camaraderie and gluttony.

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I recently received a great e-mail from my friend Susan. I had been telling her about my rollerski adventure up Fluelapass and she told me, among other things: “I think you are a glutton for punishment.”

This took me a bit by surprise. I’m not going to deny that it might be true, but it was a pretty serious case of the pot calling the kettle black. I know a lot of athletes, a lot of very good ones in a variety of sports, but out of all of them, Susan has the most gut-churning ability to dig deep of anyone I’ve ever met. This is the girl who literally pushed so hard on her bike trying to keep up with the guys that she blacked out and crashed off the road. You will seldom see anyone on the biathlon World Cup who is so willing to go deep, deep into the pain cave as Susan. It is her superpower.

So when someone like that calls you a glutton for punishment… you think, shit? Am I doing something wrong? Am I doing something right? You begin to wonder what, exactly, you are doing with your life – after all, there is no professional reward for such behavior. We “adults” with normal “jobs” (okay, my job barely ever feels like a job) don’t have any reason to attempt stupid feats of athleticism.

But, for some of us, it’s a way of life. It’s true. And some of us understand that. At the end of the work week – or even in the middle – what better way can you satisfy yourself than trying something that requires you to fully test your limits?

This weekend, my friend Rosalie came to visit. She’s living in Bern and I hadn’t seen her in a while, but our lives overlap so much: she’s four years younger than me, but went to the same high school, through the same ski club, to the same college, and knows many of the same people. We’re both deeply interested in environmental issues, although Rosalie has gone admirably further than I have in doing actual on-the-ground research on a bunch of cool topics, including social ones. People sometimes marvel at the way I pick up and move to another new country every few months, but Rosalie is so much more fearless than I am. I’m in a masters program; she has, on her own, landed herself in Rovaniemi, Finland, or in Bern, to do projects that she conceived herself with little to no supervision. And both of us hope to end up writing about these things we care so much about.

She wrote a great blog post about the weekend, starting with a snafu at the train station that left me feeling like the worst host in the world. I was a little late to meet her, and couldn’t find her; the cell number she gave me wasn’t working; after circling the station for 20 minutes, I headed to the other station, where I didn’t find her, and then to the office to see if I had e-mail. Finally I returned to the original station, over an hour after she was supposed to arrive, only to find her there! She had been there the whole time, but we must have each been walking in circles and always on opposite sides of the building. But anyway, we found each other. And the weekend began.

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And what a weekend it was. We looked eagerly at maps that first night and decided to hike out the door as much as possible; buses go to cool spots up the valleys, but here in Switzerland, they are expensive. Luckily, I’m housesitting in an amazing location and there’s more than enough terrain out back to keep you occupied for days. So come Saturday morning, we were drinking coffee on the front lawn when my friend and coworker Sofia pulled in on her bike to complete our hiking trio. It turned into a 13-mile day with one continuous 3,000-foot ascent, a lot more smaller and more gradual ones, and some incredible, awesome, unbelievable scenery. We were so tired we soaked our legs in the stream and took a nap before we could muster up the energy to grill up sausages (once again in the front yard) for dinner.

Day two dawned a bit cloudy, and since Rosalie had made me rhubarb crisp for breakfast (ROSALIE YOU ARE AMAZING) we enjoyed a long, relaxing breakfast. I never get to do that during the week – I’m up at 5:30 at the latest, and I have a half hour bike ride before arriving at work by 7. So to have an extra hour to lounge around and talk about interesting, funny, deep, serious matters with a buddy felt like heaven.

IMG_1246We started hiking and we were both tired. But you can’t admit you’re tired, right? My calves were burning but we both pushed on. I had made a grave mistake in my map-reading and it took us over two hours to reach Oberalp, the “start” of our planned hike. But once we were there, things seemed better – we were heading up an incredibly beautiful valley, past idyllic cabins for farmers and shepherds, and cute cows. You know, typical Switzerland stuff. Finally, we reached the last pitch and climbed up to a windy pass. On the other side, we stopped for lunch. It was perfect. We were in the middle of nowhere, seemingly, with towering mountains and snowy glaciers as our backdrop. Life was good.

