Rachel's Skeleton Blog #4
Posted: 27th Jan 2018 by Lewis Smith
Blog 4- Au Nateral in St Moritz
By Rachel Hanagan
Yes, I know... It’s not been that long since my last blog, but so much has happened in that time. Of course the main thing being going to St Moritz, although before I share that incredible experience with you, I will give you a brief (or at least try to be brief, well actually looking down not very brief) update on training back in Bath.
So, I got back into the full swing of things after going back home for the Christmas and New Year period. As much as I loved spending time at home with family and friends (I don’t get a lot of opportunity to do so now), I was eager to get back to training properly. Please don’t take offence if you are reading this I love you all dearly! It’s just, when you’re lucky and privileged enough to have access to high quality facilities to train in day in day out; training back home is just not the same. Don’t get me wrong I trained, and I mean I trained hard, but without the same equipment and being in that elite environment, it was difficult to train effectively.
Anyway I was soon back to Bath and within the 1st week back I broke that elusive 200kg barrier for hip thrusts (finally showing some good improvements there). The following Monday I got to try out my new sprint spikes that I got for Christmas in our morning sprint session. It was so nice to finally have a new pair after 7 years, because now they were ripped to pieces from sliding and covered in tessa tape and shoe goo! That afternoon was my favourite gym session- Force 1: consisting of SL leg press, step ups, and GHR. I mentioned in my last blog that during the Winterberg camp I got to 310kg on the leg press, well as that was a different machine I weren’t sure how accurate that was so started where I left off in Bath at 290kg. I moved that pretty easily and even 300kg on the next set was rather alright too. So for my 3rd set I loaded it to 310kg (at this point I was scrounging for weight plates) and got it, so a definite PB of 310kg... but I didn’t stop there- I went up to 320kg! It was tough, I almost failed at 2 reps, but dug in and completed the set... 320kg- that’s just under 4 times my own bodyweight with 1 leg!
I couldn’t believe what I just did, and the coach couldn’t either, but I knew one thing for certain... that HURT! I thought I had what I like to call IOMS (immediate onset of muscle soreness), I was struggling to walk properly shortly after and my glutes/quads were on fire! However I managed to complete the session and go on to PB in the step ups- gradually increasing it to reach 15kg more, and in the GHR I reached the last DB of 60k with ease so am moving on to using the barbell next time (It turned out that I am lifting heavier than all the boys on that exercise!).
Unfortunately for the rest of the week I had to change up training a bit as my legs were still in pieces. My coach and I thought it was just a really bad case of DOMS, but the fact it hurt to lift my right leg (the push track session was interesting) we thought it best to just get it checked out. The physio said I had a slight hip flexor strain, but should be recovered in a few days, and just to reduce the load I put on it and avoid any aggravating exercises. This was on the Friday before the ice camp- and we wouldn’t be pushing until the Tuesday, so that would work out fine...or so I thought...
Now for the bit you are all probably waiting for (if not well it’s the most exciting and incredible bit), the St Moritz ice camp in Switzerland! St Moritz, St Moritz, St Moritz, what can I say...? There are actually no words to describe how truly incredible this track is! This track is the most unique skeleton track in the World, and having experienced it for myself there are so many reasons why. Firstly as I mentioned in my last blog, St Moritz is the only natural track in the World- it does not rely on artificial refrigeration to keep it cold, it is all down to snow (15,000m³ of it), water and the natural environment. We also found out during our track walk that hay bales are what help to give the track its shape and create the walls- not concrete and refrigeration units like at other tracks. This explains why there are track records being broken here every year, because the track is never ever exactly the same and so records are wiped each season.
Asides from simply being beautiful too, this track actually runs through 2 different towns. It begins in St Moritz but actually finishes in a place called Celerena, covering 1702m. The odd thing is that the cameo (the truck that takes you and your sled back to the top between runs) drives through the town... so there you are on the back of this truck (in this instance it’s a trailer) holding your sled which is going through the streets where people are going about their daily lives (I found this very weird).
