On College Racing

unh-carnival1

Hanging out at the UNH carnival with (l-r) Kristina Trygstad-Saari, Elsa Sargent, and Susan Dunklee, 2007.

Thursday. 1 pm. Bus leaves for Carnival.

This is how it is every week. We come from all over campus, six women: some running from a class which finished 10 minutes ago, some ambling from the ski room where we have been packing up all morning.

We are flustered, we are relieved, we are excited. We are probably forgetting something.

We are on the bus.

***

This week I had been named the alternate for the Bates Carnival. Being the alternate is usually a formality, and sometimes there isn’t even one named. But then, all of a sudden on Thursday morning, Rosie Brennan, who had just returned from the World Cup, was sick.

Before I had time to think “I have some big skiboots to fill,” I was frantically packing my ski clothes, pajamas, toothbrush, race-day snacks, and homework into my duffel.

I brought my giant bag on the Advance Transit bus from my apartment to Robinson Hall, where threw my skis and poles into my skibag and made a quick guess at what wax I would need for the weekend. Various fluorinated glidewaxes, kickwaxes, brushes, and scrapers, along with a cork and a putty knife, were haphazardly crammed into my bag.

I had class from 10 to 12:50, and I must have looked funny powerwalking from Baker Library to Collis, where I grabbed lunch to go.

My teammates had loaded my bags since they knew I would be in a rush.

I was on the bus. The weekend could only get better from here.

***

College racing is familiar to me now. Sometimes I’m one of the six women on the bus and sometimes I’m not, but I know what to expect and our routine is comfortable.

We leave Thursday, then ski at the race venue or somewhere on the way. We check into our hotel, divide space with our roommates, and start working on our skis. We have dinner together, followed by a brief team meeting to go over details for the next day. Before bed we put our chosen pair of race skis on the bus so our coaches, Cami and Ruff, can add the last topcoat of race wax early the next morning.

Friday, we wake up early and eat breakfast. There’s usually not a lot of talking at the table, and breakfast routines can vary widely. The women’s team has good eaters, though; ironically, the men’s team seems to have more unusual relationships with food.

Our captain, Hannah Dreissigacker, drives our bus to the race site if Cami is already gone. We play the radio, but don’t sing along. When we arrive we check in with Ruff and Cami, pick up our bibs, and stake out a spot in the lodge. We listen to our iPonds and then put on our skiboots, grab our warm-up skis, and hit the trails.

After skiing the course and doing some hard pieces to get thoroughly warm, we pick up our race skis from Ruff and Cami and head to the stadium. There, we run back and forth with our poles in an organized chaos of nervous racers. A minute before our start we strap on our skis and try to stay loose.

Then it’s go time.

Friday afternoons are spent sleeping, doing homework, and working on skis. Then the whole routine starts again in preparation for Saturday’s race.

***

Regardless of how my race goes – and of course life is better all around when it goes well – one of my favorite things about Carnivals is the atmosphere.

Every weekend, ten schools bring six women, and we see each other over and over again. Our interactions could be summed up by 2008 captain Elsa Sargent, who said, “Always be nice to Middlebury, you know they hate that.” Rivalries are friendly.

I get to see former high school teammates every weekend: Alice Nelson from Williams, Natalie Ruppertsberger and now Beth Taylor from Bates, and Jennie Brentrup from Colby. Our reunions, whether they are in the lodge before racing, in line at the start, or watching the men’s race, are always gleeful. We exchange congratulations or sympathy, depending on how the day has gone, and gossip.

Regardless of who I’m competing against, we joke on the start line, we wish each other good luck, and we chat even though we’ve only met at races. We know each other’s names. When we get in each other’s way on the course, we often ask nicely before barking for the other girl to move, and we usually apologize if we step on each other’s skis.

During races, there is never a shortage of familiar on the side of the trail. My teammate Ida Sargent’s mother Lindy has come up with such encouragement as “Rage!” and “You’re rocking around the clock!” or, my personal favorite, “You look great and you’re smiling!” when I am not, in fact, smiling. Deb and Dan Nelson are great at cheering, and Knut Joslin, a former teammate who is now coaching at Saint Lawrence, always says something.

Of course, sometimes the cordial attitude disappears momentarily. Natalie stepped on my pole this weekend and I fell, shouting a bad four-letter word as five skiers surged past me. But as soon as we finished, we were hugging and apologizing a million times for tripping each other up.

