Watch out Dachstein, Stelvio and Oberhof — there’s a new summer hotspot for nordic skiers in the Northern Hemisphere, and for Americans, it doesn’t require a passport.
While Eagle Glacier has been around since the Little Ice Age hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, its Thomas Training Center — contracted to the Alaska Pacific University (APU) nordic team — has only been around since the late 1990s.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, it was created to help American nordic skiers reach international success. Build it and they will come.
At a given time, APU can put about 20 athletes on the glacier for each of its weeklong camps. There, at 5,500 feet and a 10-minute helicopter ride above sea level, skiers can log quality volume training amounting to several hours a day on snow. And they can get a taste of what the 2015 World Championships courses in Falun, Sweden, will be like.
Just like last year, when APU put hours of GPS-mapping and grooming in to mimic the Sochi Olympic courses on Eagle Glacier, they’ve done it again — and APU Head Coach Erik Flora likes this loop better.
“I think this is the best course we’ve ever built,” he said on the phone from Anchorage last week. “Sochi was interesting: one long time out of the bottom and that takes a lot out of the course. … There’s no less climb in this course, but it’s broken up a little bit. We probably spent eight to ten hours with the PistenBully mapping out the course in the snow.”
That involved Flora and his team of coaches and wax techs (Dylan Watts, Don Haering, and Michael Matteson) making countless tracks and turns with the groomer, then getting out to ski them to see how each flows. They used a GPS to check their distance and measure grade.
“The best part about it is when you get it in the snow and you get your camps up there and you see the changes,” Flora said.
While APU hosts several of its own exclusive camps on its backyard glacier each spring, summer and fall, it’s also opened it up to other groups of elite skiers.
“I think that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen,” Flora said, reflecting on his six years as APU’s nordic director. “We do have a team, but we also have an open door for anyone to come out and train with us.”
From July 6-20, APU is hosting the North American Women’s Training Alliance (NAWTA): 13 women from across the U.S. and one Norwegian.
In addition to the five U.S. Ski Team women (Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, Kikkan Randall, and Liz Stephen), Norway’s Celine Brun-Lie joined the two-week camp as NAWTA’s international guest. Last year, they hosted Astrid Jacobsen.
Then there’s two-time Olympian Holly Brooks and her APU teammates (in addition to Bjornsen and Randall) Rosie Brennan, Rosie Frankowski, Becca Rorabaugh, and Lauren Fritz. Erika Flowers (Stratton Mountain School T2), Chelsea Holmes (Sun Valley Gold Team) and Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg) are also up on the glacier with the select training group.
Three French biathletes — one of which recently retired — have also been in Anchorage training with these women, along with Stephanie Kirk, an APU training partner and University of Vermont skier, and Jessica Yeaton of Australia.
Marie-Laure Brunet, who announced her retirement early last month, stayed with APU in May, along with Marine Bolliet, a current French biathlon national team member, who trained with the team in late May and June. Bolliet stuck around for one dryland day with the U.S. Ski Team (USST) last week before flying back for another camp in France.
The two women came to town to visit their former teammate Marine Dusser, a current University of Alaska-Anchorage skier and Erik Bjornsen’s girlfriend.
Sadie Bjornsen explained that having them around made for a “mini-France” up in Alaska, which she welcomed because “there is always something to learn from other athletes of other countries,” she wrote in an email. “We have had lots of time to talk about the way we train, how we approach training, and how we keep things fresh.”
Last Monday, the 14 women with the fourth-annual NAWTA started their Alaska camp with a week of dryland and rollerski training in places like Kincaid Park in Anchorage. And with people like Bolliet, Dusser, Kirk, Yeaton, and up to 70 others training with them on certain days, one would be hard pressed to find that many rollerskiers in one place anywhere else in the world right now.
That scene left Flora talking excitedly about the rising interest in Anchorage as a training hub. He’d seen 40 athletes rollerskiing along Kincaid’s hillside before, but 70?
