It’s been hot and humid lately which means summer training is in full swing! There’s a saying that "cross country skiers are made in the summer." A lot of time, work, energy and resources go into summer training so that skiers can be strong and fit for a grueling winter season of racing. This year, I really put an emphasis on my spring training so that I’d be ready to hit it hard in the summertime. I gave myself enough recovery after last season to recharge, but then started working in quite a few miles of running and biking early on. The first few interval sessions were brutal, but I knew they’d get easier and I would become accustomed to the pain again. And that’s exactly what happened! About three weeks ago, things started to click! I was feeling better and better in hard sessions, the big volume felt more manageable, I even squeaked out a course record on our SMS uphill running time trial course!
Although, skiers love a good challenge and the world seemed to recognize that things were starting to click for me a little too early on. Last week, I headed out for an easy 2.5 hour skate ski with my teammates and things really took a turn for me. It was a gorgeous, Vermont summer day and we had just come off a recovery day so it seemed like there was lots to chat about from the previous 48 hours since we had seen each other. About 15 minutes into the ski, I was chatting and laughing with my teammate, Katharine Ogden, while we skied up a hill. All of a sudden, my wheel hit a little baby pothole that I didn’t notice and stopped moving. I was kind of able to catch myself as I fell to the ground and took a knee, only to lose my balance and somersault off the road and four feet down into the ditch…
However, I got up, surprised to see no broken poles, didn’t seem to have hit my head and didn’t have any road rash on my legs! So I crawled out of the ditch and onto the road only to have my teammates look at me and point saying, “Oh no!” I looked down and saw a white, golf ball-sized hole in my knee, that suddenly started gushing with blood. :) I insisted on finishing the ski, it didn’t even hurt! Luckily, my teammates are all smarter than I am and convinced me I needed to go get stitches.
I soon realized that stitches in my knee meant that I was going to be unable to bend my leg for a while, due to risk of the stitches breaking or the skin pulling. There was also a huge risk of infection with it being so hot and humid and my job requiring me to be outside in nature so much. This meant my only option was the ski erg, a stationary double pole machine that helps mimic the skiing motions without needing to get on skis or roller skis. Sounds pretty neat but let me tell you IT IS BORING!!!
Here are a few of the pains one goes through with a peg leg for a week:
Here are the GAINS you get with a peg leg:
All in all, I am very lucky with the injury I got. My crash could have been so much worse with a head injury involved or torn ligaments. I also have had relatively few injuries in my career (knock on wood). I have teammates who seem to constantly be battling with injuries and there are skiers who have had to sit our entire seasons or end their career due to injury. I’m feeling pretty thankful this was still a minor setback, but there’s not a great way to describe injuries other than that THEY SUCK! Of course, as soon as everything seems to be going well, there’s got to be a wrench thrown to keep you on your toes. But it’s good! It makes you question how much you really want to chase your goals. It’s easy to get outside and roller ski on a beautiful day, run through gorgeous mountains, and throw around some of the heaviest weights. But as soon as that’s all restricted and you can only move in certain directions, training becomes harder. It becomes monotonous. It requires grit. Cross country skiers love grit. I have found that the best way to deal with an injury is to rely on your support system. They are the ones who can encourage you to work through the sore muscles, but also persuade you it’s too soon to jump into intervals without risk of worsening the injury. Teammates can relate to you because we’ve all been through it, coaches can help modify workouts so you still get the work done, and your friends and family can send all the best messages to keep the fire fueled!
Fingers crossed I get these stitches out soon so I can stop walking with a peg leg, rejoin my teammates and get back to doing what I love most!
As we buckle in for what will most likely be a long summer and fall of ski training in Stratton, it’s important to develop a sustainable foundation and sense of home. With little prospect of traveling in the near future, I have created my home away from home as well as my family away from family. That is, I have a new mom and dad (also known as Jessie and Wade) whom I spend copious amounts of time third wheeling in our cute little home/condo on the mountain.
There are family chores to be done such as sweeping the kitchen floor, taking out the trash, cleaning dishes and washing clothes. Unfortunately, I have yet to convince my “parents” that I am spoiled enough to have them take care of these tasks for me so, for now, we divide and conquer. Our condo also includes an at-home gym that Mom and I use periodically through the workday while Dad is busy in his office.
Occasionally, it ends up being “Bring your Child Work Day” and I get to play 20 questions with Dad, grilling him about the stock market, bond trading, and office etiquette. I’ve learned a lot about the financial world in the last four weeks! When Dad has had enough of his daughter pestering and nagging him about work details, he sends me outside to see what Mom is up to. (I have a hard time believing any other parents out there use this method when they’re trying to get work done). Afternoons are spent as mother-daughter bonding time while we work in the garden, caring to our precious tomato plants, fragile pea shoots, and beautiful flowers. This special time continues indoors as Mom and I bake snacks in the afternoon and plan out healthy and delicious dinners for that evening.
Finally, Dad gets off work and we all contribute to cooking dinner. Mom and I take turns being Executive Chef vs Sous Chef, while Dad usually picks up the slack working on dishes. During our dinners, we get to reflect on our days, talk about current events, and remark on how great the food tastes usually every 90 seconds.
