You can say a lot about Marty Hall—and, in fact, most of it has probably already been said.
The former coach of the American and Canadian national cross-country ski teams is an outspoken and prolific observer of the sport today, but that’s nothing new. He famously implied that the Russians were doping at the 1988 Olympic Games, and an Ottawa newspaper story upon his departure from the Canadian squad referred to him as the “opinionated and controversial Marty Hall.”
Even if you take issue with Hall’s positions, though, one thing should be acknowledged: even as he creeps up into his mid-70s, the man still doesn’t miss much. From his previous home in Quebec, and from his new home in New Hampshire, Hall remains plugged into cross-country skiing. As you’ll see below, he consumes ski media voraciously—he even reads tweets!—and writes a column, Hallmarks, for SkiTrax Magazine. Halfway through a reporter’s visit to his house this summer, he stopped an interview to show a YouTube video of a strength workout by members of the Russian ski team.
FasterSkier Editor-at-Large Nathaniel Herz caught up with Hall, his former coach at Bowdoin College, in August, for a wide-ranging discussion about cross-country skiing. They talked about the exploits of Alex Harvey and his father, Pierre—who Hall coached—the meteoric rise of Jessie Diggins, convoluted World Cup race formats, and Hall’s own epic 16-minute victory in his age class at the Birkie.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
FasterSkier: Are you coaching anyone right now?
Marty Hall: I was coaching four girls up there in Ottawa—three older ladies. I’d work with them fairly extensively—I’d see them once or twice a week and organize their programs. They’re all in their 40s and 50s, that type of thing. Nobody hot.
FS: So, how would you characterize your involvement in the sport of cross-country skiing right now?
MH: I read everything. I read everything. I got a little pissed off this spring when I chastised the Canadian National Team for being all split apart, all over the place, and doing different things, and Chad Salmela came in and kind of insinuated that I was old-fashioned. Well, you know, I was going to write a long thing back, and I said, ‘forget it.’ But, he said we’re old-fashioned. I can remember crust cruising back in 1962. I can remember one of the first camps that we had in Putney [in Vermont]—I’ll
bet you we had 100 kids. John Caldwell would remember it. Anybody who was anybody at the higher levels of nordic combined, cross-country in this country were at this camp, plus all the divisional-type people.
You talk about hill-running? One hundred people hill-running in Putney. I mean, the sport has not changed that much. It has changed, but don’t think that you’ve reinvented the wheel. The changes that took place were in the early 1970s—’74, ‘75, ’76 and there, that was the revolution. And then you know, there’s been small little renaissances along the way and that kind of stuff, but it hasn’t changed that much. I mean, I had my people in the weight room in the ‘70s, and we were lifting big weights back then. Martha Rockwell, okay—she’s 125-pound girl, she could bench press 150 pounds, live. Okay? So it hasn’t changed that much, the stuff that we’re doing. So I think, I could give you my book that I wrote. You could read it. And I can tell you, you’d say, ‘this isn’t that far off from what we’re doing.’
FS: So do people ever consult with you? Do you ever hear from Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach?
MH: None of those guys. But [former U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Nordic Director] John Farra, two springs ago, called me up and said, ‘I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions, and I want you to shoot from the hip, okay? And tell us what we’re not doing.’ You know that [the U.S. program is] is now at Seiser Alm?
FS: Yup. (The U.S. Ski Team spent time training at Seiser Alm in Italy last winter.) MH: That was one of the things. I said, ‘look. You guys keep going to Davos [Switzerland].’ Every time they have a break over there, they go to Davos. For cross-country skiers, that’s like going nowhere, because it’s in between [in altitude]. It’s nice. [But] Seiser Alm’s nice! I can guarantee it’s nice. Everybody else is down in Seiser Alm, at altitude. And they can regulate the training, anything from 1,000 meters, to 2,300 meters, for skiing.
That was one of the things. The other thing is, I said, ‘I think you’re spending way too much money, and you think New Zealand’s great, but you’re down there alone. You’re isolated. Can’t be going there.’
Don’t think I’m not in the know. I’m a feel guy. I’m not a huge scientific…I’m into science, but I’m not a scientific type person. Yes, I’m not old-fashioned.
