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.