Norway and the Birkebeiner, 2017 Edition

This morning I had oatmeal for breakfast, and it made me think of Norway trips past and present.

On my first trip with the Ford Sayre team, Dan Nelson would make a huge pot of oatmeal every morning. It was good oatmeal (he often added apples, I think), but by the end of the trip I was sick of oatmeal.

On my most recent (I won’t say last!) trip with the Ford Sayre team, Tim and Margaret Caldwell making a huge pot of oatmeal every morning. Maybe it was because I was only there for half the length of the trip, but I never got sick of the oatmeal.

This trip was probably the best thing I will do all year, although sorry Caldwells, the oatmeal isn’t why. As Zurich has been from winter to summer and back again about five times since my mid-March trip to Lillehammer, those days seem far away. But before it gets further, I thought I should write something about it.

Every three to five years or so Ford Sayre (my home club from high school, based in Hanover, NH) runs a trip to Oslo and Lillehammer at the end of the winter. There’s always one or two racing experiences during the trip, but of a lot of the point is to ski as much as possible and see how the sport is woven into the fabric of the culture. Seeing how active everyone is “gives credibility to what the skiers do in the club program – they are no longer the ones who are different from their friends in high school,” Ford Sayre head coach Scottie Eliassen said after the 2010 edition of the trip.

There are plenty of places in North America with a high density of cross-country skiers, but seeing young and old and everyone in between get out on their skis (and on skis of such a wide variety of vintages!) on a random weekday is certainly eye-opening. It’s not just seeing how many fast Norwegian kids there are at a Wednesday night club race or U16 Championships; it’s also seeing middle-aged moms out there with technique not so different than my mom’s ski technique, but getting out there most days of the week chatting as they ski along.

That’s what we’re all supposed to take back home with us.

This year, I was lucky enough to help out with coaching and wax support on their trip. Since I am already based in Europe, the logistics were simple.

I flew to Oslo on a Tuesday and took the train up to Lillehammer. After getting picked up at the station, I quickly said hi to a few of the athletes and hopped on my skis, skating up to the Olympic stadium (which was already partly set up for the finish of the Birkebeiner) and then back down again. I had to navigate a crowd of spectators walking along the ski trail up to the ski jump, which was hosting a World Cup that very day. Welcome to Norway!

Even though it was warm, the skiing was fantastic and I felt that same joy I do every time I clip into skis after a while of being off snow. I glided along, but also paused to admire the incredible Scandinavian late-afternoon sunlight coming through the birch trees. I was giddy with the feeling of freedom, of having newly landed on a break from my daily work life. But the landscape also bestows an incredible sense of calm. Experiencing these two feelings at once is quite special.

After a shower I headed over to dinner where I got to reunite with the whole crew, who I had last seen when I was on waxing duty at the opening Eastern Cups of the season in in Craftsbury and at some practices over the Christmas break.

As I was about to experience all week, the joy that I felt zipping up the hill was nothing compared to the wonder of the Ford Sayre athletes experiencing Norway for the first time.

Apparently I only make this face when skiing. (Photo: Margaret Caldwell)

I hesitate to say that I’m jaded, because that would imply that I didn’t enjoy Norway. I absolutely love traveling and skiing around Lillehammer is one of my very favorite things. I posted a photo on Instagram after a long ski and one friend messaged me, “you’re smiling so much you look like a different person.” It’s literally transformative compared to my normal existence.

But the reality is that I have lived in Europe for almost five years now, and my perspective is different. It was at least my seventh trip to Lillehammer, the first having been when I was seven years old. I take for granted how things work: I’m excited to experience them, but I know to some extent what I’m going to get. I guess you could say I’m “experienced”, or just, “almost 30.”

Seeing the high school athletes glimpse everything for the first time was, by far, the coolest thing I’ve done all year, and it will be hard to top for the rest of 2017. It made me appreciate every activity that we did in an extra way. And it was a special bonus to have Jørgen Grav around to obligingly answer our silly questions and point out things that we might not have even noticed.

The week was filled with long skis and varyingly effective kickwax. I loved every second of it. I spent time skiing with a lot of different people, from the high school athletes to Scottie Eliassen (who, despite the fact that she’s one of my dearest friends and role models, I basically never get to actually ski with – we’ve gone hiking or running together more often in the past five years than skiing!) and the Caldwells, Jørgen, Chris and Mary Osgood, and my partner, the “other” Chris.

Skiing up to Pellestova with Margaret. (Photo: maybe Mary?)

The day before the Birkebeiner, we tried rather unsuccessfully to do a short ski by walking up the road behind the ski jump and hopping on the trails there. The walk ended up being much loner than we expected… maybe two kilometers? Tim Caldwell and Chris Osgood were uninterested in walking back down the road, and I agreed, so we ditched the group and skied over to the stadium and then down the hill to town. By then, the trail hadn’t been recently groomed, but had been through several melt-to-slush, freeze-to-rock cycles. We gingerly made our way down the trail and I’m not going to lie, it was a bit terrifying.

But when we finally hit the giant field below the ski jump, there was perfect crust and cruised all around, making huge sweeping turns and actually whooping with joy. That was the highlight of my day. I’m not as good on my skis as Tim or Chris Osgood, but I do have 30 more years of practice before I hit retirement age so I’d better keep skiing as much as possible.

That afternoon, we klistered up 23 pairs of skis, first with base klister and then something warmer. Jørgen and I initially tried to do everything with our thumbs, but by only the second pair of skis it was clear to me that I wouldn’t make it without a massive blister. It was also clear that Tim Caldwell can perfectly smooth a layer of klister in one pass when it takes me five minutes, and I felt very inadequate. We sacrificed the one iron we had into a klister iron and after that everything went much more smoothly.

The maestro. Bow before him.

Then, it was all about getting ready for the race. I was able to get seeded into the fourth wave, Jørgen was in wave one, and my partner Chris was in wave five, so we had to get up and get going a bit earlier than the rest of the crew. As the whole group rehashed plans and details over and over and re-packed our race bags, my excitement grew, although also my dread. There’s something about heading to a start line several hours away not knowing if your skis will work that produces a certain amount of anxiety.

After an early bedtime, it was up at the crack of 4:30 to catch the 5:00 bus from Rena to Lillehammer. The hotel/apartment complex was full of skiers quietly scampering around with headlamps, full of calm anticipation. I’m terrible at sleeping on buses, so I just watched the landscape go by. For a brief period of time we drove through a snow squall, and I thought of the klister on my skis and gulped. But when we arrived at the start, the sky was clear again and a beautiful day was dawning.

That in and of itself was a bit of a victory for me. The last time I tried to do the Birkebeiner was in 2014, and the race was canceled, after having been initially just delayed morning-of. I, along with most of the rest of the field, had made it to the start line only to sit on our buses and then eventually drive back to Lillehammer. This year, I would actually get to race!

Based on the recommendation of the Swix representative who was talking over the PA system, Chris and I slapped a hardwax cover over our klister, and then walked around a bit before I headed over to the start line. I had thought I was just in wave four, but it was actually a separate wave a few minutes later: all the women who didn’t make the “elite” wave, but were still expected to do well in their age groups. I don’t know how many of us there were, but it was really fun to all be on the start line together getting ready. It has been ages since I have done a race with just women. The atmosphere was decidedly different.

