I’m all graduated!

senior nordie girls! well, most of us. l-r: co-captains Courtney Robinson and Hannah Dreissigacker, me, Audrey Weber. Photo: Judy Geer.

senior nordie girls! well, most of us. l-r: co-captains Courtney Robinson and Hannah Dreissigacker, me, Audrey Weber. Photo: Judy Geer.

Sunday morning, I woke up to the rain. I also woke up to decisions: I hadn’t yet picked out what to wear under my graduation robes.

I had, however, decided to wear my cowboy boots, a well-worn tan and black pair with intricate stitching that I had found for four dollars at a thrift store in Gunnison, Colorado. As they would cover almost all of the visible part of my leg, the rest of my outfit didn’t matter much. I chose a skirt and a polypropylene t-shirt to ward off the rainy cold, because one of the mottos of any endurance athlete is this: cotton kills! I’d leave a dress in our locker room in Robinson Hall for later, when I’d want to look nice for pictures.

It was eerie to be so alone on this morning, when later in the day I would be flooded and overwhelmed by friends and family. I quickly ate two pieces of toast in my room, and then gathered my things and left. I wasn’t late yet, but I faced a stream of robed seniors walking to Leede Arena to line up. It seemed like I was the only one walking towards campus, pushing upstream, the wrong way.

When I opened the locker room door, the light was on. Hannah Dreissigacker was rummaging through our “costume locker” and had just pulled out the purple and blue one-piece spandex suit to wear under her gown. I can’t express how relieved I was to see her: finally, I was not alone heading into this thing called commencement.

Less than thirty minutes later, I was walking up East Wheelock Street, only twenty people behind the bagpipers. I listened to the music, breathed in the wet air, and looked around at the leafy green trees and white buildings that I knew so well. This was the only moment in the whole ceremony when I thought I might cry. The bagpipes lent an incredible air of solemnity to the proceedings. They might have been my favorite part of the whole thing.

When we reached the green and the tone changed. The bagpipers finished, and a brass band took over. As the faculty processed by us, the trumpets sounded like they could be providing music for a circus. Which, in a way, is what the ceremony was. An extremely meaningful circus. When we finally resumed the march towards our seats, I spotted my parents and grandparents and waved.

While the rest of the ceremony was not forgettable, it was predictable. Names of graduate students were read for minutes upon minutes. We gave President and Susan Wright a well-deserved standing ovation when they were awarded honorary degrees. We listened to speeches, which had high points and low points.

When it came time for the undergraduates to march up to the platform, I watched for people I knew. In a way, it made me realize exactly how many of my classmates I had never met, never talked with, and, in some cases, never even seen before. But on the other hand, it reminded me how many friends I had, and how great they were. Courtney Robinson, wearing her sparkly ski team headband over her cap just like Hannah and I were, and wearing cowboy boots like me, pumped her fist before she shook President Wright’s hand. I couldn’t help but smile. Yes, Courtney would make a scene.

When I went up on stage, Dean Carol Folt wished me the best of luck and complimented my headband. I thanked President Wright and as I walked down the steps back towards my seat, I wondered how many people in the vast audience even knew who I was. For those who did, I thought: thank you. I did it!

After singing the alma mater (I wondered if I would ever do so again), we processed out. When we reached the back of the green, that was it. It was over. We milled around, a little confused until we could find a familiar face to latch onto. This moment in time was perfectly emblematic of graduation: all of a sudden, the structure we had been following was gone.

I eventually saw my teammate Brett Palm, and we stood together until we ran into Hannah and her family, then our friend Clara Chew, then Courtney’s brother (but not Courtney). Our support systems re-emerged.

Hannah and I hurried to Robinson Hall to put on our nicer clothes. Because of the rain, we had not been handed diplomas at the ceremony, and instead they were being handed out inside “Robo”. To get to our familiar locker room, we had to wade through people, who kept telling us that we were cutting the line. We tried to assure them that all we wanted was to get to our oasis of a locker room.

Back outside, we nibbled crackers and cheese and slices of watermelon that were provided by the Outing Club. We hugged our friends and posed for picture after picture. It was difficult to assemble all twelve of the senior skiers, so we kept taking photos with slightly different groups as people came and left. I caught up with Cami Thompson and Ruff Patterson, our coaches, but in a way I didn’t even know what to say. Short phrases like “Well,” “Yeah,” and “Thank you” seemed to be all that left my mouth.

Three of my freshmen teammates had come to watch, and had made a gift for each of us: a photo from some women’s team gathering, framed in white with messages written all over. We took a picture with them, and with junior Ida Sargent, who had also come down to watch. It was great to have so many teammates around.

There were so many people I wanted to see, to hug and say goodbye to, but too soon I had to leave and return to my house in Lyme for a gathering with my family.

Because, even though graduation is about ending this stage of my life and saying goodbye to all the different parts of it, as so many people told me, it is not really about me. It’s about thanking the people that helped me through, and it’s about what they want graduation to be. I was luckiest when those two things overlapped, and what I wanted was also what my family wanted.

But it wasn’t, always. So to all the people I didn’t get to say goodbye to, goodbye. The fact that I didn’t see you doesn’t mean that I don’t care, and it doesn’t mean I won’t miss you. I hope we’ll meet again.

And to my wonderful readers, goodbye. Thanks for giving me a place in this community over the last year. I never would have guessed that so many people would actually follow my column; it has meant an incredible amount to me. Thank you. With some luck, maybe you’ll read something else of mine in the future.

Long overdue post: The average athlete

The average athlete enjoys getting food as prizes. left to right: Julie Carson, me, Courtney Robinson, and Katie Bono at the Wonalancet Wander.

The average athlete enjoys getting food as prizes. left to right: Julie Carson, me, Courtney Robinson, and Katie Bono at the Wonalancet Wander.

When I began writing these columns, my idea was to show readers in the Upper Valley what life was really like for a college athlete.

The Valley News does a great job reporting scores and describing games. They even have fantastic human interest stories about athletes of all ages. But the purpose of these stories is to show something exceptional: the athletes who are chosen as subjects are noticed because they are outstanding or unusual in some way. What about the average athlete? Doesn’t anyone want to know what our life is like?

