Rachel's Skeleton Blog #5
Posted: 10th Mar 2018 by Lewis Smith
Blog 5- Back-to-back Camps
By Rachel Hanagan
Here is my next instalment, but this blog is slightly different to my previous ones, as its being written whilst out on camp! Yes at the time of writing this part (i.e. right now... LIVE!), it’s Friday 16th February, 8pm (7pm UK time) in Königssee, Germany and I am on my bed with my laptop chilling after our last day of sliding here. I usually write my blog once I’ve returned home/after a block, but being on a double camp, I want to get my true and honest reflection of my experience. So this time, it will be in 2 parts- part 1: Königssee, Germany and part 2: Igls, Austria.
Part 1: Königssee, Germany
After what was an incredible experience in St Moritz last month, this camp was completely different in more ways than one, and one which really challenged me mentally and emotionally. Be prepared to get an insight into the difficulties athletes can face when things aren’t going as well as you had hoped or expected...
I came into this camp very positive, because I had a good rehab for my hip and was experiencing no more pain and issues and so looking forward to being able to push and train to my fullest. At the same time I was a bit apprehensive as this track wasn’t going to be easy- studying videos and the track map previously, there were a lot of tricky sections that even the world class sliders can still struggle with. Unfortunately due to the weather we were not able to do a track walk, so instead had to make do with an orientation walk outside of the track to get an idea of gradients/nature of corners.
This track was built in 1969 as the first artificially refrigerated ice track in the world, and as I just mentioned its one of the world’s most technically challenging tracks in the world. So why is that so...? Well in the top section of the track there are the S bends which are a sequence of 4 corners [aptly named S1, S2, S3, and S4] that flow like a snake. It is important to get these corners right as it is where you can gain so much speed, which is what you want in skeleton. On the exit of S4 there is a long straightaway, and you may remember in a previous blog that I said how straights can often be trickier than corners...? Well, this one is even harder! Simply because it isn’t actually straight, it is in actual fact rather bendy- hence why it is often referred to as the “bendaway” instead. It is actually so difficult that if you have seen any footage of the World Cup Skeleton in Königssee, you will notice that on the “bendaway” sliders actually aim to take a hit on the left wall to “thread the needle” (skeleton term) through the bends straight into corner 6 called Jenna (pronounced yenna). This then leads you into the big 360° Kreisel- a 3 pressure corner where timing and intensity of steer is paramount, because (no exaggeration) it takes no prisoners!
Pic 1: Bendaway to Kreisel
For the first couple of days we were going from S3 and S1 so these focus areas weren’t really an issue- I was actually managing to get down the whole “bendaway” without taking a hit-that was a whole different story when going from higher up though! And the Kreisel was nothing, as we were not getting enough speed so weren’t experiencing the true (dangerous) nature of the corner. Having said that I opted to stay at S1 an extra day just to confirm I was happy with the plan and what I was feeling, seeing, and doing in that corner before going to the top where the speed, steer intensity, and timings would drastically change. After 1 run from S1 the following day, both the coaches and I were happy for me to move to the top. This was when I soon realised, there was no time to chill (not that you can really chill on a sled travelling at super fast speeds, but you know what I mean...) and at every point you had to be on the ball!
From the top I was carrying a lot more speed, and was getting a lot more height through the S bends which felt so good. The “bendaway” was a lot harder as the cambers (curves in the ice) were really pushing/pulling so I really had to react. Now the Kreisel came at you a lot quicker and the pressure was a lot stronger- the exit was very aggressive when the pressures weren’t controlled and the sled would get picked up high and dropped down, and it was then a lottery of which wall you would hit and which side you’d roll/flip onto! And the “doodles” afterwards suddenly became a much bumpier ride.
