A Chilly August Morning
At 8 am on a chilly August morning with temperatures near 15 degrees the athletes run up and down the street as a warm-up. The drizzling rain makes the pavement wet while US Coaches Per Nilsson, and Armin Auchentaller, and High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler look at the athlete’s times from last year on a dry, sunny day. One last time they check their equipment and then explain where they will take split times and the planned “quick stop” every athlete has to take.
A few guests accompany the US Team on this little adventure including the Netherlands’ Herbert Cool and his coach Tobias Reiter as well as former serviceman Andreas Emslander.
Burke and Currier Start Last
Fully briefed and prepared, the athletes put on their rollerskis, do a few last stretches and line up for the start. With a start order decided in a draw the previous evening, Tim Burke and Russell Currier, believed to be the strongest ironically are the last two starters. Cool starts first with the rest following at 45-second intervals.
The street immediately climbs steadily upwards, offering not one drop of respite for the athlete’s burning muscles. Nilsson explains, “This is not comparable to a biathlon race because there they do six to eight minute loops. But for us, we can see the overall fitness for sure. For them it’s also really important mentally. If you can go ten to twelve strokes on the maximum heart rate constantly for one hour like I think everybody did today; then it should be no problem to do that for 10K with little breaks in between.”
The difference in the athlete’s fitness s obvious after only a few short turns. The experienced athletes are not just fitter but have better technique. Burke passes the younger athletes ahead of him one by one and the group of experienced athletes opens a gap on the younger ones. This is normal and was expected by everyone. Currier is doing as well as expected and is easily the fastest of the “young group,” passing his teammates one by one, storming upwards with determination.
Nilsson comments, “This is an extreme test; you don’t do something like this every day, something that hard with such a steep climb and an elevation of about 1000m. But it’s a very important test for us. This is the middle of the camp and they had a couple of rest days so they should be pretty fresh but you never know the shape of the day.”
From the Beach to the Mountain
For Jeremy Teela the two days of rest posed a problem. “The hardest part about today was coming from Croatia two days ago with sunshine and beautiful weather on the beach and then doing such an incredibly hard test in weather like this.”
The hard work is clearly etched everyone’s face at the halfway point. At the mid-point, every athlete has to stop for at least 10 seconds, switch rollerskis in order to use up the wheels evenly and drink. Afterwards, the mental battle continues. On a nice day, this street is a very panoramic route, but today test is no sightseeing tour for the athletes. Still Teela sneaks a peak. “Just this one time I caught myself looking to the right at the scenery but then I saw the coaches, and focused again. One hour is a long time to focus.” Burke reinforced his teammate’s comment. “The hardest part I think; it’s the really tough mental challenge going uphill for almost an hour and that’s a really long time for going that hard. So it’s actually really hard to get your mind to focus on something besides how long that hill really is.” Still, the athletes admitted that on some stretches their only thoughts were, “Ouch, ouch, ouch,” with every push up the hill.
For Nilsson that’s not surprising. “You have mental ups and downs during that hour, and to get through that, to be in contact with your brain and your legs, mentally, that’s also a really important aspect of this and helps to be smart in the race or the time trial.” This mental challenge is one of the reasons for a test like this, besides testing the athlete’s fitness “The mental challenge is very important in our sport. Even if you feel the pain or if you are deadly tired you have to find your mantra or whatever it is to make it as easy as it can be.”
58 Minutes and It’s Over
After a bit over 58 minutes, only a few seconds slower than last year, Burke is the first to arrive on the top. He is closely followed by Jay Hakkinen, Teela and Lowell Bailey who all started ahead of him. Currier is the fifth athlete on top but in the end, claims the second spot in the overall ranking because of his late start. Cool, Zach Hall, Wynn Roberts and Leif Nordgren one-by-one arrive on the highest point of the street, 1,600m above sea level, 1,000m above the start. At the top of the climb, it is near 10 degrees, with low-hanging clouds making the air foggy.
Success and Survival
After changing into some dry, warm clothes, a cool-down run, and a few quick bites to recharge their depleted batteries, the athletes and coaches make some first assessments of their one-hour test. Burke is happy, commenting, “It’s a really tough climb but it is a really good test. I feel like I am where I was last year at this time although I have not done just as much speed work. I am really happy with my time today. I hope it’s a good indicator for things to come.” The coaches are also very satisfied as the experienced athletes, who had done the test in the previous year, were as fast as or faster than last year, despite the bad conditions. Regarding the younger athletes, Nilsson grinned, “Well, they survived.”
The US team’s five-week camp in Europe continues tomorrow in the Oberhof ski tunnel, so the athletes need to make a fast recovery from their uphill adventure. “It’s a really good opportunity to familiarize ourselves with snow again. I am looking forward to it,” the tired Burke added. There surely was more than one athlete happily sleeping in the team’s bus on the drive north to Oberhof. Another day of training awaits them tomorrow in the ski tunnel.
(Photo: Tanja Ohlson / IB)