From there… we descended. Some sketchy loose dirt paths at first, down to the valley floor (still very high actually), then down some sketchy loose singletrack to the next dropoff which happened to be above a tall, Yosemite-esque waterfall, and then down past the waterfall to the hamlet of Sertig. At this point, the watch read about what I had projected for our total hike to take. We were pooped.

I had offered several options for getting home. The first would be to take the bus to Clavadel, but it didn’t go back towards our house, so we’d have to hike a bit from there or else go further and connect to another bus to get home. I also mentioned that we could try to hitchhike to Frauenkirch, but Rosalie vetoed that (probably good, I’m not so adventurous with the hitchhiking). Or we could walk – I estimated that it would take us an hour and a half. As we stared at the bus schedule and tried to decide whether to get on or not, we hesitated. Walking didn’t seem soooo bad. Just an hour and a half. Then, the bus pulled out of the parking lot and left. Too slow. The decision was made for us.

And… it turned out to be much more than an hour and a half of walking. We were in pretty serious bonking territory, armed only with water and a couple of carrots for snacks. By the end, we had to stop and by ice cream at Frauenkirch to make it the final 15 minutes back to the house. When we walked in the driveway, Rosalie checked her Garmin: 18 1/2 miles. We had been out from nine to five, like a regular job. Later, she realized that the GPS didn’t pick up satellites immediately, so it was actually 20 miles.

That certainly justified how exhausted we were.

I am kicking myself for being shitty at reading maps. The main, interesting part of the hike? It was exactly as long as I thought. But the traversing of Rinerhorn to get to the start, and then the long way back from Sertig, wow, I totally blew it there. And we were in for a rough ride because of it.

Yet we each had the chance to bail and take the bus, and we each turned it down. That’s what it means to be a glutton for punishment, I guess. Maybe that makes us bad adventure partners; we’re ambitious and don’t want to admit any little weakness, ever.

But maybe it makes us good partners. We both take responsibility for the crazy situation we got ourselves into, and despite the fatigue we’ve suffered in the few days since (and the fact that I came home and ate everything in the kitchen… really everything….), I think we both have pretty fond memories of Sunday. It was great! It was fun! It was beautiful! Rosalie made a snow angel!

We’re already planning to meet up again, this time in Bern. I may be crazy (my dad told me recently that I “didn’t have to be the ‘crazy American’, you know”), but it feels so amazing to know that I have kindred spirits among my wonderful group of friends, and that we can satiate ourselves with whatever ill-advised physical tests we want. What is better than that?

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Two Weeks in Wisconsin

Mine is not a "ski family", so it was rare that my parents would come to races in high school or college. But my dad has had some free time on his hands and has come to two races this year, which has been a real treat for me, and I am always so happy and relieved to see him (they have turned out to be bad races for me, so it's nice to see a sympathetic face). Here we are at the Stowe Eastern Cup/UVM Carnival. It was cold that day! Photo: Scottie Eliassen.

I have spent the last two weeks traveling around the Midwest. While the races that were the focus of the trip went extremely poorly for me, everything else about our journey was amazing.

The first highlight is that after a long day of driving, we landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we stayed with my friend Hot Legs (a.k.a. Sean Prentiss). Sean took us to a great pub, and then teased us with an offer to drink PBR out of pink flamingo lawn ornaments. This was all a hoax as neither the PBR nor the flamingos appeared. It’s okay, though, I’ll still be friends with you, Sean. Don’t screw up next time though.

Hot Legs in action at GRUB. Photo: Jeremy Bjork.

Hot Legs in action at GRUB. Photo: Jeremy Bjork.

From there we drove to Madison, where we stayed with the parents of a college friend. They had a fantastic house and took very good care of us, in some instances refusing to let us cook for ourselves. Mimi made us multiple delicious meals, and we were blessed with a big comfy bed for each of us and a television to watch the Olympics – which was exciting! At no other time do you ever get to see nordic skiing, biathlon, or nordic combined on TV, so we made the most of it.