In general, I’m not sure they would. College is four years long. It’s a discrete phase of our lives, to be lived and enjoyed before we go and accomplish something in the real world. A lot of people aren’t even interested in sports; of those who are, many aren’t interested in skiing. And athletics are by definition frivolous, especially in times like these.

But as I’ve written these columns, reflecting every week on what has been going on with the team, I have realized that skiing has been by far one of the most important parts of my college experience, on par only with the research opportunities I took advantage of with my advisor at a first-class field station in Colorado.

I often grimace at the ridiculous salaries of famous baseball players – how could their skills possibly be so important that they deserve such compensation? – and occasionally laugh at friends who are rabid fans of their hometown football teams. So it has been an interesting revelation: athletics are far more than something I do. Skiing is part of who I am.

In a way, although I hadn’t said it so plainly before, I guess I must have known that when I set out to write the columns.

In showing the daily life of a college athlete, I wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes that people have about us.

For example, there’s the dumb athlete stereotype. People ask me if I got recruited (then they ask me if I’m a legacy). When I say no, they often act surprised. Until people get to know us, a lot of them assume that we can’t compete with the intellects of our non-athlete friends, and wouldn’t have gotten into Dartmouth without a push from our coaches.

While I’ve only written about schoolwork in one column, that’s because I don’t think it’s a big issue. Yes: we do work. No: we’re not dumb, As I mentioned in that column, 60% of the Dartmouth women who raced at Eastern Championships were named Academic All East. Of the senior men and women, more than a third wrote theses. The notion that we take easier classes than the rest of the campus is false.

Another stereotype that I wanted to dispel was that we’re all rich and spoiled. We’re spoiled because we get to go to a beautiful school with incredible academics, and we’re spoiled because we get to spend a lot of time doing a sport that we really love. Are a few of my teammates spoiled by their parents? Yes (sorry, guys). But for the most part, we have to work for what we have.

Skiing is expensive, that’s not something I’m going to deny. And for the majority of the team, racing is not something Dartmouth bankrolls: if you’re not one of the top six on a given weekend, you have to pay your own entry into college races – a system that we’d all like to see changed, but it probably never will be. What other sport takes only six athletes to each varsity competition?

A lot us are on financial aid, so skiing expenses aren’t exactly something that our parents can afford to help us with. My roommate and I both hold steady jobs to pay for race entries, equipment, and travel expenses (not to mention regular college expenses such as rent).

Finally, I had wanted to show that athletes aren’t boring or one-dimensional. Just because we spend a lot of time training, and a lot of the rest of our time studying, doesn’t mean that we never do anything else.

We have lots of adventures: I’ve written about hikes, bike races, potluck breakfasts and dinners, and a trip to Tuckerman Ravine. I’ve written about how much we joke around on the bus, and about watching fireworks outside when the thermometer drops below zero and we’re trapped in a hotel.

I guess I haven’t written about is how my teammates drive up to Thetford Elementary School every week to mentor younger students, or how they are involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or any of the other community activities they’re involved in. But that’s because, like doing homework, it seems unexceptional to me. This is my team. It is filled with good people. Why is it surprising that they do good things?

Back to my original point, because you must have been wondering how “I just realized that skiing is who I am” and “athletes are not dumb, rich, and boring” are related. This is the link: I am an athlete, and I am not dumb, rich and boring. I wanted to show how great our team was, and how it was filled with wonderful people.

I wanted to show how even when the going got tough – whether in long rollerski workouts on bad pavement in the rain, or when I had a really bad race and needed someone to console me – our team was there for each other.

I wanted to show how when we had problems, with boys, or schoolwork, or family, or just life, we’d all go for a really long ski until we’d run out of emotions for a little while, and then make dinner together.

I wanted to show how when we have ideas of fun things we want to do, we almost always turn to each other: “Hey, you know what I want to do? You should come!”

I wanted to show how much we laugh.

And I wanted to show how, even though we are each other’s best friends, we’re also each other’s competition, and that’s okay. For us, competition is a part of life. In every race, there can only be one winner: you’ll almost always be better than someone and less strong than someone else. We know each other so well that we can be happy when our friends have breakout races.

I had realized that this was an essential part of my makeup, being an athlete. And I didn’t feel like I fit any of the stereotypes that people have of athletes. When I looked around at my friends and teammates, I didn’t think that they did, either. This is what I wanted to show.

We’re people, too. Just like all of you.

Keep that in mind next time you read the scores.

In defense of hanging out

At the farm earlier this spring: (l-r) me, Audrey Weber, Julie Carson, Katie Bono, Courtney Robinson, and Hannah Dreissigacker. from Julie's camera.

At the farm earlier this spring: (l-r) me, Audrey Weber, Julie Carson, Katie Bono, Courtney Robinson, and Hannah Dreissigacker. from Julie's camera.

I celebrated the beginning of Memorial Day with a few friends, eating brunch on the porch of their apartment. Audrey Weber introduced us to homemade pannekoeken, the Dutch pancakes which resemble overgrown popovers but are even more delicious than that description might suggest, especially when doused in maple syrup.

We accompanied this treat with fresh orange slices and grapes, which Laura Spector said she had been wishing for all weekend during her long workouts in the hot weather. Well, mission accomplished.

I was in the midst of planning a bike ride up to the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge for dinner later in the week. Audrey offered to drive up and give me a ride back, since she recently had shoulder surgery and is mostly stuck biking on rollers for her workouts. But, she said, “I’ll be busy, it’s my last week of hard work…”

…. in college. Ever. We looked at each other, each thinking about what that meant. Then we shrieked. Two men walking past on West Wheelock Street looked around, wondering where the noise had come from.

It’s predictable, I suppose: we have known for moths that all this was ending. But only now, when it is really, really ending, are we beginning to realize what it means, how our lives will change, what we will miss.

Because how many more brunches can we have like this? We talk all the time about how often we will visit each other, how we will race the Alley Loop in Crested Butte together in two years, how we will sit on a porch in rocking chairs when we’re seventy, and all have short haircuts and gray rat-tails.