Across the plateau. (Photo: Sportograf)

When the gun went off, we headed out of the start and had the trails all to ourselves for several kilometers before the fastest men from the wave behind us began to catch up. The pace felt high – I later realized that this was because I wasn’t feeling my best, not that we were actually going very fast – and the tracks were already a bit sloppy because at these lower elevations it may not have frozen overnight.

Despite those two things, I was just so happy to be with the other women. Women are much easier for me to follow in terms of technique and cadence, and as we discussed with the team, women are also much better at skiing an even pace for kilometers on end. The going was easy and the camaraderie fun.

But the first several kilometers are not spectacularly beautiful. It wasn’t until we had climbed a bit and all of a sudden the snow was dry and the tracks were hard that I really began smiling. I wasn’t feeling great, but the Birkebeiner is a perfect race in that there’s a lot of climbing but at a very manageable grade. Gradual/moderate striding has always been my biggest strength and strongest technique, and I could just stride along as the vistas opened up and the sun lit everything up. You get in a rhythm and you go.

Regardless of fatigue, regardless of anything, I thought: this is the best of all days. Here I am, out in the hinterland surrounded by thousands of people, skiing along in the sun on perfect wax. As always, some dedicated fans or friends of racers had somehow made their way out to seemingly inaccessible parts of the course and were shouting or just calmly spectating while drinking who knows what and roasting sausages. Aside from the American Birkie, you rarely if ever see this in North America. The atmosphere is truly magical.

That’s not to say there weren’t sections of the race which were hard. It’s surprising how spread out things get, even with so many thousands of skiers, and some parts were rather windy; I also simply got tired. At some point Sjusjøen felt like it would never come.

Me (right) heading through the woods just a few kilometers from the finish. (Photo: Sportograf)

But it did, and all of a sudden there was an order of magnitude more shouting from a huge crowd of spectators. Sjusjøen is the most accessible waypoint along the trail, and it seemed like everyone from miles around must have made their way there to watch. Dennis and Liz were there too, and I was really excited to see them! It was insane. I took a coca cola feed and immediately felt energized. I never ever drink soda, but that really hit the spot.

From Sjusjøen there’s a great, long, fast downhill towards the Olympic stadium. My skis were fast and the biggest challenge was navigating the other people in the trail, especially on a few tight corners. Then the last few kilometers are flat and ever-so-gradually climbing towards the stadium. Even if I was tired, I was still picking people off. I didn’t bonk, which I considered an accomplishment, and a competitiveness which had lain somewhat dormant through the middle of the race kicked back in.

By the finish, I wasn’t thrilled with my performance exactly, but given how heavy my legs had felt the whole way, I was happy with what I had done. Not a single fast-twitch muscle had been firing, but I had tried hard, stayed focused, and knocked an hour off the time I skied back in 2006 as a freshman in college. And I made ‘the mark’, something which I had been certain wouldn’t happen.

Scottie later emailed me my athlete evaluation from the 2006 trip, and it was funny to look back on my assessment of that first Birkebeiner. It was only the second marathon I had ever done, the first one being a skate race in Rangely, Maine.

I snapped this picture of very happy Erik at the finish.

“I think that completing the Birkebeiner was the coolest thing I did,” I wrote of the trip. “The feeling I had after I skied across the finish line was unbeatable. That feeling, and the knowledge that I did something really amazing, is going to stay in my memory for a long time… I also learned that there are a lot of different goals you can set and ways you can succeed.  In the Birkebeiner, I achieved my goal of finishing. That means a lot to me.”

The high school athletes on this trip were probably feeling the same way. (Or better? Every single one of the Ford Sayre high schoolers skied the Birkebeiner faster this year than Natalie Ruppertsberger and I did in 2006.)

Long before Scottie sent me those remarks, I had immediately known that my delight about the race and the conditions was definitely not the coolest part of the day. As I wandered around the finishing area realizing that we had made absolutely zero plan for meeting up afterwards, I eventually ran into Erik Lindahl and then Tim Cunningham. They were both simply amazed at how much fun they’d had. They were still marveling at the wonder of everything and that brought me my biggest smile of the day.

It wasn’t just the high school athletes; the coaches also seemed to have had a really great experience. After so many years of running this trip, Scottie finally got to do her first Birkebeiner, and she did great! That was actually really, really cool for me to see, and it made me really happy to see how much she enjoyed it. The Caldwells and Osgoods were beaming and joyful, Jørgen said he bonked really hard but was pretty good natured about it, and Chris – who usually complains about classic skiing and hates klister with the wrath of a thousand fiery suns – admitted that it was an extremely cool event.

The whole day also reminded me how great it is to have a team. Since moving to Switzerland two and a half years ago, I’ve gone to ski races with another person approximately, what, four times? I have no team or even any training partners, and I’m almost always alone. It’s much harder to put things in context. You get stuck with your own interpretation of the day, and even if it was a good day, that’s just not as fun or as interesting. If it was a bad day, you don’t have a teammate who did great to celebrate. So in that sense, too, thanks a lot to Ford Sayre for having me along on this trip.

The next morning, Chris and I had to leave early and catch the 7 a.m. train to get our flights back to Zurich (me) and Canada (him). It was tough to leave the crew, knowing that they would go for one last long, beautiful, special ski and I would be sitting on an airplane going in the opposite direction.

I owe a huge thank you to the whole Ford Sayre team for having Chris and I along. It was a fantastic trip and so much fun to hang out with everyone for the week.

Photo stolen from the JNT blog, where you can read lots about the athletes’ perspectives on the trip!

Hochfilzen

I’ve been in Hochfilzen, Austria, for a bit over week now, and dang, it has been AWESOME!

I spent all my mornings in the first week skiing, including one great 40 k day on classic skis:

The last time I was here, in 2013, it was one of those bad winters the Alps have had recently. I showed up with some brand new Fischer skate skis that I was dying to test out. I did test them out, but barely any of the ski trails were open and I ended up hitting some rocks that were poking through. After just a few days in Hochfilzen, my skis were no longer pristine (and I felt pretty stupid – although luckily the scratches weren’t too bad and those are still my favorite race skis).

This winter could not be more different. There is tons of snow, thanks in part to good grooming. It has been warm and some of the south-facing slopes have melted down to brown hillside. But where the trails were packed, it’s no problem. Pillerseetal, as this region is referred to, advertises 100 kilometers of ski trails. I’ve checked out a lot of them. The trails connect different villages, each with their own little flavor, and it has been a blast to explore around.

I’ve had some great skiing in Switzerland this year, but only being able to ski on the weekends is tough. To have this whole week to literally ski my brains out, I’m in heaven. Before I left on this trip I had reached a big milestone in my PhD, submitting the first chapter from my dissertation to a journal. Being able to take a mental break after that was perfect.

(Of course, while I was here, I heard back that the paper was rejected and I had to reformat and rewrite bits and submit it somewhere else but… that’s academia. Get used to failure.)

While I have definitely been taking some recharge time, I’m also here for biathlon World Championships. (And in fact, that’s why I’m in Hochfilzen instead of somewhere else – thanks, biathlon, for bringing me to this place I have totally fallen in love with!) The weather was sunny until Friday, which meant that watching the races from behind the shooting range was a real treat:

The races have also been great. A highlight was seeing Lowell Bailey win the 20 k individual, the first World Championships gold ever to an American biathlete. I’m really proud of the story I wrote about that; I think it might be the best race story I’ve ever written.

