Closing the Gap: Racing in the Dark

FasterSkierDecember 20, 2017
Soft Scandinavian Cup track as seen last weekend at the Dec. 15-17 Scando Cup in Vuokatti, Finland, “the same conditions for Sundby all the way down to me,” author Maks Zechel writes.

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series proposed by Maks Zechel, a 20-year-old Canadian cross-country skier embarking on his first season training abroad. In August, he made the big move to Norway, where he’ll be training and racing with Team Asker for the entire winter. Through these updates, Maks hopes to share his personal “observations, stories and lessons learned” to help close the gap between North American and Scandinavian nordic skiing. Previous posts: #1, #2, #3#4#5#6, and #7.


Part 1: Vuokatti

It’s Thursday morning and I’m in the Oslo airport, waiting to catch a flight to my second Scandinavian Cup race weekend of the winter. I haven’t seen the sun yet and, from what I’ve heard, my destination of Vuokatti, Finland, doesn’t look much like a Caribbean postcard either.

Two flights and an hour on a bus later, we arrive in Vuokatti. There is something about 3 p.m. total darkness that I suspect I will never grow accustomed to; it’s the impending sense of urgency that I need to go to bed soon. Or maybe that’s just coming from the fact that I still have to check into the hotel, ski the race loop, test skis, eat dinner, and then write my final exam for my online university course. By the time I start my exam, and reboot my laptop after it crashes, it’s 8 p.m. … classic.

We wake up before the first race in the dark. The sun allegedly rises into the cloudy, snowy sky at 9:59 a.m. and sets at 2:07 p.m. Despite our noon start time, the trails remain cast in dusky shadows, and the entire race loop, and ski jumps overlooking the stadium, remain lit 24/7. For the record, I spent approximately 72 hours in Finland, and I can’t confirm that the sun actually touches that part of the world; for all I witnessed they might just brighten the streetlights every morning.

We jog a few hundred meters from the hotel to the race site, located by the Vuokatti Olympic training center. All the racers are staying in two large hotels within walking distance of the race site, which creates an exciting “athlete village” atmosphere. Vuokatti is an epic training and racing location with 7.5 k+ of lit world class ski trails, early season snow making, a ski tunnel, and ski jumping and biathlon venues. Nordic countries don’t seem to like hosting races anywhere with a big chalet, or with any chalet at all, so we set up base in the snow. Luckily for us, the infamous Finnish cold weather decided to leave for the weekend. The stadium is tiny, hardly wide enough for a finishing straight, miniscule individual start corral, and a lap lane. It’s easy to feel lost amongst the tall, uniform pines of a snowy Finnish forest, but the Vuokatti course has something for everyone. Each day, 200-250 participants are on the senior men’s start line, with Norway, Sweden and Finland well represented; the top 100 doesn’t get more competitive than this anywhere in the world.

As I’m warming up for my 15 k skate race, I have never recognized so many people that I’ve never seen before in real life: “Oh hey random Norwegian skier, congrats on beating your 3000-meter track PB this summer! By the way, say hi to your dog for me.” The potential for a seriously awkward conversation with one of my idols is too high, so I try my best to avoid in-awe-eye-contact…

Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo in his debut race of his record-setting 2017/2018 season. In eight World Cup starts so far, he’s won seven of them. Here he’s shown racing at Norway’s FIS season opener in Beitostølen last month. (Photo: Maks Zechel)

At the end of the first day our teammate, Erland, placed 19th, with Ryan and I at 107th and 132nd. After racing in the Beitostølen Scandinavian Cup and Gålå Norwegian Cup race weekends in November, it remains hard to swallow our pride as we race better than we ever have, but still fall far short of our lofty goals.

