let’s talk about books.

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March has been National Reading Month. I don’t put much emphasis on these months and days (although I did recently enjoy National Swedish Waffle Day), simply because everything seems to be national this month or national that day. I didn’t even realize it was National Reading Month until partway through the month. But it brought back memories: I remember back in fifth grade we had a competition with the fourth grade class to see who could read more books in a month. The rule was that the book had to be more than 100 pages and I think we had to check them with a teacher. I can’t remember the exact number, but I think I read over 20 books that month. Those were they days, when the only homework was a couple of easy math problems and reading a book of your own choosing!

I don’t get to read so much anymore, but I really try to. Reading takes you to other worlds and I also know for sure, 100%, that it makes my own writing better. These days I read more fiction than anything else, when I do read, because reading scientific papers for work makes you pretty weary of anything complicated. So fantasy is a nice change.

I recently ordered a big box of books from Amazon and am depressed about how long it will take me to get through them, but opening that box was the most exciting thing that happened to me that day (week?). I was giddy with possibility.

What have you read this month? Here’s what I’ve read through, with links to Powells where you can buy them packaged not in a terrible warehouse somewhere” (I also listened to Radiolab’s “Brown Box” episode!):

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared: A great story by a new Swedish author that I picked up in the airport on the way to Sochi, actually. It’s a quick and easy read with an incredible sense of humor. It features mobsters, an elephant, most of the important political figures of the 20th century, and a lot of dynamite, plus the protagonist who is 100 years old. I recommended it to Nat who sent me a text at one point that said something like “this book is amazing!” High praise.

Four Fish: An amazing nonfiction work by Paul Greenberg. As soon as I started, I was hooked: he described his childhood growing up in Connecticut and how fishing had been an incredibly outlet for him. The book goes on to highlight the history and science of four fish (salmon, cod, sea bass, and tuna) particularly important as human food, and question how we can manage our fish appetite without driving these species to extinction. But all the while it is interspersed with emotion and feeling about Greenberg’s love of fishing. It includes a great line about catching a yellowfin tuna during a stormy outing:

“Congrats,” said Steve.

“Thanks,” I said, and vomited.

This is one of those books that makes me want to be a writer so badly that I’m almost willing to give up science, jump ship and try, despite all the challenges. I want my life to be writing a book like this.

Mehar: My amazing uncle Chris, one of a total of four amazing uncles, has been working on a chapter story about a little girl named Mehar. For a while he was sending the chapters to me and my cousins one at a time as he finished them. They were so fun! I was in awe of his writing and his ability to come up with a whole universe for Mehar to live in. This month, I was visiting friends in Lillehammer who had a five-year-old daughter, Greta. I began wondering if the stories would be appropriate for her, so I re-read them. It was just as great as the first time! Chris is working on getting them all into one doc and I hope that the whole world will be able to read it one day. (And, no, they weren’t right for Greta – she doesn’t like rule-breaking or scary things, so maybe in a few years she’ll be able to deal with the really very sinister bad guys. Not right now though.)

I also spent a lot of time reading out loud to Greta. I won’t list all the kids’ books here, but the very best one, which I adorrrrrreeeeee (I remember reading it to her last time I visited!) was Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. It’s one of those books so clever and uproarious that the adult reading it enjoys it just as much if not more than the kid. It inspired us to write our own story “Goldilocks and the two dragons” which we also illustrated ourselves, © Lillehammer, Norway, 2014.

With those in the bag, I’m starting The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel by Haruki Murakami. It is in fact the first way I ever heard of Murakami: I read a review of this book in the New York Times. It was when I was living in Craftsbury, and I went to search for the book at the library. They didn’t have it, so I got Kafka on the Shore instead, and loved it. I’ve since heard people say they don’t like specific Murakami books, but I read and loved 1Q84 and am excited to finally dig into another huge strange Murakami saga. I’m only two chapters in but for sure, I have been bitten by the bug already.

