Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k

I’ve spent the last month not working, and it has been fantastic.

It was such a huge push to defend my PhD, and then I had a few more months of work at Eawag, trying to finish up projects and papers. I wanted to make sure to take some time to myself before starting a postdoc, because I’m not sure when I’ll have another chance to just completely unplug. Science moves fast and as soon as I start my postdoc, I’ll be applying for jobs all over again.

“That’s great!” People would say when I told them I was taking the summer off. “What will you do with yourself?”

“Well, a lot of hiking, sleeping late, and reading,” I’d say. “And in July I’m doing my first real mountain running race.”

Thinking back, I have realized that the race – the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30 k – isn’t really my first mountain trail race at all.

Last year I did a trail marathon, the Transruinaulta, with 6,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

In 2016, I did a trail half marathon that went straight up a downhill ski resort in Arosa, Switzerland, for 4,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

What about all the times before, during and after college that I time trialed up Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire? Or participated in the Presidential Ridge Relay Race?

Those were all, in fact, mountain running races. Especially the one in Arosa. But I for some reason didn’t consider them to be my “real” mountain running debut, probably for two reasons.

One was that maybe I wanted to be ready for that debut, to have prepared, to train, to take it seriously. I didn’t do that before Arosa, I just signed up and figured I was a cross-country skier so I’d be fine. Now, I’ve been preparing.

And the second one was maybe because, having lived in Europe for a while, I have this picture in my head of a mountain running race, with singletrack trail and glaciers in the background. I think in my mind my mountain running debut had to fit that image. And Arosa… it was up a ski resort. It didn’t feel so wild. Transruinaulta was as much on dirt roads as trails. Moosilauke, you only race up, not down.

Whether it was my “first real mountain race” or not, Gran Trail Courmayeur is in the books. It was awesome, and I’m excited to explore the mountain/trail race scene in North America after this intro from the Alps.

I had never really been to the Mont Blanc area, so went down the Thursday before my Saturday race. It was amazing to see this huge mountain, and so much ice crammed up in there. I’ve seen glaciers running into the ocean, glaciers filling valleys in the Alps, shrinking and sad-looking patches of glacier on mountainsides. But the amount of ice just perched up there, literally hanging off the side of the mountain, blew my mind.

I wanted to just look at it, to soak it in. What a cool place.

The Friday, I didn’t know what to do with myself – I wanted to explore, but didn’t want to get tired. So I splurged and took an expensive cablecar ride up to Punta Helbronner, 3,466 meters high and looking over at Mont Blanc.

Well, where Mont Blanc should be. It was covered in clouds.

 

The highest peak in Europe west of the Caucasus is back in there, somewhere.

View in the other direction was pretty nice though. (click to expand)

But being up there sure was amazing, and seeing ant-like figures trekking across the snowfields. I kind of couldn’t believe I was in Europe, and that the hot valley floor was just a few minutes cablecar ride away.

An aerial view down on the Rifugio Torino and onwards to my racecourse, over around and past the green ridge in the center of the photo.

Then, I went to the sports center to pick up my number. The race organization was typically Italian: everything worked out perfectly in the end, but it was very confusing. For example, I had studied the course map trying to figure out where the start/finish would be. It appeared to be in the middle of town, but on my way past, I hadn’t seen anything you’d expect for a race starting in just 12 hours.

The line to pick up our numbers; race officials had to check our medical certificates to make sure a doctor had said we could participate in such an event without dying. This is a common requirement for races in Italy and France, but explaining the request to a Swiss doctor was interesting. Also – do you see many women in this line? sigh.

“The race start is not here, it is somewhere else, is that correct?” I asked the woman who handed me my number.

“The start and finish are here,” she said, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Oh, really? Here?”

“Yes, down, outside, with the big arch!”

Okay, so I’d have to subtract two kilometers from everything on the course map/profile, because they seemed to be using the same loop as the map on their website [I assumed], but moving where the loop started and ended. Makes total sense.

I’m a pretty organized person, and I’m also a nerd, and I also worry a lot. At races like this, it can be challenging for me to prepare because I want to have a detailed plan of exactly how the race was going to go. This sort of uncertainty didn’t help.

