LAUSANNE, Switzerland - From the start line of Monday’s ski mountaineering sprint race, athletes can see the whole course, leaving nothing to the imagination about what the next few minutes will entail.
Looking up the Swiss Alps, they see where they have to cross-country ski uphill with “skins” attached to the bottom of their skis. The skins provide grip, keeping the athletes from sliding back down. After a brief straight shot out of the start, they can see the “diamonds,” which they will maneuver uphill through zig-zagging. Their eyes continue up, where they see more skinning up and more zig-zag diamonds. Then, they see the “bootpack.” This will require their first transition, changing from their skis on their feet, to skis on their backpacks, requiring them to run uphill in their boots with skis on their back. At the top of this section, the next transition zone can be seen, where they will take their skis off their packs, and step back into the bindings. Then last, but not least, athletes can see the final uphill portion of more skinning and more zig-zag diamonds. Finish all that, and then transition for the final time: pulling the skins off the skis, locking the boots into “ski” mode, and then racing back down the alpine-racing style course to the finish.
As they look up the course, the athletes know that to be competitive, they will need to move through this course in under four minutes.
As they stare the mountain down, what goes through an athlete’s mind at the start gate, knowing the challenging - yet exciting - course that stands before them?
Or what about during the race, when they’ve reached their limits, yet somehow find a way to continue pushing themselves?
For Team USA’s Samantha Paisley, it all starts with visualization.
“Going into it, I think if you run through the race a couple times - each individual step - in your head or write it down, that’s been huge for me,” Paisley said. “That helps me picture it. This entire sport is about mentality.”
She also adds that it helps to visualize yourself at the finish line before you even begin the race.
“I think the best piece of advice I’ve ever received is picturing yourself at the finish line in your head the entire time,” Paisley said. “Picturing yourself crossing it, but more importantly, I think picturing yourself crossing the finish line with no one around you is big.”
Ask any athlete who is completely exhausted at the finish line how they are feeling, and it’s clear that ski mountaineering is a physically grueling sport. So what are the tricks to keep themselves moving forward?
For Jeremiah Vaille, he relies on constant reminders to himself.
“You have to realize how much you want it,” Vaille said. “You keep pushing your legs as much as you can, even though they hurt and don’t want to go anymore. You tell yourself to keep going when you see those people around you. Usually it’s, ‘I want it more than them.’”
For Paisley? Pep talks to herself do the trick.
“Having little mantras as you go through the course helps,” Paisley said. “I get past the kick turns and go, ‘Okay, 30 more steps, you’ve got this.’ Little things like that. You have to keep telling yourself, ‘It’s not that long.’ It’s pretty short, but it’s exhausting.”
But at the end of the day, the most important piece to the puzzle is enjoying the sport, even if it does involve grueling climbs and uphill runs in boots.
“What I want out there is to do really well, and I want to have fun,” Vaille added. "So I go out there and try to do well, but also think, ‘This is fun, I’m glad to be here, and this is a super exciting race with the best people in the world.’”