czech it out!

town 2

Despite my harried and stressful arrival in Nove Mesto, I settled in immediately and loved it there. The next morning I woke up and walked two blocks to find a grocery store – and was amazed that I could buy breakfast and snacks all for the price of, like, three dollars! It certainly was a pleasant shock after being in Norway and Sweden to be able to actually buy things.

One interesting part of this experience, though, was the fact that this was one of the first places I had been in a while where people didn’t speak English. I’d go so far as to say that I felt the most unconnected that I ever have – even when I was living in Morocco, at least I spoke French. It was somewhat disconcerting to walk around knowing that I couldn’t really talk to people: what if I needed something? What if I accidentally did something wrong? What if I got sick? I wouldn’t be able to explain myself.

townBut more than that, I felt like a typical tourist jerk. It seems so disrespectful to go to a foreign place without even trying to learn the language, and that’s exactly what I had done. I didn’t even take the time to look up how to say “hello” before I flew to Prague. I’m not sure why this was all so far from my mind, but I ended up feeling a bit embarrassed for myself. My instincts kicked in and my brain thought, “foreign language!” and I would sputter out little bits of Swedish, which of course did not help at all. In fact, even fewer people speak Swedish than speak Czech.

That first day held the mixed relays, so I grabbed my credentials and headed up to the venue before lunch so that I could get a feel for where things were and prepare myself for the races. I had only wandered a few blocks from my house, but it was enough to be teased by the little town’s cuteness: the main streets were nice, much nicer than my neighborhood. I wasn’t in the low-rent district, but the buildings were more modern. They lacked the romantic charm of “downtown” Nove Mesto.

my neighborhood

I could feel it, though. From my bedroom I could see the steeple of a nearby church – which turned out to be right next to the grocery store. I checked it out.

dodgy church

The next day there were no races, so I spent the morning walking around town (and found a bigger grocery store, where I tried to buy hot chocolate mix and ended up purchasing cocoa powder – d’oh! no congnates here!). Next to dingy-looking stores were some beautiful buildings, many painted pretty colors. There were also all sorts of unusual decorations, from carving (expected) to painting. A few buildings I passed had unusual decorations or writing painted right onto the outside, a tradition I haven’t seen many other places.

painted building hotel

painted building 1  painted building 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there was the art. For being a small town, Nove Mesto was obviously proud; one building had a bust of what I can only assume was an illustrious former resident mounted over the doorway. There were metal sculptures and stone sculptures, both originals and copies. An art museum. A photography exhibit by an artist who had traveled all the way to the Himalayas to take photos, and then mounted them on a huge outdoor installation. A series of placards celebrating different dance and music events.

christPerhaps all of this is not a coincidence; Nove Mesto is the was where Jan Stursa resided, one of the fathers of modern Czech sculpture. And one of the most prominent pieces, besides the religious-themed ones, was a copy of his sculpture commemorating the sacrifices of soldiers. Based on a photograph of a battle in the Carpathian mountains, it was made into a memorial after World War I.

And standing in front of the sculpture, I thought a little bit about why the Czech Republic felt so foreign even though so many things were familiar. I later looked up some things about Czech history: they haven’t had it easy.

Take the mid-1700’s: the area was taken by Prussia, and then a famine starved off a tenth of the population.

The area then became part of the Austrian empire; people were serfs until the mid 1800’s, under absolute monarchy.

Czechs fought in World War I, and many died.

They then established their own country, Czechoslovakia, one of the few democracies of the time – excellent! But then the Nazis invaded. Democracy no more. Massacres, concentration camps, and genocide: estimates vary but I read one number that said as many as 2/3 of Czechs may have been killed. That seems impossible; I hope it is.

(Czechs returned the favor by murdering Germans after the war.)

Soon after that, Czechoslovakia became an Eastern bloc country. Communism, censorship, economy lagging, poverty.

Today, things are going well in the Czech Republic. But it’s amazing to stop and think for a moment about all that.

sacrifice

Despite all that history, I was surrounded by beauty. The most well-known sight in Nove Mesto is the central church, which is indeed amazing. The painting on the hotels and residences paled in comparison with how this cathedral was decorated.

painted church first

Scene after scene – all biblical, but interpreted locally. One thing I find fascinating is how religious imagery, which all comes from the same source, can really vary from culture to culture.

church tall photo  church side entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the details were painstakingly intricate and thoughtful.

church side 1church side 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, of course, I couldn’t loiter all day every day in the cute little town center. It was hi ho, hi ho, off to work we go up to the venue in the late morning, where I’d grab a delicious lunch in the media restaurant. The shuttle buses were mysterious – although I passed sign after sign advertising pickup and dropoff locations, I never seemed to find one when I wanted it. Perhaps that was because I arrived early and left late, much unlike the many thousands of fans, but in any case it was a 25 minute walk and since the weather wasn’t too cold, it was a nice way for me to relax. I brought my skis but hadn’t been able to find any trails near town, so that was my exercise for the day: walking with views of the Bohemian countryside.

walk 1

walk 2  walk 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

walk 4

I wish I could have stayed longer – and I wish I could have skied. Circumstances intervened. But I remember my aunt Liz saying that the Czech Republic was one of her favorite places to visit, because things were unspoiled and you could ski out along the hilltops or ridgelines and just look out. It would have been nice to have that experience – but I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Back to Bavaria.

