Planoiras Part 2: Seeking Confidence and Resilience

Note: This is the second of two posts about my racing in Lenzherheide, Switzerland, this weekend. For the first post, click here.

Saturday morning I woke up to one of those emails you don’t want to get at the start of the weekend. A paper I had submitted was rejected. Argh!

This happens all the time if you are an academic, and I think I have generally gotten slightly better at dealing with it. I was able to find some positives: the paper did go out for review (rather than getting rejected by the editor without review, something that is quite common), and all of the reviewers and editors agreed the premise was interesting. It’s not like they were telling me I, or my science, was garbage.

But it was still very disappointing. It was the chapter of my dissertation that I felt the most ownership over: the thing I felt like I had come up with all by myself and then convinced my supervisor and co-author to pursue, and that had turned out to have really interesting results. I had sent it to one of the journals I admire most in my field, and to have it published there would have felt like an incredible milestone.

Luckily, I was meeting some friends for a ski that morning, so after reading the reviewer comments over breakfast I hopped on the train and got some beautiful, sunshiney snow time. Glide. Good therapy.

Later in the day, I skyped with Steve, who is traveling for work. We chatted about a bunch of different things before I even remembered to mention the paper rejection. Then he asked if I was ready for my ski race the next day.

“I’m trying to be,” I said. “But it’s hard. The weather is going to be pretty terrible. It’s just blah.”

“You’re paper got rejected and now everything is painted gray,” he responded. “I know how you will be. The weather is gray and I don’t like it. The skiing is gray. This breakfast is gray, yuck. Gray gray gray.”

I laughed, because he was right, kind of. I definitely get that way. Sometimes when one bad thing happens, it leads me right down a chain of negativity until everything seems overwhelming, bad, and unsolvable. I can’t seem to see anything good in the world.

But I also laughed because it’s something I’m working on. For Christmas I bought myself Kara Goucher’s new book, “Strong.” It’s about building confidence. Some of the presentation is a little too girly for me, but there are aspects of the book that I love. It all works because Goucher is completely honest about her struggles, and she’s easily convincing when she relates how mental training helped her.

One section is about reframing negative thoughts and turning them into strengths, and this is something I really liked.

Here’s an example. These days when I go to a ski race, I’m aware that I probably don’t train as much as most of the people who are around me – people who look all pro in their shiny suits, who own the newest skis and boots and poles, and who probably poured a couple hundred Francs into their wax jobs. I certainly don’t have as much time on snow, because I live in Zurich, and most of them live much closer to the mountains, if not actually in the mountains.

As I see all these people warming up and putting their skis on the line, sometimes I feel like a complete imposter. What am I doing here!? These people are so much better prepared than me! Look how fit they all look!

And, well, some of them are better trained. But physical preparation is not the only thing that makes you go fast. You could have done the best training this year, but if you show up at a race and don’t work hard, you’re probably not going to reach your goals.

I work really, really hard in races in order to make up for my lack of ski-specific (or some years even total…) training. I try to target my effort in the ways that will help the most, take advantage of my love of downhills and corners, and attempt to finish the race having spent every bit of energy I have.

And so when there was an exercise in “Strong” to write down a common negative thought you have and reframe it, this is what I picked.

“Everyone here has done better training than you,” I wrote down for the negative thought.

“You know how to get the most out of the training you’ve done,” I wrote down as a new mantra.

I hadn’t really thought about things that way before, but it felt good.

Did it help me in my race on Sunday? I don’t know. The race still wasn’t that fun, but I did stay focused even though I was performing worse than I had hoped. N=1. Maybe I would have anyway.

A few days later, I was listening to the Science of Ultra podcast when an episode came on about mental training. The host describing the RISE approach: recognize, identify, switch, and execute. His example for recognizing your emotions hit home.

“First, recognize the thoughts you’re having. Be aware of negative, unhelpful, and destructive thoughts…. maybe you’re going much slower than expected, and disappointed that you’re not going to make your goal time, or embarrassed that so many people are passing you.”