The other thing is, I can say now, I’ve been paying taxes down here, and I’ve been paying taxes up there [in Canada]. I want to see my money spent right. It’s as simple as that. I mean, especially in Canada,
those guys get a crapload of money from the government. They don’t know what to do with it all.
FS: Name two American athletes and two American coaches that you admire the most right now.
MH: Kikkan [Randall]. That’s easy.
FS: Why Kikkan?
MH: Well, just take a look at what she was three years ago. She’s 37th in the overall World Cup. She’s now fifth. She’s done some things.
One of the other guys would be Erik Flora [Randall’s coach at her Alaska Pacific University club program], and a guy would be [former APU coach] Jim Galanes. He’s one of the better brains.
Coaches are real easy. Who the other American athlete would be—if I could have a choice, it would be Devon Kershaw.
FS: We’ll get to Canada. You’ve got to pick an American.
MH: Okay, another American. It would be Kochie [1976 Olympic medalist Bill Koch].
FS: Nope. Somebody still skiing.
MH: Somebody still skiing? Then it’s going to be Jessie Diggins.
FS: What do you think about her?
MH: Gotta be glad she chose our sport, because she’s a hell of an athlete. To be where she is—I don’t have a clue, but her training program can’t be that big when she was 16, 17, 18. But look at the frickin’ results! So, she’s got big lungs, big heart—I’d love to know what’s going on in there.
So, she’s born with speed. Everything comes down to speed, because we can train it. If you don’t do the training, the speed doesn’t play out in our sport. But if you do the training, the speed really becomes…You’ve got a question on your brain [referring to interviewer].
FS: So, what does Diggins need to do, and what do other people need to do with her, over the next five years?
MH: Keep doing what they’re doing. Those two girls [Randall and Diggins], I mean, the only thing that can frick them up is sickness, and injury. They know what they’re doing now.
That’s the other thing about this computer right here [points]. Not only have you shrunk North America. You’ve shrunk the world. You see that video right there that we just watched, from Russia? You think we had access to that crap, back in my time? No. Plus, if we were able to get it, we’d be watching ‘em stick themselves with needles. [laughs] I’m serious!
Look, 1974, everyone says I’m a freak when it comes to the drug thing. [In] 1974, World Championships, Martha Rockwell’s 10th. One k to go she was sixth; she got knocked down, so she lost four places. The makeup of that top-10: seven eastern country people, and three non-eastern countries. I knew. That ain’t right.
So, anyway: just keep doing what they’re doing. And the other thing is, just hope that the base is continuing to expand and grow, because the bigger the base, more chances you have of kicking out a Diggins, a Diggins, another Diggins, another Diggins, a [Noah] Hoffman, maybe. He hasn’t quite shown through like she has, but you’re looking for that kind of talent to come through. I mean, he’s kind of worked his way up the ladder. Still is. Men’s thing is a little tougher than the women, I think. Where there’s 90 men, there’s only 50 women, at races.
FS: So, what do you think: Jessie Diggins, how many athletes did you see like her in your coaching career?
MH: Boy…Kochie. But, you know what? Kochie had an amazing ability, talent, for squeaking everything out of himself. He’s not as amazing a physiological talent as she is. This guy—he did things that were unbelievable. He was an asthmatic, and he dreamed himself off being an asthmatic. But it caused him problems later on—he crashed a couple times when he was trying to make comebacks, because of asthma. Just an amazing guy. Just a truly amazing guy. And you know, the thing about him was, it was him. He was so singular in his focus on himself, and on getting the most out of himself, using all the information, but gleaning it down so it worked for Kochie. I don’t think…get Kochie in a weight room? Forget it. Look at his build. And he double-poled places nobody ever double-poled.
FS: So, anyway, you’re saying that he had to squeeze a little more out of his talent than Jessie does right now?
MH: Yup. That’s my opinion. I can’t say that I’ve watched her. But I’ve seen how she exploded on the scene last year. Holy cow.
FS: So, you’re saying there are basically two people with that level of talent that you’ve seen?
MH: Ohhhhh, I can’t say that. There’s a lot of people. I’ve dealt with a lot of athletes—there’s a whole scad of ‘em that are, and were talented. I could name a couple that I think are talented, but don’t want to train. They want to race, but they don’t want to train.
