Thursday, October 5, 2017

She's On The Payroll Now!

Not long after Andrew Kastning began his tenure as UAA’s head Nordic coach back in 2011, he signed his first-ever recruits, and he was pretty excited about it.  He called me one evening in the spring to announce to me that his first two UAA recruits were going to be Pati Sprecher from Switzerland and Marine Dusser from France.  I think he’d found them on the result page of the Engadin Ski Marathon in St. Moritz, where they’d raced against each other once during the previous winter. But while Pati came to Alaska with considerable experience racing both classic and skating techniques, Marine had been spending her time competing for the French national team in biathlon.  And as you may already know, biathletes are too busy messing around with their rifles to waste their time fretting over kick wax.  So while we had some idea that Marine would be pretty fast in the skating races, the classic skiing situation remained a bit of a mystery to all of us, including Marine.  By and by, Pati and Marine both arrived in Alaska, they both were successful, and we all had a nice time together.

A typical scene in 2013: Marine had a way of getting not just one coach, but TWO coaches to slave over her kickwax while she stood by, giving directions. (Sorry, Marine, but those days are behind you now.)
I have this little game I like to play when I first get to know new UAA skiers who didn’t grow up in Alaska. I ask myself whether our new skier will eventually leave Alaska and move on to some other place after college, or whether they will get hooked on Alaska for whatever reason, and end up remaining here to establish a career, a family, etc.  I have never told Marine this (so don’t tell her) but when she arrived in Alaska I didn’t know how long she would stay, but I suspected it wouldn’t be more than a year or two at the very most.  It was a pretty rainy fall that year, and a cold winter, and Marine had come to us from the southern French Alps where they get a lot of sunshine…. and somehow, for one reason or another I just got the impression in those first few months that deep down, Marine would rather have been there than here.

Marine has told me several times that she enjoys very cold weather. But I'm not sure if I've ever really believed her.
But I also noticed something else about Marine in those first few months. She had really good body awareness and physical coordination.  She was a fantastic skater, but she wasn’t very confident in her classic skiing.  Nevertheless, she was able to watch and learn from others, and incorporate what she learned into her own technique very quickly and naturally.  One time that first November, during a practice at the Hillside trails, Andrew told Marine, “We want you to change your classic technique so that instead of doing it the way you’re doing it, you do it THIS way. It’s a little complex and difficult, so we can keep working on it throughout the winter...”  Marine gave it a try, executing exactly what Andrew had explained and asked, “Did I do it right?” After Marine skied off, having changed her technique significantly in the space of about two minutes, Andrew looked at me, and paused, and said, “Well... I guess that was easy.”  It still makes me laugh every time I think of that moment and the way he said it.

Our first big race of the year in 2013 was during the first week of January at the US National Championships in Utah.  It was a 30km mass-start classic race, and there was some uncertainty as to how things would play out since Marine hadn’t done any classic races yet, and was starting near the back of the field in around the 68th spot in the starting grid.  My assignment was to station myself near the top of the first major uphill with spare poles in case any of our skiers broke one in the start, so I was standing beside a short, steep section that everyone would have to herringbone up due to its steepness. By the time the field reached me, a little less than a kilometer into the race, Marine had already moved up to somewhere around 20th, but when the group got to the little steep bump and everyone broke into herringbone, Marine broke into what she knew best – skating.  I’ve been around this sport long enough to know trouble when I see it, so I got on the radio to Andrew and told him he needed to get some place on the course that was deserted and private – fast – and he needed to convey to Marine in the clearest terms possible that this is a classic race and you’re not supposed to skate. When Marine got this information from Andrew, she yelled back, “Oh, I know! The Utah girls already yelled at me and told me I’m not supposed to do that anymore. So we're all good now!” Marine ended up something like sixth among the college women.  Not a bad classic debut. And in fact, her first college win came on the same course the following year – in a classic race!

Here's a photo I took of Marine during that US National's race I was discussing above. Any physical evidence of any alleged skating during that race has been destroyed, and all that's left is hearsay and innuendo.
Marine went on to have a successful college career, getting a degree, winning some college races, reaching the podium in every single weekend of regular-season college racing she ever did, getting on the podium in both races at the NCAA Championships in Middlebury, Vermont, and just barely missing out on being the RMISA “MVP” during her senior year in 2014. 

