You should be in Bend. Bend, Oregon. Right now.
For all of my “shallow readers” in the audience, those unable to focus on any piece of written work longer than 140 characters (you know who you are), you can stop here. You’ve both learned everything you need to know and also everything your SnapChat-addled brain can handle, so you’re done. For those of you with attention spans longer than those of fruit flies, dig in, as I’m about to plan your next trip for you — and here’s the good news — it’s this weekend. Or next year at this time. And every year thereafter.
Let me see if I can guess what’s going on right now for most of you — you’ve already storage waxed your skis for the summer, you’re back out on your mountain bike, and you’re re-reading each of my whap-stick reviews (skate & classic) every night before you go to bed. You tell yourself each morning as you go through your visualization and meditation routine, in which you attempt to teleport into my magnificent body and life, that this is the year that you’re going to set a PR at the (insert your favorite race here), beat your nemesis (insert the name of that person who you’ve been chasing for a decade or so) or finally slay that dragon and qualify into Wave 6 of the Birkie. Then your change-adverse subconscious kicks in and tells your mind, “Hey brain, these are great goals — you know what we really ought to do? We should do the same thing that we’ve been doing for the last 5, 10, 15, or 20 years, I bet THIS year is the year that it finally works.” Sure, that’s one approach, but you know what’s an even better tactic, one that might actually work? Try something new. And he’s a shocker, start by spending more time on snow. It is for this strategy that this report is going to come in handy.
Once you make this leap of faith and commit to change, the hard part is over and then it’s just a matter of figuring out what you’re going to do differently (read, better). As usual, I have you covered, as what better way to dilute the knee-buckling pressures of adulthood and obstinate Great Danes than to escape to a place filled with cool people. And not just cool people, YOUR people. And Bend is that place. Not only can you still get on snow here right now, but you can get on really good snow.
This isn’t an article about some BS 2 k loop in a carbon-monoxide-filled tunnel in the armpit of Europe. In fact, it’s about as far away from that (both literally and figuratively) as possible. The Nordic center in Bend is nestled between 1,752 and 1,950 meters at the base of Mt. Bachelor and offers an amazing array of trails and options. Right now, all 56 k of perfectly prepared trails are open and believe it or not, the venue is still getting regular new snowfall.
“This is truly an amazing place,” said Sue Foster, director of the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Ski Center. “Our snow in early to mid-May is usually quite reliable, but this is a particularly great year, even for us. We’re still grooming the whole network, so every trail is still open, which is pretty awesome for this time of year. We may shut the lower loops down soon, but we’re still going to to have a lot of skiing available into mid-June.”
It is for all of these reasons and more (more on this in a bit), that Bend is the venue of choice in May for all of the U.S. nordic national teams: US Biathlon, Cross Country, Nordic Combined, Paralympics Nordic, and several top junior teams are either here right now or coming shortly.
“This is a fabulous place to train in May,” said US Biathlon Women’s Coach Jonne Kähkönen. “We’ve been coming here for several years as it is a perfect place to log a lot of quality hours on snow, really focus on technique and have a wide variety of outstanding dryland training options as well.
“I coached in Finland before I took this position with US Biathlon and we used to go to the glacier in Ramsau, Austria, for a similar camp, but this is really much better,” he continued. “Not only is the snow as good or better, but everything is much easier logistically, as you don’t have to take a gondola up every day to ski and the afternoon dryland training is accessible from right outside the condo. It’s a great way to start the season.”
Reigning biathlon world champion Lowell Bailey elaborated on some of the concepts from Kähkönen: “I come to Bend because it has been one of the most dependable places for quality on-snow training in May. With more than 50 kilometers of trails and world-class grooming, there is no better place to start the training season each year.”
His fellow world championship medalist Tim Burke concurred: “Bend is the perfect place to kick off the training season because you can combine ski-specific training in the morning with world class mountain biking in the afternoon. I don’t know of any other locations that can offer this combination in May.” But don’t just take their word for it, as this video says it all:
The XC mafia is out in force, too, with their whole gaggle on-site as well. “I’ve spent a lot of time here,” said Chris Grover, head coach of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team. “Probably going back to the ’80s. From the national-team perspective, it’s a no-brainer — we can ski every morning on legitimate cross-country trails, which is not really something you can do on the glaciers in Europe, then in the afternoon, Bend also offers all sorts of amazing dryland options. On top of all of that, the community support that we have here is unreal: everything from the management and staff at Mt. Bachelor, to fellow skiers, to the community in general, we are always blown away at how nice people are here and how willing everyone is to lend a hand if we need help with something crazy. It’s an incredible place.”