The races in Madison were a new experience for all of us. The first race was criterion-style, with 8 (for the women) or 12 (for the men) laps of a 0.75k loop around half a city block. I can’t deny that it was cool to be skiing right next to the impressive-looking Capitol building, with spectators cheering from the sidewalks. But it didn’t feel like a ski race – not enough terrain! The frustrations of the weekend were typified by Tim’s very questionable disqualification from Saturday’s race. Enough said.

The other highlight of the Madison trip was that two of my best friends from high school happen to live there. In between the qualification and heats of Sunday’s sprint, I met up with Julia Schwartzman and Bethany Schimmel in a very hip coffee shop less than a block from the race course. While a cup of coffee might not have been the best snack in between races, it was fantastic to get to see them after such a long time.

Next, we drove to Spring Brook, a tiny town in northern Wisconsin. We stayed at a cabin owned by Ollie’s grandmother’s college roommate, who was very cool. Despite being 86 years old, “Herm” still skied more than us on several occasions, tromping through the woods with her spaniel, Scooter. The cabin was lovely and relaxing, and I don’t think we could have asked for a nicer place to stay, or a nicer lady to stay with.

Why were we up in the land of lakes/great north woods? The Birkie! We were fairly overwhelmed with the scale of the race and the rabid midwesterners for whom the event is something of a cult. But on race day, everything lived up to the hype. We were bussed to the Telemark Lodge, and got to soak in the atmosphere of what is surely the largest collection of ski racers in one place on the continent… as well as their midwestern accents. The governor of Wisconsin fired the gun to start us, confirming what a big deal the Birkie is out there.

The course was excellent, the snow was great, and it was fun. Going up the first really steep hill, we were flanked by native Americans from a local tribe playing drums, which was amazing. There were hundreds of spectators out on the course, which was impressive considering that it is point-to-point and there aren’t a ton of easy ways to get to the trail. Cheering was especially loud on “bitch hill”, which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. The closer we got to the end, the more spectators we found. The last 3k are across a big lake, where people had driven their cars out onto the ice and in some cases were grilling up food (which smelled delicious to me!). At the end of the lake, you pop up onto the road and go around a block before you are spit out onto Main Street, which is, as Brayton Osgood said, “a tunnel of noise”. There were spectators three or four people deep lining both sides of the street, and they were cheering wildly. It was exhilarating, if anything can be after 50 kilometers of skiing!

The whole experience was great, and gave me a taste of what it might be like to race in one of the bigger races in Europe, where people actually like to watch skiing. That isn’t something that happens in the U.S. – the Birkie might be the only race in North America where you can feel that magic. I am definitely ready for a return trip next year!

After napping all afternoon, we got ready for the afterparty at the Sawmill, which lived up to its reputation. I was happy to see so many friends who had raced that day: Dartmouth teammates Courtney Robinson, Audrey Weber, Brett Palm, Pavel Sotskov, Carolyn Bramante, Kristina Trygstad-Saari, as well as plenty of other friends. There was a live band, and life was good.

The next morning, I woke up the boys and they went to sleep in the van while I drove the first three hours. I had meant to leave at 6, but my watch was off somehow, so I woke them up just before 5, although I didn’t realize it until we stopped for breakfast. That would explain why they were so grumpy and I was so tired… We decided to drive through the night to get back to Vermont. With an air mattress in the back of the van, we were able to take turns napping, which meant that the drive wasn’t that difficult. When we arrived home at 6:30 on Monday morning, we made french toast and bacon, and ate it giddily while laughing at absolutely everything. It was a mess. Luckily, we went to bed until lunchtime, and we all seem to have recovered.

It’s good to be home, but the trip was a lot of fun and I’m left with fond memories of the midwest. Thanks to everyone who hosted us, you were awesome!

I Try Tuckerman’s.

Nat and Han hiking up to our lunch spot. Photo: Courtney Robinson.

Nat and Han hiking up to our lunch spot. Photo: Courtney Robinson.

