April (and a little of May)

In skier’s lingo, spring means time to relax, take a break from training, and go do what you like to do.  For me, I like to go training, but a different type of training.  Mostly this involves vertical endeavors on cold white or blue substances.  There is plenty of time for running, cross country skiing, and all the other types of training all summer, but backcountry skiing is a spring sport for me.  It could even be considered just an April sport.

 

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Another spring sport: Ice climbing.  Photo: Caitlin Patterson

 

After racing wrapped up in Fairbanks, it was time to get going on fun activities.  My sister, Caitlin, decided to hang around Alaska with me for a couple weeks.  While this did mean that adventures had to be suitable for her, it also meant that I had a reliable buddy for doing things even if we did have to sort gear.  A plan for Eklutna Traverse quickly fell apart due to other commitments and poor snow conditions.  However, this opened an opportunity. Instead of Eklutna, we threw together gear and plan to go climb Mt. Sanford in the Wrangells.  Mt. Sandford is the 6th tallest peak in the US and involves significant glacier travel, something Caitlin had never encountered.  We put her in the middle of a four-person rope team and figured we would be fine.

Due to the hasty nature of the trip, we caved in to my torment and used snowmachines.  I am firmly opposed to snow machines as recreational pursuits; however, there is a grey area in there for use as transportation.  15 miles up a river bed was made quite a bit easier with two sleds to haul us and our gear.  From there we had another 15 miles of fun flat skinning to make it to the glacier.  It was made slightly more eventful by a few misplaced items.  The hat that was dropped early on was deemed an item for the way out, but a glove that was misplaced later was not.  I was volunteered as a retrieval team.  There are always benefits to being the fittest.

Sanford has a nice icefall between 6,000 ft. and 8,000 ft. that provided some excitement on the second day.  We never had to move to crampons, but were quite lucky with the few ice bridges that we found. Caitlin had her eyes opened a bit when bridging some crevasses.  (I still think moulins are some of the scariest things in existence.) Once we got through the icefall the snow turned to powder and crevasses made less frequent appearances.  We trudged up to a high camp a bit over 10,000ft and somewhat sheltered from the wind.  A quick check to the thermometer indicated -10°F as we curled around some food and crawled into our sleeping bags.

Several hours later, we were stripping off extra clothing as the temperature warmed up and the wind died down.  A summit day was looking promising.  In the morning, however, things were not so great.  Our camp was beautifully sunny, but the summit was still obscured.  Nonetheless, we decided to have a go for it. We lightened loads, boiled water for the day, and grabbed a couple sleeping bags for emergencies before starting the slog. About 5’ in, I called the first break of the day in an emergency: water leaking from my bag onto my pants.  An inspection indicated that one of the emergency down sleeping bags was quite wet and I had lost a full liter of water.  Not the most promising start, but we kept our heads down for several hours after that reaching about 13,000 ft. At this elevation on Sanford there is a slight plateau with a false summit to the West of our route.  Accelerating winds and lingering clouds obscured views of either the summit or the false point.  This came to a quick head as we rolled onto the plateau and found our rope team staring into a chasm. The first question of left or right morphed rapidly into up or down as the whiteout rolled further in around us.  Our sparse wanding of the route on the way up began to look like a serious mistake. Down pant, jackets, and mittens all came out as we huddled together to make the dangerous decision to continue, bivy, or descend.  Descend became the most feasible so we pulled out the GPS, wiped our goggles off so we could hunt for wands, and un-roped for the ski back to high camp.  Wind crust and sastrugi made skiing interesting, but we all made it back to high camp safely.

 

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The day started pretty nice.  Photo: Peter Mamrol

 

Then came the waiting game.  The decision game.  Up or down. Today or tomorrow.  Summit again… We did have cell service up there as Glenallen was within view; however, this eventually was our downfall.  Sitting around in a tent for 18hrs before going for the summit again seemed alright, but sitting for 18 hours just to go back down didn’t sound that fun.  Also, we would have to charge out to get Neil back to work.  The 40mph winds, 3 inches of snow, and clouds forecasted eventually made the decision.  Time to bail. 

 

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Looking up from high camp at one of the clearer moments.

 

At least bailing was fun though.  We had a foot of light powder topping the crevasse field.  Skiing down un-roped was at time scary but also exhilarating.  The icefall went quite smoothly too and soon we were off the glacier and back to picking our way through rocks.  Camp was called as soon as we made it far enough down river to find wood for a fire.  In a week’s worth of food for four people no one had been smart enough to bring marshmallows though.  The morning brought the real disappointment when the mountain dawned clear.

After a few crust cruises in the Anchorage area, Caitlin’s time in Alaska reached its end.  Fortunately, I had several other reliable partners for the weekends.  The backcountry boards did not get underused this spring.  The most memorable was a 15-hour day trip to ski Mount Rumble.