It was fun, and funny, to be an American journalist on that day. Often, I’m the only one in the mixed zone who wants to talk to the Canadian or American athletes. There are a few exceptions – Lowell has been doing more interviews because he is doing really well this season and also his work on anti-doping issues has raised his profile. Tim Burke and Susan Dunklee get some attention from the foreign press and anyone who does well on a given day might get one or two questions. But mostly it’s me.

On the day Lowell won: not so much. Every single television crew wanted an interview. He took longer to go through the mixed zone than any athlete of the entire Championships so far, I think. The media coordinator actually pulled him before the last TV crew could get an interview, and sent him to the press conference. Then, he had to take photos with his medal, before popping back to take more questions. Because television always gets first priority over written press, I didn’t get to talk to him until more than an hour after he finished – even though I was basically the only home-country press on site! By then, I was getting pretty hangry, so I have no idea how Lowell held it together through the whirlwind. Although I’m sure he just wanted to have some quiet time, it was really cool to see how much interest there was in American biathlon, all of a sudden.

Here’s Lowell answering questions from Norway’s TV2, while a journalist from France’s L’Equipe looks on:

All the races have been fun to watch, though. When the race is over every day, it is sort of a bummer to have to leave the beautiful weather to go inside to do the writing. At least the press center has some good windows, that’s not always the case.

Recently the weather turned, with a big snowstorm rolling through during the women’s relay. The coaches looking through scopes on the shooting range put up little umbrellas to shield their expensive scopes and the whiteboards they use to track where shots go. Photographers were wearing ponchos and fashioning protection for their telephoto lenses out of basically anything they could find. Personally, I wished that I had a hard-shell jacket… but luckily it was still warm, so a raincoat would do.

My time here is almost over, and soon it will be back to work on science stuff. I can’t say that there has been any day here that I have taken completely off from my PhD, but it has still been a nice break. It has also given me time to catch up with Susan Dunklee, who has been one of my closest friends for ten years regardless of the fact that we occasionally have a reporter-athlete relationship! It was Susan’s birthday earlier this week. She organized a little pizza party for herself using an outdoor grill made by one of her sponsors, and then her coach Jonne organized a second little party too.

And, I’m feeling better and better about my skiing. I’m way more fit and strong than I was last season, and I’m looking forward to hopping in some races again, maybe as soon as next weekend.

Strides

You don't have to be IN IN the Alps to find beautiful skiing in Switzerland. I recommend Einsiedeln, just an hour from the Zurich main station.

You don’t have to be IN IN the Alps to find beautiful skiing in Switzerland. I recommend Einsiedeln, just an hour from the Zurich main station.

In the beginning, I really loved classic skiing, much more than skating.

I didn’t learn how to cross-country ski in a competitive sense until high school, and for the longest time skating was so hard: sure, I was fit, and I succeeded at it the way every high school runner-crossover does in the beginning.

But even through college the idea of doing a 2-hour OD skating was exhausting. My balance was bad, so V2 was the opposite of relaxing. My technique was bad, twisting to the sides and wasting a lot of energy. All this wasted movement made it tough for me to skate easily at a true “level one” with a low heart rate (especially going up Oak Hill….).

It wasn’t until after college that I began to get some acceptable skate technique, thanks to video session after video session with Pepa Miloucheva in Craftsbury. I began to get more efficient, and to really enjoy skating. I even ditched my former attitude that I could only ever do well in classic races.

In the past three years, things have gotten way more extreme. I initially moved to Sweden for my masters and never skated once in two years, instead vastly improving my double-poling. But then I moved to Switzerland for my PhD. I have barely classic skied at all because most of the citizen races as skating.

When I was home I also got to go skiing with my buddy from college, Courtney! She was staying a house nearby for a few days. It was super awesome to catch up! She picked me up at our farm before we headed out.

When I was home I also got to go skiing with my buddy from college, Courtney! She was staying a house nearby for a few days. It was super awesome to catch up! She picked me up at our farm before we headed out.

In addition, I have to take the train to ski so I don’t have much way of knowing snow conditions before I arrive at the trails. After all that travel, I just want to hop on my skis and go. I got lazy. I didn’t want to have to test hardwax or klister or, yikes, klister cover, after a long train ride. I didn’t want to bring a box of wax with me. I didn’t particularly want to sticky bring klister skis back on the train, either.

Was I just making excuses? Yes. But I think this is part of being a busy adult with two jobs: things that only take five or ten minutes, like applying kickwax when you get to the trailhead, seem like unnecessary, insurmountable, stressful obstacles. If I owned some of the nifty new waxless skis, maybe I would have classic skied more often. But I don’t. So I took the simple route and just skated. My skis might have been fast some days and slow other days, but they always worked.

I can’t believe that I had come to this. I had been a classic-skiing purist, shunning waxes skis, raving about the beauty of the classic technique.

But during these years of skate skiing in Switzerland, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. For a girl who once said, “skating is so unnatural, I mean, look at evolutionary history, our bodies were not ever under selection to make this sort of movement!”, hopping on my skis and taking off always felt immediately exhilirating, washing away whatever work burdens I had been carrying on my shoulders.

Over the holidays, I returned to New England and volunteered coaching with my old club, Ford Sayre, at the Eastern Cup race weekend. The head coach sent out assignments for the weekend. I saw mine and froze: “Evan, Tim, Chelsea: classic wax testing, application”.

It had been a long time since I had classic skied – I estimated I had only done so maybe five times in the last two years – much less tested wax or tried to predict what would work best in a given set of conditions. I wondered if I remembered how to do either.

On the Friday afternoon of the race weekend we arrived before the van with the athletes. It was incredibly cold, maybe 0°F, maybe colder? We had special green on our skis. I hit the trails.

I instantly remembered: what a joy it is to classic ski, in nice tracks, on wax that kicks! It was so easy! So effortless!

I remembered back to my last year in Sweden. There wasn’t much snow in Upplands. I went to one marathon, a seeding race for the Vasaloppet, where it was raining – so slushy. Clearly klister skiing. I didn’t have any klister in my small traveling wax box, so one of the guys in my club convinced me that it would be fine to just go on skate skis and double pole 42 k (being a tall Swedish man, this didn’t faze him). He turned out to be wrong, wrong for me at least. The first 10 k felt okay and then after that? It was a long way. I hated it. I hated skiing for a few days after that.

Pow day at the best trails in NH. Second one around the loop.

Pow day at the best trails in NH. Second one around the loop.

And then later that winter, I did the 90 k Vasaloppet despite being utterly unprepared. I’ve written before about how that turned out.

Maybe more than moving to Switzerland, these memories of skiing slowly and painfully in the deep slush, hating my life and regretting my decisions had been traumatic enough to turn me off classic skiing.

This was nothing like that. It’s joyful! I automatically remember how to shift my weight. It turns out, it’s not something you forget. It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you’re good at it, it sticks with you. Thank God.

And I remembered why I used to love classic skiing. Striding is my jam. And it still is.

As I cruised around the Craftsbury trails, my old familiar stomping groups, I was happy. For a few loops. I hadn’t brought very beefy gloves with me from Europe though, so after a while I began to sense the precursors to frostbite. By the time the van with the kids showed up, I could barely ski another loop before I was forced back into the touring center, huddling in defense, to catch up with my old friends on the staff and try to breath life back into my fingers.

Over the holiday break, I got in some more classic skiing. I had new skis to test out and, for once, there was plentiful snow in the Upper Valley. I could ski all my favorite spots. (On skate skis, too.)

Taking these long, easy skis was one of the best parts of vacation.

After my first work week back from holiday vacation, I headed on a train to go ski early on a Saturday morning. In my single-pair ski bag were classic skis with blue kickwax. I had a great day.