Something else that is different to the tracks we have been to before are the corners in St Moritz are not numbered; instead (as you may have noticed from the picture captions) they are given names. I thought this would make it difficult to learn the track because usually I would learn the number and direction e.g. 1 left, 2 left, 3 right etc... However it was just as easy learning the corners and visualising them in my head. FYI kink 1 and kink 2 are along the straight between the start and wall corner (they’re like 2 mini corners and arguably the trickiest ones to navigate).
Fortunately, like in Winterberg, we arrived on the weekend of the World Cup so we got to watch the 2nd heat of the men’s bobsleigh competition, again a great atmosphere! After the race had finished we had the opportunity for a track walk, however being a natural ice track and in the mid afternoon, we could not walk down in the actual track as it would be starting to melt. Instead we had to do the track walk down the side walking along the walls, which if you remember are snow and ice covered hay bales. This was more of an obstacle course dodging trees, brooms and shovels along the way whilst trying not to fall into the track as you jumped over holes and climbed under bridges.
The rest of Sunday afternoon we were putting together and preparing our sleds as usual ready for our first official day of training the following morning. Temperatures in Switzerland were reaching lows of -18°C (the coldest I’ve experienced so far) which meant it was harder ice, and so in order for us not skid everywhere we were given a new set of runners to slide on which would be sharper and more suitable. With new runners you must sand them for hours to get them in a suitable condition, but as we were only going from Monti’s Bolt on our 1st day it wasn’t a complete necessity as we wouldn’t be travelling at high enough speeds.
So Monday arrived, it was an early start (5am get up with a 7.30am training start!). Breakfast wasn’t being served that early in the hotel so we had to do a run to the shop on the way back from the track the day before to pick up food for breakfast in our rooms. Then it was a case of packing our kit and loading our sleds and bags into the van to be taken to the track. Upon arrival we unload our sleds onto the racks and take our things into the changing rooms. All athletes have different routines when at the track- I like to hang up my suit, remove my helmet from my bag and then go and measure my rock on my runners (due to having new runners in, it changes the balance of the sled so a new footprint and rock were measured). Once I’ve done that I do some foam rolling and activations before going to warm up. After that I recheck my rock because it often changes as the sled warms up/cools down in the air temperature before then padding up and getting my speed suit on. Once kitted up I will go over any notes and visualise what it is I need to do before my run. In this instance it was about feeling what was going on in the corners and the main key area was on the straight into horseshoe. The best entrance into this corner is a late entrance (left-hand side in this case) and so we had to practice controlling the sled down the straight aiming to hold its line down the left-hand side and going parallel into the corner (It may sound easy but straights can often be a lot more trickier to do than corners because the slightest of movements at the wrong time/intensity can drive you into a wall). Other than that particular section it was a case of relax and enjoy the ride, and that’s exactly what I did!
After training we head back to the hotel for a 2nd breakfast before unloading the van and having 45mins of cognitive rest (so no phones, technology, and talking- just complete and utter switch off). Then the remainder of the day would be spent doing any gym sessions we may have had, video analysis and sled work (in this instance it was 1hr 30mins of sanding and polishing runners- and collecting blisters in the process). Video on the first day was about discussing with the coach what we experienced and receive feedback on the key area, and then go through what to expect going from the top and how this may change what happens in the corners. Horseshoe definitely changed when going from the top- instead of running low in the corner you pick up a lot more height with the speed that is generated. It also builds up a lot of pressure on the end that will pick you up and if you don’t get the timing and intensity right of the steer you get slammed into the left wall. This is exactly what I did for the first day or 2 but it surprisingly didn’t hurt (The coach said if we did that on the track last year, it would have flipped us over!). The first day of sliding was also the day I realised that my hip flexor was still not right and so couldn’t run at the 80% intensity they wanted, instead had to literally just jog off the top. It also meant that a lot of my gym sessions were adapted to help relieve the stress put on my hip flexor. Luckily the physio kept in contact with me during the camp, and working with my push/S&C coach we were able to manage it quite well- no matter how frustrating it got that I couldn’t give it my all on the final 2 days.