As I wrote in part 1 of this blog post, I need to clarify why it is that I race. Skiing doesn’t really have goal times (one of the things I love about it!) and you never know who will show up at a given marathon. Setting results-based goals seems particularly futile when you’re in a field of competitors you don’t know anything about, and I wouldn’t say that I am driven to race because I think I’ll do “well”. I don’t train full time. I’m getting worse at skiing. I know that.

And yet, that embarrassment when lots of people pass me is real. That’s something I need to recognize. Even though results are not the main reason I do this, it feels bad.

What’s funny about all of this is that I have been thinking about mental resilience a lot lately, but not because of sports. Instead, I’ve been thinking about it in my life as a scientist.

Finishing my dissertation was really hard, and I still don’t feel like I’m fully recovered. It took a lot out of me intellectually and emotionally. Two months after handing it in, I sit down at the computer to write on one of the other papers I owe my boss and I just can’t. The words don’t come out. The ideas I had disappear.

And even before that, sometimes I get into these negative spirals. Everything gets painted gray. Science has highs and lows and sometimes I feel like I’m swinging wildly between them from one day to the next. Going through something like a dissertation doesn’t help you deal with all the “normal” lows like getting a paper rejected.

I love science, and I want to keep doing it. But I need to do everything I can to be healthy.

And so when I was at the British Ecological Society annual meeting in Birmingham, England, in December, I headed to a lunchtime workshop about mental resilience in academia.

I was relieved to see that the room was full of people. I wasn’t weak for thinking I needed help in this department. Apparently, this was something that everyone thought sounded like a lifeline. Including people I recognized and admired.

Some things we talked about I already knew. Others I hadn’t thought about, or not in the same way. One of the latter was the instruction to recognize and accept your emotions.

“Sometimes we think that resilience is bouncing back, getting over it and soldiering on,” the workshop organizer said. “But there’s a danger in that. You need to recognize and deal with your emotions, with how you feel about the bad things you’re experiencing. If you bury them in an effort to just ‘soldier on’, that’s not going to work in the long run. That’s not resilience.”

All of these things – confidence, recognition, resilience – seem tied together for me, even though I’m not doing a good job of explaining why. But even though I’m exhausted by my PhD and frequently overwhelmed, I think that thinking about all these things has made me more balanced in the last month or so.

Kara Goucher’s book is about keeping a confidence journal. The premise is that every day, you write down something specific, that you will remember immediately, and that will make you feel more confident when you go back and read it later.

I’ve enjoyed keeping a confidence journal so far. I always write something about the training/exercise session I did each day (or what was good about resting instead of training), and some days I write about science, too. Both sides of my life are places where I need to go back and find some extra confidence sometimes.

My weekend started off with a rejection, but it didn’t have to end that way. I recognized my disappointment and frustration with racing, but found the positive side in my journal entry.

My Ford Sayre ski coach, Scottie Eliassen, always had us talk about one thing that went well and one thing to improve on for next time after every race. This is what I channeled.

“I didn’t go fast, but dang I worked hard. My threshold HR is 177 and my average for the 25 k race was 175. Despite the snowstorm and feeling bad, I hit my process goal of not getting complacent and giving up. I kept pushing.”

Next time I’m about to race and I begin worrying that everyone is more fit than I am, maybe reading that message will help. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know how to get the best out of the training I’ve done.

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Planoiras Part 1: This Doesn’t Feel Fun (A Pity Party)

Note: this is the first of two posts about my racing in Lenzherheide, Switzerland, this weekend. It’s going to be a little negative. Tomorrow’s will be positive though, so stay tuned! (Edited to add: Part 2 is posted here.)

Every year, I have a giddy feeling as the snow starts to fall. That means it’s ski season! Usually I’ve been waiting more and more impatiently for months.

This year was no different. I had trained for a marathon and completed it in late October. After a few weeks of minimal exercise to let my body recover (and to let me finish writing my dissertation), I couldn’t wait to get on skis. I wanted to get moving again, but while running less than I had been in the months leading up to my marathon. I sought glide.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and it was a very warm early winter in much of Europe. The skiing got good about the time I headed home for Christmas. Back home in New England, folks had been skiing for weeks – but it rained the day after I got home and much of the snow melted, so I didn’t ski much there, either. Of course, there was a huge snowstorm the day I left. I just had horrible timing.

In the last month, I’ve had a few skis here and there, about two of which have been in good conditions.

