Athletes in their own words: My worst race, and what I learned from it


These are actually the victors, believe it or not: Winner Reese Hanneman lies on the ground after the classic sprint final, 2018 U.S. Nationals, Kincaid Park, Anchorage, Alaska. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

History, they say, is written by the victors. Sports journalism typically is, too. The average race writeup in American nordic ski media includes thoughts from the winners, the top American finishers if a foreign national won the race, and typically little else. Unless you’re a local paper talking about the performance of a local hero, coverage is generally focused on the front end of the field.

Not to make excuses, but several factors contribute to this focus. As a simple matter of logistics, interviewing just the winner, or the top-three overall, tells you at the outset who you need to speak with. The ratio of events that, say, FasterSkier covers remotely to events it covers in person is roughly 50:1; when you’re sending texts on deadline to tired athletes who need to recover and prepare for the next day of racing, it helps to know who you need to track down. (As an aside, my sincere thanks to every athlete who has ever got back to me under these circumstances.)

It’s also a fairness thing; if you never speak with the person who finishes fourth, then you can’t be ignoring someone who finishes just off the podium in a given race. Or you can be, of course, but at least you’re consistently ignoring them.

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These decisions are sensible, but they may miss out on some insightful thoughts. Listen to any episode of the podcast “The One That Got Away” from a leading British broadcaster, a series teased as, “Some of sport’s biggest names tell Sky Sports what it’s like to give everything for the win, but ultimately taste defeat.” The stories are fascinating, and the athletes are clearly capable of introspection about days when results fell short of expectation. Listen to, for example, Paula Radcliffe talk about her devastating DNF in the 2004 Olympic marathon; you will learn something.

Comparable examples in nordic skiing are sometimes hard to come by, but not unheard of. Here’s Nat Herz, writing for the Anchorage Daily News this spring, on Gus Schumacher’s underwhelming experience in this year’s Olympic skiathlon, in an article in which Schumacher comes off as wise well beyond his 21 years. Here’s former pro skier Christa Case Bryant, writing for the Christian Science Monitor in 2014, on Kikkan Randall’s Olympic disappointment in the Sochi sprint heats, in an insightful piece titled, “In defeat, US cross-country star Kikkan Randall proves her mettle.” And here’s what then-SMS athlete Ben Saxton told me, on the record, moments after his third-place finish in the classic sprint at 2018 U.S. Nationals in Anchorage:

“I came here, like many people, with goals of heading to Korea and representing the country racing in the Games. I fell short of that this week and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I was really disappointed I wasn’t in the mix as much as I would have hoped to be; I was kind of out of it. This week was difficult because I don’t feel like I put forth a representative effort.

“I am incredibly proud to know and am happy for Logan [Hanneman] and Scott [Patterson] and Reese [Hanneman] and all of the other champions from this week, and incredibly happy that those are going to be the skiers going to over to represent us. I think it’s just, from a personal standpoint, people can understand I was disappointed not to feel like I had my absolutely best days out there, but I am really proud to end the day on a podium, representing the hard work that all my teammates and my coach and the program at Stratton have done all year, and to reward them for that work and that effort is a great feeling.”

From left, Ben Saxton (red SMS suit), Logan Hanneman, Reese Hanneman, and Tyler Kornfield, finish area of classic sprint final, 2018 U.S. Nationals, Kincaid Park, Anchorage, Alaska. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

This is a man, a professional skier, literally moments removed from realizing that he would not be going to the Olympics that year, and probably never would. (Indeed, Saxton retired following the 2020/2021 season.) He spoke with me in the Kincaid stadium, whipped by the omnipresent wind. There is an interruption in my original audio file midway through, as he had to walk back up for the podium ceremony. There, he stood alongside winner Reese Hanneman and second-place finisher Tyler Kornfield, two athletes who, he presumably already knew, would be going to Pyeongchang while he did not. He smiled for the cameras and shook their hands, and I’m sure he meant it.

Then he walked back down from the podium, graciously found me so he could finish his train of thought, and told me this:

I really just like that playground mentality. I think a lot of the times racing we can get lost in the technical aspects of it, but one of the reasons I love racing heats so much is, it just kind of reminds me of being back in elementary school and pointing to something in the far end of the playground, basketball hoop, or whatever it is, and just saying, ‘Let me race you there.’ And there’s no rules, there’s no anything, it’s just the feeling of you and the other person just going all out, and that’s a beautiful way to live and that’s a beautiful way to compete, and sprints are a wonderful thing like that.

Ben Saxton

Given Ben Saxton’s ability to eulogize the death of his Olympic dream in real time, moments after standing on the podium next to two athletes who did achieve this goal, striking pitch-perfect notes both poignant and profound, maybe I should approach the “losers” for comment more frequently. If we do a good job at this website, hopefully they’ll feel confident speaking as freely as Saxton did.

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This article is a small attempt to rectify that omission. I reached out to three Alaskan athletes whom I know well and asked them for thoughts on their worst race, and what they learned from it. There were no specific parameters or direction beyond that. (I’ll approach non-Alaskan athletes for later installments of this series.)