After another couple of days from top I was just not clicking with the track. On the “bendaway” I was too relaxed and not reacting quick enough and as for the Kreisel, well there was no urgency to steer in the corner despite the chances of crashing (I actually came out on my side on one run but managed to roll back over through the doodles-See pic below). I was relying too much on feeling the pressures which became difficult when I was getting the first one right-I was controlling the entrance and first pressure perfectly every time. As for the rest it was getting really frustrating as I was changing various parts and still not getting it. In one of the video sessions the coach said for me to go back down to S1 for the next session to remind myself of the cues and what it is I wanted to achieve. However instead of it just being for a day I ended up staying there for the rest of the camp.
Pic 2: Exit Kreisel when you don’t control the pressure
I was getting fed up with same feedback “you need to react on the straight”, “you need to turn the sled”. Well I took that latter one quite literally and if you search Rachel Konigssee Kreisel into Youtube you’ll definitely see me turn the sled- just not the way the coaches meant. Anyway the frustration began to get the better of me and I just really got myself down about it. It’s not that I didn’t understand it or not know what I needed to do (I blooming drew the corners a countless number of times with the lines I wanted to achieve, and watched endless amounts of video footage. The coach even got me to lie down on a sofa with his hand under my shoulder and knee to replicate the steers I needed to do in Kreisel- and I did it exactly perfectly), I just couldn’t seem to do it on the ice.
I am somebody who doesn’t do things half-heartedly. Everything I do, I do with 100% effort, commitment and passion, and always strive to do my best. But sometimes (as experienced in athletics and now here) I can get too emotionally involved, and these emotions just get the better of me. Eventually I cracked and on the morning of the penultimate day of sliding I decided I wasn’t going to slide. I barely slept that night just visualising the track and the steers etc- I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained. I had a good long chat with one of my coaches to explain what I was feeling, and actually broke down in tears-it was just a relief to get it all off my chest. The scary part was telling the head sliding coach that I was not going to slide, but he respected and appreciated my decision, and instead I went up and watched the others in the key areas. It’s actually surprising how much you can pick up from watching people slide, it was like in Lillehammer at the start of winter when I missed a day of sliding due to bruising- I spent the session watching the others in a particular corner and came back the next day executing it the best I had done.
The next morning, I was in a much better frame of mind and was determined to nail it as it was consolidation day. Whilst everyone else was at the top, I was in my own changing room lower down- it was an opportunity to focus on what I needed to do and get in the zone to execute my plan. The plan was that if I got Kreisel I would move up to the top for the 3rd run, missing the 2nd run to get my stuff together and ready. So the 1st run went well, I reacted on the “bendaway” and got the sled turned at the right time and intensity through Kreisel. The head coach standing in Kreisel shouted down to me as I got off my sled and said I executed it and can move to the top. I was happy I finally got it but I didn’t want to just go straight to the top, I wanted to confirm that I could do it again and it weren’t just a fluke, so I radioed to the other coaches that I was staying at S1 for the next run.
I was stood at the start as the final sled before me went past, focusing on repeating what I just did. I went one better and actually executed it even better and going 0.5s quicker than my previous run. Finally it was clicking! I was confident to go from top and the coaches were more than confident that I would be able to do it from the top- I just had to go and do it now...
I was on the sled and the top section was not an issue, that part was like second nature to me it was exit S4 onwards that I really was focused on. I came out of S4 ready to react which I did, not the cleanest but as I mentioned earlier, it’s not an easy section. Anyway I came out of Jenna and was entering the Kreisel: early entrance- tick, parallel- tick, feel the roll put in gradual left shoulder- tick, see yellow sign on ice and uphold with right shoulder- tick. Now for the crucial part- the sled was slowly descending, the pressure was easing, I could see I was getting closer and closer to the short wall (cue for me to get ready to steer). The pressure released for a split millisecond before it began to come on again, that is when I dug in my left shoulder and right knee into the sled, and right foot hard into the ice. I could see and feel my sled turn and running parallel with the lines in the corner as the pressure was on again, but having got that 2nd pressure right the 3rd would be much harder to time, so I had to be patient and really feel for the slight changes in pressure. I could feel the pressure releasing as I was approaching the inside wall again (before I was steering too early so really had to time it right and get that intensity spot on).There it was, the release in pressure- my cue to “turn the sled” so shoulder, knee and toe back in the ice to prevent that dramatic pick up on the exit. I nailed it and went straight through the doodles and probably got my best bottom section of the camp. I managed to shave a whole 2 seconds off my time from the previous runs off the top too, and was only a few 10ths off the others who spent the whole week going from top (and I was only jogging off).