Last week I wrote that I wasn’t a bike racer, but I enjoyed a bike race. Well, I’m not an alpine skier either, but I still went to Tuckerman’s Ravine this weekend.

It started something like this: having dinner with friends on Thursday night, they started talking about going to Tucks on Saturday. I wanted to go. Oh man, I wanted to go. But… “I really should work on my thesis, guys. I just don’t think I can go.”

My friends pretty much think that I’m crazy and all this work I’ve been doing is somewhat unnecessary. So they convinced me (it didn’t take much): I hadn’t been to Tuckerman’s in four years at Dartmouth, and this would be my last chance. I could always make up for it by working harder the next day, right?

And so on Saturday morning we shoved our skis in the car and hit the road. The cast of characters included this outgoing ski team captains Hannah Dreissigacker and Courtney Robinson, incoming captain Ida Sargent, senior teammate Sarah Van Dyke and her friend Nate Mazonson, and my old Ford Sayre teammate Natalie Ruppertsberger, who was home from Bates on break.

When we arrived, we ran into more friends: Pete Van Deventer, Lizzy Asher, Katie Ammons, and Zoe Acher. They had driven up the night before to get an early start, but their plan had obviously failed since we all met up around 10.

Natalie, Hannah and I don’t own our own alpine gear, so we had brought nordic skis. As we stood waiting for people to get ready at Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, the AMC staffer came over and asked us if we did this often.

“No,” I replied, “Not really.”

“Well, just be careful. Those skis aren’t really appropriate. You’re not planning on skiing the bowl, are you?”

No, we weren’t. But it seemed to us that anyone who bothered to bring nordic skis probably had, actually, a pretty good idea of what they were doing; it would never occur to an out-of-state novice to bring nordic gear. This was evidenced by how many times we were asked if we were crazy.

As we started up, Pete said, “Less talking, more walking!” which turned out to be his mistake. Natalie and I power-hiked up, passing dozens of people on the highway of a trail. We were aided by the fact that our skis weighed so much less than everyone else’s heavy alpine skis and boots or snowboards. Nonetheless, it was a workout; I guess maybe we are a little competitive with each other! I was drenched in sweat by the time we reached the Hermit Lakes shelters, where we paused for a snack before continuing up into the bowl.

There were so many people. It was overwhelming. Where could we put our packs and eat lunch? Before we even figured this out, someone shouted “Avalanche!” and we watched as a huge section just below the cliffs come tumbling down as people sprinted out of the way. It ran out before it reached us, but we still retreated towards the scrubby trees.

We decided to climb up to some rocks on the right side of the ravine, high above the “Lunch Rocks”. It was a steep hike, and I wondered a few times, “how am I going to get down from here?” But I put these thoughts on hold.

We sat in the sun eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, slapping on sunscreen and watching people tackle the headwall. It was probably sixty degrees and not a cloud in the sky; I could have sat on those rocks forever, although I would have ended up with quite a suburn.

It was amazing the risks people were taking. We saw a guy break his femur. While he was being helped, not a minute after his crash, a snowboarder attempted the same line and carwheeled all the way down; I don’t understand how his neck wasn’t broken. “Look at those knuckleheads,” Natalie said. It made me nervous, even though of course I wouldn’t be trying anything nearly as dangerous. I just thought of how unpleasant it would be to be carried out from Tuckerman’s on a stretcher – it’s a long, jolting way down.

After lunch, half the group bootpacked up to the summit so they could ski in the Great Gulf, where it was less crowded. The three of us with nordic skis stayed in the bowl, hiking and sliding our way down through the rocks and scrub to the bottom. Sarah and Ida hiked over the rocks to the Right Gully, and skied down from there.

Hannah, Natalie and I decided to tackle the left side of the bowl. We hiked up to a set of rocks below the Chute, and looked down. It was steep, but not too steep (not compared to the terrain I foolishly attempted to ski in Colorado this summer…); the difficulty was more that the snow was heavy, thick slush, and there wasn’t much chance we could push it around with our skinny, light skis.

