At “Biggest Race of Their Lives,” Juniors Face Tough Lessons At Altitude

Audrey ManganFebruary 27, 201212
Stephanie Kirk (USA) being helped by U.S. wax tech Eric Pepper after dropping out of Friday’s skiathlon at World Juniors. Photo: Terje Alstad.

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.

A French skier being carried off the course in a stretcher after her leg in the women’s relay on Sunday.

“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.

Kjell Vegard Mykland (left), the Norwegian ski team doctor.

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.

Athletes often lay on the ground for minutes after crossing the finish line this week.

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

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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  • davord

    February 28, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Sounds to me like the Norwegian physio is just bitter the Russians, Swedes, Germans and Slovenians kicked their tails. Essentially, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. This money issue is also a cop out. Estonia isn’t really a rich federation. They obviously don’t have the size of the Norwegian team, and it’s probably a bit easier for them to get through with funding and help out half a dozen athletes rather than several dozens, not to mention coaches, wax, travel, etc, but for Mykland to say all the things he said is pretty ignorant. Does he also really think a lot of the athletes didn’t take the races seriously? I bet if they had won more medals he wouldn’t be spewing this sort of drivel and certainly wouldn’t be making excuses and not giving other teams the credit they deserve. If he and the rest of the team thought these weren’t important races, why waste such a long trip? Why show up at all? Does he know how many Russian athletes come from this sort of altitude? o. The Russians, as stated here, spent a good time in Bansko, Bulgaria preparing at altitude and getting familiar with dry, colder snow, while increasing red blood cell volume. Now, there could be some doping with the Russians, and there might not be, but the they executed their training perfectly for these races, plus if you look at the names on that team, Sedov, Retivykh, Belov, Ustiugov, Medvedeva, Shakirzianov….all of them have raced super well at the WC level, so their domination (coupled with good preparation) isn’t that surprising.

    Regarding the altitude problem for the Americans, there seems to be contradiction of sorts. What about the western region kids that are coming from altitude? They had placed about the same as those coming from the lowlands/sea level. What’s the problem there? Why travel to Latvia or Estonia (low elevation, probably different environment, snow, trails, humidity, etc.) to make your final preparations when you know races will be at altitude? Ok, races are a good way to prepare, it wakes up the legs and your brain, nervous system, legs, etc and can start to get used to higher intensity after traveling/time change/training/camps, etc, but I would have thought doing something similar to what you will experience at a certain venue or environment would be the way to go. On top of that, the Erzurum venue is not even as high as Bohart Ranch (site of NCAA’s), Soldier Hollow (site of JN’s), Devil’s Thumb, Sun Valley, Jackson, Truckee, West Yellowstone, and other top US. If there were problems in Turkey, what’s gonna happen at Soldier Hollow? Kandilli top of the course: 1767 meters. Soldier Hollow top of the course: 1793. Altitude racing is still part of racing, last I checked. Not all races are gonna be at Rumford or Anchorage or Houghton. Speaking of Anchorage, Jan Buron (AWS) deserves more credit than he is being given. That program has been developing fast skiers for years and years, yet they rarely (if ever) get any credit. They always have skiers qualify for these international trips. Good on them!

  • Lars

    February 28, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I agree with davord some of the things said by the Norwegian team members was disgustingly arrogant. I mean the team didn`t win so don`T say if this and this was different we probably would have. Accept that things did not go so well this year and try and learn from it.

    As for team selection i think Norway had the best juniors in Turkey but in the U23 bracket there was a few missing Like Golberg Northug and Weng.

    Also i kinda wonder why the competition was placed in Turkey and not a nation were there would be more interest in the sport.

  • davord

    March 1, 2012 at 8:17 am

    It’s interesting how the trivial Birkie incident has generated so many responses, yet such a big event like U23’s/WJN’s hasn’t really been given any thought. Such is life, I guess. Birkie fever trumps everything for most people, I presume. SMH.

  • xclad

    March 2, 2012 at 6:01 am

    the problem with erzrum is that the athletes accommodation is even higher. It is between 2200m for some teams and up to over 2500m for others. At this height recovery is hard. Going for a recovery jog is tough, walking up stairs hurts and generally living isnt pleasant. The tracks were an hours drive from the accommodation. So some teams that were in turkey for up to a week before the competition struggled with the fact they couldnt actually train properly, managing only 1 session a day, and they couldnt recover properly.
    The air in Erzrum was abnormally bad. Bellow 40% humidity most days, and the temperature was extremely cold, most mornings at the stadium it was bellow -25C/-13F. Without the altitude this is tough on competitors bodies anyways.
    I think many teams and many athletes learned a lot about altitude from Erzrum. Some teams used altitude simulation (oxygen tents etc) like the Croatians, others went for 3 weeks to high altitude like the Russians. But those who live normally at high altitude had a significant advantage, and abnormally good results. Swiss junior men in the sprint for example.
    The Norwegian doctor is right here. Its the world Juniors. While yes a big competition, the end goal for most junior skiers is to become good senior skiers… that doesnt sound so outrageous to me? Whilst altitude simulation is banded for Scandinavians, the only other option being an expensive 3 weeks at altitude with high risks of sickness, and future problems from training too hard, the norwegians took a very conservative approach. Their medal haul reflects that.
    While ustigov is clearly a talent and could have won anywhere in the world, the results are weird and have many many surprises. The only abnormality is the height. I would expect completely different results throughout if it was held at a more sensible location.

