Team bonding over blood, sweat and sand

UAA’s hockey, ski and men’s basketball team running hills together at Kincaid Park. This is the first year the ski team has invited other athletic teams to join their tradition. Photo credit: Anna Berecz

Earlier this year, associate Nordic ski coach Andrew Kastning had the idea of creating a workout for all student-athletes to train together and bond over the experience. When Kastning joined UAA seven years ago, his Nordic ski team joined the alpine team during their annual hill workouts. The experience brought the two teams together, so he chose the sand dunes as an appropriate setting for the event.

“We started running the sand dunes with the alpine team and we immediately saw the team benefits that occurred from it,” Kastning said. “It is rare that we can do a similar or the same workout and all get something out of it. By the end of last year, I thought, ‘We need an event where all student-athletes can come together that’s not sitting in a meeting, something where we can all work out together.’ The sand dunes are great for that because everyone needs to be quick over a short distance.”

The combined ski team does the workout twice a year: once during the first week of September and the second around a month later. This year, Kastning invited all UAA teams to join them, and hockey’s head coach Matt Thomas and men’s basketball head coach Rusty Osborne replied almost immediately.

“I expected hockey to be pretty fast. I wasn’t sure about basketball. I knew they would be good runners over short distances, but wondered how they would handle themselves in the sand,” Kastning said.

The teams were divided into four different waves according to their months of birth, which split up the different sports. The student-athletes raced six intervals on the north side of one of Kincaid’s seaside sand dunes, which are very steep and sandy. Then they raced six intervals on the south side, which is slightly firmer and less steep, but a longer distance.

Tony Naciuk, junior alpine skier, enjoyed the new experience of competing with other UAA athletes.

“There was far more energy in the crowd with the added competitiveness, and it almost made it fun — almost,” Naciuk said. “It is always hard and there is always camaraderie, but having 60-ish athletes to push with is better than 20. I was very impressed with everyone’s fitness levels.”

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The 11th and 12th race were made into sprint contests. The three fastest males of each wave and overall two fastest females of the 11th race advanced to the Final Elite Race. In the end, hockey forward Nils Rygaard was announced as winner and King of the Dune.

“The hockey team timed their efforts well,” Kastning said. “We had skiers winning a lot of the long races and a few of the short ones and then basketball started to get into the mix on some of the flatter ones. On the 11th race, hockey just exploded and crushed it. They took a lot of qualifying spots. In the end, they then went 1-2-3 and two Nordic girls took 1-2.”

Sand dune hill sprints are challenging because the soft and deep sand makes it hard to run forcefully. Additionally, the steep angle over a longer distance causes lactic acid to build up. Lactic acid, which causes a burning sensation in muscles, rises when oxygen levels are lower during heavy exercising.

For many of the athletes, their higher lactic acid levels resulted in nausea. It is a strength, conditioning and mental workout that challenged many of the athletes.

Drew Peterson, senior guard for the basketball team, enjoyed leaving the court of the Alaska Airlines Center to do a workout outside and compete with other UAA teams.

It can get monotonous doing similar sprint drills on the court every day,” Peterson said. “Doing the workout with the other teams actually made it a lot easier. You don’t think about yourself or your own suffering as much when you’re helping to cheer on the other athletes. I thought as a team we competed hard and had a great workout.”

Kastning hopes to make the sand dune workout an annual event as he received positive feedback.

“Seeing different sports work hard together was really cool and I think we all gained respect for each other and our work ethic. That is exactly what I wanted,” Kastning said. Everyone was eager to represent their sports well, which upped the level of determination and suffering. But in the end, everyone walked away smiling.”

The dedication and enthusiasm of the close-knit athletic community are replicated in UAA’s athletic teams. They strive for success, not simply for their individual teams, but the entire athletic department. The sand dunes workout at Kincaid was just one example of that.