Loving Spring

At Dartmouth more than at many schools, the end of a winter sports season really means the end of one thing, and the start of something else.

That’s because of the quarter system. Dartmouth skiers returned from Junior Olympics and NCAA’s and had to make up their finals. From there, they went on break. End of skiing, end of term, end of story.

The rest of the college racers? Well, they just went back to school, back to the same second-semester grind they saw before the championships.

I say “end of skiing” even though there was racing to be had over break. A few of us made the trip to Maine for the Sugarloaf marathon, and three skiers were competing through this weekend at U.S. Long-Distance Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But even if we raced over break, it’s definitely the end. A few days ago I started putting my race skis away for the year. It’s a relaxingly banal rhythm: apply soft wax, scrape it while it’s warm to pull dirt out of your bases, repeat, and then apply some storage wax. The ritual has a tremendous sense of finality: these skis will not be skied on again for a very long time.

When return to campus, it will seem like ski season has long since passed. We will be confronted with new classes – often difficult ones that we avoided taking during the competition season – and a distinct lack of snow. For a few seniors, myself included, there’s a thesis waiting to be written that we ignored all winter.

Before we completely move on, we have to take a minute to look back over the season to see what went well, what didn’t go well, and what we learned for next year. I suppose this is more true for some athletes than others, but I was taught by the Ford Sayre club to write out your goals at the beginning of the season, and then review them at the end.

Goal: I want to be a varsity member of my team. Achieved? Yes.

Goal: I want to have carnival results I’m happy with: top 20s in skate, top 10s in classic. Not really achieved, as I had only a few top 20 finishes.

Goal: Be higher on the NCAA qualifying list than the last skier who gets to go, recognizing that there is a 3-skier limit for each school and Dartmouth will far outpace that. Achieved? No, complete failure.

Goal: Go to big races and get experience. Achieved? Yes. Even if the experience part was, “wow, that went really poorly!”

Any competition season leaves you wishing for one more chance to prove what you can do. While this is fresh in your mind, you’re supposed to think about what affected your performance this year and decide what to do better next year. That’s the new beginning part of spring: the next racing season always seems like it will be better than the one that just passed.

And trust me, I have plenty of ideas for how to make next season great. As my coaches will tell you, I think too much. But I have a bigger problem: I don’t know if there is a next year. I’m graduating. College is over.

When I put away those race skis, it was even sadder than most years. I wondered, will I ever use these again for what they’re made for, racing? Then I told myself I was being dramatic. Of course I’ll find a way to race sometime, even if it’s the only skiing I do that year. I love it too much to walk away completely; I’d rather muddle along, out of shape, in some citizen’s race. The real question is whether I can find a way to train, so that the racing is actually good.

These are serious thoughts. But even if winter and skiing are over, spring brings fun along with the warmer weather. Classes start again and so does our concept of exercise. On the weekends, we might head up to Tuckerman’s Ravine, where spring still involves snow, but during the week, there’s plenty to do. We’re all dusting off our road bikes and giving them the once-over before we head out on our first rides.

That’s why spring is so great. In a few weeks those of us who are lucky enough to have another season will start training again, but in between now and then, there’s a mandatory period of recuperation.

It’s a period where “PLAY” is on the training plans. A period where our only athletic homework is to go remember that the sun shines and we love to be outdoors. Conveniently, this corresponds to the beginning of the term when, theoretically, homework is at its lowest.

Even when we do start training, it’s spring training, not summer or fall. Running and biking and hiking all count as training. Maybe we’ll run a local road race, team up for a relay at the Vermont City Marathon, or jump in the cycling team’s home race weekend. We’ll bring out the rollerskis eventually, but first we have to rediscover all of those endurance pursuits we went without over the winter months.

We’ll do more or less whatever makes us happiest. Spring training in a way holds the most promise of a great season to come, because you’re looking forward months and months to racing, but the gritty hard workouts haven’t yet started.

So thanks, Dartmouth, for giving us spring term.

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15 things that can happen in marathons.

Earlier this month, I competed in the Rangeley marathon, a 50 kilometer skate race in Maine.

Thing #1 which can happen in a marathon: you realize you hate them. At about 16k, I turned to Courtney Robinson and told her that I remembered I hated marathons. “Well, I like skiing marathons with you,” she said in attempt to cheer me up. Then she skied away.