 

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Crust cruising. Photo: Reese Hanneman

 

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Playing on the ice at Spencer Glacier. Photo: Caitlin Patterson

 

 

Mount Rumble had been on my list for a while as a summer hike.  It is the 5th tallest peak in Chugach state park.  Also, it holds a position of prominence in the headwaters of Peter’s creek valley which is an area that previously I had avoided due to private property issues.  Skiing it wasn’t on my radar until Neil mentioned it one evening.  That kick started the route planning as there are several other prominent chutes that can be skied on the way in and out.  On the given day, we departed Anchorage at 4am heading for the X-couloir and Rumble link up followed by a trudge over bombardment pass. We found beautiful powder in places, steep ice in a few, and altogether an awesome day out in the mountains with friends.

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Down-climbing from the summit of Rumble with the Wall Street Glacier far below.
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Eying one more couloir after 15 hours skiing.  We opted out.  Photo: Neil Liotta

After a few more adventures, I left for my first camp as an official US ski team nominee in Bend, OR. That will have to wait for another update though.

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More skiing.
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Until next (selfie) time!

Season’s Endings

When someone asks how my season went this year, I have typically been replying “there were ups and downs, but it ended really well.” That might be it, or someone might want more details.  Typical follow-ups are along the lines of “where was your favorite place?” and “what’s next?”  This post is to enlighten all those who wish for answers to life’s big questions.

First we are going to talk about downs. The big one for me was US Nationals in January.  I travelled down to Bozeman, MT to visit my parents for Christmas and put in a bit of an altitude block of training before US Nationals.  My sister came directly from the World Cup to make it a full family affair.  Unfortunately, a bad bug had gone through the entire US team, and she came to Bozeman not feeling healthy.  I figured that if I was careful I would be able to withstand an attack to my immune system.  After all, Bozeman should be a super low stress environment: no work, assistance cooking, easy training, and holiday stuff.  Simple really.  And for the most part this worked.  I made it through over two weeks healthy, then got sick two days before US Nationals. Theoretically, the best race for me at Nationals would have been the first race, a 15k skate interval start.  I struggled through two of the three laps with decent times, but fell apart on the third lap to a 17th place finish.  Not what I wanted, was capable of, or needed for qualification to World Championships.  Over the next few days, I skipped the sprints to try and get a bit of energy back for the 30k later in the week.  By the time the 30k rolled around, I wasn’t feeling 100%, but could fight a bit better.  I emerged in 4th place after a long struggle with slick skis, mucus, and low energy.  One place higher and I would have been in the running for World Championships.

The other big bummers were canceled races.  After Nationals, we travelled to Truckee, California for a couple more races.  The skiing was great early in the week, but a storm moved in for the races.  Road conditions forced the 10k skate race to be cancelled.  That race was going to be my resurgence after disappointing time at US Nationals.

The American Birkie was the other big disappointment with cancellation.  By then I was feeling good and ready to get in a fun 50k skate with some serious prize money.  It became clear right when we arrived that the race was a long shot.  Luckily, the family we stayed with kept us entertained with nightly games, daily broomball, and a whole host of other activities.

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Not much skiing to be found at the Birkie trail.
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Alternative entertainment during Birkie week.

Now for ups.  The fun parts to write about. Early season was quite good for me.  I won a lot of the warm up races in Alaska and doubled poled to a win West Yellowstone.  For the period 1 supertours, I double poled one to moderate success and managed to win the skate race in Silverstar.  While I didn’t get the Supertour leader going into Nationals, I was sitting in a good position. Then came the Nationals detailed above.

South Korea was also a highlight.  We didn’t get to spend much time exploring the area, it was still awesome to see the Olympic courses and define a focus for the season to come.  I was also satisfied with my racing included 9th in the skiathalon.  Most of that was detailed in another post.

Then came the end of the season.  Following the cancelled Birkie, David Norris and I travelled over to Oslo, Norway for Homenkollen.  Homenkollen was one of my highlights of the previous season and my highest World Cup result (prior to Korea) so I was psyched to get another shot at it. Having David around experiencing it for the first time just made it more exciting.  When race day dawned, it was beautiful.  The famous Oslo fog was absent and the crowds turned out in droves. I raced to a 28th place (first European World Cup points) continually fueled and entertained by the roar of the crowds, hot dogs thrown on the trail, snowballs lobbed at the fading Norwegians, and continual chants of “USA, USA” or “Scott, Scott.” Waffles and brown cheese after finished the day nicely.

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Train ride to skiing. Just a little busy.
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Exploring Oslo by foot.
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Photo: Jason Albert (Fasterskier)

World Cup finals was next, a 3-race mini tour held in Quebec City.  Although, I don’t think I raced the best there, I did manage to pick up one more World Cup point with a 30th place finish in the skate pursuit race on the final day. The weekend of racing started off alright in the sprint.  I didn’t qualify, but that was to be expected. However, I did feel somewhat accomplished by qualifying ahead of certain other racers from the US and elsewhere.  For the 10k classic race on the 2nd day, things started well, but were quickly derailed by a small crash.  The final day’s skate pursuit, where I scored more points, was better.  Based on the pursuit start format and everyone’s previous results in the minitour, I started right in front of a 30-person wave start and could lead the group for much of the race. About six of us came together into the finish and while my sprint wasn’t bad, the three second advantage I had on the wave resulted in faster time-of-day results from the other 5 which was somewhat frustrating.

