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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.

2015-16 Canadian World Cup Selection Criteria

Dear Athletes and Coaches,


The World Cup selection criteria for this season, including the Canadian World Cup Tour, is now posted, and can be found here:


A working group of 12 senior club coaches, along with the U.S. Ski Team staff, collaborated to create the Selection Criteria.


Here is a summary of start spots allotted to the USA for the Canadian Tour:



National World Cup Tour Quota for 2015-16: 7

SuperTour Overall Leader: 1

Nation’s Group: 5

Total: 13 women



National World Cup Tour Quota for 2015-16: 5

SuperTour Overall Leader: 1

Nation’s Group: 5

Total: 11 men


In addition to the usual World Cup quotas, which are determined by results from the previous World Cup season, the overall leaders of the SuperTour on February 7, 2016 (one man and one woman) will be selected to the Canadian Tour. As always, these are the two athletes who would normally be attending World Cup Period IV.


Additionally, USA will have a nation’s group quota of 5 women and 5 men for the Canadian Tour.  These 10 athletes will be selected in the following manner:


First, up to one man and one woman (2 athletes total) will be selected from either World Cup results or OPA (Europa Cup) results between January 16 and February 21, 2016. Priority goes to the athlete that has scored World Cup points in an individual (non-pursuit) World Cup race in that period. This could be a sprint or a distance race. If no athlete makes the WC criteria, then second priority goes to any athlete with 1 x top-5 result or 2 x top-7 results in OPA (Europa Cup) competition, during the same selection period.


The majority of the Nation’s Group will be selected via the SuperTour competitions held between the start of the 2015-16 race season and the end of U.S. Nationals. Eight athletes (4 men and 4 women) will be selected from SuperTour on January 11, 2016. We will select the top 2 leaders on the men’s distance list, men’s sprint list, women’s distance list, and women’s sprint list. These leaders will not be selected on total SuperTour points, but rather their best 3 out of 4 results (highest SuperTour points races) in one discipline (sprint or distance). As usual, races at U.S. National Championships are scored as double-points races.


We have decided to close the selection period for these 8 athletes relatively early (mid-January) for two important reasons. The first is that we wish to continue to encourage our best athletes to race in Europe in the middle of the winter (post-Nationals), and not be forced to stay home in order to qualify for the Canadian Tour. The second reason is to give adequate time for athletes, clubs and coaches to plan for waxing and support logistics during the Canadian Tour.


The Canadian Tour will be an exciting opportunity for US athletes to demonstrate their abilities in North America. With our fan base in attendance and by competing in familiar venues, we will certainly have a home-course advantage. With a total of 24 athletes on the start line, we need to seize this opportunity for World Cup success.

Development: Part 1

All sorts of comments are springing up on my blog about development, so it’s a good time to share some thoughts. As someone suggested, the topic of development is broad, and makes it hard to know where to begin, much less to structure the discussion in a meaningful way. But let’s dive in.

The U.S. XC program is currently not investing enough on Development. We are being greatly outspent by some of our competitors. As an athletic staff, we know this. We talk about this all the time. We have development strategies created that detail how we would spend additional funds if we were to have them, specifically in the area of infrastructure. We recognize that there is much more we could be doing. The U.S. XC program is also not investing enough in the elite side. Some of our competitors have resources that are on scale far beyond our current reach. This makes it quite hard to compete effectively at the highest level. So our needs are great all along the athlete development pipeline.

Some people want to argue that we should be spending more on development and less on elite teams, or more in a certain area of development; but from my perspective it’s not the most productive argument to get into. We should be investing more everywhere. Of course every club in our country needs investment and could use more funding as well.

When we look at the U.S. development ranks, there is a lot of talent and promise out there. We are always trying to figure out how to get these young athletes more support. We also have very talented and hard-working athletes at the top end; perhaps one of the most talented generations of skiers in U.S. cross-country ski racing history. They too deserve our support. I hope that our developing skiers gather some inspiration from the results of our World Cup and Championship Teams, and through these athletes, see a path for themselves within the sport and recognize that with a lot of hard work, it is possible to succeed at the highest level. Hopefully there is some trickle-down from the limited success we’ve had on the international stage; people tell me there is.