Despite this realization, I decided to ski another marathon this weekend. At Sugarloaf, I took the 30k option instead of the 50k offering, mostly because of a bad head cold. After about a kilometer, I was struggling to breathe at a pace far below normal, and knew I was probably ruining my health for at least the next week. Thing #2 which can happen in marathons: you are sick.

As I put my jacket on at the finish, I listened to the announcer speculate on who would win the women’s 50k. “Sarah Wright of UNH had a sizeable lead entering the third lap. But anything can happen in a marathon, so stay tuned.”

Can anything really happen in a marathon? Yes. My teammate Pat O’Brien says that in a good marathon, you have to go through at least five phases of feeling completely miserable. Here is a short compilation of ways this can be accomplished.

#3: You can fall once. Example: me at each of the races.

#4: You can fall more than once. Sam Evans-Brown of Bates joked at Sugarloaf, “I think I get the prize for 1:1 ratio of falling to finish place.” Sam finished seventh.

#5: You can fall and get tangled up with your teammates. At Sugarloaf, Natalie Ruppertsberger of Plainfield was skiing with two of her Bates teammates, Abby Samuelson and Megan McClelland. Natalie fell. Abby ran into her. Wildcats down all over the trail.

#6: You can really, really fall. At Rangeley, my teammate Katie Bono hurt herself in a bad crash. I saw her finish: she was crying, she wasn’t using her poles because of the pain in her shoulders, and her legs hurt, too, so she was having trouble skating.

#7: You can break a pole. As I skied through the lap this weekend just ahead of Sam (who was in the 50k with an earlier start time), the announcer said, “It looks like Sam Evans-Brown of Bates is just off the pace of the leaders, and it looks like he broke a pole. If you have a left pole, please give it to Sam. Does anyone have a pole? No?” Sam, who is a tall guy, skied about 15 kilometers with one normal pole and one “midget pole” before he found someone his own height who could donate one.

#8: You can break a binding. One of the most exciting storylines going into the Rangeley marathon was the rivalry between two of my teammates, many-time carnival winner Ida Sargent and her boyfriend John Gerstenberger, mostly known as a sprint specialist. The competition was, as the Manning brothers would say, “on like Donkey Kong.” Then, at 30k, John broke a binding and couldn’t finish. Ida won by default, and John has repeatedly accused her of somehow sabotaging his binding.

#9: You can break yourself. See #6. I am sure you could break a ski, too, but I don’t know anyone this has happened to.

#10: Your skis can be slower than the rest. Our development team usually doesn’t have the resources to pour 50 kilometers worth of expensive fluourocarbon wax into our skis. At Rangeley, Dartmouth freshman Eric Packer found himself skating down the hills while two Colby skiers coasted. Figuring that the uphills were the only place he could break them, he put in a huge effort on a 5 kilometer hill and gained a total distance of about 20 meters. On the next downhill, they caught him.

#11: Everyone’s skis can be slow. In the last fifteen minutes or so of my race at Sugarloaf, it started snowing. Shortly after, my skis started sticking. Maybe I had skied through Hammer Gel that someone had discarded in the trail? I assumed that the guy behind me would catch up. But he didn’t. It turned out that every pair of skis in the field had iced. In a skate race. Nobody had ever heard of this happening before.

#12: You can remember you hate gels, that staple of mid-race nutrition. At Rangeley, I almost threw up when I tried to give myself some energy from a vanilla-flavored Power Gel, which tasted like rotten yogurt.

#13: You can bonk, as is legendary in marathons of any discipline. This might involve hallucinating, stopping on the side of the trail, or even sitting down and eating snow. You might be unable to ski much at all, which happened to Ida in the last few kilometers of her win at Rangeley. “I tried to coach’s skate up the last hill,” she said, implying that regular skating was too difficult, “but I couldn’t!”

#14: You can lose a sprint finish. Even after 50 kilometers, sometimes it comes down to a sprint. Granted, it may be not be fast. It may be, as Pat says, a “slow motion sprint.” Regardless, it’s hard. Eric’s aforementioned slow skis did him no favors at Rangeley; he managed to stick with the Colby kids to the finish, but couldn’t get going fast enough to get them in the end.

