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The Pain Cave (full version)

Connie Sciolino's gym, The Alpine Training Center, caters to mountain athletes. We're using it to prep for the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.

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Back around New Year’s, when Teams Dadfit and Under Par began to get serious about the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse race, we realized we’d need to start getting in shape for it. While we were reasonably fit, we knew our diet of creatine piña coladas and Malibu Beach bench presses at the local 24 Hour Fitness wasn’t going to cut it. So we looked up Connie Sciolino, who runs a gym called the Alpine Training Center just around the corner from our office in Boulder, Colorado.

A Vermont-bred former ski racer and manager, with husband Tom, of Exum Mountain Guides’ Boulder branch, Sciolino specializes in goal-based training for skiers, climbers, and other mountain athletes. We caught her, and our breath, after an especially grueling workout to get some insights about the plan she’s got us on for the Grand Traverse.

You just crushed us with a bunch of power cleans and box jumps and all sorts of other stuff. How will that help us with a 40-mile long ski race?
Today’s workout was designed to develop strength and power. A power clean is all hip extension, which is basically what you do when you’re skinning. We’re trying to develop power in your hips—power being strength over time. In a race like the Grand Traverse, you guys are going to need to produce strength over a long period of time. If we can build a good base in your hips, theoretically they won’t get tired. Some of the other workouts are for developing your lung capacity to withstand the number of hours you’re going to be doing the race. Here, it’s short and hard, so when you’re doing the race it’s going to feel easier.

So today’s workout is part of a larger strategy that you’ve devised?
Yes. Your first month of training was about building a base of strength, and then we mixed in power endurance, to develop power over time. This month you’re ideally in the gym two-three days a week and starting to skin and ski more. As the race gets closer, I’d like to see you guys skiing a lot more and in the gym 1-2 days a week, then you’ll rest and taper a week from the race.

It’s comforting that we’re doing high-intensity workouts in here and then at the race we’ll hopefully be working at a lower intensity for a longer period of time.
Isn’t it? You should never be at the level and intensity of the hardest of these workouts when you’re actually in a race of that distance. Sure, maybe at the start or finish, but the majority of the race is all aerobic or sub-aerobic. Over that long a period of time, people just break down. We’re trying to avoid that breakdown.

Tell us about your background. What led you to open a gym?
When I was ski racing in high school, I always wanted to be ready for dry-land training, so the first day of dry-land training I would be on it. As I progressed through high school and college I brought different exercises to my coaches and asked what they thought of me doing these on my own. Sometimes they’d integrate them into their programs. After I got out of ski racing, I did a lot of running and started looking at all the different types of running programs and what was good about one versus the other. People started coming to me about developing programs for them to prepare for races. That made me realize that helping other people achieve their goals was a passion of mine. So I went back to school and got a masters degree in exercise science and took it from there.

This isn’t a “mirrors and juice bars” gym. There’s a no-frills aesthetic about the place. Why is that?
I used to work out at a commercial gym and it had all the mirrors and all the big guys training and I really thought that what I was doing was the best I could do for myself—that I was getting strong and I was making progress. At the time I was living in Jackson and I decided to check out the Mountain Athlete gym and it totally blew me away. I thought I was strong, but I wasn’t even close to my potential. In the commercial setting, there are so many distractions—cruising around, reading magazines, people watching—but in a place like this the effort is concentrated and applies a lot better to sports. As intimidating as this place can be, once you get in here and start working out with other people, I think it’s actually less intimidating than a commercial gym. It’s definitely more challenging than a commercial gym but the results speak for themselves.

We agree. It’s fun to be working toward a goal with other people who are on the same program. Plus, they’re all climbers and skiers—pretty chill people.
Exactly. They do exactly what you do and they’re going through the same thing that you are on a given day, whereas in another gym everybody’s on their own program. Even if you’re working hard at a commercial gym, you’re the one-person team there, whereas here you can always draw on the motivation and the energy of the group to get you through the workout and help you realize your goals.