For the end of the season, I finally returned to Alaska for the first time since December.  I spent a week in Anchorage first, trying to get my life in order but then it was back to racing in Fairbanks. We had four more races to cap out the season: skiathalon, skate sprint, relay, and skate 50k.  All fun races and very skate heavy, since I was expecting to fill a 5k skate leg in the mixed team relay.  My classic form was alright, as evidence by Homenkollen, but skating just takes one of the variables out of the mix.  Also, I have a reputation as a skate skier.

The skiathalon started the week with a bang.  As top seeded skier, I took it to heart leading most of the classic leg.  When we passed through the transition, suddenly three APU teammates and myself had put a few second on everyone. I decided to punch it. At the time, I figured we could just make people work extra hard to close the gap, but it ended up being the winning move. Eric Packer followed for several kilometers, but soon I was on my own and feeling strong.  Winning was just a matter of making it to the finish.

The sprint wasn’t quite so dramatic but was quite important in other regards.  I qualified in 7th and ended the day in 9th. What this did was bump me into the Supertour overall lead for the season.  World Cup starts for the fall were only dependent on a good 50k result.

The relay was the only bummer of the week.  APU had won every previous edition but Stratton vanquished the blue army in Fairbanks. Previous year, we had been aided by plagues running rampant on the Stratton team, so this year was going to be a battle as they were a bit healthier.  I anchored the team into 2nd  after having been tagged with an 18 second deficit, unable to gain enough ground on Simi Hamilton, one of the US’s top skiers.  I needed a bit more time than the 11-minute course to weigh my distance prowess against his sprinting strength.

Only one race was left for the season, a mass start 50k skate for me. A little rain and warming conditions made things a bit interesting, but in the end, we had plenty of time to adapt to that.  From the start, I worked on controlling the race.  I always was near the front either getting frustrated at the slow pace or making sure that the pace was what I wanted. About 15k into the race while we were going up one of the significant climbs, my pace setting fractured the pack.  Only two athletes, Brian Gregg and Michael Sompi, came with me.  Michael lasted about 5k further, so it was down to Brian and me to build time on the rest of the field.  About 5k later, after leading the entire time, I decided that I might as well ski on my own.  I noticed Brian weakening on a few of the hills, so I surged on a couple.  On one of these, the move stuck and I quickly distanced myself.  I still had about half the race to complete solo.  Over the next hour, I tired, but not as much as the rest of the field. I managed to build a lead of over three minutes to come home with my second US National title and secure the Supertour Overall title.

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Starting the 50k. Photo: Bryan Fish

In retrospect, it is hard to say it is a bad season when I won a US National title, took the overall Supertour title, scored World Cup points 3 times, and won quite a few other races; however, one of my big goals was to make World Championships and race well there.  Thus, I am left satisfied overall, but with a slight hint of bitterness.

Next question: favorite venue?  Homenkollen. It is hard to beat 50,000 superfans, perfect weather, and first European World Cup points. Pyeongchang can have second place.

What is next?  Next season obviously.  Training, adventuring, and more of both.  Then racing in the fall.

Pyeongchang: In the land of characters

One would assume with flying all the way to Korea for some ski races, there would be some sightseeing and cultural experiences as well.  However, in the whirlwind experience of the Olympic test world cups, I got to see four places: the airport, the hotel, a temple, and the race venue.

First off the airport.  After a 12-hour flight with a little sleep, the Seoul Airport was a little overwhelming.  Korean people and characters were everywhere.  Luckily, a few members of the Australian ski team came in around the same time as I did so there was a bit of congregating.  Actually, the whole airport ended up being pretty easy.  All my bags arrived intact, the shuttle bus to Pyeongchang was waiting for us, and we were even able to get “bread and toilet” as our shuttle coordinator explained in broken English.  The trip to Korea had begun.

 

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I understand that third character.

 

Now on to the hotel.  I really have no idea why there was a hotel in the location in the first place. The 18 story Kensington Flora hotel was isolated in a small valley.  There were no stores around, no town, and only a few slightly run down homes within the vicinity.  The closest store outside the hotel, a small gas station, was about 3 kilometers away.  In the midst of this little valley, the hotel provided the entertainment with amusing lawn features surrounding the main building.  If feeling lonely, one could go visit French petting zoo and check out wooly sheep, overfed deer, rabbits, and the largest ducks that I have ever seen.  Or instead one could go be a romantic in the tunnel of love with appropriate lighting for whatever occasion.  However, the best entertainment may have been the Glamping village. We were quite disappointed that the entire world cup field didn’t get to reside in the canvas glamping tents for the week.  These tents were nicely equipped with flatscreen TVs, lounge chairs, plush beds, and absolutely no insulation. In other words, everything a real skier needs.  However, we learned on the weekend that winter glamping was still pretty popular amongst the Korean population.