Just as I had been dreaming, gliding on skis was bliss.

***

Every year since 2003 I’ve done at least a couple of ski races, and it would feel weird not to plan some into my winter. My first race of this year was the Planoiras 25 k skate point-to-point in Lenzerheide this weekend.

I’ve done the race a few times before. Last year, I was recovering from a major ankle injury. I entered only to realize partway through that my injury still significantly limited my range of motion. I couldn’t get the ankle flex I needed to skate at speed. Worse than that, by halfway through the race skating was getting painful, including acute sharp twinges in my ankle whenever I slipped in the icy conditions. I slowed way down and limped my way to the finish.

That was a super frustrating day – one of the most frustrating in my rehab process. It had been six months since the injury, and I thought I was recovered. Turns out, I wasn’t. I skated only minimally for the rest of the winter, licking my wounds and (luckily) enjoying classic skiing pain-free.

This year, just signing up for the race was a reminder of my injury. But I feel like I’m legitimately healed, so it actually brought a smile to my face. I am still a little bit wobblier on the left side when I do balance drills, but I haven’t had pain in months.

I recognized that I haven’t been on snow much this season; when I tried doing some skating intervals last week, I was floundering all over the place. So I didn’t have super high hopes for the race.

But I thought it would still feel triumphant: I would do a lot better than last year, and be able to actually ski an entire race without having to pull up short and walk it in.

***

There was basically nothing about the day that felt triumphant.

The weather forecast called for a major snowstorm, and I did my best to psych myself up. “You can’t just wait around for a race with perfect conditions,” I admonished myself. “You have to go race anyway. Enjoying nice weather is not what this is about.”

I think I did a pretty good job with my mental attitude. I had accepted that it wasn’t going to be a beautiful day in the mountains, and that things were going to be slow and sloppy. I was just going to make the best of things and ski hard.

I did try my best. But everyone just kind of skied away from me. I felt slow and ineffective; my legs felt like lead. The climbs were such a drag. The way my legs were burning, I felt like I should be moving like Jessie Diggins. But, ummm, I wasn’t. (Let’s leave it at that.)

At first I wondered if I’d just picked the completely wrong skis. I might have, but that couldn’t explain the way that I just felt weak, heavy, and slow. I didn’t have any zip.

And at some point, I started wondering, is this fun? Why do I do this?

I managed to push that question from my mind and stay pretty focused. I pushed hard, even though it didn’t make me go fast. Looking at my heart rate data afterwards, I was hovering right around my anaerobic threshold for an hour and 39 minutes straight, often going above it. I can’t say I didn’t try hard.

I crossed the line to no fanfare, not happy with how I skied technically or speed-wise. I had been snowed on for more than an hour and a half and I was wet and cold and bedraggled, the top of my head actually covered in a crust of snow.

The sun was literally not shining on my face.

***

A lot of things about the day didn’t make me feel happy. But the feeling afterwards, as I struggled through a 10-minute jog, developed a race hack, and then proceeded to fall asleep on the train (narrator: this never happens, she’s terrible at sleeping), did make me happy.

One thing I love about racing is the feeling of completely emptying the tank and knowing that you worked as hard as you possibly could, that you are physically 110% spent. That might make me a crazy person, but it is a rewarding feeling. And I think it’s one that a lot of people don’t experience often if at all. When I push myself that hard, I am proud of myself, proud that I can do it.

Regardless of how fast I go, having this relationship with my body. I can ask it to do this massive effort and it delivers. To me, that is an accomplishment.

***

As I skied around the course, I had pushed the questions out of my mind. But on the way I kept mulling over that question: is this fun?

It’s been a few days, and the mental tricks we play on ourselves have already come into force. I’m painting the race all rosy, proud of how hard I tried, thinking it wasn’t so bad.

But I do remember. While it was happening, it didn’t seem fun. At all. Except for a few scattered moments here and there, I wasn’t really enjoying myself.

It hurt, and not in a good way. I wasn’t getting any power or speed out of the burn I was laying into my legs. Pushing hard is rewarding especially when it gets you somewhere, but it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.

Then there’s the reality of racing as a woman in Switzerland.