Hannah tackled the problem by doing telemark turns. They weren’t the as graceful as turns on real telemark skis, and she fell every once in a while, but they worked. She was having fun.

As for me, well, I can’t do tele turns. As far as I could see, this left me only one option: jump turns. The first run, I did okay turning to one direction (as long as I didn’t get up too much speed), but the other way I crashed every time. Once we got down to the shallow bottom of the bowl, we could step around the turns and go faster. It was fun.

We immediately hiked back up to those rocks. People started asking us, so what trick are you going to do this time? We would smile and laugh and say we didn’t have too many tricks up our sleeves. That time, I think I made it down the whole way down jump-turning without any falls. I was feeling pretty good about myself.

The third time, of course, I was overconfident and fell on almost every turn. But so it goes. We were enjoying ourselves, enjoying the sun, enjoying the atmosphere; there was nothing that could make the day better, it seemed.

And we were sad when, after a few more runs, the time came to leave the bowl and head back down the mountain. Couldn’t we just stay there forever? Did we really have to go back to school? And did Natalie have to go back to Bates? Why couldn’t she just hang out with me all the time? We were exhausted from the sun, and the ride back was quiet. I was just glad I’d had the chance to experience Tuckerman’s once before I graduated.

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.

15 things that can happen in marathons.

Earlier this month, I competed in the Rangeley marathon, a 50 kilometer skate race in Maine.

Thing #1 which can happen in a marathon: you realize you hate them. At about 16k, I turned to Courtney Robinson and told her that I remembered I hated marathons. “Well, I like skiing marathons with you,” she said in attempt to cheer me up. Then she skied away.

Despite this realization, I decided to ski another marathon this weekend. At Sugarloaf, I took the 30k option instead of the 50k offering, mostly because of a bad head cold. After about a kilometer, I was struggling to breathe at a pace far below normal, and knew I was probably ruining my health for at least the next week. Thing #2 which can happen in marathons: you are sick.

As I put my jacket on at the finish, I listened to the announcer speculate on who would win the women’s 50k. “Sarah Wright of UNH had a sizeable lead entering the third lap. But anything can happen in a marathon, so stay tuned.”

Can anything really happen in a marathon? Yes. My teammate Pat O’Brien says that in a good marathon, you have to go through at least five phases of feeling completely miserable. Here is a short compilation of ways this can be accomplished.

#3: You can fall once. Example: me at each of the races.

#4: You can fall more than once. Sam Evans-Brown of Bates joked at Sugarloaf, “I think I get the prize for 1:1 ratio of falling to finish place.” Sam finished seventh.

#5: You can fall and get tangled up with your teammates. At Sugarloaf, Natalie Ruppertsberger of Plainfield was skiing with two of her Bates teammates, Abby Samuelson and Megan McClelland. Natalie fell. Abby ran into her. Wildcats down all over the trail.

#6: You can really, really fall. At Rangeley, my teammate Katie Bono hurt herself in a bad crash. I saw her finish: she was crying, she wasn’t using her poles because of the pain in her shoulders, and her legs hurt, too, so she was having trouble skating.

#7: You can break a pole. As I skied through the lap this weekend just ahead of Sam (who was in the 50k with an earlier start time), the announcer said, “It looks like Sam Evans-Brown of Bates is just off the pace of the leaders, and it looks like he broke a pole. If you have a left pole, please give it to Sam. Does anyone have a pole? No?” Sam, who is a tall guy, skied about 15 kilometers with one normal pole and one “midget pole” before he found someone his own height who could donate one.

#8: You can break a binding. One of the most exciting storylines going into the Rangeley marathon was the rivalry between two of my teammates, many-time carnival winner Ida Sargent and her boyfriend John Gerstenberger, mostly known as a sprint specialist. The competition was, as the Manning brothers would say, “on like Donkey Kong.” Then, at 30k, John broke a binding and couldn’t finish. Ida won by default, and John has repeatedly accused her of somehow sabotaging his binding.

#9: You can break yourself. See #6. I am sure you could break a ski, too, but I don’t know anyone this has happened to.

