Alex McDonald is living his dream

Alex McDonald is training with Coach Chris Manhard and Maria Lundgren of the Callaghan Valley Training Centre

Alex McDonald trains on the Haig Glacier this summer with the BC Ski Team at the Betty Scott Camp near Canmore

Alex McDonald trains on the Haig Glacier this summer with the BC Ski Team at the Betty Scott Camp near Canmore

Do you remember the Barriere Secondary graduating class of 2014?  Remember that tall, slim athletic fellow called Alexander McDonald?

In high school Alex was well known for his athletic achievements, especially in cross country skiing;   one of those young people who everyone feels has places to go and things to accomplish. And that is exactly what Alex has been doing since graduation.

Following his dream Alex immediately left Barriere to live in Whistler, B.C., where he is training with Coach Chris Manhard and Maria Lundgren of the Callaghan Valley Training Centre (CVTC) where he is a member of the BC Ski Team, and following his goal to compete internationally in a sport he has come to love.

Last month Alex returned to Barriere for a couple of weeks to recuperate and to see family and friends.   While here, the Star/Journal interviewed this young 19-year-old athlete, who told this reporter he now has “…one year of training and racing down.”

Asked what that 12 months of training involved Alex answered, “Training involves lots of running, roller skiing, roadside cycling, and a lot of working in the gym.  We do a lot of longer workouts – run for four-and-a-half hours – and sometimes split the workout like two-and-a-half hours running, and then two-and-a-half hours roller skiing.”

Asked if the training was based on interval training, Alex noted, “Yes, we do a lot of short maximum effort stuff and then longer workouts to train aerobic capacity.”

What is Alex physically best at in his training program at this time?

“I do well at sprints,” said the young athlete, “I know I can do well there; so we train my explosive power.  Sprints need bigger muscles to quick fire – which means lots of time in the gym to build the bulk of the muscle, plus super long hours of training which gives you the muscle capacity to work with.”

We asked him if his height (6’9’ or 10’) and incredibly long legs give him an advantage or disadvantage due to his length of stride during competitions?

“Length of stride is really dependent on terrain,” said Alex, “My full length of stride on a rolling course is a little bit more of an advantage, and in the sprints I can have a little bit more power.  I like to think my specialty would be a classic sprint.”

He also tells that long distances  require bigger lung capacity so that requires a lot of training over time to increase that capacity at the CVTC Training Centre in Whistler.

We asked if he also held down a job to pay for the training, but he noted, “The training is so intense there is no time for a job.  I have to pay out of my own pocket, and mostly it is my Mom and Dad who contribute.  I’m just taking it year by year.”

Does he like the program and the rigors of training with the CVTC?

“I really like it down there.  I get deals on my ski equipment, and the team has some sponsors for equipment.  Hopefully, I will be able to get a personal sponsor this year.”

Alex says that his training program last year “..was more of a building year, and now we are looking for more results.”

He also notes that currently he is the only one at the CVTC camp that stays in the training program consistently.

“There was only two kids in my age group out of 20 that continued skiing after graduation,” says Alex,  “Many quit.  After school they just wanted to party. Currently there is just me and my coach.  I get a lot of one-on-one and technical work.”

Alex tells that sometimes training takes him to other areas in British Columbia to train with other people.

“It really helps you to see where you are at in your training and you get to work with another group.”

As training progresses he is also starting to compete at a higher level.

“I did Nationals in Thunder Bay in March 2015, but I got sick the day we got there,” says Alex, “I was in bed for four days, missed the first race, and then managed to qualify in the next.”

Unfortunately, he was unable to compete in the final due to the fact that he had “…used everything I had up in the qualifier which was a 30k.  Being sick, spending all those days in bed, and then in the qualifier I fell off the bank, but did manage to struggle back up and still qualify.  It was just mid-pack results, but I was actually happy with them considering I had been in bed for so many days beforehand.”

Two years ago Alex competed  at the Canadian Nationals in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, which was his first National event.

The athlete commented he felt this provided a great opportunity to learn, and he was happy with his personal results finishing on top in his age group.

Right now Alex says his sights are set on competing in the World Junior Trials at Thunder Bay, Ontario, in January 2016, and then the Canadian Nationals in Whitehorse, Yukon, mid-March of  the same year.

“Right now my focus is to make the World Junior Team for Canada, which is a lofty goal for me,” says Alex, “But if I don’t make the team, there is a ‘B’ tour I could go on.”

