This is me at 10 o’clock on Friday morning, after I had taken advantage of our day off from work to rollerski up to Sertig, a small village (not even really village) outside of Davos.
I did not look like this at 10 o’clock today. Emboldened by my rollerski explorations so far, I decided that I would rollerski up to the parking area for the field site we were visiting today, and meet my co-workers when they arrived by car.
“I’ll meet you up there tomorrow,” I told Gunther as we wrapped up prep yesterday afternoon in the office. “I’ll leave a bag for you to bring in the car.”
“Oh, so…. wait, what?”
“You drive up there, and I’ll meet you there.”
“Ah! So you want to go with the bike!”
“No, no, not the bike. I’m going to rollerski.”
“You’re going to rollerski. Really. That’s brave.”
You see, where we were working today was on the flanks of Schwazhorn, a biggish mountain on one side of Fluelapass, a road leading from Davos and Graubunden over into the Engadin region of Switzerland. It gains quite a bit of elevation and is twisty and turny. It’s very popular for people to drive in their cars or campers or motorcycles, and fairly popular for people to ride on their road bikes. I haven’t seen any rollerskiers.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “I’m going to ski Fluelapass and meet you up there.”
“That’s going to take a while!” Gunther insisted. “When are you going to start?”
“It’s not that long,” I replied. “It’s only 12.5 kilometers. I think it will take an hour and a half. So I’ll just meet there.”
For reference, the car was leaving the office at 7 a.m. and driving the same 12.5 kilometers. Meanwhile Julia, our PhD student and boss, insisted that it was in fact 22 kilometers, and no amount of showing her google maps could convince her otherwise.
“Be careful!” she kept saying.
“We’ll pick you up along the way,” Gunther said. “You’re not going to make it to the top.”
“Yes I am,” I would say. “I’ll beat you there. See you at site 10!”
As they expressed over and over again how crazy I was, I thought: calm down, people. I used to do this for a living, more or less. I can handle this. I have done things way crazier and more hardcore than this. And I survived Climb to the Castle, how much worse can this be?
Climb to the Castle is five miles long with an average eight percent grade. This is the profile of Fluelapass, starting from my office.
Plus, of course, there’s the issue that back when I did Climb to the Castle, I was training for skiing full time and was in much better shape. But anyhow.
Here’s how my day went:
4:45 a.m.: wake up, shovel down coffee and a slice of bread
5:10 a.m.: set off on bike to the office
5:45 a.m.: arrive at office. Pack bag for fieldwork, leave it at Gunther’s desk
6:00 a.m.: clip into rollerskis and head out of the parking lot. Turn left onto Fluelapass. The road is flat at the beginning; V2 because I know I won’t be able to earlier.
6:20 a.m.: look for the Gasthaus Alpenrose, where I know I will have gone a little more than 4 km. It is not anywhere to be seen. The climb has already really begun, I am getting into a V1 rhythm; I’m not even fresh anymore, but I’m not exhausted. Stop and drink some water.
6:30 a.m.: Gasthaus Alpenrose. That took longer than I thought. Drink some more water. I’m a third of the way there; if I keep these splits it will take me an hour and a half, just as I had predicted. I wish I was going faster but I’m feeling okay.
6:40 a.m.: Holy crap, I just hit the first section of 10 % grade. All of a sudden, things are getting really hard. I stop and eat a granola bar.
But at the same time, I am sinking into the fatigue and it feels good. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything that made me tired like this – hiking doesn’t do it. At first when you begin to tire, your technique actually gets more efficient; there’s no energy to waste. I can feel my skis humming along with each push. I know my weight is in the right places, and I’m applying myself as well as ever. The months of not rollerskiing aren’t killing me as much as I thought.
6:50: a.m.: on a little flatter section (still not really flat) I’m trying to V2, to take the stress off my V1 muscles and use my upper body a little more. Very quickly thought, I have to break back into climbing. I ski a curve around a hotel and then a section that I hadn’t realized would be so brutal – a long, brutal, grinding, steep uphill along a straightaway. Cows munch at grass on either side, turning skittish at the noise of my poles as I pass. I have to repeatedly take a break for a few seconds; my body is now being punished for all that not-rollerskiing, and it can’t keep up V1 for an hour straight.