#15: You can win! Fresh off of an All-American finish at NCAA’s, Pat won the Sugarloaf marathon this weekend, ahead of Pat Weaver, Olympian and UVM assistant coach. A battle of the Pats: Weaver tried to break O’Brien on a hill a few kilometers before the finish, but O’Brien hung on and passed him. They skied in more or less together; the two sprinted but the finish was never in question.

So why do we keep doing marathons? It’s the possibility of #15, the camaraderie in the lodge after the finish, and just the feeling of having completed the darn thing. Endurance athletes: sometimes not the smartest bunch….

Sideline champion

Every other year, the NCAA Championships for skiing take place in the East and we can watch it. This year, NCAA’s were hosted by Bates College at Black Mountain, a place where most of us had already raced at least twice if not three times this season.

On Thursday, eight Dartmouth skiers left campus in a bus at 6 a.m. Despite having traveled to Rumford so many times, we got lost and arrived just before the 10 a.m. race start. We cheered voraciously, ate soup with the racers after they finished, and then we went home to study for exams and write papers.

Saturday was a different story. While there were a few team members who didn’t come because they had exams, almost everyone was on that 6 a.m. bus. Every seat was filled and a few students, exhausted from all-night studying, slept on the floor in their sleeping bags. We didn’t get lost, either.

Before the race, I skied the course with Katie Bono, Audrey Weber, and Sarah Van Dyke. It was sunny and warm, but the snow was still cold from the previous night, hard-packed and very fast. It was great skiing and we got even more excited for our teammates.

These races were long and mass-start, which meant exciting. After seeing the women’s off to a clean start, we ran along the trail until we reached the biggest climb on the course.

Nobody had started a watch, so we didn’t know when the race would come through. We could hear yelling as they went by the loops that passed close to us further down the hill, but it wasn’t until we could hear the sound of their skis and poles on the snow – which came long before we could see the racers – that we knew they were coming.

I barely ever go to races just to cheer. Sure, I see the men race when I’m warming up or cooling down, but when you go to a race for the sole purpose of cheering, you feel like you better do a darn good job.

There was cowbell. There was screaming, the kind when you aren’t sure how your voice is going to sound because you’ve never tried to yell so loud before.

And after two of the 5k laps, there was worry. Did you see that Colorado girl? She was blocking Rosie Brennan so badly! She was slowing down, but she wouldn’t let Rosie by! And Hannah Dreissigacker, it looked like she was stuck behind that pack!

But on the third (last) lap, our girls were looking great. Rosie was in the lead pack and looked strong. Sophie Caldwell wasn’t far behind, and Hannah was in the top 10 and passed a girl as she went by us. We knew we couldn’t beat them to the finish, so we just trusted that their sprinting skills would serve them well. Without even needing a pencil and paper, we knew that they would win the day; no other team had all three skiers in the top 10.

I stuck around until the whole field went by. As my friend Natalie Ruppertsberger, a Plainfield native who skied for Ford Sayre, went by in her Bates uniform, I screamed especially loudly. She had told be she didn’t want pity-cheering: no “good job, you’re doing great.” So I told her she HAD to pick it up, she HAD to pass these girls, she had to GET UP THIS HILL. I ran along beside her yelling until a coach from Alaska admonished me: “Dartmouth, you can’t run with racers like that.” Oops.

As we walked back to the stadium, Audrey and I discussed how great if felt to see our teammates kick some butt. For those of us who feel like it’s a battle to get one of the six varsity spots each weekend, it’s reassuring to know that it’s because our teammates are the best in the country, not because we’re bad skiers.

After congratulating Rosie – who had swiped a podium spot with her 3rd place finish – and Sophie (5th) and Hannah (10th), I headed out to ski again. The snow was holding up well. Before the men’s race, we found a green sharpie and wrote the boys’ names on our bellies. I ran to the start, where Nils Koons was jogging around, and showed him the big “N. Koons” which Courtney had lettered in. “I have your name on my stomach, so you’d better have a good one!” I think he rolled his eyes.

The men’s start was more exciting. Compared to his fellow NCAA champions, 2008 winner Glenn Randall is probably the worst starter of them all, and he was in the bottom five leaving the stadium.

As the men came up the hill the first time, our skiers were clustered in the teens, still in contact with the leaders. Glenn had already made up a lot of spots. We yelled, rang our cowbells, and pulled our shirts up (no, not that far) so the boys could see their names.

