ANCHORAGE, Alaska - More than 1,000 feet above Anchorage on the slopes of the Chugach Front Range, skiers serious about the Tour of Anchorage have for the past month been grinding themselves into shape along the route of a World War II-era gas line that hauled fuel from Whittier to the military bases in Anchorage.
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In this snow-short winter, the Gasline Trail - from near the Upper Huffman trail head in Chugach State Park to a turnaround near the ever-popular Glen Alps parking lot at the base of Flattop - has become the go-to destination for local Nordic skiers. High enough to catch early-season snows, sheltered enough to hang on to them when swirling Pacific Ocean storms brought warm chinook winds and rain roaring north from near Hawaii, it has the best ski conditions in the immediate Anchorage area.
Serious skiers know the Gasline drill: Push the heart rate to its threshold going up the hill, make the loop, and try avoid crashing on the rapid descent. Repeat.
Both the suffering up and the exhilaration down will likely sound familiar as well to many semi-serious skiers who've put in a loop or two or more. As for the rest of us, well, if you haven't started training, it's to time to get going.
This year's Tour runner-up and three-time champ, Adam Verrier, says that with the Tour still two months away, there remains time to mold yourself into ski shape.
Not that two months of training is going to give you any hope of hanging with the likes of this guy.
Now pushing 40, he's a 1994 Olympian who took up the lifelong sport of cross-country skiing at an early age and never looked back. He can still kick the butts of skiers half his age. He's gotten to know the Gasline Trail well this year.
As a property appraiser, he is lucky to have a work schedule that accommodates a midday break so he can hammer the hill with the University of Alaska Anchorage cross-country team. Verrier volunteers for UAA as an assistant ski coach.
He's volunteering here to be your ski coach too, though he admits to feeling a little off balance offering advice to people likely to measure their daily training time in minutes rather than hours.
He has provided a training schedule that should work for the average skier. It's not easy. It adds up to an average of about 60 minutes of skiing per day.
But people already in fair condition should be able to handle the load, which is easy compared to the regimen followed by seriously competitive skiers, be they world-class competitors or age-group contenders out mainly to beat their buddies.
The Norwegians figure serious skiers should put in 20 to 25 hours per week, which - if you do the math - amounts to three hours per day or more. Of course, no good Norwegian coach would want his or her skiers out there three hours every day. Like exercise physiologists everywhere, the Norwegians are big on the idea of hard-easy training.
You ski long and easy to build endurance. You ski hard - short and fast - to build speed and power. That 25-hour training week mentioned above might have a day or two calling for five-hour ski cruises and a couple more days devoted to just an hour or two of intense work - something like skate skiing up the Gasline Trail to Glen Alps just as hard as you can a few times.
Most skiers, obviously, don't have that much time, not even counting the commute, to devote to skiing. But Verrier says they can apply and benefit from the same hard-easy approach.
If you're using a heart monitor in your training (who isn't these days?), you want to stay in your easy zone on those long skis and make sure to push into your highest zones on the hard days. What you want to avoid is spending much time in the intermediate zone between these two. The better you keep your skiing focus on going hard or going long, the faster you will improve your conditioning.
And the best news here might be that the worse your conditioning now, the more you will benefit from a regimented hard-easy program over the course of the next couple months. So how do you get started?
Verrier is blunt about the first step: "Get your lazy ass off the couch and strap some skis on your feet."
That is not meant as a criticism of anyone. It is largely a reflection of how top-level Nordic skiers think.
Unless they are on the couch totally exhausted from a workout, they are, in fact, usually thinking this about themselves. That's why Verrier and others like him sometimes suffer from a problem most skiers never need to think about: overtraining.
"My biggest-ever training mistake was simple overtraining," Verrier said. "On a couple of different occasions, I just pushed it a little too hard for three or four months or more during the summer, and eventually just got overtrained. It took me a couple months each time to recover. Unfortunately, these two or three months were during the racing season."
If you're just starting your Tour training now, think how lucky you are. You won't need to worry about overtraining.
You will, however, need to get off that couch. And you will, if you go at this seriously, need to remember to start amping down your training near the end of February in preparation for the Tour in March.
One of the other pitfalls for athletes, and one that applies to even the lowest rung of competition, is training too hard too close to a big competition. Just as it is better to be a little undertrained than to risk overtraining, it is better to go into the Tour too well rested than too tuckered from training.
At a minimum, buy your body some bounce-back time before the big challenge.