I am in Uppsala, Sweden, now, having completed two days of my orientation program here – just the weekend separates me from my anxiously-awaited first day of Real Classes. But before talking about Uppsala, I want to write a little bit about what I did after Montpellier – I went to Ruhpolding, Germany to visit some friends, and I had a great time! As my mom wrote in an e-mail, the pictures look like “pictures from a … picture book about what Germany is supposed to look like. Lucky you, in the picture!”

I had to leave Montpellier at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and drag my bags through the street to the tram station, a ten-minute ordeal that left me sopping wet and disgusting. I was so happy that the train would be taking me to cooler climes. I rode to Lyon, switched stations, and then took three more trains before ending up in the mountains of Bavaria where Pam Pichler picked me up at the station – just as she did back in March when I arrived to report on World Championships.

Back then, Pam had to leave the next morning to go to a conference in Las Vegas; luckily this time we had more time to talk. I was still exhausted so I quickly collapsed into the same big, comfy bed that I slept in last time around, joined by one of the family’s cats. In the morning, it really took all of my willpower to get out of that bed.

It was raining and gray, but even then it was beautiful. I drank a lot of tea and lounged around the house with Pam and her husband Walter and daughter Malin, who made a delicious German plum tart from scratch; older daughter Nina was at her very first day of work. It was cozy to have a cup of something hot and look out into the drizzly valley.

After lunch, my friend Susan, who was in town for a biathlon training camp, came over to pick me up and we joined her teammate Sara (both of them were my buddies on the Dartmouth Ski Team back when we were mere babes) and went on a little adventure. Somehow, this trip had aligned perfectly so that I was in town on their day off and actually got to see them. As Susan drove the van on narrow, winding roads through the hills and mountains, we caught up on everything: I told them about school, Sara talked about the classes she’s taking through the Keller School of Management, Susan said that she jumped in the pond-like “swimming pool” outside of their little cabin every morning and it had left her cold all day.

We parked outside of the Berchtesgaden National Park and wandered through little tourist shops until we ended up at the lake of Konigsee.

I’m going to use this word a lot, but: it was beautiful! It’s a long, skinny lake that has clifflike walls in some parts, and you can take a boat ride where someone blows a horn at the cliffs and the echo comes back so perfectly that it sounds like there are two horns. We opted not to do this, but walked around the one end of the lake and admired the views. Looking at a map, we could see that there were trails up the steep slopes on either side of the lake, with huts to stay in or alms to eat at. Some time in the future, I really hope I get to come here and make a hiking trip out of it. The scenery is just spectacular.

As you may know, the area also has an interesting place in history. It was here that Hitler had his Eagle’s Nest built, and you can see it atop one of the ridges near the lake. Again, we didn’t walk up there, but I’d love to read a little more about the history of the area in that era in particular before I come back. I will come back.

We drove down to the actual town of Berchtesgaden, which is perched on a hill. It took us a little while to wander our way to downtown. On our way we passed an amazing cemetery – they do things a little different in Germany than in the U.S. – and a beautiful church. Once on the equivalent of main street, we tried to look for a cafe to grab a coffee at, but this being Sunday afternoon most things were closed (and Berchtesgaden is small, so there weren’t that many shops in the first place). We had to settle on gelato, which was funny because it was actually kind of chilly. I selected hazelnut and am happy to report that it was delicious, even if it didn’t help my internal temperature.

Of course, part of my trip to Ruhpolding was to work for FasterSkier, so after we drove back to Susan and Sara’s cabin I met up with one of their teammates for an interview before having dinner with the whole biathlon team. After Susan took me back to Pam and Walter’s, we drank more tea and talked for an hour or so. Susan and I used to do so many of the same things – running, skiing, ecology research, leading outing club trips – and we still have the same interests, but we’re adults now and we both have real jobs, I guess you could say. And we are both fascinated by each other’s jobs and curious about how all these things we love might be able to fit together into a real life. It’s amazing for me to be able to catch up with friends like Susan, especially in such a seemingly random place – I have had some pretty cool opportunities in the last few years.