The NCAA podium in 2013. A familiar place for Marine.
After finishing college, she moved back to France and worked for Rossignol, where her assignment was to design a line of activewear for the company. But it seemed every time I turned around, Marine was either in Alaska, was soon coming to Alaska, or had just left Alaska. She had a boyfriend here, and the two of them couldn’t bear to be apart from each other for long, so whenever Erik Bjornsen wasn’t in France visiting Marine, Marine was here visiting Erik.  Last spring, the two got engaged and they plan to tie the knot next summer in France. In the meantime, Marine has moved permanently to Anchorage. 

Marine and Etienne, relaxing with music between races on the road.
You may (or may not) be wondering why I’m giving you Marine’s life history here on this blog. It’s because Marine has recently accepted the position of UAA’s assistant Nordic coach!  I know that Andrew is very excited to have secured Marine for this role, as she will bring some special skills and her own personality to the team. Marine comes (back) to us with a lot of heart, and a dose of stubbornness, that is going to add significantly to the coaching team’s palette here. She is not afraid to express her opinion, and she comes into this role with a considerable amount of recent high-level racing experience. 

Marine was none too fond of the drills. Never liked them and never really tried to hide her disdain for them. But she probably didn't know until now that I have photographic proof of her slacking off on "agility day".  Little to no effort was made to go around those cones. (You were only cheating yourself, Marine.)
Marine comes into this coaching job extremely fit, having won some Alaska mountain running races during the past couple of summers, and her fitness is going to enable her to be that much more effective as a coach when we’re out on the ski trails. Marine also knows skis. She demonstrated during her time as a UAA skier that she knows the difference between fast skis and slow skis, and she understands ski flex and ski grind.  Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that her dad, Bruno, ranks high with Rossignol, and his name can even be found on some of the Rossi ski patents. Marine has had no lack of good-quality skis available to her through her connections at Rossignol, and it was a rare day when her teammate Lasse wasn’t begging Marine to let him borrow a pair of her skis for one of his races. (When Lasse went off to compete for Denmark in the World Championships in Italy in 2013, he boarded the flight with a bag full of Marine’s skis.)  We coaches always appreciated Marine’s candor when testing skis before races. She didn’t hesitate to firmly state her opinion about which grind she preferred for the snow conditions of the day, and she wasn’t afraid to tell us when her skis were too slow, or really fast.  And she knew the difference. Not everyone does.

Lasse was a little bit sick for Marine's skis.
The story behind the photo: Marine is flaunting her computerized ski database in Lasse's face at our team house at NCAA's in Middlbury while Lasse lusts hopelessly after her equipment fleet. Lasse's jealousy and anguish in this photo are palpable.

I was chatting with Marine a few weeks ago in a parking lot in East Anchorage, and she was gushing about how much she’d been enjoying coaching Anchorage’s junior biathlon program during this past summer. While she enjoyed the process of designing a clothing line for Rossignol, she told me that she found much more joy in helping athletes to accomplish their personal goals, especially as she was working with young biathletes who had a lot of unrealized potential. Marine told me she felt like she’d found her calling this summer when she started coaching, and she’s really fired up to get started at UAA.

I’m so happy that it turns out I was wrong all those years ago when I guessed that Marine would leave Alaska not long after her arrival here. We welcome Marine’s return to UAA in the role of assistant coach.  I know that Andrew is excited to work with her again, no longer in a coach/athlete relationship but now together as coaches. Marine showed during her skiing career here that she knows how to win college races, and she won her fair share of them. I hope our Seawolf athletes will take the opportunity to learn some of her tricks.

Marine has this message for the Seawolf Nordic skiers.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


No blog posts will be forthcoming for the next week or so because I am out exploring California.

Friday, September 22, 2017


Again, as every year around this time, we found ourselves at the sand dunes of Kincaid Park. This is a miserable workout consisting of multiple sprints up the northern and southern aspects of a seaside sand dune, and it's an annual rite of late September for the UAA Ski Team, both nordic and alpine. Every year somebody pukes. Even the coach has been known to hurl on occasion. We don't take this workout lightly.

Instructions from Andrew at the start of the workout.