Pic 3: Nailing Kreisel at last
What a way to end this camp. After struggling with certain sections and literally hitting rock bottom I come back and absolutely smash it on the last run. I made some difficult decisions to a) stay down at the lower start and b) to miss a day of sliding to clear my mind and refocus, but looking back as I write this, they were the right decisions and I finished this camp on a positive which I can take forward going into Igls.
Oh and not forgetting to mention the Winter Olympics! Wow what a spectacle that was! We were all up early hours of the morning in the meeting room (aka sled room) watching the heats on the big screen. What a rollercoaster of emotions that was too feeling devastated that we thought we’d missed out on the medals, to then elation shortly afterwards. It was just incredible to watch Skeleton make history- Dom to get GB’s first medal in the men’s event since being reintroduced into the programme, Laura and Lizzy to get 2 medals on one podium at a Winter Olympic Games, and then Lizzy to become the first GB athlete to retain her Winter Olympic title. What a time to be a part of British Skeleton...!
Pic 4: Dom Parsons-Olympic Bronze Medallist
Pic 5: Lizzy and Laura-Olympic Medallists
Again, another LIVE blog whilst still out on camp! It’s Saturday morning (10.30am, 3rd March), the last rest day before heading back to the UK tomorrow. I plan to stay in bed (yes in my bed again, but when out on season, if there’s an opportunity to stay in bed, you stay in bed), watch some Netflix, prepare for my end of season review, and of course firstly finish this blog...
So back to where it all began...
It felt weird coming back here to the place where I first experienced skeleton, but at least this time I had a better idea of what I was actually doing! It was nice to just go straight off the top without any fear and not be skidding everywhere. I’m chuckling to myself now thinking back to when we first went off the top and referred to the pressure in Kreisel as a monster... compared to what we’ve experienced at the other tracks this season...pressure? What pressure?
The first challenge here was to see if I could make sense of my track notes I made a whole year ago. I already made a good start of actually bringing them with me; a couple of others forgot theirs, so it was like starting from scratch for them. But looking back through them was rather interesting and seeing how much I progressed in terms of note taking alone- entertaining to read but I mean, how were these meaningful? (Below are actual notes from my notebook):
Weds 15th 2017 [ok I know when it was]
Run 1 from top with broom [actually useful knowing which run and what the start was]
-looked down a bit at grooves [not exactly useful information]
-2 felt I executed the steers [and what steers were these?]
-3 felt ok a bit late [what does ok mean? And what was late, the entrance, steers, exit?]
-Skidded to 4 so between 4 + 7 lost where I was and what I had to do [well at least I’m honest]
-Kreisel skidded into came out banged wall skidded into 9 (form went) [so I skidded into Kreisel but was I late or early? Which wall did I hit out of Kreisel, and what happened to 8? What about my form was not good?]
-10 a bit late with steers [what steers did I do? What happened on the exit?]
-labrynth just all over the place [well this could mean anything really]
Pic 6: Example notes from 2017
As you can tell, I couldn’t really take much from these notes, but at least I wrote a consolidation plan, so had the entrances, steers and exits I was aiming to achieve last time (phew). Although the ice was cut slightly different to last time we were here, I had something to work with and could always adapt as I went and learned what was happening in the corners.
So, first day of sliding was about resetting and feeling the track again. Like the coach said, we have just come from Königssee (a really technical and high pressure track) a completely different track to Igls. Therefore on the first runs we were just letting the sled run, feeling the oscillation patterns until we got to Kreisel where we had 2 steers, and in 9 which also had 2... Blimey did this track feel so different...!