  • davord

    March 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

    With all due respect, xclad, it is quite outrageous. Everything the Norwegian doctor said was outrageous. It all comes down to jealousy and envy. It’s a classic case of coping out. It’s also not the first time the Norwegian coaches have complained and put up excuses when their results aren’t as good as they thought they would be. Something always pops up. Like I said, if it weren’t so important and these results are meaningless, why show up at all? The Russians, Swedes, Germans and Slovenians did very well. Heck, the Slovenians didn’t take the Russian approach either, yet they peaked tremendously well for these races, just like their biathlon teams, and this from a country with just over 2 million people!

    Now, as far as skiers that come from altitude having an advantage, it’s true, but look at the US team, the skiers that come from altitude, that live there and that train there most of their lives, they had virtually equal results to their teammates who live and train at much lower elevations. What about Noah Hoffman? He comes from Aspen, Colorado. OK, so he doesn’t train and race at high altitude too often nowadays, but do you know what the elevation at Aspen is? The town itself is situated at 2400 meters. There were no surprises at these championships. The Swiss team is on the rise, as evidenced by Cologna, Perl and their sprinters. They have 4 or 5 senior men’s sprinters that can contend in the top 30 of any WC. It has had a trickle down effect, if you will. What you saw is what you got. I am also convinced the Russians moved to lower elevations right away and went back to get used to those conditions. Lastly, the women’s U23’s field was fairly weak. No disrespect to the women that raced there, but when you are missing skiers like Falla, Falk, Brodin, Kristoffersen, Lahtenmaeki, Weng, Oestberg, etc, it puts a totally different perspective of the race. Hagen, Medvedeva, Vuerich, Diggins have shown their class this year in terms of competing at the WC, other skiers either came with little experience or just don’t have the ‘it’ factor that the top women have, at least not yet.

  • xclad

    March 2, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Think what you will about the Norwegians, but no doubt they will be back stronger than ever soon.
    As for the Americans coming from a range of altitudes, there must have been something underlying here when none of them qualify in the sprint… regardless of where they come from.
    I was pointing out that the swiss did abnormally well in comparison to previous years and the OPA cup. There is no doubt that they have some good skiers, but 4 in the top 30 and 2 in the final in the sprint is insane. (junior mens)

  • davord

    March 2, 2012 at 11:42 am

    You are certainly free to put and keep the Norwegians on the pedestal, but remember that Norway isn’t the only country that does well in xc skiing, especially in this day and age. Things have changed. There are now more countries involved and more countries that are reaching podiums (Poland, Switzerland, Canada, Slovenija, France, etc), and that’s a great thing for our sport. Hopefully it atracts more youth, more money, more sponsors, more fans on the trails and watching on tv, etc.

    Maybe there is something underlying here, who knows, but as far as I can see, it seems like history has repeated itself again. Generally, a lot of American skiers drop off in terms of form for these championships. Certain teams stay level throughout a season, and actually improve as the season wears on, especially at the main events of the season which are generally this time of year, but a lot of teams just peak early and then either don’t improve or just drop like apples from a tree. This is mainly due to the fact that too much attention is spent on just hammering out intervals early in the season, when in fact working on transitioning from dryland to skiing is the best way to prepare and keep building on the base a skier has developed over short or long period of time (depending on their age and how much training they have done). This isn’t meant to condescending in any shape or form, I’m just pointing out what I have seen over the years. Another thing is, these are all very young skiers, and I don’t think any of the juniors have made it to WJN’s before, only to the J1 Scando trip races, so this is indeed a good lesson and an experience builder. We’ll see what happens and we’ll certainly see who kept their form heading to Soldier Hollow for JN’s. No doubt there is some talent in this squad.

  • Lars

    March 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    I`m kinda oposit of xclad, over the last few years i don`t think the Norwegian senior team ( mens distance) have been all that good with the exception of the world championship were they did incredibly well.
    There have been some good results in the junior bracket, but when i see a team member go okey the results this year wasn`t qiet like we have hoped for but we would have won if not for….

    Then i get more worried as it seems they are kinda in denial and wanna think of them selfs as the world best despite what the result sheet shows. And atm there is no doubt Russia both junior and senior have the best team.