Apart from the minor injury, the rest of the camp went very well, so much so myself and the coach I was working with this week both agreed this was my best camp so far. One of my goals going into this camp, and discussed in the preview meeting at the start of the week, was to experiment in corners. We both decided that if there was a corner that I was struggling with, then that would be my “project corner” where I would play around with various steers, timings, intensities etc working out what worked best for me and to give me the best possible line (Here comes another insight into what is involved in skeleton).
So my first “project corner” was ‘Devil’s Dyke’ and as you can see on the map it’s quite a big corner with 2 pressures, but not only that it is a left-handed corner followed by another left-handed corner. In this particular instance I needed to come far around the corner to drop into the section of the ice that kept you along the right-hand side early into ‘Nameless’. To start with I was coming off of ‘Devil’s Dyke’ too early which meant my sled was being pulled over to the left and taking me late into ‘Nameless’ and having a negative knock on effect for the rest of the track. I realised that I was taking too long on my steers to get to the intensity, so by the time I’d applied enough pressure into the sled I was late on my steer and driving it off the corner too soon. For me I struggle with applying gentle pressure quickly- when it needs to be a quick steer I tend to do it too forcefully or, I apply the right pressure but too slowly. After practising various timings/intensities etc, I finally nailed it and it became more and more ingrained with each run.
This then had a knock on effect to the rest of the track because I was setting it up nicely to flow on the best possible lines. Also the more confident I got with my ability the braver I got to experiment in other sections of the track. For instance, in ‘Sunny’ I tried a new technique of un-weighting my shoulder on the entrance to mould into the corner. The idea of this was to go with the shape of the corner rather than dip down and be picked back up and hit out of the exit. After the 1st time of trying it, it worked and I managed to replicate it every run since. The only section of the track that I was really struggling to execute was kink 1, the first (not even considered a corner) turn in the track. That was until consolidation day...
What is consolidation day? Well consolidation day is the final sliding day of the camp, where it’s your opportunity to demonstrate what you have learnt and put together a good run, executing correctly the areas you have been working on. It was decided the evening before that we would do a little competition and have teams of 1 male and 1 female (randomly drawn), and the pair with the slowest combined time over 4 runs (2 runs each) would have to buy the staff drinks. I was partnered with someone who had been sliding 2-3 years longer than me, so I certainly felt the pressure to execute my best run, having had a mare of day previously where I could not see a thing from ‘wall corner’ as my visor fogged up (trust me, it’s not fun not being able to see a thing and so dragging your feet the whole way in order to slow you down). My coach said to me in the video session that I don’t need to think about the bottom section, just need to replicate what I’ve been doing all week. My key aim on consolidation day was to finally nail that kink 1 and I was going to do that by trying a firmer steer. Now I felt very confused and unsure as to how I was going to do this steer. The coach I have been working with this week (former GB slider) was getting our group to do a shoulder knee steer out of the spur, which is a harder steer to pull off on this corner. The other coach (head talent coach) was getting his group to do a toe steer and my partner for the competition was also in his group. They were both putting pressure on me to do a toe steer saying shoulder knee hasn’t worked, your best bet is to do the toe. I couldn’t ignore the plan I made with my coach, but at the same time didn’t want to dismiss what the head coach was saying, so instead I agreed to try the toe on my 2nd run if shoulder knee didn’t work first time.
So Run 1 on consolidation day I was stood at the block ready to go, awaiting the announcer to give the all clear and show the green light with my 30sec countdown. Here I was faced with another challenge- do not get carried away with the competition! Our push coach said to me during the warm up to not be lulled into pushing hard as I don’t want to aggravate that hip. Being in a race situation and not being able to push 100% was frustrating because I just wanted to see what I could do. But there was nothing I could do about it, so instead I just had to focus on the job at hand- kink 1.
