Easter Break in the Alps

Coming from the U.S. and a non-religious family, I never thought about Easter all that much once I grew up and stopped having Easter egg hunts. But in Europe, the Easter weekend is a major holiday, a kind of spring break of sorts. Even in places that are no longer particularly religious (or, no longer very observantly religious), Good Friday and Easter Monday are often off from work, making a long weekend for family, friends, and maybe travel. Many people tack on a day or more on either side, or take the whole next week off.

If you follow any Scandinavian or Finns, you probably saw pictures of their Easter holidays spent skiing (cross-country, downhill, or touring), snowmobiling, ice fishing, and getting sunburnt up north. This always makes me jealous – the days are getting long up there, the sun is warm, and there’s still snow to play in. Exhibits A, B, and C.

This year we decided to go to the Valais, one fo the parts of Switzerland with the highest mountains, for our Easter weekend. We arrived Thursday night just in time to take in the views across the valley from our AirBnB. Clearly, this was going to be a nice time.

We were staying in Riederalp, a car-free village accessible by cablecar. The offseason had begun and many hotels and restaurants were closed. There were tourists, but only a few to add to the less than 500 people who live there (some of whom were certainly off on their own holidays in warmer places). Our rented apartment was between the two village centers, and so very quiet. This was exactly what I needed. Every morning we would wake up and have a coffee on the porch looking at this view and how the light changed on the mountains.

Riederalp is just below a ridge, and if you hike up there you are offered a view of the Aletsch glacier, the largest one in the Alps. It’s 23 kilometers long, surrounded by 4000-meter mountains, and by 2100 is predicted to lose 90% of its 27 billion metric tons of ice.

The “Aletsch Arena,” as the greater area has billed itself, is one of the big tourist draws. But we realized that it wasn’t the perfect time of year to have all kinds of adventures.

Riederalp is on the south side of the ridge and much of the snow had melted even at 1900 meters where we were staying. I thought maybe that meant we could make a trail running loop around the closest small mountain, but once we got going, reality set in. There was kind of a lot of snow.

This was one of those days where I made a plan and Steve was maybe not thrilled to be tagging along with my bad plan.

Still, part of the reason I had wanted to go to the mountains – other than the extreme happiness I get from just looking at them – was to do some running with vertical, as I’m training for a trail running race in the Alps in July. So I tried to make better plans. A few days, we ended up hiking/running on the “Winterwanderweg” winter hiking trails.

These were pretty high up, so the views were spectacular. They were also packed down – occasionally groomed, and then walked on by people in boots and sometimes snowshoes. Depending on whether the snow was still frozen or soft and slushy, this made it quite challenging running, either sliding around or constantly stretching your ankles in different directions as your feet landed in frozen ruts. It wasn’t the most fun running and by the end of the last day my ankle was sore, but at the same time it was the most fun running, because who can argue with this scenery!?

Two other days, I mapped out routes of about 20 km each that we hiked/ran. Both had a lot of vertical, and some snow patches despite my attempts to route down to lower elevations. The first was through villages and involved losing and then gaining about 1000 meters of elevation to get back to our porch, and it pretty much destroyed me.

The other was a new favorite loop following two local trails, the “Massaweg” and the “Hexeweg”, which curved over singletrack around the side of a mountain and then down a stream valley.

Anyway, we certainly got in some miles and some vertical.

But the nicest part of the holiday in many ways was just being quiet and not worrying too much about work. Sleeping late, sitting on the porch and looking at the mountains. We took some walks around the near-empty village and wondered what it would be like to have a place here. What it would be like to grow up here. What it was like to live here 200 years ago.

Spring is a great time to stop and take a breath. And this was a great place to take that breath.

Ganghoferlauf 50k and Feeling Like A Skier

At the finish of the Ganghoferlauf classic marathon. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

Wednesday night I couldn’t fall asleep.

We were supposed to leave on Friday to go to Austria for a Saturday ski race, and the forecast was for rain all day on race day. Would there even be snow left, after the crazy-long warm snap that we’ve had plus even more rain? Would I make it through 50 k of being out in the rain? Should I just bag the trip if it was going to be miserable?

Racing isn’t my whole life so these questions shouldn’t have weighed so heavily, but the next 48 hours provided me with so many highs and lows.