However, the lessons that we learn in every international race that we compete in are crucial to our development. During the 15 k classic race in Vuokatti, my teammate, Eirik, was caught by the eventual top-two skiers of the day, Ristomatti Hakola (Finland) and Martin Nyenget (Norway). Eirik is a strong double poler, so he was impressively able to stay with them until the set of steep hills in the last 2 k of the course, where they put around 50 seconds into Eirik per lap. What he was unable to match, was the insane power that Hakola and Nyenget were kicking their skis with, giving them big glides on even the steepest pitches where I had to run out of the tracks

Racing with athletes who are able to ski at this level creates an unforgiving racing environment if you are unable to push yourself to new heights. After a poor race, the performance is reflected by a drop of dozens of spots down the results sheet. Scandinavians respect the high level of these races and they know that there are hundreds of skiers working just as hard as them, ready to take their place if they don’t race fast. Poor races by even the best cause them to disappear down the results (Petter Northug finished 17th in a Norwegian Cup race this winter). Although Erland is an incredible skier who is capable of top-20 Scandinavian Cup results, he had placings of 89th and 47th in Beitostølen. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but the results clearly represented that he was not in top form at the time. Good performances are rewarded in the opposite manner. That is the nature of these races, where 1 minute gained or lost can mean 30-50 spots. In the Vuokatti sprint, the top-30 men in qualifying were all within 5.87 seconds, with the top 58 within 10.55 seconds, and top 84 within 15.15 seconds. The reality is harsh, but it feels productive to know exactly where I stand against the best.

World Cup racing is ridiculously hard, and that is a lesson that should be experienced as early as possible. When I was 132nd in the 15 k skate race in Vuokatti, a good race for me, it felt like a smaller reward than I was used to for my efforts. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of competitors, but it helps to look at the time gap when looking for achievable next steps. In this race I was 4:38 minutes behind race winner, Daniel Stock (Norwegian skier with a World Cup podium from last year). It’s a lot over a 38-minute race, but if I can shave off 1 minute by the end of the season, then I’m in the top 100. Wherever I place, at the end of the day I know how far away I am from top World Cup contenders. Doing these races doesn’t make getting fast easier, but it does put into perspective exactly how much my efforts and improvements mean on an elite level.

Every weekend these races feel a little more familiar, a bit more like home. The competition is intimidating, but every race still has the same enthusiastic community of athletes, volunteers, coaches, wax techs, friends, and families that we are used to in Canada. In Beitostølen, a stressed Ryan was enthusiastically interviewed four minutes before his race start and the NRK commentators talked about our goals in Norway and this FasterSkier blog for over a minute on national television. In Vuokatti, the race announcer introduced us as the two Canadians living in Asker, Norway, with their goal of becoming two of Canada’s best World Cup skiers. It’s flattering to be known like this, despite struggling to come even close to the top 100, and it makes us feel like we belong. Soon enough we will make sure we are known for more than just booking a couple of plane tickets to Norway.

Part 2: Getting to the Top

Author Maks Zechel repping the Asker Skiklubb white and blue.

Racing in Scandinavia is like getting on the freeway out of the city at 5 p.m. on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend; everyone is heading in the same direction, and no matter who you are, you have to be patient and observant in order to seize the opportunities that will bring you to the front of the never-ending queue. In Canadian racing, we often lack this traffic, and this causes skiers to race at their own level, because there aren’t enough skiers of similar abilities to push each other to the top. I believe that it is still possible to become a great skier from racing in North America, but we have to be prepared to take even bigger risks than our Scandinavian counterparts, as we can be sure that they are encountering far more opportunities than us.