FS: All right. So, let’s go to Canadians.
MH: Devon Kershaw.
FS: What do you like about him so much?
MH: He does everything the way he’s supposed to do it. And if he doesn’t, he’s trying. I think he’s a talent, and I know that, because I first met him when he was in high school. I was going around with a guy by the name of Alain Parent. You know when core strength was on the forefront? The national team approached me to go with this guy Alain Parent, who is a junior coach. We went all over the country showing people how to do core strength.
So, we went into Sudbury [Ontario], and stayed overnight at Kershaw’s house. He was in high school—he was a junior, or he might have been a senior. And he asked me—we talked about his running. He was a hell of a footrunner. He was top one or two guys [in the province]. But he had made his decision he wanted to ski. And so he came to me, we talked about it, and he said, ‘what can I do? I don’t want to do that.’
And I said, ‘look. You’re the boss here. You’re the talent. Your running coach needs you. You don’t need
him. You just tell him you’ll be at the championships, and you’ll be at this race or that race. You pick the races you want to go to, and do what you have to do, but then do all cross-country training. If you want to do intensities cross-country, and you don’t want to do ‘em running, you tell him you won’t be there.’
[He was] second in [Ontario] that year. And then, you know where he is now.
He just, in my estimation, is the real, full-time, 24-hour consummate athlete. And he’s still having a great life—just read his latest blog.
FS: Do you talk to him ever?
MH: I just sent him an email.
FS: What’d you say?
MH: I told him two things. Ever hear of Golf Boys?
MH: You know [PGA Tour golfer] Bubba Watson? That name?
MH: There are four young guys on the circuit that put together a group called the golf guys, and goof off: singing, karaoke, that kind of stuff. And so, I sent, to him, the YouTube, from Golf Boys, and said, ‘come on, we need a Cross-Country Ski Boys, or Nordic Boys, and you’re the guy to get it going.’ I said, ‘when you’re sitting in all these camps, with nothing to do, come on! Put this thing together!’
And then, the other thing is, [SkiTrax Magazine Publisher] Benji [Sadavoy] is trying to get him to write for the magazine. I said, ‘hey, I hear Benji’s approached you. I know you’re not sure what you want to do.’ I said, ‘look, I can tell you that what you would write is so important to young kids. Don’t worry about pleasing anybody else. You know what you read in your day, and what it did for you to inspire you.’ I said, ‘you’re the motivational guy now. There are two things you could write about that I think are really important: how you got into cross-country skiing. And then the other thing that you could write about is how you’re going to regulate your schedule this winter, for Tour de Ski, and World Championships.’
Day later, he told Benji, ‘I’m writing.’
FS: Did you hear back from him?
MH: No, no. The only one I communicate with, every now and then, is Chandra [Crawford]. I spent a lot of time talking to her this winter.
So, Devon’s the big guy. Of course, Alex [Harvey]. I think Alex is more talented, but I think he’s got himself spread too thin. He’s in the same position his dad was. [Harvey’s father Pierre was an Olympian in the 1980s in both cross-country skiing and cycling; Hall coached him.]
Because he’s such a hero in Quebec, it’s hard for him to say no. They want him all the time. And, you know, when he wins those athlete-of-the-year awards, that’s against all those pros! The football players that are in there, and the hockey players—he beats those guys out! So, he’s up on a pedestal there. And I can tell you, he’s probably making pretty good money from [sponsor] Quebecor.
Those guys are making big money now, too. I try to talk about it—not a lot, but I try to make sure that I’m talking about it. Because you can say you’re not racing for the money, but it sure makes it a lot easier to think about it when there is that money out there.
FS: How do you compare Alex to his father?
MH: I can’t fault the way Alex trains. I fault all the extraneous stuff—I mean, his going to [law] school is detracting. He can say whatever he wants to.
Pierre was not—he was a physiological talent…not a great athlete. Loved to work. A guy who was really in control of his training.
I think Alex is built somewhat the same; I’d love to see ‘em together. But, Pierre was one of these guys that was really slim down through [his waist]. Very muscular. But then he had this massive chest cavity.
FS: That’s kind of how Alex is—you see the guy.