#10: Your skis can be slower than the rest. Our development team usually doesn’t have the resources to pour 50 kilometers worth of expensive fluourocarbon wax into our skis. At Rangeley, Dartmouth freshman Eric Packer found himself skating down the hills while two Colby skiers coasted. Figuring that the uphills were the only place he could break them, he put in a huge effort on a 5 kilometer hill and gained a total distance of about 20 meters. On the next downhill, they caught him.

#11: Everyone’s skis can be slow. In the last fifteen minutes or so of my race at Sugarloaf, it started snowing. Shortly after, my skis started sticking. Maybe I had skied through Hammer Gel that someone had discarded in the trail? I assumed that the guy behind me would catch up. But he didn’t. It turned out that every pair of skis in the field had iced. In a skate race. Nobody had ever heard of this happening before.

#12: You can remember you hate gels, that staple of mid-race nutrition. At Rangeley, I almost threw up when I tried to give myself some energy from a vanilla-flavored Power Gel, which tasted like rotten yogurt.

#13: You can bonk, as is legendary in marathons of any discipline. This might involve hallucinating, stopping on the side of the trail, or even sitting down and eating snow. You might be unable to ski much at all, which happened to Ida in the last few kilometers of her win at Rangeley. “I tried to coach’s skate up the last hill,” she said, implying that regular skating was too difficult, “but I couldn’t!”

#14: You can lose a sprint finish. Even after 50 kilometers, sometimes it comes down to a sprint. Granted, it may be not be fast. It may be, as Pat says, a “slow motion sprint.” Regardless, it’s hard. Eric’s aforementioned slow skis did him no favors at Rangeley; he managed to stick with the Colby kids to the finish, but couldn’t get going fast enough to get them in the end.

#15: You can win! Fresh off of an All-American finish at NCAA’s, Pat won the Sugarloaf marathon this weekend, ahead of Pat Weaver, Olympian and UVM assistant coach. A battle of the Pats: Weaver tried to break O’Brien on a hill a few kilometers before the finish, but O’Brien hung on and passed him. They skied in more or less together; the two sprinted but the finish was never in question.

So why do we keep doing marathons? It’s the possibility of #15, the camaraderie in the lodge after the finish, and just the feeling of having completed the darn thing. Endurance athletes: sometimes not the smartest bunch….

Epic Weekend

Seniors who raced Rangeley: Courtney Robinson, Sarah Van Dyke, and I.

Seniors who raced Rangeley: Courtney Robinson, Sarah Van Dyke, and I.

As I may have mentioned in this column before, my teammates, friends and I are plagued by a disorder called the pursuit of the epic.

As we see it, there is Type I fun, which is fun when you are doing it, and then there is Type II fun, which may be quite miserable at the time but always seems fun when you look back on it. We are addicted to Type II fun.

Our whole team, mostly, competed in the Rangeley Ski Marathon on Saturday. Marathons are very common in the ski racing world, so while many of us approached the 50 kilometer race with some trepidation, it was not regarded as one of our crazier pursuits. Lots of people do marathons. Half our team had already done a marathon this season. It couldn’t be so bad.

Well, okay, it was pretty hard. When you are racing for two and a half or three hours, it is impossible not to go through periods where you feel completely miserable. For me, this point came between 12 and 16 kilometers. It was quite early in the race, and I was distraught: if I already hated it so much, how could I finish the 50 kilometers? I gave up the hope of a podium and just wanted to make it around the course.

Luckily, my teammate Alice Bradley found me around 22 kilometers, and my mood improved greatly. Oh, it was still a sufferfest. But I finished. Thanks Alice.

We stood around in the heated tent at the touring center, eating cups and cups of soup the volunteers provided, drinking Gatorade, wolfing down cookies. Ida Sargent, who won the women’s race, described getting to the final hill – which was literally ten meters long – and being unable to coach’s skate up it because she had “bonked” so hard. Our bodies were wrecked.

For some of us, though, our weekend was not over. Alice, Courtney Robinson, Ruth McGovern and I avoided talking about our task for the next day.