I pored over the course map, sussing out how the 1,800 meters (6,000+ feet) of elevation gain and loss were distributed around the course. One big climb in the beginning. Then a flat that I doubted was actually flat, for six kilometers. Then a second major climb. A drop down to a valley, a shorter steep climb, and then all downhill from there. Steeply.

And I checked the finishing times from the previous year, trying to estimate how long the race would take me. Four hours? Five? It all depended on the trail. And whether there would be any other surprises in store for me along the way.

The next morning I hurried down from our AirBnB to get to the start, because it was written that we had to enter the start pen 30 minutes before the start, and then they would close it. Well, the start pen didn’t even open until 20 minutes til start time, and then it stayed open. Again, classic Italy.

Once the race began, though, everything was perfectly organized. We ran through neighborhoods out of town, with people cheering along the sides of the road. After two kilometers or so, we joined the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail and climbed upward: about two and a half kilometers of an average 25% grade.

This part of the race was a hiking race, and it felt a little bit silly to be hiking. The trail was crowded with hikers carrying backpacks big and small: tourists out for a day hike, or folks backpacking the whole TMB loop. We were sure moving faster than them, but we must have looked ridiculous.

I tried to stay at a steady pace, below my anaerobic threshold, and just climb away. By the top my legs were aching a bit, nothing major, but reminding me that although I had only been going for an hour, I’d already put in more than 2,500 feet of the course’s elevation.

We passed through the first aid station, then crested a pass. We had just been climbing straight up, and my eyes had been glued to the trail in front of me. But suddenly, there was no trail or hill in front of me.

Just the Mont Blanc massif in all its glory, basking a bit in the sun. Everyone around me paused and took out their phones for pictures. It was just amazing.

I really, really don’t usually stop to take photos in races. But this was such a scene, and everyone else around me was stopping to take pictures too. So I did.

That feeling, that image I had been looking for for my “first real mountain race”? As we set off on the singletrack along the Balcon de Ferret, I definitely had it. This was it. This was the stuff of dreams and legends. I was there and I was doing it.

As I had expected, the Balcon wasn’t actually flat. But for the most part, it was runnable, and a really fun trail.

There were a few guys around me and we cruised along. I felt better, like I was in a running race after all. The views were continually astounding, and every once in a while there would be hikers pulling off the trail or having stopped for a snack in an alpine meadow who would cheer us along.

“Brava!” they would shout as I passed. I wasn’t sure how many women were ahead of me, but there were few women in the field (just under a third of the entrants in the 30 k were women), and so seeing me among the sea of men was probably still notable no matter how many women were faster.

Before long, we ran out of Balcon and turned right up a steep hill. This was the start of the second big climb, and its beginning was a doozy, a shock after the easy kilometers we had been lulled into. Here there were even more spectators, because there was a hut up ahead where they were probably planning to have lunch.

We climbed for a while, and then the trail leveled off into a broad bowl-like meadow valley. Looking ahead, all you could see was mountain.

You might want to stay in such a nice, welcoming, pleasant spot. But we couldn’t. After a dissapointingly short flat section, up we went, steeply again, to the top of the second major climb.

And here I got my first surprise of the race. It had nothing to do with the organizers; it had to do with me. I wasn’t feeling strong exactly, and I was struggling to eat (not because of stomach issues, but on a hot day my food just didn’t seem appealing). And yet, I began to catch people who had hiked away from me on the first climb.

On these big hills, you can see everyone spread out way ahead of you, and I watched in amazement as I came ever closer to two women whom I hadn’t seen in over an hour.

“Don’t get too excited,” I tried to tell myself. “There’s a lot of race left. You could still blow up and they could pass you back. Just be careful and do a good job.”

But on the downhill to the next valley, I put distance on them (and passed some men, too). The “last” steep climb up to the final pass felt terrible, and my legs were screaming. For sure they’ll catch me, I thought. But they didn’t. In fact, I was catching more men, and another woman. Again, I was amazed. I didn’t feel strong.

The last pass!

And then, the big downhill. This was my second surprise.