“That’s by far the largest,” he said. “It’s becoming like a training center. On any given day you can have someone pop out that was a former World Cup medalist and … and having Celine with us, it’s the same thing. She joined us for our APU strength [session] the other night. She joined like it was just like her training club.”
The U.S. women’s team invited Brun-Lie to the camp, as it had with past guests, including Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Canada’s Perianne Jones and Chandra Crawford.
“She’s been a friend of our team for a couple years now so we knew what we’d be getting when she decided she’d like to join us,” USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb explained of Brun-Lie in an email. “She’s about as nice as they come and brings with her not just World Cup podium experience, but some of the smoothest technique on the World Cup. She rides a ski like Sophie and brings a ton to our group. Norway is lucky to have her on their team. We’ll do our best to send her home a bit faster as well.”
U.S. Men Arrive
And while his women’s team transitioned from dryland intensity to on-snow training on Eagle Glacier this past weekend, the U.S. men’s team started camp in Anchorage today for the first time as a unified group (Noah Hoffman had trained there previously, along with APU’s Erik Bjornsen). They’ll head up to the glacier next week.
The men’s training group includes 14 athletes as well, five of which are on the USST: Hoffman, Andy Newell, Simi Hamilton, Bjornsen, and Ben Saxton. APU skiers Reese Hanneman, David Norris, Lex Treinen, Tyler Kornfield, Eric Packer, and Scott Patterson were also invited, along with APU training partners Tucker McCrerey and Kyle Bratrud, and Brian Gregg (Team Gregg).
As for the goals of this men’s camp (led USST Head Coach Chris Grover and assisted by USST coach Jason Cork, Flora, and Matteson), Grover wrote that they’re shooting for “high-quality training” in the form of four to five intensity sessions while in Anchorage, “followed by some of the biggest volume of the season on-snow on Eagle Glacier.”
Also assisted by Cork and Flora, Whitcomb explained that the primary goal of the women’s camp “is to get the best women in the country together to train hard for fourteen days – just like the rest of our camps.”
Specifically, they’re aiming to become “just 1 or 2% faster each season,” which is where a competitive training atmosphere comes in handy.
“The aging model of training on your own for most of the preparation period is just not something I believe in,” Whitcomb wrote. “If you want to be stronger, you must surround yourself in strength.”
While he acknowledged there are exceptions, they’re rare.
“If you’re comfortable in every training session you’re either plateauing or slowing down,” he explained. “We put ourselves in vulnerable situations where failure is a real possibility. That’s how we succeed. It’s the training group itself that does its own coaching. The athletes receive feedback relative to the group in just about every aspect of training.”
Week 1 and Done
After the first week in Alaska, Whitcomb wrote that it was too early to compare the quality of training sessions compared to those in the past.
“The volume will be high [this] week so we’ll see how training is being absorbed soon enough,” he wrote. “It becomes fairly binary by Thursday. It is or it isn’t. Week one has been a success. Mostly because we saw that awesome bear.”
During a run, the group spotted a grizzly bear about 300 meters ahead on a hill — well off the trail.
“It was sleeping in a meadow and popped up its head, stood up to talk a look at us, and walked away,” Whitcomb wrote. “We were well armed with bear spray if needed.”
Luckily, they didn’t need it, but in an unrelated incident, Diggins had to get six stitches in her knee. According to Whitcomb, she tripped on her way to a swimming hole after a long skate rollerski at Hatcher Pass.
“She’s on the tougher side of the spectrum and had to only modify one workout by changing it from a run to a hike,” he wrote. “Her knee is stiff and a bit sore but training is still going well.”
As for other USST injuries, doctors cleared Caldwell for full training after she sustained a minor elbow fracture at the last training camp in Bend, Ore.
“Her range of motion has a bit more to go but I’ve been really pleased with the work she has done between camps with SMS T2,” Whitcomb explained. “Her legs are stronger and working technically better as a result of so much no pole and one pole training. She’s never really skipped a beat.”
According to Whitcomb, Erik Bjornsen’s back injury is recovered, and Newell’s back is “much better” after he tweaked it while weightlifting.
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.