Maybe these dreams will pan out. Maybe, two years from now, Courtney Robinson will skip a few days of dental school, and I’ll leave my Vermont home and my new ski team to fly out to meet her in Colorado for the Alley Loop. Maybe our friends, to whom we’ve suggested the idea, will jump on board and use some vacation time. Maybe Courtney will strap on her Rossignols and me my Atomics, and we’ll chase each other in loops around the snowy streets. Maybe we’ll win, but probably not (after all, there’s usually a few Olympians in attendance). Afterwards, we will enjoy the beer tent provided by New Belgium Brewery, and the free pizza from the Brick Oven. I can already taste it….

In a way, this particular dream is perfectly emblematic of my state of mind: in this vision of the future, I bring the people I think I will miss most to the place I think I will miss most.

Because that’s what the future is, an opportunity. Right?

We swear it will be. We promise that we’ll see each other all the time, that the fact that Audrey, Hannah and I are going to keep racing next year means that maybe we’ll all swing through the Front Range to see Courtney.

But at the same time, we know that we don’t know the meaning of that word, “opportunity.” The future is different from the present, and while it will be populated by the same friends, it will also be populated by new friends, new responsibilities, and new possibilities we can’t even imagine. Next year, our teammate Sarah Van Dyke will be in China. How does that fit into our imagined concept of “opportunity”?

And so, in the meantime, we try to do absolutely everything in the last few weeks of school. There’s a push and pull between the sense of urgency to do as many fun things as possible, and the recognition that we have to sit back, relax, and finally just enjoy being here without worrying about how many things we can fit into a day.

Driving back from a ski race in March, Courtney and I made a list of things we were going to do in the spring: spend a weekend in the Second College Grant, drive up to Quebec City, traverse the Presidential Ridge. We haven’t accomplished many of them, but there’s still time. That’s why I’m riding to the Lodge. It will be one box checked off the list, but more importantly, one afternoon I spend with my friends doing what we love.

Between adventures, we’ll keep cooking brunch and grilling bratwurst and corn on warm evenings.

And we’ll still harbor the dream that in fifty years, we’ll all be safe and healthy and wealthy enough to retire and sit in those rocking chairs, looking out at some mountains, and shudder about how we thought it would be funny to have rat-tails, back when we were in college.

First OD of the year!

As you may have noticed from my last few columns, I love road biking. It’s an ideal activity for early spring: easy, fun, and we get to ride far and fast and see different corners of the Upper Valley.

It’s ideal, too, because in the summer and fall we will focus on ski-specific training: running, but also lots of rollerskiing and bounding with poles. It’s good to avoid those activities early on so we’re not too sick of them by the time September rolls around.

However, in the middle of the spring, training begins to become less carefree. Yes, I’ll still ride my bike. But face it: you can ride a bike for 3 hours as many times as you want. While you’ll be tired at the end, it’s still a lot easier to ride a bike for three hours than it is to run for three hours.

On the other hand, doing intervals on a bike is pretty tough. Because your upper body is stable, your legs have to be working hard to raise your heart rate. Imagine riding a bike at threshold for 25 minutes. To get your heart rate to threshold – for me, 170 beats per minute – you have to be riding aggressively up a steep hill. Now find such a hill that lasts for 25 minutes. You begin to see where (part of) the problem lies.

So there is a moment every spring when real workouts become a necessity. We start adding: first, maybe one threshold session a week, and one really long session that isn’t on a bike. Then we start adding the max interval sessions we’ll include in our training for the next eight or nine months.

Usually it’s a bit of a shock. I am so used to training all year, training 15 or 20 or more hours per week, that I expect that I can do anything. I won’t really be that tired after intervals, will I? Why would I bonk on a long run? We do this all the time! But being accustomed to one-hour runs and easy long bike rides does not prepare you for harder training days.

And so it was with some trepidation that I set off running on Saturday. My teammate Katie Bono and I had decided to do our first long run. We were joined by our teammate Julie Carson and her boyfriend, Mark Davenport, who may not have realized what we were up to: he didn’t bring water, unlike us girls who modeled our stylish hip-belts.

We slowly jogged across the bridge into Norwich, and by the time we started up the hill on the other side, Julie and Mark were out in front. I smiled to myself: I was in for the long haul, mentally alternating between purposely going easy and refusing to think about how long we would be out.

We ran up the Ballard Trail from the Norwich pool. It was beautiful and quiet in the woods, with the ferns still unfurling and the trees just sending out bright new leaves. In places we had to jump along the side of the trail to avoid submerging our sneakers in mud, and in others we had to climb over and through broken tree tops which had fallen across the trail.

By the time we got to the end of the trail, on Beaver Meadow Road, we had already been out for the time of my longest previous run all spring.

As we started up Tucker Hill Road and Julie and Mark once again took off. Katie and I shuffled along, chatting about how this was one of our favorite roads to run on. The views were beautiful as always, and I daydreamed about how much I’d like to live in any house we passed. Or, as I told Katie, in any of the barns. Imaginary house-hunting is a great way to occupy time on long runs.

We girls said goodbye to Mark when we turned onto the Burton Woods trail. None of us had run it before, and we soon realized that the first mile of trail was entirely uphill. I picked my way around the spring stream that ran down the trail, leaving the surroundings mucky and wet, and hiked a few steep spots where the bedrock was exposed. Katie tripped over a down log and joked that her coordination was disappearing as she tired. We laughed, but all knew it was true; the same thing was happening to each of us.

We hit the Appalachian Trail in a small clearing, where a sign pointed south to Podunk Road (1.8 miles) and north to Elm Street (3.5 miles). We ran toward Norwich. It was one of the trail sections I am most familiar with, since it’s so close to campus, but at the same time, it is one of the sections I understand least. So much looks the same. The obvious landmarks are only close to the end.

And so while the forest type changed from hardwood to pine and back again several times, we wondered how close we were actually getting to Elm Street. It was at one of these transitions to a dark, pine forest where the ground was soft and muted the sounds of our footsteps that I realized I was tired.

I wasn’t bonking, no. But while only a few minutes before I had been bounding over rocks and logs and roots, I could feel that my pace had slowed. I was more apt to walk a few steps up a steep section. It was more of a chore to stride out the flat parts. It was more dangerous to run freely down the hills, because I was starting to trip over things. My curiosity and energy were dampened just like the sounds of my feet, but Katie and I kept talking, discussing the subtle psychology of training in groups.

