Not every cross-country ski race will be contested in perfect conditions, and for those days, there are tires.
That’s why motorists on South Coho Loop on Monday were looking out their windows and seeing participants in the Andy Liebner Cross-Country Ski Camp pull tires or half tires up a hill while roller-skiing.
“When it’s dumping snow or it’s slushy, those days are equally as valuable in points as the nice days,” Liebner told the group of four prep skiers. “That’s what the tires are for — to imitate those snow conditions.”
The Monday through Friday camp, with a three-hour morning session and a two-hour afternoon session, grew out of a half-day roller-ski clinic Liebner gave at the Hope Highway junction in October 2016. Paul Kupferschmid, who helps with the Soldotna ski team and is the father of junior Jeremy Kupferschmid, thought the Hope clinic was valuable and wanted to get Liebner, the author of the cross-country ski book “Wild Shot,” back for more extensive lessons.
“The first time I really learned about Andy was when I read his book in seventh grade,” Jeremy said. “I did a book report on that thing.
“When I learned he was doing a clinic at Hope, I jumped at the opportunity. And I’m excited he came up here again this year.”
Liebner has one of the most impressive resumes of any Kenai Peninsula endurance athlete. Before graduating from Soldotna High School in 2001, he became the first runner from the peninsula to earn a Class 4A state cross-country title and won the cross-country skiing Besh Cup for totaling the most points in six Alaska Junior Olympics qualifying races. He remains the only boys skier from the Peninsula to ever win the Besh Cup.
Liebner attended college at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Northern Michigan University, earning All-America status in skiing four times. He also won the 2009-10 men’s American Ski Marathon Series.
But these days, Liebner has turned his focus to coaching and running the United States Ski Pole Company, which he founded.
Liebner has used his travels through Europe and affinity for tinkering to create training methods that led to him coaching Roberto Carcelen of Peru at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
And also led to skiers dragging tires up and down hills on South Coho.
“It was hard, but it’s a great thing to do,” said Soldotna sophomore Jack Harris.
Liebner said roller-ski manufacturers focus on flex and absorption during the kick phase to give an “on-ski” feel. But he said what is missed is speed, because even roller-ski wheels rated the slowest give the feel of perfect and fast ski conditions.
“Speed is completely bypassed,” Liebner said. “You don’t make money selling old tires and bungee cords, but I’m a diehard coach and I’m concerned about the athletes doing better, not if you can sell tires.”
Liebner has toyed with the right tires — usually trailer — plus the right thickness and length of bungee cord and rope to come up with a system that slows skiers without jerking them around.
Wherever Liebner teaches the method, it catches on. He started a masters club in Jackson, Wyoming, in 2011. When he returned years later, he was surprised to learn the skiers not only towed the tires in the summer, but would take them out skiing on icy days in the winter as well.
In Cheboygan, Michigan, Lieber frequently trains with Denny Paull, a perennial top-15 finisher in the 55-kilometer classic race at the American Birkebeiner. Paull says that, roller-skiing without tires, his heart rate will always be 15 beats per minute lower than when he is actually skiing. But roller-skiing with tires, Paull can get his heart rate up to on-snow levels.
“In the summer, it’s hard to make time for a three-hour roller ski, but this can cut that time in half,” Kupferschmid said.
The tires also are a safety feature. There is no designated roller-ski area on the peninsula, so tires make downhills a lot safer. The rig provides a third point of contact with the earth and also carries a measure of respectability, according to Liebner, that makes motorists give a wider right of way.
“It definitely helps with stability,” Soldotna sophomore Bradley Walters said. “It also provides quite a bit of resistance, like certain snow conditions.”
The resistance was evident when skiers would latch on to a tire and smooth technique would instantly become jerky. But that’s what Liebner was there to fix. Monday afternoon’s session focused on V2 alternate — skating while poling on one side — and V2 — skating while poling on both sides.
“It’s great learning technique from Andy,” Kenai Central junior Trevor Debnam said. “He has a lot of knowledge.
“I didn’t use my V2 alternate a lot last year, so that improved a lot. And that’s just one day in so far. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week holds.”
With a base of four to six skiers, plus more attending other sessions, the clinic missed its ideal participation rate. But the flip side of that is the skiers there got a lot of one-on-one instruction.
The diet of activity for the week also included classic skiing on roller skis, hill bounding and running with poles. But it also included sessions on training plans and goals, because the best training methods and techniques in the world only work if they are practiced regularly.
“You have to find the motivation in the summer,” Kupferschmid said. “There’s people to hang out with and other things you want to be doing, so you have to make the time if you are going to be good.”
Liebner said he will write plans for each of the skiers and that they are free to follow up with him.
“Following the best techniques and a training plan is the first steppingstone to getting better in any profession,” Liebner said. “My vision for success in this camp is them looking back and saying this is what made the difference.”