If you haven’t been behind the scenes at a World Cup recently, it’s probably hard to understand just how we are being outclassed. The wax trucks are the most obvious physical manifestation of the arms race that we are engaged in, but the challenges are much greater than what one can see from the sidelines. Other elements include the location and quality of training camps (preparation period and competition period), the number of highly experienced coaches and service technicians surrounding the athletes (and their salaries), the incredible amounts of money being spent on wax, grinding, and service technology development, physical therapy, sports science support, etc. The money that we are spending on the elite side of the sport is nothing to laugh about, and it is being spent in a careful and calculated manner, but we are not in the same league as the strongest nations in the sport.

On the development side, we have more infrastructure than dollars to provide. We have a Development Coach, Bryan Fish, who spends his year organizing, attending and coaching at camps (U16 Elite, REG, NEG, NTG) and organizing and leading race trips (JWC/U23s, Europa Cup, Scandinavian Cup). Bryan also spends an incredible amount of time working on Coaches’ Education, writing and compiling materials, leading coaches’ education clinics and seminars, etc. He has just completed an excellent and comprehensive Level 200 Coaches’ Manual that contains more relevant information about cross-country ski racing and endurance athletics than one can reasonably absorb in a week. It will be an incredible resource for our skiing community. The World Cup coaches (Matt, Jason, and myself) help out with many of these development projects, as do many of our best club coaches, but it’s impossible to be everywhere at once. We are a small staff attempting to cover a big country.

Although we’ve made investments in the infrastructure surrounding developing athletes (staff, facilities, equipment), the USST provides little direct support to young athletes themselves (i.e. they are responsible for their own airfares, room and board). Luckily the community, via the NNF, has stepped-in to lessen the financial burden for the vast majority of international racing trips at the development level, and some of the preparation opportunities as well. The NNF is lessening every athlete’s direct costs for these trips, sometimes cutting their bills by more than half. It’s a very special gift that the community and some generous individuals are giving these young skiers every year, and those of us that work at the USST are grateful for the NNF’s dedication to their mission.

So where are funds best spent: on elite athletes or on developing athletes? Elite athletes are certainly a more prudent investment. After all, they have already demonstrated that they can compete at the highest level. No guesswork is necessary. The further we drop down the development ladder in terms of age, the risk on the investment becomes greater. That is, there is less and less potential return on investment because we need to support a large group of athletes knowing that only a few will actually stick with the sport and make it to the top. But we clearly need to spend money in both areas (development and elite teams); we need to set ourselves up for success now and also in the future. So we would be wise to spend money on development by spreading it over a big number of projects, requiring unproven athletes to cover many of their own costs, and then gradually increase the amount of direct and indirect financial support an athlete receives as he or she gets closer to the top.

All of this is predicated on the end goal of winning medals at the highest levels: the Olympic Winter Games, the World Championships, and the World Cup. We recognize that this is not the only reason that many athletes, coaches and parents are involved in cross-country ski racing, and we have a lot of respect for the different paths that athletes take in the sport. Participation is an end goal of many. All paths are valid and rewarding. But here I am talking about attempting to win medals.

Here’s a question: when it comes to development, what is the responsibility of the U.S. Ski Team, and what is the responsibility of the clubs? The U.S. Ski Team has the responsibility of fielding teams at the highest levels of the sport, and we are uniquely positioned to do just that. We are tasked with fielding teams at JW/U23 Championships, World Cup, World Championships, and the Olympics. On the other hand, local clubs, colleges, and assorted teams are uniquely positioned to do the heavy lifting of daily and weekly athlete development. Coaches in local programs do the day-to-day work of developing and fostering talent. So when it comes to development, at what point does the USST step in?

How much does the community want the USST to be involved? Several years ago we canvased the regional coaching communities at the REG camps, and specifically asked how many national-level development opportunities they wanted to see each summer and fall. The answer surprised me a bit. I thought the coaches would want to see more from us. For the most part, these coaches thought we currently had a good balance between time by an athlete spent in his or her home club, and time spent at regional or national level development camps with the USST. One coach put it like this (I’m paraphrasing): a high-school or collegiate athlete is out of school for 3 months during the summer; that’s the club’s time to make some progress with that skier. Now often that athlete will be away on vacation with their family for 2 weeks, then they attend a regional-level development camp (another week), then they perhaps attend a national-level development camp (another week), then they need some time to recover from those camps, etc. By the end, there isn’t much time to make real progress during the few months when the athlete is not in school and not participating in another fall or spring sport.

