Before the sun rises in Canmore, Alberta, those near the ski trails can probably hear the sounds of striding and skating along hard-packed snow this time of year. That’s likely accompanied by voices, chit-chatting as skiers compete 1.8-kilometer loops around the Canmore Nordic Centre before trail passes go on sale at 9 a.m.
They’re not exactly renegades, night owls or extreme enthusiasts. For the most part, these individuals belong to clubs – some of which are American – and they’re just sharing a slice of the popular pie that is Frozen Thunder.
According to Canmore Nordic Centre manager Michael Roycroft, about 150 skiers per day for the next few weeks are expected to use to the 5-meter wide manmade course, which officially opened for the fourth straight year on Oct. 13 and is expected to stay open through the winter. That daily estimate probably didn’t account for groups like F.A.S.T. Performance Training from Hayward, Wis., which were among those skiing before or after business hours.
F.A.S.T. head coach Bill Pierce guessed there were as many as two hundred skiers at the centre Wednesday afternoon, and not all were on snow.
“It’s amazing how busy the training centre was with athletes in the afternoon,” he wrote on Facebook. “Cross country skiers both on snow and rollers, runners, mountain bikers, and biathletes in every age range were training.”
With more than a week and a half remaining of their two-week Canmore camp, Pierce wrote his five athletes recently transitioned higher intensity, like many of the skiers there. They started with an easy 1 ½-hour ski on snow, followed by speed work on rollerskis in the afternoon. Earlier in the week, the Alberta World Cup Academy invited them to a strength session at the national-team headquarters.
“Canmore is living up to its reputation as the perfect place to train for endurance sport,” Pierce wrote in an email. “The camp is a great mix of dryland and snow!”
He added that it was unusual to be in a wax room when it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) with green grass outside. Regardless, the snow was holding up despite the warmer temperatures earlier in the week.
Pierce recalled the feeling of getting on Frozen Thunder for the first time.
“The first 500m of snow felt awkward and unstable but after 5 min., the feel of slippery glide gets under control and the grace of being on snow takes over,” he wrote. “It was just an awesome feeling and even at 50F the snow was faster than rollers.”
According to Pierce, the weather had been a mix of sun and clouds that initially shrunk the snow base. Fortunately for the groomers and snowmakers there, daytime highs below freezing were expected through the weekend.
“We’re just glad to have the snow opportunities mixed in with the dryland,” Pierce wrote. “One learns in today’s training and racing environment that any day on snow is better than not. It’s a great camp in a great town!”
He called the scene “almost an elite WY [West Yellowstone],” with more than a dozen teams flocking to the first substantial, skiable surface in North America.
In all, there were at least nine Canadian teams, six of which were national-team affiliated, and six squads from the U.S., including its national ski team.
Against a rainy backdrop on Friday, Cross Country Canada officially announced its 2012/2013 World Cup, Biathlon and Para-Nordic teams at Frozen Thunder (FT), a project launched in 2009 to provide preseason training opportunities to their high-performance athletes. Since then, FT has expanded from spreading a snow pile (preserved through the summer under sawdust) into a 400-meter track to one that’s nearly two kilometers and growing.
American Matt Liebsch, who’s been training in Canmore while staying with Canadians Ian Murray and national-team biathlete Brendan Green, said the potential is certainly there for more skiing and the snowmakers have their guns ready along a 5 k loop. Back in 2010, Canmore proved it could blow about 30 kilometers worth of snow when it hosted the World Cup.
“It was very low snowfall and they still had 30 k of trails open,” Liebsch said on the phone Friday. “There’s not anything quite like this in the states.”
The Minnesota skier with Borton Volvo XC United said he scheduled a six-day trip to Frozen Thunder to get the maximize his time before the season starts in nearly a month. In late August, he took a group of skiers to the Haig glacier, about 45 minutes outside Canmore, for a week of high-altitude, on-snow training.
“That was a little awkward, you know, long skiing and stuff, but since I’ve been here I’ve put the skates on and that felt really good,” Liebsch said. “I was doing quality sessions my second and third day here.”
Since then, he’s been working out with friends like former teammate Tad Elliott (U.S. Ski Team/Team HomeGrown) and Sylvan Ellefson (Team HomeGrown). The U.S. Ski Team (USST) arrived on Thursday, and Liebsch said he skied with those two on Friday morning. Yesterday, he and Ellefson went on a 1 ½-hour mountain bike.
In terms of getting on snow, scheduling isn’t too complicated. While it was previously first-come, first-served, Roycroft wrote that this year, the nordic centre reserved time for high-performance athletes from any country (either national team, provincial or the development equivalent) to use the trails from 9 a.m. to noon. The public can ski any time outside of that. Regarding total use, he said it’s up 25 percent.
While the Canadian World Cup skiers have been in Canmore for more than a week, their U.S. counterparts recently settled in for their 1 ½-week camp. According to Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth, they hadn’t coordinated workouts, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to.
“This part of the season is crucial to be flexible and not force workouts just because they’re on the plan,” Wadsworth wrote in an email.
One thing’s for sure: there’s going to be a timed-and-bibbed sprint showdown Oct. 26.
According to a Cross Country Canada press release, Frozen Thunder’s first major sprint race – the WinSport Frozen Thunder Classic – will include more than 100 competitors from the U.S. and Canada. Qualifying will begin at 9 a.m. with the head-to-head heats starting at 10 a.m.
“The sprint race is another important element in Frozen Thunder’s delivery of what Canada’s athletes have asked for, and need, in their pursuit of international excellence,” Roycroft said in the release.
“Through the financial backing of the Government of Canada’s commitment to the Own the Podium program, along with WinSport Canada, this multi-year effort complements the more than $30 million these organizations, along with the Government of Alberta, have invested into the facilities and resources at the Canmore Nordic Centre over the last two Olympic cycles to help our Nordic athletes reach their goals.”
As Wadsworth put it: “It’s just a really competitive field for sprinting so it should be a fun race to see.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.