The cross-country athletes share all of these sentiments as well: “The U.S. Ski Team Bend training camp is a tradition that pre-dates me, for sure,” said longtime, wily U.S. Ski Team veteran Andy Newell. “I don’t know the exact origins, but I believe it started a generation or two before me with Justin Wadsworth and all of those guys — maybe even earlier, I’m not sure — but there’s a reason why we keep coming back, it’s because it’s pretty awesome.”
Newell continued, “Bend is sweet for many reason: amazing trails, reliable conditions, and manageable elevation, so the overall quality of the training is very high, which is not something you can do in many places in Europe, especially at this time of year. In addition, the overall vibe is really cool. The camp itself has lots of focus on technique, not hammering intervals, so it’s really nice to be able to just enjoy being back together with your teammates and have fun being back on snow. Plus, as you well know, FBD, the afternoons are open for all sorts of shenanigans. It is without a doubt one of the best camps of the year.”
So elites are here, pre-elites are here, juniors are here, but what about you, the mid-life crisis, disenfranchised desk jockey with 2.2 kids, a white picket fence and a possible brain-damaged Great Dane that somehow still does not know his name, is this place for you? Of course it is.
How can I write this with such confidence? Well, for starters, I am one of you: you are “my people” and vice versa. I’ve been on the tracks every day for two weeks and the skiing is amazing. However, if you are a regular reader, Instagram follower (and you certainly should be, as I am awesome), or you only know me by reputation, you may have some “concerns.” For example, why don’t we take a completely wild hypothetical: let’s say that I have lost my mind and have been filling my free time pretty much exclusively just skiing, mountain biking, paddling, and trolling Josh Smullin on Instagram. Again, this is purely hypothetical. So in this clearly random and arbitrary example, you’re now likely thinking, “this dude is nuts, I’m not going to listen to him” (often a very sound strategy, btw). OK, fine, if you aren’t going to listen to me, nonetheless Lowell, Timmy, Andy, or Kikkan, maybe you will listen to one of my favorite nordic power couples and dyed-in-the wool, uber-Master Blasters, Pat and Cyndy Flores. I’ve crossed paths with these globe trotters in Alaska, Switzerland, all over the continental U.S., and seemingly every other place where the snow is good, so it made complete sense that these crafty snow-chasers were smiling in the sun on the deck as I walked up to the nordic center one morning.
“You can’t beat Bend in May,” noted a tan, fit, and rested-looking Pat Flores. “Cyndy and I would come up here regardless, as there is so much great training, good restaurants and nice people, but what really makes the trip a no-brainer for us is we do JD’s master’s camp each year and this is really the icing on the cake.”
Cyndy agreed, “This is one of the few places that not only has reliable snow in May, but to be able to stay in a nice condo only 20 minutes from snow and also less than 10 minutes from a really cool town with all kinds of great restaurants, shops and fun stuff to do, makes this a ‘must-do’ every year. JD’s masters camp is great, the skiing is great, the food is great and if you’re really lucky, you might get to ski with FBD!” (Ed. note: REALLY LUCKY, as he is both everywhere and quite elusive, all at the same time, in particular when stories are due).
I have personally never attended one of JD’s camps, so being the always suspicious, ever-vigilant investigative reporter than I am, I didn’t just take Pat and Cyndy’s word for it, I also went straight to the source, XC Oregon Head Coach John “JD” Downing. “The camp is a great way for masters skiers to get to the next level,” Downing said. “We keep it fairly small, so there is a lot of personalized attention and the venue is amazing. Bend doesn’t just have skiing in May, it has really good skiing in May. Sadly, climate change is a reality everywhere, but this is one of the places that still seems to be holding up well. In fact, some of the best days I’ve ever had on snow anywhere in the world have been in Bend in early May. As you well know, you can ski all morning, then bike and run in the afternoon on a trail system that is also world class. You can even go play a round of golf. It’s an extraordinary thing, really. This why so many national teams come here at this time of year.”
Speaking of national teams and master blasters, Kähkönen offered very valuable advice for athletes of all ages, in particular masters: “My recommendation is to adapt your training to your length of stay. If you can only make it out for an extended weekend, that’s OK, as this can still be very productive. In this scenario, focus on skiing well and don’t worry too much about your levels of exertion. You’re at altitude and you probably won’t feel as good if you are sea level athlete, but for a short stay, that’s okay. If you are able to come out for a more extended block of training though, keep a close eye on your levels. Altitude can be tricky, so be careful to not go to hard every day. You should use this camp to set a solid aerobic base and technical foundation for the year, so be smart.”