After dinner, we engage in a rapid group clean up, so we have time in the evenings to either watch movies or play games. We have been rotating through the tv shows New Girl and Home Town or the James Bond and Harry Potter movies. Dad has NEVER seen or read ANY of the HP movies (which Mom and I are appalled by) so this marathon has been very necessary. On evenings when the weather is nicer, we like to head outside and play croquet in the backyard or challenge ourselves to slackline tournaments. This is when I’m allowed to invite my neighborhood friends over to play and some of our SMS T2 teammates who have been following Covid quarantine guidelines come show off their skills. Sadly, I seem to be the bullied kid in this group and have yet to be able to complete a game of croquet without getting knocked out by the poison ball at the end. (If you don’t know what the poison ball is, I highly recommend touching up on your croquet tactics). Lucky for me, Mom catches me before the water works begin and grabs me a bedtime snack of either banana bread, popcorn, homemade ice cream or a piece of chocolate, and suddenly all of my worries are behind me.
I understand that it is important for Mom and Dad to have their alone time too. So, once a week I make a playdate at another friend’s house or go somewhere that is “Covid safe.” For example, I have had movie night and/or poker night with some of the boys. Also, I have been able to reach out to my long-lost aunt/grandma…. My ex-teammate from UVM, Mackenzie Rizio, grew up in the Stratton area and I have gotten to know her aunt and grandma over the years while living in Vermont. They truly have taken me under their wing like I am a part of their family and I always enjoy getting together with them for some good laughs. Last week, I went out to dinner for the first time in three months! I met Aunt Kimmy and Grandma Joan at the Arlington Inn in Arlington, VT. I have roller skied through this town before but never stopped to really appreciate how beautiful of a town it really is. Although dining outside with tables placed 20 meters away from each other was far from “normal,” the evening allowed me to stop and take in the beauty of the spring flowers, Vermont character, and family-like love.
The year 2020 has been quite the roller coaster so far. As my teammates, friends and family take a step back to realize the impact that our actions do or don’t mean to help the community grow, I think we have all found one thing we can really appreciate. It is so important to cherish the people around you and those that mean the most to you. While we all try to take this time to find the most productive ways to call to action, I have found extra warmth from my friends and family that keep me motivated, inspired, and happy to keep challenging myself and the people around me.
A few weeks ago, I packed up my Subaru full of snacks, masks and gloves and drove from Minneapolis to Vermont. I consumed a lot of coffee during this drive, was extremely careful when stopping for gas and didn’t buy any food to-go (hence, the snacks). It was a long push, but it felt so good to get back to Stratton Mountain and move in with my teammate/friend, Jessie Diggins.
Jessie and I have been careful the last two weeks as we’ve settled into our summer home. We’ve been quarantining together so we have felt safe training together, but close to home. We’ve been taking the necessary precautions as we move to a new environment and try to keep contact with others to a minimum. We've been hitting the mountain for some uphill running/bounding sessions with support from Jessie's fiancé, Wade. Together, this trio is making it through with lots of giggles, good food, and a Harry Potter marathon!
Let me tell you, it feels GOOD TO BE BACK in this training paradise with a teammate to help me get out the door! I'm usually one to gradually work into training again each season, some years I haven't even done intervals until the end of June or early July (this is late for most XC skiers)! However, with an early end to the 2020 season, an appropriate amount of rest in April, and a lot of quarantine boredom, I've been getting back into things at a quicker pace than normal.
No matter how "gradual" I am with intervals though, the first few sessions of the year always seem to hurt a bit more than anticipated. I'm still working on waking up my body after all the spring down time. Muscles ache through the night and creak in the morning, blisters seem to pop out of nowhere... it's a tough transition getting back into shape! My first interval set with Jessie was FAR from glorious and I started to question why I had ever let myself get "out of shape," but then I remembered how important it is to let the body recover. That way, we can come back stronger!
Aside from the aches and pains of the new training year, Jessie and I have been getting back into our routine of cooking up A STORM every night and spending lots of time tending to our mini-garden.
We're excited for the day that our babies will start producing us fresh veggies and herbs so we can get even more creative with our food experiments!
Now that I've been in Vermont for more than two weeks, I've started venturing just a little bit further from home. It's been nice to continue to mix up training modes and go running or biking with some other local friends. Without any training camps on the horizon, I'm finding it important to keep training fun and entertaining so that I can keep up my motivation for the coming months.
As excited as I am to be back in Vermont, I was definitely sad to leave the Midwest. I had such a fun time spending extra time with family this spring and exploring the backyard that I grew up around. I was able to find a lot of new trails that either didn't exist when I was in high school or I just didn't know about. I will miss my parents and siblings this summer, as I'm not sure when it will be safe to travel again to see them.
There has been a lot of uprise back home in Minneapolis this week. It is deeply disturbing to me and saddens me to see so much violence occurring in, what is typically, a very peaceful city. My heart goes out to the families hurt by this violence and to all of the people out there who feel unsafe. I hope that all of my friends and family back home are protecting the ones they love and sharing kindness to the people around them.
It seems as though Corona quarantine has been a crazy time for everyone! With an abrupt end to the ski season in mid-March and a rush to get to a safe place, I found myself back in Minnesota staying with my parents for the time being. I feel very fortunate that this novel virus only impacted the very end of my racing season; spring and summer athletes have had their entire season canceled and I feel bad for them. Although I was really looking forward to ending my season with the MN World Cup and World Cup Finals in Canmore, I am grateful for the opportunity I had all season to compete domestically and on the World Cup.
