Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series proposed by Maks Zechel, a 20-year-old Canadian cross-country skier embarking on his first season training abroad. In August, he recently made the big move to Norway, where he’ll be training and racing with Team Asker for the entire winter. Through these updates, Maks hopes to share his personal “observations, stories and lessons learned” to help close the gap between North American and Scandinavian nordic skiing. Previous posts: #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.
It was a typically frigid day of January ski racing in Thunder Bay, Canada (any Canadian cross-country skier will have grimaced just from reading that). Halfway through the A-final of the Ontario Cup U16 classic sprint, I was already far behind the leaders, Tony Gunka and Ryan Jackson. The previous day I had won the distance classic race, my first ever “O-Cup” medal, finishing only three seconds ahead of Ryan, and now my expectations were higher than ever. The margin between us in the qualifier that morning? Three seconds.
Swinging around a fast corner into the last big climb of the race, already out of contention for the win, I looked at the ground in front of me and just skied as hard as I could. I had nothing to lose, so I skied my best. As I crested the hill, I suddenly noticed that I had caught Ryan and Tony and was dropping them. Elated by the empty track ahead, I double poled as hard as I could.
Suddenly, Ryan and I were neck-and-neck again. We turned the final corner and could see the whiskers marking the finishing lanes, tantalizingly close. Side by side, neither of us able to see, just focusing on slamming those poles down. We remained stubborn until the finish, with Ryan pulling in front right before the line.
The remainder of the season continued in much the same way, and strangely the margin between Ryan and I in most of our races, no matter the distance, was three seconds. We didn’t know it at the time, but every time one of us lost to the other, we both won.
Since that year, Ryan and I have been close friends and competitors, even roommates for a year. We have both had good and bad years of results, but I have continually been inspired to push my own limits by his work ethic and accomplishments. On Sept. 15, Ryan joined me here in Norway, where we begin our latest venture to see how fast we can become.
Ryan arrived in the middle of my second testing week with Team Asker, where I was happy to achieve new personal bests in the uphill running test, skate time trial (not too difficult as I went the wrong way last time…), and the double-pole sprint qualifier. Most of these improvements are likely due to being more familiar with the courses and being more comfortable here, but regardless it was nice to move forwards.
Testing week was highlighted by the replacement of our regular uphill double-pole test with a 10-kilometer classic rollerski race in downtown Oslo, as a part of the Oslo Marathon race weekend. The week prior to this race, Team Asker held a 10 k qualification race, where the top-10 Asker skiers were selected to race in the Oslo Marathon for the team prize of $30,000 NOK (approx. $4,673 Canadian). This qualification race was the most tactical rollerskiing race that I have ever competed in. About 16 of us raced eight laps of a mostly flat 1.4 k loop. Like a road-biking race, positions were constantly changing. It was great for me to practice staying calm and absorbing speed changes so as not to waste energy, but I still regularly found myself catching up to the lead pack after being “accordion-ed” off the back of an attack. Having been sick that entire week, I didn’t have an excellent race, but it was enough for me to qualify (see a video of the race, and me flying off the course on the first lap, below).
The night before the Oslo Marathon was not the usual quiet, pre-race evening. Having crossed the finish line of the uphill running race at around 7 p.m., I biked home where I met Ryan and helped him settle in for his first night in Norway. A long pre-race sleep was quickly lost to our excitement of having finally both made it to Norway, a trip that has been in various stages of planning since we first discussed the idea on an offseason run through Vincent Massey Park in Ottawa two years ago.
After a short night, we were out the door before 7 a.m. to take the train to Oslo for a 9 a.m. race start. The big stress that morning was how we would survive the race without suffering broken limbs or equipment. I had skied the course the weekend before with Team Asker, and in just that easy ski through the streets of Oslo, we broke three pole tips. The race organizers were predicting that 50 percent of the field would break poles.
I thanked the “ski gods” for the perfect sunny day and dry pavement that the morning had brought, as I outlined the obstacles of the race for Ryan: a fast downhill right after the start leading into a sharp turn and funneling the race through a narrow, cobblestoned street guarded by waist-high posts in the middle of the race course; multiple stretches of streetcar rails; sewer grates and small curbs to be hopped; more sections of cobblestones; and a downhill finishing stretch marred by manhole covers and pavement dished out by years of traffic. Oh, and then we had to jump two tall timing mats across the finish line. At least road cyclists can use bikes designed for cobblestones when they race Paris-Roubaix, not so with rollerski wheels that fit perfectly between cracks. It was an excellent opportunity to work on agility while racing with 60 other skiers and being filmed by NRK … at least that’s what I told myself. (See course preview below)
In typical skier fashion, we complained a lot about the race conditions until the race started, the field spread out and it ended up being surprisingly easy for most people to stay on their feet. Our team raced well and we won the team competition, with teammates Erland Kvisle and Harald Amundsen coming third and fourth behind Junior World Championships medalists Thomas Helland Larsen and Magnus Kim. Andrew Young, a World Cup sprint medalist, was fifth. I finished 18th, 1:45 minutes behind the winner.
How do I react to these results? I finished 19 seconds behind the winner in the qualification race and 1:45 back in the Oslo Marathon, both against world-class competition. On the outside, these margins seem like nothing, but in reality they represent a massive gap between where I am now and where I hope to be in the coming years. It is easy to dismiss seconds as being irrelevant, but these seconds mean everything in the winter. This winter, 19 seconds in a 10 k race at a Scandinavian Cup could mean the difference between finishing in the top 50 and finishing in the top 100. If I am unwilling to fight for those seconds now, then the winter’s results will reflect that. To close a gap of seconds, it will require a lot more than just improving my recovery strategies or drinking a litre of beet juice a day. My fight for seconds has to be taken to every interval session and time trial and become a mantra taken into race season.
It may not be such a big gap now, but come winter, this game of seconds will become a real life battle for minutes. For Ryan and I, this is nothing new, but now the stage is bigger than ever before. To come three seconds behind the other will mean ten spots on the results sheet. It is a daunting reality for any skier, but I am lucky to have a friend from home to pursue these challenges with. In a foreign place, teammates and friends are more than just people to hang out with — they’re family.
Norwegian Phrase of the Week
It’s not the fart that kills you, it’s the smell. – Petter Solberg
Translation: It’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the slam (crash).
*A quote from Norwegian professional rally car racing legend, Petter Solberg, known for speaking “Noglish” (Norwegian-English), resulting in excellent quotes lost in translation.*
About Maks: Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favourite skier and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. He enjoys writing about his experiences. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.