By Clara Cave
When people think about cross-country ski racing, they may assume that this sport only occurs when the snow flies, but serious Nordic athletes know this is not the case.
There is a common Nordic axiom: ski racers are made in the summer. For the members of the Sandpoint Nordic Club race team, the summer is when the longest and most challenging training hours are logged. While a person could choose to log hours upon hours on a treadmill for that high-volume base, the Idaho panhandle and surrounding areas brim with more scenic outdoor options.
The Sandpoint Nordic Race Team has set the ambitious goal of getting to the top of as many mountains as possible this summer — “bagging” as many peaks they can. Team members have been joined in their quest by a rotating roster of local trail heroes.
One such paragon, Jim Mellen, co-author of the Trails of the Wild Selkirks and Trails of the Wild Cabinets, guidebooks remarked, “I am impressed with the enthusiasm and dedication of these young athletes and with the willingness for the coaches and parents to take time out of their busy schedules to work with these kids. These students are learning firsthand about our local mountain ranges — the Cabinets and Selkirks. Hopefully, they will go on to be protectors of these gems.”
Added Ed Robinson, former Bonner County area manager at the Idaho Department of Lands and POAC artist of the year: “I’m excited to be hiking with the next generation of northern Idaho mountaineers.”
Robinson pointed out on-trail flora and fauna, while telling stories of his extreme en plein air painting expeditions in the surrounding mountains.
Not only have these hikes provided ski racers with exposure to the beauty of the surrounding wilderness, they have also served as a necessary element to the team’s ability to train for long distances and build endurance.
The apex of a Nordic athlete’s training is strategically staged to peak during race season, between December and March. April is often set aside for recovery and a bit of time off, then training starts up again in May with a gradual build that includes strength training, roller skiing (basically short skis on wheels) and running.
“The summer is a good time to lay down a high-volume, low-intensity cardiovascular fitness base,” said Ross Longhini, SNC race team head coach. “As the calendar turns to fall, the team will focus more on technique and speed, logging several hours on roller skis.”
This schedule is commonly known in the Nordic skiing world as “training periodization.” Skiers from the junior levels to elite professionals train and prepare for competition using this method.
“There is this limited window of time where the high-up trails are clear of snow,” said Nordic Coach Katie Bradish. “All I want to do in the summer — well, all the other seasons too, but especially in the summer — I want to be in the mountains. So why not take these super-fit kids out for some trail time.
“For the average person, trails like Scotchman Peaks, Star Peak, Beetop and Chimney Rock are kind of tough, but these kids aren’t average,” she added. “The mountains provide distance and elevation gain that is perfect Zone 1 training.”
Zone 1 means that athletes can carry on “a spirited conversation without gasping for breath while covering ground,” Bradish said.
“It’s amazing that a 10-mile hike with 3,500 feet of gain is the team’s easy training day,” she said. “My biggest challenge is helping our athletes build awareness around threshold training. I am a broken record about the value of training below aerobic threshold.”
Beyond the cardiovascular and training benefits, the race team — made up of athletes between the ages of 12 and 17 — are learning backcountry navigation, route research, proper gear organization, endurance nutrition and how to adapt a plan when the weather conditions make a certain route unwise to follow.
The Scotchman Peaks trail No. 65 hike was on the schedule three weeks in a row and had to be canceled each time due to inclimate weather. The concept of hiking to the highest point in Bonner County with lightning in the forecast gave ample opportunity for the group to discuss why that combination was not a safe choice. The team prevailed after multiple reroutes to less exposed trails and made it to the top of Scotchman Peaks on July 9.
The club has also focused on nutrition, as it is vitally important while out on long hikes and runs to intake enough fuel for optimal training and health. The athletes have explored different types of food to bring along on the trail and there are frequent breaks throughout each expedition to make sure everyone is fueling enough.
“Endurance training is a pretty effective way to connect what’s on your plate to how it fuels your body,” said local nutritionist and ultrarunner Ammi Midstokke. “These types of efforts demand good nutrition practices, both on and off trail. Eating becomes a bit of a curious science experiment, where the kids are learning how their unique bodies have unique needs, from training to recovery. That’s knowledge that will last them a lifetime.”
Before stepping tread to trail, the team met at Pine Street Woods for wilderness first aid and safety training with Cascade Rescue. During the training, the team and parents learned about the necessary equipment and knowledge required for safe trips into the woods.
Another key health concern for the club is maintaining proper social distance. Fortunately, hiking provides an environment in which athletes can spread out over the trail.
Now, several weeks into the summer, the club is reaching new heights — literally. So far they have covered 55 miles and 16,900 feet of elevation gain. Such a feat could only be accomplished by the many dedicated athletes, coaches, and volunteers who have worked to make a safe and enthusiastic environment.
The Peak-Bagging club is planning on continuing to explore the local mountains in the Selkirks and Cabinets throughout the summer and early fall as opportunity allows.
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