Introduction to Ski Racing with FXC Teams

This is an attempt to answer some of the basic questions someone new to the sport of cross country skiing might have about racing.  It is (of course) written by someone who has been around the sport for a while, so don’t be afraid to ask other questions if you still have them.


The NSCF’s junior racing programs view competition as an opportunity to apply the skills one has learned during training, much like a test in school or a recital for a dance class or a concert for a music group.  As such, skiers are strongly encouraged – but not required – to take part in local races.  It is important to recognize that results mean little in terms of eventual performance until a skier is about 16 years old, and an exclusively results-based focus can often be distracting (at best) to older skiers.  With that in mind, we try to keep the focus on the process of racing: application of skiing skills, racing tactics, and challenging ones abilities. Parents, your help and reinforcement of this focus is very much appreciated!  (And we will talk more about it at our Winter Parent Meeting!)

We feel strongly that skiers should race age-appropriate distances as these allow a skier to ski at high speed for the entire distance.  This allows the skier to reinforce their best technical skills and high energy skiing instead of low-energy, or even fatigued or sloppy habits. It is easier to start with speed and develop the endurance to ski fast for longer races than the other way around. Youth-oriented races in Fairbanks like the Town Race Series, Turkey Day Relays, Besh Cups, and Interior Youth Championships all feature age-appropriate distances. Longer spring events such as the Tour of Anchorage and Sonot Kkaazoot should be viewed more as endurance challenges, and the emphasis should be on completing the distance, more than racing as hard and as fast as possible.

When a skier reaches the Prep Team level, we encourage them to consider travelling to start to experience racing at different venues and in different conditions and the habits that help them travel intelligently and successfully as a ski racer. Usually this is through the Besh Cup series (see below). A logical progression would be to race the Besh Cups in Fairbanks one year, and the next year try one out-of-town race weekend, before trying the whole series. Individual approaches to this vary, so feel free to chat about it with your child’s coaches.

Race Formats

Classic and Freestyle: Races are designated either classic or free technique. In classic technique races, only classic technique can be used (herringbone, classic stride, kick double pole, double pole, turning techniques, etc.), whereas in free technique any technique can be used, although most skiers opt to skate with the possible exception of races held in extremely slow (cold) conditions when the advantage of skating may be lost.

Interval Start (aka Individual start): The traditional XC racing format where skiers start at intervals of 15 or 30 seconds and their start time is subtracted from their finish time to determine results.

Mass Start: A race where the whole field starts at once and the first racer across the line is the winner.  For junior races the ‘field’ is typically one or two age groups that are racing the same distance that day.

Sprint races are generally shorter races where skiers race each other in a series of elimination heats to determine the results. In local races (Town Series), the heats are usually seeded randomly, whereas at larger regional (Besh Cup) and national races the heats are seeded by a qualifier which is an interval start race around the sprint course held in the morning before afternoon heats. Ski-cross races are typically conducted in a sprint (elimination) format with heats and include technical features like jumps and gates to increase the challenge on a skier’s technical skills. [For the youngest skiers, the goal is typically to have them race multiple times during sprint-type formats to help them gain race experience, so even if they aren’t among the top skiers in their first heat, they usually have the opportunity for another round.]

Pursuit Races are a rare format where the previous day’s (or multiple days’) results are used to determine the start order for the race (fastest skier first) and the results for the event are determined by order of finish across the line.

Skiathlon Races are an even rarer mass start format that combines both classic and freestyle technique.  Skiers start the race classic skiing and then make a pit stop half-way through the race to switch gear and finish skating.

Race Series

Local Races

Town Race Series: This is a four-race series held over the course of the winter.  Entry is free to all school-age competitors, and FXC Prep and Jr. Devo athletes should enter through their coaches the week prior to the race (even if they fill-out the season-long entry form – we use the weekly sign-up to reduce costs for our club throughout the series, so the races can remain free). Comp Team athletes typically enter through their high school teams. Youth races are held when it is -10F or warmer, and high school and adult races are held when it is approximately -20F or warmer.

