. But the second part of the equation is just as hard. Once you’ve got the skills and fitness to be with the leaders, it’s another step completely to figure out how to win head-to-head matchups against skiers with the experience and mental toughness of Petra Hyncicova, or Martin Bergstrom, or Mads Strom.

And with that, coming off her first RMISA podium finish, Hailey was off to Switzerland for World Juniors. Things were looking promising. Hailey was clearly in good form. And she was coming off a bronze-medal performance last year in the World Juniors relay. So she should have been going into the week with confidence. In her first competition, an individual-start race, she finished second. Not too shabby.  It was, in fact, the best-ever American result at World Juniors. The second and final individual-start race was the skiathlon, and Hailey’s recent results suggested she would have an opportunity to try for the win. As it turned out, Sweden’s Frida Karlsson simply outclassed everyone in the skating portion, but that left Hailey and Norway’s Lone Johansen in a head to head battle for the silver medal.  Hailey knew that her best chance to win the battle for silver would be to try to break Johansen before the finish, avoiding a head-to-head sprint. She charged ahead on the final climb and managed to put a little space between herself and Johansen, but it wasn’t enough and the Norwegian was able to fight back and win the sprint.  It was a courageous race by Hailey, though, and it established her position as the best-ever American skier at the World Junior Ski Championships.

Over the past few weeks, Hailey has put herself in position to win every mass-start race she’s started, and she’s only been racing against tough fields – RMISA and World Juniors.  She hasn’t won one yet, but she’s made valiant attempts. Next time perhaps she’ll come out on top. Or the time after that.  Just as you have to race a lot of races before you can get the experience and skills to become one of the best, it usually takes quite a few attempts at winning mass-start races before you figure out a strategy that works for you. Hailey’s in the process of figuring it out.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Olympic Trainers

Long ago, I would occasionally get together with my friend Jeff at the Alaska Club and we would pump a little iron together.  Jeff was a lot stronger than I was because he'd pumped a lot more iron in his time than I had in mine. While I had been spending my days skiing around in the forest, Jeff had been the starting center on a Division 1 college basketball team, and basketball is a sport where they pump a lot of iron. Another reason he was stronger than me was because he was (and is) six feet nine inches tall.  And it just seems natural to me that someone so big and tall is going to pump more iron than someone who was a foot shorter and weighs about half as much.

Nevertheless, because I'd once been on an Olympic Team, and because Jeff was better at pumping iron than me, and because it was natural for Jeff to show me new techniques for pumping more iron, he always went around telling everyone around us at the gym that he was an "Olympic Trainer". If you knew (or know) Jeff and his general demeanor, you'll know that it was pretty damn funny when he went around mentioning offhandedly to everyone within earshot in the gym that he was an "Olympic Trainer".

Here's Jeff. In Prince William Sound. I think we were doing summer biathlon training.
But Jeff isn't the only Olympic Trainer I know.  Andrew Kastning is now, as of last week, an Olympic Trainer.  And even Marine Dusser, in her very first year as a college ski coach, is an Olympic Trainer too! That's because our own Seawolf Casey Wright was named to the Australian Olympic Team last week, making both of our Seawolf ski coaches Olympic Trainers!

Skippy has come a long way to make this dream a reality. Growing up in the Yarra Valley, known mostly for its chardonnay, it was a long drive for skiing with the family on weekends during Australia's relatively short winters. Eventually she got to the point where she knew that if she was going to really improve, she would need to leave home and follow the snow - in the northern hemisphere for our winters and then returning to Australia for their own winters. By Skippy's account, she had strung together eight straight winters without a summer by the time she joined us here in Alaska a couple years ago and enjoyed a little warm summer weather for a change. Since coming to Alaska, she has improved steadily, and recently started thinking that if she could continue to improve, she could potentially make the 2022 Olympic Team. But last spring, after a couple of particularly good sprint races, it started to seem that perhaps qualifying for this Olympic Team might be a possibility. She put all her effort into the summer dryland training season, working out with APU - a team that has a lot of skiers on the '18 Olympic team, including Skippy's Australian Olympic teammate Jessica Yeaton. Several of APU's skiers are legitimate medal contenders, including Kikkan Randall and former Seawolves Sadie Bjornsen and Erik Bjornsen. Obviously, it never hurts to spend the summer training for the Olympics with medal contenders.