The next morning I ran up to the biathlon venue (my first exercise in a week, and I could tell….) to observe their training session and do more reporting work. (For lots of pictures of that experience, check here.) When I arrived back at the house Pam and Walter were sitting out in the garden in the sun. They have a little microclimate in their backyard which can grow nectarines, grapes, kiwis… what!? It was quite warm and lovely and I could have sat there for hours.

As it was, I said goodbye to Walter, who was just home on lunch break from a job helping to renovate some houses one of his relatives owned. And then it was time for me to take a shower and re-pack my bags – just a short visit to Bavaria this time around. Pam and Malin drove me back down to the train station and I was off, wishing that I could stay much longer.

I only met the Pichlers this winter through my old ski coach Dennis Donahue, who had worked at the U.S. Biathlon Association when Walter coached the national team, but they have become great friends and very generous hosts. Again, it’s just another example of how lucky I’ve been in the last few years – how many people can travel to a tiny town in a foreign country and develop a real friendship with the people they meet there? I think the explanation is that I am blessed to have many kind and amazing friends of my own, who of course know more people like themselves. Thanks, world, for offering up so many wonderful things to me.

Biathlon in Bavaria

Where can you possibly start when you are describing something so alive, so full of energy, so frenetic?

I’m here at IBU World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, and as the days tick down I can’t imagine how I will ever leave this place. It’s the same feeling I had in Oslo last year, and on that trip I was so overwhelmed that I never even ended up writing about it.

So this time I’m going to try to do better.

I arrived on Wednesday evening, sans ski bag, which however irritating it may have been at least made my train rides a bit easier. I am staying with a wonderful couple: Walter Pichler, a former star biathlete for West Germany who then coached the U.S. team for a decade, and his American wife Pam. Pam immediately made me at home: Anything you see in the cupboards is up for grabs! Do you want some tea? Look, our cats like you!

The Pichlers live just up the hill from town, and that evening I walked downtown to pick up my media credentials. It was immediately clear that this was going to be different than Oslo. Ruhpolding is a small town, of just 7,000 people, but it had to absorb the same amount of publicity and attention as the entire 1.4 million person metro area of Oslo. The town was packed, I mean packed, like sardines with rabid fans. Biathlon is the number one winter sport in Europe and nowhere is it more popular than in Germany.

But it wasn’t just the atmosphere that was different. The IBU is extremely, extremely well-organized and has a lot of money. They also have more rules. I asked whether there were service bibs that members of the media could borrow and ski on the course – we did this in Oslo and it was great – and the man handing out the credentials actually laughed in my face.

That’s a bummer, because there isn’t as much skiing to be had here, especially since the subtropical temperatures that have hit the area in the last week have made the skiing down in town very crappy. I have skied on the trails across from the venue a bit, but they don’t groom them much because people are here to watch, not to ski, and they use all of their resources for the races. Up the valley is better – I got to do an amazing ski with my old friend and teammate Susan Dunklee – but I don’t have a car, so it’s tough to get up there.

Really, though, the lack of good skiing is the only thing where Oslo is kicking Ruhpolding’s butt. The races have been amazing. There is so much exciting stuff happening that I can’t even start to explain it. And the fans, I must say, are even more loud and crazy than ski fans. Even though attendance is capped at around 30,000 due to the logistical challenges of transporting people up and down the narrow valley to the venue, it doesn’t feel any smaller than when I saw 100,000+ fans in Oslo. When Magdalena Neuner or Andreas Birnbacher comes into the range alone, you could be a mile away and still tell whether they hit their shots – the stadium explodes in a loud “HEI!” – or not. That’s how loud and unified the spectators are.

I’ve been working very hard. This weekend there were two sprints on Saturday, with a total of more than 250 competitors, and two pursuits (capped at 60 apiece) on Sunday. I stayed up until 1 a.m. on Saturday writing four race reports, woke up on Sunday and did a roundup of everything I missed, watched the men’s race and did interviews, then sprinted my way through the men’s report before the women’s race started on Sunday afternoon.

After the women’s race, my productivity took a dip as I had been invited to a U.S. Biathlon Association banquet that evening. I met the team at their hotel and grabbed a drink with Ed Merrens, a friend from the Upper Valley who is here as the U.S. team doctor. Then all of us took a van up to a very fancy Bavarian guesthouse where we met up with the coaches and wax techs, ski reps, foundation members, and a USOC staff member who was attending the Championships. We were served fancy Bavarian food, lots of Prosecco and beer, and treated to accordion music and yodeling. All of the German ski techs as well as the team’s High Performance Director wore leiderhosen. It was fantastic to be able to chat with everyone when I wasn’t working.

I didn’t get home until 11:30, though, and was too exhausted to transcribe another interview or write another race report. I save that up for yesterday, which was supposed to be a day when I had no obligations and could just relax and go for a ski. It was raining when I woke up, so that made it a little easier to abandon my plans and keep working, but it still stung a bit.