 

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Just before testing the emergency balcony rappel kit… Or maybe just looking off the deck.

 

Inside the hotel provided some entertainment as well.  The food was drastically different then my expectations.  Instead of brothy Asian meals we were given a full assortment of food at the daily buffet.  Some of it was traditional Korean like bugogi beef and kimchi, but along with that they served normalish pasta and at least one fried item at every meal.  We still were given some interesting culinary experiences along the way though.  The black squid roll turned out being quite ordinary for a black bun and the Asian fruit selection including lychee and others did not disappoint. Of course there was also the entertainment of seeing how all the other teams handled meals including which teams went for the cereal breakfasts (lots of Americans) and who indulged in mussels to start their day.

 

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Antidoping photo in exchange for a Olympic mascot. Sign me up!

 

Location number three was the Wolejeongsa Temple. This site provided one of the few opportunities to get away from skiing and recovery activities.  On our second day in Korea, most of the US athlete contingent piled into the rented minivan and drove about 4 kilometers up the valley into a national park to visit the temple.  We paid the 34,000 Won for 10 people to get into the park for a speed tour of the temple. (Without clear understanding of the exchange rate until after 34,000 was charged to a card). Since we did not have much time, we powered through the ornate 7th century temple ogling at all features and giggling at our ignorance of the culture as all the Koreans seemed to be bowing at every possible opportunity. Bow to the door, bow to the stairs, bow to us….

 

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Ornate temple sights.

 

And finally the venue, which the real reason we were in Korea in the first place. Who cares about temples and culture when there is ski racing to be found? The Alpensia sportpark was about 30 minutes away from our hotel by bus.  The Olympic village will be much closer as there are lots of winter sports that will take place in the area.  Sliding sports, tech alpine events, nordic sports and biathlon are all quite closely centered around the Yongpyong and Alpensia (mini) ski resorts. The cross country trails are mostly located on a golf course.  While this probably would mean they are quite flat in the US, the Korean golf course sprawled through the rolling hills.  The only downside to it being a gold course was that there wasn’t much protection from the howling wind that greeted us the day before the race.  While the stadium is a bit lower and somewhat protected, the wind was ripping through sections of the distance course making skiing parts of it a bit miserable.  Wind turbines on all the hillsides around made a lot more sense after that day.  However, things calmed down by the time the races began.

 

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Checking out the venue. Photo: Caitlin Patterson

 

For me the classic sprint was more of a warm up for the later races than an event to actually focus on. It was a long and challenging course for a sprint, but I struggled with my normal sprinting problems including being too frantic, lack of power, overly worked up and thus unable to kick, as well as just not having many fast twitch muscles.  I placed exactly where I was seeded going into the race and was done racing for the day just 3:30 after I had started.  Not inspiring, but nothing unusual either.

The skiathalon the following day was the real reason I had travelled to Korea in the first place.  Thus I was a bit nervous going in.  For the usual full strength world cups, I tend to be seeded somewhere between 40 and 50, for this day I was bib 10.  Going from trying to reach the top 30 to actually having a chance to be on the podium or at least in the top 10 really changes the perspective on the race. Also it was the first distance race at low altitude that I had done in quite a while just to add another variable to the mix. Add to that the normal chaos of skiathalon ski testing with both skate and classic and there was plenty to focus on instead of nerves.

Once we lined up and the gun went off, things went relatively normally for two laps.  The Norwegians in the race clearly believed they were going to dominate and took control early on leading us around the 3.75k loop.  On the third loop, the race started to become a little frustrating.  While Noah Hoffman might have been having fun at the front of the pack, I quickly became frustrated from two skiers behind him as the pace slowed to a crawl, sprinted through a feed zone, slowed again, and then accelerated for a bonus prime.  However, all of this was relatively inconsequential until the bonus prime acceleration. I made a large tactical error jumping in one of the unglazed tracks for a one kilometer downhill.  Also with the acceleration I had lost the draft of the skier in front of me.  Quickly 10th slipped to 15th and beyond until I was barely hanging onto the top 30.  At that point skiing in the pack is not fun.  There is too much accordioning going on over crests and through depressions that just burn energy with no gain.  Two laps later, I had become succumbed to the energy fire and was skiing slightly detached from the lead pack going into the classic to skate transition.

The skate course was a little more to my style.  Instead of a long hill out of the start, a long downhill, and some rollers, the skate was marked by several fairly significant climbs with fast downhills in between.  Also, while I was off the lead pack, they were in sight most of the race so I had some chasing to do.  Right out of the stadium, I charged past the two competitors that I transitioned with.  A few kilometers later, there were some Germans and Russians dangling from the lead pack providing more opportunities to move up.  However, all the time my focus was getting back into what had become a chase pack.  Two skiers had broken away off the front with another two chasing.  Then there was a group of five including fellow US skier Noah Hoffman.  After that it was me chasing alone.  However, the surges the group put in for the bonus primes mitigated any gains that I made throughout the rest of the course.  I spent most of the skate hovering 20 seconds back from the group of five.  From this perspective I was granted a prime spectator position as the eventual race winner pulled away from his companion and the group of five caught the other two.  Suddenly, it was anyone’s game for the final podium spot, but I was still 20 seconds off.  The dangling in the classic had cost me an opportunity.  I did get a final carrot though as one of the Norwegians bonked and I rapidly closed the time in-between the two of us.  On the final hill of the course I came along side expected a surge from him.  However, my acceleration was marked with absolutely no response.  I cruised into the finish in 9th still 20 seconds off the pack, but getting my first world cup points and first top 10 in the process.  We’ll just ignore the weak field.

