Jessie Diggins‘ silver medal in the Olympic 30km cross-country skiing race, set amid food poisoning and a solo trek through single-digit temperatures last February, was one of gutsiest efforts in recent Winter Games history. Diggins recently described it in an additional way.
“That was a Big Stupid,” she said on the Threshold podcast.
A through-line in Diggins’ journey to become the world’s top cross-country skier — the first American woman to hold that distinction — and what will be a crown jewel race this season has been what she fondly calls her “Big Stupid Thing.”
Diggins defined it in her 2021 book, “Brave Enough.” A training day designed to push my comfort zone, push the limits of what I think I’m capable of doing, so that if I ever doubt myself the night before a big race, I can think back on it and know that I am made of tougher stuff.
Once a summer for the last several years, Diggins embarked on her Big Stupid in offseason training. It can be about pain tolerance or intervals, but the most memorable ones share a trait: endurance.
Such as roller skiing 100 kilometers (62 miles) in one day. For motivation, she left a large bag of homemade cookies in “Jasper the Second,” her beat-up Subaru, at the end. Or traversing 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail in nearly seven hours.
“It’s one of the things that I know she loves … and I live with it,” joked Jason Cork, her coach since 2010. “It took a little bit of lobbying to get such a workout into the plan. But over the years, I realized that, for her, it’s really important to do something that’s very hard. It’s probably not in her best interest physically, but mentally it’s a huge challenge that she gets a lot of joy out of, so I can deal with that.”
Another Big Stupid: Sleeping in her car and then covering the Pemi Loop, a 31-mile White Mountains trail in New Hampshire with a 9,000-foot elevation gain. She did it on her 29th birthday in 2020, sprained her left ankle 12 miles in and still completed the task. It took more than nine hours, and the swelling was so severe that she briefly enlisted crutches later on.
“The idea of the Big Stupid is just doing something that is so far above and beyond, you couldn’t consider sane training … but that does have a benefit on race day,” said friend Pat O’Brien, a cross-country ski coach who joined Diggins for part of the Pemi Loop in 2020, then again this summer. “If you know that you’ve done something like run on a sprained ankle for 15 miles, you can probably dig and push through the pain cave for another 30 minutes for a ski race.”
Which brings us to Feb. 20, 2022. Well, actually, Feb. 19, 2022. Diggins is at the end of a grueling Olympics, having raced in all five events and won the first individual women’s medal in U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing history (sprint bronze). The last race is the longest. The 30km freestyle. It may have been her best event on the Olympic schedule. In her last two times racing it, she placed fourth at the 2019 World Championships and second in a World Cup in 2018.
The day before the event, Diggins is in tears. She’s on a call with her father and fiancé (now husband), confiding the extent that food poisoning had bedridden her. She tried to go out for a run and felt like the wind would knock her down.
Diggins’ loved ones were in Park City, Utah, for a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee watch party. While Diggins slept, or tried to sleep, before her race, her mom spent a half-hour writing about two paragraphs on her phone. She emailed it to Diggins.
“It just kind of felt like maybe she wasn’t going to have any kind of chance in that race. I also know that Jessie is incredibly resilient, and so I just wanted to remind her of that,” said her mom, Deb. “I just said, ‘Don’t decide how this race is going to go ahead of time. It’s still an open story that you’re going to write.'”
Diggins read it on the bus on the way to the race. Diggins, who grew up marveling at her mom working 10 hours a day, seven days a week as owner of Red Wing Slumberland in Minnesota, became emboldened once again.
“I was just like, goddammit, I’m going to go try,” she said.
We know what happened next, but here are the details. Diggins, after suffering a fall that was not caught by broadcast cameras, was the only skier who tried to go when Norway’s Therese Johaug made her pivotal move. But she could not catch arguably the most dominant athlete across all sports at the Beijing Games. Diggins was left on her own for the last 12 miles of the 18-mile race.
Diggins had started cramping early on, but she was so zoned in that she lost track of how many laps were left amid snow-sweeping wind as the temperature hovered around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Cork handed her a drink bottle on the course.
“It was hard to tell if she was just, like, laser-focused,” he said, “or on the verge of passing out.”
When she crossed the finish line, collapsing and heaving, people in Park City turned around and asked her loved ones if Diggins was OK. Diggins remembers feeling like “a puppet with the strings cut,” she said on Threshold. She lost her vision. Her breathing made it sound like she was dying.
“I did some bad things to my body that day,” she said.
The moment that @jessdiggs became the first woman to win a distance medal in cross-country skiing history for @TeamUSA. #WinterOlympics pic.twitter.com/oijv0uq3a1
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 20, 2022
The silver medal gave Diggins one of every color in her Olympic career. She’s won the World Cup overall title, which goes to the top skier across all events over the course of a season, and the Tour de Ski, a Tour de France-like stage race that similarly tests speed, endurance and the two types of skiing: classic and freestyle.
There is little left for Diggins to check off. Most of all, she would love a relay medal. She was part of U.S. quartets that finished fourth at four different world championships.
She began this season by earning her 13th FIS World Cup victory, tying Kikkan Randall for the U.S. record. That came two weeks after teammates woke to find her curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor. Diggins believes she caught a 24-hour flu bug after traveling to Europe.
The upcoming winter presents a new challenge.
For the first time, cross-country skiing races are the same distances for men and women this season. That means that the longest event, the mass start, will go from 30km to 50km to match the men’s distance. On March 12, the women race a 50km World Cup for the first time. They will do it at the hallowed Holmenkollen in Oslo.
“To be totally frank, I think it’s total crap that women never got to race this iconic distance,” Diggins said. “I’ve raced 50km multiple times, and times where I was at the summer at the end of training blocks, and I was fine. I didn’t need an ambulance at the finish line like they used to think they needed for women at the end of ski races. So, turns out we’re OK.”
A 50km is 31 miles. About the same distance as the Pemi Loop. Diggins’ family likes to see her race in person at least once a year. They’re targeting Holmenkollen this season. No doubt she will be prepared.
“A solid decade of professional racing under my belt, and I am still not the strongest skier. I’m not the quickest. I don’t have fast-twitch muscles. I’m not a pure sprinter, and I’m not a pure distance skier either,” Diggins wrote. “I don’t always know all the right tactics at the right moment. My technique is not beautiful, and it’s not ‘pretty skiing.’ But I am really, really good at being in pain.”
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