‘Racing well is the biggest prize’

Cross-country skier Julien Locke sits down with 11-year-old journalist Lukas Pigott to talk about his performance at last month's nationals.

Lukas Pigott (left) sat down with Julien Locke to ask the cross-country ski athlete about his podium result at the Haywood 2016 Ski Nationals last month.

Nelson native Julien Locke, who competes for Rossland’s Black Jack Ski Team, finished third in the men’s 1.2-kilometre sprint final at the Haywood 2016 Ski Nationals in Whitehorse last month. Slocan’s Lukas Pigott, 11, interviewed Locke about nationals and his career thus far. Find the full interview at nelsonstar.com/sports.

Lukas Pigott: So you were third at the nationals behind Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas. How was that for you?

Julien Locke: Nationals was a really fun race. I hadn’t been in Whitehorse in six years since my first time there for the nationals in 2010 and I actually won my first race there so it’s pretty cool to be back racing on the same trail. Same course, just this time we went twice as far. Two laps of the course. To have Alex and Lenny there was really fun. Usually they are there on the World Cup and we don’t get to race them very often. Having them there made the level of competition that much higher, world class level, and it was pretty fun to race against them.

How did you prepare for the nationals?

I came back from Romania at the end of February and stayed in the East and raced … and came home to Rossland in early March. So I had two weeks to do some good training. I trained quite a bit, then started tapering a little bit for nationals. I started nationals a little bit tired for the first couple races but the goal was to be in good form for the sprint and mission accomplished.

What tactic did you try to apply for the sprint heats and final?

The sprint course in Whitehorse is super short. It was 1,200 metres and it was two laps of an oval course, so it was really important to be at the front and be aware of people around because it was tight racing. In all the heats, first to sixth [place] were within a couple seconds. So it was important to have a good fast start and keep the pace high the whole way but also to ski quite relaxed. The snow was quite sugary on the climb. It was about four inches deep, so you had to ski smoothly but also powerfully. You also had to be careful because your skis would get caught in it. But the main thing was it was so short you could go full blast the whole way but while doing that keeping relaxed, using the draft around other people and just being smart.

How was it for you being on the podium with two of the world’s top skiers?

It was pretty great. All year I’ve had the belief I could ski at the level those guys ski at. It was pretty nice to go to nationals and have a chance to do that and be able to compete against them. I got to race Alex in the semifinal and in the final. I’d raced Lenny a couple times but not so much Alex. So it was pretty neat to ski beside those guys and watch and learn from them but also race against them.

So what are you focusing on for next year?

I’m no longer under 23. This was my last year in that category, so next year I’ll be full-on senior. My main goal is to go to world championships in Lahti, Finland and have a good result there. Aside from that, start racing on the World Cup a little bit and also be strong in Canada and the domestic series.

You had such good results this year. Did you change anything in your training this past year?

Overall nothing major but we made a few small changes that were enough to increase my speed by the amount needed. For the past six years, Dave Woods has been my coach at Black Jack and we’ve been using roughly the same kind of training model, just every year doing a bit more and trying to do things fine tuned to me. And this year we changed a couple things, doing a bit more threshold training and a little less hard intensity, like long-distance intensity. I think that made a difference. Also just improving my ability to push hard when I need to and knowing when to back off and keep the energy up throughout the year.

How many hours do you train in a year?

Just over 750 this past year. That’s from the start of May to the end of March.

What does it mean to be a top-level athlete? What are the challenges and rewards?

I think the rewards would be that you get to spend every day training outside and you’re always pushing your body to see how far you can go, which is a pretty incredible thing to be able to do. Of course racing well is the biggest prize for all the hard work you put in over the summer. You do a lot of training and it’s hard. Some people find that a challenge. I really enjoy it. But probably the hard things are staying healthy and not hurting yourself and having your guard up to keep yourself healthy and fit throughout the whole year. You can’t afford to be sick even for a day.

When did you know that you wanted to be a top cross-country skier?

I think I was about seven or eight and watching the World Cups and Olympics. Watching, first of all, Bjorn Daehlie racing and then Beckie Scott in two Olympics. That was a big point in deciding I wanted to pursue skiing as a career. Every since then that’s been my goal. Still is.

How was it to compete out of North America when you went to the world championships in Romania?

The competition is exactly as it is in Canada and the United States. I think some people overestimate the difference. Obviously you are racing against fast people and people you don’t know but there’s a starting line at the start of the race and a finish line at the end of the race. That’s what my teammate David Palmer said when he came back from the world junior championships in the Czech Republic a few years ago, and I found that to be very true. It’s just a race like you always do. You have to do what you always do to be successful in Canada, and do the same thing when you are outside the country.

What do you do or eat the day before a race?

It depends a little bit on the schedule. If we’ve just arrived at a venue and we’re using the day before to check out the course, we’ll spend an hour in the morning testing skis, skiing the race courses, going over tactics, skiing with our team to determine the best way to approach the race the next day, and then we’ll go back to wherever we are staying and we’ll eat a lot of food. Just a lot of healthy food is the best thing a day before a race. Then in the evening we always go for a run, before and after races, just to keep the body moving and the blood flowing and the energy up. We drink a lot of water and eat a lot of food. You spend some of the day planning the race and other parts of the day you just want to forget about skiing and be able to come to the race the next morning fresh and ready to race and well prepared.

What is your way of training in the summer?

I really enjoy all the training we do. Skiing on glaciers is extremely fun. I like long bike rides, ski striding intensity in the mountains — that’s running with poles. We rollerski a lot, which I quite enjoy. I think my favourite thing is just long days spent in the mountains training, but it’s all quite enjoyable.

Most senior level skiers choose a training centre. You chose Black Jack, a pretty small ski shop. Why?

In Canada there’s the training centre system. There are training centres in Canmore, Thunder Bay, and Quebec. They’re great options for a lot of athletes. You go there and have a big team to train with. They’re part of the national system and that’s all great. But I’ve been a member of Black Jack since I was 16 and for the last six years Dave Wood has been my coach and it’s worked out very well. I like being in the Kootenays. I think we have great terrain to train on here, great support from the community. It’s a small team and that, for me, is nice because I can do things the way I want for training and have a great working relationship with my coach so I can fine-tune things so they work really well for me, as opposed to just doing what the rest of the team will be doing. That’s really important to me and beneficial to skiing fast.

Do you have a favourite course or favourite conditions?

I wouldn’t say I do. When you’re racing you have no control over what you’re racing on and sometimes it’s easy. Hard-packed snow, minus-5, sunny skies, and sometimes you are racing in minus-20 and soft snow or minus-2 and slippery, hard to kick on snow. Like in Romania this year, it was plus-15 and the snow was about six inches deep of just mush. You don’t get to choose what you race on so you have to be able to race in anything and I think it’s kind of helpful to be open-minded. I like skiing in any conditions, any course. As long as there’s a race it will be fun.