 

FIS world cup cross-country, skiathlon women, Pyeong Chang (KOR)
Racing time.  Photo: Nordic Focus / Toko US

 

The final full day in Korea was the team sprint with Matt Gelso being my buddy for the day.  I had not raced a team sprint since 2012 (while I was sick) and had not raced a skate team sprint since 2009.  Yet, one of our standard summer training workouts on Eagle Glacier is a team sprint simulation so I wasn’t totally foreign to the tactics and format.  Even so, I went into the day a little apprehensive.  I was stiff from the previous race day and not really sure how we would stack up with the other teams.  All that anxiety was unfounded though as I came to the conclusion during racing that team sprinting is pure fun.

In the semi, I led things out of the start, narrowly avoided a Norwegian crash and kept things tight in the top 5 for the first tag.  Gelso fell back a little but we were solidly in the fight.  For both of us, our second laps were fairly uneventful.  Then lap three came around.  While I still felt very in control, all the sudden the other teams were getting dropped left and right.  A few gaps formed in front of me as the French and Norwegian teams charged for the final time in the semi, but we sat solidly in qualifying position.  Gelso brought us home with a good finish to advance as one of 15 teams in the final.  Then, we had an hour to recover and do it again. 

At this point I was a little worried.  The final was going to be much faster with double the number of strong teams and Gelso was looking quite tired.  With our hour slipped by, I led things off again under the lights of the Pyeongchang stadium.  Quickly it became clear that this was a little different.  Russia and Norway pinned it from the line.  In the course of a few hundred meters, I was dangling unable to move forward due to the chaos of 15 teams.  Our race for the podium was over right there, but we waged our own little battle with Germany and other teams over the next five laps and emerged satisfied in 9th.

With that finish, racing was over in Korea. We shipped back to the hotel for an early 3-hour bus ride to the airport.  The airport was much more manageable the second time. My sister and I even found some entertainment in the airport. After getting through security, we noticed that Korean Ministry of Culture store had free activities for foreign travelers.  What better way is there to spend time in an airport than free cultural activities.  I built a hanji (Korean paper) tray while Caitlin examined trinkets and made a print of the Korean alphabet.  Only a couple minutes before leaving, we were finally experiencing the culture (in the airport).

Moving Forward

Returning to a blog now is kind of like getting back in contact with an old friend.  It’s really great to see them, but actually you need some obscure favor that makes the whole thing slightly awkward.  The slightly awkward part is definitely here but luckily I don’t need any favors.  Lots has gone on since the last blog but I’ll get to the juicy details first:

I was not selected for the 2017 world championships in Lahti.  Skiing and qualifying for competitions as an elite athlete can be fragile at times.  The qualification for the world championships was based on four races with the two races at US nationals weighted more heavily.  I came down with the common cold a few days before US nationals began.  Due to the importance of the races, I tried to push through.  For both of the races I competed in, I was able to manage for about two thirds of the race before the nasty cold symptoms everyone dreads caught up with me.  Multiply that with altitude, somewhat slow snow, a few ski issues and the results is that I struggled.  16th and 4th were not what I needed.  3rd instead of 4th would have been enough.  It is frustrating to miss out by a single place: 10 seconds in over an hour of racing, but that ship has sailed.

So what does this mean for the future: for this season it means I need to rework my schedule a little and do a little more domestic racing; for next season, it means absolutely nothing. Also, I did get a consolation prize in the form of an invite to the South Korean World Cups.  This event serves as a test for the 2018 Olympics and will provide a great opportunity to experience the venue and get a few world cup starts midseason.  There are also more opportunities for world cups starts in early March but that has yet to be determined.

Up next for this season:

  • World Cups – Pyeongchang, South Korea 2/3-2/5
  • Supertour – Marquette, MI 2/17-2/19
  • American Birkie – Hayward, WI 2/25

 

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Managing to not look too sick while feeling pretty awful at US Nationals. Photo: Toko US

 

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My sister, Caitlin, sprinting in some interesting conditions at US nationals.

 

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Travel day between Park City, UT and Truckee, CA.

 

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Logan Hanneman checking the snow depth with some aerials.

 

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An extra week in Bozeman between Truckee and Korea meant there was time for some treat making.

