Continental CupGeneralInterviewsNewsEric Packer: From Incremental Gains to World Cup Starts

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchNovember 30, 2016
Len Valjas (Canadian World Cup Team) after placing 38th in the freestyle sprint the day before: "Now that my lungs are feeling a bit better I just don't have the snap. I'm stuck doing Zone 3 so it's frustrating, especially to be at home it's even worse ... but there's nothing I can do. I'm stuck. ... It's still a good day. ... It was a sweet event. I wished I could've raced a bit more."
American Eric Packer (r) leads Canada’s Len Valjas (l) during the men’s 15 k freestyle pursuit at Stage 4 of the 2016 Ski Tour Canada in Quebec City in March. Packer placed 68th on the day. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad.com/NNF)

Eric Packer is back home. The 26-year-old Anchorage native is in his third year of training with Alaska Pacific University (APU), after heading East for college at Dartmouth and following that with a two-year stint on the Vermont-based Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team. Now he’s back in Alaska for good, training with the APU men and enjoying the benefits of this environment.

“We had a great summer of training with the whole [APU] team,” Packer said in a recent phone interview from Alaska. (Note: He’s currently in Europe on the World Cup circuit.) 

“I feel really lucky to be part of this group of guys that’s really pushing the boundaries forward. Everybody’s looking really good, and I’m really excited to see what the team can do. I personally feel like I’ve made some big improvements. I’ve trained more than I ever have, and was more consistent throughout the entire summer than I ever have been before. So feeling really positive about that.”

Packer reflected that the APU training facility on Eagle Glacier outside Girdwood, Alaska, is a key part of his estival endeavors. “Getting up on the glacier is a big component of that,” Packer said. “We had three really productive camps, with about 75 hours on snow. That really helped getting back on snow. I was having a conversation, I think, with Reese [Hanneman], and it was three-quarters of the way through the ski before he realized that it’s like technically our first ski. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the first ski.’ So that was kind of cool – just like having that contact with snow throughout the summer really makes the transition super easy, and that’s nice.”

The APUNSC men pushing each other during the final workout of our recent Eagle Glacier training camp. (Photo: Zuzanna Rogers)
The APU men on Eagle Glacier in summer 2015. (Photo: Zuzanna Rogers)

While Packer was not logging 25 hours per week on snow for the entire summer, he did credit volume training for his steadily increasing fitness.

Rather than a quantum leap, Packer identified the incremental gains that most athletes at his level are looking for. “Just every year chipping away at uphill running times, chipping away at ski bounding times,” Packer observed. “You never really see a big jump, but it’s just, every month, trying to get two, three, five seconds faster. And I felt like this year was a good continuation of the past few years – I saw a lot of improvements, just kind of across the board generally. … I’m feeling pretty good with that, where the base fitness is.”

Packer said that he “was just able to train consistently through the whole summer, so I was really happy with that.”

But that’s not a given after last summer, in June 2015, when Packer had a scary fall in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage that left him falling off “a small vertical drop of 10-15” feet, then “tumbl[ing] head over heels down steep rocky terrain” for another 60 feet or so. “I had no control in the fall,” Packer wrote about the incident, “which was a really scary feeling, but I remember being pretty sure I was not going to survive.”

The story has a happy ending: As Packer previously explained, “In terms of my actual injuries, I was incredibly fortunate for as bad as the fall was, I somehow managed to not break any bones, which still amazes me to this day.” Nonetheless, Packer said, “I was so banged up that I stayed home for a week with no training. Once I got the clearance from my doctor and PT to resume light activity, all I could do were easy walks.”

Going through the injury and recovery process last year “definitely did” change his outlook for this year, Packer said. “It impacted my approach to last season, and I think this summer I just felt really lucky that I was injury-free, and was able to train at full capacity all summer long and not have any setbacks like that. It was definitely one of those moments where you take a step back, and kind of reflect on everything, and reflect on how lucky you are to be a ski racer, to be able-bodied and healthy and all those sorts of things. I have a history of ankle sprains; for the first time in six years I didn’t have a serious ankle sprain. Didn’t fall off any cliffs this time.”

Packer planned to put that consistent training and improved fitness to the test in Europe; he had Period 1 World Cup start rights for 2016/2017 by virtue of being last season’s domestic SuperTour leader.

But he didn’t think it would be easy. “Racing World Cups, Period 1 in Europe, is really tough,” Packer said before he left for northern Scandinavia. “There’s no question about that. It’s probably the hardest competition that you’ll see all year in terms of depth of the field.”

(Packer’s comments seemed prescient a week later, when, in the season’s first World Cup race, Norway put two skiers on the podium it hadn’t planned on starting.)

Nonetheless, Packer was “very excited” for his first World Cup races in Europe; he had previously raced in Europe and on the World Cup last season in Canada, but this marked his first overseas World Cup. “The Ski Tour Canada was obviously amazing and really a cool racing experience,” Packer enthused, “but getting to race at classic venues, in Finland and Norway and Switzerland, that’s really the dream. So I’m looking forward to it.”