At the same time, Julie was developing blisters. Mark had drank half her water before he left us, and she was out. She lagged behind and stopped talking. I worried, sometimes slowing down to let her catch up, sometimes trying to draw her into the conversation. But it was fairly useless. Julie was in her own world.

We finally crossed the powerlines, and then the stream that told me we were only minutes away from Elm Street. I have an incredibly distinct memory of running up the hill from that stream with Kristina Trygstad-Saari, class of 2007, on a fall day two years ago. I wondered why the memory was of that place and not some other along the trail.

As we ran up the long hill into Hanover, we could smell the pig roast at Theta Delt, a fraternity on West Wheelock Street. It was a reminder of how different we might be from the rest of campus: on this Green Key party weekend, our classmates were wearing sundresses and had probably only woken up a few hours earlier. We had been running for three hours, and were drenched in sweat, exhausted, smelly, and covered in scrapes from tree branches.

But after we showered, we went to Theta Delt ourselves to restore our energy supplies, munching on corn and meat. As we discussed plans for the evening, I thought we weren’t any different from the rest of campus after all.

And in any case, we had survived to rejoin our classmates in their revelry. We had survived, and the next difficult workout, number two of the year, would be entered with more confidence, less trepidation, and a sense of satisfaction: we did what we needed to do. As recovery, maybe I’d do an easy bike ride the next day, just like nothing had changed.

I try cycling.

Like many seniors, I have a mental list of things to do this spring, and I don’t mean chores like “apply for degree” or “present thesis”. it’s a list of fun things I have to do now before I run out of time.

Unlike most seniors, one of the things on my list was “do a bike race.” With Dartmouth hosting an Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference event this weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross that off my list.

I’m not a bike racer. I’m a ski racer. Biking is my just-for-fun, endurance-but-not-on-the-training-plan activity. Like my teammates who tried their hands in Saturday’s team time trial and criterium, I didn’t train for this; I had been been on six rides before the race, and I hadn’t done anything aerobically taxing since my last ski race of the season.

I was also worried about riding in a “peloton”, since my bike handling skills are less than impressive. What if I caused a giant wreck or something?

And yet I found myself on Route 5 at 9 o’clock Sunday morning, cruising along with 40 other women. We were all chatting and laughing – I talked with my teammates, with Jennie Bender, a standout UVM skier who was doing her first bike race and didn’t even have clipless pedals, and with a nice girl from Colby who was impressed we rollerskied on the bad roads.

The pack periodically rearranged itself, but this was the first thing I noticed that was very different from skiing: for the first third of the race, nobody was racing. At all.

That would change. We rode up into Norwich, through town, and out Union Village Road. The pack collectively sighed and hunkered down, thinking, here come the hills… And come they did. There is nothing like a good hill to break up a pack (apparently). As girls dropped back, I found myself just out of the top 10, chasing a breakaway led by next year’s ski team captain Ida Sargent and Bates skier Caitlin Curran.

We were pretty strung out as we passed Maple Hill Road, and we certainly weren’t appreciating the scenery. By the time we got to Goodrich 4 Corners, I had joined a chase pack of five – two Army girls and two other Dartmouth racers, including outgoing ski team captain Courtney Robinson – in hot pursuit of the six-person lead pack.

Going up that last steep, the one with the “8% grade” sign, I panicked for a second. I was killing myself, and this was only halfway through the race! How was I going to do this a second time around? Then, unusually, I put that out of my mind and kept chasing. If I blew up later, well, I’d deal with it then.

We set up a paceline on Route 132, riding towards the river, but we were exhausted from the hills. We were working hard but staying exactly the same distance behind the leaders.

And then, as we turned onto Route 5 again, they came back to us. I have seldom been so relieved in a race as when I hooked onto the back of the lead pack and finally stopped pedaling for a few seconds. No more chase.

Unfortunately, the reason we had caught the leaders was that they had slowed down, and before long, the main pack engulfed our group. Another thing I don’t understand about bike racing: why work so hard when you’re just going to let everyone catch you anyway? In skiing, if you get a break, you live and die trying to keep it.

In any case, I enjoyed the recovery pace for a few miles, because I knew as soon as we hit the hills again the chase would be back on. And sure enough, when we looped back through Norwich and were deposited at the bottom of the hill, Ida took off again.

The field strung out, but I found myself with more or less the same chase pack I had been with on the last lap. Going up the hills, and down them, we weren’t consciously pacelining; instead, we were all going as hard as we could, and if that put us in the front of the pack, great, but sometimes it put us on the back.

The sensation in your legs which comes as a result of riding up long hills as hard as you can is pretty unique. I don’t think I’ve felt quite the same burn in any other sport. I kept imagining that it would be easier to stand up, but after three or four pedals I found myself back in the saddle. My legs had accumulated too much junk.

To finish, we had to cross the covered bridge below the Union Village Dam and ride up Academy Road, no easy task. At the bottom of the hill, I did something I’m usually ashamed of: I switched into my granny gear.

Going by Burnham Road, I was still riding with the two Army girls, and the rest of our pack had disappeared behind us. I warned them that the pavement was terrible.

I think that was the last time I thought of them for the next few minutes. Going up that hill, this is what I thought: this is the end. I have to keep my momentum going. Switch gears.

Yeah, that’s all. My head was empty. I felt like I was riding fast, maybe because I was passing the stragglers from the men’s race which had started 10 minutes before us. It’s perhaps the most competitively absorbed I’ve ever been in my life, a lesson I hope I can take back to skiing!

500 meters from the finish the Army girls passed me, working together. I tried to follow them but couldn’t. My legs were blocks of lactic acid. Dave Lindahl and his children were on the side of the road, shouting, “Go Dartmouth! This is your hill! You know this!” And I thought, no, this is not my hill.

With nobody close behind me, I was happy to forgo a sprint finish. I rolled across and saw Caitlin and Ida, and Courtney rolled in a minute behind me. After a few minutes we did a short cool-down, trying to spin the lactic acid out of our legs. Ida had ended up second to the Colby girl, Jennie 4th, Caitlin 5th, and I was 8th. That put four skiers in the top 8. Not bad for a sport we don’t train for or, really, understand.

