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.