Distance Series: This is an adult-oriented series. Occasionally Comp athletes might participate when it fits with their training and racing objectives. Races are long for Prep and Jr. Devo skiers, so energies should be focused elsewhere. Entry information is available on the NSCF website and at local ski shops.

Turkey Day Relays: A fun costume relay held the day after Thanksgiving every year. Registration is on your own. See the competition/events sections of the NSCF website and local ski shops for more info as the race approaches, and keep an eye out for the early registration deadline!

Wednesday Night Race Series: This is a low-key race series that happens on various Wednesday nights throughout the winter starting at 6:45 PM. Most races are about 5km long. This series could be a nice option in the late winter or springtime, but through most of the winter, skiers would be wise to focus their energies more on other races and training. Entry is conducted about an hour before the race starts.

Interior Youth Champs: This is a youth-oriented race day that FXC hosts each March, consisting of three races in one day with an awards ceremony, prize raffle, and pizza party at the end. Nominal entry fee and registration is available through the team or local ski shops.

Sonot Kkaazoot: This is Fairbanks’ big ski marathon each spring, typically starting and ending on the river downtown (conditions permitting). Besides the 50km which climbs from the river to Birch Hill and then skis nearly all the trails at Birch, there is a 20km race held entirely on the river which can be a nice endurance challenge for Prep and Jr. Devo skiers (and most Comp skiers!). There is a significant discount for registering early – keep an eye out for information in mid to late February!

Regional Races

Besh Cups: This is a three-weekend, six-race series that serve as qualifiers for Junior Nationals, and the Arctic Winter Games in even-numbered years. This is also a great experience builder for skiers interested in qualifying for big races in future years as there are important skills associated with successfully combining travel and racing. Enter at Cross Country Alaska.

USSA licenses are now required to compete in any USSA sanctioned race, including Besh Cups. Competitor licenses ($95) are necessary for U16 and older athletes to score points for Arctic Winter Games and Junior National qualification. U14 and younger athletes simply need a general license ($15) (including U14s who wish to score AWG qualifying points). Day of Race licenses are also available, but cost $10 per day and add a bit of paperwork and logistics to an already busy race morning. 

National Races

Junior Nationals (JNs): A week-long, four-race championship for skiers in the U16 to U20 age groups held in March each year that rotates through the country on a five-year rotation. Skiers attend and compete as part of ‘Team Alaska’ and qualify through the Besh Cup series.

Senior Nationals: Held in early January each year, these are the national championships for the best skiers in the country, but they also serve as important qualifiers for junior skiers. Skiers can qualify to represent the US at the U18 Nordic Nations Cup or World Junior Championships (see below) and can also automatically qualify for Junior Nationals with strong results among the junior field at Senior Nationals.

International Races

Arctic Winter Games: Held every even numbered year for U14, U16, U18, with racers from across the circumpolar north. Although the field typically involves some very high-quality skiers, the depth is not quite as strong as at JNs, so top U16 and U18 skiers will often opt to attend JNs with this in mind.

U18 Nordic Nations Cup: A three-race weekend held throughout the Nordic countries, which the US has sent a 12-skier team of US U18 skiers to for the past 15 years. This is an international experience initiator for many of these skiers and qualification occurs through Senior Nationals.

World Juniors (and U23s): Like it sounds, the World Championships for Junior skiers. Qualification through Senior Nationals.

One last reminder: When registering and representing your club at races, don’t forget to list your affiliation as “NSCF-FXC.” This helps us with organization (bibs, ski waxing) at certain races, and of course we want to show what an awesome club we are.

FXC Race Recommendations

Jr. Devo5 to 15Up to 3k (U10/U12)
Prep10 to 20Up to 5k (U14), up to 7.5k (U16)
Comp15 to 30Up to 10k (U16), up to 15k (U18), up to 20k (U20)