Moral of the story: always have a few good klisters in your possession. Otherwise you might accidentally turn yourself off of something that you love, and you won’t remember what you’re missing until a former coach orders you to race wax a bunch of high school kids’ skis.

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Before and After the Fall: A Meditation on Healthiness

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It was a busy summer. And so, I inevitably got sick.

After a rainy ridge run in the Jura mountains confirmed that me and my friend Steve were more or less compatible overdistance-run partners, we ran across Liechtenstein. I often do these sorts of point-to-point runs in the mountains in summer and fall, but a certain amount of caution is usually maintained in choosing routes when I’m alone. Having a buddy willing to go the crazy places I suggested opened up new route possibilities and with it, more wear and tear (and fitness!) for my body.

The summer was full of opportunity and I was giddy.

We ran a section of the Via Alpina, a 1500-mile trail which traverses the Alps from Monaco to Slovenia, crossing through six other countries on the way. While I’d love to trek the trail some day, these days section runs are the best I can do. We “only” went 25+ kilometers in Switzerland’s Kanton Glarus.

Another day we “ran”, or mostly walked, up an incredibly steep headwall on the far side of Walensee lake, climbing 1500 meters in just three kilometers. The run along a small shelf below the uppermost cliffs was gorgeous, as was the relatively gentle descent back to the other end of the lake. But after that one I told Steve he could pick the route because I had caused us a world of pain.

Later in the summer, I skiwalked up to a glacier with my friend Jonas. I don’t know if Jonas knew how steep it was going to be, but I certainly wasn’t mentally prepared. By the time we hit the ice my legs were rubber. We wisely decided across crossing the glacier.

View from the glacier down to Engelberg.

At some point, I started to feel fit like a warrior, even if each of these individual crazy adventures (and a few more long ones on my own) left me totally exhausted, achy and sore. Pain brings fitness, though. I was hardening up.

But then, when I thought I might be getting onto a bit of a roll, fieldwork started.

I was asked with another PhD student to organize a big joint project for our whole lab this summer. It was/is a really great project – lots of interesting angles, and a cool opportunity to be involved in something so big. I really love fieldwork, too. But organizing everything was incredibly stressful. And I had to be at work extra early to organize everything before the rest of the team showed up, then often stay late to process samples and equipment when the day was over.

I did not run those weeks. On the good days, I forced myself to ride my bike either to work (a measly 9 km) or back, but usually not both. By the end of the day of fieldwork I was so tired that riding home seemed impossible. It was mental exhaustion above all else: after a day of remembering details and always trying to plan two steps ahead, plus perhaps driving for three or four hours, any additional feat of willpower was doomed to fail.

But… I got to see many new corners of Eastern Switzerland. And I love fieldwork! Did I mention that I love fieldwork? Why would you ever work in an office if you could work outside?

Here’s what a block of summer fieldwork for an aquatic ecologist looks like. It looks, despite what I just wrote above, like happiness.

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I think that even those of us who love our jobs lie to ourselves a little bit and say that because the work is something we enjoy, it’s easier than it really is. This kind of research is what I dream of doing. I love the science and the questions we ask and (try to) answer; it’s outside; there’s always something new and it never gets dull. For better or for worse, there’s a new challenge every week, sometimes every day, and you end up using a crazy-diverse set of skills and developing new ones. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything (well….). But there’s no denying that it totally saps me to organize such ventures.

As soon as fieldwork was over – no, not really, just in the middle of the experiment when we let nature do its thing and tried not to stress out about what might be happening in our absence – I headed back to North America to visit friends and family, go to a few weddings of people near and dear to my heart, and give a talk at a big ecology conference.

The first night I was back on Eastern Standard Time, I slept for 14 1/2 hours.

It was so, so awesome to see so many people I love! But I was flying constantly across the country to get to one thing or another and I never really settled in. For the most part, it wasn’t a very relaxing vacation. I also had to put out some fires with the experiment from afar, not being able to see anything in person, which is always nerve-wracking.

With my cousins Jess and Emily at a family wedding in Houston.

Some of the most relaxing moments of my "vacation" were walks in the Lyme Town Forest with my mom and our dog during my six days at home.

A rainy-ish hike up Mount Moosilauke with Susan and Jenny was a great way to cap off my time in New Hampshire.

And so yes: I cannot even schedule my “vacation” to be recovery time. There’s so much exciting stuff to do! I’m like a squirrel chasing every fun thing that catches my attention.

As soon as I got back to Switzerland it was back to fieldwork as we took the experiment apart. Again with the organizing and the long days.

Because I had been in the south for a lot of my trip back to the States and I am legendarily bad at exercising in hot weather, I had lost a lot of my fitness – I just hadn’t been running a lot, much less biking or rollerskiing.

Nevertheless, on the yearly goals list I had made myself in the spring I had written “do a mountain running race.” This had been an idea of mine ever since moving to Switzerland: I couldn’t really live in the Alps without doing the mountain running thing, could I?

The previous summer I had chickened out. I was doing some other fieldwork, a bit more ski-specific training, and just generally didn’t feel great about my uphill running chops compared to people who grew up in the Alps. I was sure I would get demolished, which was one thing, but more scared that I just simply wouldn’t have fun.

But in September I thought, I’ve got to pull the trigger on this or else this goal will stay as an unchecked box on my list. If I waited much longer there would be snow in the mountains. So I impulsively signed up for a mountain half-marathon in Arosa and convinced Steve to join me. Then I’d at least have someone to commiserate with, I thought, and I was certainly right about that.

Pre-race in Arosa. This dude guided our way to one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had.

Earlier in the summer, I had done a not insignificant number of long trail runs – longer than a half marathon – with a lot of elevation. But that day, I just didn’t have it. I’m not sure if it was simply a bad day (those certainly happen) or whether the difference between self-pacing and trying to guess a sustainable race pace just wrecked me early, but it was a brutal slog. The course climbed 900 meters in about eight kilometers at the start, then dropped off a precipitous face where you felt more like you were free-falling than running. Then it was up a second peak and a long downhill run back to the finish.

Falling off the mountain.

By the time I was running the last few kilometers, I had totally bonked. I was a mess at the finish line: rubber legs, salt-crusted face, salt streaks covering my arms and legs, dehydrated, totally depleted but with no appetite. It took me hours to get back to anything resembling being alive. A crazy thunderstorm rolled into the mountains and we sat drinking a beer and watching the lightning, me just being thrilled that I didn’t have to so much as stand up.

My first mountain running race experience was tough, but I’d probably do it again, with a clearer understanding of how brutal the race was going to be. The event was great and there’s a nice camaraderie to this community. I felt at home. So next year’s goal list: “do a second mountain-running race”…. maybe I’ll be faster?

Work got crazy again as we decided to use a student project to do a pilot test of a new experimental setup. One day I ran home from the office and titled my Strava workout “Trying to avoid a nervous breakdown about the new experiment.” I was literally running away from my problems.

Planning new experiments is so exhilarating, but it’s also frustrating and stressful and involves revision after revision of plans and ideas.

Around that time, Steve and I ran from Zurich to Zug, a nearby city. It was a 34 k run with a surprising amount of elevation gain: more than 3,000 feet, not bad for living in Switzerland’s lowlands.

I didn’t realize it, but it was going to be my last good run for a while. At the end of the next week, I noted that my supposed-to-be-easy evening run “felt like garbage”. I was just tired, I figured.