I traveled to Austria. I was disappointed with the ski conditions. I loved our hotel setup! I despaired about the wax. I had a really fun 25 k of racing! I felt so alone and discouraged and stopped dead in the middle of the trail to eat a snack. I got my motivation back and careened another 25 k around the course, stuffing my mouth with Clif ShotBloks along the way.

I felt like a skier. That was the best part, the highest high.

And then, when I crossed the finish line exhausted, a guy asked to take my picture. Sure, why not? I smiled, with the Tirolean Alps in the background. As the shutter clicked, I heard the announcer.

“And this is, from Switzerland, Chelsea Little, she is the third woman to come into the finish after 50 k.”

What?

After all that angst, it turned out to be a very good day.

***

I’m not good at giving up on things, but the idea of skipping the race really was going through my head mid-week. I didn’t know what to do. I’d imagined this classic marathon, the Ganghoferlauf, as my season finale. It looked like it was literally going to rain on my parade.

By Thursday the forecast had changed, and it looked like it would be right around freezing and with a light snow at the start, warming up to the mid-40’s and sunny over the course of the race. How do you wax for that?

I’m not good at giving up on things so I got on the train on Friday, but somehow things didn’t get better once we got to Leutasch.

Midwinter skiing this ain’t. Note all the dirt in the snowbank in the left foreground.

I tested klister on Friday afternoon and nothing felt good. My skis alternately slipped and iced up. The snow was basically slush and as we ate dinner, it rained some more. Completely saturated. Lovely.

I had figured I could buy some of the appropriate wax at the expo when I picked up my bib, but there wasn’t really an expo (or a ski shop within a kilometer). The small collection of the klister in my wax box was all I had to work with: Swix base green, KR 45 purple, and one each of Toko green, blue, red, and yellow. Because I’m not good at giving up on things, before bed I re-applied the KR45 and Toko red to one ski each of my test skis – not at all confident either of these things would work the next day – and a thin layer of base green on my race skis.

“Shit, I really wish I had a riller,” I lamented.

“A what?” Steve asked.

“Never mind.” Right. Riller is not a word used by 99.99% of the human population.

Miraculously, I managed to get a good, deep sleep.

I woke up to the fact that it had frozen overnight, which was actually more than I had dared hope for. The tracks would be fast, so I reasoned that I’d have to suffer for much less time than if it had been slush from the start, like I’d been imagining.

But after eating a quick breakfast and hopping on my test skis, I found that both the KR45 and the Toko red were grabby and iced up. Not good. I was practically falling down on the flats they were so grabby. I tried covering them with a warm hardwax, but then I couldn’t kick up the hill.

I saw a fast-looking young woman out testing wax, but she was discussing with her coach/wax tech and was clearly testing more options. I haven’t had a team in years and this was a problem I needed to figure out on my lonely own.

Thinking about the forecast, I picked the KR45, crossed my fingers that the snow would stay relatively frozen, and heated it into a pretty layer on my race skis using the hotel room hairdryer. And then I went to the start.

The days leading up to the race had been so stressful as the weather forecast changed constantly. I was also mentally exhausted from a very intense three-day retreat with my research group. It was a gray damp morning. I had zero confidence in my skis. I have to say, I really did not want to do this race.

Then the gun went off, and the race started.

***

I’ve had a weird year of ski racing, and really of skiing. There was no snow early, so I bagged the race I had planned to do in December because I hadn’t even been on skis once. Then in January I went to Cortina, Italy, to do the Toblach-Cortina 35 k, but it was canceled.

The Ganghoferlauf 50 k was what I picked to make up for that race. A few years ago I went to Seefeld (just a few kilometers away) for the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, back-to-back 60 k’s where I did the skating and classic races. They were very well organized, on fun trails with beautiful views. So when I was looking for a late-season classic race in central Europe, it was pretty appealing to go back. I booked a spot in Leutasch.

The race start. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

And as we headed off the line, I felt like I had made a good decision. There were plenty of classic tracks for the first kilometer or so, and I easily had room to pass people despite starting near the back of the pack.

Very early, after about a kilometer and a half, we hit the biggest climb of the whole race. It was steep and long and much of the field immediately got out of the tracks and started herringboning their way up it, occasionally tangling up with each other.

I stayed in the tracks to the right. My purple klister, which an hour earlier when I was testing had been a disaster, was fantastic. I just strided past people and probably had a big grin on my face because I seriously couldn’t believe my luck. Out of a pretty limited wax box, it seemed like I had nailed it.

