Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reflections on Senior Nationals at Houghton

I'm just back from a week at U.S. Senior National Championships at Houghton, Michigan.  These races are also the qualifying races for the USST World Juniors team and the U18 team to the Nations Cup.  CSU had seven athletes competing.  Julia Kern qualified for the World Junior team and Leah Brams qualified for the U18 trip.

Here are some thoughts about the week:


Folks in the Midwest have a reputation for being polite, kind, enthusiastic, and hard-working.  The volunteers at these races demonstrated these qualities to the highest degree as they stood outside in the freezing cold with only smiles and never complaints.  They optimized the available facilities and put on the best possible event given the venue that they had to work with.

CSU Athletes

We bring two categories of athletes to Senior Nationals.  First, we have athletes who have legitimate shots to make a trip or auto-qualify for Junior Nationals.   Julia Kern, Leah Brams, and Gavin McEwen were in this group and all skied well.  Julia made the World Juniors team and Leah made the U18 team.  Congratulations!  Second, we bring skiers who are working as hard as those who make the New England team to Junior Nationals, but for whom in past years there was not enough room on the team.  (Really, the divisional quota system is so wrong. We should use USSA points for qualifying to make it fair across the country.  That's an issue for a different post).  For these athletes the Championships are a chance to experience a week of high level racing against the best of their peers and get some valuable race experience in this year's quest for the team.  Allie Skahen, Meg Yoder, Hadley Moreau, and Lewis Nottonson were our racers in this category.  All them brought great attitudes and skied above their seeds in their races.

Julia Kern ready for World Juniors

Leah Brams (right) and Hannah Halvorsen proudly wearing their USST uniforms

CSU Staff

Huge thanks to Doro and Gunther Kern for organizing and leading this trip.  They booked lodging, rented cars, organized flights, bought food, cooked food, waxed skis, coached athletes, and generally did it all.  Dave Brams and Kathy Maddock spent many hours coaching and waxing while also contributing to shopping and cooking. They were essential to making the trip a success.  We were all stretched to our limits by the weather and the venue and everyone kept up good spirits and kept working hard.


The weather was a serious challenge.  With cold wind sweeping over Lake Superior we had blowing snow with a high moisture content at zero degrees Fahrenheit.  I've never seen snow that was both dry and squeaky but also packed down into a glaze.  While the weather was hard to take, I accept that this is ski racing and dealing with extreme weather is part of the sport.

The Venue

Now that I have praised the volunteers and accepted the weather, I have to complain about the venue.  To have no warm indoor facility for the athletes, especially in such extreme weather, does not seem acceptable at such a major event.  Beyond being annoying, it really is a safety issue.  Yes, there was a warm building that you could drive to.  But, for most athletes, the only way to stay warm was to sit in a car with the engine running.  Athletes who made the heats in the sprint had to sit in the car as there was not time to drive back to our house between prelim and heats.  Next year the organizers need to set up a heated tent.

The Courses

The winning time in the women's classic sprint was over five minutes.  And with a long uphill to the finish, the skiers crossing the line had the look of mid-pack marathon racers.  The 10K loop had a long, straight downhill with a hairpin turn at the bottom.  This year we had slow classic conditions that made the sprint boring and yet made the hairpin dangerous.  Next year the mass start girls 5K and the boys 10K will be skate.  What if conditions are fast?  Will they go flying into the woods?  I am not a fan of the courses.


The wax building had good lights and good power supply plus storage shelves and ski racks.  But, only enough heat to get the inside temperature to something warmer than outside, but still cold enough that you could see your breath and snow didn't melt on the hallway floor.  Brrr.  A week of waxing in a puffy coat makes the hard work of waxing extra tiring.

Dave and Kathy put in long hours waxing and testing

From our experience and what others said, it is difficult to find good, nearby, and affordable lodging in the area.  Some stayed far away, and others stayed in strange places like frat houses with light-up dance floors.  We found a good house four miles away and by the sound of it had better lodgings than most.  But, lodging is definitely a problem for this venue.

Our cabin included a complete menagerie of local fauna (stuffed)


I love taking a group of enthusiastic young athletes to Senior Nationals and seeing them rise to the challenge and perform at their very best.  I understand that cross-country skiing is a minor sport.  Things are run on a shoestring budget.  It is very hard to get sponsorship money.  But, I really feel that we have to do a better job at running our highest level domestic event.  We need a heated indoor space for athletes and waxers.  We need safe courses.  We need good lodging.  Maybe next year?

"Cooking" some fast skis in the wax room

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Using First Beat Software to Guide Training

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been learning how to use the First Beat software system to analyze workout efforts and recovery.    It’s a very powerful, but complex system and I’ve been lucky to have the guidance of Jim Galanes  (see http://www.jimgalanes.com/).  I think any Masters athlete looking to improve their health and race results would find his coaching quite valuable and worth the money.

