Postcards from Camp: Uphill Run Time Trial Day at Alaska REG


ANCHORAGE — Alaska is, by both reputation and reality, the land of ice and snow and cold for over half the year. But Alaska, at least as experienced in the state’s largest community, is also coastal. Even from 5,000 feet up in the mountains at the eastern edge of town you are still within sight of the Pacific Ocean, the silt-gray waters gleaming far below you. The town is, well, an anchorage, a community originally (as measured by western colonizers’ “originally”) sited where it is to serve as an ice-free port to aid in construction of the Alaska Railroad in the early twentieth century.

All of this is to say that it was humid on Tuesday morning, when the Gasline time trial kicked off the first full day of this summer’s Alaska Regional Elite Group training camp. Moisture collected on the alders and elderberries and nettles and cow parsnips that lined the narrow path up the Gasline trail, from the Hillside ski trails to Prospect Heights in the Chugach Range foothills fronting the city’s eastern edge. Shirts were quickly soaked through; sunglasses fogged; athletes finished with dirt and mud and dead bugs plastered amidst the dried sweat caking their face. Ski racing in winter is often far from glamorous; estival training for same is not far off.

Elias Soule, right, leads Kieran Kaufman up Gasline (photo: Gavin Kentch)

But the athletes, who qualified to be here by ranking among the 20-ish fastest junior boys and girls in the state, were undeterred. They showed up at 8:30 a.m.; they listened to instructions from University of Alaska Anchorage coach Trond Flagstad and U.S. Ski Team development coach Greta Anderson; they did a warmup jog and strides; they found the portapotty one last time and stashed gear. At 9:20 a.m., coaches at the bottom of the climb synchronized their watches and called out “Go!,” then sprinted back to their cars to drive up to the finish line as fast as possible.

The official course records for the Gasline time trial are something approaching an APU Nordic Ski Center state secret, and I’m not really exaggerating when I say that.

(Disclosure, I have trained with APU Masters for a decade now, although we seldom contest this TT there, because we are old.* For the sake of reporting and context I can also share that my Gasline PR is 11:43; that’s closer to a self-own than it is a humblebrag, considering how fast I (don’t) ski relative to other local athletes with slower times on this course and the ensuing implication that my ski technique is not on par with my aerobic capacity. Oops.)

Rosie Brennan has been semi-publicly linked to a 10:20 on the route; I can neither confirm nor deny that this is the women’s course record, but, also, who can you really think of who would be faster at this and who has trained in Anchorage in the past 25 years? The Strava KOM here is 9:06 (Gus Schumacher; October 17, 2020); this is not the overall course record, but it’s getting close. Gus is in good shape.

Olivia Soderstrom (photo: Gavin Kentch)

The athletes who ran yesterday morning were not quite this fast, which is largely what you would expect, considering that they are high-achieving local teenagers rather than professional adult cross-country skiers. But they were also really, really fast — and they may also become professional nordic skiers before too long.

They labored up the rolling uphill course, the strain etched on their faces belying their strong form and high ground speed. They brushed through the overhanging alder leaves and flirted with the cow parsnip. It was a chance to spend roughly 1.4 miles and 581 vertical feet thinking about one thing and one thing only, how to go uphill as fast as possible.

And then, suddenly, it was over. Athletes popped off the trail, re-entered civilization near where Slalom Drive curves into Sidorof Lane, pushed for an excruciating 10 more meters up to “the crack in the pavement by the entrance to the Prospect Heights parking lot” that marks the finish line, and were done.

Every athlete who was out there on Tuesday morning will spend hundreds of hours this year training. This time trial marked 10-plus minutes out of that total. It will be accompanied, this week, by roughly 16 additional hours’ worth of training, including strength workouts, a long point-to-point flat doublepole, an OD mountain run, an L3 bounding session, and more. There are two more timed events here, to be sure, one uphill doublepole and one skate sprint simulation day, both on rollerskis, but also 15+ hours of other, “normal” training.

Trond Flagstad (UAA) and Greta Anderson (USST) compile results (photo: Gavin Kentch)

I asked Greta Anderson if she is concerned that some athletes may come in with a single-minded focus on those three scored workouts, and on the results goal, qualifying for the National Elite Group camp in Park City in October, that lies on the other side of that. Do you take efforts to help them avoid obsessing over just those tests, she was asked.

Here’s her answer, quoted in full because Anderson speaks in full, literate paragraphs, and because I think her thoughts here have value for any junior skier who is setting goals and working on becoming a better skier, and/or is curious how the U.S. Ski Team thinks about the development and improvement that they are spending hundreds of hours a year pursuing.

(Disclosure: Greta was my first coach with APU Masters, in the 2014/2015 season, and has been a close personal friend for years now; American nordic skiing is truly just one small town.)

