Sometime partway through 2015, I made a goal of competing in the Swiss Loppet series this winter. It is a 10-race series of half- and full marathons, almost exclusively skating, in different places around Switzerland. I reasoned that it would be fun to compete, I could probably do decently well in some of the races, and plus I’d get to tour the different cross-country ski areas of the country.
The first race was in Campra, Ticino, in early January. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the race was fairly small and a ton of fun. I finished fourth and set my sights on getting a podium by the time the season ended. (No luck yet…)
Part of that race was figuring out exactly what I was doing. I haven’t raced a ton of 20k’s or 25k’s in my life, and in fact I had only raced four or fewer times each year since I left Craftsbury in 2011. Some parts of racing you never lose: when I put on a bib I can focus and push harder than I can ever make myself go while training (maybe partly because I train alone). I’m a competitive person! And it’s so much fun to be around other people, trying to pick your line and carry your momentum so that you can use what fitness and power you have in the best way possible.
Other parts, like how to pace a longer race and when to listen to your body crashing instead of just pushing though, I was nervous that I might screw up.
But in Campra things had gone pretty smoothly.
The three ladies in front of me lived in places with snow and ski trails. I live in Zurich with no snow and no ski trails. In December I had raced La Sgambeda, where there was actually basically no skiing to be had, then gone to a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland (where there was also no skiing to be had), and then home to New Hampshire (where there was also no skiing to be had). I had very little time on snow, so I was just glad that I felt relatively coordinated and didn’t rip over myself.
The other three ladies also seemed like they might train quite a bit more professionally than I do. By that I mean, following a plan. Compared to an average person, I think I’m in okay shape. I run fairly regularly during the week and during the summer and fall I loved going on long running and hiking adventures in the Alps. But I don’t do a ton of intervals because they are the hardest thing to motivate myself to do by myself. When you train on your own, you end up doing the training you like, for better (in terms of happiness) or for worse (in terms of race prep).
Anyway, back in Campra, I told myself a story: that as the races went on, I was going to get faster. The intensity that I didn’t do during the summer (much) was coming now in the form of races. And my on-snow time was coming in those races too. I would start feeling better and more competitive as the season went on; the races would start feeling easier. Racing 20 kilometers hard every weekend has got to do something for your fitness.
I’m not sure if that was a legitimate thing to tell myself or not, physiologically speaking, but I think it was a good move mentally. The next few weeks I went into my races confident that they would start feeling smoother. I didn’t worry so much.
Then came a race in Sedrun which went in the opposite direction. The picture at the top shows sun on Saturday. On Sunday it was snowing like… whoa. My skis started off okay and then got slower and slower and slower. I had made a bad choice, probably not in terms of wax but in terms of structure. By the end, old guys were coming up behind me with so much more speed on the downhills that instead of pushing my pole basket forward, they had to just put a hand on my back and push me forward. I was WAY off the pace of those top ladies.
It was frustrating, probably more so because the weather had been so bad and it was a relatively miserable way to spend an hour and a half. I began wondering: what if I was doing the opposite of racing myself into shape? What if I just simply hadn’t done the training needed to race a Loppet every consecutive weekend, and now I was getting more and more tired?
With one more race under my belt, a fourth-place effort in Kandersteg where I was again just off the podium but felt pretty good, maybe I have a little more perspective. Or maybe it’s just time, and that directly after every tough race you always start questioning everything.
I’m not sure if I’m getting faster, but I think the races might, in general, be getting easier for me. So I’m really not sure if racing yourself into shape is a thing. Or maybe it is a thing, but I’m held back by other things like the fact that with my two jobs I can’t ever get on snow during the week or ski in between races.
The couch-to-5k phenomenon suggests yes: if you’re not in great shape and sign up for, say, a weekly 5k running series, you are doing to be demolishing your initial times by the time you’ve done five or six of them.
But if you’re in moderate shape and just not in race shape? Is there anything to be done, other than suck it up and actually train like a real athlete?
I have two more races to go, so I guess we’ll see.