Unlike in the women’s race, which had a small lead pack the whole time and boiled down to a sprint finish, the men’s race had a single leader. Vregard Kjoelhamar of Colorado broke early on the second lap. Pat O’Brien and Nils Koons were in the chase pack, but Glenn was nowhere to be seen, and we left one intersection for another before he came through.

When we finally saw Glenn on the hill, he had a large hole in his spandex and was bleeding. Glenn has never been a strong downhill skier and one of the slopes on the course had sent him off the trail. He was making the best of it and passing people, but it was tough to watch. He had already worked himself through the pack once, and it was a lot harder this time around, now that the race was strung out.

As the laps went by, Pat and Nils were still in the chase pack. The last time I saw them, Pat was in a group of maybe eight skiers, three of whom were from Alaska-Anchorage, undoubtedly using team tactics. I hoped that he could hang on going up the big hill, and skied to the finish – this was going to be an exciting one.

After Kjoelhamar (no, he’s not American) came through, we held our breaths. The UAA boys battled to the line against a New Mexico skier, with a Denver racer trailing. Then came Pat! Beating out a Michigan Tech skier in a sprint finish! Pat, who has never won a carnival, had the race of his life and was the first eastern skier. Nils was 14th and Glenn 18th after surviving a hard and doubtless disappointing race. The boys were 3rd on the day, which was pretty great.

Despite these excellent performances, Dartmouth ended up 7th in the overall championship, which combines two days each of nordic and alpine racing. It was not the finish we had been looking for when we entered undefeated. I’ll admit it even if the press release won’t. But I can’t criticize – I couldn’t have skied at NCAA’s, and the athletes who represented us did a great job.

To me, the championships mean something else. I’m meant to be on the sidelines cheering – and that is quite a fun place to be, watching my teammates beat the crap out of the other teams, sprinting to see them as many times as possible, covering myself in green, and yelling for them until I don’t have a voice left to yell with.

And lucky for me, spectating is different from racing – graduation doesn’t mean that next time NCAA’s are in the east, I won’t be out there cheering!

Epic Weekend

Seniors who raced Rangeley: Courtney Robinson, Sarah Van Dyke, and I.

Seniors who raced Rangeley: Courtney Robinson, Sarah Van Dyke, and I.

As I may have mentioned in this column before, my teammates, friends and I are plagued by a disorder called the pursuit of the epic.

As we see it, there is Type I fun, which is fun when you are doing it, and then there is Type II fun, which may be quite miserable at the time but always seems fun when you look back on it. We are addicted to Type II fun.

Our whole team, mostly, competed in the Rangeley Ski Marathon on Saturday. Marathons are very common in the ski racing world, so while many of us approached the 50 kilometer race with some trepidation, it was not regarded as one of our crazier pursuits. Lots of people do marathons. Half our team had already done a marathon this season. It couldn’t be so bad.

Well, okay, it was pretty hard. When you are racing for two and a half or three hours, it is impossible not to go through periods where you feel completely miserable. For me, this point came between 12 and 16 kilometers. It was quite early in the race, and I was distraught: if I already hated it so much, how could I finish the 50 kilometers? I gave up the hope of a podium and just wanted to make it around the course.

Luckily, my teammate Alice Bradley found me around 22 kilometers, and my mood improved greatly. Oh, it was still a sufferfest. But I finished. Thanks Alice.

We stood around in the heated tent at the touring center, eating cups and cups of soup the volunteers provided, drinking Gatorade, wolfing down cookies. Ida Sargent, who won the women’s race, described getting to the final hill – which was literally ten meters long – and being unable to coach’s skate up it because she had “bonked” so hard. Our bodies were wrecked.

For some of us, though, our weekend was not over. Alice, Courtney Robinson, Ruth McGovern and I avoided talking about our task for the next day.

***

When the rest of the team headed back to Hanover, we took our own bus to Jackson, New Hampshire. As we drove along Route 16 past Mount Washington, we looked up at the mountain and whimpered. In the morning, we would be racing up the Auto Road all the way to treeline.

But before that, we arrived at the Blake House Bed and Breakfast, home of a high school rival Kathleen Maynard, who now skis for Colby. We have become good friends since starting college. My Ford Sayre buddy Jennie Brentrup is now Kathleen’s teammate, and the two of them, along with Sam Mathes, made us a delicious hot dinner.

