Bye for now, Holmenkollen.

A few weeks ago I headed to Oslo for the last* World Cup biathlon races of the season. I had some serious flip-flopping about whether to go or not: FasterSkier didn’t cover the trip financially, but I wanted to go see the races, I wanted to get away from PhD work for a few days, I wanted to go ski in the Nordmarka, I wanted to have one last hurrah. But it was expensive! Norway always is, especially last-minute. After lots of soul-searching and budget-considering, I bought a plane ticket, got accredited for the races, and arranged an AirBnB.

As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made the right call. In mid March the days are already starting to get longer in Scandinavia. I arrived in the late afternoon and went for a jog in the evening light, skidding around on icy paths and sidewalks.

Then I made dinner in the absolutely perfect apartment we had rented. I had worked on some manuscript revisions on my flight, so I sent those off. I felt like leaving work early on a Thursday hadn’t made me much less productive. As a reward, I pulled up the extremely extensive trail map of the forests around Oslo (the marka) and got ready to head off skiing the next morning.

It turned out to be the perfect trip. The skiing was the best I’ve ever had in Oslo in all of my visits there – I was remembering a few years before when I went skiing with my Dartmouth friends Hannah and Knut. Knut had been living in Oslo for a few years at that point, and he picked out a loop for us in the marka. But it was so slushy and warm that we were dodging dirt and rocks, ice sheets above streams of snowmelt the whole way.

Quite a contrast. This year, it was quite cold overnight (and in the mornings!), but getting balmy by midday, true spring skiing but with a phenomenal base of snow. On my last ski, I was passed by a guy decked out in University of Denver gear. He saw that I was wearing an old Dartmouth Ski Team jacket and stopped to chat. I gushed about how beautiful the skiing was.

“I grew up in Oslo, and this is the best winter we have had in 15 years!” he exclaimed.

It was truly great. That first ski that I went on, I meandered for 35 kilometers, over hills (a lot of them: nearly 1000 meters of climbing on the day, Strava told me, explaining why I felt way more worn out than 35 k would suggest…), across lakes, through the woods, and past huts serving hot chocolate and waffles (I didn’t stop).

I could not have been happier. I was glowing.

“Why aren’t you looking for a postdoc here?” People kept asking, seeing just how happy I was and as I raved on and on about how you could ski for 100 km or far farther than that, if you wanted to, without ever doubling back. And all this, accessible from the metro line!

It was a good question, but also highlighted why I was there. At this time next year, I will be done with my PhD, and I don’t know where I will be but hopefully I will be starting a postdoc. The chances are pretty high that I will be back in North America. Oslo won’t be just a quick hop across Europe like it is from my current home in Zurich. I won’t be able to make a last-minute decision to fly over and watch the World Cup. Probably, I won’t be going to any World Cups at all.

So I enjoyed watching the races. The weather couldn’t have been better – instead of the fog that sometimes characterizes the Oslo fjord, it was spectacularly sunny every day. I got sunburned, and for one of the first times ever while reporting at a race, my hands didn’t even get cold operating the voice recorder app on my phone. The races almost didn’t seem long enough: standing out on the side of the trail, I could have just stayed there basking in the sun and the atmosphere for hours. When the racers were heading for the finish line and I had to get back to interview them, it was only grudgingly that I headed in that direction. In a way there didn’t even need to be a race. I would have sat outside anyway.

I enjoyed the culture, jogging through the Vigeland Park sculpture garden and visiting the phenomenal Fram Museum with Susan. Steve and I lit a fire in the wood stove in our AirBnB and cooked salmon for dinner, feeling cozy.

And I enjoyed the skiing.

On Sunday, before the last races of the weekend, I headed off on a ski – as always. Because I look more or less like I know how to ski, I can usually cruise around the race trails during training if I have my media accreditation and nobody looks at it too closely. So I headed out of the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere but trying not to attract any attention, and then off onto the bigger loop – the trails used in the cross-country World Cup but too long for biathlon, the ones that wouldn’t deliver skiers back to the shooting range fast enough.

I remembered what it was like there in 2011, my very first reporting trip with FasterSkier. It was cross-country World Championships, and we got a bib that allowed us to ski around the race course before the 50 k. I think at least two, if not three, of us took turns with that bib so we could each head out on the trails.