Then Courtney and I spent the afternoon at various intersections, acting as course marshals for the afternoon races. We mostly soaked up the sun and reveled in the spring weather.

I had so much fun that I considered racing the next weekend at MIT. But I decided not to. For one thing, I want to keep this memory of how fun bike racing is, and I don’t want to ruin it. But this is just part of a larger idea: biking is the only sport I do where I’m not focused on competing. I want to keep it as something I always think is fun.

This weekend, mission accomplished.

The last supper

Senior nordies on the Skiway porch: (l-r) Audrey Weber, Courtney Robinson, Chelsea Litle, Sarah Van Dyke, Hannah Dreissigacker.

Senior nordies on the Skiway porch: (l-r) Audrey Weber, Courtney Robinson, Chelsea Litle, Sarah Van Dyke, Hannah Dreissigacker.

Thursday evening, Christine Booker, the women’s alpine coach, had the rare pleasure of driving a bus full of nordic skiers to the Ski-Way. Most of us had showered, and we looked pretty nice; only one athlete was wearing Carhartts, and they were clean. Christine had a pretty good deal.

The occasion was the annual ski team banquet. After hors-d’oeuvres, which mostly consisted of athletes talking to the same people they’d be spending time with on campus, we were served dinner. With my classmates Courtney Robinson and Audrey Weber, I joined Trevor Leafe and Peter Ankeny, freshmen alpine skiers. We told them they were lucky to get to hang out with senior ladies.

After finishing our chicken, pasta, and vegetables, the awards were presented. They ranged from obvious honors like various M.V.P types to more personal ones such as the Schneibs-McCrillis Award for “Skiing as a way of life”, the Class of 1978 Inspiration Award, and the Development Team award.

The presentations were often emotional for the coaches, Christine, Ruff Patterson, Peter Dodge, and Cami Thompson. In explaining how they chose recipients, they invoked stats (Peter cited exactly how many carnival points each of his alpine men scored over the season) and stories from their athletes’ earliest days on the team (Ruff pointed out that Brett Palm never talked as a freshman – how things change!).

When Development Coordinator Martin Benes presented his award, he said that he kind of wanted to take the giant silver cup home and eat Fruit Loops out of it.

Then the results of the voting for captains were announced. In some cases there were surprises, but mostly not: Haley Jones and Tina Roberts were re-elected after doing a great job leading the women’s alpine team, and, Ruff said of Pat O’Brien, “The only one who didn’t vote for this guy was me!” (He was joking.)

After that, there was only one thing left: senior speeches. While some of these speeches are always excellent, by the time ten or fifteen people have gone to the front of the room, they start to blend together. So this year, we nordies decided to do it differently.

All twelve of us went up together. Sean Jones brought his accordion, Max Hopkins grabbed his viola, and Brett had a hand drum. As they played a simple tune, we took turns pronouncing two-sentence summations of our time on the team, handing an old ski around with the speaking privileges.

Hannah Dreissigacker: “Last year, there wasn’t any snow, and the Dartmouth Carnival races were relocated to Stowe. Then it snowed about a foot. During our morning run, we built a snowman in front of the door to Cami’s house so she couldn’t open it. We were excited when Carnival was moved back to Hanover.”

Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess: “I’ve had a lot of nicknames over the years, but my favorite is from Ruff: Bam-Bam.”

Sean: “Ruff says, ‘We’re not here for a good time, we’re here for a long time.’ Well, I was here for a short time, and I had a great time.”

Sarah Van Dyke: “One time, it snowed two feet and we skied right out of Robinson Hall for practice. It was the best ski of the year.”

I said: “Cami, I’m really sorry for all the times I skipped yoga this fall. I promise I’ll make it up next year.”

Pavel Sotskov: “I think you all know that when I got here I was Russian. Well, now have my American citizenship. It’s been great to be on this team; nobody will ever tell me again, ‘For you, deefrint sport!'”

Hannah: “At our first captain’s practice sophomore year, we went to the rope swing in Pine Park. I fell in the shallow water and hyperextended my knee, and my teammates took turns carrying me piggyback all the way back to campus.”

Sarah: “As Cami always says, make sure you get in a really good warm-up, and if you’re doing a marathon, you should make sure to gorge yourself for a week first…”

Courtney Robinson had three pieces of advice: “First, bonk. You all carry anti-bonk, but you can’t appreciate it until you know what it’s like at the bottom. Second, when you fall when you’re rollerskiing, break your fall with your hands rather than your chin, although it is fun to have the same doctor stitch you up twice. Finally, jump in the river after morning practice.”

Brett: “When I got here, at the first team meeting, we had to say our names, where we were from, and an interesting fact. I was really worried about thinking of an interesting fact, so when it came to me, I said, ‘I’m Brett, I’m from Sheboygan [chorus: ‘where!’], and skiing is the best sport.'”

Dakota: “Another Ruff-ism, and I think this is particularly applicable given how this year went: Enough of this ****, I WANT MEDALS!”

Hannah: “Ruff, is there hope?” [NO]

Glenn: “Ruff, there is always hope!”

Finally, Max and Sean talked about how the ski team runs on R.S.T., or Ruff Standard Time, which is different than the time you find on most clocks. If you are late (even if you are on time by your own watch), you get told, “You’re late!” or, occasionally, you get left behind. In honor of R.S.T., they broke into a rendition of “Clocks” by Coldplay.

And that was it. Our time on the Dartmouth Ski Team had run out. Martin drove us back to campus for old times’ sake, doing a few laps around the roundabout before depositing us at Robinson Hall one last time.

Back to the Grindstone

With the ski season over, there’s only one event left in my Dartmouth career where there will be spectators. Well, two if you count graduation. But I was thinking of was my thesis defense in the ecology department: The Effect of Soil Metals on Pollination of Subalpine Wildflowers.

I don’t know when it is yet, but I am going to do a great job. The specter of possibly not doing a good job is guaranteeing it.

