Downhill racer – alpine snow skiing: Interview with Mark Mangelsdorf

Mark Mangelsdorf holds a BA with honors in both English and Psychology and currently works as a technical writer in the software industry. He was an alpine snow ski racer before settling into snow skiing for pleasure and not purely for sport.

Mangelsdorf started ski racing later in life than most racers, at the age of nine. He competed seriously until he was 17, at which time he suffered a back injury. He came back for a final year at eighteen just to “close up” his ski experience. He now skies four times a year for fun with family and friends, with a “constellation of experiences in downhill ski racing” continuing to alter his skiing experiences.

NP: What are some of the challenges ski racers face, such as types of snow, snow conditions and so forth?

Mangelsdorf: Those would be the most immediate, tangible challenges with the sport. Type of snow, the hill, the course layout and the person setting the course have substantial impact. The temperature of the snow is key – that is, looking at predictions for the snow temperature on race day and then waxing our race skies with the corresponding type of wax. The wax quality and process gets technical and overly complicated.

To simplify: wax types are broken up into temperature ranges (i.e. -6 °C/-12°C) with the colder temperature wax yielding a harder wax (to break through the ice crystals of the hard snow) and the warmer temperature wax yielding a more porous wax (hydrophobic, gliding over wetter snow). Then those clarified types would get accompanying signifiers, such as CH4, LF2, HF6. CH means Hydrocarbon, which is the lowest grade, LF means Low Fluorinated Hydrocarbon, which is typically race day wax, and HF is High Fluorinated Hydrocarbon, which is super high end and noxious when melted, requiring a gas mask during its application (didn’t use this stuff often). The process of applying wax is as follows: hold bar of wax to hot iron and drip the wax onto the base of the ski, run the iron along the base and melt the wax droplets into a waxy film, hot scrape with a plastic scraper, wax again, let ski sit, scrape the ski again when it’s cold, then brush – with these, in order: copper hair, nylon, horse-hair. Also, there’s the matter of the edges, which requires the removal of sidewall (if the skis are new), files, and stones (diamond and ceramic).

Then, once it’s race day and you’re getting close to your turn to shred the course, your coach comes up and gives your skis “The Stuff” which is this white powder that looks like cocaine, that’s rubbed into the bases with a light brush that’ll make your bases lethally slick. At this point your skis could decapitate someone and go from 0 to 60 faster than my car. And this is all just the prep for the snow condition. As for the hill, hopefully you’ve raced it before and have grown accustomed to its fall lines and knolls. Certain hills yield certain course sets, almost without fail.

For example, the annual races on Telluride’s insanely steep Milk Run, has extremely round turns, gates at the maximum horizontal distance and minimal vertical distance from one another. You get a chance to inspect the course before you run it that way you and your coaches can formulate a fast line – where to go straight and take risks, where to hold back and play it safe.

So let’s say you’re going to a race. You have your skies prepped. You know the hill. You get there early and inspect the course that’s been set. You memorize the rhythm changes, close your eyes, hold your hands up and swing them from side to side as if they were skis, tracing the course in your head, because that’s tradition and everyone else does it. You know exactly how to take the big knoll that’ll drop the mountain into a pitch beneath you; you’ve matched the takeoff angle with a tree that’s way out in the distance. You’ve clicked into your skis and stripped down to your speed suit with your nylon bib compressing your chest. You’re all ready, and now you’re in the start gate and have gotten the course report for how the thing is running.

One of your coaches has applied “The Stuff.” It’s your turn to go. You do some last minute hands-in-air-with-closed-eyes remembering. The start-gate guy says “ten seconds.” Now, the most significant challenge presents itself – you actually have to stand before that little black timing wand, look down at everything and internalize the months of practice on a muscle fiber level, battle nerves, kick out and be technically flawless.

If I were to name this sport’s biggest challenge it would be the demand for perfection. This is true of most sports, but it’s axiomatic in ski racing. You need to go up onto that hill, consider a mess of variables then execute 60 seconds of athletic perfection.

NP: The sport has changed over the years. How would you describe those changes?

Mangelsdorf:  The biggest change the sport has seen was the transition from shapeless skis to the new, shorter, shaped ski with side-cut that bends. The other biggie was the transition from bamboo poles to hard plastic poles with flexible hinges and a universal joint at the base, allowing for “cross blocking” in the new form of slalom – which is to bring your body through the gate – as well as just hitting the gate in all other events.

Some of the older experienced coaches liked to remind us of a time in which slalom skis were 205cm (today they’re 165cm for men and 155cm for women) and you really had to work to get that turn. Since those days, the most significant shifts have been occasional modifications to the required radius of the ski (the ski has a radius of the turn it will naturally arc). One of these changes (going to 27 meter radius from 21 meter in Giant Slalom) happened back in 2006 and it’s considered the big turning point for Ted Ligety’s career. He figured out how to perfect the new Giant Slalom (GS) turn radius and has won 5 World Cup GS titles. The axioms, however, are unchanging: stay forward, pressure the downhill ski. Austrian racers Marcel Hirscher and Anna Fenninger are poster children for the classic technique and they’re the best skiers on the planet right now for their respective gender.