I don’t want to offend anyone with what I’m about to write, but sometimes it is less fun than it could be.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that everyone is racing. Keep racing, masters men! Start racing, folks who are just getting into skiing! It’s fun and healthy and I am all for more people ski racing.

But just 40 of the 313 finishers in this year’s Planoiras were women, or 13%. I would go long stretches without seeing another woman, and men just ski and race differently than women. In my experience, we women are more likely to set a steady, even pace (don’t @ me: this is backed up by research). In my part of the race, we also often have better technique to go the same speed as the men –we aren’t as big and strong , so we get to go that fast by other means – and so it’s nicer to ski behind another woman. I will never get passed by a woman who sprints by me in an effort to not get “girled”, only to run out of steam in the middle of the trail later and then try to block me from passing once I catch up. It’s men who do that. The same ones who repeatedly ski over your skis and step all over your pole baskets, but then turn around and yell at you if you accidentally do the same thing to them even once.

Look, there are lots of great men racing out there who excellent to ski with. In fact, I ski around a lot of them a lot of the time! Thanks, guys! It would be lonely out there without you.

But what I mean by “it’s less fun than it could be” is that for the men who are maybe prone to ski like idiots or jerks, I don’t think that the gender imbalance in these races contributes to bringing out their best behavior.

The numbers of women are better in the U.S. in many long races. I checked some data and at last year’s City of Lakes Loppet, between the skate marathon and 20 k combined 166 of 684 racers were women, or 24%. In the Tour of Anchorage 50 k, 43 of 172 finishers were women, or 25%. In the Rangeley Lakes Loppet, 25% of the 80 finishers were women. And in the Boulder Mountain Tour 34 k in 2017, 178 of 534 finishers were women, or 33%.

That might not seem like a big difference – in none of these cases are anywhere near equal numbers of men and women competing in ski marathons – but the difference is meaningful.

Think about if one out of every four people around you is a woman, versus one out of every eight. You’d notice.

So as my legs burned and I floundered in the sections of soft snow, I’d periodically get annoyed at unnecessary, impolite race behavior. Like, chill out! We are not at the front of this race. We are the slow people. We’re all out here trying as hard as we can, and it’s just unnecessary to make other people’s race experience worse in your pursuit of that goal.

Afterwards, the thought stuck in my mind. If I could ski in a pack like this for an hour and a half – worrying all the time that my poles are about to get broken and I’m about to get tripped and land on my face – or I could go have a nice quiet ski by myself in the mountains somewhere, which one sounds like more fun?

***

Then there’s the fact that I’m only going to get slower.

I trained a lot more when I was 23 and 24 and well, kids, it’s all downhill from there. Especially when you live in the city and there’s no skiing within an hour.

I’m probably never going to improve at ski racing again. And despite all the process goals I can make and all the other reasons that I race, that might mean that ski racing is a little less fun. I’m a competitive person, and as hard as I try to let go of that and detach, it’s a little brutal to watch yourself do worse and worse. It’s embarrassing to admit that I have a little bit of ego in this. I’m mediocre, so there shouldn’t be vanity involved. But I’m only human.

***

This is a passing hissy fit. Okay, so I did a race and I felt slow. Grow up.

But as I kept thinking about it – does this make me happy, and if so, what about it does that? – I decided maybe it was important to actually consider those questions, instead of just doing a couple ski races every year because that’s what I’ve always done.

If I think about the answers to those questions – really think about them – then maybe it will feel less disappointing next time I feel slow and weak, or finish twenty places worse than the last time I did a race.

Maybe my next race will be in the sunshine, with perfect kickwax, and I won’t have been too incredibly stressed about work all week, and I’ll feel great and have fun! I sure hope so.

But even if that’s true, too, having the answers to those questions won’t hurt. I don’t have them yet. But I’m working on it.

Why do you race?

Maybe it’s a good conversation to have.

***

Part 2 is posted here.

Book Review: Spying On Whales by Nick Pyenson

My aunt sends us books for Christmas every year, a.k.a. the best kind of holiday presents. In this year’s box was Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson, and I sat down to start reading it that very night.

In some ways, I’m the perfect audience for this book. I’m interested in nature, natural history, and evolution, but I actually didn’t know much of anything about whales.