I am so grateful to be home and in a safe/healthy environment right now. I know that many people do not have such a protected space. I understand that this has been challenging for everyone to go through, but I have tried my best to stay positive and make the most of the extra time at home. I have been spending such quality time with my family, I always miss them during the training and competition season, so this has been the silver lining. My mom, sister and I love to cook so we’ve been eating very well these past few weeks. It has been really nice to go for walks with my mom and bike rides with my dad when the weather is nice. Early in April though, if it’s rainy or windy outside, I allow myself to take the break from training and just hang out inside. I’ve been slowly making my way through the Handmaid’s Tale TV series and am wrapping up reading the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy which has been entertaining. I have also been spending my free time studying for the GRE (am I the only one who forgot what the equation of a circle is? Haven’t used that since middle school!) and re-learning how to play the piano.
Overall, this surprise turn-of-events has been rather challenging for me. I am a planner and like to know what is happening the following week, month… I’ve had to accept that this is simply impossible to do right now. I also love spending April with my friends that I don’t get to see during the Winter and it’s been hard to be so close to them in the Twin Cities, yet unable to see them. In addition, my dad is an infectious disease doctor in Minneapolis and I see the stress and anxiety that our health-care workers are under. The best way I have found to deal with this is to greet my dad with a smile and a home-cooked meal each night, go for short trail runs with him to help him stay happy and healthy, and continue to support him in any way I can. (I've been making him immunity boost shots that we often take during the ski season. This probably wouldn't do anything to help him fight Covid if he were to get sick, but it's something small that I can do right now that hopefully helps at least a little bit).
During my free time, I have also been helping with yardwork/outdoor projects around the house. We’ve expanded our vegetable garden, relocated and planted numerous trees, and cleared the way for future projects to help us feel like nature is near even while in suburbia! Last week included earth day and after working so hard on these projects I felt motivated to do something about earth day. I have seen, first-hand, how climate change has affected glacial meltdowns in Alaska, city pollution destroying air quality in cities like Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China, and completely change winter sports while skiing in what are supposed to be “ cold and snowy places.”
While traveling in Almaty for the 2015 Junior World Championships I was astonished to see the air pollution in the city. What was ironic, was that the hotel we stayed at had a donation box to help children in the city with asthma, a very common problem in that area of the world. Why do you think?!? While traveling and ski racing in Almaty and Beijing, my teammates and I wore masks to protect our own lungs from the pollution. We saw many of the citizens of these cities doing the same, it was normal for them. To live everyday of your life with a mask over your face to protect your own well-being, I couldn’t believe it! Personally, I was appalled with these living conditions and it really affected my mood, happiness, mental preparation, and ski racing performance.
I left Almaty and Beijing, sick, coughing up black gunk, and exhausted. These experiences inspired me to do something about it. This last week, I challenged myself to turn my earth day into an earth week and prohibited myself from driving anywhere or from eating any meat. Driving cars produces carbon emissions that destroy our ozone layer and increases the average temperature/overall climate of the earth. Eating meat requires a demand for slaughtered animals that are being raised solely for the purpose of killing immediately for consumers. These animals (such as cows) eat grass, metabolize it, and release methane as a byproduct. Methane is a common factor for affecting our ozone layer. My family grew up eating meat, and aside from a random 36 hours that I decided to be a vegetarian when I was 9 years old, I've never really thought twice about it. However, I recognize that by cutting back on my meat consumption, and maybe inspiring a few people around me to do the same, we might be able to limit the demand for methane-producing meat and live a more sustainable life.
Not driving or eating meat for a week will hardly make a difference in our global state, but I do think that I can find a way to continue changing my own habits and affect the people around me. Going forward, I plan to devote 2-3 days a week to finding alternative protein sources. I also hope to find alternative transportation services, whether that means biking to and from the places I need to go or carpooling, I will be able to cut down on the carbon emissions that I produce. Hopefully, my actions will influence my friends and family to do something similar and to tell their friends and families about these challenges. Maybe we can make a difference together? So far, I have convinced my parent’s household and my sister’s household to start composting; a sustainable option for some of our waste and a benefit to our gardens. :)
Here are a few things that I learned/realized during my earth week in the middle of quarantine:
The lucky thing about being an endurance athlete is that we can pretty much train whenever and wherever we are (as long as restrictions for exercise outdoors remain the same). With an abrupt end to the ski season, I feel fully rejuvenated physically and without much else I can do in the world right now I am happy to get out the door. As of right now, I am enjoying getting back into running, biking and roller skiing with my family until further notice. I am motivated and hope to return to work with my teammates in Stratton, Vermont once it is safe to do so!
Six races in nine days. There were good moments and not so great moments. We were treated to just about every type of weather possible, with it changing every ten minutes. We walked away tired, but also a little bit tougher.
After a hard weekend of racing in Falun, Sweden, the US team made its way to Ostersund, Sweden. We spent four days previewing the courses for the first two races of the ski tour, a 10k skate race followed by a 10k classic pursuit race. We explored the town that is home to many of the Swedish National Team and rested up for a crazy week.