But today, it wasn't just the ski team out there. We had company!  The UAA hockey team and men's basketball teams agreed to join us for this workout, and they added a lot to the spirit of the event. No UAA team wants to get shown up by another UAA team, so there was a real effort to show who was the toughest group out there.  Personally, I was a little concerned about the hockey team. Their sport consists of a series of 45-second shifts in which they charge as hard as they can up and down the ice only to crawl back over the boards, exhausted, rest a couple minutes, and then do it over and over again for three 20-minute periods.  It seemed to me like those boys might be pretty well-suited to these sprints. I was less concerned about the basketball players showing us up.  I figured those big, tall guys probably weren't so well suited to a series of fast uphill sprints in the sand.

We started with a bunch of sprints of the north side of the dune. It was steep and deep, just the way we skiers like it.

That's Marcus on the right.

Jon & Dom

The hockey players were charging hard today.

The second half of the workout was on the south-facing, firmer side of the dune. A greater distance, at higher speed.

That's Marte in blue, near the front.

We had a lot of tired student-athletes at the end of this thing.

The men's basketball team.

So, how did the skiers stack up against the hockey and basketball players you ask?  It seemed to me like it was pretty even.  I saw Marcus and Tom winning some of the sprints, but definitely not all of them.  I saw a bunch of hockey players winning their sprints.  But I also saw basketball players winning some of the heats, too.  It didn't seem that any team was truly dominant.  But, for the final heat, in which the fastest athletes of the day were pulled out for an "elite" heat of the day's fifteen best, hockey players went 1-2-3.  So I don't think you can come to any other conclusion than that the hockey team won the workout. Personally, though, I was pretty impressed by the basketball team. They definitely held their own out there, and they had at least three players spewing their breakfast during the workout. That in itself tells me they were giving everything they had, and they definitely earned my respect!

Thursday, September 21, 2017


It's early in the season. But we probably only have about four more weeks before it starts snowing.  So there's a lot of work to be done and a short time in which to do it. Part of that work includes developing good skiing technique. This week, we've spent some time working on that.

Jenna working on technique, while Andrew watches Seinfeld reruns on his iPad.




Baron Von Munchausen. Taking flight.


The ceremonial reading of results.


Rupert Von Hindenberg. The instructions were to go twice around the cone. Nobody said he needed to ski five kilometers in completing the task.

And then there was that time Zacke went rogue...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Jeff Scott

Jeff Scott

Jeff Scott died of brain cancer a few weeks ago.  There was a memorial service for him the other day at Kincaid Park and it was packed. Everybody was there. Jeff Scott was, among other things, the president of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.  A few years ago, he’d handed the job of NSAA President over to Lars Spurkland. But Lars died unexpectedly in 2014 and Jeff agreed to retake the role of NSAA President.  But of course Jeff was, like Lars, far more than just the president of the ski club.  Jeff was a pretty extraordinary guy.  He and I didn't really run in the same circle of friends, but every time I saw him, he seemed like he was having a really fantastic day.  He always had a smile and he was always pretty excited about whatever thing he happened to be excited about.  And it was always something. There was this one time when my friend Trond Bjorn and I had a difference of opinion with one of the ski club’s policies, and we told Jeff our feelings about it.  Jeff figured what needed to happen was we all needed to go downtown to Humpy’s and have a few beers and talk it out and come up with a solution.  As I remember, we didn’t really come up with any firm resolution to our difference of opinion, but Trond Bjorn and I got to hear about all the new and exciting programs that the ski club was initiating, including big plans for ski jumping, and new ways to make skiing fun for kids and get more elementary school students into skiing.  Walking out of Humpy’s at the end of the evening, Trond Bjorn and I agreed: “This guy Jeff Scott is an awesome guy!”