Finally, this doesn’t count as reading, but I’ve listened to some great episodes of the New Yorker fiction podcast (among others in my stable of podcasts…). The format is this: the fiction editor selects someone whose work has recently been published in the magazine, and asks them to choose a story, any story, from the New Yorker archive to read out loud and discuss. The podcasts and stories are the perfect length to listen to on a train or while traveling, and they have the double benefit of introducing me to some stories by great authors from before I was born, and introducing me to people who are writing interesting short fiction right now. Besides being entertaining, it’s given me lots of ideas.

Have you read anything great? Please tell me. In case, you know, I develop more spare time and can read it.

paper!

I’m excited to announce that I have a new paper in print! It is about the cushion plant Silene acaulis and responses to simulated climate change in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. My supervisor, Juha Alatalo, is the first author and organized the experiments, and I had the opportunity this winter to do the data analysis and help with the paper writing. I also went through the process of responding to the reviewer comments and fixing up the paper for final publication. Now it’s out! At SpringerPlus, which is an open-access journal so everyone can read it for free.

Check it out here or download a PDF!

It is funny because I didn’t help with the fieldwork at all on this paper. BUT…. my housemate Quim from the summer in Davos was working on Silene and I helped him for a day in the field. So I do actually know what the plant looks like at least and a little bit about it! Working on Silene can take you to places like this:

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Where you are out in the big open but staring at little tiny things (Quim on the right, my Switzerland supervisor Christian Rixen on the left):

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I will see some Silene acaulis in my own fieldwork coming up this summer.

And as it happens, Quim is visiting Uppsala right now for a meeting about his work! So I’m off to meet him now for a tour of the botanical gardens and a nice fika. It’s great to see old friends!

oslo.

I had a great time in Oslo the last few days! One of the best things was staying with my friend Knut, who is great company and also made sure that my stay was easy and fun.

Yesterday he headed out of the city to go see his mom, so my stay culminated in an end-of-season party at the venue last night which was really super fun. I am not feeling so hot this morning, but I’m in the Oslo airport and it has been pretty hilarious to see all the biathletes catching their flights out and looking at least as bad as I do. So instead of writing something, I’ll start by just posting a slideshow. The mass start race yesterday was really exciting and picturesque! Click to enlarge.

I’m not sure if you can tell, but Martin Fourcade turned the final roller into a jump and got some air on his way into the stadium! It was I think my favorite of the ways he has ever celebrated a win – more joyful, less egotistical bravado.

I like to call the last photo in the set “goodbye biathlon season.”

birken.

Well, this is not as exciting of a post as I was anticipating. I spent Friday evening waxing up my skis here in Lillehammer. Nothing fancy, just some HF7 and binder ironed in to the kick zone. After extensive consultation with Erik, who I am staying with, we decided that for the Birkebeiner it was impossible to tell whether it would be klister conditions or hardwax, so I packed a bag of goodies and figured I would wax once I got to the start and could scope out the situation.

I woke up at 4 a.m. to eat some yogurt, and Erik was up half an hour later and drove me to catch the 5 a.m. bus from Håkans Hall in Lillehammer to Rena with the Lillehammer Skiklub. I slept most of the way there and we arrived shortly before 7 a.m. I was set to start around 9 a.m.

As we got in the car in the morning, Erik had said something like, “just so you know, NRK was reporting that a meteorologist said there were such high winds that organizers should think carefully about whether they were going to send people over the mountains.”

You see, the Birkebeiner is not like the Vasaloppet – it is an extreme experience! The course climbs to almost 3,000 feet and spends a lot of time in the mountains. Bad weather there is not atypical. Participants have to carry a 3.5kg backpack to symbolize the weight of the baby in the old story the race is based on, but also because they must carry food, drink, an extra shirt, pants, jacket, and wax with them. Things in the mountains can get crazy.