A lot of the exercises would be familiar to people who do CrossFit, yet you don’t call this CrossFit. What’s the difference?
The exercises are very similar. In fact, about 90% of them are the same. But the end goal is different. My goal here is to improve people’s performance in their sports, whatever those sports may be. Yours is skiing, specifically this race, so I want to try to get you to your best for this race. Some go to Crossfit for general fitness. For others, CrossFit is the sport. They’re training to be better in the gym. I’m training you to be better outside.

And you practice what you preach, because you’re not open on the weekends.
Yes! And hopefully I never will be.

So you’re saying without saying to all of your clients that they should be out on the weekends enjoying their sports.
Yes. All the work they’ve done here? Put that work to effort out there.

Any plans for expansion or franchising?
My first move would be to make this gym bigger. Ideally someone on either side of me gives up their space. I would like to blow out one of these walls and have twice the gym space that I have now. I have thought about moving to a bigger space, but I love it back here [tucked away in an industrial part of East Boulder near the RR tracks and cottonwoods along Boulder Creek]. It’s a good location for a lot of people, there’s not much traffic, and I’ve liked it. Until the floods happened, that is, but we made it through. The business is new. I’ve never owned my own business. This is year four. I’ve grown a lot these last two years. We’ve gone through some growing pains trying to figure out how to make everything work so that I’m not here 24-7 yet it’s available to people who want to be here all the time. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about opening in Denver. If I do another one that would probably be the first place I went to. But I’m very hesitant to franchise because I feel like what happens here has a lot to do with me as the coach. Just opening another gym with just another coach is going to give the same product. I could be wrong and I could be giving myself too much credit, but I don’t know if I could open another place successfully if I’m not there the majority of the time.

So what would you tell someone who wants to train for a race like this, or train for a specific mountain sport and has heard about you but lives in Kansas City or somewhere far away. Do you consult?
I do a fair amount of online coaching where I write programs and communicate by email, so if you’re not here you can still get a little piece of me. Typically someone I take on in that scenario has to have been in a gym before and have a specific objective that is clearly measurable. One of my athletes is a gentleman in Canada who is going to climb Denali this spring. He gave me a list of the equipment he has at home, he gave me his objective, and I gave him a few fitness tests so I could see where he was. Once a month, I write a program and send it to him and he does it. Any questions throughout the month He’ll come back to me with any questions. And then I typically have him do some kind of post-test at the end to keep him accountable. I’m also working with a couple of ice-climbing guides, two women who have different objectives but they’re obviously very motivated on their own. It’s challenging for people who aren’t here to do it and they have to be very self-motivated. They’re all very self motivated.

Do you have any goals yourself this winter?
This winter? No. I find winter is tough for me because it’s very busy in the gym and it’s hard for me to have a goal, whereas in spring, summer, and fall it’s less busy so there’s more time for me to focus on what I want to do. I’m very type A, especially when it comes to my own training, and if something gets thrown off it’s the end of the world, so I’m looking to spring, when I’m going to run a trail half marathon. Climbing has really become a big part of what we do now. I’ve watched my climbing increase drastically over the last couple of years, so it’s kind of fun to focus on something else after skiing for so may years. I was in Jackson, and I focused on skiing a lot more up there. There was very little climbing compared to what I do now.

You and your husband Tom run Exum’s Boulder outpost. How does that work?
Exum has a permit for Eldorado Canyon and Eldorado State Park [near Boulder], so it’s great for people who don’t want to travel to Jackson to do a lot of the basic course work. Exum’s bread and butter is climbing the Grand Teton, but they require everybody to do a basic and an intermediate course before going up the Grand. If someone’s going to do the whole thing it’s a week away, and for some people it’s just a little too much. It’s expensive to fly into Jackson, to stay there, and then spend all the money on the guiding and the actual Grand Trip. So a lot of people choose to break it up. They’ll come and do a couple of days here and there and then they’ll do a Grand trip. Plus, we’ve got great climbing here. Once Exum clients have done a lot of stuff in the Tetons they might wonder ‘well, what’s next? Where else can I climb?’ We’re starting to see a lot of those folks too. They’re just trying to expand their horizons. Some come down here to learn to lead. This is a great place to learn to lead, whereas the Tetons have more long, alpine routes and aren’t a great learning venue for that kind of thing.