Grover also offered up some top-secret, US Ski Team ninja sh*t: “This is a phenomenal place for skiers at all levels to come to start their seasons, as Mt. Bachelor can throw lots of different conditions at you. We view this as a strength, not a weakness, though, as it’s a great place to improve your skills, in particular in classic. If you’re here for a week, you’ll likely ski on hard wax, klister and zeros, so it is a perfect environment to test equipment, wax and work on technique in these different conditions. Even if you are mainly skating, you’ll get fresh snow, wet snow, dry snow, old snow, hard pack, and slush, sometimes many of these in one day. These variable conditions are something that you usually don’t get on glaciers, so without a doubt, practicing in this environment has made us better skiers as a national team and it most certainly will help skiers of all levels.”
Now that this esteemed panel has convinced you to make the trip, the next question is, “How are you going to roll? There’s BALLER, FBD-style, which means that you’ll need a stevedore to unload all of your gear (I like to have the options to choose between lots of colors and styles of underwear each morning).
Study at the feet of the master and bring six sets of skis (rock classic, cruiser classic, race classic, rock skate, cruiser skate and race skate — yes, not having both cold race skate and warm race skate still has you upset, but you’re praying that you’ll be able to make your “cold skate” race skate skis work, as you are pretty frickin’ adaptable). Now over-stuff your ski bag with base layers of every conceivable thickness, material, color and style. Ditto for mountain-bike gear. Double-ditto for running gear. Better bring that paddling gear, too, just just in case Timmy Burke gets his nerves back after his horrific loss to me in our race on Lake Placid, then, since everyone knows you have a reputation for looking real nice for the ladies, you’ll also need your traditional two bags of personal grooming items and tastefully coordinated couture.
To adequately transport all of this crap, you’re going to need one of those stupid monster trucks but that’s OK, as your top priority is to make it to the tracks every day, regardless of road conditions, completely ignoring the fact that the scenic highway to the mountain is perfectly maintained and essentially never closes. You’ve never been one to listen to reason and you’re certainly not going to start now (after all, you are a self-loathing nordic skier who pays money to suffer) so you rationalize this ridiculous gas guzzler with the explanation that you also need this vehicle so you have room for the sherpas, in particular your shirt sherpas, as those dudes are indispensable. If you’re fortunate enough to snag one of the rare and exclusive invites to have dinner with me and you show up looking like you slept in your clothes, “my people” will immediately show you to the door. You’ve been warned. So yup, better pack that travel steamer as well.
This excessively wasteful and cumbersome manner of travel isn’t for everyone though — I get that — and to be fair, it is really more of a lifestyle and not something for which everyone is suitable emotionally and financially equipped, which is fine. Some of you out there in FasterSkier-land may consider yourself the nordic version of Seal Team 6, and thanks to my gripping expose on why you never need to do laundry again, you may prefer to go commando and travel with just one pair of socks, undies, and a T-shirt. Well, fear not my nimble travelers, I have you covered here as well (see what I did there?).
If you want to really go for it, you can do this trip with just a backpack. Load your ski boots and cycling shoes in your day pack and wear your running shoes. Stuff your one extra pair of socks and skivvies into your boots, eschew the bulky and pesky toothbrush for a pack of Tic Tacs that you pick up at a gas station in town, and POW, you are set. The fine folks at my favorite shop, WebCyclery, will hook you up with the rest: skis, boots, poles and mountain bike. If you’re one of those “I don’t need 20 outfits but I need my own skis” types, fear not, as WebCyclery also has a public wax bench, so you don’t actually have to choose between either of these two extreme examples and there is plenty of room for a reasonable, middle-of-the-road approach. Do yourself a favor, though, and regardless of which camp you gravitate towards, avoid the “why you need to travel wax” lecture from my good buddy Zach Caldwell and be pro: travel wax, then scrape at WebCyclery or up at the nordic center. The most important point here is regardless of where you are on the baggage, underwear and ski spectrum, I’m dead serious, you really can do a great, multi-day training camp with only a carry-on bag.
