This is Zak Ketterson writing to you shortly after wrapping up my last World Cup races of the season last weekend in Lahti, Finland. This year was my very first year spending nearly the entire season in Europe, racing exclusively in World Cup events. My season began on November 19th in Norway and finished on March 26th in Finland. In total, I participated in 24 World Cup events, 3 SuperTour races, and 2 Norwegian Cup races, for a total of 29 races. This is by far the most races I have ever done in one season, and, consequently, also the most I have ever traveled in a season.
Now that the season has come to an end and I have some time to relax, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on my experiences and share some lessons that I have learned. These are lessons that I hope will help me be better prepared for next season and beyond.
My biggest takeaway from this season is that perhaps the most important trait a World Cup athlete can have is adaptability. Everything around me was constantly changing throughout the whole season. Each week, we raced in a different venue, traveled to a new country, ate completely different food, raced at vastly different times of the day, slept in different beds, and raced on wildly varying snow conditions and temperatures. The best World Cup skiers are able to tackle these changes head on without any disruption to their performance. They are seemingly unfazed by the unpredictability of everything around them.
I, on the other hand, have thrived on maintaining a set routine. During the training season, I wake up early in the morning, have the same breakfast, train with my coach and teammates, and choose my own lunch, among other things. These routines, developed over years of practice, have allowed me to optimize my training and performance. However, the World Cup lifestyle challenged many of these routines, forcing me to adapt and develop new strategies for success. Racing at 4PM was a foreign concept to me, but I had to accept it and adjust accordingly.
A significant aspect of the adaptability challenge is the ability to quickly move on from bad races. With multiple races each weekend-week after week-throughout the season, it’s crucial not to let past disappointing performances impact future races. This was something that I struggled with at times this year. One particular example was the 20K Classic race in Lillehammer in December. I was skiing in the lead group with only a few kilometers left when I took a nasty tumble on a fast downhill, causing me to fall far back in the race. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t shake the memory of that fall and spent weeks after the race replaying it in my mind and asking myself “what if” questions. Unfortunately, this affected my performance in the races that followed.
After a challenging start, I’m proud to have developed new routines and strategies that led to my best performances towards the end of the season. Ultimately, it came down to having a mindset of optimizing things to the best of my ability within the given framework, rather than striving for perfection and becoming overwhelmed when things didn’t go exactly as planned. I learned that it’s better to focus on what I can control and adapt to the constantly changing circumstances, rather than stressing about what’s beyond my control. This shift in perspective helped me stay calm and perform at my best, even when facing new and unexpected challenges. This is a lesson that I know I can apply to areas of my life besides just ski racing, because the truth is that things generally don’t happen exactly as we plan or hope they do. As it’s been said before, “If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan, but never the goal.”
Zak Ketterson is a professional Nordic skier from Bloomington, Minnesota. He is currently living and training in Minnesota as a member of Team Birkie.