The next day I got sick. Really sick: going through an entire box of kleenex a day, unable to do much of anything, debilitatingly exhausted. I first blamed allergies but then, after a day and a half of this misery, took some flu medicine. I immediately felt better. Not good, but better. Ah-ha! If medication made me feel better, that meant I was actually sick. Right.

I didn’t get better very quickly, and had to take some time off of work. I didn’t exercise for two weeks. When I did, I felt okay, so I got excited and a few days later did a 16 k point-to-point run with my boyfriend (who was visiting, and who I thus felt I needed to provide with some workout opportunities). Predictable result: setback, more kleenex boxes. After a few days of re-recovery, we tried a 26 k run/hike up to a mountain hut. It was beautiful.

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Because of the snow and ice, we didn’t push the pace that much. My main challenge was staying warm, but my immune system seemed to handle it okay. The 20 k point-to-point going south from Zurich two days later, though, was one push too far. It required another kleenex box, more medicine, a few more days off from running.

You’d think that at almost 30 years old, I would have learned how to take care of myself better than this. But when to go back to training can be a tricky question – and I’m not exactly training for anything. When I go out for a long run in the mountains, it’s because that’s what will make me happy on that particular day. The balance of long- versus short-term planning is quite a bit shifted from my “athlete” days, meaning that I can risk a little more do get out there sooner – but the potential consequence, lying in bed being miserable, isn’t so nice either.

At a certain point, it came down to this for me. After weeks of yo-yoing back and forth between really sick, sort of sick, and sort of healthy, I couldn’t tell what “really healthy” actually was supposed to feel like. Better than yesterday, better than yesterday, better than yesterday; that seems like a good trajectory. When is better good enough?

And how do you value the trade-offs in life when athletic pursuits are essential for your happiness, but “performance” isn’t your job? Doing two jobs (now three, but that’s another story) and trying to get in good blocks of exercise is certainly pushing the limits of what I can do, mentally and physically. Yet my jobs are stimulating and fulfilling; I want to do well at them. I couldn’t quit them. I also couldn’t quit running (or, in the winter, skiing). If I did that, I’d be less stressed and I might not get sick, but I would be unhappy and the lack of exercise would leave me unhealthy for an entirely different set of reasons. I think I’d be less efficient at my jobs. To non-athletes that sounds counterintuitive, but I suspect that any recreational sportsperson knows exactly what I mean.

I’m lucky that I have some role models in this department. Most of my peers don’t pursue sports – I suspect that if I was in a similar graduate program in the U.S. the number might be higher, but without organized college sports teams many in Europe drop out of organized sports when they start their bachelors, and by grad school are focused primarily on academics – but a few do. When we see each other it’s like a relief: yes, I’m not crazy, this is a real thing that people do! And I’m not the only one who feels like doing work and sport together makes me better at each.

But it undeniably comes with costs. And so, occasionally, you run yourself into the ground and you get sick. Then the longer you sit around waiting for your mythical health to arrive, the more you stew in your own unhappiness. But pushing the envelope also might mean longer sitting around, just drawing things out.

I seem to be healthy again, finally, and I’m going to push it – but not too far. Ski season is coming and somehow, I need to break this cycle.

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Three Countries, One Six-Hour Run

Sometime in the last year, my friend Greg casually mentioned to me that it was possible to run across Liechtenstein.

“Oh yeah, we did it,” he said.

I guess I knew that the country was tiny. But – not to diminish Greg’s running chops – it didn’t occur to me just how tiny it was. 62 square miles. I started looking into it and, of course, there are quite a few writeups of how to “cross an entire country on foot!” The shortest way across is about eight miles. A fast runner could do that in an hour.

The idea of crossing the whole country definitely appealed to me. I knew that I had to do it. But an eight-mile run along the flat part of the country? That didn’t really inspire me. I started looking at the map. There were mountains along the Liechtenstein-Austria border. That is more my speed.

When my friend Steve mentioned wanting to get out this weekend to get “above the clouds” (it has rained nonstop in Switzerland for, I swear, months), I pitched him the idea. So there it was, Saturday morning and we were on a train to Buchs, Switzerland, just over an hour from Zurich, gleefully making jokes about our day “out of the country”.

From the Buchs train station it’s just a few hundred meters to the Rhine River, which forms the border with Liechtenstein. We paused for a photo. Whee! We’ve already come so far!

First border crossing: check!

First border crossing: check!

On we ran, through Schaan, the largest municipality in the principality of Liechtenstein. It has 5,800 people and houses a major manufacturer of false teeth, as well as Hilti, a power drill company. The downtown was cute, but didn’t look that different than Switzerland.

There are actually more companies than people in Liechtenstein, and it’s a financial capital. It’s a tax haven for those too choosy to pick Switzerland, so the place is awash in money – if not residents. A major global consulting firm seemed to sponsor the local tennis courts and we saw the names of more than a few companies we recognized.

After making it to Schaan we started climbing, first along a paved street past a convent, then on a jogging path through the woods and finally into a picturesque small village complete with grazing cows and beautiful old wooden houses, meticulously kept up. We could see the Rhine below us, sweeping its way towards Lake Constance; the Swiss mountains to the north; the Austrian Alps to the south; more Swiss peaks southeast and west. A few grannies cheerfully greeted us from across the street as a got a quick drink from the public water fountain. In the Alps, the water is always delicious, especially when you’ve been running uphill.

And above us, always, was the ridge we were set to traverse. It was rocky and looked epic, even though I knew it was not as tall, remote, or technical as many places I’ve been in Switzerland. We wound up and up along a forest road until, almost eleven kilometers in and after climbing about 1,000 meters, we found ourselves in the typical alpine meadows you associate with Austria and Switzerland. There was a mountain hut up the hill on the left and we passed our first other hikers of the day, three women happily chatting away.

I probably would have ski-walked a few more of those 1,000 meters of climbing, but Steve is not a skier; he’s a runner. His backpack was heavier than mine but his shoes lighter. He’s also just faster. It wasn’t a spectacularly hot day – rain was forecast for the afternoon – but by the time we stopped after the hut we were both completely sweaty. I needed a snack so we took off our shirts and tried to let them dry in the sun.

It… didn’t work. Putting a soaking wet sweaty shirt back on is not the best thing in the world. We continued.

After only about a kilometer, mostly through the woods, we once again found ourselves in a nice meadow, this time looking out from the top of a pass over into Austria proper. And there it was: the border with Austria. After just 12 kilometers and about two hours of running uphill, we had crossed the entire country.

You can't read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the left is a stone marker planted into the ground - a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line.

You can’t read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the right is a stone marker planted into the ground – a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line. Luckily in the light, you also can’t tell just how sweaty and disgusting I have become at this point….

We had started in Switzerland, made it through Liechtenstein, and were now in Austria – but our goals were not complete. The ridge and its most charismatic peaks, the Drei Schwestern or Three Sisters, were still above us. Faced with a trail that skirted around the mountain through Austrian meadows or an alpine route that headed back toward Liechtenstein, we picked the alpine route.

We wound our way through ever-shorter stunted conifers until there were no more. It reminded me of my beloved White Mountains. The rock started and so did the metal cables to hold onto, the dizzying drop-offs below, and in a few places, metal and wooden ladders to scramble up. The Drei Schwestern were pretty spectacular. The first real peaks I’d been on this year so far, we landed just over 2,000 meters above sea level, or slightly above the top of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in my home state of New Hampshire.

