Photos: a day in the life of a full-time ski racer.

I read somewhere that in order to develop a readership for your blog, you should only ever write about one thing. That way, people know what to expect and won’t be disappointed when they come looking for one topic and find something completely unrelated.

Well, I haven’t followed that rule, have I? I write about what I do and what interests me. And in any given day, that can be a lot of things. I wanted to share, visually, one day in my life, so that you can see what it’s really like. I was lucky enough to get Pepa to take some pictures of our workout this morning to start us off.

Click photos to enlarge.

At 9 a.m., we headed out on a 90 minute rollerski, classic, with ~23 minutes of threshold in the middle.

Threshold means working hard, but not too hard. This wasn’t a time trial although the course was identical to our usual time trial course. You don’t want to build up lactic acid in high quantities, but rather work at a level just below that, where your body can clear the acid quickly and efficiently. Threshold should feel good, and today it did for me (some days I’m tired and it doesn’t). The tape on my arms is to combat tendonitis in my elbows, which I developed to a debilitating degree last summer from the impact of my pole tips hitting the pavement. I’m considering getting cortisone injections this year. Also, I’m not sure if you can tell, but my poles are bright pink. I spray-painted them: no more boring black! It cheers me up every time I ski.

It started pouring as we were skiing back to our cars. It was a hot day, though, so the rain felt good.

The Craftsbury Public Library was having a used book sale, so Lauren and I drove up before lunch. I came home with three books I had bought at the sale (for $5 total), one which had come in on interlibrary loan, and two movies we had picked out to borrow. But when will I have time to read all these books?

After lunch I baked the loaf of sourdough which I had started before our rollerski. When I bake, I usually make two large oval loaves, but with the boys away in Bend, we’ll go through bread much slower. Anna has a really nice round brotform which she lets me use, as well as a lame.

In the afternoon, we had practice with our elementary school skiers. Algis Shalna, one of the US Biathlon Team coaches and a former Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union, was on hand to teach the kids about biathlon.

Shooting was the exciting part. Not being a biathlete, I was there to direct the kids in a bounding workout in between their shootings. It was very hot and I felt bad asking them to bound up the hill three times before they could go back to shoot again. But not too bad… you have to toughen them up a little!

After a quick break to put my feet up and recover from standing around in the sun and the 80 degree heat, I headed out for my second workout of the day, a 2-hour bike ride. I traipsed about for 33 miles, touching at least the corners of Craftsbury, Wolcott, Hardwick, and Greensboro.

I got the chance to appreciate some beautiful scenery on my ride, like these happy cows in a green, green field.

I was late for dinner because my ride took so long – I swear the same route didn’t take 2 hours last year. Lauren had done a shorter ride, but she had also shot with Algis earlier in the afternoon. We were both exhausted. Dinner was heavenly, thanks to the dining hall staff: roast beef, braised chard, a rice-nut loaf, baked potato, the usual excellent salad bar. The cooks had made homemade ice cream, too, in cardamom ginger, maple vanilla, and chocolate flavors, to be topped with chocolate sauce and raspberries. They really outdid themselves this time.

We were both exhausted, but managed to drag ourselves to a birthday party for one of the staff members. They burned a hollow log, which they stood up like a chimney; it burned from the inside out, throwing a large flame out the top. I forgot my camera, but the way the millions of sparks flew out and into the night sky, dancing around on the breeze, was beautiful. They all landed on in the grass, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky that the lawn didn’t catch on fire. There was also a very delicious pistachio cake from the Edelweiss Bakery in Johnson.

Every day is different, and not every day is a Saturday, but this is a taste of my life. For some full-time athletes, being an athlete is enough. But for many of us, it is not enough, and we have to pursue our other interests at least to some extent. We have to remain human, not become physiological machines, and we have to balance ourselves mentally. That’s why you’ll find me writing about baking and farming and the environment and pretty much anything that pops into my head.

Oh, and isn’t Vermont beautiful?

The philosophy of cultivation

(this is third in a series looking back on what I learned in Nova Scotia)

The first time I learned anything much about the philosophy of a garden was in Fez, Morocco. Our culture class spent a whole afternoon walking around to famous gardens around the city. As we sat amid the flowers and trees, our professor, Hassan, taught us why the gardens were built the way they were.