 

 

 

 

 

FAQ: Rollerskis

As rollerski season is winding down, it feels like a good time to address their benefits, limitations, and dangers. At their most basic form, rollerskis are two wheels with a stick in between and a binding mounted on top.  For all the variations in flex, rubber, durability, material, and other hodgepodge of skier jargon, it really doesn’t matter.  They exist because we cannot easily ski in the summer.  I don’t know a single skier who prefers their rollerskis to skis (though maybe they exist somewhere).

Rollerskis do present good training opportunities.  Full body workouts that accurately simulate skiing are difficult to find in the summer. Running, biking, swimming, strength, and many other activities all have their place in our weekly training regimes, but rollerskiing is the majority. The interesting part for me is that rollerskiing feels so normal and so mundane that I hardly ever take photos or write about it. Really, there is a saying that “skiers are made in the summer” thus skiers are made on rollerskis.

Rollerskis also have their limitations. To begin, the simulation of skiing is very imperfect by the very fact that we are rolling instead of sliding.  The small muscles that result in coordination on skis do not have to work nearly as hard on wheels.  Additionally, we ski on flat skis instead of rounded wheels, so edging and other subtleties are lost. Rollerskis feel like a blunt instrument trying to mimic the finess of cross country skiing.  Then there is the perfect kick on rollerskis.  Classic rollerskiing relies on ratchets instead of specialized wax which only kick with the flex of the ski.  These two are very different.

Now it is time to address the monster in the room: safety.  Are rollerskis safe: No.  That would be a resounding no. Although there are brakes available, using them is like wearing a mirror on a bike helmet.  Functional? absolutely but dorky nonetheless. (And if you have any questions about that: yes, your mirror is dorky.) The result is that everyone shuns brakes (and mirrors). The result is that we can’t really stop.  Slowing down is somewhat possible through an awkward snowplow; however this slowing necessitates strong glutes and practice while also being extremely wearing on the wheel rubber. Instead most of us just try to avoid any downhill that seems beyond our comfort.

Yet, the inability to stop becomes even more of an issue due to traffic and poorly placed stop signs.  What already is on the margins of safety rapidly spirals out of control.  I think every rollerskier has evaluated most of their regular skis for bailouts including driveways, smooth grass, and in extreme circumstances the ditch or hopefully soft shoulder. I have personally seen swan dives into grass, explosions in wood chips, as well as the dreaded collision with a vehicle.

So even though we push the margins sometimes, occasionally emerge with road rash, and rarely a more serious injury, rollerskiing is the most complete summer training for our sport. Thus we will continue (without brakes.  Though you would think we just need to accept dorkiness since we already are out there rollerskiing.)

 

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Park City rollerski 2016. Photo: Eric Packer.

 

FAQ: The Next Steps

One of the most common questions I get asked and what prompted me to come up with a FAQ series is what is the next step or the path forward for my skiing career. However, to understand this we need to take a little look at the breakdown of levels of racing and where I have previously raced.  For levels, I think the six categories below make sense:

  1. Regional racing (FIS races, Besh Cups, college races, etc.)
  2. Domestic continental cup (supertours) and US nationals
  3. International continental cup (Scando and OPA cup),
  4. World Cup
  5. World Championships
  6. Olympics

As for where I have been, each year I seem to be making a step up the levels.  Two years ago , I spent 5 weeks traversing central Europe following the OPA cup which is the second tier racing for Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy primarily but allows guests like the US.  Last year, I left for Europe in January for my first world cups. For cross country skiing, the world cup is the season long set of races that represents the global top tier. Start rights are controlled by quotas, rankings, and the national governing bodies. Last season I raced across the Czech Republic and most of the nordic nations with some almost successes.  I was 32nd (30th would be considered a success and grants one world cup points) in the Homenkollen 50k which is considered one of the most difficult and prestigious world cup races.

Naturally the next step will be World Championships followed by the Olympics.  World Championships occur on odd years.  This year’s races will take place in Lahti, Finland. Qualification starts in late November and goes through US nationals in early January. This coming season’s world championships will test the criteria for the Olympics. Although there are many small details, in the end the criteria is designed to pick the 6-7 skiers with the greatest medal potential.  Why this gets interesting is that there are also 6 events at world championships.  Selecting the ideal athletes for all these events has proven difficult and given selection a very political reputation. The 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang will follow with selection based on races between March, 2017 and February, 2018.

For all of these racing levels, experiencing the races is one thing, but success is another. As I see it, I am a successful domestic racer and have had moderate success on the international level on the continental cup or world cup. However, my path forward means changing these moderate successes into points (top 30) and even higher results. Among other things, this would help me achieve a US ski team nomination. In the end everything comes down to racing faster than I have before, meeting the necessary qualification criteria, and enjoying the journey forward.

 

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2016 Spring Racing

 

Announcements

Winter is approaching quickly and I figure that it is time for a few updates:

First, I am excited to say that I will be representing Coffman Engineers again for the coming season.  Stay tuned for some flashy new apparel. Coffman is both my employer and my current headgear sponsor and is one of the big reasons that I returned to Alaska following graduation at UVM.  I can honestly say that I don’t know if I would still be chasing skiing dreams without their support.

