I spent the last two summers training in Park City, Utah, taking a class each June and July at Westminster College in Salt Lake, scooping ice cream and making coffee for the tourists and locals, and getting to know a pretty cool state. This summer I lived and trained with Alice Nelson from Williams College, and Sarah MacCarthy from University of Utah. Each of them race for their respective NCAA teams. We all had different projects to work on, and once we hit the road or trails, we set out to accomplish our own goals for that day. However, having friends to roll out of bed with, to struggle through the making and the eating of the oatmeal, and to dress and head out the door with every morning makes everyday training much more exciting and effective. Teammates are your backup. They get you out that door when motivation is lacking, they yell during interval sessions, they are there talking nonsense with you when you bonk on an OD. To be around other athletes is inspiring, and to have coaches at most workouts to video, encourage, give suggestions, and sometimes struggle through intervals alongside of you is amazing. You have to be able to do it on your own, but it sure does make it fun when you’ve got an army of support there every day.
Picture this: A slot canyon with walls of rock that shoot directly up on both sides of you, filled with water that has a layer of the smoothest mud you have ever felt, thickly lining the canyon’s bed. Now imagine swimming through it, some places shallow, some so deep you don’t know where the bottom is. Every 300 feet or so the shallows meet your feet and you can emerge from the water for a bit before arriving at another place where swimming is the only option. You dive in. That canyon is now only five feet wide. It had better not rain. Sound pretty cool? Yeah, it was. And it was training. Go on adventures because you can. They change things up, relax your mind, take you to new places, show you new things, ruin your shoes. We are all going to be 90 some day and doing these things will not be as easy.
I just got back from 16 days on snow in New Zealand and am back in Park City for a month before heading east for our Lake Placid camp in early October, and to train with my old team from Burke for a couple weeks. Being on snow every 2-3 months through the summer and fall is incredible. There is not a day that I take for granted. I always go into those camps with a little trepidation, because, after all it is August, and I do like to split up my skiing with plenty of dry land. But when you land in Queenstown and drive up the 13 snowy kilometers of switchbacks to the Snowfarm, skiing on snow stops being overwhelming almost instantly.
The training was great, and the feeling of being on skis never gets old, especially when the snow is perfect and the scenery so beautiful. We had one huge storm a few days after we arrived and it made the snow cover perfect for the rest of the camp. The second to last day a bunch of us took off and went on a 4-hour tour off trail tour through the powder, and made our way up a valley to a hut that is literally surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of untouched land. We could have skied forever, getting to the bottom of each rise and itching to see what was on the other side. On the way back some of the more talented got their tele skiing on, creating beautiful arcs in the powder, while others of us watched in awe and tried follow their lead.
Training is about getting the job done, getting out there every day. The task is different each time. It could be hitting a target heart rate zone on a long ski, or focusing on hip drive, perhaps it is as simple a project as carrying a full water belt out and coming home with it empty. No matter what the task for that day, the job is always the same. Train a lot and train well.
I climb a rope. The sport we have chosen is one in which we must be among, if not the, most fit people in the world. Sure, this means physical training, but I believe that we must be mentally tough beyond all else. We must be able to get to what I call the red zone, the level of mental intensity where stars appear and thoughts wash away. I can’t get there in every race or time trial, perhaps with great success only a few times a year. But I’m trying to get there more often. The point is, I believe the mind needs to be trained as aggressively as the body, with the pure goal of getting tougher. So I climb a rope. After every strength session I climb, hand over hand, no feet, and try to reach the top. That’s it. Some days I make it, and some days I don’t, but the task is always the same: To get tougher. Do pull-ups until you can’t feel your arms, and then do another one. Run through a blackberry patch without stopping. Swim in a glacial lake because it’s cold. Bungee jump. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that you push yourself. Leave your comfort zone. Every 5 days or 6 weeks, or 24 hours, that challenge is there, staring you in the face, and the only question that is whether you’re in, or you are ALL IN.
Liz Stephen is a member of the US Cross-Country Ski Team