The athletes likely need no introduction, but nonetheless, and briefly, Gus Schumacher’s palmarès include three Olympic starts, an individual gold medal at World Juniors (plus three more relay medals), and two top-10 World Cup finishes. Luke Jager is a fellow Beijing Olympian, skied on all three World Junior medal-winning relay teams, and won his first national championship in Whistler at this year’s Spring Series. Rosie Frankowski has the best Olympic finish of any of the three (21st in the Pyeonchang skiathlon), was on the 2019 World Championships team, and has three second-place finishes in national championships.

Their comments have received light editing for spelling or formatting, but are otherwise presented verbatim.

Luke Jager

I think for me, I’ve found that the single biggest factor that influences whether I have a good or bad day is where my focus is aimed on that given day.

When your actual physiological capabilities are changing so much throughout a season depending on fitness and fatigue and so many other factors, it’s hard to even define what a good race is, because if a good race is only considered the best race you could possibly execute while you are in the best shape you could possibly be in that year, then you are lucky to have one “good” race a year.

That’s why I think most of us consider a race as good or bad based on the amount of our available top performance on that day we were able to access. A good race in November and in February may look very different result-wise because many of us are so much fitter in February than in November, but you may rank both as similarly “good” races if you were able to extract similar amounts of your body’s maximum potential available on either day.

So usually, when I have a bad race, it is because I’m often focused more on what the possible end result will be of a good race, and not what the process of having the best race I can have that day will feel like

Like I have had plenty of bad races where my only goal is a certain result, so I start at a pace that I think will be conducive to finding that result. And in doing this, much of the times I will be so focused on the end goal that I ignore the alarm bells going off in my body that are saying, Hey you know this isn’t sustainable, and you know that you are going to start slowing down exponentially in a little bit if you keep going like this. Whereas if my focus that day was more on getting the most out of what my body had to offer on that day, and only listening to my body’s feelings and messages instead of the splits and results those feelings yield, I would inevitably have a better performance, and get to say I had a “good” race, meaning I did the best I could with what I had.

It’s hard because you have a few days every now and then when you are in really good shape and things do just come naturally and you will have a good race almost no matter what. But if you spend the whole year trying to chase that instead of focusing on the actual process and pacing of putting together a good race, then you will be disappointed almost every time.

Gus Schumacher

I think I’ve had plenty of bad races, and for many different reasons, but I think the worst in terms of overall feeling was my Olympic skiathlon this year. So much came together to make that super disappointing. Like high expectations, battling the thoughts and feelings of not feeling that fit, big stage, and mass start!

All really made it seem like a huge failure, and I think what made it feel the worst was I really didn’t know why it went wrong. It’s easy to have a bad race because you broke a pole at a crucial moment and afterwards still be able to rationalize being a good skier, but just coming up short after everything went as well as possible in preparation is much harder, I think. That’s a race that probably has rocked me the most as a skier, of any race I’ve ever done. But I think having to go through that thought process has made me stronger and better for it.

Rosie Frankowski

I think at some point every athlete realizes they are going to have a lot more bad races than good ones. It’s like the old saying, “you are going to lose a lot more races than you will win” (unless, of course, your last name is Johaug or Kipchoge, etc.). I honestly think my first few racing experiences were likely bad races, but I just thought everyone felt terrible while exercising hard (remember I was 15 years old – not exactly the 4 year olds who just love skiing around fast in Junior Nordic or BKL). Regardless, something made me stick with it and thus, after about 15 years of ski racing, I can reliably say I’ve had a lot of bad races. What makes specific ones stick out in my brain? Likely the added pressure of performing on a world stage – bad World Cup races are literally the worst – and also races that really matter for your personal goals or qualification and you screw them up. 

One race in February 2020, at the end of the FIS Ski Tour 2020 World Cup series, really hit home in the “bad race” category. I had been having a very average World Cup tour, averagely poor if you were judging me off of the scoring of World Cup points; and it was my first “tour”, something I thought I would do quite well with since I train big hours and am an endurance-type human – even more if you count the energy I have outside of skiing all day long. It was the last race of the Tour, a 15k classic pursuit start (or mass start if you were like me in the “wave start”) in Trondheim, while it alternately snowed, rained, and the sun shone. It was bizarre weather and the waxing was insanely tricky. Throw in that we had already raced 5 times in a week, including a 34k, and then throw on top that this was my last race of my season (and possibly career at that point – I was kinda planning on retiring) so there was some added pressure to end it all well. 

Right out of the start I was slipping, on basically a flat. And the only flat on the race course was in the stadium – Norway is never flat. Enter three laps of a herringbone death march, where you are trying every trick you can think of, while you slip further and further back from the girls you normally ski near – and you have Therese Johaug, who got like an 8-minute head start on you due to the pursuit format, chasing you down and if you get lapped, you get DQed and don’t even finish the tour. Needless to say, I think I was actually crying tears of embarrassment and frustration, and I was certainly swearing like a sailor to anyone close enough to see me slip.

The level of exhaustion from the week of racing and a bit of sadness and anxiety about the future (….little did any of us know what was actually going to happen….) just made everything even more difficult. I finally crossed the line, in second to last, and felt the embarrassment that now so many Americans back home were going to see this result and judge me for having the FIS Tour start rights. It was really a terrible mental battle, and a race result and experience that sadly I just kinda ran away from, all the way to Mexico to do a trail running marathon (with absolutely no running training) six days later where no one knew what ski racing was.

— Gavin Kentch

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