MH: I see Alex as being the epitome of what you’d want a cross-country skier to look like. Tallish, maybe 6’1”, so he has big levers. Good musculature on him, and when you see him from behind, he just has that upper body mass. And you know there’s some good lungs in there, and a big heart in there. And so, he’s made for cross-country skiing, in my estimation.
FS: You think more so than his dad, maybe?
MH: Yes, better talent. And his dad would admit that, too.
Alex is really crafty—very knowledgeable about the sport. Very clever about the way he skis, and stuff.
The thing that’s great for me, also—one of the other things that’s great now is we can watch every race on TV now, on computers. And so you learn. Of course, I was living in Canada when the  Olympics were on, and I knew in that 50 k, I said, ‘Alex is going to stay there, but he ain’t going to be on the podium.’ You could just see the way he was skiing. You could see it. But this guy, Yves Bilodeau, the [Canadian wax] technician? He was the cleverest guy I’d ever seen, skiing. He started relays for us—it didn’t matter what was going on. He was coming in with the first group. He could have the crappiest skis, and he’d make it happen, and I think that’s Alex, too.
FS: Is there something about the Quebecois mentality?
MH: Well, I think he grew up being a cross-country skier, so he’s seen everything, at least once, if not twice, or three or four or five times. That’s been his environment. He watched his dad. He got exposed.
FS: Alex has, definitely, some swagger, kind of. Was Pierre like that?
MH: No. Shy. Really shy. You know, he used to love to come to training camps, because, he says, ‘I don’t have to talk on the phone. I don’t have to say “no.”’
[Alex], they keep him in his province, he’s king. He’s recognized. And that hasn’t happened to many cross-country skiers anywhere in North America, ever. Those guys are getting to the point where they’re getting so much press, they’re pretty well-known all over the country.
FS: What is the last cross-country ski race you did?
MH: Birkiebeiner. Last February.
FS: How’d it go?
MH: [Laughs] It’s embarrassing. I won my class by 16 minutes.
FS: I don’t think that’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for everyone else.
MH: So, I’ve started racing again. I race every year, for the last three years, four years, five, six, seven times a year. Essentially, the only guy that’s beaten me…I had a bad year last year.
FS: You only won your class by 16 minutes.
MH: Well, the thing is, I had some other races. In December, I had cataract surgery, so I couldn’t train. So, I lost a whole month. You know, I’d go out and walk around, but you couldn’t do any hard stuff.
FS: How much of a difference does the base training make at your age, though? Don’t you kind of already have that? Or are you doing intervals?
MH: No, I can tell. Like, I started up again [this year]. I was surprised—went good for about three or four weeks, but with all the moving [from Canada to New Hampshire], the thing I’m running out of is energy. You know, I’m going to be 75 in another couple weeks here, so I don’t have that everyday energy. If I do a hard day of training, it might take two days to recover, so I can go train again and not kill myself or get sick or break down. So, I think I can get to a reasonable peak…I can’t wait too much longer [from now], to have another good year. But [last year], I lost that whole month, right in December. And then I’m trying to dig my way out of there—I had a couple of races where I had lactic acid right out in the hair. I had to quit. Everything hurt. I was barely walking. But, you know, I just picked up my program, and the last three races, I had one good one, one medium-plus, and then: Birkie. It was too bad I didn’t race more after that.
These guys that I race in my age group at the Birkie, I’ve raced ‘em for the last 20 years. But back then, in the ‘90s, we used to go back and forth. They’d beat me. I’d beat them. Blah, blah, blah. Starting three years ago, I won by 10 minutes, then I won by, I think, 12 or 14 minutes, then I won by 16.
This is the short race. I don’t race long any more, because it’s not racing for us. It’s 23 k at the Birkie. If you want an idea, my per-kilometer time at the Birkie was four minutes this year—the year before, it was 3:40, which is…not bad.
FS: So, when you’re racing now, is it much different than when you were racing when you were in college—what you’re feeling?
MH: Um…no. I think better. I think better. I know more about the sport, and I know where my body is and what I need to do. Like, two years ago, I’m still in Wave 1 in the Birkie. The classic race. So all the long distance guys are starting with me. There’s 1,000 of us standing there. So, we took off, and I thought, ‘oh, man, I’m feeling good, I’m going with all these young kids!’