To use First Beat software I collect data with two different heart rate monitors.  The Suunto Ambit 2 is a traditional chest-strap and wristwatch combo.  However, the watch can be programmed via a computer program to have custom displays of data for up to ten different sports.   If you’re running on the treadmill then you can turn off the GPS, but when doing a rollerski it is fun to see how much distance you have covered.  The other monitor is the BodyGuard 2 from First Beat.  It uses two electrodes that you stick onto your chest and it hangs on a wire connecting the two electrodes.  It can store several days worth of data.  I thought it would be uncomfortable, but I barely noticed during the day or during overnight sleep. 

The First Beat software can analyze the BodyGuard data to show when you are in a stressed state, a recovering state, or recovered.  If worn after a hard workout you can see the many hours it takes for the body to recover.   One interesting thing I noticed is that driving a car is stressful no matter what the traffic is like.  No wonder I’m tired after a long drive to Craftsbury.   First Beat also can analyze the data from the Suunto and compute a Training Effect number from 1 to 5. Training is supposed to stress the body to enough to stimulate an adaptation response.  So both the duration and intensity of the workout and the duration and quality of the recovery must be carefully monitored and evaluated.

I’m still learning the tools, but it seems that they will let me guide the athletes that I coach to be sure that they work hard enough when they need to work hard, easy enough when they need to go long, and that they properly recover from the hard or long workouts.

Here is a successful interval workout with a training effect of 4.0:

 Here is my physiological state during a good night’s sleep when I completely recovered:

You can read some very clear explanations of the details of using the system by Zach Caldwell here: http://www.caldwellsport.com/2014/07/firstbeat-epoc/

Monday, June 2, 2014

This past weekend I attended my 35th reunion at Harvard College.  While the parties were fun, the best part of the event were the sessions where classmates recounted their life stories with a special emphasis on overcoming setbacks and being resilient when life took a sudden wrong turn.  Several people had known the ultimate pain of losing a child.  How do you recover from something so traumatizing?  Jody told us of her loss, and how her father's experience as a Holocaust survivor informed her recovery.  She had learned that to be a survivor you must work to create other survivors.  Cornelia told us that she recovered from an abusive marriage with three key tools: first, a great support system of caring people, second, engaging her creativity in rebuilding her own life, and third, giving back to others.  In the area of support she told us about the four kinds of support that people can offer.  The best is Active Positive support where you say "That's great what you did, tell me more about it".  The next is Passive Positive where you just say "That's great that you succeeded".  But, some are Passive Negative where they might say "Great that you did well, but isn't it pretty easy and there are others doing better?".  Ouch.  Worst of course is Active Negative where someone says "You didn't really do anything good and you are not worth much".  To succeed we need to be very careful about who we surround ourselves with.

What does this have to do with ski coaching?  I feel that one of the great benefits of ski racing is that it gives us many chances to learn resiliency in a safe and not debilitating way.  Some day we will face a real trauma and perhaps the skills that we learned bouncing back from bad races will help us rebuild our broken lives.  As coaches we can teach our athletes to learn to get Active Positive support, to be creative in building their own lives, and to support others in their efforts to reach their own goals.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Measuring Talent

Simi, Jessie, and Sophie doing skits at REG.  Acting is a good measure of performance under pressure.

The latest post from the satirical blog, Nordic Tribune, has some arch comments about the difficulty of using dryland tests to determine on-snow skiing talent:  http://thenordictribune.blogspot.com/2014/05/usst-identifies-future-olympic.html

I've coached many times at the Eastern REG camp and was there as the USST developed their testing and selection process for NEG.  I know what a challenge it was to come up with some sort of standardized testing program. Is it a perfect system?  No, far from it.   It does have the advantage of setting up some objective measures that can give coaches some performance numbers to attach to athletes.  Athletes who win ski races are the sort of people who rise to any challenge and figure out a way to do well.  As a measure of competitive fire they are useful tests.  The satirical blog makes fun of having a 180 degree jump in the agility test and it makes fun of Newell because he didn't win on the World Cup last year.  But, I've watched Andy do the agility test and I think being of the top ten fastest skiers in the world is amazing.  I can see that his speed and coordination on the agility test correlates directly to his ability to mix it up with the skiers from the Nordic powerhouse countries.   He is great on rollerskis and even better on snow.

Given that the current testing system isn't perfect, what would be better?  In an ideal world (and please note this is just a fantasy of an ideal world), I would have all skiers on matched rollerskis and have them do two tests.  First, an uphill double-pole test.  In our testing at CSU we have found that this test has an excellent correlation to on-snow race performance.  Comparison between results of different regions would not be possible, but within each region you would have an excellent measure.  Second, I'd like to see a 5K skate rollerski time-trial.  With matched skis you would have an excellent measure of fitness and technique.  Again, terrain difference would make region to region comparison poor, but within each region you would see who can ski fast.

