Closing the Gap: Head Games

FasterSkierJanuary 16, 2018
Afternoon workouts at Natrudstilen Stadium in Sjusjøen, Norway. (Photo: Maks Zechel)

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, 3456and 8

This particular post, entitled “Head Games”, is broken up into three parts.

Part I: What Skiing Means to Us

If you’re dedicated enough to be reading an online magazine about cross-country skiing, then you probably really love skiing.

Don’t be too hard on yourself; I love skiing, too.

The shooting range in Sjusjøen, Norway, as seen on Nov. 2. (Photo: Aleks Tangen)

This post starts with a crisp day on skis just outside of Lillehammer on Nov. 2, 2017; a skier’s dream…

I have never been to Wall Street, but I imagine it feels a lot like Natrudstilen Stadium in Sjusjøen*, Norway, at 9 a.m., two weeks before the season opener in Beitostølen. It’s barely below freezing, but the snow guns are blazing. They hum, interrupted by the BEEP BEEP BEEP of heavy machinery transporting snow, and a steady stream of skiers moving in every direction imaginable. You hear them, too: the squeak, WOOSH, squeak, WOOSH of tips biting into snow and carbon swinging through the air. It’s a bluebird day and the snow is rocket-fast. The sun barely skims above the highest peaks in the distance, but nobody looks up. Something much more important is on everyone’s mind today, and that is going fast on skis.

My friends, Erland and Hedda, and I are doing intensity this morning. Dozens of others have the same plan, and Lillehammer Skiklubb (the biggest club in Norway) is running a time trial. It’s hard to tell what the biathletes are doing, as they always seem to be wearing bibs and going fast, but I jump out of their way regardless since they all carry rifles.

The main loop is slightly under 2.5 kilometers long. No section of the track is ever empty and coaches give encouragement and feedback from all sides. There is a four-way intersection at one point on the course, which skiers approach at speed from both directions. Most people are too focused to acknowledge one another, except to tell someone to get out of their way or when they almost collide; it is chaos on a mission. Just the way that I imagine Wall Street, everyone is going about their business, and everyone thinks their business is most important. At times like these, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the reason we are all whizzing about this track today, is not just because of our individual goals, but because of our shared passion for this beautiful sport.

The next evening I am back at Natrudstilen, enjoying the extra 3 k of trail that was prepared the night before. The sky is a big northern sky; the horizon is dotted with the silhouettes of stunted trees as the last strip of pink sunlight warms the remaining dark blues and purples fading into black above. The moon is full, huge, and slightly orange. The crisp air is more potent than coffee and makes skating around the glazed track effortless. When the sun is gone, the lights turn on. Dozens of skiers still churn out laps well past the 5 p.m. sunset, but it is much more peaceful than the morning bustle.

As I ski by myself, a skier passes me in the classic tracks. He is wearing the Norwegian national team training clothes and skiing quite well, so I am quite sure he is not just a “Norges Skiforbund super-fan.” As he skis by, he pushes his strides over the short, punchy hill. He is not moving impressively fast, but by the way he moves I can tell that this is far below his competition speed. I should know who this is, but it is dark. As we crest the hill, I put my crazy-skiing-fan-sleuthing skills to work: I notice the telltale headphones, Leki poles, Fischer boots, and, the last piece of the puzzle, the initials JHK on his drinking belt. “OH S***, it’s Klæbo!”

Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo in his debut race of the 2017/2018 season at the FIS season opener in Beitostølen, Norway, in November. (Photo: Maks Zechel)

Over the top of the hill he relaxes his strides and glides slowly, drooping his head and letting his arms hang. He looks back and then walks over to the side of the trail to take a break. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo is the youngest person to ever win the World Cup Sprint Crystal Globe. He is also a human being who seems tired and feels the pressure of the oncoming ski season like everyone else. I may not be a World Cup medalist, but as with all skiers, I have the same good and bad days.