There were many occasions this winter that I did not rise to, the most important being Nationals, the Stowe SuperTours, Dartmouth Carnival. But a skier can do everything right to prepare for a race, and it can still go wrong. You can spend a year preparing for race season, but training hours are not linearly correlated to results. And in fact, their effect differs greatly from athlete to athlete. There are too many confounding variables.

It’s one of the mysteries of athletics: how two competitors who did the same preparation can get different results. And then the next year, the tables can be turned.

Academics, to me, seems a little more straightforward. It is usually pretty clear what you have to do to succeed, and you know exactly how close to being done you are. Working hard now will have a direct effect on how well I do in my defense.

Yes, people will ask me questions which take me by surprise, which I was not expecting to answer, which maybe I will do a bad job answering. But at least I should have a good sense going in about whether I’m well-prepared or not.

And so I am creating contingency tables for whether sample mass and run order affected detection of metals in my plant tissues.

I am feverishly learning how to analyze nested and crossed variables with the statistical software I bought, and repeatedly asking my statistics professor for help (he must be getting sick of me).

I am reading more and more papers – each useful one seems to have five new references I should check, which in turn have three more new references, et cetera, et cetera.

I am trying to use my statistical software and Microsoft Excel to make graphs, tables, and figures, which always takes an incredibly frustrating amount of time.

The thesis holds an interesting place in Dartmouth culture. Unfortunately, it’s often a culture of holing up in the library and becoming a social recluse. Many people attempt theses; those who don’t pity us and say something like “I’m glad I’m not spending my senior spring doing that!”

Why do so many people want to do this despite the fact that they have spent three years watching senior friends stress out in their last spring? Well, we’re Dartmouth students. We got in here. We’re pretty smart and we’re pretty well organized. Somehow, all of us look at the poor souls holed up at their desks and think, “I could be more organized that that. It wouldn’t be so bad for me.”

And despite the fact that some people inevitably think that athletes are only here for sports, avoid hard classes, and are lousy students, we don’t evade the thesis any more than the general population. We accept the challenge. After all, we’re used to testing what we can do, and we obviously expect a lot from ourselves. There are at least four of five nordic skiers working on senior projects right now.

But everyone, athletes and otherwise, end up stressed and scrambling during in the last few weeks, even though we were sure we could do a better job managing our time than the last year’s seniors. I only know one person who finished his thesis well ahead of its due date. I don’t know how he did it.

At dinner last night I wondered out loud whether every thesis was good. After all, just attempting a thesis doesn’t make you a good student.

As my friend Mark Davenport replied, “There seems to be sentiment here that, by taking on a big project or responsibility, a person automatically will ‘rise to the occasion.’ When really, what makes rising to the occasion such a big deal is that most people don’t. So if you take for granted success, you’re either being overconfident, or you’re mistaking something trivial for a challenge.”

I think I was as prepared for my thesis as any other student. I got the idea for my project a year before I started fieldwork, and I had plenty of time to prepare. I had abundant resources, both in grants from the college, my advisor’s funding, the support of the field station where I worked, and a very full complement of professors and researchers willing to consult on the project.

But just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I realized how much work it was going to be. I didn’t realize how many steps backwards I would be taking for every step forward. I didn’t realize that multiple times, I would want to break down crying as my analysis fell apart in front of my eyes.

This morning, I listened to my statistics professor tell me, “If you have nested data and your replicates are not balanced – you don’t have the same number in all parts of your study – then it’s a nightmare. I think you’re in nightmare mode.”

I am? Shoot, and I didn’t even know it. Back to the drawing board.

But no worry. Somehow, I’ll be ready when I have to defend myself.

Loving Spring

At Dartmouth more than at many schools, the end of a winter sports season really means the end of one thing, and the start of something else.

That’s because of the quarter system. Dartmouth skiers returned from Junior Olympics and NCAA’s and had to make up their finals. From there, they went on break. End of skiing, end of term, end of story.

The rest of the college racers? Well, they just went back to school, back to the same second-semester grind they saw before the championships.

I say “end of skiing” even though there was racing to be had over break. A few of us made the trip to Maine for the Sugarloaf marathon, and three skiers were competing through this weekend at U.S. Long-Distance Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But even if we raced over break, it’s definitely the end. A few days ago I started putting my race skis away for the year. It’s a relaxingly banal rhythm: apply soft wax, scrape it while it’s warm to pull dirt out of your bases, repeat, and then apply some storage wax. The ritual has a tremendous sense of finality: these skis will not be skied on again for a very long time.

When return to campus, it will seem like ski season has long since passed. We will be confronted with new classes – often difficult ones that we avoided taking during the competition season – and a distinct lack of snow. For a few seniors, myself included, there’s a thesis waiting to be written that we ignored all winter.

Before we completely move on, we have to take a minute to look back over the season to see what went well, what didn’t go well, and what we learned for next year. I suppose this is more true for some athletes than others, but I was taught by the Ford Sayre club to write out your goals at the beginning of the season, and then review them at the end.

Goal: I want to be a varsity member of my team. Achieved? Yes.

Goal: I want to have carnival results I’m happy with: top 20s in skate, top 10s in classic. Not really achieved, as I had only a few top 20 finishes.

Goal: Be higher on the NCAA qualifying list than the last skier who gets to go, recognizing that there is a 3-skier limit for each school and Dartmouth will far outpace that. Achieved? No, complete failure.

Goal: Go to big races and get experience. Achieved? Yes. Even if the experience part was, “wow, that went really poorly!”

Any competition season leaves you wishing for one more chance to prove what you can do. While this is fresh in your mind, you’re supposed to think about what affected your performance this year and decide what to do better next year. That’s the new beginning part of spring: the next racing season always seems like it will be better than the one that just passed.

And trust me, I have plenty of ideas for how to make next season great. As my coaches will tell you, I think too much. But I have a bigger problem: I don’t know if there is a next year. I’m graduating. College is over.

When I put away those race skis, it was even sadder than most years. I wondered, will I ever use these again for what they’re made for, racing? Then I told myself I was being dramatic. Of course I’ll find a way to race sometime, even if it’s the only skiing I do that year. I love it too much to walk away completely; I’d rather muddle along, out of shape, in some citizen’s race. The real question is whether I can find a way to train, so that the racing is actually good.