7:00 a.m.: begin looking for the Wagerhus hut, where I know I will have gone 8 kilometers. Instead, faced with some crazy steep switchbacks. I want to cut the corners, but a dump truck and a camper are coming so I stick to the edges of the road.
7:10 a.m.: Finally, I hit Wagerhus. The bend in the road as the next switchbacks begin is like a godsend – it doesn’t look flat, but it feels flat! I am V2ing like it is a “get out of jail free” card. I feel fast; I feel efficient, compared to the slog that has become V1.
7:11 a.m.: It gets too steep and I’m back to V1. I no longer feel that satisfying hum as I push off of each ski. Instead, I’m getting bogged down, my technique is falling apart completely, my skis are sometimes slapping the pavement. My strides are short and sometimes lopsided.
Furthermore, I have four kilometers to the top, and I doubt that I will be able to keep the brag I made to Gunther, that I will beat him and Sofia to the top. They were meeting in the office at 7 a.m.; depending on how efficient they were at getting out the door, they might already be on the road, driving up towards me.
I’m embarrassed at the prospect of having them catch me. I push through, not taking breaks anymore even though it would probably be more efficient to do so. The grade is undulating back and forth between 8 and 10 percent.
7:20 a.m: I can hear that the car coming up behind me is going slowly, and I know that it is my co-workers. They have caught me. As the white SLF Skoda pulls up alongside, Sofia rolls down her window and says, “Good job!” Then they are past.
Maybe they’ll let me finish the ski, I think, and meet me at the top. I can see the top – it is a few straightaways and a few switchbacks away, but it’s clearly in my sights and I am sure it is just ten minutes away. I yearn for that feeling of cresting the final uphill and beginning to roll down the other side, the reward that tells you, you skied up this whole damn thing, and now there’s no more up left.
But then the car pulls on to the shoulder ahead of me and Gunther steps out. These are two people who know what good skiing looks like – Gunther has a neighbor from home in Austria who is on the national team; Sofia is from Sweden. I smile as I take the last few strides and take off my poles.
“You were organized this morning!” I tell Gunther. “I thought you’d be ten more minutes, and then I would have been at the top.”
He agrees. I haven’t won our little bet, but he still respects the effort. I was close enough.
7:30 a.m.: We start hiking towards the field sites. Fifteen minutes later, we’re there, and I take data for Sofia and Gunther at the first site so that I can snarf down some breakfast while I scribble the numbers. At the next site, it’s my turn to take data. I squat down, put my face in the willow, and begin counting leaves and fruits.
9:00 a.m.: “What are you eating?” Gunther asks.
“Emergency chocolate,” I reply.
“So you are tired,” he says.
Yes. I have to admit it, I am. No coach would recommend doing fieldwork as recovery from a rollerski that gained over 2,000 feet of elevation. But it’s okay: I will survive this day of work. Maybe I won’t be hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat, as I sometimes am on the days when my workouts come in the afternoon, when I’m already done with work.
But I can settle in to the exhaustion a little, too. It’s a different way of approaching recovery, by working on something else and crowding out the thoughts about how tired you are. It’s a division of your brain and your body that is unlike anything you’d experience if your whole life was training.
And I like work. I like Sofia and Gunther and we have fun counting our silly little plants. We pause to take a nap in the sun; at 9:30, Gunther is already starving, so he eats his entire lunch as Sofia and I half-sleep. Sofia hates Tuesdays, thinks they are the worst day of the week. I’m no worse off than else today.
10:00 a.m.: And here I am, thinking about my ski. I had accomplished something before most people had even started their day; I’m still feeling the glow of satisfaction from a job well done, a morning spent exerting myself.
But I’m frustrated, too. I wanted to ski over the top of the pass, and I want those ten minutes that I didn’t have at the end. And so I turn this into a goal. I am going to ski this pass a few more times before I leave Davos at the end of the summer, and in the meantime, I’m going to get fitter and more efficient. I’m not going to run out of power like I did today.
I’m going to ski the pass starting at 6 a.m., and I’m going to beat Gunther to the top even if he’s driving the car.
I’m empowered with a goal, and the knowledge that it’s going to be a great summer.