Bryan Fish’s jump to the U.S. Ski Team from his job running the Central Cross-Country (CXC) program was one of the most significant coaching changes of the spring. Fish, who over the last few years helped to build CXC’s elite team into one of the most powerful in the country, left some big shoes to fill.
Enter Jason Cork, who was hired to replace Fish after two years as the assistant coach at Michigan Tech University. A graduate of Fort Lewis College – he took the 13-year path to graduation, according to this interview – Cork has also spent time coaching in Durango and Crested Butte, Colorado. FasterSkier caught up with him in October to find out how he has taken to the new job.
FasterSkier: Can you tell me how the summer and fall have gone for you? Take me through some quick highlights.
Jason Cork: They’ve gone pretty well. We’ve had like five camps since I started working here in early June. Getting to go out to some different venues, and getting the whole team together to train. I think we’ve had something like nine weeks total of camps.
We’ve just been getting after it for training—we haven’t really done anything crazy, like big interval blocks. Just a lot of really solid training. We started throwing in a lot more speed work than we have in the past, but other than that, it’s pretty much status quo, just getting it done.
FS: Who’s looking good?
JC: After the Climb to the Castle, Tad Elliott’s looking good, Matt Liebsch, Brian Gregg. Jessie Diggins is looking really good. I guess it says something about the team that I didn’t say Garrott Kuzzy. Everyone’s trained really hard, and I think we’re going to have good results this year.
FS: How does the coaching work for the CXC elite athletes? Are you writing the training plans for everyone?
JC: Team Vertical Limit [CXC’s top training group] has two divisions during the summer—marathon team, and then there’s the quote-unquote elite team that goes to all the camps. There are seven people on the elite team, and I’m writing those training plans, except for a couple people who are working with [Assistant Coach] Gus [Kaeding]. The people on the marathon team, they’ve got their training dialed in, and they can contact us if they’ve got questions.
Generally, everyone follows the same structure, but they might have slightly different intervals, different volumes, based on where they’re at, and what their goals are. Obviously, there are amounts of overlap, especially during a camp.
FS: One name I want to toss out—I read somewhere that Santi Ocariz, who just joined CXC after attending the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has managed to train between 700 and 800 hours during his last couple of years in college. Is that true?
JC: I talked to him last night—he has mono right now. He was training like 800 or 900 hours a year in college, and he was on track, up until last week when we got the diagnosis, to do about 1,000. Obviously, he’s not going to make it to 1,000. I think he could probably be just as fast at 750 hours, but he really likes training, and he recovers really well from long efforts. We have intensity maybe a little bit better dialed in than it was in college.
He’s strong—he’s really strong. Hopefully, he’ll bounce back from this and show people what he can do.
FS: Having taken over from Bryan Fish—do you get a sense of how your approaches compare?
JC: Even if there wasn’t an existing structure, I think we’d still have the same approach. He’s an engineer by trade; my background is in exercise science. We can look at scientific research, we can look at common sense training, and come up with plans. He had a pretty good structure of the training cycles, and we’ve just been following along, because it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel. There are little tweaks here and there—it’s not like, ‘all right guys, new plan: We’re going surfing!’
FS: Has it been a big step going from a collegiate program to a year-round one?
JC: I guess, maybe, the biggest thing is that everybody on the team is so good. When you’re working with juniors, often you’re like, ‘okay, today’s interval session is going to be four by four minutes.’ And then you have to always adjust down from your original plan. With these guys, you can be like, ‘what’s really hard?’ It’s cool, and kind of scary. The amount of training these guys can handle and do well is kind of amazing. More often than not, you’re reining these guys back, so that they’re not running themselves into the ground.
At Michigan Tech, I was working with cross-country running and skiing, and track and field. Between the three sports, I had 75 athletes. Just keeping track of that many is different than keeping track of 15. Not having to figure out shot put, or anything like that—that’s nice.
FS: Working with shot putters, though, and some of those other athletes—you must have learned something from that.
JC: It was kind of cool. For example, the throwers, they do 25 throws, and it takes ’em an hour and a half. Same with sprinters. Different sports have different demands, and to get to where you’re going, you have to take a different approach. You see that in training in general, with spenst or extreme strength training—skiers will go into a weight room for an hour, and they’ll end up doing eight different exercises. That’s one way to do it.
FS: It seems like you have a lot of additional commitments in terms of what CXC does with the community? Can you tell me about the stuff you do in addition to the day-to-day coaching of the Vertical Limit team athletes?
JC: With CXC—the organization is about promoting cross-country skiing to everybody, in all forms, in the Midwest, and so with the small staff, we end up getting to do different things. I’ve got a masters camp I’ve got to work with, and we work with ski shops helping to fit skis. We don’t have a full-time wax tech or ski tech—Gus and I will do a lot of equipment. You don’t have a full time driver, which would be nice. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on that’s outside of coaching and writing programs. But at the same times, we’ve got a structure that’s like two weeks of camp, two weeks off, and there’s still time in the weeks off to get your ducks in a row, and not go crazy before the snow even falls.
FS: It seems like one area where CXC does fairly well is in harnessing the support of the local community in the Midwest—do you agree? Do you guys do anything specific to facilitate the connections between regional skiers and your elite team?
JC: I don’t want it to come across as being totally calculated, but that is a goal of ours as a team, as a group. I think it makes good sense. If you have a connection with Garrott Kuzzy or Caitlin Compton—they went to the Olympics last year, and you’re friends with them on Facebook. You learn more about them, what they’re doing for training, and all of a sudden they’re not just some guy up on a shelf.
When I grew up in high school in Fairbanks, we were kind of isolated. Every year, you’d get the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association rulebook, and you’d see a picture of Ben Husaby, and those were our heroes, I think it’s cool having that ability to connect with people through FasterSkier, or just from blogs. It suddenly puts that within reach—that’s something I can do.
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.