These are serious thoughts. But even if winter and skiing are over, spring brings fun along with the warmer weather. Classes start again and so does our concept of exercise. On the weekends, we might head up to Tuckerman’s Ravine, where spring still involves snow, but during the week, there’s plenty to do. We’re all dusting off our road bikes and giving them the once-over before we head out on our first rides.

That’s why spring is so great. In a few weeks those of us who are lucky enough to have another season will start training again, but in between now and then, there’s a mandatory period of recuperation.

It’s a period where “PLAY” is on the training plans. A period where our only athletic homework is to go remember that the sun shines and we love to be outdoors. Conveniently, this corresponds to the beginning of the term when, theoretically, homework is at its lowest.

Even when we do start training, it’s spring training, not summer or fall. Running and biking and hiking all count as training. Maybe we’ll run a local road race, team up for a relay at the Vermont City Marathon, or jump in the cycling team’s home race weekend. We’ll bring out the rollerskis eventually, but first we have to rediscover all of those endurance pursuits we went without over the winter months.

We’ll do more or less whatever makes us happiest. Spring training in a way holds the most promise of a great season to come, because you’re looking forward months and months to racing, but the gritty hard workouts haven’t yet started.

So thanks, Dartmouth, for giving us spring term.

Sideline champion

Every other year, the NCAA Championships for skiing take place in the East and we can watch it. This year, NCAA’s were hosted by Bates College at Black Mountain, a place where most of us had already raced at least twice if not three times this season.

On Thursday, eight Dartmouth skiers left campus in a bus at 6 a.m. Despite having traveled to Rumford so many times, we got lost and arrived just before the 10 a.m. race start. We cheered voraciously, ate soup with the racers after they finished, and then we went home to study for exams and write papers.

Saturday was a different story. While there were a few team members who didn’t come because they had exams, almost everyone was on that 6 a.m. bus. Every seat was filled and a few students, exhausted from all-night studying, slept on the floor in their sleeping bags. We didn’t get lost, either.

Before the race, I skied the course with Katie Bono, Audrey Weber, and Sarah Van Dyke. It was sunny and warm, but the snow was still cold from the previous night, hard-packed and very fast. It was great skiing and we got even more excited for our teammates.

These races were long and mass-start, which meant exciting. After seeing the women’s off to a clean start, we ran along the trail until we reached the biggest climb on the course.

Nobody had started a watch, so we didn’t know when the race would come through. We could hear yelling as they went by the loops that passed close to us further down the hill, but it wasn’t until we could hear the sound of their skis and poles on the snow – which came long before we could see the racers – that we knew they were coming.

I barely ever go to races just to cheer. Sure, I see the men race when I’m warming up or cooling down, but when you go to a race for the sole purpose of cheering, you feel like you better do a darn good job.

There was cowbell. There was screaming, the kind when you aren’t sure how your voice is going to sound because you’ve never tried to yell so loud before.

And after two of the 5k laps, there was worry. Did you see that Colorado girl? She was blocking Rosie Brennan so badly! She was slowing down, but she wouldn’t let Rosie by! And Hannah Dreissigacker, it looked like she was stuck behind that pack!

But on the third (last) lap, our girls were looking great. Rosie was in the lead pack and looked strong. Sophie Caldwell wasn’t far behind, and Hannah was in the top 10 and passed a girl as she went by us. We knew we couldn’t beat them to the finish, so we just trusted that their sprinting skills would serve them well. Without even needing a pencil and paper, we knew that they would win the day; no other team had all three skiers in the top 10.

I stuck around until the whole field went by. As my friend Natalie Ruppertsberger, a Plainfield native who skied for Ford Sayre, went by in her Bates uniform, I screamed especially loudly. She had told be she didn’t want pity-cheering: no “good job, you’re doing great.” So I told her she HAD to pick it up, she HAD to pass these girls, she had to GET UP THIS HILL. I ran along beside her yelling until a coach from Alaska admonished me: “Dartmouth, you can’t run with racers like that.” Oops.

As we walked back to the stadium, Audrey and I discussed how great if felt to see our teammates kick some butt. For those of us who feel like it’s a battle to get one of the six varsity spots each weekend, it’s reassuring to know that it’s because our teammates are the best in the country, not because we’re bad skiers.

After congratulating Rosie – who had swiped a podium spot with her 3rd place finish – and Sophie (5th) and Hannah (10th), I headed out to ski again. The snow was holding up well. Before the men’s race, we found a green sharpie and wrote the boys’ names on our bellies. I ran to the start, where Nils Koons was jogging around, and showed him the big “N. Koons” which Courtney had lettered in. “I have your name on my stomach, so you’d better have a good one!” I think he rolled his eyes.

The men’s start was more exciting. Compared to his fellow NCAA champions, 2008 winner Glenn Randall is probably the worst starter of them all, and he was in the bottom five leaving the stadium.

As the men came up the hill the first time, our skiers were clustered in the teens, still in contact with the leaders. Glenn had already made up a lot of spots. We yelled, rang our cowbells, and pulled our shirts up (no, not that far) so the boys could see their names.

Unlike in the women’s race, which had a small lead pack the whole time and boiled down to a sprint finish, the men’s race had a single leader. Vregard Kjoelhamar of Colorado broke early on the second lap. Pat O’Brien and Nils Koons were in the chase pack, but Glenn was nowhere to be seen, and we left one intersection for another before he came through.

When we finally saw Glenn on the hill, he had a large hole in his spandex and was bleeding. Glenn has never been a strong downhill skier and one of the slopes on the course had sent him off the trail. He was making the best of it and passing people, but it was tough to watch. He had already worked himself through the pack once, and it was a lot harder this time around, now that the race was strung out.

As the laps went by, Pat and Nils were still in the chase pack. The last time I saw them, Pat was in a group of maybe eight skiers, three of whom were from Alaska-Anchorage, undoubtedly using team tactics. I hoped that he could hang on going up the big hill, and skied to the finish – this was going to be an exciting one.