That morning, I skied two laps (which was maybe 8 k or maybe 13 k? I’m not sure…) and the 100,000+ people were already out there ready to cheer, having been camping in the woods around the trails and already drinking and grilling sausages. I had been to Norway before, for the 1994 Olympics when I was a little kid and then with two Ford Sayre trips. But to ski the trails before that race exponentially altered my understanding of our sport even above having been a spectator at the Holmenkollen in 2003 and 2006. Two laps of the loop used for that 50 k are no joke on the legs, but the adrenaline of all the half-drunk and fully-drunk fans screaming for me as if I was an athlete and the race had already started, rather than being two hours away, pushed me harder and harder, barely noticing the lactate building up.

This time, as I skied up the huge climbs of the Holmenkollen race trail loop and headed for the marka, they were quiet. I found myself crying. For seven years I had been going to World Cup races, and this pre-work ski was an integral part of my ritual. We don’t do this job for the money, and the chance to get out on ski trails in new and special places is always one of the best parts of a trip for me.

Oslo hadn’t been a new place in a while, but it will always be one of the most special places.

When would I next ski on these amazing trails, with all their lore and all of my own memories of famous battles which unfolded there?

When next would I be able to turn to the right as I climbed, and look out over the city and its fjord?

I kept thinking: this the the last time I’ll ever go for a ski before a race like this. I’ve done this so many times, and this is it. Not only it for skiing before the Holmenkollen races, but who knows when I’ll next be in Oslo, period.

The fact that it was such a perfect day didn’t help make that any easier to take.

Nor did the fact that when I got back to the stadium, I would be covering the last World Cup race ever for Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke of the United States, and Julia Ransom of Canada. The retirement parties planned somehow made my own upcoming life changes come even more to the fore.

But, of course, that is being melodramatic and overblown. Oslo isn’t going anywhere. Probably I won’t be back there reporting for FasterSkier. But that’s not to say that I can’t go back, during the World Cup or any other time. I have my whole life ahead of me. In theory, I will have a job and some income. (Ha!! That’s delusional!! I’m a scientist!!) I can come back whenever I want, if the pull is so strong. It’s not my last time on these trails.

I kept repeating this to myself and by the time I peeled off of the cross-country race loop and headed into the marka, the tears had stopped.

On the slightly-less-manicured trails, I passed dozens, probably hundreds, of skiers. Some in trendy Scandinavian ski clothes. Others retirees, on old skis, moving slowly. Families with kids, with the parents carrying backpacks for a picnic later. Guys pulling babies and toddlers behind them in pulks. People my age who weren’t out there because they were great skiers, but because it was a beautiful day, skiing around in old sweaters and knit headbands. Women of all ages, some wearing lipstick, several with dogs bounding beside them or ahead of them or, in the case of one lady with a dachshund, trailing behind her working very hard but utterly unable to keep up on his stubby little legs.

The whole world was out skiing because, in the end, it was a perfect day. And I was out with them.

I didn’t forget that in a way this was the end of everything, but the acute grief faded. I enjoyed the ski without thinking constantly about what it meant. I basked.

I skied the longest loop I could manage until it was almost time for the races, then snuck back into the stadium past some course marshals who just nodded instead of checking my credential. I took off my skis and stood for a moment, looking first at the ski jump just across the bowl, then at the grandstands full of fans. The television cameras were panning back and forth. The commentators in their little booths were already commentating. The stadium announcer was pumping up the crowd. A few athletes were starting to do pickups, speeds, or threshold work as they skied out of the stadium, the final pieces of their pre-race warmups. Photographers were starting to filter out onto the trails and their special priority positions hauling their gigantic zoom lenses, bigger than my head.

I took several deep breaths. I smiled.

I told myself, this will still be here.

And I went into the media center to change into dry clothes, grab something to eat, and then get out there and do some reporting.

 

*Oslo was last World Cup of the season that wasn’t in Russia, which is currently not in compliance with the WADA Code. A number of teams and athletes skipped the Russia finals.

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Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!

Hochfilzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ten days in Norway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Exactly.

A journalist who skis? No way!