The training season for a cross-country skier is long, never-ending really, with many skiers preparing for goals that are years away. How can we know that we will be ready to perform for a few minutes, or maybe an hour or more, in an event that is years away? Confidence takes many forms and comes and goes from moment to moment. The feeling that one gets in one hour of training can ruin the confidence that was built over weeks of perfectly executed workouts and races. It is an incredible skill to be able to have confidence in yourself throughout the ups and downs of training and day-to-day life and to have trust in a plan that must constantly be changed to respond to normal human imperfections.

Why do we continue down such a path, where the tiniest bumps and setbacks in the road have such great control over our well-being? Some of the drive comes from the small daily joys: the sense of purpose, the goal setting, and the achievement of those goals. For myself, much of the joy comes from the places skiing takes me and the people that I meet, but the biggest drive comes from the special moments, those moments of complete contentment in life where everything else momentarily fades away. Sometimes they happen with others, but with the solitary nature of cross-country ski training, these moments often occur when you are on your own. It’s hard to see them coming, and for me they happen just a few times every year.

Maybe it’s a ride to the race site with a car full of your friends, and that one song you all love comes on as you pass through the mountains. Maybe it’s 9 p.m., -15 ̊ degrees Celsius, and you’re sitting at a bus stop after a cold ski under the stars, about to make the journey home but the bus isn’t coming for another 15 minutes, when you remember to pull out your hot thermos of peppermint tea. Or maybe it’s an icy fast day on a Norwegian early season snow loop, and you just realized that one of the best skiers in the world feels just like you do.

*Sjusjøen: pronounced “shoe-shun” (“shoe”, as in the footwear). For a more accurate pronunciation guide, please seek out a Norwegian.

Norwegian Word of the Week:

Norwegian: koselig

Danish: hygge

Translation: a feeling of coziness and/or contentment. E.g. drinking a mug of hot chocolate under a blanket next to the fire during a snowstorm; laughing with your friends; a fast day on skis when you feel like you could ski forever.


Part II: What Skiing Does to Us

Anyone lucky enough to have grown up cross-country skiing should know what a privilege it is to have access to such opportunities. Few people have the means to take up ski racing, whether it is for financial, geographical, or other reasons. Nonetheless, skiing manages to bring together people from many different backgrounds, uniting us with the shared love of being outside. Skiing, more than most sports, is something that sticks with you for life. I know many people that only started ski racing in university, including my parents, and for them skiing has remained one of the most important parts of their lives ever since. In North America, skiing is a sport that lacks the same intimidating atmosphere that sports like hockey and football sometimes have. It is easy to join a ski program no matter your level of experience. Skiing brings together a special community of people, but at the elite level it also begins to alienate us.

Skiers are tough. We love how tough our sport is and we begin to encourage characteristics of toughness (at least to make sure children survive the elements of winter) in ski lessons at an early age. Skiers with the best “pain faces” are put on a pedestal by athletes and coaches because of how visible their effort is. Probably the most offensive thing you could tell a skier is that their rollerskis or skis are really fast; it is hard for skiers to admit that their performance has been aided by anything other than their own strength and technical abilities. In short, it is hard for skiers to admit they need help.

The toughness of our sport makes us hesitate to acknowledge feelings that might make us seem weak, especially when we fail to reach our goals. Instead of asking for help, skiers compare themselves with those faster than them, and in that way blame their failures on the unchangeable characteristics that make them unique:

“I need to look like a World Cup skier to be fast.”

“I need to train more.”

“I need to train harder.”

“I need to lose 10 pounds.”

“Am I just a slow skier who needs to work harder, or do I have a mental health issue?”

The early days: little Maks Zechel (l) and his sister Anni skiing in Switzerland. (Photo: David Zechel)

Many skiers get hooked on training at a young age. I started training at least four times a week when I was 11 years old; I did it because it was fun and I thought that it was the coolest thing to arrive at school and be able to tell my friends that “I ran 3 KILOMETERS this morning!” I haven’t changed much… But back then I could feel content, motivated and energized for the entire day just from that.

