The World Cup opener is still 100 days away, but for the U.S. and Canadian national teams, the 2010-2011 cross-country season kicks off today with a 10/15 k classic mass start event.
The race is part of the ANC series – the Australian and New Zealand Continental Cup. It is being held at the Snow Farm in New Zealand, and will feature an elite, if small, field.
The U.S. Ski Team (USST) will start their top distance skiers with Kris Freeman, Noah Hoffman, Liz Stephen, Morgan Arritola, and Kikkan Randall all donning bibs.
The Canadians, more recent arrivals in New Zealand, have also entered five athletes, according to Head Coach Justin Wadsworth. Ivan Babikov, Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey lead the way, while sprinters Chandra Crawford and Stefan Kuhn are last-minute additions.
But these teams didn’t travel halfway around the world to focus on racing, USST Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
“Racing here in New Zealand is secondary to the training, for sure. Each athlete is picking one or two of the three races to participate in. The idea is to have the opportunity to put a bib on and to have a hard effort,” he said.
The Canadian approach is essentially the same. Added Wadsworth, “Our main focus here is training, and I’m looking for good training leading into, and coming out of these races. But they are races, so I expect hard racing by the athletes.”
Kershaw, coming off a season in which he placed fifth at the Olympics, is fired up, seeing the event as a great training opportunity.
“It’s the best workout you can do…so we are all looking forward to it – regardless of how the results end up. That’s the beauty of racing in August,” he wrote in an e-mail.
And while results may not matter much, Kershaw sees Freeman as the favorite. “I know that Kris is feeling really good…but us little Canadians will do our best to hang on.”
The trip to the Snow Farm for both teams is about the training. The American athletes have been in New Zealand for two and a half weeks, taking advantage of excellent weather and ski conditions.
USST Coach Matt Whitcomb explained the overall training strategy. “Everyone brings their own training plan with them that is built around a base plan, in which intensity, speed, and over distance days are generally together,” he wrote in an e-mail.
And while the excellent conditions and great terrain provide for ideal training, Whitcomb sees those factors as a bonus.
“It’s the group atmosphere, the focus that Kikkan gets while being pushed by Morgan and Liz, that [Andy] Newell gets by being chased by Simi [Hamilton], that Bird [Freeman] gets while being hassled by the Hoff [Hoffman] that really makes these camps a success.”
Stephen concurs, saying, “having my teammates here to train with is another focus, making sure we are constantly learning from each other and pushing one another to be better.”
The team component is a major piece of the camp.
“Good team harmony is as important as good training,” says Whitcomb. “There is no hiding that as stresses build moving toward and through the winter, team cohesion can be the first thing that gets challenged, so it’s important to be on top of this.”
The team holds several meetings during the three-week trip to address these exact issues, though judging by Stephen’s feelings for her teammates, there shouldn’t be many issues.
“It is my favorite part of being a nordic skier, being on a team,” Stephen wrote in an e-mail. “And we have a really fired-up group of individuals again this year, so whenever we are together, it makes for a good time and provides extra great training.”
All About the Training
Stephen is focusing on a volume block, and while she needs a day to adjust back to snow from rollerskis, she said she finds the opportunity to integrate her dryland work onto skis invaluable.
“We all have specific technique goals that we came into the camp with, so the video review that we have been doing on many sessions has been really beneficial,” she said.
Hoffman, on his first New Zealand trip, has also been focusing on volume, doing much of his training with Freeman.
“I really enjoy training with him—I feel like we train [at] similar speeds,” Hoffman said in an interview from the Snow Farm.
He has taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from his more experienced teammates, noting that there is rarely an opportunity for this during the winter.
Like the rest of the team, Hoffman is using his time on snow to work on technique, but he has a unique protocol in place. Video from New Zealand sessions is posted online, where coaches Zach Caldwell and John Callahan back in the U.S. can view it and provide timely feedback.
Hoffman also sends detailed accounts of his progress, and the “sensations” he has been having technique-wise.
The digital interaction is no substitute for having those coaches on the side of the trail, but according to Hoffman, things are “going in the right direction.”
All of the snow time also provides the opportunity to test skis.
“On most days, the skiing could not be better,” Whitcomb told FasterSkier. “The cold and even conditions have allowed us to dial in the kick zones and wax application on the powder skis.”
Living the Life
The Snow Farm provides a nearly ideal training setup, with trailside accommodations and excellent food.
“There are so many k’s of freshly groomed trails every day, and none of us are even close to getting sick of the lifestyle or the skiing here,” says Stephen. “Eat, train, eat, sleep, train, eat, sleep.”
Hoffman has found the food fantastic – varied and of high quality. Whitcomb said his personal favorite is when Japanese car testers are visiting the Snow Farm.
“We haven’t seen sushi yet, but I’ve been doing some damage to the miso soup lately. The sticky date pudding is second, followed by lamb of any sort. It has all been great,” he said.
More Racing to Come
Following today’s mass start there are two more races – a freestyle sprint on Friday, and a 5/10 k freestyle on Saturday.
The Americans will start sprinters Newell, Hamilton and Randall in the sprint, while the Canadians bring Crawford and Kuhn to the line. Some of the distance skiers may also sprint, depending on how things go today.
–Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.