I love downhill. Maybe it’s because I’m a skier, but running downhill is just fun. I’m pretty confident in my footwork, and I know that it’s easier to zoom than it is to be braking all the time and put so much stress on your quads and knees. I had dreamed of this downhill for kilometers. I was going to fly. My resolution: I wouldn’t let myself be passed by any woman.

Somehow, I had failed to completely account for the magnitude of this downhill. We had eight kilometers to lose 1,300 meters of elevation, and there were 150 or so meters of climbing thrown in there too. So on average, the grade was more than 15%. That’s steep. We classify “A” and “B” climbs in skiing, categorize climbs in bike racing, etc etc… but we don’t classify descents.

The beginning of this descent was unreal. Loose dirt, incredibly steep. I found myself taking tiny steps, putting on the brakes, terrified of sliding out and falling down the mountain. I was not zooming. I wouldn’t be at the finish line as soon as I had hoped, that much was clear.

And my concern was justified. A few kilometers later, I heard a terrible scream. I couldn’t place it – somewhere in front of me, but was it a person? An animal? Was it a racer, or a bystander, maybe a kid? I ran on, and eventually came across a few male runners stopped on the side of the trail. Ten feet down the side of the mountains, someone was moaning and trying to climb out of the brush and the forest. It was a racer down there, who must have tripped and fell over the edge. One of the men was on a cell phone calling for help.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“I guess you can go on,” one of them said. Not speaking Italian, I did doubt how useful I would be in helping this poor person, but as I ran on, it also felt wrong to leave.

When we reached the next aid station, the men I was following explained more to the volunteers about the injured runner. They were setting off to go assist.

I sucked on an orange slice, glad for the new option for sugar delivery. I was thirsty and knew I should eat more, but the downhill pounding and the heat made doing so very unattractive. Oranges, though? Perfect. I started running again.

Although I was so much more tentative on the downhills than I expected to be, I still passed quite a few people. No more women, after that, but some men. There were sections of trail that were less steep, or just more even, and there I could fly.

That’s what I thought, until a woman with a long braid went sailing past me. Shewas flying. I hadn’t even known what flying was. It was instantly clear that I could not keep up with her. My resolution was broken. I have to practice downhills before my next race, I guess.

We eventually hit a paved road and dropped down into town, across the river, and back towards the sports center and the finish. There weren’t many signs or markings through town; roads weren’t closed; people were watching, but they didn’t have any clues about what was happening. I had expected an adrenaline rush, but mostly, the tourists were just going about their day and we were some weird sideshow that they barely noticed.

The final 10 meters of climbing leading up to the finish line were brutal, and I felt I couldn’t push at all. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but happy, and took off my sunglasses and smiled big for the finish line photographer.

I had done my first “real” mountain race, or my second or third or or eighth mountain race. Who cares? It had been fun and brutal, which are two things I had been counting on. The trail had been technical – if 4:30 (my final time) seems slow for a 28 k race, the actual trail was a big part of that, besides the up and down.

I had felt okay, but most importantly, I had felt like I belonged there. I was running and hiking with people who obviously trained for this, but we also all had fun enjoying the spectacular scenery. The atmosphere and camaraderie were fantastic, a great combination of serious sport and doing this because we actually enjoy being in the mountains.

And I had finished ninth. I don’t know what top ten means in this field, and that’s actually something I love about racing in new places. I didn’t know a single person there, so my analytical mind couldn’t really consider whether that’s a good or bad or respectable result. A whole exhausting, self-defeating doom loop I could just skip. But top-10 always has a nice ring to it.

The next day it was a long trip back to Zurich, during which I read almost an entire book. Since I’m on vacation, I could recover on the sofa at home in the next few days, rather than dragging my tired body around at work and trying to make my tired brain be smart.

Instead of working, I’ve been dreaming up what my next adventures will be.

It’s Italy so… post-race (and post-shower!) aperitivo!

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.

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.

The marathons of 2018.

This autumn I ground away at two big goals: finishing my dissertation, and running my first trail marathon.