Unfortunately, increased fitness and getting older make it harder to achieve the same satisfaction from running a few kilometers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 11 I was already becoming addicted to training. It took me until I was almost 20 years old to realize that I could no longer satisfy my mental health, to achieve contentment in life, through training alone. Some days it is enough, but other days I can train for 5 hours and finish the day feeling overweight and unfit. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether I feel unwell because I have eaten too much, or because I have barely eaten all day.

It sounds ridiculous to call something that is “good for you” a mentally destructive addiction, but that in itself is part of the problem. Many athletes fail to gain control over their mental health issues because they don’t realize that they are sick. When somebody breaks their femur, they are told to stop training, recover and rest until they are healthy enough to train productively. It is harder to tell that someone is unwell when they are simply doing the things that are encouraged by our sport: excessive training, pushing through fatigue, gritting your teeth and working hard no matter how you feel. When one athlete races slower than another, the first thought of the slower athlete is that they have to train more and become fitter. Much of this culture comes from skiing itself, but we get a lot of it from team sports, where the motto is always, “if you’re not training hard, you may as well not be training at all.” But in endurance sports, where everybody is affected by training differently, sometimes training too much, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, can have the same effect on your fitness as you would have from training too little. Are you training to gain fitness or are you training to satisfy your confidence?

When you train once or twice a day, it is easy to pretend that these issues do not exist, but when this schedule disappears, everything comes back to haunt you. I experience the most difficulty with my mental health at two, essentially opposite, times: when I race, and during the “off-month” of April.

Racing is the amalgamation of months of rigorous training, obsessive motivation, and gasping with relief after hard efforts. Skiers take a leap of faith off of the start line, relying on all the confidence and focus they can muster to ski fast around a loop of snow in the woods. The race is exciting; it is also the origin of all your nerves, dreams and fears. In this place of vulnerability, even the smallest thoughts of doubt come to surface. It doesn’t matter if you gritted your teeth and pretended it didn’t exist for the entire year, your mental health is of utmost importance during a race, and it is essential to learn how to regulate it in order to achieve success.

[Racing] is exciting; it is also the origin of all your nerves, dreams and fears.

April is the period of rest and recovery craved by almost everyone at the end of a 3-5 month racing season. But for many it simply turns into the month of caving in to everything that we deprived ourselves of for 11 months: parties, staying up late, cramming in studying before exams, and being human for a change. Doing “normal” things? It’s the hardest month of the year, and every year I crawl my way to May 1st with desperation, more exhausted than at the start of April.

This past April, I decided to face my mental health issues that I had always known existed, but never understood or recognized for what they were. What an awkward thing to talk about, mental health, but it shouldn’t be. Our minds have to be taken care of with the same attention that we give our bodies through training and recovery. It doesn’t matter what it is that makes you begin to acknowledge your difficulties, but it has to be done; it is grossly underestimated just how permanent unchecked mental health issues can be. I didn’t acknowledge my health issues because I cared about my health, but I did care that it was starting to affect the way I raced, and although not the most important reason, it was enough to motivate me to work on my mental “fitness.”

Since moving to Norway, the issues I have had with my mental health have faded into the background. I’m too motivated and excited about where I am to think about such things. But it is still there, and the novelty of where I am will eventually wear off, and then I will have to be ready to deal with these things. It is important not to allow happy distractions to get in the way of how you deal with your mental health, because for every incredible high, there is a devastating low. It is better to take the time when you are feeling good to plan coping strategies, so that when you are hurting you can maintain your overall health in a way that is better for your success as a skier, and a person.

Although ski racing at the highest level can seem like the only important thing in life, that level of racing can’t be maintained forever. For people who may have been training hard with a single goal in their head since they were small children, throwing them into the regular world can be an overwhelming shock. The skiing community needs to put an emphasis on not only producing elite skiers who will ski fast, but also on developing people who will be successful and healthy beyond their years in competitive sport.

Norwegian Phrase of the Week:

Norwegian: Uten mat og drikke, duger helten ikke.