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Second, I am pleased to announce that I am a Girdwood 2020 Go for the Gold recipient.  Girdwood is an amazing small community south of Anchorage that in many ways is the playground for many of the Anchoragites (to the annoyance of some Girdwedians I suspect).  Girdwood has amazing running trails (crow pass and winter creek), the best alpine resort in AK (Alyeska), great nordic trails (I say that even after a bad injury there), and has managed to come together as a community to help support many Alaskan athletes Olympic dreams.

 

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Also this happens to be high above Girdwood: Eagle Glacier

 

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Far from Girdwood (but we did start in Girdwood)

 

 

Third, I have decided that I am going to start a mini-series on this blog with frequently asked questions (or at least what I see as frequently asked questions.)  Feel free to comment if you would like to ask something.  Most of all, this is a way for me to inform some readers and generate some content when the weather is marginal or I just don’t have anything I feel is exciting report.  Stay tuned for the first edition coming soon.

In the mean time, training continues. Most of Anchorage’s snow has melted so we are double poling around on ice, breaking out the cleats for running, or finding other activities to stay in shape and build race fitness for the rapidly approaching season.

 

 

Fall’s End

Each year October arrives and with it comes cold temperatures, termination dust, and the first hints that skiing is on the way.  In response, we jet off to Park City Utah to get some altitude, catch up with the US ski team coaches and athletes, and hopefully avoid a little bit of the nasty transition season in Alaska while extending fall a few more weeks in Utah.  Upon our return, the hope is that rollerskiing can become skiing, biking can become backcountry skiing, and climbing can transition to ice.

However, before the Park City camp gets a little stressful. Suddenly summer and even fall are coming to a close.  Summer and fall types of adventures have to be crammed in as much as possible.  Along with that is the building intensity of September and the sudden realization that ski season is almost here (ie the oh crap moments when questioning summer training.)

I thought I made the most of this season.  While August was rainy in AK, the outdoors granted lots of beautiful weekends and evenings for every adventuresome pleasure.  I ascended new peaks, went packrafting on rivers that run too high all summer, got a last few days of outdoor climbing, and even capped it off with a few pretty good time trials on rollerskis. 

 

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Andrew Dougherty after a long day on Eagle Peak.

 

 

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Snowy summits.  Eagle Peak.

 

 

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Packrafting. Photo: Neil Liotta.

 

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Fun and more fun.  Echo Bend with Neil and Schyler.

 

 

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6:00 miles down the Seward Highway for a shuttle.

 

In between adventures there were lots of days of running on my own, hence the scenery shots:

Now, most of APU is down in Park City exploring the new asphalt and fast running before the winter really creeps into play.

 

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Photo: Eric Packer

 

 

Lessons Learned: Montana Running Camp

When I first signed up for The Rut Vertical Kilometer and 50k, I was going down with one ambition: to win.  Of course I was going to win.  I’m super fit, spend tons of time in the mountains, and will have a little time at altitude.  What could go wrong?

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Exploring Montana from the top of Beehive Peak.

For those that are following closely, I came out with a 3rd and a 4th and never made it to the summit of lone peak.  Not exactly the same as two firsts and some course records just for fun.  My trip altogether was productive and these lessons learned are as much to put them down as a record for me rather than give advice to others.  Listen, learn, or don’t, it doesn’t really matter to me.  What matters is that I learned.

First off: Altitude.  I traveled down to Montana early enough so that I would have a few days to acclimatize. While I had not raced about 10,000 ft before, previous experience with ski races above 7,000 ft has taught me enough.  I know that I don’t want to be racing on my third or fourth day at altitude.  Also I know that I need to pace pretty well and avoid strong surges as I don’t seem to recover from an altitude blow up.  Other than those few things, I think fitness shines through even at altitude. All that really is required is proper planning and a little self-control.

I spent most of the acclimatization period trying to fit in as many diverse activities as I could.  My parents’ new locations meant that cruising up the various canyons and gulches of the west side of the Bridger Range was the easiest, but I was able to get a few rollerskis in as well as excursions up Hyalite Peak and Beehive Peak. With a couple days getting over 10,000 ft and more than four days under my belt, I went into The Rut VK feeling relatively confident.

Vertical Kilometers and similar races are relatively easy in execution.  They are generally short and don’t have much terrain variation other than gradual or steep uphill.  The Lone Peak Vertical Kilometer wasn’t much different than Bird Ridge, Knoya, or the other Alaskan races that dot my early summer schedule.  Lightning forecast and high winds force a last minute course change to the bottom of the Lone Peak Tram instead of the top.  Thus I only raced about 2,200 vertical feet and 2.4 miles.  It was tough but the lessons aren’t that much different than those that I always seem to arrive at following Bird or other races: run more, hike less. I ended up in third somewhat satisfied with a so-so performance as at least I was the top American; however, the craving for a win wasn’t satisfied.