***

When the rest of the team headed back to Hanover, we took our own bus to Jackson, New Hampshire. As we drove along Route 16 past Mount Washington, we looked up at the mountain and whimpered. In the morning, we would be racing up the Auto Road all the way to treeline.

But before that, we arrived at the Blake House Bed and Breakfast, home of a high school rival Kathleen Maynard, who now skis for Colby. We have become good friends since starting college. My Ford Sayre buddy Jennie Brentrup is now Kathleen’s teammate, and the two of them, along with Sam Mathes, made us a delicious hot dinner.

I don’t think I can explain how wonderful that dinner was. After a long day of racing and driving, we arrived exhausted, smelly, and bedraggled, and the Colby skiers took care of us. Nothing could have been better than what we had.

I was also thrilled to be able to chat with my friends. We see each other at ski races throughout the season, but it’s always a quick hello or, at most, a fifteen-minute cool-down together. That night, we sat around the dinner table and finally got to catch up on everything we had been up to since the summer, telling stories, discussing the differences in how our teams were run, and eating tons of Kathleen’s amazing banana bread.

As I fell asleep, I heard rain pouring down onto the roof. It was very similar to the feeling you get in a tent when it starts raining: is it going to stop? Maybe it’s just a passing cloud. Wow, it’s really raining. Tomorrow is going to suck. Oh well.

***

Courtney and I woke up in time to go to registration at Great Glen by 7:30. We plodded through an inch of watery slush in the driveway to get to the bus. At Great Glen, we looked down on the field and saw a giant puddle, literally a small lake. Great conditions for ski racing. After picking up bibs, we returned to the house.

Over breakfast we debated whether women’s higher body fat ratios made them better suited for long races. I pointed out that there were two sticks of butter in the dough of the cinnamon rolls I had made, and with an audience of skiers, there was hearty approval. This weekend, we needed all the help we could get.

I warmed up for ten minutes, and my skating muscles were definitely tired. I skied up the Auto Road until the first gradual corner, then bogged down quickly. I was not optimistic about the race.

The first four kilometers were rolling around the Great Glen trails. It was fun because nobody was going very hard; we knew we had to save our legs for the next six kilometers, which went straight up the Auto Road and gained 2200 feet in elevation.

When we hit the Auto Road, I slowed down. I knew it would be a long climb, and I didn’t care that people passed me. I was in it for the long haul. Almost immediately, sweat was pouring off my face, and I could feel it on my back. I stopped to roll up the sleeves of my uniform. I would never stop in any other 10k, because those seconds were valuable. But this time, it didn’t matter.

I could see my teammates Alice and Courtney in front of me for the whole race. Jennie – the lucky one who hadn’t raced the marathon – took off fairly early. I mentally wished her the best of luck. After a while, Ruth was out of sight, too.

Sense of scale is totally different when the entire distance is uphill. I had no idea how many kilometers I had covered or how many I had to go. At one point I passed the two mile point, which was marked by a snowman, and someone shouted, “3 kilometers to go!” Are you kidding? I’m only halfway there? I’ve been climbing forever!

After what must have been another kilometer, the snow became more icy and less slushy. The wind picked up and the air temperature dropped. It was a relief; I was still sweating from my face, but it wasn’t as uncomfortable. Besides, it felt like I must be getting somewhere.

Soon, Olympian Justin Freeman passed me on his way down. I immediately thought, well, if he’s finished, I can’t be far. But then I realized that I was moving very slowly, and I could still be very far from the finish. Several more people passed me in the next few minutes, and they started telling me I was close. I didn’t know whether to take them seriously or not; I just kept plodding along at a steady pace. Then, I could see it. I tried to speed up, but it was impossible. Making it across the finish line was good enough for me, at any speed.

***

Even more than at Rangeley, we had engaged in Type II fun. Did I enjoy the race? I guess. It was incredibly painful. But I knew, when I was doing it, that I would be able to say I had skied (halfway) up Mount Washington. I knew I was doing something fairly impressive, that the rest of my team had chickened out of. I knew I was achieving something epic.