A kilometer later on the first downhill, I realized that not only was my wax not so grabby that I’d be falling down, but my glide job was also decently fast.

This was going to be fun. In the space of just a few minutes, my entire perspective shifted.

I cruised around the course, and after skiing through a rolling meadow system for about eight kilometers, we hit the flats of the bottom of the Leutasch valley. I was still skiing with packs of people, and just trying to hold a steady pace. At some point, we started up the hill and into the forest on the other side of the valley, and zig-zagged up and down smaller climbs for a few kilometers.

On the downhill of one of these zags, I caught a woman I had seen in front of me for the whole first 15 k of the race. We double-poled along the flat for a while, and after two more sets of uphill zigs and zags, caught another woman.

For the last seven kilometers of the 25 k loop, the three of us skied together, with the occasional guy trying to jump in between us, as they usually do. It was really fun. Johanna and Sanne – our names were on our bibs, so I weirdly felt like I got to know them – were good skiers. They were fun to follow and we had our own little race dynamics doing on, especially through the “Waldloipe” forest loop that had lots of fun ups and downs, twists and turns. Sometimes one of them would sprint over the top of a hill, but the other two of us would usually catch up.

As we looped back through the start/finish area, Sanne pulled away, and then I watched as she and Johanna turned left.

They were doing the 25 k.

Crap.

***

After I signed up for this race, I was describing it to Steve, and mentioned that it was a two-loop 50 k.

“When you have to ski straight past the finish and go out on a second loop, that’s going to be so terrible,” he said, already half laughing at my future anguish.

And oh boy, was he right.

A view from the 8 k meadow loop, the day before the race.

I’d had so much fun skiing with those two women, and I had worked pretty hard to stay with them over the last few kilometers. Maybe it wasn’t the most clever thing to do halfway though a 50 k, but it had felt good. Except now they were gone, the sun had been out for half an hour, and the snow had turned from ice to slush. I was staring at the big climb again, and could barely see anyone in front of me. I turned around and saw only other skiers turning left.

Yes, this was despair.

I realized that I hadn’t eaten any solid food, and stopped and dug out a Clif bar. On a hunch, I had decided to race with my running vest, something I’d never really done before. I knew it would be hot by the end of the race and that I might need more hydration than usual, and it also gave me the chance to carry some klister in case my wax job sucked as the conditions warmed up.

Now, I was very relieved to have the vest because it had snacks in it. There were a few spectators on the side of the trail who weren’t sure how to cheer for me as I stood there eating a bar, but it was completely worth it.

The calories almost immediately made me feel better, and I tackled the hill. I was tired from my ill-advised battle with two 25 k skiers, but my skis definitely didn’t suck. (I later realized this was because my kickzone consisted entirely of pine needles, not that the KR45 was somehow still working.)

The course consisted of little finger-like loops, the zigs and zags up and down hills. Coming out of one such loop I saw that there was another woman coming out of the next loop. I had no chance to catch her – we were separated by maybe two kilometers – but it was nice to see here there.

And coming out of another loop, I saw two other women just beginning it. They were perhaps another two kilometers behind me. This provided some good motivation: they probably wouldn’t catch me unless I really ran out of steam, but this was a marathon so you never know. I had to keep pushing just in case.

For most of the second 25 k I was in no man’s land. I could see a guy in a pea-green suit ahead of me, and sometimes I got within 20 meters, but then he’d pull away again.

I kept drinking from my vest and eating snacks, and trying to push on through the deepening slush. I was striding on the flats because it was so slow, and it made my back hurt. Then there were the road crossings, where the crossing guards let cars through between racers and only sometimes shoveled snow back onto the road. I cringed for my poor race skis, which were surely going to have a permanent reduction in speed by the time the day was over.

By the time I made it through all the zigs and zags and around the Waldloipe – no friends to chase this time – I emerged into the big field to see that there was nobody behind me. It was a relief, because there was a kilometer of flat to go and I had no sprint in me.

I took a purposeful but relaxed double-pole to the finish, and was smiling by the time I crossed the line.

***

On the podium! (Photo by Steve)

It turned out that I was third (out of just 25 women) in the race, and won my entry fee back. It had been impossible to tell my place when I was racing because of all the 25 k racers mixed in with us. So it was a legitimate surprise to realize I was on the podium.

It was a very nice reward at the end of the season, and I got a funny antler trophy as a prize.

But the result was just gravy. The best part of the day was feeling like a skier.