After Kjoelhamar (no, he’s not American) came through, we held our breaths. The UAA boys battled to the line against a New Mexico skier, with a Denver racer trailing. Then came Pat! Beating out a Michigan Tech skier in a sprint finish! Pat, who has never won a carnival, had the race of his life and was the first eastern skier. Nils was 14th and Glenn 18th after surviving a hard and doubtless disappointing race. The boys were 3rd on the day, which was pretty great.

Despite these excellent performances, Dartmouth ended up 7th in the overall championship, which combines two days each of nordic and alpine racing. It was not the finish we had been looking for when we entered undefeated. I’ll admit it even if the press release won’t. But I can’t criticize – I couldn’t have skied at NCAA’s, and the athletes who represented us did a great job.

To me, the championships mean something else. I’m meant to be on the sidelines cheering – and that is quite a fun place to be, watching my teammates beat the crap out of the other teams, sprinting to see them as many times as possible, covering myself in green, and yelling for them until I don’t have a voice left to yell with.

And lucky for me, spectating is different from racing – graduation doesn’t mean that next time NCAA’s are in the east, I won’t be out there cheering!

Kick it down a notch.

life on the D-Team sometimes feels like this.... oh yeah, sometimes it IS like this! photo: Hannah Dreissigacker.

life on the D-Team sometimes feels like this.... oh yeah, sometimes it IS like this! photo: Hannah Dreissigacker.

After my incredible luck this year with getting called up for carnival races, I had forgotten what it was like to travel with the Development Team.

When I arrived at Dartmouth, I had known that I would be racing with the Development Team, affectionately known as the D-Team. For me, it was one of the major selling points of Dartmouth: I could race even though I hadn’t been a standout high school skier. I guess on some level I hoped to make varsity some day, but I didn’t really expect to improve as much as I have over the last few years; I thought I’d stay there forever.

Exceeding expectations, I’ve traveled with varsity at least part of each season since then. But on the weekends when I don’t make the cut, I go back to the D-Team. In a way it’s like moving back in with your parents when your career doesn’t quite work out; you’re a little embarrassed, but you’re also thankful to have something familiar and comforting to go back to after you’ve been rejected. And the atmosphere is less serious and more fun than on the big-deal varsity bus.

As we drove back from Gilford on Sunday, Courtney Robinson had the shotgun seat in the bus, bantering with our Development Coordinator, Martin Benes. She was eating Ritz cheese bits and gave at least a few to Martin.

Gordon Vermeer was sitting in the first seat, working on a paper for his freshman seminar. Next to him was Sam Marshall, who still sported his green mohawk from the previous weekend. Sam is an Etna native who skied for Gunstock in high school, so he was showing us a shortcut back to Hanover.

“The best thing about this route,” Sam said, “was you don’t go more than 20 minutes without passing a Dunkin Donuts!”

The rest of us looked at each other, unsure if this actually recommended the shortcut or not. Katie Bono and Julie Carson were listening to their iPods, and Audrey Weber slept in the back. Besides passengers, we were loaded down with skis – several pairs per skier since we hadn’t been sure what conditions we would find – a waxing bench, two forms, and two giant wax boxes.

Katie and I had podiumed in the Under-23 division of the Eastern Cup and received prize baskets full of baked goods, which we shared with our teammates.

“I have to stop eating these cookies,” I said at one point. “I’m going to get really hyper from all the sugar and then crash.”

Gordon had a bagel and Courtney had peanut butter and jelly but no bread, so they made open-face PB&J’s and each got half. That’s teamwork.

Our bus has a DVD player, but we never use it. We seldom listen to the radio. On the way to races, we’re all pretty quiet. It’s the shotgun passenger’s responsibility to say something every once in a while so Martin doesn’t get bored, fall asleep, or get lost. It’s not that he would do any of these things, but he deserves some company. D-Team coaches get very meager pay and the hours aren’t the greatest. Oh, and they have to put up with all of us.

At one point, I shared my iPod earbuds with Courtney, saying, “This is for old time’s sake.” In honor of our last Eastern Cup of our Dartmouth careers, we listened to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

The rest of the passengers were confused as to the significance of the song. In between singing the lyrics, we explained that our freshman year, our bus had no radio and no CD player, so we had two cassette tapes which we listened to over and over on every trip. One was Poison’s Greatest Hits, and the other was the Fugees.

I don’t know why, but the bus was always more crowded in those days. I guess we didn’t split among races as often. Especially if we were staying somewhere overnight, our bus would be crammed with bags and there wouldn’t be enough seats. The heater was in the back, and we had to put a piece of plywood over it so it wouldn’t melt our skis. As a result the bus was always cold. Paul Salipante would snuggle up into the bags and sleep on the way home from races.

We played about ten rounds of telephone pictionary on our way back from Rumford that year after we arrived at the race venue to find that it was closed. The drive back to Hanover took 6 hours in the snow. We topped the day off by stopping at a diner for lunch.

Waxing can be especially tricky on the D-Team. Our wax is mostly for, say, less than 10 degrees, or above 35. In other words, it’s all the stuff that never gets used. Our klister collection resides in plastic bags; usually the tubes are covered in the sticky stuff and the names are things we are totally unfamiliar with.

Katie and I discussed another memorable D-Team race, this time from last year. The event was a mass-start 10k classic outside of Montpelier. Tracks were glazed and it was snowing. Nobody could figure out the wax; we even talked about it with Middlebury, which means both of our teams were really freaking out, because we never share waxing info with them. It was a ridiculous race.

We were almost back in Hanover by now, driving along the Ruddsboro Road. Sam directed Martin onto King Road. Katie and I immediately sat up. “Sam! Why are we going this way?”

“It’s a shortcut,” he smiled.

“I have agreed with all of your shortcuts so far,” I said, “but this one is bad. It’s not any shorter. And that hill is really steep and it’s going to be slippery in the snow.” Katie and I frowned at each other.

As we crept down the hill, we saw skid marks from other vehicles. Martin put the bus in a low gear and we made it around the corners, slowly.

Life is always an adventure on the D-Team. Sometimes we get to races with barely enough time to slap some wax on our skis. Sometimes our bus breaks down. But most of the time, everything is fine. I don’t mind being back with my old team. Oh, and you never win baked goods at college races.