Finland at last.

The day you have all (?) been waiting for has arrived – I’m going to tell you about the great white north.

I made it to Finland, safe and sound, after about 29 hours of traveling. Yikes! I’m still very jet-lagged and having trouble sleeping at night, which means that I am not enjoying things as much as I otherwise would. I haven’t taken any great pictures yet, but here are a few mediocre ones so you can see what it’s like here.

We’re staying in a cute little cabin complex. We have two cabins, one for boys and one for girls. Our cabin has two rooms with two little twin beds each, and a living room/kitchen/dining room with a pullout couch that our coach sleeps on. The kitchen has only two burners and no oven, so cooking is interesting but hasn’t been a total bust. The boys made a delicious stir-fry last night and Dylan is planning to make stew this evening, so we definitely aren’t starving.

The first day we skied, there were only 3.8 kilometers open, but it was very good skiing. We were literally overjoyed to be on snow and probably zipped around a little faster than we should have, just due to the exuberance of the situation. Skiing in late October is unheard of in all but a few places in North America, and even in those places, it certainly isn’t reliable. Here we were on well-groomed trails, doing real skiing! It is still unbelievable.

It snowed for much of the last 24 hours and there were a lot more trails open this morning. This was a relief because pretty much all of our skis have been 2 hours long and doing so many little laps gets a bit boring. Today I got sick of skiing around the short, well-groomed loop with a hundred other people, so I struck out up the hill and ended up skiing along the top of the ridge below some windmills. I had a beautiful view of the countryside, which is comprised entirely of wooded hills and a few lakes. No mountains, just hills. Even at noon, the sun hangs in the corner of the sky, casting everything in a pinkish yellowish glow. I was psyched to be up on the hill with no other skiers around, enjoying the view, even if it meant skiing in some ungroomed powder.

It is a little stressful to ski here – there are so many people, with skiers from Finland (of course), Russia, Sweden, Belarus, Estonia, the Ukraine, and God knows where else. I am constantly getting passed by people who are faster than me, and the Russian coaches have a disconcerting habit of wordlessly staring at you when you ski past them. Being off on my own was so much more relaxing – I could think only about myself, what pace I ought to be going, and not worry about everything going on around me.

At this point, we are very much in training camp mode, doing a not-insignificant amount of volume. In between sessions we only have the time and energy to do things like read and knit. During our jogs around town we have found some cool stuff, though, so here’s a bit about Muonio.

There are two grocery stores, called S-Market and K-Market. Both stores count yarn and canned reindeer meat, and thermal underwear among their wares. S-Market is my favorite, perhaps because it is a little bit more light and seems to have a slightly better selection. The other one, Pepa refers to as K-Mart, which is funny because it doesn’t sell appliances, clothes, or plastic crap like the American chain. The boys theorize that S-Market and K-Market are owned by competing families a la Mantagues and Capulets, except that because we are so far north, the feud is progressing very slowly.

We also found a thrift store which we intend to hit up next week. We were running along, arbitrarily deciding what all the buildings we saw were – Finnish doesn’t have much in common with any language I’ve studied, so the names weren’t much help. For instance, one building we decided was a nursing home because it just felt right. Then Lauren said, “I bet that one is a thrift store!” Yeah, right. How likely is that? We ran up to the door and under the hours, in English, it said “Secondhand Shop.” Wow!

We have also found a couple of schools, a café, and what Lauren calls an “olden-days museum,” which unfortunately seems to be closed for the winter. Also closed for the winter: the “Grilli,” which is too bad because I would love to buy a reindeer burger there.

We ran by a number of bus stops, which I thought was really cool since the town isn’t even very big (about 2,000 people), but yesterday I realized that I hadn’t seen a single bus, so public transportation might not be a reality after all. Very confusing.

The river is quite beautiful and full of swans, both white and black. The whole setting is very picturesque; it’s too far in the middle of nowhere, but other than that, I could see Lapland getting a lot of tourism.

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll get some better pictures up soon!

 

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Head of the Charles.

I went to Head of the Charles! It was fun. I took a bus down to Boston on Saturday evening with Lauren, and we stayed with a friend of hers in Cambridge. We went out to dinner and did city things that we can’t do in Craftsbury – totally great. Then, early Sunday morning, I took Western Avenue over to the bridge and started working my way up the course. That early, it was peaceful and the light was beautiful.

After a morning of spectating pretty much on my own – although I did see Tom Graves for a bit – I ran into a bunch of the Small Boat Training Center folks, which was really fun. It was awesome to hang out with my friends from the summer. Yay! Friends! I felt very lucky and very glad that I had made the trip.

I really enjoyed hanging out and watching the racing. Terrence snuck me into the Cambridge Boat Club, which was fun. Watching a huge sporting event made me very excited for the beginning of ski season – seeing everyone’s excitement added to my own excitement to be racing soon.

I took a lot of pictures. Here’s one of the Dartmouth heavyweights:

And the lightweights:

At the end of the day, the light got beautiful again. It was awesome.