And it was a valid question for us Americans. The gardens were both meticulously organized and jumbled together at the same time. There were plants of all different types and trees growing right along with them – everything was mixed together, but still put in its exact place for a reason. Islamic gardens attempt to capture the wilderness and turn it into a place of order and beauty rather than fear. The zellij tilework, which imitates nature in a geometrical fashion using a specific combination of colors and shapes, and fountains are other facets of this philosophy.

For the next four years, I didn’t think about the philosophy behind gardening at all. I only thought things like, “wouldn’t it be nice to have some salad greens? well then I’ll build a cold frame and plant them in the yard behind my apartment!”

But I was reminded of the more theoretical side of things when I was in Nova Scotia. A lot of this had to do with two books that I read: Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison (ok, I definitely skimmed this one) and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.

I didn’t know much about permaculture before I arrived at Old Man Farm. It’s basically a philosophy of living in which people and nature get along, and people get along with each other (although the nature part is more interesting to me). On a permaculture farm, all of the different discrete things that you’d see on a regular farm – gardens, livestock, fruit trees, ponds, buildings – are organized so that their inputs can help the other parts succeed. Plants protect buildings from the heat and cold; animals provide manure for the gardens and eat fallen fruit from the fruit trees; etc etc.

There’s also a fair amount of ecology that goes into permaculture design, from applications like discouraging pests to allowing and making use of natural succession to more abstract things like maximizing edges. All this – and the integration of the different elements of the farm – seemed very cool to me. It’s like an even more extreme extension of the anti-monoculture trend.

In some ways the Islamic gardens I saw had this down, with their mix of trees and smaller plants within the same space. But philosophically, those gardeners were trying to take nature, domesticate it, put it in order, and make it less “other”, which is pretty much the opposite of the goals of permaculture.

Then I read The Botany of Desire. Although I studied plants in college, I am ashamed to say I had never taken a botany class – Dartmouth doesn’t offer one (for shame!). So when I read that apples and tulips, for example, do not pass their traits to their offspring – that is, the seeds will not grow into plants resembling their parents – I was fascinated. I wanted to go plant a handful of apple seeds just to see how differently the trees turned out from one another. (I was disappointed to realize that I wouldn’t be living in the same house long enough to see the results, if I actually tried such an experiment)

Pollan and Mollison take different approaches to the idea of wildness in gardening, but the combination of the two had a pretty profound effect on the way I thought about cultivation. It won’t stop me from buying seeds to plant in my vegetable garden. But it will make me think about trying to propagate some plants from seed, and about how to work with the natural world instead of against it. I’d recommend reading both books, or at least looking at Mollison’s pictures!

Welcome home to Craftsbury

I realized that I’ve been posting basically non-stop, and none of it has been about skiing. I hope nobody’s disappointed. To me, training for skiing is what I do every day, and it’s often not exciting. I always feel like I would be boring people if I talked about training all the time: it’s so repetitive, and the things that make one session distinct from the next are often small. I only want to blog about skiing when something exciting or notable happens. So I have found other things to blog about.

But it is, after all, skiing which brought me back to Craftsbury after my “vacation” in Nova Scotia and Maine. And I am happy that it did.

I am just finishing my first week back in town (or, “town”), and for the first time I remember what it feels like to be tired – the kind of tired where you want to sit on the couch all afternoon, and the kind of tired where doing any meaningful work is like an uphill battle. I have trained approximately 10 hours in the last week, so I shouldn’t be exhausted – it just goes to show that even if your workouts are going well, getting back into things can be tougher than you think after you’ve taken a break.

When I think of spring training, I think of playtime, basically. I think of running on the trails, road biking for hours, basically doing whatever sounds like fun that day. Since my return, training has not been like that. I was welcomed back on Wednesday morning to some 90% max intervals on the SkiErg (double-pole machine). Saturday, step test on the SkiErg. Sunday, 5k test on the SkiErg. Today, 1k test on the SkiErg.

On a few of the days it was raining (or snowing) out so being inside didn’t seem so bad, but a few of these days were sunny andbeautiful and I stared longingly out the windows as I was warming up. Due to the early, warm spring, things are already incredibly green in the Northeast Kingdom. Wildflowers are blooming – strawberry, violet, some kind of marsh marigold. Ferns are unfurling. You can see the bright new needles on the conifers next to the older, darker growth. (Less excitingly, the blackflies are out.)