What is his vision for competing in the future?

“My main goals are that I want to race in the World Cup and the Olympics; but that’s a long way down the road,” says Alex with a smile full of enthusiasm for his goals. “I’m seven to 10 years away from that – it’s a long commitment – increasing the hours every year, and tweaking the intensity,”

Commitment to excel in the sport started for Alex when he was just three-years-old when his Mom put him on skis.

“It’s been almost all my life.  I had some time when I really didn’t want to do it; but my Mom kept pushing me – and now I am really glad I stuck with it.  All the opportunities are amazing, and if Mom wasn’t pushing me, driving me to Kamloops three days a week after school, or up to Sun Peaks I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Most recently this summer, the CVTC with Alex and four other BC Ski Team members from Hollyburn and Larch Hills ski clubs had the opportunity to travel and train in Sweden and Norway. They had a unique opportunity to experience the adventure of skiing in a cross country ski tunnel and also roller skied on some incredible paved trail networks in Sjusjoen, Sweden. They also visited the 1994 Winter Olympic Games venue at Lillehammer, Norway; visited Holmenkollen and Oslo, and then attended the Elite Camp Idre with the Swedish National Junior Team in August.

“When we went to Sweden, I really enjoyed being in another country and seeing how they do things over there,” tells Alex. “One of our coaches is from Sweden (a successful racer over there) and she wanted to take some B.C. Team kids to a big camp there.  There were five of us athletes and two coaches who attended.”

Alex says they skied everyday, sometimes roller skiing in the afternoon.

“They have a large tunnel that is just over a kilometre long with artificial snow that is always at minus -5°C degrees.  You do loops in it and it is open all year long.”

Being in Norway for a few days was a highlight for the team said Alex.  “That was awesome.  We looked at World Cup venues, and where our cabin was the roller ski track was right outside the door.  The track was like a roller coaster and I had the most fun I’ve ever had on roller skis.”

Alex tells they also trained with 107 other people, and he really enjoyed skiing and training with the Swedish National Junior Team members, ages 16 to 19 years.

“We did an uphill running test that was up a downhill ski run – that was really hard,”

He says training in Sweden was “…an amazing opportunity to see the difference in how they train over there – more intense, more training.”

Alex also tells that before the team went to the Swedish training camp, they attended a BC Team training camp near the Haig Glacier in Canmore, Alberta.

“We were there for about a week.  There is a three hour run/hike in to the Becky Scott Camp where we stayed in cool huts right on the rocks.  We would hike up onto the glacier every morning, ski for two to three hours, and then run down on the snow.  Breathing is different there because you are at an altitude of 2700 meters.  Then if you had the afternoon off you did strength exercises or went for a run.  We had great weather, the sun shining everyday.  One of the best camps we do every year.”

Asked what this life of training and pushing personal limits means to him, Alex answered, “You definitely stay focused, and ideally I need to be healthy all the time.  You have to sacrifice some of your social life as well to do what you want to do.  Even though I want to go out with my friends I can’t always do that.    If that means not going to a party one night – that’s what I have to do.  It’s all about commitment, and you have to have the drive to do it.  But you also make many friends in the sport, and in other countries as well.”

Asked what he enjoys about competitive racing, Alex said, “Going into a race you know what your time was before, and you try to do better and improve – a progression of getting better.  There is never an end to being the best that you can be.  Once you reach a goal, you pat yourself on the back and then move on to the next goal.  There is always that next goal.”

Alex says the average race for him at this stage of training is 15k, “… that’s where you put your body into ‘the zone’ as the distance flies by”.

“When you are in ‘the zone’ everything is just that much better, especially on 30k.  You have to just focus.  You have to break the course down to certain points in the course.  If your mind wanders you are in trouble, then you notice your lungs are burning, your legs are seizing up and you start asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?”  If you have been running for four hours you have to come in with the same focus as in training.”

Why does Alex continue to put himself both physically and mentally through this incredibly grueling training and competitions?

“I like the feeling when you cross the finish line and know you couldn’t have pushed any harder ….it’s exhaustion …and when you get up you know you couldn’t have pushed any harder.”

Does training fill all of his days, or does he take time off for other things, as he is doing now visiting family and friends in Barriere?

“When you have downtime after a few days you start to get restless,” answers Alex, “You miss that rush of doing something with your body.”

Is Alex enjoying this highly challenging and competitive path that he has chosen?

“I’m having a great time – it’s awesome!

“I’m living the dream!”