At 5,700 feet above sea level, the Kandilli Nordic Ski Center in Erzurum, Turkey has presented World Junior competitors with some of the most painful racing they’ve ever experienced. As became clear from the depth of Russia’s dominant results—a team that took a two-week altitude camp in Bulgaria prior this week’s racing—acclimation to altitude has played a major role in the outcome of World Juniors and U23s, for all levels of athletes.
In more than one race, skiers were forced to drop out due to sheer exhaustion. In Friday’s skiathlon, one such athlete was American junior Stephanie Kirk.
Kirk is a resident of sea-level Anchorage, Alaska, and the Erzurum championships are essentially the first races the 17-year-old has ever skied at altitude. During both Wednesday’s 5 k classic and Friday’s 10 k skiathlon, Kirk experienced a severe shortness of breath that left her gasping for air.
On Wednesday she made it through the finish, but immediately had to be administered oxygen in an on-site ambulance. Friday’s race was twice as long, and Kirk said she was too oxygen-deprived to finish.
“I went out too fast on Wednesday for altitude, so today I tried to be more conservative,” said Kirk on Friday afternoon. “But it almost didn’t make a difference. I was still feeling more short of breath, but not in a normal way.”
Just before collapsing, Kirk appeared unsteady on her feet as she skated up the steep hill out of the stadium in the second half of the race. U.S. wax techs Casey Fagerquist and Eric Pepper were standing close by, and Fagerquist stepped in to pull the struggling Kirk off the course.
“I’m not sure I would have made it much further, to be honest, as there wasn’t a downhill recovery coming up,” said Kirk. “I was definitely having trouble just moving, though I did know where I was—I wasn’t unconscious.”
“There wasn’t much to gain from finishing. Ultimately, when Casey grabbed me, I was just, like, dead.”
Kirk has had trouble with her breathing in races before, but her reaction to the cold and altitude has not been uncommon this week.
Matt Boobar, one of the U.S. junior coaches in Erzurum, empathized with the experience of learning so many new things on the biggest possible stage.
“They’re learning on the fly at the biggest race of their lives,” he said. “It’s great, but also frustrating.”
Altitude isn’t the only new factor athletes are contending with. “It’s how to wax, what skis to pick, pacing at altitude. And the level of competition is an eye-opener for these guys,” said Boobar.
This is also the first race many of the American juniors have traveled to without their own coaches by their sides.
“It’s a great lesson to learn though…the way our pipeline is set up, it’s good to learn to be independent, learn to go with the flow,” said Boobar.
Norway’s team doctor, Kjell Vegard Mykland, is travelling with their junior squad this week, and explained that especially in young women, the combination of cold and low oxygen can cause the cartilage in the bronchial tubes to collapse during the extreme exertion of a race.
“When you pressure your respiratory system to the max—to beyond the max—it’s like breathing through a straw,” said Mykland.
Mykland is unfamiliar with Kirk’s specific case, and the potential physiological mechanisms at play are many and complicated. However, the essential point is that without allowing for around two weeks of acclimation to high altitude prior to competition, the body has trouble adjusting to the thinner air in the middle of a race.
The 2012 Junior World Championships are the first to be held as high as 5,700 feet, so the experience is new for the Norwegian juniors as well.
“It’s a bit unfair, I think,” said Norway’s team physiotherapist Petter Treider.
“Those athletes who live at high altitude do well, while those who live at low elevation will struggle,” he continued. “It comes down to economy—who can spend the money to spend three weeks at high altitude.”
Treider and Mykland acknowledged that Norway has more than enough funds to have a pre-championships altitude camp with their juniors and U23s, as Russia and Estonia did prior to arriving in Erzurum.
Unlike the Russians, the Norwegian team staff is focused on long-term development, and thinks the opportunity for juniors to gain experience is more important than medals at World Juniors, and chose not to have an altitude pre-camp.
“It’s probably why we haven’t had the same results here that we’re used to,” Mykland acknowledged. “If these were the main goal of their careers, we’d take some victories. But it’s not. It’s a good experience for them—it doesn’t matter if they’re number three or four as long as they’re good when they’re 25, 26 years old.”
Long stretches of time training at altitude can also do more harm than good for athletes in the long term, said Mykland.
“We see some athletes, when they’re young, not willing to take it easy enough at altitude,” he explained. “They get ill, they get overtrained. It’s just too risky—they’re not experienced enough, and [World Juniors] is not that important for them.”
“We’re also in a position that we are able to think this way,” Mykland continued. “We don’t need to have our best juniors here. We have the privilege to think this way—in the long term, not the short term.”
Likewise, the U.S. team opted not to have an altitude camp prior to World Juniors, deciding instead to arrive in Europe early to hop in some Scandinavian Cup races.
“We thought about having an altitude camp,” said the U.S. Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish. “We opted to do some Scando Cup races instead, reasoning that it was important to provide more racing experience.”
No matter how frustrating not finishing is, Fish emphasized that every race at this level presented a learning opportunity—that this is the whole point of World Juniors in the development pipeline.
“This is Worlds, this is no joke,” said Fish. “We try to bring our best athletes here and provide them with the opportunity to elevate their level of racing against other athletes around the world. We just have to keep that in mind.”
This year is the first World Junior Championships that many of the U.S. junior athletes have ever been to. The age category goes up to 19 years old, but all of the American women, for example, are still seniors in high school.
For every race that doesn’t meet an athlete’s expectations, Fish believes it’s still a valuable learning tool.
“It might not have been perfect, but in every situation you can come out and say, ‘That was tough, but I learned something from it,’” said Fish.
Back in the hotel after Friday’s skiathlon, Kirk said she was trying to move past the experience and learn from it what she could.
“I know all this will come in handy later on, having practiced [altitude racing],” said Kirk. “Yeah, it’s a bummer it had to be here…but it’s got to happen somewhere.”
“I just try to keep learning.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.