Behind the Gold: Learning to Climb
January 11, 2018
The gut-wrenching climb up Alpe Cermis in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy is one of the ultimate tests of athletic suffering – a punishing 9-kilometer final stage of cross-country ski racing's crown jewel, the Tour de Ski. For 30 minutes some of the fittest athletes on the planet put their bodies through intense pain for a shot at the sport's greatest prize.
"I'm not a natural born climber," said American Jessie Diggins on the eve of the climb. "But I know how to suffer."
The Tour de Ski is a vagabond stage race with seven competitions in nine days across three countries. It's a test of every distance and technique in the sport where all-rounders rule supreme. A decade ago the U.S. Ski Team wasn't even a part of the Tour. Today, the American women are one of the most respected teams.
Across six stages of the 2018 edition of the Tour de Ski (one stage was canceled), three different American women stood on podiums. Kikkan Randall pioneered the Tour de Ski in 2011, going on to become a stage winner and a top 10 finisher. Liz Stephen took the Tour to new heights, establishing herself as one of her sport's top hill climbers on Alpe Cermis and finishing fifth in 2015.
Now it was Jessie Diggins' turn. Matching Stephen's mark of fifth in the 2017 Tour, she was poised for a podium finish in 2018. But just one day before the Alpe Cermis finale, Finland's Krista Parmakoski passed her in stage six, forcing Diggins to chase the rabbit up the hill if she wanted the podium prize.
Parmakoski is a stalwart World Cup veteran. She would not be easy to shake. Diggins would be chasing the Finn out of the start – 10 seconds back. "Krista and I are friends," said Diggins. "I really respect her both as a person and as a racer who really gives it her all and turns out gutsy performances! I also love racing with her because she's collaborative and so am I, so we trade leads and as a result, we both ski faster."
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Tour leader Ingvild Flugstad Østberg led the pack out of the gate in the Val di Fiemme stadium outside Predazzo. But hot on her ski tails was teammate Heidi Weng, the defending champion, just two seconds behind. A minute, 33 seconds later, out went Parmakoski. Diggins waited and waited – eyes focused intently on the Finn, every one of the 10 seconds seeming like an eternity. The chase was on.
The Val di Fiemme hill climb starts with a short lap in the valley before scaling the alpine ski area known as Alpe Cermis. Diggins' eyes remained firmly fixed on Parmakoski. Over the first few kilometers, one second at a time, she slowly closed the gap, catching her six minutes into the race. The base of Alpe Cermis loomed ever closer.
But what would she do on the mountain?
When you look into the eyes of an athlete on the climb, you see physical exertion. What you don't see is inside their mind. Climbing Alpe Cermis is mental.
The grade steepened on the climb. Diggins and Parmakoski swapped leads, each trying to catch a furtive glance at the other. Diggins knew the value of pacing. Inch by inch she kept a steady pace, two of the sport's stars matching skate stride by stride, sizing each other up. The Finn's eyes first told the story – grimacing with every meter of climb. Diggins was fresher with a look of passion for what lied ahead. Still, she chose to inch her way ahead with an explosive attack.
As the hill steepened, Diggins' lead increased. Parmakoski didn't respond. Every meter meant more pain. Diggins' eyes focused upward, unaware of exactly where her rival stood. She powered her Salomon skis out into the snow in a rapid herringbone technique, planting her Swix poles forcefully and using her upper body strength to propel her up the pitch.
The skis her coach Jason Cork had prepared in the team's wax truck that morning were rockets on Alpe Cermis. As she reached the steepest part of the climb the course wound back and forth on switchbacks. She was able to kick and glide. But most of all, she was able to glance back and see Parmakoski down below as a 10 second gap had quickly formed.
"Honestly, I didn't have a big plan for an attack on the climb," reflected Diggins. "My strategy was just to keep the tempo high, keep my body upright and to lean into the climb – and just…keep… moving!" When she saw that gap it was extra motivation to push extra hard on every turn up the wall.
As Diggins reached the upper plateau with the finish line in sight, she had built an extraordinary lead over Parmakoski. Suddenly the pain of the Tour was masked with the exhilaration of the finish. Her Salomons glided seemingly effortlessly over the snow. She was about to do something never before done by an American skier – a podium spot in the Tour de Ski.
In the finish, Norway's Weng and Østberg led the cheers. They are all fierce competitors – world class athletes challenging their bodies and minds to be the best. But they're also friends.
"It was so cool coming into the finish, with Heidi and Ingvild cheering for me," said Diggins. "I love having friends from around the world. Those girls are such awesome ski racers but most importantly, they're great people."
Jessie Diggins learned a lot about herself on the Alpe Cermis – mental points that will likely serve her well in Pyeongchang next month.
Most of all, she learned about her own mind and said to herself: "'OK, TODAY, I AM a climber. Today, I am going to have the strongest mind in the whole world and I will keep going no matter what my body feels like.'"
That positive, can-do attitude and the willingness to suffer served her well. She didn't think of the Tour de Ski podium. She just took it one stride at a time.
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