I got to seven k’s, and I said, ‘frick, bud, you’re in trouble!’ So, I cut it back for a k. I mean, walked. Got everything undone before I got myself in a hole I couldn’t get out of. Got back on track, whoosh, then, we broke off—little short course at nine k’s went this way, the big boys went that way, and I, just, was gassing it, from there on in.
I have a huge advantage—there’s two things that I know I’m doing that those guys aren’t doing. One that I’m born with—I was a good alpine skier when I was in college. Really good. So, that course at the Birkie was made for me. Lot of vertical. Carry a lot of speed off of things—I’m good enough that I can coast over the hills, and I know maybe those guys don’t do it. And then the other thing is that thing right down there. [Points at an Exergenie, a strength-training device on his floor.] Specific strength.
FS: Will you write yourself out a training plan?
MH: No. I have so little I can do. I can ski walk, and run with poles—and it’s not really running, it’s fast walking, because I can’t run any more. Weights, and rollerskiing.
FS: And you’ll do easy, or hard?
MH: Mostly, I’m a hard guy. If I go over an hour and a half, I’m usually zone three, training.
FS: So, let’s talk about some World Cup stuff. You have some strong feelings about the tours on the circuit, huh? Like the World Cup opening in Finland, the finale in Sweden, and the Tour de Ski.
MH: I think this pursuit race that they do, when you have three races, you earn [bonus] seconds, and the guys starts out with the lead…[The International Ski Federation calls them] stage races. They’re not called World Cups. Someone like Marit Bjoergen has been racing a long time, and she’s trying to break
[the] record for most World Cups—well, they’re screwing her, and I think they’re doing it on purpose.
MH: Why? Because they don’t want nordic beating alpine. And she has a really good chance to do it. And [Dario] Cologna’s coming along, and he can be doing the same thing.
But they’re getting credit for one or two victories in the Tour de Ski that are considered World Cup races. They get gypped out of two in [Finland]; they get gypped out of two in [Sweden]. That’s wrong.
Plus, the races. The first time that I tuned into that first pursuit race, two years ago, and there were two people going across this meadow, and that was it! For two minutes, three minutes! Everyone’s sitting back there!
FS: In the Tour de Ski? You mean in the hill climb finale? Everyone has to wait after Cologna starts, have a sandwich…
MH: And who out on the course understands what the hell’s going on?! The announcers for Eurosport—they even talk about it! They complain about it. Because it’s meaningless. How do you announce a race that’s meaningless?
And then, [Cologna] gets World Cup [points] for winning the overall Tour, but he placed eighth that day!?
FS: So, they need to fix it?
MH: Yup. Just make it a straight race, and then, all those races should be World Cup races.
FS: So, you would say, start everyone at once?
MH: Yup. And make those guys race for that big money.
FS: Well, I mean, I think their argument for running the last Tour stage that way is, the first guy across the line is the guy who wins the whole Tour. It’s easy to understand.
MH: Big deal. Make it so he starts with everybody else. I bet you Cologna could still win the race, straight up. Who cares if you go back to paper?
FS: For fans, though, I think it’s easier for the International Ski Federation to tell them who won the overall.
MH: I don’t think it’s that meaningful. Ask the racers.
FS: Well, I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate here. I mean, you think about the Tour de France, on the last day, it’s not like Lance Armstrong starts with a four-minute lead. He never won on the Champs Elysees and people still understood that he won the overall.
MH: Tour de Ski—last day, results are in, how many podiums are there? One set of podiums, or two sets of podiums? One for the race overall, and one for the race?
MH: Is there?
MH: There’s two podiums?
MH: Two recognitions?
FS: Oh yeah.
MH: Two separate recognitions?
MH: You sure?
MH: Okay. I can accept that. But I still can’t accept—if they’re recognizing the winners of the overall and the winners for the day, that’s fair. But the process is not interesting. Boring. Totally boring. And the thing that’s wrong, in a way—and maybe it’s always going to be that way—is that there’s a Cologna, and there’s a Marit. Okay? Because they’re starting out 1:40 [ahead], and he’s starting 2:40. And it hasn’t worked well yet, in my point of view. So I don’t like it.
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.