Despite all of that, the tests didn’t go so badly. I have lost very little of my aerobic fitness over the last month – although regular readers might remember that my last few months of the ski season were horrendous, so it’s questionable whether that presents any sort of meaningful baseline. I set a personal best in the 1k test, beating my time from last season. I wasn’t far off in the 5k, either, and mainly missed it because I went too easy in the beginning. 5k is a long time to be on a SkiErg, and I was afraid, so early in the spring, of starting too hard and then suffering through many minutes of bonking. In addition I recorded my highest heart rate on the SkiErg ever, and I think my highest lactate at the end of a test as well.

I don’t want this to sound too much like bragging. As Pepa told me several times last year, I am “good athlete, but not good skier.” I still need to raise my VO2Max considerably. And we had our first rollerski of the season yesterday. My technique is miles ahead of where it was when I started rollerskiing last year, but I am still very inefficient and need to work on my power application – fitness and strength doesn’t matter if you can’t apply it to skiing. My SkiErg test results show that I’ve come a long way towards being a skier, but the rollerski part of things is still problematic. I have my work cut out for me this summer. It’s not going to be easy, but its work I’m ready to do.

We seem to be done with the tests for a bit, so I will get a few more opportunities to run on the trails, bike on the roads, and row on the lake. Spring is one of my favorite seasons (I think I say that about every season!) and I am eager to get out and enjoy it. I’m happy to be back in Craftsbury and embarking on the ski adventure once again – even if sometimes it makes me turn into a couch potato in the afternoons!

Nova Scotia reflections: fruits and vegetables

(note: this is part two of a multi-part series looking back on my time WWOOFing on Cape Breton Island. Also, I posted about my weekend activities over on the Green Racing Project blog.)

Nova Scotia in April – even an unusually warm April – isn’t really conducive to planting vegetables. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about growing things. The baby plants on top of the rabbit cage in the kitchen were a constant reminder that in a few short weeks, it was going to be all systems go on planting the garden. In addition, the large tubs of potatoes in the basement, still left from last year’s crop, were a frequent addition to dinners – this was at least one crop where the family could feed itself comfortably from its own land.

A garden that grows so much food is unlike the backyard varieties I’ve worked in before. It filled two separate fenced-in (or, theoretically fenced-in) sections of land in between the barnyard and the pastures. There were multiple raised beds ranging from small, semi-circular ones for herbs to large plots that Brooke spent several hours rototilling. There were piles of compost and soil strategically placed in multiple spots around the gardens, tarps to cover recently excavated plots or delicate new plantings, and piles of rocks which had been dug out of the ground.

The rhubarb was already growing, and in a few places vegetables were breaking through from bits of root that had been left in the ground after harvest. I spent an hour or so organizing the family’s extensive seed collection by type of vegetable, so that the planting process would go more smoothly once it began. Things were undeniably about to start moving.

But even though things weren’t quite going yet, there was still plenty to do. Take the fruits, for example. A small orchard of young apple trees filled a slope above the house, and there was a small vineyard next to one of the garden plots. I learned (by reading) about pruning and grafting. Pruning seemed to have been neglected in order to focus on the more pressing needs of the farm, but one day, the family would be eating apples and grapes and making cider and wine from their own land, too.

In line with the farm’s emphasis on permaculture (more on that in a later post), we hoped to make the garden attractive to beneficial organisms and unattractive to pests. I spent some time building boxes for solitary bees, using a handsaw to cut 2×4’s into smaller blocks (which turned out to be a workout!) and then drilling holes in them for the bees to next in. Solitary bees are non-colonial, and although honeybees and bumblebees are the first bees most people think of, the majority of bee species are solitary. Providing a spot for these bees to next and lay their eggs is good because it means they will pollinate your garden. There were a number of birdhouses up as well, with more in the works, and the family was planning on building bat houses too.

I even learned about cultivating mushrooms. We took a number of hardwood logs and drilled holes in them – similar to the bee houses, but distributed around 4-foot sections of log – which would then be filled with shiitake mushroom spores seeded in sawdust. The logs would be left in a damp place, sprayed with water, submerged for a bit… and one day, they would have mushrooms growing out of all the holes and look totally crazy.