I was given the all clear and the green light appeared, so placed my sled in the spur and composed myself for the run. I kept the push at a consistent speed I have done all week and loaded the sled, I breathed out, sunk into the sled, relaxed, vision fixed straight ahead, just waiting for the end of the spur to come in to my periphery. BAM! Shoulder and knee pushed hard and held into the sled as I approached kink 1. The aim was to get the sled away from the right wall so that it can enter in the middle of the corner, and once the sled was turned release the steer, relax and be ready to control the line down the straightaway to kink 2. It was actually happening, the sled was turned and I was running nicely down into kink 2 where I had a bit of a skid going into ‘Wall’ corner. Once I got into ‘Sunny’ I was flying and everything was flowing. I finally experienced what the senior athletes refer to as “dancing”, the steers were just happening naturally, I didn’t have to think about anything- it was incredible! Waiting at the bottom for the cameo I received feedback on the walkie-talkie from the coaches who were in the ‘Tree’ and ‘Bridge’ corners. ‘Bridge’ was another corner I experimented with during the week, and one that I was executing well and received great feedback. The head coach said I looked good down here and wanted me to try something his group were struggling to execute, and that was at the peak of the oscillation steer down through the final pressure. Then as I come into ‘Leap’ about 1-2m in hit my left shoulder forcefully into the sled to turn it through the higher pressure generated from entering at speed. So on the way back up to the track I was visualising doing these additional steers.
I didn’t realise at the time but when rechecking my rock before run 2, the push coach said “blimey you hit 130kph (81mph), well done!” That was one of the highest speeds hit all week and with speeds at this track only ever reaching 135kph- that was fast! Now for run 2. I just nailed kink 1, but for the ultimate challenge, can I do it again, get that same intensity steer, get the same corner entrance and release the steer at the exact same point?!... YES! I couldn’t believe it; I did it again and was flying down to kink 2. I think I got a bit excited as I forgot to counter steer off the corner and went into more of a skid this time but managed to rectify it before ‘Wall’. I got the exact same flow as before, and it felt like I wasn’t doing anything. Entering ‘Tree’ corner I was getting ready for ‘Bridge’ and attempting to execute the additional steer. I felt the drop in pressure out of ‘Tree’ and the roll onto ‘Bridge’ corner as I un-weighted my left shoulder; within a split millisecond I pressed in my right shoulder to drive the sled up the corner to the peak. Sensing for the slightest change in pressure to signify the peak I drove down my left shoulder, working the sled through the pressure keeping it tracking straight into ‘Leap’. BAM! I drove my left shoulder into the sled causing it to turn and get my smoothest line into ‘Guntersachs’. Another consistent run, just 1kph slower and 0.14secs off my previous time, but more importantly I nailed the key areas AGAIN so was very happy!
That evening after gym, packing bags and loading the van, we had our camp review meetings. This was an extremely positive meeting- the coach was impressed with how much I developed and improved during this camp, from the sliding skills I executed to the confidence I showed in trying out new things in corners. The progression I saw in myself here was great and there is still so much more to come. The push coach even said he was excited to see how quick I would push as I was putting down 5.7/5.8sec starts just jogging, with the fastest female pushing a 5.56secs flat out. The aim is to get me fully fit for the final week of our last camp of the season in Igls, Austria, where he’ll be back out with us.
For now though it’s to rest from all the travelling before a recovery session Monday and Physiotherapy Tuesday. Good news, the hip flexor has slowly been improving over the week so hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back training normally. Regardless, I’ll be putting in a solid block of training before I travel out to Königssee, Germany (another tricky track) for the next camp in just under 2 week’s time. Then it’s straight on from there to where the love for the sport all started and where the season will come to an end with a final 2 week camp in Austria.
My next blog probably won’t be until April/May time so keep an eye out on my Facebook and Twitter, as I will be providing regular updates, videos, and pictures of training.