A number of people told me I was insane to try to do both of these things at the same time. But everyone has different ways of staying happy and maximizing what they are capable of. For me, it’s essential to have more than one thing to focus on. I have a few friends who must live like I do: they said, oh, that’s perfect!

The last few months of dissertation writing were really hard. Although I made a plan with my supervisor about how to get everything done, work didn’t really proceed according to plan. Some things took longer. Other tasks required waiting on collaborators for feedback. Sometimes I simply realized that I had no idea what was expected as a certain output. I tried to start working anyway, only to have my first attempt deemed garbage.

By contrast, my marathon training was straightforward. I won’t say it was easy, but I knew what I had to do.

***

I didn’t sign up for just any marathon; the Transruinaulta in southeastern Switzerland is mostly off-road and features 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) of climbing, plus the corresponding 1,800 meters of descents. In order to do a race effort I felt good about, I knew I would have to take training seriously.

I bought a training plan from Uphill Athlete, a company and community run by Scott Johnston and Steve House. I have known about Scott for years through the cross-country ski community (though I have never met him), and I respect his work, experience, and philosophy so much. I knew that whatever plan I got from Uphill Athlete would deliver me well-prepared to the start line. It had been seven years since I last followed a training plan, but at last, I was ready to return to intentional, organized training. I dove in and had confidence every step of the way that I was doing the right thing.

“The right thing” involved functional strength training exercises that did more to rehab my ankle from last year’s ruptured ligaments than anything my non-skiing PT had taught me. It included interval sessions that I found I really enjoyed – a surprise, since in those last seven years I had done intervals less than a dozen times annually, and some years probably less than five times.

One week “the right thing” involved a 30-kilometer run/hike one day and a 20 k  run/hike the next day. That was hard, but I planned in advance to head to the Engadin valley for the weekend so that I the spectacular scenery would entice me out the door on Sunday when my body was already tired.

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Enjoying some amazing trail running/hiking around Pontresina.

And maybe the hardest week was when “the right thing” had a 30 k run scheduled on a weekday. I woke up early, took the train to Baden, and ran all the way to the office. I have to admit I wasn’t a very effective worker that day.

But even though it was often hard, I knew what I had to do. Just follow the plan. The plan will get you where you want to go.

Training for a marathon was probably the easiest thing I did this fall.

***

The trauma (there, I said it) of the last month of my dissertation has almost blotted out the months that came before, work-wise. But looking back, I can piece together what they looked like.

I want to be clear that a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I’m a perfectionist. I hate doing less than the best I could possibly do.

I also have a strong viewpoint that data should not go un-analyzed and un-reported. It’s not good for science if we leave something in a file drawer just because it didn’t turn out to be interesting. That means that someone else will repeat our experiment in the future. And if they also leave it in a file drawer because it turns out to not be interesting, then some unsuspecting third scientist will also decide to tackle it. And so on. You get the picture.

My natural tendency to overwork myself was at some points made worse by my supervisor. Florian is a great supervisor – I would highly recommend working in his lab, and the effusive thanks I eventually wrote in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation were not exaggerations. But he knows how to get the most out of all of us. And at this point, he has known me for four years. He probably knew that if he told me he didn’t think I could do something, that would make me try that much harder to get it done.

All of which is to say that in late August when I sat down with Florian to plan the final few months, I should have been confident that my dissertation would be fine. I had already published three chapters of it as papers, which is a great position to be in. If I had wanted to, I could have coasted in to the finish, writing up one more chapter and calling it a day. Nobody would have said my dissertation wasn’t adequate.

But neither Florian nor I were interested in that option. Instead we planned out three more chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion to the dissertation. I had the data already for all of those chapters, but I still had to analyze it and I still had to do the writing.  I had until mid-November to get all of that done.

And so I made an estimate of how long everything would take. Choosing and learning the appropriate geostatistical method to upscale my survey data: would that take two days, or two weeks? Better just schedule one.

“You can write a paper in a week,” Florian said. I didn’t feel like that was true, but sure, chapter four, let’s schedule a week for the writing.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan. And I also had to apply for postdoc fellowships, too, an exhausting process during which I came up with a research proposal that didn’t even strongly relate to my dissertation. Charging ahead on both of these fronts required shifting between intellectual arenas in my brain.