Hope to see some of you in Lake Placid for Eastern REG.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Back to Blogging (The Power of Goals)

Hi Coaches (et al.),

After an 18 month hiatus, I'm coming back for regular blogging.  I have no good excuse for not writing.  But, I've set a goal of weekly posts.  Hold me to it.

This brings up the subject of the power of goals.  Spring is the season when we CSU coaches meeting with our athletes to review the results of the past season and to set goals for the coming season.  We set outcome goals (i.e. race results) and also detailed process goals (i.e. the work we need to do) to help us reach the outcome goals.  I met on Sunday with a second year J2 skier.  He had a solid season this past winter and raced well at the NENSA J2 Championships.  For the coming year he set the goal for himself of making the NENSA Junior Nationals team.  I told him that he will need to lower his Double Pole Test time from 14:45 to 12:30 (among other improvements) to have the fitness to make the team.  One tool to achieve this goal will be using his homemade ski erg (the Robolina - directions on www.csuski.com) each week to build his specific power.  In the middle of the day on Monday I received an email from the skier with a copy of his training log showing that he had gotten up early that morning to use the Robolina before school.  Setting the outcome goal of making JNs and the process goal of improved double-pole power motivated the young man to put in the extra effort that it takes to reach the top levels of the sport.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

East Yellowstone

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center has changed skiing in New England.  This year instead of going to West Yellowstone, I skied at Craftsbury on their 1.3K loop of manmade snow.  I know that sounds short, but with a rolling loop through the woods with a couple of good hills it was fast, fun, and challenging.  How does that compare to a trip to West Yellowstone?  It's hard to beat the scenic beauty of the west. When the snow is good the skiing is wonderful, and the crowds of elite skiers are inspiring.  On the other hand, there is the long and expensive flight to get there, the lung-burning thin air, some years with bad snow and trips to the plateau, and being away from family for the holiday. 

In years past I have taken the trip out west, and enjoyed myself.  The highlight of trips there came in 2003 when I skied for 90 minutes with Thomas Alsgaard.   But in terms of improving fitness and getting ready for ski racing I've always felt that the trip was a wash at best.  Sure I'd get some great time on snow, but the stress of the travel and time-change left me more tired than fit at the end of my trips. This year's experience at Craftsbury was so easy and so satisfying.  I could drive there, stay on my normal schedule, and ski as many kilometers as I could handle.

Next year CSU will be skiing at Craftsbury for Thanksgiving weekend!

Banging out a few K's at Craftsbury. (Fabio Schiantarelli Photo)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Fantastic Race

"Chance favors the prepared mind" - Louis Pasteur

All Nordic skiers dream of having great races.  We want that transcendent experience where everything flows smoothly, we ski our very best, and have an exceptional result.  How do we get there?

I watched a good TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html) by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the best-selling novel "Eat, Pray, Love".   She ponders why so many artists are self-destructive or suicidal.  To find an explanation she examined how ancient Greek and Roman artists differed in how they viewed the creative process.  In those times artists credited their creative vision to a Genius, an external spirit,  that would possess them and provide the creative material that they merely had to record with pen, paint, or carving.  This took a lot of pressure off the artist.  Bad work?  It's just that the Genius didn't show up.  Great work? Can't take too much credit for it and get a swelled head.   Ms. Gilbert suggests that modern artists swing between narcissism after a triumph to despair after a subpar performance.  The ancients kept a more level keel since they viewed an external force as the source of both success and failure.  She suggested that modern artists can take the same attitude by just showing up every day to do their work and to not worry about forcing creativity.  They can wait "for a muse of fire to descend".  Sometimes it will and sometimes it won't.

I thought how this idea might apply to ski racers.  Think about your best results.  Did you know ahead of time that you were going to have a great race?  Or did it take you by surprise?  I know in my experience there is no correlation between my feeling before a race and its outcome.  Days where I felt sick or ill-prepared I've had dream results while on days where I thought I'd have a great day I have seen it all fall apart.  Often things outside of my control such as weather, wax, equipment, or competitors  have determined the outcome.  I think we can follow Ms. Gilbert's advice to artists: just show up every day, do your best work, be patient, and the Genius will appear on some days with the inspiration for an exceptional performance.   If you fall flat don't beat yourself up.  When you really shine enjoy the moment, but don't get full of yourself.  We need to complete our part of the bargain by being as well-prepared as possible.  When your good Genius inspires you then you be ready for that fantastic race.

CSU girls were well-prepared to take advantage of conditions to be named number 1 club team in the U.S. at SoHo JNs.