I loved racing the 10k skate; we were on a twisting course that offered steep uphills, grinding false-flats and fun downhills. It was energizing to ski with my fellow Americans during the race, seeing Hailey Swirbul on my first lap of two, and then catching a bit of a ride from Sadie Bjornsen when she caught me from 30 seconds back. With encouragement from the coaches and exciting crowds, I was able to ski my way to a career best, 43rd place. I rode this high for about 24 hours until we started the pursuit style 10k classic race in some gnarly, wet, snowy conditions. Being the type of athlete that prefers to build into a race, I found myself kicked out the back of our wave start of 30 skiers, as the women tried to chase down THE Therese Johaug.
Although I was bummed about this race, I couldn’t help but be happy and proud of my teammate, Julia Kern, who skied the 6th fastest time of day! Her best ever distance result on the World Cup by a landslide! We had little time to reflect on this though, because the very next day we traveled to the next location, Are, Sweden. Switching up disciplines, the Ski Tour challenged us all with a skate sprint race directly up an alpine mountain! This was without a doubt the most bizarre ski race I have ever done and without having much of a chance to ski the course ahead of time I had no idea how to pace it. So, I just went for it! My legs were shaking at the finish line and it took me about 15 minutes to walk the 700 meters back down the mountain, but this ended up being a sprint best for me in 42nd place! I went straight back to our hotel to rest up for a 34k race we had coming up two days later.
We skied very little on our rest days during the tour, but still enjoyed getting out to move the body a bit. Finally, we reached the day that I was looking forward to the most out of the whole week: a long-distance skate mass start race that went out into the backwoods of Norway. Despite my enthusiasm going into the race, things didn’t quite click for me that day. After 8 kilometers of straight uphill and a pack of women chasing down Johaug (again), I thought it was about time I took a feed so I could avoid bonking later in the race. However, it turns out that this 8k of working hard meant that my stomach was already in knots and as soon as I took a feed, I knew something bad was about to happen. I had been hanging on to the back of a large pack of skiers up until this point, but when that sugar-water hit my stomach, my gut said, “no thank you,” and I found it coming right back up. Dealing with this hiccup I lost the draft of my pack and found myself alone out in the fields of Norway fighting against 35 mph winds for another 24k... You live and you learn.
The final stages of the tour went by in a bit of a blur and I couldn’t quite find the physical or mental racing gear that I needed in order to finish it off on a high note. I felt defeated and tired, and although part of me wanted to keep pushing and grinding through another two weeks of European World Cups, I knew I needed a break. On the evening of the last tour stage, I booked a flight back to the US for the very next morning and packed my bags. Sitting on the plane I felt disappointed in this outcome, but I quickly realized that it was okay to feel this way. It means that I care and that I want to do better next time. Also, as soon as I landed in Minneapolis and made it back to my own bed, I knew I had made the right decision.
Despite tricky conditions and missing some of our goals throughout the week, the team found one thing we could always count on to make us smile. Throughout the stadium at each race venue the announcer's voice shouted through the microphone, “Welcome to the Ski Tour 2020!!” However, they pronounced this in Norwegian every time and it turns out that the translation of “2020” is pronounced “shoogie shoogie.” Whether the US team was out testing skis, running to the start line, or collapsed at the finish line, we would hear this over the intercom and get a good giggle out of it. :) Sometimes, it’s the little things.
I have now been traveling on the World Cup circuit for five weeks and have finished nine races. I am currently in the middle of the 2020 Scandinavian Ski Tour which consists of six races in nine days throughout Sweden and Norway. So far, I have faced a lot of ups and downs while racing my first European World Cups. Seriously though, there are a lot of hills over here. We just go up-down, up-down, up-down, cross the finish line. It’s quite exhausting! There’s even been a sprint race where we just climbed straight up an alpine mountain! It has been intimidating, humbling and inspiring to witness the next level of ski racing, and I have already learned quite a few lessons…
1. Don’t forget your athlete bib. Ever. We typically ski around race venues during the early parts of the week when anyone is free to access the trails. However, as we get closer to race day there are more restrictions enforced in hopes of preserving the highest quality of race conditions. Racers are given “Athlete Bibs” so we can walk to wax trucks, changing rooms and onto the race course. However, if you forget this bib and try to enter a restricted area at a World Cup, good luck!
2. Always carry your own instant oats with you. We’ve been traveling to some strange places in Europe. Nove Mesto, Czech Republic didn’t quite have the breakfast that most endurance athletes would look for on race morning. Most hotels are confused when you ask them for sloppy, plain, boring breakfast porridge. Sometimes it’s necessary to avoid this confrontation and mix up some yummy oatmeal in your hotel room.
3. Be prepared to just completely unpack at every stop on the World Cup. Sometimes we stay in one place for seven nights and sometimes we only stop for two nights. However, in just 48 hours you can pretty much count on using every article of clothing in your duffel bag and you always need the one item that’s buried at the bottom. For a few weeks, I tried the “digging” method; I wait until I need something and then I prowl through my bag to hunt it down. This method saves time when initially moving into a new hotel but really catches up with you in the long run. It’s easier to admit defeat as soon as possible and unpack the bag in an organized fashion to save time later in the trip.