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So here’s a plan I didn’t end up following, like, at all… in fact, the chapters aren’t even the ones that ended up in my dissertation!

Most days I came home from work exhausted, but through early fall, I was making progress. I submitted the fourth chapter to a journal two weeks before we had planned. Things weren’t going exactly as I had thought, but the parts going better than planned seemed to be making up for the areas where I was way behind.

***

In mid-October, with one month until my dissertation was due, I took the train to southeastern Switzerland on a Friday afternoon and got ready to race the next day. I had been tapering, which felt weird. I hadn’t done any competitions I felt strongly enough about to taper for since my only other marathon run, back in 2013 in France. (That one was on the road; I trained for it, but not according to any real plan.)

My friend Annie came down to race too, and was likewise stressed by work. She had been in the field all week, hardly ideal preparation. We went to bed early, and neither of us slept well. We made some overnight oats for breakfast and found a regional bus that would take us to Ilanz, where the race would start.

In the leadup to the race, a lot of people would ask how long I thought it would take. I had no idea what to answer. Five hours? Four hours? There was all that up and down. Plus, though it was clear that the race wouldn’t have much pavement, would the balance be dirt/gravel roads, or singletrack? How technical would the terrain be? This was clearly not a race where you could pick a pace or split and just try to consistently hit it.

Instead, I made a race plan based on heart rate. I wanted to start off easy on for the first few kilometers and then get into an easy but fast groove for the first ten or so kilometers, which looked mostly flat on the course profile. I set limits for the big climbs: don’t let your heart rate go above this. If you have to walk, walk. You’re in this for the long hall and you are not going to make yourself bonk. Downhills are one of my strengths, so I wanted to run every downhill as fast as I sustainably could.

Oh, and I planned to eat as many calories as I could stuff in my face.

I more or less followed this plan. My slow start meant that people poured past me in the opening kilometers (it was an individual-start marathon, weirdly), and I ended up going a little harder than I planned – but still easy enough that I don’t think it taxed me too much. My plan had probably been too conservative.

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First 10 k: whee, this is fun!

After that, my plan worked great. On the climbs that went for kilometer after kilometer, mostly on dirt roads but sometimes on singletrack, I kept up a steady effort hovering just around my anaerobic threshold. The downhills were a blast as I flew past people. Sometimes they would pass me again as I slowed to my steady pace on the uphills, but it paid off.

We hit the high point of the course around 30 k (20 miles) into the marathon, and there was an aid station at the top. One guy who had been running around me – sometimes ahead, sometime behind – staggered over to a picnic table and sat down heavily.

“Scheisse,” he groaned.

I ran through the aid station, stopping only for a few seconds to refill a water flask. I had quite a few kilometers of gradual to steep downhill to look forward to. I hadn’t completely wrecked myself on the uphill, and I started reeling people in. I was flying, catching runners whom I had told myself not to worry about as they went past me on the last climb.

It was pretty fun until a few kilometers to go. We had all been warned that there were three steep hills just before the finish, so to save something. The first one was a reality check after those nice kilometers of downhill, and it was longer than I had guessed, but not so bad.

The second one was short and very steep. I walked. Everyone walked.

The third one: very steep. It was terrible. I mentally cursed the race organizers. I came over what I thought was the top only to see that the hill went on. I felt like I was crawling. My swagger from a few kilometers ago was long gone. But at least from here it would only get easier towards the finish.

Down the other side, around a corner and… what the hell? Another steep hill. Like, really steep, find-something-to-grab-ahold-of steep. There were two retirees by the side of the trail. The runners ahead of me swore out loud this time, and the retirees laughed at them. At us. If I wasn’t so tired I would have fixed them an evil glare as I went by.

By the time I went down the fourth of the three hills, I wasn’t even fast on the downhills anymore. There was a very, very gradual climb to the finish line, back on pavement, which should have felt fast and easy. Instead, I struggled to maintain a jog. But I got to the finish, clocking a time just under five hours.