That’s not particularly tall by Swiss standards, but the view was still great. Austria and the Swiss canton of Graubunden stretched out ahead of us, peak after peak after peak still lined with snow. There was finally a cool breeze. I soaked it in: why haven’t I done this in so long?

Oh right, because it rains all the damn time. 

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool.

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool. There are actually two people in the cleft of the rocks near the top, if you can spot them.

We eventually continued on the ridge, and our pace dropped precipitously (because we ourselves didn’t want to….). It was technical scrambling up and down, again holding onto metal cables bolted into the rock. What had begun as a run was now a delicate crawl. We could have gone much farther along the ridge, but after three peaks decided to bail off back down into Liechtenstein.

The path I had picked turned out to be the lightest path you could consider a marked trail in Switzerland. It was rocky and rooty and, thanks to all the recent rain, muddy. The trail was hacked into the alpine heath, with surprised-looking naked root nubs still recovering from some recent trimming.

I sort of loved it, but with his minimalist footwear Steve did not. Personally, I maintain that there are few things you can’t do in a pair of Salomon Speedcross trail runners with their beefy treads. When the company gave the Craftsbury Green Racing Project a pair of shoes each back in 2010 they hooked this one customer for life…

The forest seemed to go on forever: I could see Schaan below us now and then, and it felt like my quads were burning more and more from holding myself in check on the impossibly steep grade. But Schaan never got closer! I began to worry we were in some sort of enchanted forest that expanded with us and we would never get out.

When we realized it was nearly two in the afternoon, it all made sense. Eating lunch cleared some of the grumpiness we had both been developing from the endless, messy downhill. Soon after that we popped out of the forest and into an opulent neighborhood of modern-day castles and mansions.

I could practically taste the chlorine in the swimming pools that I knew lay just beyond each perfectly-manicured hedge. But those swimming pools were not for us, so we continued running down and down, back into Schaan. By now I was flagging – it had been well over 20 km and a lot of uphill, over 1,800 meters or almost 6,000 feet, and then the corresponding leg-destroying downhill.

Just keep running, I thought. Admit no weakness to your running buddyOkay though, he can probably tell. The bridge over the Rhine was in sight, then we were over it, back in Buchs, and I could stop. I was incredibly dehydrated and savored a lemonade bought at the train station kiosk like it was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Three countries? One run? Not too shabby. We gave ourselves a high five for being adventurous – and, as Americans, laughed to ourselves at how long it would take to run across our own country. We had to take these opportunities where they came.

The next day was sunny too.

“I hear Monaco is nice this time of year,” Steve joked.

spring resolutions.

Next winter I want more of this... and only like half as much racing.

Next winter I want more of this… and only like half as much racing.

Some people make resolutions at New Years. But I’m never very successful at keeping them.

This year I had a revelation: for me the calendar doesn’t start on January 1, but when the ski season ends and a new year begins. We’ve all kept track of it this way in our training logs for years and years, but I had never explicitly thought of it seeping into the rest of my life.

After all, semester schedules still go on. Grant cycles don’t depend on the seasons.

But emotionally, the end of the season is the time for me take stock of what happened in the last year, set goals, and decide what I want to do better – how to manage my time through the whole year, culminating in winter.

When I got back from World Championships, I started making resolutions. The first one: next year I’m not going to race as much. I’m going to enjoy skiing for skiing’s sake a bit more, and take some weekends where I just get out on the trails with no bib on.

This winter racing really did take up a lot of mental space, even though I tried to keep things low key. In the end, if you’re racing every single weekend it weighs on you no matter how relaxed any individual race experience is.

For the last two weekends I have had a blast enjoying the spring skiing in Switzerland, and I want to make certain that I do more of this mid-winter, too.

I finally checked out Melchsee Frutt, a ski area that my friend Jonas gushed about all winter. It’s outside of Lucerne and you take a bus up to the bottom of a big gondola. Then, with your skinny cross-country skis, you take the gondola up with all sorts of alpine skiers, snowboarders, and families with toboggans (alpine sledding is a big and awesome thing here – don’t believe me? Read about when I sledded Grindelwald….)

The top of the gondola is at 1900 meters. The snow is sparkling. The sun is strong. There’s a 15 k loop, which isn’t really all that much, but it’s plenty to keep you entertained. It’s one of the first times cross-country skiing in Switzerland where I have really felt, dang, I’m in the Alps.

Melkst Frust.

Melchsee Frust.

There's a dogsled outfit called "Swisskimos", which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

There’s a dogsled outfit called “Swisskimos”, which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

I went there the day before Easter, and then on Easter Monday I skied 40 k in Lenzerheide. The first hour was incredible, but then I started skiing from town towards the biathlon/Tour de Ski stadium and realized that in this direction the cover was terrible and the snow was melting.

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction...

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction…

... with glimpses of summer on the way.

… with glimpses of summer on the way.

It was still an amazing day, though, and I had a blast using the fitness I’d accumulated over a season of racing without the pressure of, you know, racing.

This weekend I went one last time to Melchsee Frutt, with Jonas.

Smile, Jonas! You're skiing in April!

Smile, Jonas! You’re skiing in April!

One of us is more tired than the other one.

One of us is more tired than the other one.

We agreed: this was the last ski of the year. Time to summer wax the skis. Thanks skis. Til next year.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

My second resolution: cook more diverse and interesting food, and don’t fall into ruts. When I was skiing in Craftsbury I tried to bake a lot of different fancy desserts because I had too much time on my hands. Then when I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to take a job as a research assistant, I lived for the first time in a pretty diverse city. I took advantage of the Asian and Mexican grocery stores and went on a lot of culinary adventures. Since then, I mainly cook new things when I’m at home and making dinner for my parents. It turns out okay.

But at my own apartment, I’ve been a little bit lame. Sure, I make some good food, but often I resort to things that are quick and I usually stick to the safe, central European aisles of the neighborhood grocery.

So a few days after getting back from Oslo I finally, after a year and a half, went to an Asian grocery store in Zurich. I had been saying ever since arriving that I would do it. I found good dark soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mirin (Japanese cooking wine), rice vinegar, black bean chili garlic sauce (which is the best thing ever), lots of fun noodles, oyster sauce, better tofu, and fresh cilantro.

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I already need to go back and re-stock up on a few things that I’ve run out of, as well as more things, like peanuts and light soy sauce. I’ve had a blast cooking. A few favorites: this delicious stir fry recipe (using tofu instead of chicken), hot and sour soup, and some stir fried cabbage and rice noodles.

Spicy cucumber salad (this, but using cucumber you have chopped up, salted, and drained the water off of for 15 minutes) is a new side that I’ve been making to go with basically anything.

I also bought a cookbook which I have seen have glowing reviews in multiple places. It’s called Made In India, and it’s awesome. The author, Meera Sodha, lives in Britain and sprinkles the book with stories about her family. The recipes are great, but they’re also designed to be made with ingredients you can find at a normal grocery store.

My housemates have been thrilled that I’ve cooked a bunch of new curries: chickpea curry (Chana masala), potato curry (Aloo tamatar), roasted cauliflower. Buy this book. Your housemates, family, husband, wife, coworkers, whatever – they will love you a little bit more.