Now you’re geared-up and ready to crush the ski each morning, but what about the rest of your day? Glad you asked. It just so happens that Bend has a wide variety of trails to suit every skill level taste and agro level. Whether you are a normal person who can can chill in Level 1 and simply enjoy the super fun, flowing trails, or if you are one of “those guys” who gets all kitted up and lurks in the bushes ready to pounce on Adam Craig or Ryan Trebon as they ride by so you can shame them with your exemplary nordic fitness (completely disregarding the fact that they are probably out cruising and you’re about to ‘ring the bell’) none of that matters. What matters is that this place is perfectly suited for you to either be super-smart and carefully but gradually build your base fitness while loving life, or you can go out and hammer every day and completely blow yourself up by doing stupid sh*t. I know that’s how some of you roll and I’m not your mother, so knock yourself out. If you do fall into the latter category, please be sure to tell Adam and Ryan that I say hi, but don’t come crying to the FBD when you find yourself wrecked in January. Remember, no one wants to be a “Thanksgiving star and a Christmas turkey.” Church.
All right, where was I? Ah, yes, what to do with the rest of your day: the ski was epic, you tore up the dirt faster than the GOP shredding Obamacare and since you’ve now logged over six hours of training on your way to being sick and injured, you’re so hungry that you’re ready to eat your own head. Please tell me you’re not one of those annoying nordic nerds who flies with chopped up, organic, locally sourced carrots in your carry-on, nestled between the hand sanitizer and the Nalgene bottle that you filled up in the bathroom. If so, stop it, stop it right now. Have a beer and a can of Pringles on the flight like a normal person.
If this is you however, you’re probably also going to cook breakfast at your condo each morning and subsist on PBJs that you eat in the car on the drive home, as you’re concerned about not achieving the correct 4:1 carb/protein ratio before your glycogen window closes. This is all well and good, but I’d kill myself if I lived like this, so my advice to my one or two normal readers is treat yourself, after all, who deserves it more than you, right? Don’t worry, I hear ya, you’ve blown 90% of your disposable income on new skis, flights, condos, and Great Danes, so you don’t want to break the bank on lavish meals. Fair point. But, in addition to all sorts of great restaurants with real plates, flatware and food served by humans, there are some economical options that fit the bill nicely without decimating your wallet: two FBD favorites are Parrilla and The Pancake Wagon. There’s also a parking lot full of food trucks, aptly named, “The Lot,” which offers all sorts of options for people comfortable eating food that has been prepared in a structure that can drive away at a moment’s notice, one step ahead of the law.
And let’s not forget the beer — ah, my beloved beer, the source of, and solution to, so many of life’s problems. So while the FBD loves beer and Bend has all kinds of great beer places, interestingly enough, you know what the FBD hates? To be fair, this list is long and distinguished and merits an entire series of its own, so for now let’s confine this to the context of this discussion, the FBD hates the hipster/yuppie/hippie/yippie whateverthehellyourproblem is, beer snob. Yes, beer is awesome, but you know what none of us need? Some smug, pseudo-olfactory savant weirdo wearing an outfit that looks like it came out of my grandmother’s basement and a haircut that screams that he lost a bet, telling us why some particular brew “has a nose that resembles Costa Rican coco beans buried behind a pit toilet with a hint of a 1972 Volkswagen Bug seat covers,” or whatever nonsense the hip crowd is spewing these days. Just order you goddamn beer and shut up. Guy code is that you have between 15 – 20 seconds to place a beer order, with no editorializing. The ONLY circumstances in which you can offer anyone at the table any advice or commentary whatsoever is if they directly and specifically ask you a question and even in this very focused and narrow circumstance, you answer must again be limited to 15 – 20 seconds. I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.
So assuming you navigate through these hipster-invested waters of annoying ignorance, pomp and circumstance, you should be good to go. Or are you? If you’re anything like me, my thinking in this situation usually goes something along the lines of, “I skied over 50 k today AND crushed Adam Craig in a race so secret that not even he knew it was happening, so I have earned these 162 ‘cheat calories’…..…Wait a minute…. 162 calories? In only ONE beer? Damn, that’s a lot. Maybe I should go do some sit-ups in the bathroom or I’ll never make that cut for Wave 6. I feel fat just thinking about this. Now everyone is looking at me, I can feel it. Oh crap. Do I look fat in these pants? I knew I should have skied another hour. I wonder what Noah Hoffman is having for dinner? I really wish he still blogged daily……” Then I go in the bathroom and do 15 minutes of core while sobbing uncontrollably. But that’s me.