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The organizers set up this sweet panorama so you could mug and get a cool finish line photo as if you were running on the trail, but I was so beat I didn’t even notice. Whoops!

The sun was shining as we congratulated each other and began to refuel the calories and salt we had lost. Dry clothes felt so good. Sitting down felt good. I was proud of myself – my result was not particularly great, but I had worked hard and followed a plan and, I believe, done the best race I could do on that day. I was just over a year out from a major injury, and another major victory is that I hadn’t hurt myself again. That functional strength had worked: even when I was so tired, my feet nimbly navigated the trails and my ankles stayed stable.

Most importantly, I had a ton of fun and I was already dreaming of what long trail or mountain race to sign up for next year.

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With Annie at the finish: we did it! (Photo: some older lady walking by, who we accosted…)

***

The race hadn’t been easy.

If I’m thinking about the events that cap off my grueling goals, I think my PhD defense – scheduled for January – will be much easier. I like giving presentations, and I am excited to tell my colleagues, friends, and family about what I’ve been working on. I’m sure I will be nervous, but mostly, it will be fun. I’ve been imagining that day for months and months and months.

Compared to a mountainous trail marathon? PhD defense = easy.

But if I’m thinking about the paths that lead to those days, the running was much easier. The day after my marathon, I went for a little walk in the mountains with Annie, because we were already there and the views and mountain feeling are too good to miss even when your legs are jelly.

On Monday I went back to the office, and I didn’t take another day away from my dissertation until I handed it in just over a month later.

Again: that bad, bad situation of overwork, and everything it led to, was somewhat self-inflicted. I could have told myself, look, this is crazy. You don’t even really need six chapters. Florian, I can’t do chapter six. I’m going to take the weekend off and unscramble my brain and work on giving you a great five-chapter dissertation.

But that is not what I did. I wrote for hours at a time. I revised. I formatted. I cried. I ate a lot of cookies (a lot!). I asked colleagues to read terrible drafts. I rarely went running. I kept writing. I slept badly. I complained. I became a bad friend and officemate. I resented Florian. I cried more.

What I lacked was confidence. I was trying to follow the plan we had made, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have that feeling that if I just did what was on the schedule, everything would be fine. Most days, it felt like there was no way in the world that everything would be fine.

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You think you’re doing okay and then you start correcting your bibliography and it looks like this…

Maybe partly because my training was over and I was rarely exercising, I totally lost perspective. My dissertation seemed like the only thing in my life, in some ways, and it felt like a slow-rolling disaster. Every little setback seemed like the end of the world.

But, on November 19, I handed Florian a printed version of my dissertation.

He made some minor corrections and told me it was very nice. This was classic: he had previously told me that he expected he would make a lot of corrections and there was no way I’d be able to turn it in the next day. But by saying that, he had ensured that I would ruin myself attempting to give him a nearly perfect dissertation.

I made those small corrections, and on November 20, I submitted my dissertation to the University of Zurich. It was anticlimactic. I uploaded a PDF to the online interface, and then walked some paperwork over to the Faculty of Science. The woman at the desk who accepted my registration for a PhD defense didn’t even say congratulations. Nobody had come along to give me a high five or hug, because I hadn’t asked them to.

Instead I went home and, much like after my marathon, lay on the couch. I sank into the leather cushions and felt like maybe I could stay there forever.

***

Recovery began the next day.

If there’s anything that being an athlete has taught me, it is that recovery is important. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s also something that I didn’t really value for much of my “serious” athletic career. I was interested in too many other things – when I didn’t have to train, I filled that time with something else. I’m pretty sure I would have been a lot faster if I had just taken a nap.

But now I’m some combination of older and wiser, and my body is older, and my brain is older. They need recovery and I fully believe in its value.

I took almost a week off from work, and now I’m back. I’m able to enjoy going to the office again. I’m able to get excited about reading papers, another thing that I almost completely neglected while I was writing. Many of the projects I am working on now, in this time between my dissertation and defense, are collaborative, and that feels great to get back to, too.

And in the back of my mind I can say that no matter what else happened in 2018 – the political, the personal, the stupid stress I put myself under – I accomplished my two big goals. That feels pretty good.

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!

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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