After the race, Dartmouth parents provide a lavish food table. At Bates this weekend, it was courtesy of the Koons’, the O’Briens, the Sargents, and the Schulz’s.  There was hot stew, macaroni and cheese, hot chocolate and warm cider, burgers, and a huge variety of baked goods. When the men race first, they pilfer a lot of the good stuff before we’re done. Luckily, on this weekend the women raced first.

On Saturday afternoon we drive back to Hanover, exhausted from two days or racing and the consumption of too much good food.

***

It was good to be on the bus. Now that I’m on, I hope I can stay a while.

Ode to Oak Hill.

Ruff Patterson.

Alice Bradley, Katie Bono, and I (l to r) skiing at Oak Hill last year. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

After traveling around the country for ski races over the holidays, it was great to come home to Hanover. For the first time in years, there has been consistent snow through December and January, and Oak Hill is a wonderland. It’s some of the best skiing I’ve ever seen in town.

I would like to say that I grew up skiing at Oak Hill, but I didn’t. I grew up on touring skis in my grandparents’ woods in Lyme, where there is a small trail system groomed by Mike Smith. As an elementary school student, the trails there seemed endlessly long.

When I started ski racing my sophomore year of high school (thanks to peer pressure), I found out that skis were made for more than walking on: you could glide! I began training on the 5k loop at Garipay Field and the 15k system at Oak Hill. Although I still do easy training at my grandparents’ house once or twice a year, it’s just for fun; we rarely race on such small trails.

Learning to ski at Oak Hill was an adventure. One of the first things people mention about Oak Hill is the technical downhill corners. Some people I know have hit trees or skied off the trail on the S-turns coming down from the 10k; I’ve been spared that fate so far.

In the beginning, it was because I was timid. I remember one Saturday that first year when my friend Julia Schwartzman made me ski the S-turns coming down from the 10k, over and over, probably ten times, so that I would stop being terrified of them.

Now, they don’t scare me, and I can make it down with the best of them. In practice, we sometimes race from the top all the way to the stadium, or that’s what it feels like at least, trying new lines and seeing how far we can lean into the corners.

The other thing people mention about Oak Hill, of course, is the uphill. Switchbacks cut across the old alpine trails and wind up and up. Then there’s the outback loop, which isn’t actually very long but has a monster climb.

I remember once in high school I watched a Dartmouth carnival race, a 15k skate, and the girls were suffering up the switchbacks, complaining to the spectators about how hard it was. The Dartmouth girls, of course, were doing fine.

Our coach, Cami Thompson, made us ski the whole 5k loop without poles once. So when we race there, the hills don’t seem so bad. If you can ski them without poles, then when you have poles, you’d better be able to catch that girl up ahead.

We have a definite home course advantage on the whole course: the uphills, the downhills, and the way they go together. We know where we can recover on the switchbacks, we know exactly when they’ll be over, and we can make up time on the downhills. The men do workouts on the outback loop so that when they get there in a race, they can make a break and drop the competition.

It’s too bad that with the snow conditions over the last few years, we had a three-year period where Dartmouth carnival was held at other venues. We did fine for ourselves, but we didn’t have the advantage or the satisfaction of winning on our home course in front of our home spectators.

Because, in my seventh year, Oak Hill really is home. When we leave college carnivals on Saturday afternoons, we know that we have to do a long ski the next morning. I look forward to it. Skiing the familiar terrain can cheer me up if I’ve had a bad race, and it’s like a victory lap if the weekend was good to me.

One day on our long ski, I came across Katie Bono sitting in the trail. This isn’t our usual practice activity, so I asked her what she was doing. For her Environmental Studies class, students were supposed to sit outside and write about their relationship with the natural world around them. The back loop seemed like the perfect place to her.

Another time, Hannah Dreissigacker was lying the middle of trail. She was tired and thought she might rest.

Did I mention that Oak Hill is our home?

When I got back from Alaska last Friday, I put on my skis and was very excited to get out on the trails. It completely escaped me that the freshmen had never skied in Hanover before – fall term ended and we left for ski camp before the trails were skiable.

I started out of the stadium, cutting up to the switchbacks rather than starting the 10k or the 5k loop. Steph Crocker began skiing the wrong way up the trail leading into the stadium.

“Steph!” I shouted. “The trails here are one-way!”

“OK,” she said, and kept skiing.

“No, one way the other way!”

There’s a lot of learning to be done your first time at Oak Hill. Another freshman, Nancy Dietman, is from Minnesota, where hills are not so technical. She is a tentative skier. We predicted, “Oh, Nancy, you are NOT going to like Oak Hill!”