APU head coach Erik Flora (98) runs alongside his athletes Eric Packer (5) and Reese Hanneman during (4) the final of the men's 1.5 k classic sprint at U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich., in January 2016. (Photo: Christopher Schmidt)
APU head coach Erik Flora (98) runs alongside his athletes Eric Packer (5) and Reese Hanneman during (4) the final of the men’s 1.5 k classic sprint at U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich., in January 2016. (Photo: Christopher Schmidt)

Packer, who spoke with FasterSkier before leaving for Europe and racing in Ruka, said that he had two goals for his time in the opening swing of the World Cup season.

“My main goal is to take advantage of the opportunity to get, potentially, nine World Cup starts, and build as much experience as I can over the next month, and also learn the venues, and learn the cadence of World Cup racing,” he said. “And just really … have my eyes and ears open, and learn as much as possible. And learn from what I’m seeing other competitors doing – tactically, technically, that sort of thing. So that’s the first goal.”

“And the second goal,” he continued, “is to take each race as it comes. … I know that there will likely be tough days, but I’m just focused on taking each race, each day individually, and trying to give it my best shot in each one. It only takes one good day. So that’s really what I’m looking for, is to take advantage of the opportunity and give it my best on each day. Make the people back home proud.”

By the “cadence” of World Cup racing, Packer explained, he meant “building comfort and familiarity with that routine. To the point that you have a system where you can be focused on preparing for the race, and not get distracted by all of the other things surrounding the race.”

As an example, Packer cited the races at Gatineau this March: “At the World Cup venue there, they had a warmup track that was probably an 800-meter run from the wax cabin. And then the area that you actually accessed the course and accessed the start was yet a different location; that was probably like a 300- to 400-meter run. You’ve got ski boots on. And so just figuring out how to warm up, and then get on course.”

A little wax testing on Gatineau's 1.7 k sprint course, with the start/finish area visible at the upper right. (Photo: John Lazenby/lazenbyphoto.com)
A little wax testing on Gatineau’s 1.7 k sprint course, with the start/finish area visible at the upper right. (Photo: John Lazenby/lazenbyphoto.com)

“More generally,” he said, the cadence involves “just figuring out the racing logistics, and getting used to the extra hurdles that exist at the World Cup level in the race-day routine, that’s a big goal, too. So that you get to the point where you’re focused on the racing, and you’re doing the optimum warmup and everything, and working within the constraints of that World Cup atmosphere.”

When asked about his overall goals for the season, Packer hesitated to look much past Period 1 of the World Cup, although he acknowledged that World Championships in Lahti, Finland, were on his radar. “I would definitely be excited to qualify for Lahti, and that is one of the goals for the season,” Packer said. “I would say, right now my focus is first on Period 1, and doing my best there, and then I will reevaluate once that’s over.”

Regarding possibilities for the second half of the winter, he reiterated, “It’s really hard to tell right now. There’s so many different potential paths through the winter. Definitely hoping to be racing in Europe, that’s always the goal. But if not, I would certainly like to come back and give the [American] Birkie my best shot, so there’s many different options there.”

(Packer has raced the Birkie once before, in 2014, finishing 22nd overall.)

But he was glad to look back to what he identified as the highlight of his ski career to date.

Winning Nationals last year,” was his immediate answer. “That was just – and not actually winning, but coming into the finish with Reese and with Tyler together,” Packer said, referring to his APU teammates Hanneman and Tyler Kornfield. “And having that moment of like, ‘Wow, we have three of us here in contention, and being part of that group.’”

Packer continued: “And [APU head coach Erik] Flora was running next to us, and he was like swinging his arm around like a windmill, and just so excited. And then at the same time my childhood coach, Jan Buron from [Alaska] Winter Stars, and my college coach, Ruff Patterson, were both there at the finish. So kind of that moment of having everybody who’s been involved in my skiing from seventh grade all the way through now, and coming into the finish with my two teammates – that was a really special moment.

Eric Packer racing in the Ski Tour Canada in March 2016, with the beard in full late-winter flourish. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad.com/NNF)
Eric Packer racing in the Ski Tour Canada in March 2016, with the beard in full late-winter flourish. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad.com/NNF)

“It was pretty fun. I got a big hug from Flora, then got a big hug from Jan, got a big hug from Ruff – it was a cool moment, for sure. It will definitely be a special moment for me.”

Finally, Packer looked back more recently, to what he’d had for breakfast that morning, then once more ahead, to his plans for hirsute management over the course of the winter.

“I had two pieces of toast, with avocado, and a fried egg on top of that; a cup of coffee, with just a little bit of half-and-half, no sugar; and a banana,” Packer explained, with the precision of someone whose Dartmouth degree is in mechanical engineering.

And as for the facial hair? “So last winter,” recalled Packer, who was previously recognized with Bearded Honorable Mention #1: The Lumberjack in FasterSkier’s West Yellowstone beards roundup of Nov. 2015, “I went with the ‘grow it all season’ approach. I think I’m going to take a step back from that this year, and keep it more in check. We’ll see. You never know; it has a mind of its own.”

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Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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