ANCHORAGE — For even the most dedicated skier, there are lulls in the training year where you might have to draw on some visualization to help you get out the door or get through the workout. Think long slogs in the rain, intervals in the dusk, race prep in the cold with an Airtrim, and so on, collectively the “reality” side of the great “Instagram vs. reality” duality of man.
The fact of the matter is that 300 hours a year is a lot to train — let alone 500 hours, or 800 hours, or 1,000 hours, or even more (hello, APU men’s team) — and that it’s not always perfect weather with your teammates out there to help support you. If an aspiring skier tells you that they’ve never dreamed of bigger stages to help incentivize them to put their running shoes back on one last time on a sleepy Friday afternoon, then they’re either lying, or a heck of a lot more internally motivated than I am.
And then you have moments like Friday morning at Goldenview Middle School, halfway up the Anchorage Hillside, site of the skate sprint simulation day at this year’s Alaska Regional Elite Group training camp for the state’s top juniors. In addition to a lot of fast kids, Gus Schumacher was there. Luke Jager was there. JC Schoonmaker was there. Zanden McMullen was there.
Can you get there from here? McMullen literally attended middle school here (here he is representing Goldenview in an Anchorage middle school ski race in February 2014, and here he is clocking a 5:32 in the 1,600 meters at the city middle school track meet in May 2015), and six years later there he was racing on the World Cup. Schumacher attended middle school just down the hill at Hanshew, and Jager across town at Romig… but in February 2014 here they were going 1–2 in the Chugiak Classic race as eighth-graders, and in February 2022 there they were traveling to Beijing to ski legs one and three of the relay together as first-time Olympians. You didn’t have to squint very hard on Friday morning to see the future on full display.
And the present isn’t that slow, either. The four boldface names mentioned above did make up two-thirds of the spots in the men’s final following a sprint qual and three rounds of heats in a queen’s court format — but that leaves spots for two “normal” athletes, and the local kids were well in the mix for most of the two-lap, 1.3-kilometer sprint course around the middle school.
“It’s not that big of a difference between us and them,” Schumacher frankly stated when discussing his day after the men’s final.
With this in mind, plus the relatively small age gap between himself and the junior athletes — Schumacher turns 23 only later this week, and four years ago this spring was cleaning up at Junior Nationals at home in Anchorage — Schumacher spoke to the chance to lead by example rather than by outright didacticism.
“It’s a little weird” to be back here as the World Cup and Olympic athlete, Schumacher said, “because I’m not that far removed from them. Like, I see them quite a bit. But it’s cool to be put in a role of like — day to day you’re just trying to be a friend, and just a regular person. And in situations like this you’re given the invitation to be more of a mentor and a role model. So it’s kind of fun to fill that role more when you’re told to — because it’s a little awkward when you’re not told to, and you’re telling people what to do. But a day like today is fun because you can just be yourself and do what you do, and that’s enough to show people what it’s like as a higher-level skier.”
So what’s the big secret, what’s that proverbial one crazy trick to make that jump and succeed at the highest levels of this sport?
“It’s the same things,” Schumacher said. “We’ve just been doing it longer, is the message.”
“Everyone’s looking really good, so that’s awesome,” mused Jager, also still just 23, when asked about his experience at this year’s REG camp.
Jager also appreciated the statewide nature of the week’s training group. “We get to see a lot of these people around town training with APU and Winter Stars,” he said. “So it’s fun to have people from the rest of the state here, too. I think we’ve got Juneau and Soldotna, which is pretty cool.”
“It was fun that they let us jump in” today, Jager added.
And speaking of fun, I asked Jager, in closing, if “what counts is k’s,” an aphorism deeply familiar to anyone who has trained with a certain Anchorage-based ski club.
“I would say that counts,” Jager mused. “I would say having fun counts more, though.”
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I haven’t been talking about the girls here as much yet, because there were no pro female athletes in the field on Friday to serve as a narrative hook, and I’m reluctant to valorize performances from either the junior girls or the junior boys by name when we’re talking about junior athletes engaged in what is ultimately a learning experience. Like, I do know who had the fastest uphill run time trial on Tuesday and who had the fastest sprint qual on Friday (the only thing scored for internal testing purposes by the USST coaches on site), but I see no appropriate reason to publish that information here.
But the girls were really fast, too. Their field size was somewhat smaller than for the men and boys, with only eleven junior girls present on Friday. But they all got a sprint qual and three rounds of heats out of the day.
The fastest girls time for the qual was in the 3:30s; the rolling course up and down and through the Goldenview parking lots wasn’t quite World Cup–ready, but it skied well, and was precisely the duration of a high-level sprint course. It was deceptively tough, too, with athletes’ high-tempo V2 up the main climb on the first lap giving way, in most cases, to a somewhat more tortured technique on the second lap.
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, Mike Tyson once famously said when asked about his pre-match fight plan. Everyone has a plan to V2 the whole course until you get two minutes into the sprint qual and your legs betray you, we could say for nordic skiing. Ask me how I know this.
(And just to dork out about the course a little, Strava lists it as 1.27 kilometers over two laps, with 32 meters of elevation gain and, on my reading, a max climb of 15 meters (yes this might not homologate as a single climb, details). The sprint at U.S. Nationals this year was similarly a two-lap course, 1.24 kilometers in length, with 31 meters of elevation gain and a max climb of 17 meters. While the men’s fields at this year’s U.S. Nationals sprints brought the winners 63.93 and 78.52 points, I unofficially calculate first in yesterday’s men’s sprint qual here as good for a cool 49.40 points. Your move, Houghton.)
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After the warmup, and the qual, and the three rounds of heats, it was time to go home. Athletes collected their things and headed back to their cars; they had a short turnaround before a long doublepole workout that afternoon. Coaches and a reporter picked up cones and packed up the course, aided by the preternaturally gracious Gus Schumacher, who interrupted his cooldown to throw a few cones into the pile. The coaches (including Kristen Bourne and Greta Anderson of the U.S. Ski Team, Trond Flagstad of University of Alaska Anchorage, Erik Flora of APU, and Jan Buron of Alaska Winter Stars) compared notes and then headed home to get off their feet for a bit and eat some food; sprint days are long days for the coaches, too.
Less than three hours after the last coach left the middle school parking lot they were all reassembled at Kincaid, on the other side of town, for a two-hour easy-distance classic rollerski, predominantly doublepole. There was a group barbecue that night. Then this morning, while you were dawdling over your second cup of coffee, the athletes were assembled at the base of Arctic Valley Road outside of town for multiple 8-minute L3 bounding intervals up the 2,200-foot climb of the road up to the ski area.
It would have been hot, and dusty, and accumulated fatigue would have pooled in the athletes’ legs even as sweat pooled on their brows at the end of a long week. (I’m using the conditional here because I was still asleep at 8:30 a.m. this morning, and so did not witness this workout firsthand. There are many reasons, in addition to my athletic senescence, why I am not as fast as these kids.)
But they all showed up, because showing up is what you do in this sport, and if you show up enough times in a row, and string together enough quality workouts in a row, then good things start to happen. And if you do those things well enough for long enough, surrounded by the right people, and maybe have a little bit of luck on your side as well, you might eventually find yourself racing on stages grander than the parking lot of Goldenview Middle School. Until then, the work continues.
— Gavin Kentch