During the fall I could sense Skippy's excitement for, and nervousness about, the coming racing season. She knew she had a good chance of qualifying for the Olympics, but she also knew that she was going to have to improve over the previous year and that an Olympic berth was not hers to lose. Rather, it was hanging out there - a possibility - but she was going to have to put all the pieces together if she was going to get that spot. There were questions about what avenue for qualification would be most prudent, as there were a limited number of opportunities to meet the qualifying criteria and she would have to make some tricky choices about where and when to race. And there was the question of whether it would be more likely to qualify via distance races or sprint races; Skippy thought meeting the criteria would be more likely via the "distance" route. But at a FIS sprint race in Fairbanks just before Christmas, she met the standard and suddenly things were looking really encouraging. I'll always remember driving the team van up the hill to the DiFolco's house in Fairbanks through falling snow, a couple hours after that race. I asked Skippy, who was sitting in the back seat, whether her race had qualified her for the Olympics. She responded, very hesitantly, that in fact it had. But it was obvious that she didn't want to celebrate it or discuss it too much, because she didn't dare start thinking that she was headed to the Olympics just yet. I could tell that she was excited, but was trying her hardest not to count her chickens before they'd hatched, and was determined to keep her thoughts in check and avoid getting carried away with a bunch of Olympic daydreams, in case things didn't work out in the end. So I tried to avoid bringing the topic up with her over the next month, regardless of how curious I was about her standing. Skippy knew things were looking very promising, but didn't want to let herself believe it until the official naming of the team last week. 

I know Skippy gets a little homesick from time to time, but she has said many times that coming to Alaska has been a critical ingredient for her improvement and her recent Olympic Team qualification. Having found it necessary to live several different places to follow her athletic dreams over the years, she's got groups of friends and family on two continents claiming her as "our Olympian." 

Congratulations to the Olympic Trainers, Andrew and Marine! And congratulations to Casey Wright. It's quite an accomplishment to become one of the very best athletes in your country and wear the national colors in the Olympics. Very few people have the talent, the desire, and the work ethic to become an Olympic athlete. Casey ought to be very proud of this accomplishment. Her teammates, coaches and friends certainly are!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Making Memories

Our last morning out on the ski trails in Montana:




Friday, January 19, 2018

A Smashing Good Time

The racing, and the "official team training" happens in the mornings around here.  But in the afternoons is when the fun really begins. Unencumbered by heart rate monitors or authority figures, the coaches charge around the trails for an hour or two, racing the sunset and trying to make each other suffer. We each have our own weaknesses to deal with:  I with my pneumonia / emphysema / black lung issues; Andrew with his sickness for Strava, and Marine with.... I'm not sure Marine has any weaknesses at the moment, but there's gotta be something.

Marine has been leading me around the Rendezvous Trails in the afternoons. It's really fun to go out skiing with Marine because she's always ready with a smile and likes to ski the downhills, turns and transitions fast, just like I do. She is determined to get a little exercise so that she'll be ready for a ski marathon in Colorado in a couple weeks.  And I am determined to keep up with Marine on our afternoon tempo sessions here in Montana. It's not easy. I usually need to be suited up in full spandex to even have a chance. Every once in a while I'll feign an untied shoe or a loose pole strap so we can stop for a moment to catch my breath and take another cough drop (to keep my pulmonary edema under control).  It was during the stop pictured below that Marine told me about a ski session the previous day with someone else: "...It was a great ski. My skis were faster than his and I was just able to smash him!"

Andrew, for his part, has been struggling with his own sickness - for Strava.  I never really heard about this Strava phenomenon before, but apparently you can turn every solitary, peaceful, invigorating interaction with nature into a testosterone-fueled race against anybody else who ever came down the trail ahead of you with a Garmin GPS watch.  So early every afternoon, Andrew plots out all the weakest Strava trail segments around the general vicinity, he makes a plan, and he walks over to the trail system with a pair of freshly waxed skis and a zoot suit made of spandex. And late every afternoon he strides back off the ski trails and through the hotel lobby, looking hopeful, and he plugs his tell-all wristwatch into his computer to see who he was able to relegate down the almighty Strava scoreboard. There have been triumphs as well as a few tragedies, but I know for sure that you can now find Andrew's name on more than one "leader board" pertaining to the Rendezvous Ski Trail System.

You may remember that Sara, our former Seawolf assistant coach, used to hide out in closets and whatnot whenever she could. We all miss her a lot, of course, but Andrew's attempt to emulate her by hiding behind the wax bench this morning showed that he never truly learned how hiding works.

The view from the starting grid at today's women's race

Aljaz Praznik, first year assistant coach at University of New Mexico, ready for action in his feed zone debut.

