racing sick.

This is a nice bench, isn’t it?

The bench is where I belonged this weekend. Maybe not this particular bench, considering that it is out in the cold, but a different bench, a metaphorical bench, a bench where you sit and are not subbed into the day’s athletic competition.

I took this picture on Thursday. I had been sick, and still had a head cold. On Wednesday, I had walked around on my skis for twenty minutes, enjoying the small amount of snow we had on the trails and imagining that I would be better soon. But on Thursday, I wasn’t better. In fact, I was worse. For my “workout”, I went for a nice walk to the end of the road. If your workout for the day is a walk, you know you’re in trouble.

By Friday I was feeling a little better, and on Saturday, I was ready to race – I thought. But even then, I was hedging my bets. “Oh, I’ll just race the sprint qualifier, and sit out the heats so that I can make sure to be healthy for Sunday’s race,” I told myself (and my friends). Sprinting isn’t what I’m good at, but Sunday’s mass start classic race seemed to be designed exactly for me.

And as I was cooling down from the qualifier – which went mediocre-ly – I thought to myself, “well, now I’ve skied more than I have in the last four days combined! That can’t be good.” But I was excited, too. I hadn’t skied particularly well in the qualifier but I felt that if I just got in the heats, I would ski better, and perhaps I could do pretty well.

So, I decided to ski the heats.

What was I thinking!?

My quarterfinal itself didn’t go too badly. I got off to a great start – which is shocking, really, because I’m not the quickest skier. I spent most of the race sitting in third. The pace felt slow and even easy until the last 200 meters or so. All of a sudden I got very, very tired. The finish line was right there! But I didn’t have any gas left in the tank (had I had any to start with?). The girl who had been behind me in fourth sprinted by me like I was standing still. I ended up 18th on the day, not my best Eastern Cup result for sure but not a complete disaster given the circumstances.

The race had been special in a way, because as I said, I’m not the quickest skier. I’m pretty bad at sprinting. But I had been really engaged in the race, and I think that tactically I had skied very well. With 400 meters to go, I was right where I needed to be – in contact with the leaders and a ways ahead of the fourth-place skier. If I’d had a bit more in me, I could have fought for a place in the semifinals. It was really good practice, and exciting for me to be excited about sprinting.

But it came at a cost. I went home immediately after my heat was over, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed for a nap. When I woke up, I felt like absolute crap and was coughing and coughing and coughing.

I immediately realized I had made a big mistake.

Falling asleep that night was terrible. My throat hurt, my nose was running, and I was still coughing even though I had been doing my best to combat and alleviate all these symptoms. I was sure I was going to wake up in the morning feeling worse than ever – and that’s not a thought that helps you fall asleep, let me tell you.

But I woke up feeling okay. Sure, I was coughing up nice yellow stuff, but I felt okay. Having not learned anything the day before, I jumped in the van with my race suit on.

“If you feel bad at all, you shouldn’t race,” my coach told me when we got to Jericho.

“But I want to race! Mass starts are so fun! And I want to do a mass start before the one at Nationals. I need the practice. I’m just going to see how it goes….”

“Okay,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you feel bad at all, drop out. Even if you are in the top three, if you feel bad, drop out. We need only high quality workouts right now.”

So, off I went, testing my skis, warming up, chatting with all my ski racing friends who I hadn’t seen in a year. I love racing! Why would I give this up if I didn’t have to?

I was seeded 20th in the mass start, so was stuck in the third row. As soon as the gun went off, I was fighting to move up in the pack. I had made up a few spots in the first couple hundred meters when I came around a downhill corner and of course there was a girl sprawled in the middle of the trail. I chose to take the outside route around her and came perilously close to going over the side of the trail into a ditch. But I didn’t! That really got my adrenaline going and for the next kilometer I was on fire, working my way up into the top eight or ten, where the pace was slow and we were all skiing comfortably, albeit all over each other’s skis.

Then we got to a hill.

Adrenaline can only get you so far. As I said, the pace was slow, but when we got to this hill, I could barely move. It was like my legs were part of someone else’s body, not my own. I was working really hard to go very slowly, and it felt terrible. Really, really terrible. I remembered that I was really tired. So I decided to drop out, just like Pepa had said.

Now, once you decide to drop out, there are some logistics to figure out. This hasn’t happened to me very often – this was only the second race I had quit in my entire life – but you can’t just stop skiing. I mean, you can, but then you’re out in the middle of the course in the middle of a race. No, it’s much better to ski to somewhere close to the stadium and then drop out, so that you’re not stuck out there.

I was contemplating where to drop out when I came around a downhill corner and, since I wasn’t paying attention, of course I crashed. Complete yard sale. So I decided that would be a nice place to drop out, actually.

My race was over. I think I had made it two kilometers.

Even if you know it’s the right thing to do, dropping out doesn’t feel good. I was able to joke about it a bit, telling people that I had won the race because I “finished first”. But after using that line a couple of times, it didn’t seem funny. I was sad, frustrated, upset. Why was I sick? I always get sick and it makes me feel like everything I have done for the last nine months has been pointless. I’m ruining all my hard work and preparation. It’s a pretty depressing situation, really.

So now I’m at home, sitting on my bum and drinking tea. I’m hoping I’ll get better, but if the past is a guide, it’s going to take me a while. Which is bad, bad news indeed.