Not every coach felt this way. There were a few that wanted more camp opportunities. But the majority wanted time to make progress with athletes on a week-to-week basis in their home club environment, coupled with a few select regional or national level development camps to remind top athletes of where the next level was. So we’ve tried to find the right balance here, but I welcome feedback from those working in the sport concerning where we are in striking this balance. As club coaches, you know better than I do where the limitations in athlete development currently lie, and which limitations can only be overcome with help from the USST. Just remember that whatever your position is, there are likely to be coaches in your region who don’t see it quite the same way.

No matter what, rest assured that we are actively talking about how to create additional opportunities for young athletes, and the NNF is as well. I welcome comments that identify specifically a developmental limitation that athletes in their community are experiencing.

So I would encourage us a community of people that are passionate about cross-country ski racing to not get too embroiled in debating whether our limited dollars are best spent on development or elite teams.   We need to increase our investment in every possible place; that’s clear. We shouldn’t spend too much time debating the best way to cut up a small pie; instead, we need to increase the size of the pie. That’s something both the NNF and the US XC program are currently engaged in.

Cross Country Skill Development

When skill development is discussed in cross-country ski racing, the concepts of technique, aerobic capacity, and general strength soon follow, and rightly so, but they are not the only areas worth including in the discussion. An elite cross-country ski racer boasts a cadre of advanced skills. Here are several additional difference-makers that come to mind after witnessing the World Cup races in Davos this December.




Because of the thin snow in Davos, and being limited to man-made snow, we often had icy training and racing days there. Sometimes extremely icy conditions. If you’ve watched the video from the races, you can readily see the difference between the athletes who felt comfortable skiing fast in those conditions, and those who didn’t. Skiers who were comfortable looked relatively balanced, stable, relaxed, and fast; able to correct easily in the event that their ski failed to edge on the ice and they slipped-out. Those athletes that were uncomfortable often appeared rushed, off-balance, and unable to apply power effectively to the ski, resulting in an incomplete kick or an ineffective poling motion. The difference between these two groups was confirmed by the results at the end of the day.


As young athletes, you have to prepare for this condition. Practicing cross-country skiing aggressively in icy fast conditions is one way to prepare, but it’s not enough. You need to be a master of standing on any kind of slippery surface. You need to get totally comfortable moving fast over that slippery surface. The good news is that it’s easy to do and a lot of fun. Put a helmet on, and then spend time alpine skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, telemark skiing, rollerblading, ice-skating, playing hockey, surfing, as well as cross-country skiing. As you mature, you’ll build critical core strength and your confidence as you learn to master moving quickly in a dynamic environment, and you won’t have your performance limited by icy fast conditions in a cross-country ski race.


Not Afraid to Fail


I was really surprised to see three men double-pole the 15 km classic race in Davos. We’d seen athletes double-pole many classic races before, but only marathons in gentle terrain, sprints, and medium-distance races on relatively flat, turning courses like Beitostølen. The Davos 5 km course winds steadily up the Flüela Pass for its first 3 kilometers before descending for 2km back to the stadium. It’s a serious climb. The men had to make this loop 3 times during the race, and my first thought was when I saw them was that they would be hard-pressed to be skiing fast the third time up the Pass. But they did; all 3 finished in the top-10 and one landed on the podium.


The take away for me was that these three guys were not afraid to fail. They knew it would be a risk; a risk that could pay off in potentially winning the race, but one that could easily result in a bad performance as well. No doubt they were methodical and rational when assessing this risk of double-poling the course with their coaches. No doubt they have a great understanding of their relative strengths compared to the field. But when decision time came, they had to walk down to the start line with skate skis in their hands. In Davos, it’s a long way from the wax area to the start, and you have to pass a lot of athletes, coaches, technicians and fans! It took a lot of guts to make that call, and to do it, they couldn’t be bothered with looking bad or the real possibility that they might not be able to do it.