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Whale territory. You just can’t see them because they are under the water – as Pyenson discusses, this is one of the things that make these giant animals so mysterious and compelling.

In November I had gone on a whale-watching boat ride in northern Norway, and more or less everything I knew came from the Ukrainian guide on the boat. It wasn’t much, but before and after the trip, I thought whales were cool, when I thought about them at all.

If you are already a little obsessed with whales, then I think you’ll like the book too. All the facts are there for you to nerd out on.

9780735224568But Pyenson writes impressively well, and the book is never bogged down in this nerdery. Instead, it’s fun and adventurous. Chapters sometimes end in cliffhangers – I certainly couldn’t stop reading. And at times, it’s quite a moving read.

In the prologue, Pyenson describes how the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft are carrying whalesong into the outer reaches of the solar system. We may not understand what whales are saying, but we intuitively feel that they are intelligent and powerful – and that their communication is not only beautiful but probably important.

“They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting,” Pyenson writes of whales.

And yet, he continues, we know very little about whales, either the ones that live in our oceans today or the whales of the past.

I’ll admit: I didn’t actually really realize that.

Pyenson fills in details that I never knew I didn’t know, and certainly didn’t realize were so recently discovered. He discusses what things we still don’t know, and what mysteries will be exciting to solve. This book is filled with behavior, anatomy, and evolutionary history, as well as discussions of how all three connect to make a modern whale.

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, foundational biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote as the title of one of his essays.

In my fields – ecology and evolutionary biology – this is tossed back and forth. “Nothing in ecology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” an evolutionary biologist will say, scoffing at ecology as boring (yes, this has happened to me, in person).

“Well, nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of ecology,” a ecologist might retort.

Pyenson’s book is a great demonstration that both are true. In trying to piece together – literally, based on fossil fragments – how whales went from living on dry land to being the biggest animals in the oceans and indeed on the planet, ever, both ecology and evolution are needed. The two are woven together throughout the book as Pyenson describes working with one collaborator after another.

“The trip was an opportunity to push at the questions sitting on the edges of our disciplines, at the intersection of Ari’s understanding of behavior and local ecology, Jeremy’s grasp of physiology and biomechanics, and my background in paleontology and Earth history,” Pyenson writes at one point. “The basic questions about how whales do that they do require all these fields of understanding, and I’ve always thought the best way to answer them was through this Venn diagram of disciplines and personalities.”

Now that’s a scientific approach I admire, and he demonstrates that it’s fun, too. Minus the part at the whale slaughterhouse.

How does this approach deliver answers? Here’s an example question. If whales have gradually evolved to be bigger and bigger, why aren’t they even bigger still? That evolutionary question has an ecological answer.

The first two-thirds of the book are about the past and the present of whales. But my favorite part was the last third, about the future of whales, and of us. Whales live a very long time, sometimes two hundred years. There is a beautiful description of all that a 200-year-old whale has seen in its lifetime.

And then, a description of what today’s whales might see in the future, things that you and I will not live to see.

“Any bowheads living today do so in a liminal gap between a familiar past and a potentially unrecognizable future,” Pyenson writes of climate change in the Arctic. “A bowhead calf born today will live in an Arctic that, by the next century, will be a different world than that experienced by all of its ancestors.”

Maybe that sounds trivial – like, duh, climate change is happening fast – but after reading a hundred pages about all of the different environments that whales have encountered through their long evolutionary history, it is powerful when you reach this point.

And that is one of the things that kept me reading this book. It is peppered with fun facts – large baleen whales grow at a rate of a hundred pounds a day before reaching maturity, dang, that seems impossible! – but also with profound observations and good writing.

Finally, as a field ecologist, I really enjoyed Pyenson’s descriptions of fieldwork trips. He takes us to Chile, Panama, Iceland, and Antarctica, as well as more familiar-to-Americans spots like California and North Carolina. All of his descriptions of the challenges and successes of fieldwork, the camaraderie between colleagues, and even that one wonderful-but-definitely-weirdo collaborator (we all have at least one), feel authentic.

If you like science and nature writing, and compelling nonfiction in general, I think you’ll like this book. I did. Thanks Lizzie!