4. Push the boundaries, but don’t push them too far or you’ll end up with a yellow card. I learned this lesson in Falun, Sweden during a classic sprint qualifier. It was a hilly and twisty 1.6 kilometer course with a lot of “cornering technique." Previewing the course, I was intimidated by all of the twists. I wanted to have a good qualifier, but I knew that a lot of time could be gained or lost going up and over hills and around corners. My teammate, Simi Hamilton (a sprint specialist), encouraged me to push myself out of my comfort zone and ski the transitions as aggressively as possible. So that’s exactly what I did. Unfortunately, I still didn’t ski fast enough to qualify and my “cornering technique” was proven to be “skating.” So, something I know I can work on for the future!
5. Don’t expect anything, anticipate EVERYTHING! You want to be prepared for every possible scenario to happen in your race. Also, for every possible course to be ready for you. Previewing a course the day before a race could show fast and icy conditions, only for it to rain all night and you end up with a slushy/snowy mix that is slow and grinding. Another example is the uphill skate sprint we just finished. We started at the base of an alpine mountain in Are, Sweden (home of the 2019 Alpine World Championship races), and we climbed straight up the mountain for two and a half minutes. I was not anticipating that back in July when I was training for the season!
6. Don’t be intimidated by athletes from other countries. We are more similar than we are different. No matter what their FIS points are or how many World Cup podiums they have, we ALL eat, sleep and poop.
7. Flexibility is key. Sometimes travel is delayed, and you don’t get to go for that afternoon ski you were looking forward to. Or, lunch is served late and you have to rely on a few snacks to hold you over until the food is ready. Whatever the issue is, usually everyone else is facing the same problem and you just have to put your heads together to make the most of the situation!
8. Nothing is perfect. Even though we are racing on a “professional circuit” there is still some sense of inorganization and unknown. Typically, World Cup races only have snow on the race course which means we might not be able to warm up on snow at all. Sometimes, we have 5 minutes on course to test skis before we race, but then we have to switch into running shoes and start jogging.
The most important lesson that I've been able to take away is to stop and smell the roses. No matter what the results on paper show, I've been taking time at each stop to enjoy the moment, take in the scenery, and appreciate what I'm doing and who I'm with. I am so grateful to have this experience and the opportunity to learn everyday about how to be a better skier, teammate and person.
It’s a whole different ball game over here folks!
Last Monday, I flew through the night, over the ocean and across seven time zones, to arrive in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. I was greeted with brown grass, a gray sky and ice fog. I was also greeted by a group of smiling US Ski Team members and staff, including my SMS T2 teammate, Julia Kern.
Along with the rest of central Europe, Nove Mesto has been having a tough winter with warm temperatures and very little snowfall. They were able to make enough snow to provide a 3.75 kilometer ribbon of snow for skiers to race on over the weekend, so I spent a few days getting to know the course.
I took the first few days to try some new foods including fried cheese, fried cauliflower and goulash. I also did my best to adjust to the new time zone by waking up early, going for afternoon jogs and taking melatonin before bed so I could fall asleep a little faster. By Friday morning, athletes from all over the world had arrived at the venue. I was working with one of the USST techs, Tim Baucom, for the week. Together, we tested skis and kick wax to make sure I would be set up for great races over the weekend. Thanks for the help Tim!
Soon enough, it was race morning and the weekend schedule consisted of a 10k individual skate race on Saturday and pursuit style 10k classic on Sunday. A pursuit means that you take your time back from the winner on Saturday and then start the same time back from them on Sunday. For example, I finished about 2.5 minutes back from the winner during the skate race so I started 2.5 minutes after her on Sunday.
Overall, I was quite pleased with my 10k skate race on Saturday. I feel like I did a good job pacing a difficult course and managed to stay light on my feet through ankle deep, mashed potato-like, icy chunks of man-made snow. I felt strong during the race, but I didn’t feel like I could give it absolutely everything I had and I ended up in 46th place. I was hoping I would be able to make this up the following day by passing a few people in the pursuit race, but I ended up doing the opposite. I didn’t have much fire left inside me on Sunday and despite having great classic skis, I just couldn’t quite keep up with the other girls. I think my body is still feeling the fatigue from such tough racing at US Nationals and when combined with international travel and adjusting to a new time zone, I was not feeling like a superstar.
Looking back on the last few weeks, I think I really emptied my tank during my races at US Nationals. I had to do so in order to qualify for these World Cup races and it felt amazing to do it, so I have no regrets. It’s just taking me a little bit longer than I’d like to fully recharge my body and my head. Over the course of 48 hours while racing in Nove Mesto, I realized a few things. On the World Cup, you can NOT fake it 'til you make it. If you aren’t ready to give it 110% from the gun then you will get eaten alive by your competitors. Even if you’re feeling “pretty good” or if you’re thinking you could “work into the race,” then it’s already too late and you’ve been dropped.
This is something that I’m still working on. At US Nationals, I was ready to give it 110%, not only physically but mentally too. I was ready to send it from the start and be fierce. But I’m still learning how to do that in every single race within a season. And I recognize that if I can only give it 90% on a given day at the World Cup, then it’s not going to be a phenomenal day. And that’s okay! I am honored and grateful to have these World Cup starts and I am ready to learn something from each race. For now, that means training in Oberstdorf, Germany in preparation for a 15k skiathlon this Saturday and a classic sprint on Sunday! So far, I've been enjoying the snow and sunshine! :)
What. A. Week! The US National Championships took place last week in Houghton, MI and although I had high hopes for the series of races, I by far exceeded my expectations. I walked away with three podiums, a little bit of wind burn, and a full heart.