Anyway, when we arrived in Rena we learned that the race had been delayed an hour so organizers could continue to assess the weather at the top of the course. I was somewhat dismayed because I hadn’t planned for this and an extra hour meant an extra hour of when I should be eating, only I didn’t really have any “extra” food, just what I had brought to tide me over to the normal start time.

After the hour of deliberating, though, the race was canceled completely. I was sad but at this point honestly I had sort of begun expecting it, so I didn’t feel quite as dismayed or furious as the Norwegian skiers around me seemed to be. We waited for everyone else to come back to the bus and headed back to Lillehammer. Erik picked me up back at Håkans Hall around 10 a.m. As I walked back in the door of the house, I told his daughter Greta, “it only took me an hour to ski back here! I won!”

All day she asked me whether I was really, really sad. I kept saying no. I mean, yeah, I was sad. I was really looking forward to the Birken. But this wasn’t the defining point of my season and honestly, while I feel a lot better than I did before the Vasaloppet, I’m still not very fit. Instead of racing, I have been hanging out with the Stange family and Erik and Emily have made sure that I have the opportunity to ski every day. It’s a different trip than I was envisioning when I hopped on the train, but it has been perfectly lovely in a different way.

Many Norwegians don’t feel the same way. I wrote a short article for FasterSkier summing up the controversy around the race cancellation, which you can read here. Wind gusts reached almost 50 mph and the wind chill was at -14, but there were windows of more okay weather and some people skied over the mountain anyway. They said it was fine, and that is what is pissing people off – the idea that maybe everything would have turned out okay.

As for me, I went for a pretty blustery ski today and was distinctly glad that I wasn’t racing, especially not in conditions that were significantly worse. Eh, well. You win some, you lose some, Norway.

I joked to U.S. biathlon coach Per Nilsson this weekend that I seem to be some sort of curse on races in terms of weather and snow conditions, and he wrote, “We see if it’s bad in Oslo, then you are not welcome to World Cup Biathlon anymore…”

springtime of my sverige.

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In less than a week I’ll be competing in another big ski marathon. I know, I know. After the Vasaloppet, you really want to do this again, Chelsea? Well yes, I do. It’s the Birkebeiner. I’ve been excited abut the Birken for…. years. This year is no exception. I’m ready – to do whatever is possible for my body on that day, to participate, to have a great time. I know that it can’t possibly take 7 hours, since it’s only just over 50 k. So that right there means I will have significantly more fun.

But I digress – I’m going to be competing in a ski marathon. It feels surreal: these days in Uppsala have been warm and sunny. Spring came weeks ago and is not going anywhere. Winter is a distant memory.

And so in the midst of a long run I found myself standing in this magical clearing asking: where did the snow go? What did you do with it, Sweden? Which god have we offended and what can I sacrifice to appease him, or her? I’ll do it.

Don’t get me wrong, spring is lovely. It has been painful to work sitting at my desk all day, looking out the window at the sun that washes over everything and wishing that it could wash over me. I’ve been sneaking in a run here, a bounding session there, as I try to stay somewhat fit for the Birken.

Today I finally had time for a big run, and hit up my favorite place in Uppsala, Hågadalen. Just to get there, I had to make my way on a bike/pedestrian path full of happy people who were thrilled to be out in the spring weather. It was 50 degrees F and everyone was still bundled up, as if they were excited for spring but just weren’t quite sure whether they could trust it or not.

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And then, finally, I was in Håga, navigating my way through the puddles and over the rocks. I adore trail running, adore adore it. There’s something spiritual about being out there in the quiet, absorbing the peace all around you, but also focused so acutely on the little details of the treacherous ground. And yet you can’t be focused too hard. The best thing about trail running is that you achieve a sort of trance state, where you are noticing the bumps and potential trip-ups almost through your peripheral vision and your stride automagically adjusts to take them in. You’re looking, but you’re not looking. It goes deep.

