Race Practice with Kris, Noah, & Tad

I took a field trip to visit “Bird Camp” yesterday, over at Kris and Amber’s place in Campton NH. The shortest possible explanation of Bird camp; when he was a junior Kris picked up the nickname “Freebird” from Ethan Foster (if you know Ethan, you’ll understand that right away). Freebird quickly got shortened to Bird, and Kris has been Bird ever since. So when Noah and Tad go to Kris’s house for a week of head to head training, it’s obviously going to be called Bird Camp.

For years, training camp opportunities have been heavily scheduled, but light on training loads for these distance guys. High level distance skiers tend to train a lot, and so their camp time usually represented a decrease in overall training volume. Coaches have been very flexible allowing the distance guys the latitude to get the training they need, but it has seldom been as well supported as would be ideal. When these guys want to buckle-down and put in five hour training days, they’re usually best off on their own. This year they decided to get together for some high quality and high volume in a low key environment without distractions, and with a focus on good recovery when they’re not out training.

The other focus of the camp has been some specific intensity. Of three scheduled intensity sessions for the week, one was a sustained threshold session, while two were aimed at race-specific experience. One of those was a session of natural double-pole intervals aimed at the kind of capacity required to double-pole a World Cup classic course like Davos or Toblach. Doing this alone is a fine idea, but jumping in with other guys provides a lot more context.

The other intensity session is the subject of this video. This is one I’ve been wanting to run for a long time. Both Kris and Noah have at times found themselves at the front end of a World Cup mass start as the finish approaches, and neither of them have been able to do much with the opportunity. Better speed work is obviously important for these guys, but they don’t get too much from doing ten second efforts from a state of full recovery with the sprint specialists, who are some of the fastest guys in the world. Positioning in the pack, and producing decisive accelerations from a state of near-maximal sustained output is a completely different game, and something that absolutely needs to be practiced.

It’s tough to get a really high rate of opportunity because putting together a well-matched field for a sprint finish in a distance race is pretty tough. Most of the time, within the context of domestic opportunities, the group will split up if you just run a straight up race. If you make it too short, you just hand the race to the sprinters, and the tactics become a simple matter of horse-power. So it takes a little bit of engineering to create a useful set-up for training. In this session we used a nominal 15 minute “threshold” piece to get the guys to a high steady-state output, and followed that with about a 2km race on more gentle terrain, including some high speed gradual downhill, some corners, and a bit of a push to the finish. Because Tad is in the process of rebuilding from long-term illness, we gave him a head-start on the threshold so that he wouldn’t just get dropped before the race started. In the first interval Tad had a two minute head start. After that we reduced it to one minute and twenty seconds.

The video gives a good idea of how things played out. Noah was very capable of pushing the pace and putting both Kris and Tad at their limits. When he was leading the threshold section, it was hard and fast, even though his HRs were within the prescribed range. However, he also suffered if he tried to push beyond that point. The quality of his motions and the cleanliness of his power output decreased. While his capacity is very high, it’s clear that he’s carrying some fatigue from a tough camp at Stelvio, followed by a tough week here. In the past three weeks Noah has had a couple of short breaks, including a technique block in Putney. But the rest of the time he’s been training five hours a day, with a bunch of that at very high altitude. Noah made a deep effort to capitalize on his strengths in this session, but the session does underscore a real weakness for him. Even though he’s the “fittest” guy, he doesn’t have the tools to capitalize on it when the set-up isn’t in his favor. This is why we conduct these sessions, and I think we’ll see improvement from Noah as attention turns in this direction.

Tad was the surprise of the day. He clearly doesn’t have the capacity to ski with Kris and Noah for a long time at race pace. His goal for the time he’s spending in the east (he’ll be here for a month) has been to come in prepared for some hard work, and to make serious gains. He has been surpassing expectations and making extremely rapid gains, with no health concerns cropping up to disrupt the process (so far). Beyond his obvious progress, Tad possesses a great ability relax at high speed, and to accelerate from race pace. His background in cycling has given him a sense of the potential for tactics to be decisive. If this had been a series of 20 minute time trials, or even six to eight minute intervals, Tad would have been overmatched. But with an appropriate set-up (head start), his presence in a head to head format was incredibly valuable to everybody. We’ll give Tad the MVP for contribution to the quality of the session, and it’ll be interesting to see him this winter, as his capacity builds back toward its natural levels.

Kris has been winning races against domestic competition for years, and while he dug very deep in this session, he might have gained the least amount of new insight of the three guys. Kris will be stronger at the start of the winter than he is now, and he will have opportunities to test himself with World Cup starts throughout period 1. As time passes and the mass-start format matures at a World Cup races, we see greater variety in the way races are won, and the “finish” sector of the race gets longer. This session will be a good reminder for Kris to put himself into position to make a final selection, and then to move with the patience and confidence that he shows against these guys.