Translation: Without food or drink, even heroes aren’t good enough.


Part III: Skiing Healthy

We don’t get to choose the bodies and minds we are born with or the ailments that afflict us. But we can choose to learn about ourselves, talk to one another, and explore how we can be successful because of, not just despite, our unique personalities. Instead of struggling to get by in spite of what hinders us, thinking about our mental health should be seen as an opportunity to become better at the things in which we want to succeed.

An evening run with teammates Erland and Eirik during Team Asker’s 10-day training camp in Mar de Pulpi, Spain, in October. (Photo: Erland Kvisle)

People don’t understand how to talk about mental illness. If it’s in your head, then it’s not real, so get over it, right? When someone is functioning at a seemingly normal level on the surface, it is hard for people to recognize all mental illnesses as real issues. Excuses for unexpectedly poor races can be found everywhere, from eating the wrong thing for breakfast to having difficulty clearing lactate. For every race there’s a new excuse, something simple that can be easily improved on for the next race, but the subject of mental illness is never brought up. Everyone wants to hear the story behind your broken leg, but people have been taught to tip-toe around the subject of mental health. “Be considerate. Make sure you don’t offend him. She’s sick in the head. He’s really delicate. You can’t talk to her like a normal person.”

Not everyone wants to talk about their mental health issues, but many need to. When I decided to try to improve my mental health, I was afraid to talk to others. I wanted to talk to someone, but I didn’t want to burden those that I care about with the things that I thought about myself. I am generally a happy person and I did not want people to see me as anything less than that. What I really wanted was to talk to someone straight up: “Hi, I’m Maks. I’m a happy person who loves life, but for some reason I often hate myself.” I didn’t want to see the scared or awkward looks in the eyes of those I care about as they struggled to look for something positive to say. I didn’t want pity. I didn’t want someone to tell me something positive. I needed to talk logically about what I feel, why I feel it, and what I can do to control those things.

I desperately needed a third-party person, someone with whom I didn’t share a connection and with whom I could talk openly without affecting their happiness. This led me to seek the help of a psychologist.

Seeing a psychologist isn’t like getting a flu shot. Part of my brain thinks in a certain way, and that can’t be fixed. I can’t hide or run away or fight it. What I can do is acknowledge what I am feeling and what it makes me want to do. Seeing a psychologist was a relieving experience for me. Instead of feeling an unclear jumble of emotions constantly tearing me apart, I could talk with someone about exactly what I felt and how I could be happy and productive in the face of how I felt.

Spain sunsets (Photo: Maks Zechel)

Now when I feel an incessant urge to train in a way that is unhealthy, I recognize that urge, I think about what it is that I want to do, and then I give that thought space to dissolve in my head. For my issues, it has been more productive to allow these destructive thoughts to enter my head and to think about them, rather than clenching my teeth, pretending that they don’t exist and training myself into the ground. I train out of need, but I also train because I love it. The key to finding a balance between my dependence on training and doing it because I love it has been to think about the driving force behind why I train each day. Categorizing the motivations behind my actions has helped me to do what is best for my health and progression as a skier. This allows me to think positively and rationally with focus. Allowing space in my head to understand why I feel the way I do has been more effective for me than beating these thoughts away with artificial positivity.

If you’re reading this, then you probably really love skiing. It’s OK, I love skiing too, and I am happy to admit that it is one of the most important things in my life. But if I want skiing to continue to be a big part of my life, I can’t let it harm the rest of the person that exists beyond skier-Maks. Ski-racing careers can last a long time. I am lucky enough to have grown up around athletes and coaches who have proven that you can train and race for life, but in order to do that you have to take care of yourself. We skiers are competitive creatures, but acknowledging a mental health issue doesn’t have to mean giving up in defeat. The greatest skiers are those that understand their bodies, training, equipment, and minds the best. Each of our bodies is different, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from achieving their goals, and the same goes with our mental health.

Norwegian Phrase of the Week:

Norwegian: Gi drømmer en sjanse.

English: Give dreams a chance.


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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