The Long Distance Ski Championship


First Visma Ski Classics Season

Written by: Teemu Virtanen

Finnish summer is not much to write home about if the weather is the determining factor. Days may be long and the sun never goes down, but the people of the arctic land can count the hot days of summer with one hand, at least this summer as the temperature has not risen above the hot weather limit (+25 C) at all.

However, the summer is still the time when the Finns crawl out from their dark holes and gaze upon the magic rays of light coming down from the sky. This is the time of the year when we become whole again and embrace the gift of life. The summer is indeed the best time of the year for most people, but for Visma Ski Classics athletes it is the time to train hard and build up the foundation for the new season.

That is exactly what the most successful long distance skier from Finland, Heli Heiskanen, is doing. She finished sixth last season in the overall results of Visma Ski Classics, and she is determined to improve her performance come the Season number eight. The last season was her first in the long distance series, and there was much for her to learn and experience.

“Some of the Visma Ski Classics races last season were my first purely double-poling ones,” Heli admits enthusiastically. “I managed to do well in them and my confidence grew much due to the fact that I realized my true potential. I also had a great team based in Italy, and I got new friends and learned a bit Italian and my teammates had a chance to work on their English. The winter season was very long and I had to be away from home a lot, but it didn’t really bother me much. Actually, I will continue being away next winter as well and try to stay in Central-Europe to avoid unnecessary traveling.”

The sixth place was much better than Heli expected before the season started, and she is now confident that she can climb even higher when the new season kicks off, perhaps even all the way to the podium when the stars align. She also wants to secure her place in the top-10 ranking based on the-24-month performance. She says that it will be much easier for her to enter the new season as she is no rookie anymore.

“I think Visma Ski Classics is a unique series with many different events and wonderful locations. This is very much like a family business where you get to know each other very well and you learn the trick of the trade. It’s really hard for me to pick my favorite races as they all have their own characteristics, but Dobbiaco/Toblach-Cortina is certainly one to remember fondly about. I like the area and the nature there. Of course, Ylläs-Levi is close to my heart being a Finn myself and I think it is visually the most stunning event in the series. Then, Vasaloppet has something magical about it as it is the biggest ski race in the world. I have participated three times in that race, which gives me a perspective on my respective performances. And I wish there would be some skating races in the cup as well to make it more versatile. I’m quite good at free technique and it would bring in more skiers from Central-Europe. That would be fun!”

It is no wonder that Ylläs-Levi is a special race for Heli as it will certainly fortify the status of long distance skiing in Finland and present the sport to a wider audience. Heli feels that the event can also boost the participation of recreational skiers as well, not only in Ylläs-Levi but in other races in her home country.

“I believe it is important for any skier, amateur or professional, to have a clear goal, which motivates and inspires one to try his or her best. Ylläs-Levi can be such a race and thus make a difference in Finland. It’s wonderful to be standing in the start line knowing that you are going to do the same race and the same distance as the elite skiers around you. The atmosphere alone in these races is something you have to experience yourself, no one can really describe it for you. You have to be there and see it yourself! Ylläs-Levi is now a pivotal part of this international brand, and I believe we will have all the best skiers in Finland taking part in the race next spring.”

New coach and new methods

Long distance skiing, like any endurance sport, requires a lot of hard work and persistence. Heli is no stranger to pushing herself to the limit, and she is ready to rock the boat if that is needed for best possible results. She has a new coach, Jarmo Riski – a well-know figure in cross-country ski circles in Finland, and her path to future glories takes much more than just repeating the tricks from the past.

“Jarmo has really brought something new to my training, and it’s more diverse now. My strength workouts are now more specific focusing on the qualities needed for long distance skiing. My training weeks alter a lot and the hours spent on training vary depending on each week’s goal. Thematically, we have also changed my training methods. Each workout has different elements within, and together they complete the particular exercise that I set out to do. I also have more days off than ever before to make sure that I get enough recovery.”

When asked about her best qualities and weaknesses, Heli takes a moment to ponder her reply. She is keen to admit that her multifaceted background and great love of multiply sports work in her favor. She has done mountain climbing, various team sports, gymnastics, swimming and of course all kinds of endurance sports. That enthusiasm has given her an advantage that can be her secret weapon in the years to come.

“Because of my background, I can easily adapt new methods and learn new things very quickly. I love pushing the envelope. My greatest weakness is, like with many female skiers, the strength training. And I’m happy that Jarmo has modernized my approach to it and introduced new elements. And I still need to work on my double-poling technique as it is constantly evolving.”