And Marine. A bit dramatic with the snowsuit perhaps.

Jenna. Today's fastest Seawolf.

Sadie Fox

The weather started raging this afternoon, so I took the opportunity to do the thing I like to do best in a snowstorm - I went out for a nice afternoon ski tour.
Seawolf Central for the week.

The stormy streets of West Yellowstone

Ski racing is a lot of fun, it's pretty challenging, and I think it's a good way to spend time. But ski racing doesn't really give me the peace and tranquility that I seem to need in large daily doses. As much as I enjoy going out and racing around with others, the best moments are always alone, when you can decide for yourself which direction to go, which way to turn, or when to pull a peanut butter sandwich out of the backpack for lunch. When you can stop and take a look around without feeling the need to make a statement or crack a joke, and without anyone else messing up your silence... These are important moments in the day of any reflective person.

Tomorrow morning will be my last chance to get smashed by Marine out on the ski trails, and then we drive to Salt Lake City.

Monday, January 15, 2018


Well, we're still here.  Still in Montana...

Us coaches were taken to the race start area in this 1953 Quebequois rig. Here's Marine. Showroom girl. A natural.

Coaches riding in style.  1953 style.

Andrew likes to start each day with a brief prayer and blessing of the skis. Marine and I usually just wait for him to finish his thing.

Here's the tail end of the lead pack. That's Marcus along for the ride. He skied with the group until it broke up about two kilometers from the finish. His best RMISA result to date. But I think this is only a preview of what's to come.

Here's Tracen. His first RMISA weekend in the books.

Brandon. (And a drama queen.)

Here's Hailey at kilometer six. Leading the lead pack of six.

The lead group whittled down to five. At kilometer eight (of ten). This is the eventual finish order: Jordheim (Utah), Hyncicova (Colorado), and Swirbul.  But not before Hailey charged ahead (at the very moment that this photo was taken) and made her attempt to put the race away with two kilometers to go.  She managed to get a ten meter gap on Hyncicova and Jordheim, but it wasn't enough and they both regained contact and outsprinted her at the finish. Sometimes it takes a few pushes to tip a thing over. You've got to get it rocking farther and farther before you can finally get it to go.  This was Hailey's first serious attempt at winning a college race. I think, with a few more pushes, she can get it done.

The podium:  Hyncicova, Jordheim, Swirbul.

No racing today.  Why not ski into Yellowstone National Park?
These national park signs have to be pretty tough to put up with this kind of abuse day in and day out.

Skiing on the park road.  Tracen, Brandon, and Master Guide Marcus Deuling.

As we skied through the park, Master Guide Marcus Deuling directed our attention to various flora and fauna along the way. This elk, for example.

And this bison (or, as Master Guide Marcus Deuling calls them, "beizen". This particular beizen was forced to stand here in the middle of the Madison River by a couple of wolves who, as Master Guide Marcus Deuling describes it, "were chewing on her earlier", and were sitting patiently on the hillside above the river, waiting for her to make her next move. She didn't give the impression that she felt like she had a lot of options.

Here's Tracen

I still have no idea why Master Guide Marcus Deuling was doing this strange dance, but he'd shown us so many interesting sights and so many fun animals that we wouldn't have seen without him, there was no way I was going to question his methods. (If I recall correctly, he was using this dance to call in swans.)

Here's Skippy. Out for a little ski touring beside the Madison River in the afternoon.

Cross country skiing the way it was meant to be.

The Madison River. Our day centered around this waterway.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Big Sky Country

First RMISA road trip of the year - here we go!

Freshmen.  Ski tuning in the Super 8 parking lot in Belgrade.

There's plenty of snow here.

We saw these locals having wheelchair races on the baggage carousel at the Bozeman Airport.

Squeezing all our gear into two cars and a pickup truck was a tricky problem to solve.

Here in West Yellowstone, we walk from our hotel to the ski trails.

Marine and I made it out for a post-training afternoon ski.  It was heaven.

Here's Michaela in this morning's race.

Hailey. She was fourth today.


Natalie. She goes off to World Juniors next week, representing Canada.



Von Grunenbaum

Tracen.  His first RMISA race. Many more to come in the future. Getting familiar with soft snow and thin air.



Zacke in full Seawolf regalia.

Jenna. (Actually, this isn't Jenna.  But I wasn't able to get a photo of Jenna today so you get this guy instead. You'll notice that he has his racing bib on backwards. Big mistake.)

We race again tomorrow...