Since the spring, the International Ski Federation’s website has been counting down the days until the World Cup opener. Organizers of the 2011 World Ski Championships in Oslo are quick to inform fans that there are just over three months until the start of that event. But in Alaska, there’s another clock that’s been ticking more quietly: the one counting down the days until the end of James Southam’s career.
Southam, who trains in Anchorage with Alaska Pacific University, will retire in April after two Olympic appearances, five national championships, and more than a decade in the sport. But he still has some unfinished business to take care of this season, in a Maine mill town and a certain Norwegian metropolis.
In an interview Monday, Southam said that he’s ahead of schedule in his preparation for the year—he has 30 or 40 more hours of training under his belt than he did this time last fall, and he’s also notched some personal bests on his interval courses.
Over the past couple of seasons, Southam has been working to improve his endurance for 30 and 50 k races, but this year, his focus has shifted back to power.
“I’ve spent so much time over the last couple of years trying to get better at the longer-distance stuff that it’s kind of sacrificed how I ski in the shorter races,” he said.
For Southam, that has meant a return—at least partially—to the intensity block-style training regimen that he adhered to when working with Torbjorn Karlsen in the middle of the decade. More level four intervals, Southam said, should help for the shorter races, and they also will leave him better-prepared for when the pace surges in 30 and 50 ks.
While he contemplated an early-season trip to Finland with the American group subsidized by the National Cross-Country Ski Education Foundation, Southam ultimately decided to stay closer to home in November and December, racing SuperTours in West Yellowstone and Nor-Ams in Canada.
His real targets for the season are a win (or wins) at the U.S. National Championships in Rumford, Maine, and strong results at World Championships in Oslo.
“This being my last year, I’m not out trying to gain the most experience,” he said. “It’s just go in firing on all cylinders, and throw down some really good performances when I do race.”
When the season wraps up after the SuperTour Finals in Idaho, Southam said that he’ll be taking a break from the sport for “at least a couple of years.” Eventually, though, Southam plans to get back into coaching.
“I just think it’s important for people in my position to fill that role, on some level,” he said.
Another way Southam will remain involved is through his role as a U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association athlete representative. With two and a half years remaining in a three-year term, Southam said he plans to advocate for better support for the people left off the U.S. Ski Team that can still compete with the best in the world.
“Having someone who’s had to kind of fight for all their opportunities as a non-national team athlete—I think it’s critical to have…that voice in the discussion,” he said. “I think those athletes should get a little bit more World Cup experience than they do right now.”
Southam also said that he will push for the development of more challenging courses around the country.
“Until we do that, people who spend their time racing in North America will always be at a disadvantage,” he said.
During his break from skiing, Southam will work at Skinny Raven Sports, a running store in Anchorage. He’s also planning on launching a business in the spring—though he refused to reveal any details.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.