It all seemed rather idyllic, but of course I wasn’t there for any of the hard work. Planting wouldn’t have been that bad compared to the extensive weeding that would be necessary for large garden plots, and I am sure that the harvests were completely crazy. But even though I was telling myself that the vegetables were, in fact, plenty of work, the idea of growing your own food seemed just as alluring as it always has. I was talking to Kate one day about how they still hadn’t figured out everything about the animals, or the best way to deal with them or even which ones to have, but in the last five years they had gotten “pretty good at growing vegetables”. I wish that I could go back to Old Man Farm in the summer, when things are growing wildly, and see what it looks like, and see Kate happily working among the plants.

It all seems so satisfying to have that store of potatoes and carrots, a stockpile that lasts all winter, that you had dug out of your own ground in the fall. I am really looking forward to the day when I can plant my own garden next to my hypothetical tiny house and have it be mine. While there are many wonderful ways to garden, at this point in my voyage or gardening discovery, growing things seems kind of personal. You work with your hands, and there is this amazing process of creation (well, scientifically that’s not what it is, but metaphorically in a way it is); I want to hold those vegetables in my hands, to look at them and marvel at what has come out of the soil; I want to be in control of my own gardening destiny. I am 100% positive that this greediness, if you will, makes me a terrible person. I am working to become more enthused about our community gardening projects in Craftsbury.

Stay tuned for a more theoretical and ideological approach to growing things in the next installment.

A quick note on some things I have been reading. Much has been made of the fact that a climate and energy bill now seems like it won’t happen, even though the Gulf Coast oil spill disaster makes the need appear so immediate to so many people. But interestingly enough there is another but of policy that approaches the problem in a different way. An editorial in Nature talks about a new system of spatial planning which will divide U.S. waters into nine areas, each regulated at a regional level by bringing together multiple stakeholders such as energy companies, fisheries, and water quality boards. It seems like this is a step in a good direction.

Nova Scotia reflections: animals

Goats and sheep grazing on the far side of the garden.

(Note: This is part of what was conceived as a four-part series. Not sure if it will turn out that way, but stay tuned for more!)

When I was looking for a farm to go work on, I decided that “animals” was a key component in my search. There were two reasons for this: one, I wanted to learn more about maintaining livestock, and two, I knew there wouldn’t be much work to do in the garden in April so far north. Old Man Farm had a little bit of everything: cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and geese. I was able to get a sense of the relative levels of attention required by some of these different animals, as well as some sobering lessons about what can go wrong.

The Animals

I had the most interaction with the sheep, goats, and chickens. These are the animals that lived in the main section of the barn. The sheep and goats needed the most attention, partly because it was lambing season. They needed to be put out if it was a warm day, brought back in at night, sequestered if they appeared sick or lambing seemed imminent, fed hay since the grass wasn’t in, and generally checked on a few times a day. There was a calm of being in the barn, and Brooke spent a lot of time there just being with the animals. It was a nice place.

lambs: you gotta check on 'em.

I got to try shearing a sheep with hand-clippers, which was new. My grandmother had sheep which she bred for wool, and shearing was done by a professional, the wool bagged and washed and saved and then knitted into sweaters. This was the vision I had of shearing. On Cape Breton Island, there isn’t much of a market for wool, so the Olands weren’t saving it for anything. It didn’t matter if the wool came off in clumps, fell on the straw, or got dirty in the shearing process. In a way this was disappointing to me.

The sheep were where I learned the most about medical side of livestock maintenance. Two old ewes died while I was on the farm. They had been bought pregnant, along with three others, from a farmer who was culling them because of their age. Both developed toxemia (ketosis), which basically meant that they had no energy and didn’t even want to eat. We tubed medicine down their throats, put them under heat lamps, and did all we could for them, but they slipped away. Brooke had to then butcher them himself, a task that wasn’t particularly good for him on an emotional level. I watched the butchering since I thought it would be a good thing to know about – the reality of livestock farming, if you will.

As for the next generation, in one case, the lamb was lost as well; in the other, we had an orphan on our hands. You might think that having a lamb in the house is cute, and great, and it is, to an extent. But it’s a hard road for those lambs, and for you, too… Brooke was a walking zombie at one point because the lamb had woken him up with its bleating so many nights in a row. The orphan developed scours, so we needed to medicate him.

The orphan, nicknamed "Blam-Blam".