From my experiences watching NorAm, SuperTour, Scandinavian Cup, and World Cup results, the best skier of the day will often win a three-lap 15 k with a certain order of lap times: the first lap is the fastest to take advantage of fresh legs, the second lap is the slowest, and the the third lap is the second fastest. These margins are small, but they indicate a skier who has skied a smart and controlled race, riding the edge of blowing up in order to expend energy perfectly and close fast where weaker skiers tire. This is how a winner skis a race. The skiers who don’t win the race ski differently because they are not at the same level. If they ski in the same controlled manner, they fall short of the win because they cannot maintain the same pace/execute the same pace changes. A dark horse who is trying to win, or merely trying to break through the ranks, gives everything in an effort to ski at a level that is higher than they can actually maintain. They may try to go out as hard as possible, risking blowing up early with the hope that they will be able to maintain a “suicide pace”. The skiers who don’t control the race usually ski with positive splits, becoming slower each lap on a good day, because if their splits are negative it means they will lose too much time at the start of the race.

In North America, we get comfortable skiing like winners. The shock comes when we try to make the jump to World Cups, and we suddenly have to relearn how to ski like developing skiers, to ski like we are trying to break through to the top.

Here’s a fact: nobody comes to World Cups from North America and starts winning right away. The jump is too big to make all at once. Scandinavians can sometimes go straight to the top, because they had to grow up skiing like losers, or at least skiing like winners who had to fight against 30 other winners every race. The issue is that North Americans begin to relearn the lessons of devastating time gaps at an important point in their careers, when ideally they would be fighting competitively for coveted World Cup top 30s. We’re not developing as much as we could at home, because we’re not desperately fighting just to come top 50 or top 100 as juniors and U23s. Not to say that you can’t develop hugely between the ages of 25 and 35 (many do), but we rarely see this happen in North America because the attrition rate of skiers in that age range is so high. Many skiers never see their full potential realized.

In North America, we get comfortable skiing like winners. The shock comes when we try to make the jump to World Cups, and we suddenly have to relearn how to ski like developing skiers, to ski like we are trying to break through to the top.

In Vuokatti, numerous small skiing nations were well represented, countries that we North Americans would see as “lesser” skiing nations, when in fact they’re doing things better than us. The Vuokatti Scandinavian Cup saw a large contingent of Chinese national-team skiers compete, and at Beitostølen, Japan was well represented. I even saw a couple of Mongolian skiers in Finland. These national-team skiers are consistently starting Scandinavian Cups in their pursuit of becoming competitive on the World Cup (zero Chinese skiers started the Toblach World Cup, while 10 Chinese men and women started in Vuokatti the same weekend). These small skiing nations recognize that they cannot develop all of their athletes through World Cup starts, so they send their remaining skiers to the next best thing. This mentality has led Japan to produce podium-capable World Cup skiers such as Masako Ishida and top 15 contenders such as Keishin Yoshida.

We need to fill up our quota spots on the World Cup, but for the rest of us, Scandinavian Cups are an equally good opportunity to develop. A month of World Cup racing can cost a Canadian National Team member upwards of $5,000 Canadian dollars (not including flights). Last winter Team Hardwood Elite ran a one-month trip from Canada to Norway for $2,700 CAD (flights included) per athlete, where they raced nine Scandinavian- and Norwegian Cup-level races. We shouldn’t scoff at local-level Norwegian races either, which can be found all over the country every weekend of the winter. Sondre Turvoll Fossli, a World Cup medalist, won a local race, with a senior men’s field of 12, in Lier, the same weekend as Toblach and Vuokatti. At a local race in Konnerud the weekend before, I was bib number 1051 as the last starter of the day. Only 17 senior men raced, but the winner has placed top five in Norwegian Cups.

Many North American skiers want to break through on the World Cup, but there are limited World Cup starts that offer a small and difficult opportunity for us to impress on a stage that we have never experienced before. The chances of breaking through this way have proven nearly impossible for numerous talented North Americans. For the countless incredible skiers who didn’t even receive those World Cup opportunities, the chance of World Cup success is a long-dissolved dream. This builds the impression that only a select few North American skiers can ever be great. This is untrue. The truth is that only a select few will ever break through when offered a handful of World Cup-level racing opportunities. The truth is also that us remaining North Americans have the ability to achieve that same level, but we must do so more patiently and down a less traditional path. If you truly want a chance at becoming competitive on the World Cup, you don’t have to fight for years to qualify for a World Cup development experience that most of us cannot afford. Instead you can race as many Scandinavian/Norwegian Cups as you like, every year, at a far cheaper cost, which will allow you to race against skiers who are already at the World Cup level that many of us dream to achieve. These skiers are no more talented than our skiers, they just have had the time and the countless opportunities to race at a level that most of us never have the chance to see.