After one of the many races during the week, I decided to cool down with my brother, Anders (who CRUSHED the Junior sprint heats on the first day getting third place)! One of our long-time family friends, James Schneider, joined us for this cool down and the boys asked me about the 20k that I had just completed. I gave them the run down and James quickly asked if this would be a blog topic. Realizing that James is a Midwest Junior skier and still very much in the “know” of what is cool and what isn’t, I asked him, “What do you want to read about on my blog?” To which James rapidly responded, “I wanna hear about the grind!”
US Nationals consisted of four races: a skate sprint, 10k individual skate, 20k mass start classic and a classic sprint. We completed these four races in six days. Looking back on the first two days of racing, I really surprised myself. I was confident going into the skate sprint because I had previewed the course during a local race the week before. However, sprinting is not my strength and there is always a bit of unknown in the chaotic scramble of a 1.5k course, with lots of twists, climbs and descents. I knew I had to play the day smart and draft off of other people through the quarterfinal and semifinal if I wanted to have any energy left for the final, and that was assuming I would make the final! Up until this year, I had never even qualified for a final sprint heat at US Nationals!
Nonetheless, I made it through and knew I would already be happy with the day for reaching the final no matter what the outcome. The final heat went out hot and I was unprepared for the fast pace. On a two-lap course, I tried to focus on holding my own ground, staying out of trouble (like breaking a pole) and knew that an uphill finish would suit to my strengths. At the bottom of the last climb, the leader had gapped us and I was in the front of the chase group. I knew I could easily get swallowed up by these other speedy skiers so in my head I told myself, “Alayna, it’s go time!” And without further ado I sprinted as hard as I could up that last hill and surged forward, just trying to keep the other racers from catching me. I collapsed at the finish line without realizing that I had almost completely closed the gap to the winner and found myself placing second for my first podium ever at US Nationals!
I was giddy with excitement the rest of the day and found myself shaking after the award ceremony as I was whisked away to drug testing. This was another new act to me. At US National races the US Anti-Doping Association picks four of the top five finishers to complete drug tests to ensure that we are all competing clean. Hours later, I finally sat down at our host family’s house and had to actively tell myself to take deep breaths. I was still on cloud nine! All I wanted to do was celebrate, but we had another race the very next day that I had to get ready for.
I woke up feeling tired for a 10k skate, but the excitement from the day before allowed me to run off of adrenaline. I knew that there were about 12 women who could easily be on the podium that day and that I was going to have to work every single transition on the course. I was lucky enough to start toward the end of the A seed of the women so I was able to get splits off of the racers in front of me. I found this super advantageous because within the first two kilometers of the race I knew that I was in the running for the podium, but that it was super close between me and a few other women. At this point, I was so thankful to have the Midwest crowd there because I had someone cheering for me on every single hill! The motivation to keep pushing was almost constant and I kept receiving more splits that I was still in the mix with the leaders.
With about two kilometers to go, everything was hurting and I pretty much had to climb all the way to the finish line. My sister yelled out to me, “you’re in fourth place but only a second behind the next two girls!” For one second I thought to myself, “well fourth is fine, I could be content with that.” Instantaneously though, I told myself, “No Alayna! You’ve worked so freaking hard for this moment, you are not just going to let up now. This is the time that you have to go. You CAN do this!” So, I grit my teeth and I climbed and climbed and climbed, hearing cheers from every last corner. In the last 200 meters I started seeing stars and I think everyone along the course could hear my heavy, raspy breathing. But I kept telling myself, “You CAN do this!” When I finally crossed that finish line, I sat down, took a deep breath, and knew that no matter what the result was, I had done it again. I had left every ounce of energy out there on that course.
I received a pat on the back from a volunteer and he mumbled something to me. In a very delirious state, I just looked at him confused. Then I processed it. “You just finished in third, but the second American. Congratulations!” A rush of emotions overwhelmed me, but mostly I was in awe and just kept sitting there, staring at the volunteer. Still delirious… :)
I had dug extremely deep to find the energy and power during that 10k to make it on the podium. I was still feeling this fatigue two days later when we began the 20k mass start race. This was the race that I was most looking forward to all week. I absolutely love the energy in a mass start and have really improved my distance classic skiing so I was optimistic about the day. However, just before our race began a snow storm rolled into Houghton and brought with it slow, tough, grinding conditions. I hung onto the leaders for a lap and a half (of a four-lap race), but after a feed at about 6k I started feeling sick to my stomach. As someone who has experienced a boot and rally in a race, this was not something I wanted to go through at US Nationals. The leaders slowly pulled away from me and I couldn’t quite hang. I had burned a lot of matches earlier in the week and was left with a bit of an empty tank. I kept fighting by myself through the snow storm, not knowing where the women were behind me. In any race, you have no idea what is going on up ahead of you or behind you and when you’re out there all alone all you can do is put your head down and take on one hill at a time. That’s exactly what I did.
It was a grind of a race and my muscles in my arms and back started having spasms in the last two kilometers. I skied 12k in “no man’s land” and crossed the finish line in 6th place feeling oddly disappointed. Up until this year, 6th place at US Nationals had been my best result, ever! I put this into perspective as the day went on and decided to still be proud of how hard I fought by myself in the woods and recognized that you need to have “bad days” to make the “good days” feel so good.
