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Wild Rumpus Sports

Summer Racing and National Team Exposure

I recently encountered Marty Hall’s comments following an article in SkiTrax about the Climb to the Castle that were misinformed in several important ways, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share some thoughts with the community, and hopefully clear up some of these misconceptions. The comments can be found here:

The first comment had to do with summer racing:

A real shame that the national team passed up the hill climb—it would have been a fitting effort after the week of intensity focus they had just completed. Biathlon had just finished a 3 week intensity block and fit the hill climb into their final workout.
One of the things that has been evident over the past few years is that the Euros race a lot more in the summer (on RS) then the NAs do—way more, which keeps them closer to their top fitness then the NAs are to theirs.
At the coaches seminar in Lake Placid about 10 days ago HC Grover made the comment that the Norwegians were way more fit then the American Team at this point in the year. I brought up this fact that the Norwegians, and for that matter all the Europeans, race way more then the Americans. Essentially his answer was lack of races—and then they pass up the hill climb. Nothing beats putting on a bib—they can do all their intensities—but racing is what it is all about.
Sort of like last fall as they entered period #1 of the WC and said they were taking an easier focus on the start of the WC so they could be ready for the WSC in Falun. That is known not to work—-the Canadian’s tried it the year before—white terry cloth robe training in Davos when all the other teams were in Scando racing.
At the seminar a couple of the speakers made it clear that when you hit the racing season it has to be the focus to keep the pedal to the metal. They cited some ideas about things being tried besides racing—like weight lifting. I’m sure you’ll read more about this in the future.
Well, we’ll have to wait another year for this to happen—-here in the east we have tons of venues that can host 1-2 day race formats through out the summer—let’s get going in taking a step forward in having our racers ready too really race at their top level all through the season.

There are a number of problems in these arguments. The first is the leap of logic that contends that racing the Climb to the Castle equals winter racing fitness. It does not. Racing in the Climb to the Castle may contribute to one individual’s fitness, while it may be destructive for another individual, producing unwanted levels of fatigue. The U.S. Ski Team has many years of history competing in this event so we have an intimate understanding of how a long grinding skate hill climb affects different athletes. At our recent Lake Placid training camp, we had a big group of sprint athletes and not so many pure distance skiers. Because of this, we ran a classic sprint time trial the day prior to the Climb. This was the appropriate workout given the athletic goals of the majority of athletes that were present in Lake Placid. The sprint capped a week that included 3 additional intensity workouts that were designed for the needs of this particular group. Even so, some athletes, including Climb winners Mary Rose of the Sun Valley Gold Team and Paddy Caldwell of SMS T2 and the USST, chose to race in both the sprint time trial and the Climb, creating a week with 5 intensity sessions. For those athletes, capping their week with a tough uphill skate made good athletic sense. But it’s not logical to assert that the answer to being able to compete with Norway is to race every race that is out there, especially when the format of a given race is so specialized. Instead, the only way to compete at the highest level is to maximize the preparation of each individual athlete, and that includes intelligent decisions made in selecting workouts (aerobic vs. anaerobic), timing of intensity workouts, skate vs. classic, periods of recovery, etc. One size doesn’t fit all at the World Cup level, especially when the athletic goals of individuals (i.e. target races) are so varied.

Mr. Hall references the fact that the U.S. Biathlon Team competed in the Climb at the end of an intensity-training block. What he fails to mention is that there have been some years at the Climb where USBA athletes were present in Lake Placid and did not compete because the event didn’t make good athletic sense for them at the time (they were in a recovery week, for example). Those are years when the U.S. Cross Country Team did compete. One can’t pick and choose only the history that supports ones’ theory. Also, when you look at the format of the Climb (i.e. distance skating), it lends itself to the training needs of biathlon athletes, who only have distance skating as a lone race format. In cross-country, where we have sprint and distance events, classic and skate, 1 km to 50 km, the Climb format doesn’t always make great sense for every athlete, and each race that an athlete competes in eliminates another opportunity to compete in a different race format that day.

In the future, there will be camps when the Climb to the Castle works well for many National Team athletes, especially in years where we have a longer camp in Lake Placid and when more distance skiers are present. It’s a great event, the athletes and coaches love doing it, and we try to support it when it makes good athletic sense.