My third resolution: do more squats. I actually haven’t been to the gym in over two years. Gym memberships are expensive here. There’s a university facility that I could go to for free, but I hate the atmosphere. In Switzerland sports are already such a man’s world, and not surprisingly, on a college campus the gym feels like a meat market. At 28 years old I no longer feel like participating in this “see and be seen” and “leer at the girls working out in spandex” situation.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

When I was living in Eugene I went to a great high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program called Tabata. The details are a little different from other HIIT programs, but in the end most of these things are similar. If you are on a team or part of a training program, you don’t need any gimmicky workouts: just do what your coach says. For those of us training alone, sometimes we need extra motivation and organization.

Anyway, Jon’s Tabata program is based on just a few exercises: body-weight squats, squat-thrusts, and jumps. The workouts take just 30 minutes and they make you exhausted. You will sweat like a pig. Walking around the rest of the day your legs will shake.

But you will get strong. My legs became more powerful and I was more lean when I was doing those workouts. I have Jon’s “recipe book” for workouts and this year I’m determined to do some regularly. I need some power and fast-twitch muscles in my life.

Lastly: Productivity. It might seem like I’m pretty productive – I guess I am. I manage to do an okay job at being a PhD student and regularly produce content for FasterSkier.

But…. I could do better. In my PhD, things have gotten a bit overwhelming in the last six months. I’m stuck with a lot of data which I don’t really know how to analyze, but I should be analyzing it and writing it into manuscripts, at the same time that I continue to conceive of and execute new experiments. It’s a lot!

Just focus and get it done, for Pete's sake.

Just focus and get it done, for Pete’s sake.

When I get completely overwhelmed, my productivity crashes. It feels like I’ll never accomplish everything even if I try, so where do you even start?

This post from WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool really explains it best.

Spurred on my a comment from my housemate, I started looking into software that would keep me from logging onto facebook or checking my FasterSkier email during the work day.

Have you heard of the Pomodoro method? It sounds really dumb: you break your day into 25 minute chunks, and allow yourself five minutes in between to make a cup of tea, go for a quick walk around the building, check your email, whatever.

I’ve started using an app called Pomello which merges this technique with your to-do list. You pick a task and the timer starts counting your 25 minutes. When the 25 minutes is up, bingo! Reward yourself by replying to an email from a friend. Then you can restart the same task or pick another one. You can compare day-to-day how many of these 25-minute chunks you get done and how youre productivity is doing.

This sounds so completely trivial and pointless, but it has actually really helped me. I think it taps into some part of my innate insane competitiveness, so I do actually focus during the 25-minutes blocks. It’s short enough that you can keep yourself focused, sans distraction, for the whole time and chide yourself when you think about checking facebook. But it’s long enough that you can get some meaningful part of a task done, too.

If you’re a better worker than I am, this will seem irrelevant. But if, like me, you are getting bogged down and discouraged and reading interesting articles on the internet instead of doing your work… maybe give it a try?

Hopefully I can keep this newfound improvement to my focus through the whole year.

I think that part of the reason that “new years resolutions” never stuck for me is that if I make them on January 1, my day-to-day life if much the same before and after this magical cutoff date. I’m still on holiday (for a short time), I’m still balancing skiing and work, it’s still winter.

(The other part of why they don’t stick is that resolutions rarely work, period.)

This year, I’m thinking about them at a time when my life really is different: with the changing of the seasons, I have a real chance to start afresh. Things feel new, and like if I really wanted to change my life, I could succeed.

ten days in Norway.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop - which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop – which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

I just got back from a trip to Norway. As always, it was phenomenal. I have nothing against Zurich – I’m pretty happy here and it is as close to an ideal situation as I could think of living in a city – but I came home thinking, why didn’t I do my PhD in Oslo?

There’s something about seeing the T-Bane packed with skiers of all ages and ability levels, or heading out to ski on a weekend midday and running into probably hundreds of people out on the trails just outside the city. It’s a city where everyone is chic and blond, usually dressed in black, very stylish. But nobody looks at you with eyes askew if you’re out in Bjørn Dæhlie ski pants and a ratty old Swix jacket.

Or, if you’re going to watch a ski race and you pull on a classic Norwegian wool sweater instead of an expensive technical jacket. Wool keeps you warm. Nobody laughs at that.

I stayed with my friend Knut in Oslo, and by the end of the week, I was thinking about what a great life it would be if, like him, I could just take the T a few stops to access hundreds of kilometers of ski trails after work every day.

Because even if Zurich is pretty darn close to optimal, from my naive, short-term-staying experience, Oslo might be just that tiny little bit closer.

But anyway. That was a lot of digressions. I headed to Oslo to cover biathlon World Championships for FasterSkier. Apparently it was snowing in Oslo on the Friday night when I was supposed to arrive, and my flight got canceled. Nearly all the other people on the plane were heading to watch World Championships and cheer for the Swiss, and we all groaned as the news came over the PA system. It’s snowing? They can’t handle snow at an airport in Norway?

I scrambled to find a new flight, thinking that there was no way that they could get a whole airplane’s worth of people rescheduled, especially if the weather continued to be bad. This involved a lot of research on my phone, and getting someone else to buy me a ticket on a different airline as I scrambled around, and then getting to the front of the customer service line and getting offered a flight that night anyway, and canceling the ticket that had just been bought (we got a full refund). I arrived to the Oslo airport at midnight and schlepped my stuff via the night bus to Knut’s house. It was around 2 a.m. and he was waiting for me… thanks Knut, you’re the best.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men's sprint.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men’s sprint.

Saturday and Sunday were sprint and pursuit racing, and it was pretty exciting. The crowds at Holmenkollen National Ski Arena are no joke, so when Norwegian Tiril Eckhoff won the women’s sprint and Ole Einar Bjørndalen took silver in the men’s sprint it was serious. Seriously loud. I immediately remembered why I loved this job. In the pursuit I managed to sneak onto the course and take some photos with the Holmenkollen ski jump in the background, even though I didn’t have a photo bib. (When I tried this later in the week, I got yelled at and kicked off the course. ‘doh.)

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men's pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men’s pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

On the plus side, races started in the afternoon- so in the mornings I skied out of the end of the race course and into the Marka, the big forest area in the north(ish) of Oslo. The ski trails! There are so many, and they are so fun! Wide trails and narrow trails, hilly trails and flat trails, trails through bogs and trails through forests. Trails to huts that serve waffles and hot chocolate. Trails that are criss-crossed by winter hiking trails; trails that go all the way down to the edge of the city. So many trails!

On Sunday I checked out the old 16.7 k race loop, which was historically used for the famous Holmenkollen 50 k: three loops of that bad boy. Parts are still used for the current course configuration (which has a longest loop of 8.3 k). The 16.7 k has a lot of uphill, and, of course, a lot of fun downhill, but it’s a workout. I was getting tired by the end but my skis were flying and I was on real snow! Cold, dry(ish) snow. That hasn’t happened to me so many times this year. I was in heaven!

There weren’t many people who brought skis into the media center, so I always accidentally make a spectacle of myself when I do this. But the woman I was sitting next to thought it was cool.

“Now you know the course conditions for writing your story!” she said.

Yes. Exactly.

A journalist who skis? No way!

A journalist who skis? No way!

But to have two sprints on Saturday and two pursuits on Sunday is a lot of work for the press, and afterwards I was pooped. I ate dinner at the media center and was late getting home, only getting to hang out with Knut a little bit.

So I was pretty thrilled that Monday and Tuesday were off days from competition. Monday around lunchtime, I went downtown and hopped on a train to Lillehammer.