For me the singletrack of Håga is almost like a cathedral, a place which distills and amplifies all those little things about trail running. The quiet is so quiet – you are surrounded my mosses and lichens which soak up the sound in their softness. And the trail is so nimble and twisty. It’s muddy and rocky and rooty and sometimes the best way is to just head off through the heather. I never come back without a scratch as a souvenir.

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And so I was happy, so happy, to be out running in Hågadalen for the first time this year. I had this sense that I belonged. It was magical, especially as I headed toward Rödmossen, where that top photo was taken. Even within Håga, which I already love, Rödmossen is one of my very most favorite places. It seems almost mystical with all that moss and lichen, a spongy sort of forest that can absorb anything. Maybe it would just soak you right up into it. I follow trail signs but always have this nagging sense that the forest has a will of its own, that it’s its own being with wishes and plans. What if there’s something out there switching the signs around? The boggy, fenny, rocky forest would make the perfect labyrinth. I can imagine twisting and turning your way through, stuck forever not knowing which direction you were going. I always think that this area would be a fantastical place for a fairy tale, and indeed these landscapes must have inspired Norse mythology.

These slightly foreboding feelings are seldom at the front of my mind, though. The forest is a happy place. And today it was a happy day, the sun seeping through the trees and me and the forest just enjoying springtime together. And yet – I didn’t belong there. It’s early March! It’s not time for this. No, it is time for skiing. I have had a few snowless late winters in my life – Eugene, Oregon; Montpellier, France – but this is something on a whole new level. It has been spring for weeks and going to Norway will be like a culture shock: white? snow? Spring is lovely, but this was not what I was expecting from Sweden.

It’s the hand I’ve been dealt, though, so I might as well go about enjoying it. Starting in Hågadalen.

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ten ways assholes can obstruct you in the vasaloppet.

I made a joke about writing this as a blog post, and Simon sounded very enthusiastic. so here it is.

1) Well, what do you think? The most basic trick in the book: he can decide to switch tracks and then not look at the track he’s switching into. So then he skis right onto your skis while he’s doing it. (Women can also do this, but since women make up a very small portion of the Vasaloppet field, everyone who cut me off was a dude. Hence, from here on, I’m just going to say “he”.)

2) A little bit worse, he can look over, see you, and then switch into your track anyway, as if he just doesn’t give a shit. “My Vasaloppet is more important than your Vasaloppet,” you can see him thinking.

3) He can ski on your pole. Even though I was consciously keeping my poles as close to my body as I could, this had to have happened well over a dozen times. Somehow, even on flat sections, in the tracks.

4) Some people just don’t want to stay in the tracks – after all, the tracks are full and the trains are just not moving fast enough for their blazing fast skiing. So they ski in between the tracks, knocking people’s elbows and generally getting in the way as they go.

5) Downhills. A lot of people in the Vasaloppet do their training by rollerskiing on the flat Swedish roads, and have no idea how to ski downhill. So they’re going, going, going on the flats, pretty fast, and then they get to the downhills and whoooooaaa!! snowplow!

6) ….or worse, they just fall down. That’s definitely getting in the way. It doesn’t help that some folks have old floppy boots from about a decade earlier that don’t give them any ankle support.

7) I saw a few (mostly older) guys with such strange form that their pole plants were reallllllly, reallllllly wide. Like, they could be in the track beside you, but their poles were getting tangled up with where you were planting your poles or maybe even your skis! That’s not a very efficient way to ski 90 k… ouch. it hurts to watch.

8) This one’s a stretch, but all those people who dropped their water bottles or feed containers in the trail. It’s not very nice to ski over a water bottle, or to have to suddenly do a little bit of a hop to avoid one. Come on! Keep the trail clean! At least throw your plastic bottles and gel containers to the side!

9) Digging a gel out of their tights or drink belt: if your poles are still attached to your hands, you have to be careful with what you are doing with those hands! Poles start waving everywhere. More than once I thought I was going to break some guy’s pole that was sticking out like a start wand across my track as he tried to find the correct energy packet in his pants.