I occupied the day in-between races with a short run and too much time just sitting around.  With a 6am start for the 50k, I got all my stuff together and loaded into my parents’ small camper for the third trip to big sky.  The only real important event of that day was the meeting.  First, it was brought up that some of the European runners had been cutting switchbacks in the 28k race that day.  Suddenly, it seemed to be Americans ganging up on the European practices and generating a bit of unnecessary conflict or maybe just fueling our own competitive natures. The other thing was that I realized the hydration vest I was planning on racing in was overkill and that I had left my standard drink belt in Bozeman.

Thus we come to the second race the 50k along with the second lesson: Feeding and Race Systems.  One of the biggest topics of discussion at many of the longer Alaskan races that I participate in (Crow Pass, Kesugi, Lost Lake) is about the racing system.  There are no aid stations for these races and there is some mandatory gear so dialing in a system before hand is essential.  Over the years, I think I have nailed my needs for each of these.  However, when aid stations are available and plentiful things change a little bit.  Early in the week, I had planned to race with a 12 liter race vest, but the ability to have drop bags as well as food and drink every 6 miles forced me to rethink. I borrowed a standard horizontal fanny pack drink belt. I travelled quite light for the 50k with the plan to rely on aid stations using my drink belt to spread things out over the 6 miles between available aid. The issue with this idea was that I didn’t actually pause at the stations.  I struggled a little with stomach issues and had trouble getting solid food down.  Breathing while eating is tough and I also knew that whatever I ate was going to jiggle around uncomfortably on the next downhill.  Thus my total food consumption for four hours of racing: two shot blocks. I was a little better for liquid and managed to consume about 16oz of heed that I put in my bottle halfway through as well as a couple ounces of pepsi at the last feed station. I had no water until about 12 miles into the race.

So third problem: cramping.  This was a first for me.  About 12 miles into the race after significant climbing and descending, both my hamstrings started tightening up on the gradual uphills. As my usual strength climbing began to suffer, I knew it was going to be a little rough. So the obvious question becomes how to prevent that.  There are the normal cramping solutions including additional electrolytes (salts, pickle juice, etc.) but I think the critical thing for me is additional leg speed.  Having always been an uphill runner, the downhills kill me.  I can manage for one sustained downhill (Lost Lake, Crow Pass) but multiple puts too much stress on certain muscles.  For me I think the key is additional downhill practice at speed as well as just some additional running speed.  In this case pure fitness and training only for skiing left me as a one-dimensional racer.

As for the last lesson, I will leave off with a simple one.  Running fast in the dark is hard. I need to go use some of that prize money and get a fancy performance headlamp.

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So long MT.  Now back to AK.

Weather Solution: Packrafting

Looking at the forecast can be disheartening.  The full column of raining clouds just seems to put a damper on energy.  It is not so much that it changes the workout as much as it changes the enjoyment. Being an elite athlete means that I will be working out rain or shine, hail or hurricane but running in the mountains around Anchorage is so much more fun when it is beautiful and sunny and hypothermia is not a concern.  August has not been a great month for the enjoyment factor.  Thus it is essential to find adventures where weather doesn’t matter. And no, I am not talking about marathon Skierg sessions in my garage, or treadmill time. I am an outdoorsy guy, so that means packrafting. Suit up in lots of layers, a dry suit, and viola: weatherproof.  Camping in the rain just adds to the fun (multiple types).

The last three weekends were dedicated to this activity. Weekdays require normal training, but my resolve to remain faithful to my training plan weakens as the weekend approaches.  The day after getting off the glacier: prime packrafting opportunity. Racing in the morning the next weekend equals a good chance for an overnight packraft. And finally this weekend’s plans for a tall peak derailed by low visibility meant it was time for another.  So without further ado: Willow creek, sheep creak done cheep, and Curry to clear creek in pictures.  Actually, there aren’t any pictures from willow as we had some dead phone batteries, but the others worked out alright

First up for trips is Sheep Creek done cheap. We measured it around 44 miles with 20 miles of packrafting, 5 miles on a sweet alpine ridge, about 2 miles of bushwhacking and 17 miles of ATV trails. 

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We lost the ATV trail. Time for some of Neil’s favorite activities: a good alder shwack!
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Managed to find 14 miles of this.  Actually this was one of the driest parts.
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Gaining elevation.

 

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Finally into the alpine with alright weather.
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Boatin on some flat section. Photo: Neil Liotta

 

Curry to clear creek is a unique trip due to the whistle stop train from Talkeetna to Curry.  However, the trip also has quite a lot of bushwhacking and was very wet and foggy during out time there.

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Waiting for the train. Photo: Cole Deal
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That is the very south end of Kesugi Ridge across the Susitna. Photo: Brady Deal
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Watching Caribou from our high point. Photo: Brady Deal.
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Camping in the wilderness. Now who put this stupid powerline out here…. Photo: Cole Deal.
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A brief reprieve from some bush. Day 1.  Photo: Cole Deal.
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Bush and fog. Day 2. Photo: Cole Deal
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Boatin: Photo: Neil Liotta