As I wrote, it’s been a weird year for me for skiing. In some ways it has been great; I have done a fair amount of skiing in some of my favorite places, including making time before work once a week many weeks (okay, getting to work extremely late once a week many weeks…).

But I’ve raced a lot less than planned – the Ganghoferlauf was just my third race of the year. The first race was not a positive experience. The second race was pretty fun, but on my “home” tracks in Einsiedeln and quite low-key.

In this 50 k, I felt like I was competing. I had a blast skiing with the sixth- and seventh-place women in the 25 k. I was engaged and focused, using my technique and my strength.

And then came the hard part: going another 25 k alone. It was hard, but I did it!

I did it because I’m decently fit and I planned my training to be rested (physically, if not mentally) for this race.

I did it because I used my experience and logic and a little bit of luck to make good skis.

I did it because diagonal stride is my favorite.

I did it because I wanted to use every tool I had to get to the finish line fastest.

In that lonely loop, I still felt like a skier.

I live in a city where it rarely snows, but skiing is what I love. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a skier anymore because I can’t ski out the backdoor and I don’t have a team or skier training buddies. Sometimes I get to the ski trail and I feel uncoordinated and floundering. Or I get to a race and I look at all the skinny, strong, fast-looking people in trendy ski gear with this year’s skis and boots, and I feel like I’m not one of them.

Those aren’t the things that define who is a skier and who isn’t, but sometimes it feels like it.

When I get to feel like an actual skier – which I am – it’s the best feeling.

Finally, My Almost-Perfect Davos Ski Day

Midway up the Sertig valley, striding along the classic tracks. This is what dreams are made of.

(Before I start: I’ve been featured two places online recently, talking about being a scientist. Check out Episode 4 of the MEME Stream podcast talking about my research on climate change in the arctic tundra, grad school in Europe, and the importance of hobbies (like skiing!). And fellow ecologist xc-skier Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie invited me onto the Plos Ecology blog to talk about reading a lot of papers and combatting imposter syndrome.)

If you’re a cross-country skier, you have probably heard of Davos. There’s a World Cup there every year, and it’s also a favorite training camp location for the U.S. Ski Team, among others. There are always blog posts and Instagram stories showing sunshine and powder days that recharge the soul.

Despite living in Switzerland for four years – and visiting a few times before that – I’ve never had what I’d consider a great Davos ski day.

The best part of the Davos trail network is probably its extensive classic-only trails which go up long side valleys out of town. When I was living and working there in the summer of 2013, these were some of my favorite places to get out for a hike or rollerski, and my gateway to mountain passes.

I immediately looked forward to coming back in the winter so I could ski them.

When I was in Davos for the World Cup in 2017, it had snowed, so I wanted to explore the Dischma valley. They hadn’t groomed yet though. D’oh.

But things didn’t really work out. For several years I went to the December World Cups to work for FasterSkier, but those years happened to be times when there was barely any snow, just a snowfarmed loop on the race course. (It’s been a bad few years.) This year, there was apparently good skiing, but I was at a conference in the UK that weekend.

I went back a few times to skate, but then you can’t access those long valley trails. And last year I had a long classic ski in a rain/snowstorm, where I did traipse up one of the valleys, but visibility was basically zero and the huge temperature swing made my classic wax a complete disaster.

So I’ve been to ski in Davos at least once each year, but I’ve never had the kind sunny alpine day that dreams are made of.

This really is my last winter in Switzerland, and I realized at some point that I was running out of chances. So on Sunday I woke up early and took the first train to Graubunden. Davos is quite far away (by Swiss standards), so even catching that train, I only arrived just before nine.

If you’ve been watching World Championships, you know that the Alps have been going through something of a heat wave. Switzerland is no different than Austria in that regard, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuffed hardwax ranging from blue to red into my drink belt and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t need klister instead.

Scenery.

Click. Click. Into my skis. It was cold when I arrived, and after days of freeze-thaw cycles the tracks were fast as I double-poled down to Frauenkirch, at the bottom of the main valley. I skied in and out of the shadow of the steep hillsides, and through hollows by the river where the cold had really settled overnight.

But an hour in, the sun had come over the mountains and suddenly, it was hot. I stopped to re-wax my skis. Blue clearly wasn’t right anymore.

