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Jessie Diggins’s “Big Stupid” Workout and Other Epic Challenges

Cross country skiers are arguably the fittest endurance athletes on the planet. OK, not arguably—we are the fittest athletes. Many of us spend our weekends finding the next goal, the next boundary to push, and off we go, our friends looking at us as if we’re nuts. A 10km becomes 20km, 20 becomes 50. We enter the Craftsbury Marathon, then the American Birkie. In the summer, we pedal a century for charity or run the Mt. Washington Road Race. We understand George Mallory’s answer when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.”

Just ask members of the U.S. Ski Team. Every summer, Jessie Diggins does what she calls a “Big Stupid”—an adventure that’s way outside of her normal training routine. One year, she ran the equivalent of a marathon on the Appalachian Trail, then ran a few more miles, nearing 30 total. Another summer, she rollerskied 100 kilometers in a day. On her 29th birthday, in 2020, she ran the Pemigewasset Wilderness Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She had heard the 30-plus-mile route, which includes more than 9,000 feet of elevation gain, was the second hardest hike in the U.S.

Jessie Diggins ran the 30-mile Pemigewasset Wilderness Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in August 2020, covering more than half the distance on a badly sprained ankle. [Photo] Courtesy Jessie Diggins

But boundary pushing can provide more than an opportunity to find physical limits. Diggins explains in her blog that the Big Stupid concept “is very necessary in order to feed my soul and sense of adventure. In that sense, it’s not stupid at all, but rather a trade-off of smart training for the week in exchange for happy memories for a year.” She has also said that these big adventures help her realize that she can finish a 30- or 90-minute race because she’s pushed hard for much longer than that.

Diggins is not the only skier on the national team who embraces ultra-challenging exploits. Simi Hamilton once paced a friend for “just” 50 miles during a 100-mile race in California, on trails that range in elevation from 7,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level and require 9,000 vertical feet of climbing. Racers must complete two laps, each of which takes close to 12 hours. After finishing the one lap that he agreed to run with his friend, Hamilton thought, “If I really had to, I could probably go out and do that again and make it 100 miles.”

Another Ski Teamer, Katharine Ogden, was less enamored with an epic adventure she undertook, though she can laugh about it now. On July 4, 2020, she hopped on her road bike in Fairlee, Vermont, and pedaled 200 miles that day to raise money for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. The center’s annual fundraising century ride, known as the Prouty, took place virtually because of the pandemic, with cyclists choosing their own routes.

Ogden and the friends she rode with, including her boyfriend, bike racer Ethan Call, embarked on their version of the Prouty, aiming to ride the distance of two centuries, not one. The five cyclists traversed New Hampshire, climbing over the Kancamagus Highway, a scenic route through the White Mountains. After crossing into Maine, they looped back through New Hampshire and—203.5 miles and 10,842 feet of climbing later—returned to Fairlee.

Katharine Ogden joined Ethan Call, Sebastian Logue, Grant Woods and Jack Green on her 2020 double century. [Photo] Courtesy Katharine Ogden

On a humid day with temperatures in the 90s, the group fueled themselves at gas stations and, in the last 10 miles, at a Dollar General, where they dined on Twinkies and Hostess donuts. “I’m morally opposed to Dollar General,” says Ogden, who burned more than 5,000 calories on the ride. “But it was the only place within miles.” It was also air conditioned.

This specific adventure resonated more personally, too, as Ogden herself raised $4,902 for the cancer center, where her father is receiving treatment.

Sometimes these crazy workouts even involve skiing. For instance, there’s the time national team members Gus Schumacher and JC Schoonmaker skied 200 kilometers in one day, inspired by teammate Luke Jager’s 100-kilometer ski. The pair had also noticed that a few Norwegians were skiing big days—either part of their normal spring ritual or as a way to cope with the pandemic lockdown. Wrote Schumacher in his blog, “The motivation, I guess, is just to accomplish something with low pressure and maybe feel a sense of camaraderie in commiseration.” 

The week before their 200-kilometer ski, the duo skied 100 kilometers in one day as a “warm up.” Then they hit the trail at Anchorage, Alaska’s Kincaid Park before sunrise on April 7—a sunny day with fast snow. But their adventure was not a rolling scenic tour through Anchorage. They skied about 60 percent of the distance on one 6-kilometer loop. A handful of friends joined them for part of the way. 

“Usually the nicest part about doing these long skis in Anchorage is this bike path called the Tour Trail that they groom in the winter for cross country skiers,” says Schoonmaker. “The path connects the two main sets of ski trails, Hillside and Kincaid, and is super flat and fast.” But last spring, the grooming on that path was less than stellar, so the skiers stuck to Kincaid’s trails. The repetitive terrain “definitely made the ski tougher mentally,” notes Schoonmaker.

“The hardest stretch was, unsurprisingly, the last 15km,” he adds. “But the second-hardest stretch was right after our lunch break [of leftover fried rice]. I got so cold, and it took me a little while to get back into a good rhythm.”

At the end, after the duo had skied for 10 hours, 17 minutes and 41 seconds, Schumacher’s girlfriend brought them pizza and soda, a promise she’d made earlier that had kept Schoonmaker motivated. “My feet were killing me,” he remembers, “and most of my body was cramping, but the feeling of finishing that ski with my friends was unbeatable. I think it’s something that I’ll make my spring tradition from now on.”

“I think ‘Big Stupid’ describes it perfectly,” says Schumacher, in reference to the name Diggins came up with. “When my coach saw the entry for it in my training log, he sent me a text that was something like, ‘Are you crazy?’ But it’s fun to push ourselves in this way every once in a while. And it’s so fun to be in it together.”

This story first appeared in the Early Winter 2022 issue of Cross Country Skier (#41.2).