10) And finally, this maybe isn’t obstruction, but it is hilarious. At one of the feed stations a guy took a cup of blueberry soup, and then didn’t finish it. He made a gesture sort of like he was throwing it towards the trash can or the side of the trail… but instead he just threw it straight at me. So my whole right side was coated in blueberry soup for the rest of the race. Thanks, dude!

vasaloppet.

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at the finish. photo: Simon Evans via facebook.

I did the Vasaloppet yesterday.

I didn’t really want to do to the Vasaloppet. If you’re a connoisseur of this blog you’ll know how exhausted I was after the Olympics, and how I didn’t get to ski at all while I was there or even run much at all. I came home faced with the fact that I was signed up for the 90 k Vasaloppet, which was taking place in five days. My friends who are athletes recovered from the Olympics by doing things like sleeping 17 hours in a 24 hour window. I needed to do that too, but I couldn’t because I had neglected my school duties for three weeks, and I needed to be churning out statistics and paper sections. I felt horrible and dreaded, dreaded, dreaded the Vasaloppet.

So I asked my friends: should I do it? I laid out the pros and cons.

Knowing my friends, of course they all said do it. I pretty much knew that, subconsciously, when I asked them. Like me, they live for adventure. We are the kind of people who do not want to regret thing that were left not done, never tried. So I took their advice. I went.

Susan’s wax tech, Mattias, was there waxing for an elite team and offered to let me join them, and to do my skis. It was a totally amazing experience which I wrote about for FasterSkier, here. I am so, so, so grateful to Mattias and Robin. First, it was a blast to stay with the group, who were all great and fun people. Second, there’s no way I could have organized myself for this point-to-point extravaganza, and they just took care of everything for me, thank you thank you thank you. One of Robin’s cousins was even driving to Stockholm after the race and offered to wait for me to finish and then drop me in Uppsala on his way, instead of me having to wait a few hours and take a crowded train. Seriously, these people were so nice, and they made my life so much easier. Third, Mattias prepared amazing skis for me, as he usually does for people who are actually worthy of them, like Susan. Seriously, they were magical, and if it weren’t for them I almost certainly wouldn’t have finished. As a “retired” athlete there are a very declining number of times left in my life when anyone, let alone a World Cup tech, will wax my skis for me.

All of that is an experience that I would have missed if I hadn’t done the Vasaloppet this year. And that would have been a shame. I felt so welcome, like I basically never have the entire time I have been in Sweden. They were wonderful, wonderful people.

But for the race itself, meh. It was not fun. It was fun for a little while – the start and trying to weave my way through traffic was so exhilarating! – and then moderately fun for a long while. Imagine a ski marathon that you have done, a 50 k. Then imagine that you had already skied 3 hours before the start. They were three fairly enjoyable hours, for me, but any time you think “Yes! only 50 k left to go!” something is seriously fucked up. I felt like I was doing great, and I still had an entire marathon left to ski.

And then with 30 k left to go in the 90 k race, I hit the wall, hard. Once you use up your glycogen stores it’s very difficult, basically impossible, to come back. I still had a long, long way to go. It was one of the most discouraging and painful things I have done. But I knew I had to finish because people like Mattias and Robin had gotten me to the start and been so nice to take care of me. I couldn’t disappoint them by dropping out even though I couldn’t imagine how I was going to move my body across all that distance to the finish line. It took hours and those hours felt like a lifetime.

I skied 90 k without ever, once, seeing a familiar face. Other teams had stations for food and hot drinks and wax help, and even just cheering and moral support. My little Uppsala team did not, and Robin’s team was, of course, following him to the finish hours ahead of me. That’s the price of doing a race in a foreign country. When the going gets bad, it is really, really lonely. All of which creates a feedback and makes you feel even worse.