I meandered through the Junkerboden, a forested hillside. After a week of relatively hard (for me) training, my legs were feeling tired as I climbed the steep trail through the woods and traversed its switchbacks. But this is a part of the trail system that relatively few people visit, and I sank into the quiet and peace of the forest.

Then I dropped down to the Sertig valley proper, and all of a sudden I was in 50-degree heat and immediately sweating. I took off my headband, unzipped my jacket, took a swig of water. My skis were slow, but miraculously my wax was still kind of kicking.

Heat is not my strong point, and I bogged down as I ticked through the kilometers up the valley. But it was so beautiful. I’d stop to take a breather and look around, captivated by the scenery. This wasn’t the extra-blue skiing of my dreams, but the sun was so bright, the mountains so crisp, the sky so blue. Aside from overheating, it was everything I’d imagined the valley to be as I hiked and ran it so many summers ago.

Everyone I passed was smiling, as if we couldn’t believe our good luck to be out here in the sun. It was the kind of day where even if you don’t feel great, you feel happy.

And I was particularly happy to be striding up the valley. Every time I classic ski, I’m reminded that it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s so natural to settle into the rhythm of kick, kick, kick. In this snow, a little less glide.

Nearing the top of the valley.

I eventually reached the top of the valley, where you are faced with a large mountain face and, for a ski tour or hike, the choice of two mountain passes, one left and one right. For cross-country skiers, it’s the end of the road, although you can stop for food or drink at a restaurant looking out across the meadow.

Sweaty. Go away tropical heat wave, I want winter back.

I opted out, and instead headed back down the valley. Despite the snow rapidly becoming slush, I whizzed down the trail, trying to thread between the skiers coming up the narrow trail. The fresh air on my face a welcome respite from the heat. Several kilometers were gone in no time, and I was back in the main valley, heading towards town.

By the time I clicked out of my skis, it was almost 60 degrees, and I was happy I had done this ski today. Unless the weather pattern changes drastically, I’m not sure how long the lower-elevation trails will last. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have skied another hour easily, but I was wiped out from the heat.

It wasn’t a completely perfect day, but maybe that doesn’t exist. I got to see the mountains, and the groups of classic skiers striding ant-like up the narrow classic-only trail through the valley. The next day my face was a little more tan and my legs a little more tired, and I added one more happy memory to all my summer memories of Davos.

Keep on skiing.

My Guide To Cross-Country Skiing in Eastern Switzerland

 

A lot of people have asked me: where should I go cross-country skiing? Or, I’d like to try cross-country skiing – but where can I go around Zurich?

Well, I’ve made a post with the answers! Check out my guide to cross-country skiing in Eastern Switzerland, HERE! I’ve picked 12 favorite spots to recommend, and summarized the trail system, how to get there, rental and ticket information, and where you can leave a backpack of dry clothes.

If you run through those suggestions too fast, I add 10 more possibilities at the bottom, with fewer details.

Happy skiing! Please get out there and enjoy winter!

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.

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.

Understanding our values of nature

Above: a view from the Lägern forest outside of Baden, Switzerland, one of the research sites for Katie Horgan’s PhD work. I ran the Lägern ridge while I was training for a marathon this fall.

I’ve always been interested in conservation. Okay, maybe in the beginning it wasn’t a choice. My mother worked for (and now runs) a land conservation nonprofit, and I grew up kicking around the office and volunteering at events.

Some of my first research and jobs in ecology were about topics related to global change: invasive species, contamination, climate change. I was motivated to take these jobs because I cared about the issues and thought that doing research related to them would help.

But these projects were all very much ecology. The grants weren’t written and the studies weren’t designed with an outcome in mind that could be translated to stakeholders or implemented as policy. They were pure basic science: what is happening? Hey, that’s cool (or alarming, or boring, or …. ), and it’s good that we know it now!

Even though so many of our ecology results are framed in the context of global change, including sentences and maybe even paragraphs talking about implications for land management, I’ve never studied conservation biology. Neither have most of my collaborators.

Recently, I have begun to understand how my good intentions and environmentalism don’t help the environment that much. I’ve been doing ecology in a vacuum: I care about “issues”, but those issues are separate from my science (even if they are merged on my Twitter feed). I really like community ecology and understanding species interactions, and that’s what drives my research questions.

I’m not sure that in and of itself is problematic. But what is certainly problematic is the extent to which I didn’t realize what I was doing. It’s hard to expect your science to connect to and inform conservation and planning if you don’t really understand conservation and planning.

