Skiing is a game of seconds

Closing the Gap

Oslo Marathon rollerski

Photo: Anne Haarstad / FasterSkier
Team Asker gather on the podium after winning the team competition at the Oslo Marathon 10K classic rollerski race on Sept. 16 in Oslo, Norway.

Maks Zechel
Faster Skier

It was a typically frigid day of January ski racing in Thunder Bay, Canada. Halfway through the A-final of the classic sprint, I was already far behind the leaders, Tony Gunka and Ryan Jackson. The previous day I had won the distance classic race, my first ever “O-Cup” medal, finishing only three seconds ahead of Ryan, and now my expectations were higher than ever. The margin between us in the qualifier that morning? Three seconds.

Swinging around a fast corner into the last big climb of the race, already out of contention for the win, I looked at the ground in front of me and just skied as hard as I could. As I crested the hill, I suddenly noticed that I had caught Ryan and Tony and was dropping them. Elated by the empty track ahead, I double poled as hard as I could.

Suddenly, Ryan and I were neck and neck again. Side by side, neither of us able to see, just focusing on slamming those poles down. We remained stubborn until the finish, with Ryan pulling in front right before the line. The remainder of the season continued in much the same way, and strangely the margin between Ryan and me in most of our races, no matter the distance, was three seconds.

Since that year, Ryan and I have been close friends and competitors, even roommates for a year. On Sept. 15, Ryan joined me here in Norway, where we begin our latest venture to see how fast we can become.

Ryan arrived in the middle of my second testing week with Team Asker, where I was happy to achieve new personal bests in the uphill running test, skate time trial, and the double-pole sprint qualifier.

Testing week was highlighted by the replacement of our regular uphill double-pole test with a 10-kilometer classic rollerski race in downtown Oslo, as a part of the Oslo Marathon race weekend. This qualification race was the most tactical rollerskiing race that I have ever competed in.

After a short night, we were out the door before 7 a.m. to take the train to Oslo for a 9 a.m. race start. The big stress that morning was how we would survive the race without suffering broken limbs or equipment. I had skied the course the weekend before with Team Asker, and in just that easy ski through the streets of Oslo, we broke three pole tips.

I thanked the ski gods for the perfect sunny day and dry pavement that the morning had brought, as I outlined the obstacles of the race for Ryan. In typical skier fashion, we complained a lot about the race conditions until the race started, the field spread out, and it ended up being surprisingly easy for most people to stay on their feet. Our team raced well, and we won the team competition. I finished 18th, 1:45 minutes behind the winner.

How do I react to these results? I finished 19 seconds behind the winner in the qualification race and 1:45 back in the Oslo Marathon, both against world-class competition. On the outside, these margins seem like nothing, but in reality they represent a massive gap between where I am now and where I hope to be in the coming years. It is easy to dismiss seconds as being irrelevant, but these seconds mean everything in the winter. If I am unwilling to fight for those seconds now, then the winter’s results will reflect that. My fight for seconds has to be taken to every interval session and time trial and become a mantra taken into race season.

It may not be such a big gap now, but come winter, this game of seconds will become a real-life battle for minutes. For Ryan and me, this is nothing new, but now the stage is bigger than ever before. To come three seconds behind the other will mean 10 spots on the results sheet. It is a daunting reality for any skier, but I am lucky to have a friend from home to pursue these challenges with. In a foreign place, teammates and friends are more than just people to hang out with—they’re family.

Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favorite skier, and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.

This article was originally published on Faster Skier. View the complete post at fasterskier.com/fsarticle/closing-gap-game-seconds.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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