Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth post in a series proposed by Maks Zechel, a 19-year-old Canadian cross-country skier embarking on his first season training abroad. He recently made the big move to Norway, where he’ll be training and racing with Team Asker for the next nine months. 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 and #3.
Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017:
It is late at night when I finally get the message: “Meet at Føyka stadium, 9:00am, for practice, 10x2min zone 4 double poling.” I panic. In less than ten hours I will be meeting my new teammates for the first time. My initial reaction is defensive: “I can’t do this. It’s too late. Maybe if I had more time to prepare…. I’ll just do the workout on my own.” I know what to expect, and it terrifies me.
When I was 13 years old I went to a school in Germany for a year; nobody spoke English and I barely spoke any German. On my first day of school, I walked through the school doors alone. Somebody asked me what my name was, and I replied “I don’t know,” only realizing what they had said after they looked at me like I was crazy. I ended up having an amazing year in Germany and I am still in contact with some of the friends I made there.
Seven years later, the thought of yet again integrating myself with a peer group in a country where I don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language, makes me nervous. It was time for me to make some decisions, time to step up and seize my opportunities. I did not come all the way to Norway to train in solitude for fear of the awkwardness that comes with learning a new language and meeting new people. This may have been just one practice, but to me it was a decision point on whether or not I had what it took to make this trip successful.
I went to practice. I arrived 20 minutes early and waited, breathing in the thick air of anticipation. Slowly, the rest of the team started to arrive. I greeted each of them with a smile, a handshake, and “Jeg heter Maks (My name is Maks)… I am from Canada.” Almost everyone spoke English well, and even if they didn’t, we all spoke the language of “I think I’m going to puke” at the end of the interval session. I rollerskied home from training, giddy with happiness. This was why I put myself into these situations that scare me, because the friendships formed and the memories made are more rewarding than staying in my comfort zone.
After Tuesday’s intensity workout we transitioned quickly to the team’s second testing camp of the year. The “lactate-party” started on Friday evening with a brutal 5.8-kilometer mass-start uphill running test. The race started with a lap of the track in the center of town, then climbed steadily to the halfway point, where the course entered the forest and followed steep, narrow trails requiring all of my willpower just to keep running. The race finished on top of Hagahogget, a rocky peak with an incredible view over the fjord and surrounding towns. I ended up third, far behind the winner, Erland, who happens to run an 8:50-minute 3,000 meter.
The next morning we began the second test, a 4.4 k mass-start uphill double-pole race. It was difficult to go from racing at 7 p.m. the night before to racing again at 9 a.m. the next morning, but it reminded me a lot of afternoon distance race starts followed by early sprint qualifiers the next day, something that I experienced last year at U.S. nationals in Soldier Hollow and Canadian Nationals in Canmore.
Day 3 started off with one of the tests I had been looking forward to the most: a 9.5 k individual-start skate time trial at the Holmenkollen rollerski track. After driving up a long road out of Oslo, I arrived at arguably the most recognizable nordic sports stadium ever built. In the center of everything is the spectacular ski jump. Rollerskiing over the top of the course, you are treated to a panorama of Oslo, the Inner Oslofjord, and all the surrounding towns. Warming up around the course brought me back to the 2011 World Championships, which took place at Holmenkollen. I watched the races live on TV while I was living in Germany. There are many iconic moments from that World Championships that I remember clearly to this day (although I must admit, I regularly re-watch the races).
As we are rollerskiing, my new friend, Erland, points out special parts of the track. The last hill before you enter the stadium is called “Hellenbakken,” named after Swedish skier Marcus Hellner and the attack he made on that hill which won him sprint gold over Norwegian favourite Petter Northug in front of thousands of Norwegian fans. I ask Erland if the stadium is called “Harvey stadium.” No answer, but he laughs amiably. Now, rollerskiing exactly where it all took place, I can see the asphalt turn to snow and Alex Harvey crossing the finish line. He puts a finger to his lips in response to a stunned and silent Norwegian crowd as he and Devon Kershaw take team sprint gold ahead of Norwegian legends Ola Vigen Hattestad and Petter Northug. The crowd may have been speechless, but 13-year-old Maks was yelling in excitement at German Eurosport.
The Holmenkollen rollerski course is filled with the types of steep climbs common in winter ski races, but almost non-existent in summer rollerski races. There were two or three hills per lap where I was forced to offset, something that I have never done before in a rollerskiing race effort. This type of dryland training is invaluable to winter racing success.
With the morning time trial finished, we completed the testing camp with a flat, double-pole sprint qualifier in the afternoon. Four race efforts in three days, and five intensities in a week; not a gentle introduction to Norwegian ski training. The amazing part about this weekend was having many strong teammates to compete with. Everyone has different strengths, and depending on the test, I had between five and 10 skiers with whom I was competitive. I did not have the best four race efforts of my life, but I am excited to be training with people who are around my speed, and to have others who are pushing all of us to reach new levels.
Some schools of thought may disagree with cramming this many intensities into such a short period of time, but Team Asker puts a big emphasis on recovery after these intensity blocks. Athletes only ever post on social media about their most “epic” workouts, so it is easy for skiers to think that they need to be doing these ridiculous workouts all the time. I think it is important to recognize the purpose of these workouts, and also gain an understanding of the training that surrounds these big workouts. With regard to Team Asker’s testing week, I appreciated becoming familiar with the difficulty of back-to-back race efforts — the refocusing and the physical shock that one experiences from competition — all in the risk-free safety net of summer training. The next testing week will take place in five weeks’ time and I am excited to give it another shot.
I have to acknowledge how welcoming and kind the Asker Skiklubb community has been. I have already made many friends and have talked to numerous parents who have sought me out just to get to know me. It is never difficult for me to find a ride to training with a teammate, and everyone helps me feel comfortable, while at the same time pushing me to learn Norwegian and become a bigger part of the team. I am having no difficulty working with the coaches, who are excited to have me join the team and want more skiers like me to come train with them as Team Asker grows.
Have I convinced you yet?
Norwegian Word of the Week:
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.