I don’t think I can explain how wonderful that dinner was. After a long day of racing and driving, we arrived exhausted, smelly, and bedraggled, and the Colby skiers took care of us. Nothing could have been better than what we had.

I was also thrilled to be able to chat with my friends. We see each other at ski races throughout the season, but it’s always a quick hello or, at most, a fifteen-minute cool-down together. That night, we sat around the dinner table and finally got to catch up on everything we had been up to since the summer, telling stories, discussing the differences in how our teams were run, and eating tons of Kathleen’s amazing banana bread.

As I fell asleep, I heard rain pouring down onto the roof. It was very similar to the feeling you get in a tent when it starts raining: is it going to stop? Maybe it’s just a passing cloud. Wow, it’s really raining. Tomorrow is going to suck. Oh well.

***

Courtney and I woke up in time to go to registration at Great Glen by 7:30. We plodded through an inch of watery slush in the driveway to get to the bus. At Great Glen, we looked down on the field and saw a giant puddle, literally a small lake. Great conditions for ski racing. After picking up bibs, we returned to the house.

Over breakfast we debated whether women’s higher body fat ratios made them better suited for long races. I pointed out that there were two sticks of butter in the dough of the cinnamon rolls I had made, and with an audience of skiers, there was hearty approval. This weekend, we needed all the help we could get.

I warmed up for ten minutes, and my skating muscles were definitely tired. I skied up the Auto Road until the first gradual corner, then bogged down quickly. I was not optimistic about the race.

The first four kilometers were rolling around the Great Glen trails. It was fun because nobody was going very hard; we knew we had to save our legs for the next six kilometers, which went straight up the Auto Road and gained 2200 feet in elevation.

When we hit the Auto Road, I slowed down. I knew it would be a long climb, and I didn’t care that people passed me. I was in it for the long haul. Almost immediately, sweat was pouring off my face, and I could feel it on my back. I stopped to roll up the sleeves of my uniform. I would never stop in any other 10k, because those seconds were valuable. But this time, it didn’t matter.

I could see my teammates Alice and Courtney in front of me for the whole race. Jennie – the lucky one who hadn’t raced the marathon – took off fairly early. I mentally wished her the best of luck. After a while, Ruth was out of sight, too.

Sense of scale is totally different when the entire distance is uphill. I had no idea how many kilometers I had covered or how many I had to go. At one point I passed the two mile point, which was marked by a snowman, and someone shouted, “3 kilometers to go!” Are you kidding? I’m only halfway there? I’ve been climbing forever!

After what must have been another kilometer, the snow became more icy and less slushy. The wind picked up and the air temperature dropped. It was a relief; I was still sweating from my face, but it wasn’t as uncomfortable. Besides, it felt like I must be getting somewhere.

Soon, Olympian Justin Freeman passed me on his way down. I immediately thought, well, if he’s finished, I can’t be far. But then I realized that I was moving very slowly, and I could still be very far from the finish. Several more people passed me in the next few minutes, and they started telling me I was close. I didn’t know whether to take them seriously or not; I just kept plodding along at a steady pace. Then, I could see it. I tried to speed up, but it was impossible. Making it across the finish line was good enough for me, at any speed.

***

Even more than at Rangeley, we had engaged in Type II fun. Did I enjoy the race? I guess. It was incredibly painful. But I knew, when I was doing it, that I would be able to say I had skied (halfway) up Mount Washington. I knew I was doing something fairly impressive, that the rest of my team had chickened out of. I knew I was achieving something epic.

Times like this weekend, the epic is our reward. We get to say we did something that most people would call crazy. We get to tell stories. We bond with each other when we attempt the improbable. And these are always some of our best memories.

State of the Ski Union

Carl Swenson (red legs) skiing the Holmenkollen World Cup, 2006. Photo: Dennis Donahue.

Carl Swenson (red legs) skiing the Holmenkollen World Cup, 2006. Photo: Dennis Donahue.

Something happened this week in the Czech Republic.

World Championships for all the nordic disciplines – jumping, nordic combined, and straight-up cross-country – were held in Liberec over the last week. Why are these races more important than regular World Cup races? Added bragging rights, and because everyone shows up. When there’s a World Cup in North America, many Europeans skip it, and we can’t afford to field full teams for races across the pond.