Mostly, though, I was just so so happy to be hanging out with my wonderful, entertaining friends. I love you guys!

Climb to the Castle

(Author’s Note: The first three (3) sections of this were published in the Valley News today. The last section, the one where I ramble about my personal relationship with racing, was not. Also, I don’t have any pictures from this race – I gave my camera to Pepa but she forgot to actually use it – but some great ones can be found at TeamToday.)

When most skiers head to Lake Placid, New York, they find themselves racing down Whiteface Mountain.

Early Friday morning, I found myself racing up it on my rollerskis.

Ahead of me were eight of the fastest cross-country skiers in the country. Behind me were a handful of other formidable competitors. And if I looked to my side, I was surrounded by autumn foliage lit up in the sun and expansive views of the Adirondacks.

I didn’t have many chances to appreciate the scenery, though. The toll road up the mountain is five miles long, with an average grade of 8%. It finishes at the “castle”, 300 feet from the summit of Whiteface, which is the fifth tallest peak in the ‘Dacks. Construction of the toll road began in 1929; then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt officiated the ceremony.

On Friday, our little ceremony was officiated by the New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) and the U.S. Ski Team. White team vans leapfrogged past me as I skied, and periodically I would pass coaches from the country’s various elite teams taking video and cheering for their athletes.

At the halfway point, a group of NYSEF juniors offered me a paper cup with water in it; I skied past them. I haven’t done many hill climbs in my life, and certainly none on rollerskis, but here’s one thing I have learned: you can’t stop for anything. What little uphill momentum you have, you must conserve. Your body is moving, and if you let it stop…. you’re screwed.

Up ahead, I could see my own coach, video camera in hand, shouting at my teammate. “Come on Hannah! Turn it over!” For the last two miles, Hannah had been maybe 30 seconds ahead of me, tantalizingly close, but a gap too big to close on the windy course. If I had tried, after just a minute or two the effort would have shot me out the back of the race. You can’t get excited in a hill climb. It’s a deliberate slog.

In a few seconds, my coach’s attention would turn to me. I hoped that her voice would tell me whether I was doing well enough, or not. Preferably the former.

Two and a half miles left. I kept climbing.

Up ahead of me, the race for the podium was heating up. Climb to the Castle, as the competition is called, is the closest thing we skiers have to a national-level race in the off-season. While the teams from Alaska don’t make it to New York, many of the country’s other best athletes do.

The women’s field was small, with only fourteen finishers. The men’s field had sixty. But the main difference between the two was not the quality at the top, where both fields featured multiple Olympians and national champions. The nordic combined team – the men who won all the medals in Vancouver – were out in full force.

The front of the women’s race included Dartmouth student and Olympic biathlete Laura Spector; U.S. Ski Team Olympians Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola; and Dartmouth senior Ida Sargent, the seventh-ranked skier in the country.

Last year, Sargent and my teammate Hannah (Dreissigacker) finished third and fourth.

This year, it was not to be. Sargent said, “Last year it went really well, so I was actually psyched to race it again. This year I thought I would know what to expect, but you can’t ever predict how something like this – which is just so hard – will unfold.  I felt tired and instead of being able to attack like I had hoped for, I was just kind of holding on.”

Spector’s experience was different. As a biathlete, her races usually consist of shorter loops with rifle-shooting stages in between them. She hadn’t raced against regular skiers recently, but was excited to see how she stacked up.

In the beginning, the pace conservative; everyone knew that they had 50 minutes of climbing ahead of them. Spector said, “A large group stayed together for nearly two miles.  It first started to split up when Morgan [Arritola] took the lead from Liz [Stephen]. I was working my way up one spot at a time. Every time I thought I saw a gap forming between the leaders and the person in front of me, I would jump ahead and fill that spot.

“When we got to around 3 miles I offered to pull because everyone in the lead group was taking a turn on the front.  I soon noticed that I had opened up a gap and decided to push it from there.”

Spector held her lead through the final kilometers of the race and ended up winning by just over a minute. She said, “My win was for my teammates. I feel like there have been doubts in the past as to how well American biathletes train and perform physically, and I was out to prove that our training is just as rigorous and effective as what the cross-country skiers are doing.”

Sargent finished fifth, unable to recapture the podium. She said, “I’m sure I’ll do [the race] again next year, but right now I’m glad there is a full year before it happens!”

One thing that we all faced as we neared the finish – regardless of whether we were headed toward victory or not – was the wind.

With just a half mile left, the toll road takes a turn, and the castle is visible, tantalizingly close. But this turn exposed us to the wind’s full force for the first time; estimates had the gusts reaching 50 miles per hour. It literally stopped us in our tracks; multiple athletes I claimed to actually have been blown backwards (rollerski wheels roll both directions).

“I don’t think I’ve ever skied in wind that strong before,” said Sargent. “It was brutal.”

