By Teemu Virtanen
Both Vasaloppet and Birkebeinerrennet are legendary long distance ski events with a long history and renowned reputation. One is the longest race in the Pro Tour while the other is considered to have one of the toughest courses. But what does it take for an athlete to succeed in these two races that are quite different from each other? Is a high VO2 max score - the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise - needed or are there other factors that play into the equation?
Petter Eliassen, Team Ragde Eiendom, won Vasaloppet this Sunday and says that it felt like winning a Championship race. He has now won both races, Vasaloppet twice and Birken three times, and he is a high capacity skier with an extremely impressive VO2 max (about 88 mL/kg/min). He is the right person to shed some light on the issue, and you can read what he thinks about these two races from an athlete’s point of view.
“I must say that these two races are very different,” Petter says about Vasaloppet and Birken. “Vasaloppet is special because you have more skiers fighting for positions over a longer period, particularly when it’s snowinglike this Sunday. There are skiers who can be very specialized in Vasaloppet and can’t necessarily do well atBirken. Vasaloppet is a one-of-a-kind race with its unique course and massive atmosphere. So, much more can happen during the race because of its length. People are more willing to take chances and try risky things such as breakaways.”
Petter is quick to point out the different qualities that a skier needs for these two races.
“Vasaloppet usually calls for a skier with better qualities on flats and shorter uphills. One needs to be able tostay focused for a long time, have a great tactical sense and know how to fuel oneself. Birken is a race where one needs a higher VO2 max or at least the ability to hold a high speed for a long time on long climbs. There is usually a high tempo from start to finish, which isn’t necessarily the case with Vasaloppet.”
”I think at Vasaloppet the high Vo2 max is not the most important thing,” Petter continues evaluating the needed qualities for these two events. “It’s the tactical part and how to maintain power in the arms for the whole race that matter the most. For Birken, I would say you need to have a high threshold or high VO2 max in double poling if it’s not snowing, which may then make it a tactical race.”
Petter expands on his train of thought and states that there are certain features that are generally required when a skier is seeking his or her best possible results in long distance skiing.
“For sure, I think any skiers with certain qualities like good double poling technique, high max speed or great strength can do well in long distance races, especially when the courses are relatively easy with flats and if they end in a mass sprint. If the teams are willing to develop their skiers according to the abilities they are best suited for, and if the skiers work together more as a team, I think we can have more and more athletes like in cycling, where they have climbers, sprinters and such, winning races based on the characteristics of a specific course.”
If these are the things needed for winning Vasaloppet or Birken, how did Petter train and bolster those treasured qualities of his before this Sunday’s long race?
“After Jizerska, I tried to train in a relatively normal way. I listened to my body and let it tell me when to rest and when to train. I did a few interval sessions and a couple of local races; one 15 km classic race the week after Jizerska and another 45 km double poling race the week before. Then, I did some strength training and speed work.”
As the remaining three races, Birken, Reistadløpet and Ylläs-Levi, are quite demanding and favor athletes with a high capacity, Petter still has a fighting chance for the Hertz Champion title. However, he thinks that his teammate Andreas Nygaard has a stranglehold on the yellow jersey at the moment, and he doesn’t think too much about it until Ylläs-Levi.
“I hope to stay in shape for the rest of the season,” Petter concludes the interview. “I’m looking forward to the last three races. I have always liked long distance skiing, and I would love to remain an integral part of this great like-minded sport community.”