Times like this weekend, the epic is our reward. We get to say we did something that most people would call crazy. We get to tell stories. We bond with each other when we attempt the improbable. And these are always some of our best memories.

Coastal Trail.

If you read my column last week, you know that U.S. Nationals, in Anchorage, Alaska, was an ordeal for all of us.

The pressure was on for everyone to ski fast, whether we were trying to qualify for World Cups like Rosie Brennan, age-group World Championships like Sophie Caldwell, auto-qualify for Junior Olympics like Steph Crocker, or just cement our place on the team.

Then races were canceled four of the five days they were scheduled. The temperature dropped to -20 or -25 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and during the day rarely passed the -4 degree mark that would make racing legal.

We always thought we’d be racing the next day, so we didn’t want to do any hard workouts. Instead we went stir-crazy because we had nothing to do.

Hannah Dreissigacker had made a goal “to go on an adventure every day that I was there.Not necessarily a huge big adventure, but just something to mix things up.” Most days we failed; if we made it out of the hotel to do anything besides ski, it was going to Starbucks for hot chocolate, which isn’t really an adventure.

The last day, though, we were lucky.

The temperature had been -17 in the stadium when the coaches went to check in, and for the first time, the race was canceled before we even left our hotel. Our afternoon was wide open, and there was nothing left to save our energy for.

There is a multi-use path called the Coastal Trail that runs from the race venue, Kincaid Park, to downtown Anchorage. It runs ten miles along the Pacific Ocean, right on the brim of the beach. All week, we had been hoping to ski the trail back to our hotel, which was only three blocks from the terminus. We had been waiting for a real adventure, and this was our one opportunity.

Hannah, of course, was the ringleader. She tried to convince everyone to come, but most of the girls were afraid of not having a bail-out option if we froze.

Alice Bradley, an Alaska native, said it would be “miserable. It’s 18 kilometers and -18 degrees.” (I think both are slight exaggerations)

However, Hannah, Ruth McGovern, and I were sick of skiing around in circles and wanted to go somewhere. We convinced Alice to come with us as a guide.

How do you stay warm skiing when it’s so cold? I wore two pairs of wool socks, spandex shorts, fleece tights, spandex race tights, wind-proof ski pants, two thermal shirts, a fleece vest, a training jacket, glove liners, gloves, handwarmers, a double-layer wool hat, and a fleece neck gaiter pulled up over my ears.

Honestly, I was about as nervous for this ski as I had been for the Birkebeiner ski marathon in Norway three years ago, even though that race was three times as long.

Looking back, says Hannah, “It was sort of funny how intimidated we all were by the cold.  We took forever getting ready to go, then started off like we were on a mission and if we stopped for a second, our feet would freeze off. I actually ended up getting hot.”

Once we hit the coast, the trail was flat and the skiing was easy. We cruised along silently, each of us thinking about everything Alaska had dealt us in the last week.

At one point we had to stop because there was a moose beside the trail, eating some bushes. Moose are pretty aggressive in Alaska, and they are bigger than the New England variety; a fair number of people are killed by moose every year, even if you don’t count car accidents. We stopped and assessed the situation, then crept by very slowly, making no sudden movements. As soon as we were past, we took off down the trail. The moose kept eating.

Every once in a while Alice would point out landmarks. We skied by the municipal dump and by the airport, where a plane took off literally right over our heads. We could see the tall buildings of downtown Anchorage for several miles before we reached them, and began to pass condos and houses, and a pond which was cleared for hockey and speed-skating.

And then, all of a sudden, the trail ended at a playground where a woman was building some sort of structure out of slabs of ice. “Is this it?” I asked, confused that the ski could be over. Yes. We took off our skis and walked up the hill and through downtown, where people in cars gave us funny looks.

The ski clocked in at an hour and twenty minutes, and we had beaten the other skiers back. We were all in great moods and took hot showers to fend off any remaining cold.

Hannah says, “In the end, I think that this ski was probably one of my only legitimate adventures.  It made me feel a little less lame.”

The week was awful, but at least we did something fun to cap it off.