(CNN)Beware of the bumps. And the jumps. And dastardly gates. There is always trouble ahead on the steep, bullet-hard, icy slopes. But be fast. Be first. Don’t let fear slow you down.
Few events compare to skiing’s downhill, the Winter Olympics’ blue riband event. Formula One? It has the speed, but also brakes. Admittedly, there are extreme sports, but none require the skill and dexterity required of the downhill racer.
It takes a certain type of character to negotiate these torturous tracks at speeds in excess of 90mph. American Steve Nyman, a man who has competed in the downhill at three Olympics, admits racers have a “screw loose.”
How do they control the adrenaline, retain their poise when hurtling missile-like down the piste? Is there time to think, to see, to hear? What should we expect on the Gariwang mountain during the PyeongChang 2018 Games?
Nyman and Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, Olympic bronze medalist in the downhill in 2014, tell CNN Sport what it is like to compete in an event which can scare its competitors.
Race morning – one final inspection
You’ve visualized yourself flying down the course one hundred times or more. There have been two official training runs from start to finish in the days leading up to the race. The track is so familiar, you could draw it blindfolded.
But before the gold-medal run, there’s an opportunity for a final inspection, a last chance to note the track’s every bump and icy groove.
Coaches will place themselves at specific points along the course. They will study the terrain, soak up information and pass it on. Teammates will also relay their findings. You are not alone. Yet.
“There’s a lot of trust with the coaches and your teammates,” says Nyman, who will not be competing in Pyeongchang after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last month.
“It’s an individual sport, but I don’t think you can get as high as you possibly can unless you function as a group.”
Some competitors will make an appearance and quickly dash off. Others will inspect the course like an antiques dealer would a work of art. Former American Olympic great Bode Miller was quick, while two-time Olympic champion (though not in downhill) Hermann Maier would use the maximum time given.
“I need to recreate feeling,” explains Nyman. “The feeling is like a tempo, like a rhythm of how the skis are going to react, how I need to move through the turn, how I need to flow.
“When I’m inspecting the course I see the turn, see where I need to move. Once I have that feeling, that will create vision and when I have a vision, that creates belief and I have that confidence to go harder.”
Jansrud, fifth in the men’s downhill World Cup rankings and one of the favorites for gold in South Korea, also talks of evoking an image.
“You visualize the race a hundred times the whole week,” says the Norwegian. “You do the first training run, then you maybe do the second and you learn something new, hopefully experience will help too.”
Nerves, carbohydrates, changing moods
The legs, strong through years of training, feel oddly week. It is around this time that you will start to behave differently. Nerves will take a stranglehold over the body and the mind.
You’ve hiked up and down the hill, energy has already been exerted, and the race is a few hours away yet. Glory can only be achieved with the right fuel.
“It depends on the length of the day, the time of the race,” says Nyman of his calorie intake on race day. The men’s and women’s downhill events in Pyeongchang start from 11am.
“In Wengen [a World Cup race in Switzerland which starts at around noon] I make extra sandwiches and I’ll have cheese, egg and meat sarnies after the inspection. You have to keep your [energy] stores high, refueling the carbs is key.”
Nyman worries little about how much he eats on any given day. The more the better, he says, because “mass is momentum.”
“I use a lactate buffer. Your lactic acid levels get high as you’re going down the hill, so I take a lot of sodium citrate to help not feel that burn. I always snack. I don’t eat too much, but I always have a little bit of fuel.”
It is around this time that Jansrud, usually quick to smile, becomes serious.
“I’m in a different mood,” says the 32-year-old. “That’s not something I do on purpose. That’s the result of all the races you’ve ever done and you develop this way of handling it.”
Warming up, getting into the zone
The stomach is tightening, but the body needs to loosen up. Out to the warm-up hill you go, gently gliding. It’s a simple course, but it gets the muscles firing.
For Nyman, there is a routine. With every practice run and inspection, he removes a layer of clothing, like a snake shedding its skin, until by race time he looks as sleek as a superhero.
“I’ll wear a baggy T-shirt, thick underwear, then I get tighter and tighter clothes, and more serious attire on,” the Utah native says.
“For race day I have a tight undersuit underneath my suit so there are no wrinkles. Everything is smooth. It helps heighten my ability to focus. It helps bring me into the zone. It just puts me in that mental state, knowing I can be faster come race day.”
Thirty minutes before he’ll launch downhill, Nyman sips a can of coke for a much-needed caffeine hit. “The intensity of this endeavor requires high intensity,” he says. “You need that spike, but you need to time that spike.”
Mind games, focusing on the course
This, after all, is a competition and there is no greater contest than a race for Olympic gold. “Peacocking” is not the reserve of 100m sprinters. Up in the hut where athletes will wait to be called to the start gate and cameras rarely peer, racers will attempt to gain a competitive advantage by planting seeds of doubt in a rival’s mind.
“Some guys definitely play mind games,” says Nyman. “I know who those guys are, so I take their questions with a pinch of salt.
“I do some physical exercises on the top; prime the core, prime the legs. I get things going so when you kick out of the gate you’re ready.”