If you’re a skier, I’ll wager that you’ve been mesmerized by a ski race. Whether it was Franz Klammer’s insane gold-medal downhill dash in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria — still the single most scintillating race I’ve ever seen — or the slashing runs of Ted Ligety or Mikaela Shiffrin, world-class racers captivate us.
Who hasn’t thought, if only for an instant, “I wonder what that feels like?”
Of course, ski racing isn’t for everyone. But for those who heed its siren’s song, it can be completely addicting. Just last month, I was at Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire, enjoying a brisk Sunday hanging out with dozens of masters racers, men and women, of every age imaginable. The friendly banter centered as much on joints and body parts (real and replacement) as it did on race conditions. But I was enamored with the youthful enthusiasm and camaraderie on display.
“Ski racing attracts an outdoorsy, athletic group of people,” says multiple New England and national masters champion Lisa Densmore Ballard, author of “Ski Faster: Guide to Racing and High Performance Skiing.” “Friendships abound. Romances, too. Everyone in a competition has something in common — an exciting moment about which to reminisce, a gate that was almost missed, an amazing recovery, a big crash. What better way to meet people than to get involved in a ski racing program?”
Good question. Many adult racers skied competitively while growing up, and simply never stopped. Others returned to running the gates after a hiatus, the spirit of racing rekindled for any number of reasons (including their own kids starting to race). But from the “It’s Never Too Late” file, almost anyone at almost any age can start ski racing.
The sport, said Densmore Ballard, draws people who like a challenge and can appreciate the incremental improvement that comes with steady commitment. A great analogy, she said, is golf.
“After 18 holes, you’re sure you can lower your score, so you come back another day for another round,” said Densmore Ballard. “Likewise, every time you cross the finish line of a ski race, you’re sure you can lower your time. It’s addictive. For many, even those with Olympic aspirations, it’s a passion. While you may never go as fast as Ted Ligety, you can get the same adrenaline rush as he does.”
Simply going fast, however, isn’t the be all and end all of ski racing.
“Speed isn’t always essential,” said Densmore Ballard. “Instead of going for maximum speed, many skiers try a course for fun. If you’re limited to only one ski area or a few smaller resorts, skiing the same trails 100 times can become boring. Whether you go fast or not, going down a course makes the sport stimulating again. On the open slopes, you can turn anywhere. In a course, you have to turn where the gates dictate. It’s harder than it sounds.
“Skiing around gates proficiently requires precise technique and anticipation,” she said. “If your technique is flawed, those flaws will be magnified in a course. At the most basic level, in order to make it to the finish line, you have to ski correctly. What’s more, the technical demands of ski racing help you improve on the open slopes. You’ll carve better turns. You’ll be more agile in the bumps and in the glades. You’ll be more confident on the ice and steeps. Ski racing guarantees this.”
Interested in giving racing a shot? Densmore Ballard has three general rules for neophyte racers to keep in mind.
1. Get fit
“The stronger you are, the faster you’ll go just naturally because you’ll be able to handle the various forces that ski racing puts on your body,” said Densmore Ballard. “You’ll also be able to maintain good technique longer and have ‘gas in the tank’ at the end of a long course. Don’t forget to pay attention to your flexibility. Many adults forget that, especially men, but ski racing demands athletic moves in extended positions, and if you want a low, aerodynamic tuck, you need to have good hip and back flexibility.”
2. Equipment matters
“Pay attention to your gear, especially your ski boots, which need to fit properly, have a custom footbed and have the right flex,” she said. “Most people focus only on their skis, but if you want to perform your best, your boots need to be dialed in.”
3. All skiing will help your racing
“While mileage in gates is important, don’t shirk the many early season freeskiing drills,” said Densmore Ballard. “Then keep freeskiing. Any flaws in your technique get magnified in a course, and it’s near impossible to fix them in the gates. Get it right on the open slopes, then take it into the gates.”
The reason skiing, either in the gates or in the trees or on the open slopes, is so critical is that the sport is based on repetition. Not routine repetition, but mindful repetition, with correct technique. It’s the secret sauce that dedicated racers know full well. They understand they can always improve. And that’s a key for any newcomer to racing.
“It’s that quest for perfection, turn after turn, that has led them to the peak of proficiency,” she said. “No skier is flawless. If you want to impress as a ski racer, you need to do a lot of freeskiing and gate training. Access to a ski area is a prerequisite for regular training. Access to good coaching is also critical, perhaps more so than the terrain available to you on a regular basis. And you need to get your body, mind and gear prepped for speed.”
CHOOSE YOUR RACE HQ WISELY
To get started in racing, Lisa Densmore Ballard said the first order of business is selecting a home ski area. She recommends several criteria to consider before buying your season’s pass.
TERRAIN: “When considering terrain, look not only at the training slope or slopes, but also at the rest of the mountain,” said Densmore Ballard. “Ideally, the terrain where gates are set should have a moderate pitch, with at least one transition from steep to flat and one knoll. It should also have enough length for at least a 45-second GS run.”
Another consideration is the quality of snowmaking and grooming on the training slope. “It’s difficult to concentrate on your technique in the gates when you’re concerned about wrecking your skis,” she said. “Snowmaking also gets the trail open earlier.”
The ski area should offer as much variety as possible, with a vertical drop of at least 1,000 feet. Long, nonstop runs build leg strength.
“Of course, having a long, varied training slope and a big mountain on which to train is ideal, but if your local ski area is much smaller, don’t sweat it,” said Densmore Ballard. “Olympic champion Lindsay Vonn grew up skiing at Buck Hill, Minnesota, with a vertical drop of 309 feet and fewer than 50 skiable acres.”
LIFT ACCESS: “Although it doesn’t have to be a high-speed chairlift, the lift serving the training slope should be quick and should not service a beginner area,” said Densmore Ballard. “There’s nothing more frustrating than expecting to make four to six runs an hour but getting only two because of a slow line of a lift that stops frequently.”
TRAINING COURSES: Find out how many people generally train on a given training course.
“For example, after three training runs, 90 people will have skied it,” she said. “By your fourth run, the course will have deteriorated. Smaller training groups are preferable. In general, if a training course deteriorates beyond race conditions, you’ll build more frustration than skills.”
OTHER RACERS: “Fast skiers are an obvious clue to the quality of the ski area as a training site and its support of racing,” said Densmore Ballard. “Like playing a tennis match against a better opponent, training with skiers who are better than you boosts your skiing. They provide an excellent visual reference for technique and line, and the psychological motivation to keep up.
TRAINING AIDS: “Training aids are the bells and whistles that make a program complete,” said Densmore Ballard. “Video analysis is the most important one. The ability to watch a video of a training run immediately after the run, and then take another training run, is ideal.”
Timed runs are another valuable training aid.
“Racers naturally push themselves to ski faster against the clock,” she said. “Timed runs are also the only way to find out if an adjustment to your technique, line, or equipment is beneficial before you commit to it.”
Finally, ask if the area marks the training courses with brush gates or “brushes” (clumps of plastic fibers that extend 8 to 14 inches above the snow) or “stubbies” (hinged gates that are about knee high), or dye.
“Coaches use these tools to teach line,” she said.