This leaves an important question: who is left to race in North America? It is hard to develop our best senior athletes to become World Cup podium contenders, it is harder still to do this in such a way that will allow all of our younger skiers to develop, too. My experience in Norway has been a positive one so far, and I will continue to promote what I am doing. But I should not have to come to Norway to develop. The simplest way for an individual to learn to race like the Scandinavians is to come to a country like Norway, but by individually developing overseas, we put a stop to the widespread development that we could be doing back home.

Norwegians are successful at skiing because they love it; skiing is everywhere in Norway, and for that reason Norwegians never have to go far from home to ski fast. Top Norwegian skiers race in local races because they know that good racing is great development, no matter who you’re racing against. If we want races to be competitive, then it’s up to us to race fast.

Youth and masters alike getting some early season ‘ k’s in on Nakkertok Nordic’s “Nakkertrak” on opening day Nov. 11, 2017. (Photo: Nakkertok Ski Club)

My home club, Nakkertok Nordic, was able to purchase snowmaking equipment last year. Due to the enthusiasm and incredible dedication of the parents and volunteers who are the backbone of Nakkertok, they were able to host two early season race weekends this year, just outside of Ottawa (a city of 900,000 people). Ottawa is in an excellent central location for Eastern Canadians and Americans. The same weekend as the Dec. 15-17  NorAm race weekend in Rossland, over 200 people raced the Candy Cane Cup on the “Nakkertrak” early season snow loop. In the future, I see this becoming a main event in an early season racing series, where athletes race in Craftsbury, Vermont, at their annual early season races, then drive the mere four hours to Ottawa for two back-to-back high level FIS races. Eastern Canada and the U.S.A. are full of the skiing culture that makes Norway so great, our issue is that we fail to coordinate to create the fantastic race opportunities that we could have. Many top Canadian skiers already travel to Craftsbury at the beginning of the winter to be in a race where Patrick Caldwell takes the win and the field is deep with professional, university, high-school, and part-time racers of all levels. There is a fear in Canada of burning young athletes out by letting them race up. I agree, we shouldn’t just allow our “prodigies” to race up; I think that everyone from age 16 and up should race together. Development as a skier is only loosely correlated to age, and I am grateful at every training session with Team Asker for the young junior skiers that kick my butt in workouts. Our egos have to be thrown aside, because the more we segregate our racing categories, the less we can help each other get faster in the way that the Norwegians do.

The simplest way for an individual to learn to race like the Scandinavians is to come to a country like Norway, but by individually developing overseas, we put a stop to the widespread development that we could be doing back home.

Many Norwegian skiers race almost every weekend, all winter long. We have to create these same local racing opportunities, and if we make them accessible, they will soon turn into world-class events. Nakkertok took a race, which has simply been a club time trial in past years, and turned it into a CPL (Canadian Points List) level race with a field of 68 open men and 45 open women in one year (that is a bigger field than the Rossland NorAm). The depth of such events, with their diverse assortment of competitors, creates an environment where both our top racers and our developing racers can grow. An athlete is much less likely to quit skiing if they are regularly racing in a field with dozens of skiers at their level and with similar ambitions of going to university or working full time, all while skiing as fast as they can. Because you know what, racing is really fun, but only if it is a commodity made accessible to every North American skier, not just our Olympic hopefuls.

A local race in Sjusjøen, Norway, with hundreds of racers of all ages. (Photo: Maks Zechel)

About Maks: Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favourite skier and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. He enjoys writing about his experiences. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.


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