NPThe costs of ski racing have risen each year. What do those costs entail?

Mangeldorf:  The yearly costs entail aspects of the following averages:

Equipment – around $2,700 plus, which includes some or all of the following items: skis, boots, bindings (including plates), poles (two pairs – one for slalom, one for GS), shin guards (for slalom), helmet, goggles, gloves, apparel – coats, pants, race suit, etc), and tuning equipment.

Ski passes – depending on which passes you’re getting, and club fee depending on which team you’re going with.  All racers race out of a certain club – i.e. Loveland Race Club, Steamboat Springs Race Club, Team Summit, etc., that provides you with a hill to train on and coaches. Entrance fees to races – are extra. One also must include the average race fee and travel per race (there are about 10 races a season).

Keep in mind that not all of these will be things you buy every year (i.e. some of the equipment). Most people get at least two new pairs of skis a year (one GS and one Slalom) and more wax. But let’s say you’re just now getting into the sport, so you have to get most of this stuff. You can still expect to spend an outrageous $18,000. I know some people who definitely spent less and others who spent much, much more. The only place to really cut costs seems to be with equipment, meaning sticking with only one pair for slalom, one pair for GS, with no duplicates for training, for more than one year.

The only other price-reducing alternatives would be reducing travel expenses (staying in the cheap motels instead of the fancy resorts) and signing up for the cheaper race clubs. Obviously the lack of equipment is likely going to create a disadvantage, but if one is in it for the fun, then it’s the way to go.

If one wants to be serious about it, then one better have some serious money to fund their obsessive training, or one better be a prodigy and receive sponsorships at a young age. Ultimately though, to nobody’s surprise, this is an extremely expensive sport and is fairly exclusive of those without a good amount of expendable income.

NP: Are their personal characteristics that a person might have that could affect their performance as a ski racer?

Mangeldorf: The most obvious one is true with most sports, it seems, and that’s a predilection towards anxiety. If you’re a person who doesn’t handle stress well, or who gets anxious easily, then it’s going to be extremely difficult to deliver the level of perfection the sport requires. You have to have nerves of steel to really lay down a run in a downhill, and you have to have just absolute control over your body to lay down a flawless slalom run.

I was once in a downhill start gate and had to be kept on a hold because the guy in front of me really ate it and ended up requiring a Ski Patrol emergency sled. I stood in the start gate for at least half an hour in the cold, finally got my chance to practically pizza my way down the mountain, and ended up finishing with an atrocious time. I wanted to go home. Experiences like this illuminate the logical insanity of the whole thing: you are about to throw yourself down an icy mountain face going 80 mph.

The mental fortitude of those able to push that logical component aside and aggressively compete is either admirable or insane (though I believe it’s common practice in the World Cup to keep the racers at the top in the dark when things like this happen, which makes sense). With the technical events (slalom and GS), it’s a little different. It’s not so much the fear of it, though you can still reach speeds in the high 50s in GS, as much it is the daunt of being perfect. Just watching Marcel Hirscher kick out of the gate for the second run of the most important race of the year, knowing he’s got to win the run by a second to get the gold is nerve-wracking. It’s the most impressive aspect of professional athletes.

Briefly, I would say that anyone prone to overthinking in any capacity is probably not going to be a seriously good ski racer. You have to be calm and entirely confident in your body’s ability to do what you’ve trained it to do. It’s not too different from the mental requirements of any sport, I don’t think, though the anxiety surrounding the need for perfection might amplify the need for this talent. In ski racing, if you screw up a single turn, the likelihood of winning virtually vanishes (depending on how bad you screw it up, of course). Hirscher can screw up a turn and still win somehow, but I’m not convinced he’s human, so he doesn’t count.

NP: What do you see as the future of ski racing? What factors will influence that future?

Mangelsdorf:  Well, the sad fact is that the U.S. cares very little about this sport. Having the World Championships in Beaver Creek this last winter was definitely huge. It pulled in a lot of spectators. I was at the men’s GS to see Ligety win (it was freaking awesome), and the crowd was pretty big and excited, which was noted by racers world-wide as a great thing for the sport. Hopefully events like that will bring more awareness and garner more participation from young kids. The future of the sport for America at least is always on the fringe, but hopefully a bit less so in the next few generations. Europe will always have people dominating (i.e. Austria’s Hirscher, Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, Slovenia’s Tina Maze).

The real threat is the lack of snow. European race runs in mid-winter have been single ribbons of white descending otherwise brown mountainsides in recent years. It’s depressing. And, sadly, that’ll be more and more of an issue as time rolls forward.