The training season is well underway, and North America’s best cross-country skiers are already well into their preparations for next winter. Over the course of the summer, FasterSkier will feature a weekly interview with elite American and Canadian athletes, following their training as they ready for the upcoming Olympic year.
We first talked with James Southam, who races with the Alaska Pacific University Elite Team and placed 33rd in the 30k pursuit at the 2009 World Championships in Liberec. We caught Southam just before he headed off for a glacier trip, while his daughter was taking a nap.
FS: 2008-2009 seems like it was a pretty good year for you. How does that impact your preparations for the upcoming year—are you sticking to the same plan?
JS: Two years ago I tried something that didn’t work. Last year I tried something different, and it worked out a lot better. It was my second year working with Eric [Flora—APU coach], and the first year we tried some of my own ideas, and it didn’t work out so well.
Last year I stuck in and followed his plan and it worked out super well. This year it’s just sort of refining that. The big thing is a good working relationship between my coach and I, and I think we have a pretty good understanding of how to when things are going well and things are going poorly. I’ve been training for a long time, and it just feels like I’m finally figuring out what I need to do.
FS: You’re up in Anchorage training with Alaska Pacific University. Is it tough sometimes missing out on some of the U.S. Ski Team Camps, and banging heads with those guys?
JS: It would be nice to be able to get together for camps, but being up here it’s a bit of a haul. I’ve got a baby girl now, so I’ve got to pick my trips. And we’ve got a glacier camp up here.
It would be nice to be able to have a little more contact with [the USST] guys—but at the same time we’re got some pretty sick guys on the [APU] team. Some of the guys are fantastic runners, way better than I am, so I have them to chase on those hard days. I’ve also got some interval hills and things like that, which are a pretty good gauge of where I’m at. I don’t feel like I’m missing out necessarily, but seeing the pictures from Bend, it did look like it would have been a sweet trip.
FS: Are you training any differently because it’s an Olympic year? Less volume? How does your training compare to last year?
JS: It’s pretty similar to last year—I think the biggest difference was just in this first part. Last year I came out of a pretty bad end to the season, and I spent a lot of time in the mountains doing some big days on backcountry skis just to get me back in shape. Then we hit the ground running pretty hard with a lot of intensity early on.
This year the season ended on a much better note, with much better fitness, and I felt like I needed a bigger break. This first part of the year has been spent building my base back up. For the rest of the season it will be pretty similar to last year. Some minor adjustments, but nothing big. Last year’s formula worked pretty well—I’m just trying to be a bit better with the recovery and the rest.
I think the confidence I got last year, finally skiing with those top guys at World Championships—I’d never skied with the pack for more than 10 kilometers of a mass start race, and I was there for 25 kilometers of the 30 kilometer [pursuit race]. I can do that now, and it’s like looking at that next jump up.
FS: Do you have any favorite workouts you could tell us about? Any super-hard ones?
JS: Up here we’ve got some great ones. There’s Otter Valley Hill—we do some 1k repeats on that, on rollerskis, and that’s one of my favorite workouts. When I was doing intensity blocks I was down there three times a week on that one hill, and I never got tired of it. It’s 3k long, pretty steady six to eight percent grade. It starts out straight across the highway from the ocean, and you get up to the top and you look back down and there it is. That’s probably one of my favorites. I also just love the hard bounding intervals in the rain in the fall.
FS: Your daughter was born earlier this year—does having a family make things more difficult for your training?
JS: There’s a lot less pure down time—it definitely changes things for sure. My wife is super-supportive of my skiing, and between her and my parents, who take Hazel for three days a week, we’ve put together a schedule that works. The days can be a little more crazy, but as long as I can get the quality rest and get the training in, we’re making it work. Traveling is different, too, this year. It’s definitely harder to leave for a period of time, but I think you also get on the road and you’re there for a reason. You’re not just on a trip—you’re on a business trip.
[Having a daughter] has added a little bit more focus, and just created a little more sense of urgency. When I’m out there I’ve got two years left of ski racing, and that’s not a whole lot of time. Whatever the workout is, I’ve got to take full advantage of the time that I have to train, and as a result I think the quality of the workouts has improved, just because I don’t have all day to just do stuff. I’ve got to get it done when I have the opportunity.
FS: You mentioned you’ve got two more years of skiing—so you’re going to go through the Olympics, and then do one more year?
JS: I’m going to go through the 2011 season. With the World Championships in Oslo—really, as a ski racer, I don’t think it can get a whole lot better than that for a race environment.
FS: Last question. In the UVM SuperTour, you broke your pole in an isolated part of the course, and offered my teammate $100 for his pole [Editor’s note: he later dropped out of the race, and was kicking himself for passing up $100]. I’m turning the tables: How much would someone have to offer you to give up a pole in a race?
JS: In that particular race—you figure it’s 800 bucks for a win, so it would have taken more than 800 dollars to take my pole from me. That said, luck and nature took one away from me instead…
If I were racing in college, though, and someone offered me a hundred bucks for a pole, I’d think pretty hard about it…
Follow James as he trains for the 2010 Olympics at http://jamessoutham.blogspot.com/.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.