By the last day of racing I was completely exhausted. I didn’t know if I could make it through an entire set of sprint heats and, of course, another snow storm decided to blow in after the qualifier. Through 35 mph gusts, nonexistent classic tracks, thick, fresh snow, we went out there round after round, when all anyone wanted to do that day was curl up into a ball and take a nap. Everyone who raced that classic sprint dug up the last bit of energy they could find and the races went by in a blur of white snow. The only thing that really stuck with me after the race was that the last 100 meters of the final heat felt more like a mile. Somehow, we did it though. In one of the closest sprint finals I have ever been in, three of us lunged for the line and completed the final podium of the week.
I was pretty fortunate all week to have everything come together for me on (almost) every race day. Sometimes, that’s truly what it takes! You can only control so much; your breakfast, warm up, ski selection, ski wax, mental preparation. This is a lot to get right on one day and sometimes mother nature likes to throw you curve balls with a few snow and wind storms. I was lucky to have these details fall into place for me on the right day and I recognize that this doesn’t always happen. However, I also recognize my attitude and my teammates/coaches attitude all week. I’m not sure what overcame me, but I went into the week feeling extremely calm and at peace with whatever the races were going to bring. My entire family was supporting me at these races, I was seeing Midwest friends, college friends, ski friends from all over the country, and this made me happy. My coaches, Pat O’Brien, and his wax helper for the week, Tad Elliot, only added to this peacefulness. They were so organized, prepared and relaxed that it wore off on me. We were cracking jokes to each other between sprint heats and laughing with each other in the wax trailer all week long. I was the only female racer from our team that week, but my SMS T2 male teammates were so supportive of each other and of me. We kept each other confident and having fun! I truly believe that I owe my race success to my family, friends, teammates and coaches. I couldn’t have accomplished “the grind” without any of them.
And just like that, we’re off to the races! Literally, off to seven races in 16 days. Now that’s one way to start the engine! It’s been a whirlwind for the last few weeks as I traveled from Minneapolis, to Canmore, CAN, to Sun Valley, ID, back to Minneapolis for a few days and then up to Houghton, MI. But I can honestly say that through all of this I had a lot of fun! Unfortunately, I can also say that it wasn’t all just a glorious ski vacation. Just like any other job, there are good days and there are bad days. Projects that you might love working on and then tasks that you aren’t as psyched about.
I started this trip in Canmore, Canada with a three-day race weekend. I had never been to Canmore before, so I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded us in such a cute mountain town. Most mountain towns show off their views from afar as just something pretty to look at while walking outside. Canmore shares her mountains right, smack, in your face! The skiing was GORGEOUS, and it was a challenge not to get distracted by the views while in competition.
The first day of racing was a skate sprint that included quite a few tactics. I was proud that I played these tactics pretty well in my quarterfinal but was not so lucky in my semifinal and I was bummed not to qualify for the final heat. I felt like I had really improved my sprinting over the summer and fall and believed that I deserved to be in that final, but alas, that’s ski racing for ya! And there were two more races that weekend that I needed to get ready for.
The next day was a 5k classic and boy did I have a hard time figuring out how to pace that. Typically, I treat a 5k like a long sprint and just tell myself, “go, go, GO!” At altitude though, this could be a recipe for disaster, and I knew I could blow up early in that 5k if I went out too hard. Well, it turns out I still went out too hard and still blew up even knowing all of that. Oops! Another day where I felt like I wasn’t able to appropriately show where my fitness was at or what I am capable of this season.
Finally, we concluded the weekend with a 10k skate race, and I was hopeful that with the longer distance I’d be able to figure out the altitude pacing a bit more. I started the race around “threshold” pace and tried building into the race from there. This tactic proved slightly more advantageous and I was able to pull off one of my best altitude races ever! I left Canmore feeling disappointed, yet somehow proud of my races. It was a state of total confusion. I wanted more, but I was still happy with my accomplishments. These feelings lurked around the following week as we prepared for another Supertour weekend in Sun Valley. I tried enjoying the moment with my teammates and soaking up all of the December Vitamin D that I could, but when it came to race day again, I faced some major mental demons.
Our first race in Sun Valley was a classic sprint and I practiced conserving as much energy as I could in the qualifier and quarterfinal so I could hopefully make it into the final. I ended up 3rd in my semifinal which left me in a spot to potentially be “lucky loser.” In sprinting, the first two finishers from each semifinal automatically qualify for the final. Then, the race officials take the next two fastest times from the semifinals to move on as well (for a total of six in the final). So, if my semifinal time was fast enough, I would be in the final. While I was waiting around at the finish line to hear from the race officials, I was thinking to myself, “I really want this. I want to be in the final. I just gave it everything I had to make it into this final.” However, my body did not feel the same way. It was TIRED! The altitude racing had exhausted my body and the last thing it wanted to do was go out and race another time. This collision of thoughts vs physical ability left me confused and emotional. “Racing is fun! I love racing!” I thought to myself, “so why am I having such a horrible time right now?”
After what felt like an eternity, the race officials wrote on the bracket board that I was one of the lucky losers and had qualified for the final round. I was excited and I was miserable at the same time. I turned to my teammate, Kelsey Phinney, and I wanted to cry. She gave me a big smile, a hug and she said, “you can do this!” And without further ado, I found myself giving it every last ounce of energy I had in that final. It was by no means spectacular and I still ended up last in the heat, but I had made it into the final and I had accomplished one of my goals for the weekend. I had taken a baby step in the right direction.