Kids: don’t race when you’re sick. Or even when you’ve been sick, or think you might be getting sick, or feel funny at all. It’s dumb. Don’t do it. Stay on the bench.

Things Are About to Get Nerdy, or, I Was Right.

Every once in a while I read something that really gets me excited. There can be multiple reasons for this: maybe it’s really good journalism, or maybe it’s just an interesting and unusual story. Maybe it’s amazing science.

I recently read a Grist article: “Leaked document shows EPA allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags.” I got really, really excited. It was the most exciting thing I had read in at least a week. And let me tell you, that was no small feat, considering the excellent piece of Nat Herz’s that I was asked to edit.

The article was about how, despite the fact that their own scientists believed that the pesticide clothianidin is toxic to honeybees, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pushed through approval of the pesticide, and it now being used on millions of acres of staple crops like corn throughout the U.S.

As the title suggests, someone leaked a document showing the EPA scientists’ concerns over the pesticide – and the shoddy science that had been used to justify its safety. Thanks, Grist; that is good journalism. The EPA definitely hasn’t been the watchdog that it ought to be in the last, well, long time. You should read the piece just for the muckraking.

But besides the good journalism and interesting story, I got excited about something else. The whole scientific premise of why clothianidin is bad for bees is that it is expressed in plant pollen. The bees then eat the pollen, and, well, probably die. End of story.

Why is this cool?

A long time ago – or it seems that way to me – I had an idea. I was out in Colorado the summer before my junior year of college, working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and trying to brainstorm ideas for me senior thesis, which I’d be working on the next summer. After wandering around in the mountains a fair bit, I formulated a hypothesis and presented it to my advisor.

The Rockies are littered with old abandoned mines: silver mines, nickel mines, gold mines, molybdenum mines, copper mines, you name it. The tailing piles at some of these sites are filled with metal-rich soil, on which plants eke out a tough existence. My question was, what if the plants take up the metals into their tissue? And what if those metals are expressed in nectar and pollen? And what if bees forage on that nectar and pollen? What then? Do they have higher body metal loads? Do they die? Do they evolve tolerance?

My first vision was of running around catching bees and testing them for body metal loads. This was immediately rejected as impractical. First of all, bees have a very wide foraging range, so trapping one that happened to be flying through a mine site wouldn’t mean that it hadn’t just eaten a nice pollen snack from a pristine flower on the other side of the ridge. Secondly, bumblebees – the bees I was most interested in – are generalist foragers. So basically, you’d have to catch a lot of bees before you could be sure you had some who were actually foraging on the plants you cared about. And given the expensive nature of metals testing, that wasn’t much of an option.

I went on to do some really fun and interesting research looking at this issue from lots of different angles, but testing the metal loads in pollen and bee bodies didn’t happen. There were too many difficulties, not enough money, and after all I was only writing a thesis, not a PhD dissertation.

But. I’ve still wondered. What if those bees are carrying around a bunch of metals?

Now we’re getting back to the Grist article. The whole neonicotinoid family of pesticides works by being expressed in pollen and nectar, and then kills pests when they eat that pollen. The problem is that they also kill non-target pollinators, like bees. And we can’t afford that.

But do you see why I’m excited? Something bad is expressed in pollen! And the bees eat it! And then it’s in the bees!

Granted, metals are not pesticides, and pesticides, and their structure and expression sometimes approximate things like hormones – that’s why they are so deadly.

But there is hope for my hypothesized mechanism.

Maybe someone will investigate it.

Or give me a bunch of money to investigate it. Simultaneously with the several other jobs I am doing.

That would be cool.

If this has put you in a science-y mood, here’s some other cool stuff you could read.

– A research trip to the Antarctic via Nature magazine

– An entertaining piece on musk oxen from NYT

– Or, just read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It’s a good book. It makes me want to do fieldwork again.

Thanksgiving, and off again.

I won the Irvington, Virginia, Turkey Trot. True story. I was in the 2-mile race and I think all the fast people might have been in the 5-mile race. You can read about it here.

Anyway, I have been way too busy lately: volume week, driving to Stowe to train, many FasterSkier articles about the start of the biathlon World Cup season. I haven’t been able to blog. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!

Thanksgiving was awesome though. As I said, I spent it in Irvington, Virginia. I haven’t seen my Virginia cousins in years, I am ashamed to say. I remember them being amazing and us getting along great. They are still amazing and we still get along great. I am hoping it won’t be long before I see Jess and Emily again; they are truly wonderful girls and I want to spend more time with them.

It was also good to see my grandparents, Abie and Pete. I haven’t seen them since I graduated from Dartmouth. They are darling and I love them very much.

Unfortunately, tomorrow morning I’m off to Quebec. In many ways it’s not unfortunate at all: the skiing is supposedly great, which is one of the most important things right now. But I was so much looking forward to staying in Craftsbury for a few weeks. I’ve been traveling a lot. It took me three flights to get back from Finland, two the next day to Virginia, and then two five days later to get back to Boston. I haven’t really lived in one place and called it home for five weeks. I love Craftsbury, and I wanted that.

But, I’m trying to focus on the positives, and I’m sure once I get on snow in Quebec I’ll have a lot of fun. After all, skiing is what I love.