The goats had already kidded so they required a little bit less maintenance, and could go outside on colder days. I learned that while goats are cute, they are tough to herd! I usually had to lure them with a bucket of grain, but then the goats with horns would unintentionally spear me, which was annoying and sometimes painful.

The chickens needed very little from us. They had lots of places to root for insects. In most cases, predators would be a major concern, but because the farm had three large, white livestock dogs, there didn’t seem to be any problems with chickens getting eaten. They produced more eggs than the family could consume. When I left, one hen was getting broody, so she was allowed to keep a dozen eggs; later in the season, there will be little chicks running around.

The cattle were Highlands, a breed which can take care of itself quite well. They occasionally needed hay because the pastures weren’t quite going yet, but other than that were pretty self-sufficient. One of them had a calf and we hadn’t even expected it or done anything to prepare her. This was lucky, because perhaps the saddest thing that happened while I was there was that a yearling got stuck in some mud overnight and drowned. Pulling his body out of the mud was very sad, and afterward all the other cattle came over and sniffed him to say goodbye. Anyone who says that cows don’t have feelings is quite wrong.

And then there were the pigs. They did an excellent job of rooting up ground that was being prepared for planting. However, they also needed quite a bit of extra feed, and were very aggressive at feeding time, pushing each other around and squealing. I learned to take the feed into their stall when they were out in the field and then call them in, so that I wouldn’t have to wade through them and hit them with a stick in order to get to the bucket.

The ducks and geese were pretty self-sufficient. I don’t think we ever fed them anything. We ate one, though, and I learned how to pluck a goose (we never got the water quite boiling, so the process took longer than expected).

Goose eggs in a nest next to the woodshed.

How to make livestock work

In general, the livestock required a surprisingly small amount of attention considering how many diverse kinds there were. There were the never-ending fencing projects, of course, but I think with a few good pushes, the fences could have been in good shape. Fencing is where, as a farmer, planning and preparation are essential. Fencing is a fact of life.

The tough part with the animals is that the farm was using very little of their potential. They were no longer milking the goats, which means that they had to buy milk for their family, and also weren’t making cheese. The male lambs would in theory be butchered, along with a few of the cattle, in the fall, but the Olands had trouble finding a butcher who would come to the farm. The beef brought in some money, but given that the cattle took three or four years to mature, I don’t know if they paid for their upkeep or not. The eggs were unmarketable because there was no henhouse, so they were usually dirty.

The feed bills were, shall we say, high. I realized how expensive it is to have animals just for pleasure.

Brooke indicated that he wasn’t interested in turning the farm into a money-making enterprise. He just wanted to feed his family and live sustainably. Which is totally fine: you can make that choice if you want to, and if you can afford it (the Olands were getting by, but barely).

Cattle and chickens.

I think this was part of the reason that it seemed like the livestock didn’t take much attention. If, like most operations, you were trying to make money, or at least break even, you would need to be milking and making cheese and packaging and marketing your products. You needed to build the henhouse, and learn to accept butchering if you couldn’t find a butcher, and make sure that the butchering was done at the correct time of year (for instance, slaughter your geese in the fall, not the spring). Your general level of attention needs to be higher if you are marketing products to someone else rather than consuming them yourself.

With such a variety of animals, it seems unlikely that the farm could operate in this manner with its current labor supply. Perhaps I’m being narrow-minded, but I think that with one full-time worker and WWOOFer help, a farm looking to sell products from the animals would need to focus on an area of expertise, as it were. You would need to decide which kinds of animals you could work with, easily and happily, and rely on, and get rid of the others. This was something up for discussion, as the Olands were contemplating reducing the herd of goats and selling a few sheep as well.

The verdict

The difference between having a few animals for your own pleasure and having animals as a business venture is not insignificant.

My vision of my future, the perfect one where I have a mysteriously sufficient income stream, usually includes a tiny house, a garden, a horse, a dog, some chickens, and maybe some sheep (although with every passing year, I realize that the horse is pretty unlikely since it is the most expensive component of this dream future). My experience at the farm didn’t really change that. It would be easy to “start” with a few chickens, or a small flock of sheep, or even a pig.

The pigs were probably the ones I learned the most about, honestly. They did a remarkable job getting the garden ready for planting; I hadn’t thought of them in such a useful sense before. And piglets, of course, are quite cute (that’s the girl in me speaking).