Piper Sears (photo: Gavin Kentch)

“That has to come from the athletes,” Anderson responds. “Some of the athletes are going to have that mindset, and some of the athletes are going to be really motivated by setting goals like that. And who are we to tell athletes that one of their goals that they’re excited about is not a good one to set?

“But also, as coaches, [we can be] introducing new ideas into people’s perspective of, Well, how are you going to do that? Or, What are you going to do to really crush this task? You know, to me, the camps are more — we do do testing during the camps. What gets measured matters; what matters gets measured; we have to have some tools for tracking progress, as a country, as individuals.

“And I look at those as race practice. Beyond the points [gained from internal scoring of the time trials] is the experience for the athletes, and the importance in that experience for them making progress as time continues on is that they’re learning when they’re going into those scenarios.

Justin Lucas, left, and Derek Deuling (photo: Gavin Kentch)

“And so we want to talk to them ahead of time, set realistic expectations, maybe introduce some new ideas, look at what’s working, look at what can be improved, maybe talk about some things they haven’t thought about before. And encourage them in those high-pressure settings, if you will, to try some new things and see what works for them. And that trial and error — or trial and success — is what’s going to make them better.

“So we do encourage that learner’s mindset. Understanding that it’s a really long process, understanding that everyone that has qualified for REG, at any of their respective REGs, is there because they’re already doing a thousand things right week to week. Our job is to add to that.

“I get really caught up in the process, and try not to get too caught up in the numbers. But a really good process is going to help improve your numbers. So we can zoom in and zoom out on those things; we need to have the pliability to do so, so that as we go, we’re learning new things, too.”

Ethan Eski (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Turning to the athletes, Ethan Eski, 18, is learning that it always pays to show up, no matter how your legs feel.

“I was out late last night,” Eski admitted, explaining that he had prepped for Tuesday morning’s time trial by running up and down a pair of 5,000-foot peaks on Monday evening, “I got back to the car at like 9:30, and then got home by like 10.”

Eski accordingly “didn’t really have high hopes for today,” as one might expect after an athlete spent nearly six hours on his feet and gained 4,600′ in the process the night before (yeah I pulled his Strava), but showed up nonetheless. “It felt pretty good,” he mused. “Woke up early, had a big breakfast. The legs are feeling it, but I had a nice warmup. … I kind of surprised myself.”

The Alaska Winter Stars athlete, who graduated from Anchorage’s West High School this spring and will ski for Flagstad at UAA this fall, credited the pleasures of the group training environment for helping him to avoid obsessing over the three time-trial days featured in this week.

“Just being with a good group of skiers” helps with that, Eski said. “Kind of, you know, get to know everyone a little better, and just the group aspect, all these Alaskans out here that are putting in the work. It’s good to be around that. It kind of takes the focus off the pressure of the time trials, and just makes it fun to be here.”

This week “is fun,” Eski added. “A lot of fun. Always fun. Unless you’re mid-race, but yeah.”

Lily Pannkuk (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Lily Pannkuk, also 18 and now attending Alaska Pacific University full time while skiing with the APUNSC Elite Team, was interviewed separately but expressed near-identical sentiments.

Today “was mostly fun,” Pannkuk said. “There’s like five minutes at the end there where it was less fun, but mostly fun.”

“It’s fun to be here with different people that aren’t from our APU club,” Pannkuk noted. “We see them around training, but it’s fun to get to train with them, and to get to go head-to-head with them. And always running down the Gasline afterward, I find that so much fun,” she said of the group descent back to the starting line.

Pannkuk’s day-in, day-out training time with her APU club gave her a large training block that wrapped up last week, providing the mixed blessing of navigating camp week with tired legs. On the one hand, it can be hard to go fast on tired legs; on the other hand, racing typically feels like that, and this can be a fine opportunity to find flight even when fatigued.

“I’m hoping to get some higher intensity” this week “without worrying about the volume as much,” Pannkuk noted. “And kind of practice testing, time-trialing, intervals with a whole load of training behind me, like while I’m tired. Get to practice doing that, kind of. That’s probably the biggest [process goal] for this week was to kind of train through the tired. Because normally this would be our rest week, but it’s quite the opposite.”

As for specific workouts, Pannkuk was looking forward to the sprint simulation on Friday morning. “We haven’t done that at REG before,” said the repeat camp attendee; “it’s usually, like, an agility and strength test. And this time we have a sprint, which I feel like is more relevant to skiing, maybe. So I appreciate that we’re having a sprint, and I think it’s gonna be fun.”

Alaska REG Camp continues today with the uphill doublepole time trial and classic technique work in the morning, then a skate rollerski session with speeds in the afternoon. Look for another dispatch following Friday’s skate sprint day, then some more substantive thoughts from Anderson about ski development and junior training coming some time next week to help make sense of it all. There will probably also be a photo dump at some point if I get enough images.

— Gavin Kentch

* To the athlete at Tuesday morning’s practice who kindly inquired as to my age and then opined, “That’s not, like, crazy old”: bless you.

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