Personally, I wanted to sit down and cry. Even though I could see the finish, I had no idea how I was going to get there. My strides were only gaining me a few inches each time I pushed forward. I could have walked faster.

In the end, I made it to the finish by reminding myself that the wind was just as tough on my competitors as it was on me. My teammate Hannah had put two minutes on me in the last mile, when all the climbing had finally caught up with me, but nobody had passed me.

Honestly, I was just relieved to have made it to the top.

There’s a month until the racing season begins, and it’s all going to feel easy after Whiteface. I guess I’m prepared now.

You might think the story ends there. But it doesn’t. Something surprising happened to me on that mountain. I stopped being afraid of ski racing.

The end of my season last year was an absolute disaster: race after race of burying myself to go slower and slower. I dropped out of a race for the first time ever. I skied like a sack of dog poop. I felt tired all the time. I couldn’t go hard, but it was so hard to go even not hard. Something was terribly wrong, and everyone had a different theory about what it was, but the case was never resolved completely.

It had made me forget what racing was supposed to be like. I dreaded racing. Going into Climb to the Castle, I was terrified. I was sure something was going to go horribly wrong, I was going to feel tired, I wasn’t going to be able to turn it over, I was going to get dropped by everyone, left to ski, cold, alone, perhaps sobbing, up this indescribably steep road to the top (when I got there, it wasn’t nearly as steep as it had been in my mind). You can’t drop out of an uphill rollerski race. What are you going to do, turn around and ski downhill for three miles? You would have to be crazy to attempt to ski down a toll road.

I was afraid because it was a hill climb, but what I didn’t realize was that I was also afraid because it was a race. The last race weekend I remember was Spring Series in Madawaska, Maine, where I dropped out of the first race, missed the heats in the sprint, and then did terribly in the hill climb. It was not a fun weekend of ski racing. But that was the most immediate sense I had of racing. Everything in my body and my mind expected that experience all over again.

Almost as soon as I started Climb to the Castle, though, it was different. I was skiing! I was skiing well, I would even say. I felt in control. I was deciding my pace; I wasn’t fighting with my body. I was relaxed. I was beating people. All of this, honestly, was a complete shock.

Sure, I did really fall apart in the last mile. I bonked. I was really, really slow. And I almost sat down on the side of the road and cried in that 50 m.p.h. wind. But that was different. Everyone gets tired after climbing a mountain for 4 miles. Pacing yourself perfectly in a hill climb is pretty tricky. The fact that I didn’t nail it doesn’t mean that I’m not ready, that I’m not fast, that I don’t have the ability to go do an actual, normal race, and pace myself as I should.

You might not think that finishing a five-mile race 9 minutes behind the leader would boost my confidence. But it did.

I don’t dread racing anymore. Now I remember why I love racing: it’s a thrill when you feel good. I can’t wait. Bring it, races.

Fall comes.

Did I mention that autumn has arrived in northern New England?

It has. It has arrived, in all its rainy, cold sogginess. Fortunately, for every day that features cold rain, there’s one – or at least half of one – which is clear and completely beautiful. Today was one of those days. The leaves are changing and almost passed, coating some hillsides in yellow and others in orangey red. A cold breeze tempers the warm air. These are perfect days to be outside.

Which was lucky for me, because I was supposed to do a long workout. I decided to run up Smarts – which I have written about before, but, well, I’ve run Smarts many times and every time is different. Last time it was summer. This time it was fall. Before, I’ve been alone, or with Dartmouth, or with my dog. This time I was with someone else’s dog.

Yes, that’s right, I took someone else’s dog for a workout. I’m housesitting and one of the two black labs is very rambunctious. I decided maybe a workout would be good for him, mellow him out a little.

And it was funny to watch: for the first 45 minutes, he was dragging me around on the leash, so excited to be going on an adventure. Gradually he ran out of steam and ended up just trotting behind me, but he still had enough energy in reserve to shoot off down the trail to bark at other hikers if I didn’t keep him on a leash.

It turns out that running on the Appalachian Trail with a dog in front of you isn’t really ideal. It’s important to, like, see where your feet are landing, and stuff. Also, even when you aren’t putting any pressure on the leash, holding it changes your running form by a surprising amount. I was not prepared for all this. The run took me longer than I thought it would.

But I didn’t really mind. It was nice to have a buddy; I love dogs and am sad I don’t have one in Craftsbury. Plus, of course, it was a gorgeous day, and I was outside. The view from the firetower was colored differently than the last time I’d been on the mountain.

I only have three weeks of fall left before I leave for Finland (still can’t believe it!), so it’s important that I can get outside and enjoy the season. I don’t want to miss this fall, and the best way to see it is undoubtedly on a trail, in the mountains. Rollerskiing is okay, but it’s not the same. On a trail, in the middle of nowhere, you can really be surrounded by fall.

Parting thought: when I’m older (like 27, maybe) and have retired from ski racing, I’m going to have a great dog and we’re going to go on adventures every weekend. That’s what I decided. Until then… housesitting will have to do.