One of the things that made me more cognizant of this was the defense of a fellow University of Zurich PhD student, Katie Horgan, last week. Katie’s dissertation was highly interdisciplinary, and it exploded my conceptions of how we think about nature and ecosystems.

Embarrassingly, the big thing that I realized should be obvious: how we value nature depends more on us, than on nature.

(That might seem like a bit of a jump from my first few paragraphs, but I promise I will link it together at the end.)

When I write out my “big realization”, it looks stupid. I find myself thinking that I already knew that. I interact with people every day who think about the outdoors in a different way than I do.

My boyfriend illustrates this perfectly. When I go for a long run, I want to go somewhere new and see a new view. Steve? He would be happy running exactly the same loop around Uetliberg, the local ridge, that he ran the previous week.

“Why do you need to take the train for two hours?” he asks me. “It’s still just a forest.”

The value we place on seeing and experiencing ecosystems is completely different. Running around in the same forest, or similar forests, we pick up different things and take away different experiences.

How does that relate to ecology? In the past few decades, there has been a push to quantify the value of the natural world. We call them ecosystem services – things like clean water, clean air, the provision of fish to eat and wood to build with, nice places to go recreate in. All of these things can be assigned a dollar value and deemed “natural capital.”

This approach can then be used to make policies protecting natural areas. Asking people to identify what is valuable in their landscape helps set conservation priorities. This approach can also demonstrate that neglecting such protection would be economically costly. In some places the ecosystem services approach has worked great, and in others not so much.

Until last week, I have to admit that I kind of saw ecosystem services as black and white: this ecosystem either provides this service, or it doesn’t. This forest provides X and Y. That lake provides X and Z. I saw ecosystem services as something you could measure objectively.

Then I walked into Katie’s defense.

Katie’s research is fascinating. She worked at eight different research sites scattered around the world, from two right here in northeast Switzerland to those in Siberia and Borneo. At each site, she asked people who worked at the conservation areas a series of questions: did they think that ecosystem service X was being provided by this area? What about ecosystem service Y?

This is a seemingly simple dataset and study, but the work and the results are far from simple. Just getting the interview responses, despite cultural and language barriers and all the rest, was a huge feat.

The thing that struck me most from Katie’s talk was that even in ecosystems that seemed in some ways similar – and actually, even at the same ecosystem– the people Katie interviewed had different answers about whether an ecosystem service was provided or not.

In other words: assessing what ecosystem services are provided does depend on the ecosystem. It depends on how people see the ecosystem.

Katie also mined through the responses and deduced how people thought about the value of these conservation areas. Rather than thinking only about an ecosystem service, she classified the responses by what this service corresponded to.

Did people see the service provided as something more utilitarian (“instrumental”)?

Or did they value this service differently, in a more “intrinsic” way – is the service provided something more fundamental, like biodiversity, that just is?

The third type of value is the one that makes me go run in a new place whenever I can – “relational” value, defined by the way that we interact with nature.

Different ecosystem services, which are the metric by which we turn nature into “natural capital”, were valued in a wide range of ways. And importantly, nearly every ecosystem service that Katie asked about was valued in each of the three ways by at least one study participant. In fact, most participants places more than one value on a given service!

Katie’s big question was, what are the things that motivate people to take positive action about biodiversity?

I had been thinking, like a cold scientist, that the natural capital of an area or ecosystem was defined by the ecosystem itself: the biodiversity contained within, the black and white ecosystem services it provided. I thought we had to convince people of that value, and then they would be motivated to protect it.

What Katie illustrated so powerfully was that actually, the value of nature is defined by the people valuing that nature. If we don’t recognize that, then we won’t really succeed with protected areas and conservation policymaking.

And because of that, it’s a little bit stupid for someone like me who leaves human interaction completely out of my research to put in pompous statements about how that same research will inform conservation. The two parts of my brain that think about environmentalism and ecology had skipped a pretty fundamental dialogue that they could be having.

A few days later, I saw the following tweet from Andy Gonzalez, from a presentation by University of Vermont professor Taylor Ricketts at a science conference in Quebec. It distills this point in a different, perfect way.

 

I bet I’m not the only ecologist who needs to mull over that message.

We live and we learn, and I’m trying to become a better scientist and a better person all the time. Part of that is being humble and realizing when you’re being clumsy or just kind of an idiot.

Hearing from inspirational colleagues definitely helps in that process.