On one of the first days of competition, Lindsey Van won the first ever women’s ski jumping world championship. Then in three nordic combined events, Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong combined for four medals including every available gold.

This was an incredibly impressive performance by the Americans. At one point we were leading the overall medal count, which was unprecedented.

But Demong and Lodwick each have multiple World Cup victories under their belts. What about the last of the nordic disciplines competing in the Czech Republic, my own sport, plain nordic?

Since the last Olympics, sprinters Kikkan Randall, Torin Koos, and Andy Newell have exactly a handful of World Cup podiums between them, including one win. There were no comparable results for distance skiers, and this was an improvement over the preceding Olympic cycle.

American skiing hasn’t been much competition for the Scandinavians, the Russians, the Italians, the French, or, well, the Europeans in general over the last years. Even Canada had Becky Scott, who narrowly missed bagging the season-long World Cup overall title a few years ago, and Chandra Crawford, who won gold in the last Olympic sprint.

It’s not that our skiers aren’t fast. As an athlete at my level, it feels a little bit like blasphemy to say that they are less than the best. They have shown flashes of brilliance, teasing the community with hints of what they could do on a regular basis. But they have often left us asking, why can’t they take that next step?

In Liberec’s opening race, Randall posted her best-ever distance result, 26th. The next day Kris Freeman finished 4th in a 15k race, less than two seconds out of a medal. In the pursuit, Liz Stephen finished 15th.

Then came the sprint. Randall won a silver medal. Newell was 12th – good, but after Randall’s performance, overshadowed.

The long-distance races are always saved for last at events like this. In the 30k, Stephen finished 17th, followed by Morgan Arritola in 22nd.

These results are a leap forward; for the last decade, our culture has been steeped in inferiority and cautious optimism. It’s a culture of “maybe they’ll finally do it this time.” To a skier like me, it’s a culture of “if I’m this weak against an American field, I would be terrible compared to the Euros.”

So, while my coach Cami Thompson has been quoted as saying “I don’t think it’s unbelievable at all, they’ve been moving toward this for years,” the fact that they finally got there is extremely exciting.

Indeed, to some these results might feel like a proclamation: we have arrived. Maybe we can’t fund a full team for the World Cup circuit, but when Americans show up, they mean business.

As lower-level skiers, maybe we’re not the small fish in the smallest pond. Maybe we’re small fish in a normal pond where the big fish might just be the best of all of them.

To make sure that I wasn’t completely misinterpreting the situation, I turned to my Dartmouth teammate Rosie Brennan, who is a member of the U.S. Ski Team.

Rosie competes for Dartmouth, but she spends some of her time training with Stephen and Arritola and their coaches. Do their results give her more confidence in her own skiing?

“Watching the results come in day after day from Worlds has without a doubt given me inspiration and some level of confidence that what we are doing is working,” said Brennan. “Sooner or later I can be there too.”

But, she continued, “It brings mixed feelings. Sometimes I tell myself, they are over there killing it, I can totally be in there too. Other times I think, well I’m not over there and they clearly just made a huge step up in their level of skiing while I’m still here.”

Brennan won Friday’s Eastern college championship 5k by over a minute, so she’s obviously not slowing down even though she’s stuck in the United States. But her comments serve as a reminder of the recent development strategy for outstanding young athletes.

Stephen is my age and started racing exactly the same year I did, when we were both sophomores in high school. I remember meeting her at my very first Eastern Cup race that year. She finished second; I finished second to last.

Stephen and Arritola – one year her senior – have had very disciplined developments as racers. Despite being two of the best skiers in the country, they were not pushed into World Cup competition. Instead, the U.S. Ski Team focused on teaching them to race in Europe before teaching them to race the World Cup in Europe. It obviously worked.

So it makes sense that Brennan has some regret that she wasn’t joining them in Europe, and was instead stuck decimating the college field. But some day, she’ll be there too. Brennan is aiming for the Olympics, and if she makes it, these results will give her more confidence to go for it instead of just feeling lucky to be there. Now she’s even more sure that she and her teammates would have “a good chance of getting some good results.”

In the end, does anything change for the small fish like me? Probably not. But it gives us something to get excited about.