A journalist who skis? No way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness.

Happiness.

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

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

Beauty.

Beauty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finish zone in the women's pursuit.

The finish zone in the women’s pursuit.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes! Please!” he said.

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

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

oslo.

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

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

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

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

belatedly, hochfilzen.

IMGP2912A long time ago, back in December, I visited Austria. I was so busy, drowning in my thesis and also working at World Cup biathlon races while I was there. Then I flitted over to Davos to keep working, more thesis, more World Cup. I never got to write about my time in Austria.

So here it is! My thesis is handed in, I have a bit of a cold so I can’t go skiing today, and so I will write a few words about Hochfilzen. First off, it was amazing how easy the trip was. I hopped on a train in Munich and was soon floating past the Austrian Alps. We went by Kitzbühel, one of those places you hear about over and over again if you pay any attention at all to the alpine ski racing scene. It’s among the most famous destinations in the Alps and the hardest downhill courses on the World Cup. I pretty much never thought I’d go there.

Hochfilzen, my destination, is just a few stops on the train past Kitzbühel. The total travel time was just over two hours. Munich folks, get to this part of the Alps. It’s an easy trip and it’s beautiful. And, unlike much of the Alps at that time, it was snowing, big, glorious dumps of snow! The mountains were actually covered in white, which was a very welcome sight given that most ski races were being held in the middle of brown.

I checked into my little hotel, which was conveniently located just across from a trailhead for the ski tracks. So I gobbled down a sandwich for lunch and immediately headed out. It was my first time on snow all season and it was a joy! There was not so so much snow but enough for a few kilometers of a loop. As always I felt that freedom and exhiliration that comes from having glide, no longer being weighed down by friction or the pause of your feet on the pavement. Snow! What a wonderful thing.

In the next days I went for a few more skis, and Hochfilzen is truly a great place to cross-country ski. The trails connected several little village centers, so it was possible to ski back and forth up the valleys that extend in several directions. Just look at all of this. I didn’t get to explore very much of the total extent of the network. (click to enlarge)

trailmap

Often I was the only one on these trails (okay, one day it was dumping buckets of snow and the trails hadn’t been groomed, that might be why). With the mountains rising up all around me, I just felt incredible. The Tyrolian Alps aren’t particularly tall – the mountain at Kitzbühel, called Hahnenkamm, is just under 6,000 feet – but they are rocky and craggy and look very epic. You forget that you’re not at a much, much higher elevation.

Another nice thing about Austria is that it’s sort of cheap, at least compared to Munich or Switzerland. I stayed in a quite nice hotel with a wonderful breakfast – I would say the best, except these breakfasts are standard in the alps. Bread, jam, cheese, hams, yogurt and muesli, fruit, you name it. All healthy things, but such a spread that it’s hard not to smile as you get out of bread.

The town of Hochfilzen is very very small (just over 1,000 people – about the size of my hometown of Lyme, and it’s crazy to think of such a place hosting a World Cup), so there wasn’t much to do. I did go out one night for a “business meeting” which devolved into a much less formal situation. The only place we could find to eat and grab a beer was a little smoke-filled bar/restaurant. The food was good, but I left smelling of cigarette smoke.

Another highlight was the fact that I got to spend really a lot of time with my friends on the biathlon team. Hannah, Susan, and Sara were all racing, as well as Annelies and Lanny, who unlike the first three were not my teammates at Dartmouth but whom I’ve gotten to know over the last few years. Twice I went over to their hotel in the evening and just hung out. It was so great to be able to have some unscheduled time with them and just let the conversation wander wherever we wanted it to. It’s very rare that I get to see my American friends when I’m over in Europe, and it’s the same for them. I owe a big thank you to the U.S. team staff who let me waltz in on the team and spend time with them.

Finally, I worked a lot a lot a lot. They were exciting races with beautiful scenery. The only pictures I took were on the race course, but I think that is a great way to show you what this part of Austria is actually like. So, without further ado, here they are! Click any photo to enlarge (better quality!) and start a slideshow you can tab through.

the curious case of the credential in the snowbank.