These altitude races were without a doubt the hardest races I will go through all season both mentally and physically. They had been staring me down since last May and had been haunting me during my workouts all fall. I don’t know if I will ever be a great altitude racer, but after the past few weeks I have confidence that I am becoming a better altitude racer. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Getting BETTER?
Last week I had the privilege to be at home for Thanksgiving for the first time in THIRTEEN YEARS! Since middle school, my parents would pack us kids into our minivan and travel west to the West Yellowstone Ski Festival that happens over Thanksgiving week. We would ski as a family, check out the Grizzly and Wolf Center, see an IMAX movie and enjoy the peaceful nature of skiing through the woods with thousands of other skiers! My parents continued this tradition even as us kids left home for college and were unable to make the trip with them, but this year they decided not to go. Instead, they are celebrating my dad’s 60th birthday in British Columbia, Canada for a week of skiing and watching my first races!
Being home for Thanksgiving was a great way for me to see lots of friends and family, visit a few high school team practices and prepare for the racing season. It was also a perfect opportunity for my sister, Marit, and I to plan a surprise birthday party for my dad! 30 years ago, my mom threw him a surprise party and I am told it was quite the evening… She repeated this again for his 40th birthday and my dad started to notice the trend. While he appreciated the love and thoughtfulness behind these parties, I think they were also a lot to recover from ;) My dad made my mom promise to never again throw him a surprise party, however, Marit and I never agreed to this!
We wanted to keep the evening fairly relaxed as we knew everyone was coming off a busy Thanksgiving week. The suspense was building for us all day, I was in charge of getting him to the brewery where the party was at and I was feeling the pressure. I decided to treat this like a ski race and told myself to stay calm, act like everything is totally normal, and tell myself that I can only control the factors that I can control, the rest is fate. The evening was a huge success and I think my dad really enjoyed the party we threw him. It was great to see so many people come out to celebrate!
Throughout this week though, I’ve been dealing with some pretty crazy pre-race jitters. My first races of the season are this weekend and will be at the Supertour in Canmore, B.C. This time of year is tough for me as I haven’t done any races yet, but I’m sick and tired of just training and doing workouts. My training volume decreases as I prepare for the season and with it, I think to myself, “am I even doing enough?” or on the flip side, “am I doing too much?” It’s hard to know at this point without races to test myself or get a feel for where I’m at. I just have to trust the process. I wouldn’t say I’m usually someone who gets super nervous about ski races. That being said, most of my life there wasn’t much riding on my races or results. I have some pretty big goals for this season and beyond and a lot of that does ride on how I do in the first few races of the season. Without good results in the next few weeks, I won’t be able to qualify to race on the World Cup later in the season and that’s pretty much everything I’ve been working toward. So, this year I’m feeling a bit more nervous about all of it.
Last week I was talking to my future brother-in-law, Nick, (yay!) about some of my nerves going into the season. As a marathon runner looking to qualify for the Olympic Trials, Nick understands the mental stress behind racing. He is also a psychologist and had some pretty insightful things to say. Nick explained to me that the emotions fear and excitement are caused by the same hormones in your body. Cortisol and adrenaline are both in affect and it’s up to your brain to determine whether you perceive these hormonal signals as fear or excitement. In addition, there is sympathetic nervous system arousal which causes the “fight or flight” mode. Nick used an example of being on a roller coaster. Half of the people on the roller coaster are thinking about how fun it is to go up and down and all around and perceive the experience as excitement. Meanwhile, the other half of the people on the roller coaster are thinking about how the cart could go flying off the track at any second and everyone could plummet to their deaths. These people are obviously taking the cortisol and adrenaline and turning them into fear.
Nick then explained to me that if you take the anchor, which in this case is the image of riding on a roller coaster, and you picture it going well, then you can switch the way your brain perceives the cortisol and adrenaline. For example, if the people fearing the roller coaster were to imagine themselves ahead of time on the ride and say out loud, “I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m excited!” Then, they can actually change the feeling of fear into excitement. He claims I can do the same thing for my racing!
I’m not saying that I’m afraid to race, or that I am not excited about the season. But I think my body is taking on both of these emotions right now and it’s causing a little bit of craziness inside my brain. So, I decided to take Nick’s advice and have been picturing myself in my first race this weekend. I’ve been imagining myself skiing really hard up and over the top of the hill and have been saying OUT LOUD, “I’m excited, I’m excited, I’m excited!” The first time I did this and actually said these words out loud, I got this tingly feeling all over my body! Nick told me that I can build this image each time I think about it by adding more details. My parents are on the side of the hill cheering, I’m catching the girl in front of me, my fingers are really cold, but I ignore that feeling and keep on going… all of a sudden my sympathetic nervous system is ready to switch from flight mode and into fight mode!
I’m not sure how I will race this coming weekend, but I do know that no matter what happens it is not the end of the world or the end of my season. There is ALWAYS more to come, and I know that I’ve enjoyed the process in getting here. I already feel way more excited than nervous or fearful about my races and I can’t wait to get to Canmore to charge into the season!
Professional skier, traveling the world, exploring the culture, racing my heart out.