  • davord

    March 2, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Don’t worry Lars, as you well know, Norway has an abundance of talent and more importantly, interest for nordic skiing aka ‘langrenn.’ As is with all sports and all countries, things go in patches. Good and bad patches, talented era and an era not as talented. Russia has struggled (primarily) since the early 2000’s with their women’s team. It seems that now, a new, young, talented crop of skiers is rising to the occasion and (hopefully) doing it without any extra curricular activity. Norway has and will have doldrums. Some years are gonna be tough, some will be very good. There are many fast female skiers in the Norwegian ranks right now, as evidenced by the WC results the last 4-5 years. The men are more up and down, and Northug won’t be competing forever, so they might be in a bit of a pickle, but it’s really not that bad. Krogh, Golberg, Fossli, Skar, younger Northug, etc are all capable of big things. I am also interested in seeing what Poland will do with its development. Now that Kowalzcyk has certainly enhanced her position as one of the best femal xc skiers of this era and of all time, hopefully it will spark a large generation of youngsters (female and male) to the sport and we see more skiers from Poland. Time will tell.

  • xclad

    March 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    re reading some of my comments i see that i may come across very norwegian centered. But this is the first time in about 6 or 7 years that the norwegians have not won gold at the world juniors in some event or another. They have been dominant in the relays, until now. Looking at the teams the girls side is particularly week, and most likely wouldnt have won any golds anywhere in the world, maybe Barbro Kvaala could have contested for a medal in the 5k classic.
    On the mens side they have a good team. Skar has shown he is world class, Fossli is a talented sprinted and nyenget is the only junior in norway who has a chance against Skar.

    I think its great that other teams are doing well, slovenia on the girls side in particular. The russians are strong in the younger classes, but then again they where 4 years ago in Praz de Lys. (the first time one country placed 1,2,3,4 in the world juniors. sedov and belov where involved). the russians are always strong. Its great to see smaller countries post one or two into the top 10. But averages are there for a reason. Over the past decade norwegians have taken more medals than this year at the world juniors. This year was bellow average… What changed? it could be they are just having a bad spell… or could it be the height or where the races took place? i would go with the second option. Obviously next year they could do even worse and you can all laugh at me, but i doubt it.

    Altitude is a part of cross country ski racing. It will become a bigger part as our climate changes and low lying snow becomes harder to find. However it has to be asked if racing at this height was the right decision for a junior race. The focus with junior racing is development. Carrying athletes forward to become good seniors. If teams dont have enough resources and money to carry out racing and training and living at high altitude should it be done? (for juniors, obviously things are a little different at the senior level) On the flip side to this, juniors have to learn at some point. The junior years are for learning, and why not learn about altitude racing while your at it?

    I agree its bad taste to go around saying to the press that if a race was held somewhere else they would have won, but i agree with him. but he maybe shouldnt have said it to the press….

  • davord

    March 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Xclad, people get upset when some state that coming from altitude to race at sea level hurts their chances of good results. Now. different people coming from sea level to race at altitude say it’s not fair for them to race at altitude. You know what? Pragelato and SLC were held at altitude. Sochi will be held at Altitude. A lot of the Alpine countries (Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, etc) race and train at altitude. It’s just the way things are. Some will adapt better, some will not. Elevation and sharpness of the weather will affect one group of skiers in a negative way, while the other group will thrive on it. Remember how these last few years the Russians have done really well as a team when the temperature is -15 or even colder? They are used to it. You always heard Legkov or Chernousov saying it’s not a big deal for them, as they normally train in this weather, while the Norwegians threaten to cancel races that go beyond -10, lol. I can’t see the reasoning in agreeing with the coach/doctor in this case. He should know better than that. They have more than enough money, resources and staff to do a 2 or 3 week long altitude camp to prepare. Anyway, Martine Ek Hagen won the pursuit, Krogh was right there in with the medals. The Norwegian men did ok in the junior races. Perhaps their team just isn’t strong enough as it once was, and perhaps they are not as talented as some of the other men. Don’t forget Pellegrino, Tscharnke, Musgrave, Cologna’s younger brother, Hoffman, etc. These guys are super talented.

    Do what you can with this crop of youngsters and make them better. That’s probably what the Norwegian coaches are thinking right now. I am almost certain a lot of these young Russians will in fact break through. I mean, it’s not like Belov and Sedov have underachieved. They’ve been racing on the WC the last 2-3 seasons. Sedov had a top 10 in his WC debut as an 18 year old!! I think the Russians know that with Sochin looming, they are gonna have to be careful in not over training their athletes or racing them too much. That’s probably been their undoing in recent times. I don’t think putting too much emphasis on these championships will be their undoing. They went to altitude to train for 2-3 weeks because, like I said in my first post, they aren’t used to the dizzy heights either.

  • Lars

    March 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    I really hope Polen is able to develop a good team around Kowalzcyk, and looking at there results in Polen were they had several athletes in the top 30 it looks like that might happen. But the way i understand it they are not really organized as a team so the up and coming athletes might not get benefit as much from Kowalzcyk experience as they could have if they were.

    Its not like i think Norway won`t be a factor just that i think a attitude were one thinks that hey we are the best might cause the athletes not to live up to there potential as they do not think they need to push them selfs as much cause when they do less well its not there fault its the skis the altitude or whatever other excuse they can come up with..

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