We have exhorted her to wedge instead of snowplowing, and to step the turns instead of wedging. Keep your hands in front of you, Cami always says.

When I asked her about her first impressions of Oak Hill, Nancy said, “Ouch!” But she’s learning. I don’t think she loves Oak Hill – the downhill corners have already sent her flying and broken one of her skis – but maybe she’s getting used to it. Maybe by the time she graduates, she’ll feel as at home there as I do.

But I have a three year head start on everyone else, so maybe not.

Coastal Trail.

If you read my column last week, you know that U.S. Nationals, in Anchorage, Alaska, was an ordeal for all of us.

The pressure was on for everyone to ski fast, whether we were trying to qualify for World Cups like Rosie Brennan, age-group World Championships like Sophie Caldwell, auto-qualify for Junior Olympics like Steph Crocker, or just cement our place on the team.

Then races were canceled four of the five days they were scheduled. The temperature dropped to -20 or -25 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and during the day rarely passed the -4 degree mark that would make racing legal.

We always thought we’d be racing the next day, so we didn’t want to do any hard workouts. Instead we went stir-crazy because we had nothing to do.

Hannah Dreissigacker had made a goal “to go on an adventure every day that I was there.Not necessarily a huge big adventure, but just something to mix things up.” Most days we failed; if we made it out of the hotel to do anything besides ski, it was going to Starbucks for hot chocolate, which isn’t really an adventure.

The last day, though, we were lucky.

The temperature had been -17 in the stadium when the coaches went to check in, and for the first time, the race was canceled before we even left our hotel. Our afternoon was wide open, and there was nothing left to save our energy for.

There is a multi-use path called the Coastal Trail that runs from the race venue, Kincaid Park, to downtown Anchorage. It runs ten miles along the Pacific Ocean, right on the brim of the beach. All week, we had been hoping to ski the trail back to our hotel, which was only three blocks from the terminus. We had been waiting for a real adventure, and this was our one opportunity.

Hannah, of course, was the ringleader. She tried to convince everyone to come, but most of the girls were afraid of not having a bail-out option if we froze.

Alice Bradley, an Alaska native, said it would be “miserable. It’s 18 kilometers and -18 degrees.” (I think both are slight exaggerations)

However, Hannah, Ruth McGovern, and I were sick of skiing around in circles and wanted to go somewhere. We convinced Alice to come with us as a guide.

How do you stay warm skiing when it’s so cold? I wore two pairs of wool socks, spandex shorts, fleece tights, spandex race tights, wind-proof ski pants, two thermal shirts, a fleece vest, a training jacket, glove liners, gloves, handwarmers, a double-layer wool hat, and a fleece neck gaiter pulled up over my ears.

Honestly, I was about as nervous for this ski as I had been for the Birkebeiner ski marathon in Norway three years ago, even though that race was three times as long.

Looking back, says Hannah, “It was sort of funny how intimidated we all were by the cold.  We took forever getting ready to go, then started off like we were on a mission and if we stopped for a second, our feet would freeze off. I actually ended up getting hot.”

Once we hit the coast, the trail was flat and the skiing was easy. We cruised along silently, each of us thinking about everything Alaska had dealt us in the last week.

At one point we had to stop because there was a moose beside the trail, eating some bushes. Moose are pretty aggressive in Alaska, and they are bigger than the New England variety; a fair number of people are killed by moose every year, even if you don’t count car accidents. We stopped and assessed the situation, then crept by very slowly, making no sudden movements. As soon as we were past, we took off down the trail. The moose kept eating.

Every once in a while Alice would point out landmarks. We skied by the municipal dump and by the airport, where a plane took off literally right over our heads. We could see the tall buildings of downtown Anchorage for several miles before we reached them, and began to pass condos and houses, and a pond which was cleared for hockey and speed-skating.

And then, all of a sudden, the trail ended at a playground where a woman was building some sort of structure out of slabs of ice. “Is this it?” I asked, confused that the ski could be over. Yes. We took off our skis and walked up the hill and through downtown, where people in cars gave us funny looks.

The ski clocked in at an hour and twenty minutes, and we had beaten the other skiers back. We were all in great moods and took hot showers to fend off any remaining cold.

Hannah says, “In the end, I think that this ski was probably one of my only legitimate adventures.  It made me feel a little less lame.”

The week was awful, but at least we did something fun to cap it off.

Sitting.