The spur was dreadful; it was pulling strongly right into corner 1 meaning we were going in too early. The top section seemed bumpier than what I remembered which was making me shuffle a lot in my sled. I vividly remember the outrun last year was horribly bumpy and had jagged bits of ice which threw you into the walls (that is how I bruised my hands so much last time). I didn’t think the outrun could get much worse, but it was. As soon as you come out of corner 14 it was so bumpy that the sled was getting air time, which also meant you kept getting slammed down onto the sled- and yes I got winded a couple of times. Also because of the bumps too, the sled was flying straight over the breaking mats and for the first time we were getting right up to the end of the ice. For the rest of the camp we had to resort to breaking with our feet as soon as we crossed the finish line otherwise we would have been coming out of the end of the track!
It took the first couple of days to get used to the track again and figure out how the corners were working this time round. Last time I was here, I couldn’t quite execute corners 2 and 3 and that was a similar story this time round too. It was definitely improving but I just had to find that right balance of timing and intensity that worked for me. Kreisel was a lot more consistent, it weren’t so scary so had a better idea of where I was in the corner. All in all it was going really well apart from one thing... my push start.
Pic 7: Kreisel
Pic 8: Exit Kreisel
As you would have read in part 1, I didn’t really get the opportunity to push in Königssee and in Moritz before that I had my hip flexor injury, so hadn’t pushed properly on ice since Winterberg way back in December. Having only trotted the sled off recently, it was like that was all I knew and I had forgotten how to push properly (it was literally like I had forgotten how to push). I was so glad when our S&C/push coach arrived for the 2nd week because then at least I could get in some decent pushing. Looking at the video with him, it was clear the issue was coming from my first stride off the block. I was merely just placing my foot down rather than driving powerfully and long- I needed to find some oomph! The hard thing I have found with the push start is to not get into quick steps straight away; I have a tendency to get up to speed too quickly so don’t run the distance over the brow.
Anyway we came up with the plan of scratching a line into the ice with my brush spikes for me to reach with my first stride. This worked but I was still getting up to speed too quickly and loading onto my sled too soon. So for the next session I was to count my strides aiming for 14-16, forcing me to keep running. That also worked, but then my stride length weren’t so great- I just needed to combine the 2 together. It sounds easy, but it is really hard to execute the push start well and maximise every aspect of it. The good news was that since the coach arrived I had taken 3 tenths off what I was pushing with plenty more left in the tank.
In the video session the day before consolidation day, he said to just go for it and gave me a target of 5.5s-the best I managed so far was 5.7s. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get the target but was close with 5.61s. The first push I did the long strides but had no gear change, the 2nd one I got to the gear change too quickly so didn’t run the distance. The 3rd was set up perfectly with big long strides and was only gradually building speed which meant I was able to run further over the brow. It felt different as I was actually getting it right, but instead of getting in those extra few strides I loaded the sled too early (damn it!). However I had my cleanest run on that final one, so it weren’t a bad one to end the season on. I found out that evening in video that 5.5s is our push target for next year so to be 0.06s off that already is very encouraging, especially since I’ve missed quite a bit of sprinting and pushing the last month or so. I was gutted I couldn’t produce it here, as I felt I had a 5.4s in me easily, but it’s made me excited and more determined to work even harder over the summer and come out next season pushing and sliding even faster.
Pic 9: At the start block
Pic 10: Loading the sled
But for now it’s time to finish preparing notes for my end of season review, and do my packing before we travel back tomorrow. Once back to the UK it’s another 2 weeks of hard training (the return of capacity-YES!!! [I’m the only one looking forward to it]) in Bath before a 2 week break. And not forgetting to mention a trip up to Sheffield for my sister’s wedding! (Hopefully my bruises have gone down by then). After the break its back into Bath for training and review camps where I will sit before a number of coaches, managers and programme directors to review how the season has gone, and argue why I deserve to remain on the programme (rather daunting I must admit)...
I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who wished me a Happy Birthday, it was great spending it out in Austria again at Hotel Kleisl- the owners Hannes and Manwela really do look after us! (That Matilda style chocolate birthday cake was to die for!) And finally a big thank you for your continued support and interest in my skeleton journey. It’s been an incredible experience and one I hope will continue to Beijing!