If her strength training is something to pay more attention to, running is really her cup of tea. She eagerly points out that nothing is greater than running in a forest surrounded by the beauty of nature and the rapidly changing scenery. Running fast might be her favorite workout, but Nordic-walking up a hill is the one she dislikes the most, simply because it is quite boring. But all these workouts are needed if one craves for success in long distance skiing.

“I think the sport has changed so much over the years. A successful pro skier needs to be fast, powerful and mentally strong. Of course, endurance is still the key element, but you must be able to sprint fast whenever needed. In Finland, we still tend to have this mentality that long distance skiing is just a walk in the park for hours on end, but it is anything but that. The overall speed has increased so much that you have to be fast to keep up that high pace. It may seem a bit uneventful when you’re watching it on TV, but as an athlete you need to be alert and ready for attacks and changes in pace. That’s what makes this sport so interesting and challenging!”

Long distance skiing in Visma Ski Classics vs. in Finland

Nordic skiing, and long distances in particular, is clearly Heli’s passion, but a hint of agitation can be detected in her voice when she describes the current status of the sport in her motherland.

“It’s certainly getting better because of the exposure that Visma Ski Classics is bringing to the sport. But it’s still not as respected as the standard skiing with the World Cups and the Big Games. The level of competition is so much higher in Visma Ski Classics than in our domestic races where women very seldom dare to ski without kick wax. Many skiers are afraid of participating in long distance ski events because they fear that it may affect their performance in standard distances. I think that’s nonsense. You can do both and even gain by doing long distances in the middle of your ski season. Right after Marcialonga last winter, I participated in the Finnish Nationals and finished 7th, which was quite well considering the workload I had put myself under. That goes to show you that you can do well in shorter distances if you put your mind to it.”

Heli really knows what she is talking about as she has done hundreds of long distance ski races in Finland, usually very victoriously. She has been a lone wolf in mass start ski races competing against men as there are not too many female skiers putting their hopes and dreams into becoming celebrated long distance ski legends. It goes without saying that racing against men gives you a certain kind of stamina and resilience that can give you an edge over your opponents, but she still feels that it would be nice to have more women in the field. Her sentiment applies to the sport in general as we need more women in the game of long distance skiing, and luckily some “lady-loppets” are paving the way for that movement.

Heli Heiskanen – up close and personal

Before we let Heli go and start her workout of the day, it is time to open the curtain and take a peek behind the scenes, or should we say open the door to her private life, and see what kind of a woman she really is.

1. How did you become a skier?

“My father was a good skier in his youth and he was a role model for me. I’ve always been full of energy and sparks, so I needed a proper channel to release the overload of my zealousness. I also had many friends who were into skiing, which made it easy for me to pick it as my favorite pastime thing to do. I became a long distance skier when my husband Esa Mursu saw the potential in me and encouraged me to try that out.”

2. Speaking of Esa, he is one the best long distance skiers in Finland and well-known for his second-to-none training hours. How often do you train together and what is his role in supporting your career?

“We used to train more together, but now we do it 2-3 times a week depending on how well my training program fits with the one Esa has planned for himself. Esa is his own personal coach, but he has adopted many elements from my program. Esa also takes care of my skis, and I don’t have to worry about that when getting ready for a race. Of course, it makes our lives easier when we both do skiing as we know what it takes and what sacrifices we need to do in order to succeed. Esa’s parents are also very helpful as they take care of the household and daily chores when we are away.”

3. How do you find sufficient time for work and being a professional athlete, which is a common dilemma many Visma Ski Classics athletes are facing today?

“I’m a teacher and the school semesters overlap with ski seasons, which means that I cannot work in the winter. I can do some sporadic teaching sessions here and there, but right now I’m pretty much focusing full-time on skiing. Before I decided to step into the Visma Ski Classics arena, I worked almost full-time, 80-100%, and that required some careful planning to avoid exhausting myself. It’s not easy to juggle between work and professional life as an athlete, but I feel that my chance is now and I can get back to the grind when I’ve seen what I can do as a professional skier.”

4. Finally, what other passions or hobbies do you have besides skiing?

“Handicraft, reading, baking and cooking in general. Anything to balance the rigorous training!”

Today, there is not much time to bake or cook, let alone do handiwork, as Heli sets her sights on her next workout that will be another important step towards the glory she seeks when the bells toll in Pontresina in the end of November letting us know that the Visma Ski Classics Season VIII has started. We still have about four months before those bells chime, but for a professional skier like Heli it needs to be time well spent. She knows what to do and she is adamant that the year of 2018 AD will be written in history books as the one when a long distance skier from Finland stepped on the podium for the first time in the prestigious long distance world championship series. Go for it Heli and you will find that the whole Finland will be supporting you!