What makes racing FUN?

Nationals Recap by Dakota Blackhorse von Jess

Overcoming adversity is a part of ski racing: two years ago in Alaska they essentially canceled US Nationals due to cold temperatures.  This year, a race was postponed and everything happened on a shortened course because there was so little snow.  Whether it’s because we have practice or because we’re a well-functioning team, the changes just didn’t bother us and we raced hard and fast anyway.  You take what you’re given and make the most with it – that’s a lesson from ski racing that pays dividends in the rest of life.

In general, we try to train our weaknesses as much as possible, although we always rely on our strengths when we race.  As a junior racer, I relied (as many do) on my genetic gifts; technique and strategy played second fiddle to just working as hard as possible.  Since then we’ve improved my technique and my fitness, but we’ve never really addressed how I approach racing.  This came to a head after the first race at Nationals this year, a classic sprint.  After years of watching me race, Ben finally got fed up with me being “so much faster than [I] race.”  I qualified in 10th place, made it through my quarterfinal, then failed to make good choices on the race course and ended the day in 11th.  With two days to go to the final race (a skate sprint), we made a 48 hour deal where I would forget everything I thought I know about racing and take all input with a fully open mind and try whatever we figured out.  With two days to the biggest race of my life, that was a potentially terrifying thing, but whatever I was doing simply wasn’t working… it was time for something new.

It’s interesting to me that many athletes (and indeed, high achievers in general) are plagued by insecurities.  These people are all extremely successful by any standard, and yet they are riddled with self doubts.  While these can be driving forces, they can also hold you back.  Big time.  During some downtime a few days before the final race, Janice, Ben, and the team had the beginnings of an epiphany: my insecurities were manifesting themselves on the race course in very specific, fixable, ways.

Deconstructing yourself is a really interesting process, and being able to be a part of it was extremely enlightening.  It’s difficult for me to hear good things about myself; I tend to rationalize it away and continue hammering myself on my faults.  One of the most important things I was faced with was that people don’t value me for my race results.  Not even those people in the ski world.  All of the friends I’ve made out there, those are real relationships based on simple human interaction.  Letting go of that is hard.  I haven’t mastered it yet.  Then we addressed my confidence in my pure speed.  I have been told for years and years that I have an exceptional gift in my ability to just go fast, but it’s never really sunk in.  As Janice, Ben, and Pat bounced ideas of each other, they started to realize that in my desperation to prove to myself and everyone else that I really do have the speed, I was hamstringing myself.

While watching the first sprint race, Pat was privy to the musing of the crowd whose insights proved to be highly demonstrative.  “Everyone knows exactly how you race,” he said.  And it’s true.  Because I have the capability of being the first person off the line, the first person to 100 meters, or 200 meters… I do it.  My argument in my defense: “it works, sometimes.”  Come to realize, no, it doesn’t.  Sometimes the results mask how badly it doesn’t work.  I was, as Ben put it, an if-then racer.  If this happens, then that’ll happen.  I skied hard and fast off the line, worked really hard, and then blew up.  Over and over again.  For years.

Confidence.  Skiing fast is about skiing smooth.  Efficiently.  The skiers that are the most admired, the most impressive, are the smoothest skiers.  When I flow, I ski fast.  But I’m not working at that maximal, push harder to the point of exploding place.

That is a reality destroying concept.

Everything that I have ever believed to be my greatest strength in skiing turns out to have been holding me back.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how life changing that revelation was.  When all you know about racing is how to work really, really hard and you are suddenly shown an entirely different paradigm wherein “working hard” literally has no place as a metric for success…  I honestly had no idea how to even respond to it.

But we made a change.  I agreed to believe in myself and my strengths.  Ben and I worked over the course the day before the final race and broke it down, piece by piece, and built it back up into one simple race strategy: relax, flow, and wait for the race to come to me, instead of taking it to the race right off the line.  I didn’t nail it, but the returns were huge for a first attempt.  It made racing FUN.  I was skiing with the best in the country, relaxed, flowing, doing well, and surpassing all of my previous benchmarks without trying hard – the very thing that had been how I valued my races.

Words can’t adequately describe the magnitude of how things have changed for me or the precise nature of those changes, but this is still a new thing for me and I don’t really have a handle on all the ways my approach to skiing has changed, yet.  What I do know, however, is that a little self confidence goes a long way.  A huge shout out of thanks to Ben, Janice, and the rest of our team for making me face it, understand it, and get over it.  And of course for all the work that went into our skis, 12-plus hours a day, to make sure we had some of the fastest skis on race day, every race day.

Thanks guys.  Those “steps” we all make in our careers – this one was HUGE.

I’m super stoked for the next set of races.