As a National Team, we are looking for opportunities to compete on rollerskis in the preparation period more frequently when appropriate. I agree with Marty that athletes in North America could find improvement by staying closer to top racing shape during the summer months. Many members of the U.S. Ski Team competed in 3 rollerski races at Toppidrettsveka in Norway in August, and the formats of those races (classic sprint, Skiathlon, classic pursuit) were strategically ideal for the Team’s technical needs. Looking forward to our next camp in Park City in October, we’ll be running a 3-day rollerski mini-Tour at Soldier Hollow that mimics the demands of the World Cup for this season, in which more than half of the World Cups are Tour stages. One of our biggest challenges in North America is not that we can’t create or participate in enough summer rollerski racing, but that it’s really hard to create quality depth within those racing fields in order to push the athletes along at a high enough pace. In Norway, we easily find that depth of competition. So the answer is not always more rollerski racing, but more importantly the type of racing and the quality of the field.

Mr. Hall then makes another leap of logic, equating racing in the Climb to the Castle (putting on a bib) with a fast start on the World Cup in the fall. Well, the U.S. Ski Team athletes did compete in the Climb last season, and it didn’t help our start to the World Cup! The fact is that there are too many variables involved to suggest that participating in one event or skipping that event leads to World Cup success or failure. The USA did have a slow start to the World Cup season last year for a number of reasons, including everything from preparation, to injury and illness, to overtraining, to occasional struggles with waxing. We are working hard to rectify these issues for this season so that we are competitive all season long. But Marty neglects to mention that every nation except Norway struggled at the beginning of the World Cup last year. So was the USA that bad or was Norway that good? Every country was left scratching their heads after World Cup Period 1, and wondering how Norway had become so dominant in such a short period of time. In retrospect, our strategy of being faster at the time of the Falun Championships actually worked, but I agree with Marty that ideally we’d be faster all season long. As we all know, this is hard to achieve but possible for some athletes.

A second post by Mr. Hall reads:

One other thing—the National Team has very little reality time in the states—-some races in the Spring time and that is it. So, whom is getting gypped, not us—who cares, but the next level of skiers is losing out big time. The National Team coaching staff has to be thinking about who those next skiers are going to be and how good they are going to be. If it only starts another Kikkan or Jessie to start to dream—JOB DONE!!!
Small thinkers produce small gains—-you’ve got to do better National Team leaders.

I don’t believe there are many National Teams that actually create better opportunities for their best young skiers to measure themselves against their World Cup athletes than the USA does. As always, the Lake Placid camp included National Elite Group (NEG) athletes, National Training Group (NTG) athletes, and top club skiers training alongside the U.S. Ski Team every day. These are American junior, U23 and senior athletes training and competing with athletes that have World Cup and World Championship podiums. It is an incredible opportunity, and one that will be available again for the NTG and elite club skiers in Park City this month.

Here’s what Katharine Ogden had to say on this topic recently in a FasterSkier article that followed the Lake Placid camp:

“It never ceases to amaze me training with the USST girls. Getting the opportunity to copy their technique and have them there to motivate us during harder sessions is beyond awesome. One thing that I learned talking to some Norwegian junior skiers is that they have never even met most of their national team girls. This really put in perspective for me how lucky we are to be able to train with them.”

I’m not sure the experience of this particular Norwegian athlete is reflective of everyone’s experience, but the point is that we currently have and will continue to create high-end training and racing experiences for our best young athletes. Could we do more? Absolutely, but we are always working to strike a balance between giving the World Cup athletes the training stimuli that they require while providing developing athletes with invaluable experience. Also, Norway is a small country where it is potentially easier to get the best juniors to camps alongside the National Team. The USA has 5 time zones! Our logistics and expenses are much more challenging, which makes what we’ve been able to accomplish as a cross-country community that much more impressive.

More importantly, I don’t agree with Marty’s assertion that we should be sending our best racers home to race more frequently. Show me a professional sport where the best athletes, competing at a world-class level, are sent back to the farm leagues during the competition season in order to develop the next generation. We are competing in a predominantly European sport. We need to be sending our best developing athletes to Europe instead. You don’t get better by sending 5 good athletes home; you get better by sending 30 good developing athletes to Europe, where they can be pushed by many athletes every day. And thanks to the help of the NNF, we are doing exactly that.

I appreciate the fact that Marty is challenging the thinking of the U.S. Ski Team staff and I relish this opportunity to present my perspective to the community. There are good questions raised here and I hope that I have addressed them in a way that promotes better understanding in the American cross-country family.