About a year ago, last August, Jeff sent me an e-mail. He’d heard about my little t-cell lymphoma cancer episode, for which I’d been going to the hospital for my daily dose of radiation therapy all summer long. Jeff had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer and had just been through a couple of major brain surgeries. He contacted me because he wanted to know if I needed anybody to talk to about my lymphoma situation and he wanted me to know that I should feel free to contact him if I ever wanted to talk about it or needed any support. I was at the tail end of my radiation treatment and all indications were that this t-cell lymphoma thing was coming to a close and I was in remission and most likely it was behind me for good. So for one thing, I didn’t think my little issue was anything like the seriousness of what Jeff had just been hit with, so I thought it was extraordinary that it was Jeff who was offering me comfort; it seemed it should have been the other way around.  And at the same time, I felt in no way qualified to give Jeff any advice or insight about what he was dealing with.  It seemed it would be so presumptuous of me to compare my little t-cell lymphoma episode (which had been discovered very early, before it spread) to Jeff’s brain cancer, which involved major surgery and chemotherapy and all the rest, and which seemed to me like a life-threatening, scary situation.

The thing everybody knows about Jeff is that he liked to have fun. But lots of people like to have fun, so that’s not so unusual.  The thing about Jeff was that he really cared about others, so he was always trying to include other people in his fun.  All the speakers at Jeff’s memorial service said the same thing about Jeff: that everyone who met him ended up saying, “This guy Jeff Scott is such an awesome guy!” So I guess it wasn't only me who felt that way.

Burky and Sally. You probably recognize them.

The last speaker of the evening encouraged us all (including the entire UAA volleyball team and coaching staff, who were there because Jeff and his wife Beth are huge UAA volleyball supporters) to go out and get involved with people and do something nice for somebody, because that’s the way Jeff lived his life. After the service I was visiting my friends Burky and Sally, and my friend Deb. We were discussing airplanes and how it was better not to buy them. And recreational cabins, and how they required a lot of maintenance so maybe it was better not to buy them either. Sally and Burky mentioned that they hadn’t made a summer brush-cutting trip to their cabin near Denali State Park in over ten years because it was such a slog to hike the six miles through wet, swampy muskeg to get to the place during the summer. So they only went there during the winter on skis when everything was frozen and covered in snow. They reckoned the alders were probably invading the place. It just so happened that Wednesday (today) is Sally’s birthday. And Deb, inspired by all the talk about Jeff Scott’s generosity, and inspired by one of the speaker's requests that we all go out and try to do something nice for somebody in memory of Jeff, started thinking what a nice birthday present it might be if she were to go to Burky and Sally’s cabin and cut down those alders. Problem was, it was such a long, wet slog in to the place, and she didn’t know if she could find it anyway because there’s not really a trail. I know the way in, and I was interested in cutting some brush, but there still remained the difficulty of getting in there when the muskeg wasn't frozen and snow-covered. 

We've been known to take the whirlybird out for a day of summer skiing from time to time.

If you've been following this blog (and I know you have) you know that Deb and Keith Essex have been using helicopters to fly skiers up to Eagle Glacier for summer ski training camps since before anyone can remember because they own and operate Alpine Air Alaska. So, as it became clear that we were actually serious about this brush-cutting adventure, it wasn't long before the prospect of avoiding the muskeg hike by flying over it in a helicopter at 120 miles per hour was raised. Rather than spend all day driving the three hours up the road, slogging in for a few more hours, then spending the next day getting back out and home again, we could take a shiny red helicopter and fly up there in the afternoon, get it done lickety-split, and be home by dinnertime! Deb asked me if I was interested and of course I’ll agree to anything that involves zooming around in helicopters so I was 100% on board.

We had a few laughs on the flight in.
So after this morning’s UAA ski practice, I packed up my rubber boots and drove over to the Alpine Air hangar to fly up north with Deb and pilot Scott to Burky and Sally’s cabin on Dalteli Lake. 

It seemed we had plenty of choices.

That's the Parks Highway. Getting to Dalteli Lake was a lot quicker the way we did it.

We found a nice wet swampy bog to land in.

On a clear day 20,320 foot Denali would be looming large behind Deb in this photo.

Deb and Scott. You may notice that all our hearing protection has been bedazzled by Deb. We did use those clippers. We didn't use the hand cannon strapped to Scott.

Yes, that is Big Bird hearing protection I'm wearing.

The Dalteli cabin, post-brush-cutting.

All those wires are electrified, to keep the bears out.

On our way back out, relieved to see the chopper hadn't sunk into the bog.

It'll freeze over in another month or so.

Back to Anchorage in the evening, coming in over Knik Arm.

Home sweet home.

Happy Birthday, Sally!