Just before I left home last week, I was given something important. Realllllly, reallllllly important. My credential for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which also serve as my visa to get into the country. Sort of a big deal. I’m trying to think of anything else I’ve been given where it’s been so important that I not lose it for over a month, despite the fact that it’s a sort of flimsy piece of paper. Nothing is coming to mind.

But, oh well, I thought. No problem. I’m responsible!

Then I went to Ruhpolding.

In Ruhpolding, I was given a different credential for the weekend of World Cup racing, as I am at each venue. I am 9ABC, which basically means that as media I can access the media center, start/finish, and a certain area behind the range at a biathlon race. If I had D, I’d be a photographer, and then I’d have more special privileges like getting to nice spots on the course to take excellent photos. Usually, I just go to those spots anyway and hope that nobody notices that I have neither a “PHOTO” bib nor a “TEAM” bib. Usually, nobody cares, but every once in a while a grumpy old German course official yells at me.

The credential is also important because it lets me into the venue without having a ticket.

I went about my work the first day, reporting on the men’s relay, and then caught a ride to town with the U.S. wax techs and went for a jog with my friend Susan, who was racing, and then we had dinner together with the team and chatted in her room afterwards. She gave me a ride back to the Pichlers’ house, where I was staying, in the wax techs’ van. Bye Susan! Good luck tomorrow!

I woke up and went for a run the next morning, then started to get ready to go up to the venue for another day of reporting. I unpacked my backpack and repacked it with better clothes (the first day, my luggage still hadn’t arrived, so I didn’t have many choices). One last thing… where was my credential?

Hmm. I tore apart my little room, which is Pam’s office but she kindly put a mattress on the floor for me. I asked her and Walter if they had seen it. They were split: Pam swore I was wearing it when I came home the night before, Walter swore I wasn’t. Personally, I remembered carrying it in my hand as I left the U.S. team’s hotel and went to the van. I assumed I had left it in the van, but the wax techs had gone up to the venue long ago so I wouldn’t be able to get it until I got there. That was a problem, since I couldn’t get in without it, and how else would I get to the wax cabin to ask them about it?

Head hung low in shame, I walked down to the accreditation office, which is also where I would catch a shuttle up to the venue. I walked in and stood in front of the same woman who had given me the credential in the first place.

“This is very embarrassing, but, I think I lost my credential,” I stuttered. “Is there any way I can get a temporary one? I think I know where it is.”

“Are you Chelsea?” she asked.

Yes. Yup. That’s me.

From her desk she picked up two credentials, each with my face on them. One had clearly seen some water seep underneath its plastic lamination, because the text was turning all green and my face was sort of rainbow-colored. The other was brand new and shiny.

“Wow! Where did they find it?” I asked, wondering if the wax techs had for some reason dropped it off for me.

“In the stadium,” she said with a glare. “In a snowbank.”

She was clearly being reproachful that I didn’t value this credential, wantonly dropping it into the snow without a care in the world.

Me? I was confused. I’m still certain I had it at the hotel, so how the heck did it end up back in the stadium in the snow? When? Who?

All of this doesn’t bode well for my Sochi credential. Please, little piece of paper, stay in my notebook.

It’s funny though – besides just this credential mess, I’ve been really out of it this season when it comes to professionalism and organization. I should be a pro by now. My first World Championships was in 2011; I’ve been to two more, plus a handful of World Cup competitions, since then. I know my way around, particularly in Ruhpolding, which is the first venue I’ve visited more than once. I know where to get a shuttle and when I need to hitchhike; I’ve calculated the shortest way to run between different parts of the course; I’ve calibrated how long it takes for the winners to get to the press conference, so that I can squeeze in an extra interview in between. I can produce a story, with its feature photo, in less than an hour. I’m sort of a machine.

In Hochfilzen, though, I forgot everything: my computer charger, the cable to download photos from my camera, my headphones so I could listen to interviews on my voice recorder without pissing people off. All of it was in my hotel room. That day, I had to run, in my Sorel boots, the several kilometers to my hotel room and back, through a snowstorm, to fetch them.

And now this. Losing my credential. What, am I rookie? No way!

It’s troubling, to say the least. The next gig I have coming up on the reporting front is the Olympics, and let’s just hope I don’t make too many sloppy mistakes there. If I do, will you come fetch me out of the gulag?