OK, let’s move on. I now have you set up for skis, bikes, and food, anything else else? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably going to completely disregarded the very sage advice of world-class coaches like Kähkönen and Grover (we don’t need to talk about my lactate reading after doing a supposed threshold block with Burke and Bailey), and you’re now completely wrecked. Sure, you could give up and fly home while attempting to pick up the pieces of your shattered life, or, you could simply train wisely in the first place, but we all also know that you are a stubborn nordic skiers, so you aren’t going to do either one of those things, which means that your only other option is to get some professional help. Step One is to get a massage from someone who specializes in working on athletes. For this, my go-to guy is Scott Yount. He has worked on all kinds of elite skiers, so stop your crying, he can get your whiny nordic ass back out there overtraining in no time. If things really get bad, or if you showed up with some pre-existing conditions (which shortly won’t be covered by proposed, “new and improved” and “really terrific” Affordable Care Act, so act fast), hit up the PT to the stars, Dave Cieslowski, DPT, CSCS. He also specializes in Type-A, needy, nordic skiers (and is one himself), so you guys will hit it off great.
Finally, since as always, I like to make all of these reports as long and rambling as possible, not to mention my rigorous and adorable sense of honor and integrity, I would like to go on record right now and state that I do not receive any sort of remuneration whatsoever from any of these people, organizations, restaurants, shops, businesses, clubs, cliques, or churches. My uncle does not own the bike shop, nor does my brother-in-law work at the burrito place. I am simply giving you a sampling of some of your many options and suggesting places for which I have had very positive experiences. My goal is to make your trip out here not only as easy as possible, but also as fun and as successful as all of mine have been, with as little effort on your part as possible. Let’s be real clear here, too — this is this is like divulging your secret powder stash or favorite surf spot, so if you do happen to run into me somewhere in the world, suffice it to say that you owe me a beer, as you aren’t getting information of this quality from many other places. That’s just how we roll at here at FasterSkier.
You also need to promise to use this information for good, never evil. I’m trusting you with all sorts of top secret beta and if you embarrass me, I’m gonna be pissed. If you bring a bunch of East Coast attitude, use your cell phone in line at the burrito place, or get all pushy in the tent behind The Pancake Wagon and someone kicks you in the nuts, well, you had it coming. Don’t hate on these places or write me that my recommendations suck — that’s on you — this is not check-in at the Philadelphia International Airport. You are in polite society now, so act accordingly.
A few other tips, as noted earlier, the weather is unpredictable, so come prepared for sun, wind and snow, perhaps all in the same day. Embrace this, though, as there is something incredibly bad-ass about having to have the heat blasting on the drive up to the ski and the AC cranking on the drive home. Be prepared to deal with whatever the mountain throws at you — remember, skiing is an outdoor activity and you will most likely see very different conditions each day. Thankfully, I was able to shoot perhaps the most informative video EVER on mental preparation, so I’d advise watching this every morning before you head up:
In general, the optimal ski window is usually between 8:30-10:30 a.m., so lie around in bed for too long and things will get soft. If you consider your weather forecasting and navigational skills to be superior, there is also amazing crust cruising to be had when the conditions cooperate.
Watch your goodies coming back in, though, as one route back to civilization has some mighty big kickers: these are known as, “FBD Killers,” so I only hit them a few times.
The alpine skiing is also awesome, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Some of the really hard-core locals will hit the tracks at 8:30 for a few hours, transition directly to alpine, grab some lunch, paddle, then go for a ride or run. If that’s not a perfect day, I don’t know what is.
In conclusion, Bend is one of the nicest places in the world to be in May for nordic skiers of all levels. “I never, ever get tired of this place,” Foster mused. “Every day up here is special. Each day has its own personality and every one is different. Even the drive to the nordic center is amazing. You’re in the trees for most of the trip up, then you hit the high country, turn the corner, and you can see the mountains — it’s breathtaking. It’s just such a cool reminder that everything is okay in the world.”
So instead of squandering those frequent flyer miles on something stupid like going to visit family, invest in your future and book a flight into Bend (Redmond) today. From there, you are less than 30 minutes away from having all of your problems solved. You’re welcome.
And remember, you owe me a beer. One that doesn’t smell too much like VW seat covers, if it’s not too much trouble, please.
Jon "Fast Big Dog" Schafer
Fast Big Dog is a paradoxically gregarious yet reclusive, self-absorbed mystic and world traveler. In addition to his calling to right the wrongs in the ski fashion and gear world, he also brings his style, wit and devilish charm to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as the Nordic High Performance Director and Worldwide Director of Morale and Awesomeness. Savor these articles while you can, as his Great Dane puppy may burn down his house at any moment, possibly making this his last transmission.