Side note: I love the trains in Switzerland, and for sure the country is more connected via the train system than any other country. But Norway has one thing on them: wireless. My train had perfect, fast, wifi the whole time, and I felt really spoiled. Way to go, Norway! #richcountries

My friend Erik picked me up at the train station after work and we headed up to the Birkebeiner Skistadion, the home of the 1994 Olympic trails. We had about an hour before we had to pick up his son from daycare, so we cruised around, Erik classic skiing and me skating. Erik is a good skier. I could barely keep up with him and was glad I wasn’t classic skiing! But actually, I bet he was working pretty hard too. Neither of us would say, “slow down!”

I have stayed with Erik, Emily, and their family a few times, and it is always delightful. I spent some time hanging out with their kids, playing games, drawing pictures, building obstacle courses for marbles, reading bedtime stories. I don’t generally want to have kids, but every time I hang out with their kids, I think, well, maybe…. 

After we’d put the kids to bed we watched all the available episodes of “Pling i Kollen”, the comedy news series of the World Championships created by NRK personality Nikolay Ramm and Swedish skier Robin Bryntesson. They are hilarious, even if you don’t speak Norwegian or Swedish. We were dying laughing – particularly at the fake hip hop music video made by Ramm, Tarjei Bø, and Emil Hegle Svendsen (here) or the music video “the story of biathlon.” Later in the week they did a great segment with Canada’s Macx Davies called “Macx The Man” (google it). You can find all the episodes here if you want to catch up on Norwegian ski humor.

The next day was a beautiful blue-sky day – something we hadn’t had much of in Oslo, which is often rather foggy. Erik pointed out that it might be one of the best skiing days in a while. So after dropping off the kiddo at daycare, Emily and I drove up to Sjusjøen and went for a ski! It was my first time on classic skis in two months (races in Switzerland are almost entirely skating…) and my first time on extra blue in, I don’t know, two years!? A really long time, that’s for sure.

Happiness.

Happiness.

It felt phenomenal. It was one of those days skiing where you think, this is what I was made for. Running? It’s okay. But my body is meant for skiing, and it’s the thing I love. Can this season go on forever?

I absolutely love the landscape of the Lillehammer/Sjusjøen area. It’s hard to describe to someone from most parts of the lower 48 in the U.S.: it’s not the arctic tundra. There are trees. But they are small and scrubby, and sort of sparse. The landscape is open, but not flat. It rolls away from you for what feels like it could be forever. It’s easy to get into a trance-like state of mind striding your way along these trails.

Beauty.

Beauty.

After about 15 k we were back at the car, and Emily headed home. I knew that this would probably be my best ski day all season (things were already melting back home in Switzerland), so I kept skiing. I headed down from Sjusjøen to Lillehammer on the Birkebeiner trail, which is a super fun descent, then cruised around on the Inga-Låmi trails for a while before finally skiing all the way down into the town of Lillehammer. A short ten minute walk brought me back to Erik and Emily’s house where I scarfed down some leftovers and took a much-needed shower.

I’d skied a full marathon and was rarely been happier all winter.

That afternoon Emily and I took their daughter into town to a nice coffee shop and hung out, just the girls.

The next morning I had to leave and, as always, it made me sad. I hopped on the train and then once in Oslo headed directly to the venue, where I met up with our occasional reporter and photographer JoJo Baldus, who had been at the Vasaloppet over the weekend but was now in Norway with his dad getting ready for the Birkebeiner. He was set up with a photo bib and we chatted about the Vasaloppet (not the favorite race either of us had ever done…) and photos for the day. It was the women’s 15 k individual, and it seemed possible that American Susan Dunklee might win a medal. She had been skiing out of her mind fast so far in the championships.

She didn’t, but it was a great race. It was a relief to have JoJo doing photos. I was able to get home to make some dinner for Knut, which was nice, and we caught up on a new episode of Broad City. Life was good.

The rest of the week proceeded pretty much like that: I’d ski in the morning, report in the afternoon, get home late. From my usual wake-at-6:30, bed-by-10:30 old-lady schedule, I shifted to waking up at 9 in the morning and staying up past midnight: operating on Knut time, perhaps?

The finish zone in the women's pursuit.

The finish zone in the women’s pursuit.

The highlight of the week results-wise was when the Canadian men won bronze in the men’s relay, a race that Norway won. Both things were good: the Norwegians winning meant that the stadium was loud and the atmosphere completely unbelievable. The Canadians’ result was also unreal. They are all good athletes, but it had never come together for them like that. It was crazy to watch. I was interviewing Scott Gow when Brendan Green was in his final shooting stage, in position to lock up the medal. We stopped the interview and watched the broadcast screen.

Brendan hit one, two, three, four… five shots! The bronze was theirs!

Scott looked pretty blown away and something that’s weird for me as a reporter is that, I guess I’m pretty empathetic or something, so when someone cries in an interview about retirement, tears come to my eyes. If they had a bad race, I feel bad bugging them about it. It’s a little awkward and sometimes borders on unprofessional, maybe? I can’t help it, though, so I like to think that there’s a balance between doing my job, and being empathetic, and that athletes might appreciate that I’m not totally oblivious to their state of mind. But I’m not sure.

In this case, the excitement totally caught. I’m a journalist, not a PR person working for the Canadians, yet after interviewing all of them so many times, I felt so darn excited and proud for them. While the other journalists were sort of bemused – well that’s something, isn’t it, Canada, huh – I was cheering along with Scott.

“Can I give you a hug or something?” I asked.

“Yes! Please!” he said.

And then an organizing-committee media person whisked him away: he and his teammates had to get ready, with all of their identical team-issued gear and their bibs on over their jackets, to go mob Brendan as he crossed the finish line. Sarah Beaudry and Julia Ransom, watching the race from the side of the trail above the mixed zone, shouted down to Christian Gow to change is hat so it was an official Biathlon Canada one. Good discipline, team.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

It was kind of a whirlwind trying to track down coaches to talk to for the story and even just to talk to the Canadians. For once, they were asked to do many, many interviews for foreign broadcasters. The written press is the last group to get access to athletes in the mixed zone, so by the time the team made it to me there were literally two minutes before they had to go to the press conference. I didn’t get to ask many questions and it made me mad: here I was, the only journalist from their home media who was here, the only one who would actually be transmitting their comments back to their fans at home. Shouldn’t I get the same chance to ask them questions? Isn’t that what their friends and family wanted?

I complained vigorously to the organizing committee media guy who had hauled them off, and he was very apologetic, but said there was nothing to be done. Luckily after the press conference I could chat with them plenty.

(I later ran into that guy at a party, and we ended up laughing: both of us are scientists for whom this was not our main job. He was just working at Holmenkollen for the week. It was fun, he said, but he was glad it was over.)

As the week wrapped up, Knut and I were able to catch up with Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee, U.S. athletes who had been our teammates at Dartmouth College. Living abroad I don’t see friends from home very often at all – in fact, they are probably the ones I have seen the most since moving to Europe in the fall of 2012. They come to Europe to race; I try to see them, or sometimes we get together in the spring after their race season is done.

It was fun to get some time together, and definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. After all, you can find good skiing if you just have enough time and money to travel, and most of my skiing I do alone. But friends? For me, spending time with old friends, friends with whom I have a history of more than a year or two, is such a rare treat.

Now I’m back in Zurich, back to work. Every day that passes, this idea that I should be living in Oslo recedes a little further away into the back of my mind.

After all, here the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming. It’s spring. There’s plenty to be done, plenty of friends to have lawn parties with, a bit of last spring skiing to seek out, and after that, mountains to climb.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.