When you watch a college game on the television, do you see the athletes getting off their buses and wonder what they do when they’re traveling?

Perhaps the best thing that happened to me the first four days in Anchorage, Alaska, was that I found myself standing in the street in my pajamas when it was -20 degrees, with a towel wrapped around my head. I was watching fireworks.

I am in Anchorage for the U.S. National Championships of nordic skiing. I had thought, Alaska! I’ve never been to Alaska! And it’s Nationals! This is going to be great!

Wrong.

It’s worse than freezing up here. The first training day was all right, cold but bearable. On the second day, the thermometer in the stadium read -13 Fahrenheit while we skied. While I survived without frostbite, it’s not the most enjoyable skiing I’ve ever done. Gliding is a joke when the snow is Styrofoam.

On the second day, the heaters in our hotel rooms began to fail. Mine, which I am sharing with Audrey Weber, is the only room for the entire women’s team that stays where we set it at 62 degrees. The rest of the girls are stuck in 50 degree rooms or colder. They come to visit us a lot.

Then came Saturday. The minimum legal temperature to hold a race is -4 degrees, and the forecasted high for the day was -7. We were supposed to be racing at 10 a.m., but the start was postponed until 11:30. Then at 11 it was postponed to 1:30. Then at 1 it was postponed to 2. Then at 1:30 it was postponed to Sunday.

Sunday was just like Saturday, except that the race was cancelled at noon instead of 1:30 and we never received bibs because the organizers never thought we’d actually race.

Needless to say, we’ve been doing a lot of sitting around. Sitting in our (cold) hotel rooms, sitting in the “chalet” at Kincaid Park wondering if we’ll ever get to race, sitting at dinner because there’s nothing else to do except go back to sitting in our rooms.

Why aren’t we doing our homework? The term started Monday and we don’t have any yet.

Why aren’t we sightseeing? We try. Audrey, Hannah Dreissigacker, Katie Bono and I went for a walk one day. After entering several shops simply because we were too cold to keep walking, we ended up at Alaska Native Arts, where we perused paintings and ceramics that we couldn’t afford. Some of my favorite pieces were clay tiles with impressions of leaves and feathers.

As for our coaches, Cami Thompson and Ruff Patterson, they’re in this strange loop too. I asked Ruff what they do all day, and he said, “We just brush skis over and over and over again, and then I get take pictures of the Sound, and then we brush skis over and over and over again. We talk to the other coaches about thermometers, and then we brush skis some more. You know.”

So we find ourselves, night after night, sitting in our hotel rooms. On Saturday we were watching “Little Miss Sunshine” when Brett Palm came over and mentioned that there would be fireworks in a few minutes. We all pretended to be excited, but nobody moved, and fifteen minutes went by.

Then, all of a sudden, there were crashes and booms. We raced out onto the balcony in our t-shirts, but couldn’t see anything. We raced to Brett’s room, where the balcony faced a different direction. Alex Schulz came out in his bare feet. I had just finished showering, so I had a towel-turban on my head. A building just barely blocked the view.

We took the elevator to the 14th floor, but the conference room windows faced the wrong way. We tried the external stairs, but yet again found ourselves facing the wrong direction. The door to the roof was locked.

The only option left was to actually go out on the street. After a few moments of hemming and hawing about the cold, we ran outside. We guessed if we ran we’d be warmer, and when we reached a giant crowd of people, we looked up. It was spectacular.

It turns out that this week was the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood, which is a strange concept for someone from the New England. The Alaskans had decided that the best way to celebrate would obviously be to buy more fireworks than anyone had ever bought before, and set them off from the tops of buildings.

Drunken revelers shouted “50 years, everyone!” and screamed when the biggest bangs came around. We huddled together, completely unequipped for the cold. I took my towel-turban apart and reconfigured it as a shawl to cover my neck as well as my head. My hair was completely frozen.

Brett was wearing a flannel shirt, Carhartts, and no hat. “I’m fine except my ears,” he kept saying, to which I would reply, “too bad you don’t have a wet towel like I do!”

Katie and I almost retreated to the hotel several times because of the cold, but every time we started to leave, a bigger display would get going, and we’d be drawn back towards the crowd. We joked that we would all get sick and not be able to race, if racing ever even happened.

As Audrey noted, if we had planned to watch the event and worn our parkas, we would have complained about the cold anyway. This way it was like an adventure, and the excitement kept us from freezing. It might be the only interesting thing to happen all week.

The rest of the time, I guess, we’ll just be sitting.