As coaches, we’ve all seen athletes back down from challenges over the years. Every day we encounter those skiers who shy away from a difficult task that presents the athlete with the real possibility of failure. There are so many excuses and rationalizations that come with backing away from a challenge; the wrong equipment, not feeling good that day, too much homework, wax not working, etc. It’s human nature to back away from a challenge where the potential for failure is quite real. But great athletes look for that challenge and embrace it. They thrive when they are discovering their limits and pushing past them. They seek out those that are stronger than them, and they try to keep up. They push themselves incredibly hard and sometimes fall on their faces. Great athletes don’t shy away from competition; they are cross-country ski racers because they love competition. Great athletes are not afraid to fail.


If you are a young skier, look for the opportunities to push yourself to a new level in the sport every day. It might present itself as an opportunity to focus on a particular technique that you struggle with, it might be learning how to apply a klister binder, pushing yourself to keep up with a much stronger skier in an interval session, or entering a competition that is bigger than anything you’ve raced before. If you are a coach, foster a team atmosphere where the athletes are challenged daily and where the willingness to tackle a daunting challenge, and often fail to meet it, is encouraged and rewarded. The end goal of this strategy is clear: we want athletes that can arrive at a classic race day in slow kick-wax conditions and say: “You know what, it might be faster if I double pole this race”!


Digging Deep


For both distance races in Davos, I was stationed at the high point of the 5 km course, where approaching racers had just completed 3 km of steading climbing from the stadium. One of the most notable differences in athletes at the top of that long climb was the very audible variety in breathing patterns. There were many athletes that you couldn’t actually hear breathing as they passed. Other skiers were a bit labored with their breathing, but were also relatively quiet. And then there were those that were winning.   From the side of the trail, one can hear Therese Johaug coming from 40 meters away; you know who is coming without having to see her. Martin Johnsrud Sundby always appears to be swallowing air in the biggest gulps possible, all the while maintaining excellent body position and technique. These are two prominent examples of athletes digging deep.


My point is that there is a level beyond the current capacity of each athlete. And there is a level beyond that, and one more behind that, etc. As athletes, you have to push yourself to break through to those levels, and once you’ve found the next level, you need to find a way to get comfortable there so that you can start looking for the next level. Only then, will you begin to unlock your real potential for ski racing. Oh yeah….. and it’s OK to have saliva all over your face. That just means you are busy finding that next level.

Falun 2015 World Championship Selection Dates

As we approach the close of the Falun WSC selection period, here are a few dates for coaches and athletes to keep in mind:

Sunday January 11

Tour de Ski Final Climb.  Last World Cup distance race in the selection period.

Saturday January 17

Otepää Sprint C.  Last World Cup sprint race in the selection period.

Monday January 19

The close of the USSA National Ranking List #4.

Friday January 23

USSA National Ranking List #4 becomes valid.

Monday January 26

Team Announcement (tentative).

The full selection criteria can be viewed here:

The Power of the Team

First of all, a big thanks to the editorial staff at FasterSkier for agreeing to host this blog.  I was looking for an outlet for sharing insights and observations with the greater cross-country skiing community and recognized that FS has the most reach of any Nordic media outlet in the U.S.  It was the first place I went, and I appreciate their willingness to give me a platform.  I’d also like to thank FasterSkier for helping to advance U.S. XC ski racing over the years.  In a country where it’s often impossible to view a World Cup ski race on TV, FasterSkier has been instrumental in telling the story.  The Internet has been where young American cross-country skiers learn about their sport, and FasterSkier is often the website they visit first.

My intention with the blog is to share occasional thoughts from the road.  The FS staff does an excellent job of reporting on races, camps, sport developments and controversies, and I don’t want to waste your time or mine by mirroring those accounts.  Rather, my hope for this blog is to occasionally tell a bit of the story behind the story, from my perspective.  Over the past 14 years as a National Team coach, I’ve had the opportunity to watch many great athletes train and race, many exceptional coaches coach, and witnessed a few big ski races from behind the banners.  I’d like to share some of my observations from past and current experiences, and occasionally add clarity to misconceptions in the community.  Due to my somewhat hectic schedule, I won’t be the most prolific blogger, but I will endeavor to record some thoughts when time permits.

Here we go. [Read more…]