In the afternoon I was able to kick back, though, walking into town to see the sights and check out a museum on the history of biathlon in Ruhpolding. It was amazing to look at the old pictures and see how much biathlon has changed. Of course it used to be completely with the classic technique, but that wasn’t the only major difference. Some targets used to have a single black dot. Then there were three. Then there were five, but in an “x” like on a pair of dice. The evolution of the Ruhpolding venue, too, was remarkable. From just a couple of targets in a clearing in the woods, it has evolved into a state-of-the art facility with a large stadium. I saw pictures of the Pichler family chainsawing down trees and moving them in trucks. I saw pictures of heavy equipment installing a bridge.

With only six races remaining, I’m already getting a bit sad about leaving. It’s been great and going back to real life in Oregon will pale in comparison. But instead of thinking about that, I’m just going to enjoy my last days here and make the most of them!

Photos: a day in the life of a full-time ski racer.

I read somewhere that in order to develop a readership for your blog, you should only ever write about one thing. That way, people know what to expect and won’t be disappointed when they come looking for one topic and find something completely unrelated.

Well, I haven’t followed that rule, have I? I write about what I do and what interests me. And in any given day, that can be a lot of things. I wanted to share, visually, one day in my life, so that you can see what it’s really like. I was lucky enough to get Pepa to take some pictures of our workout this morning to start us off.

Click photos to enlarge.

At 9 a.m., we headed out on a 90 minute rollerski, classic, with ~23 minutes of threshold in the middle.

Threshold means working hard, but not too hard. This wasn’t a time trial although the course was identical to our usual time trial course. You don’t want to build up lactic acid in high quantities, but rather work at a level just below that, where your body can clear the acid quickly and efficiently. Threshold should feel good, and today it did for me (some days I’m tired and it doesn’t). The tape on my arms is to combat tendonitis in my elbows, which I developed to a debilitating degree last summer from the impact of my pole tips hitting the pavement. I’m considering getting cortisone injections this year. Also, I’m not sure if you can tell, but my poles are bright pink. I spray-painted them: no more boring black! It cheers me up every time I ski.

It started pouring as we were skiing back to our cars. It was a hot day, though, so the rain felt good.

The Craftsbury Public Library was having a used book sale, so Lauren and I drove up before lunch. I came home with three books I had bought at the sale (for $5 total), one which had come in on interlibrary loan, and two movies we had picked out to borrow. But when will I have time to read all these books?

After lunch I baked the loaf of sourdough which I had started before our rollerski. When I bake, I usually make two large oval loaves, but with the boys away in Bend, we’ll go through bread much slower. Anna has a really nice round brotform which she lets me use, as well as a lame.

In the afternoon, we had practice with our elementary school skiers. Algis Shalna, one of the US Biathlon Team coaches and a former Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union, was on hand to teach the kids about biathlon.

Shooting was the exciting part. Not being a biathlete, I was there to direct the kids in a bounding workout in between their shootings. It was very hot and I felt bad asking them to bound up the hill three times before they could go back to shoot again. But not too bad… you have to toughen them up a little!

After a quick break to put my feet up and recover from standing around in the sun and the 80 degree heat, I headed out for my second workout of the day, a 2-hour bike ride. I traipsed about for 33 miles, touching at least the corners of Craftsbury, Wolcott, Hardwick, and Greensboro.

I got the chance to appreciate some beautiful scenery on my ride, like these happy cows in a green, green field.

I was late for dinner because my ride took so long – I swear the same route didn’t take 2 hours last year. Lauren had done a shorter ride, but she had also shot with Algis earlier in the afternoon. We were both exhausted. Dinner was heavenly, thanks to the dining hall staff: roast beef, braised chard, a rice-nut loaf, baked potato, the usual excellent salad bar. The cooks had made homemade ice cream, too, in cardamom ginger, maple vanilla, and chocolate flavors, to be topped with chocolate sauce and raspberries. They really outdid themselves this time.

We were both exhausted, but managed to drag ourselves to a birthday party for one of the staff members. They burned a hollow log, which they stood up like a chimney; it burned from the inside out, throwing a large flame out the top. I forgot my camera, but the way the millions of sparks flew out and into the night sky, dancing around on the breeze, was beautiful. They all landed on in the grass, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky that the lawn didn’t catch on fire. There was also a very delicious pistachio cake from the Edelweiss Bakery in Johnson.

Every day is different, and not every day is a Saturday, but this is a taste of my life. For some full-time athletes, being an athlete is enough. But for many of us, it is not enough, and we have to pursue our other interests at least to some extent. We have to remain human, not become physiological machines, and we have to balance ourselves mentally. That’s why you’ll find me writing about baking and farming and the environment and pretty much anything that pops into my head.

Oh, and isn’t Vermont beautiful?