And then there were the conditions. For more than the last half of the race, it was snow that had been bought in, and it quickly broke down into slush. There were no tracks in some places, and there was deep slush in other that tripped up racer after racer. It was a mess. One Uppsala teammate said that it was the worst conditions he had seen at the race. A lot of people dropped out, apparently. Mattias texted me to say great job for finishing, and added, “the conditions was tuff”. All of which is to say, it was not at all enjoyable skiing and for sure contributed to my demise, although of course everyone else had it just as bad and so I can’t whine too much.

There’s parts of the race that I don’t even remember.

As I wrote in the FasterSkier piece, I was aiming for between 6 and 6 1/2 hours, but it took me over 7 to finish. Hundreds if not thousands of people passed me in those 30 k. This was not what I had envisioned. And yeah – we all have bad races. Bonking happens. It’s not like I was entitled to a perfect race. But this was so far outside of the realm of un-perfect that I just wasn’t prepared for it to be so bad.

Yesterday after I finished, I was in so much pain. Things that are normal for someone who has done even a normal-length ski marathon, 42 or 50 k. My back was a knotted mess, my hip flexors were shot, my calves were tight in weird places from trying to keep my skis going straight in the slush, in those long sections of trail where the tracks were completely gone. But there were other things, things that I didn’t know could hurt from skiing. At some point the tendonitis in my elbows, which bothered me back in 2011 but only when rollerskiing on pavement, flared up again. I developed a huge blood blister across my right palm and a bruise across the back of my left hand where the pole strap crosses. When I took off my boots there were strange marks which were painful to the touch on the top of my feet from where the laces gathered. My wrists, hands, and feet hurt.

When I woke up this morning, it was worse. Both my shoulders were sore but the right one – which I dislocated in 2010 – was noticeably worse. I propped myself up on my elbow to reach for my water bottle and a searing bolt of pain told me that I had better not do that. I gingerly rotated my arm around and found that the pain was taking away a quarter of my range of motion. I have been popping ibuprofen but I have no idea what’s going on – I didn’t crash or do anything traumatic to the shoulder. It’s just not right. As I wrote to a friend in an e-mail today, it hurts even to sleep.

I guess this is my punishment for disrespecting the Vasaloppet, for thinking you can cheat by not training, and somehow get away with it. The Vasaloppet is not something to be trifled with.

In one sense, I really wish that I had not picked this year as my Vasaloppet year. I don’t think I’ll come back to this race again, so this is my only memory of it. I had no illusions about even turning in a good time, but I did dream of celebrating as I crossed the finish line in Mora. I wanted to pull an Erik Bjornsen and do a rodeo pole-wave even though I finished in the middle of the field. I wanted to feel that rush. But in this race I felt so bad that I think I basically just coasted across the line. I felt shell-shocked. I wasn’t even absorbing the surroundings. It’s one of the only races I’ll ever do where there is a grandstand watching the finish line on main street – and I didn’t appreciate it.

If I had come some other year, some year when maybe I had to pay for a plane ticket to get here, there would have been no cheating in my prep. I’m sure the race still would have been very hard – a 90 k race is never not hard – but I probably would have had a more positive experience. I would have enjoyed it more.

Sometimes you have to question your attitude. I think that I’m invincible, that I can do anything – well, okay, I won’t do well in the Vasaloppet, but of course I’ll finish, it will just be slow but still fun! No, in fact, it’s not that simple. Some things you do for adventure are not good adventures. You don’t have to take every single opportunity as it comes – you can plan out how to have the best and most meaningful opportunities. Sometimes I sign myself up for too much just to get the experience, but then the experiences aren’t as great.

But, life is life, and this was my Vasaloppet, prep or no. Despite all the misery, I have some good memories too. Being part of a start of 15,800 skiers all going at once is quite a unique feeling that you can only get at this one place in the world. That’s something to be happy about, as is the feeling that I can be adopted by a community of nice Swedish people who don’t know me or even know anything about me. It’s a comfort.

Although part of me wishes I hadn’t gone, it’s not all of me. Good or bad, these are the memories I get to keep.