Norway and the Birkebeiner, 2017 Edition

This morning I had oatmeal for breakfast, and it made me think of Norway trips past and present.

On my first trip with the Ford Sayre team, Dan Nelson would make a huge pot of oatmeal every morning. It was good oatmeal (he often added apples, I think), but by the end of the trip I was sick of oatmeal.

On my most recent (I won’t say last!) trip with the Ford Sayre team, Tim and Margaret Caldwell making a huge pot of oatmeal every morning. Maybe it was because I was only there for half the length of the trip, but I never got sick of the oatmeal.

This trip was probably the best thing I will do all year, although sorry Caldwells, the oatmeal isn’t why. As Zurich has been from winter to summer and back again about five times since my mid-March trip to Lillehammer, those days seem far away. But before it gets further, I thought I should write something about it.

Every three to five years or so Ford Sayre (my home club from high school, based in Hanover, NH) runs a trip to Oslo and Lillehammer at the end of the winter. There’s always one or two racing experiences during the trip, but of a lot of the point is to ski as much as possible and see how the sport is woven into the fabric of the culture. Seeing how active everyone is “gives credibility to what the skiers do in the club program – they are no longer the ones who are different from their friends in high school,” Ford Sayre head coach Scottie Eliassen said after the 2010 edition of the trip.

There are plenty of places in North America with a high density of cross-country skiers, but seeing young and old and everyone in between get out on their skis (and on skis of such a wide variety of vintages!) on a random weekday is certainly eye-opening. It’s not just seeing how many fast Norwegian kids there are at a Wednesday night club race or U16 Championships; it’s also seeing middle-aged moms out there with technique not so different than my mom’s ski technique, but getting out there most days of the week chatting as they ski along.

That’s what we’re all supposed to take back home with us.

This year, I was lucky enough to help out with coaching and wax support on their trip. Since I am already based in Europe, the logistics were simple.

I flew to Oslo on a Tuesday and took the train up to Lillehammer. After getting picked up at the station, I quickly said hi to a few of the athletes and hopped on my skis, skating up to the Olympic stadium (which was already partly set up for the finish of the Birkebeiner) and then back down again. I had to navigate a crowd of spectators walking along the ski trail up to the ski jump, which was hosting a World Cup that very day. Welcome to Norway!

Even though it was warm, the skiing was fantastic and I felt that same joy I do every time I clip into skis after a while of being off snow. I glided along, but also paused to admire the incredible Scandinavian late-afternoon sunlight coming through the birch trees. I was giddy with the feeling of freedom, of having newly landed on a break from my daily work life. But the landscape also bestows an incredible sense of calm. Experiencing these two feelings at once is quite special.

After a shower I headed over to dinner where I got to reunite with the whole crew, who I had last seen when I was on waxing duty at the opening Eastern Cups of the season in in Craftsbury and at some practices over the Christmas break.

As I was about to experience all week, the joy that I felt zipping up the hill was nothing compared to the wonder of the Ford Sayre athletes experiencing Norway for the first time.

Apparently I only make this face when skiing. (Photo: Margaret Caldwell)

I hesitate to say that I’m jaded, because that would imply that I didn’t enjoy Norway. I absolutely love traveling and skiing around Lillehammer is one of my very favorite things. I posted a photo on Instagram after a long ski and one friend messaged me, “you’re smiling so much you look like a different person.” It’s literally transformative compared to my normal existence.

But the reality is that I have lived in Europe for almost five years now, and my perspective is different. It was at least my seventh trip to Lillehammer, the first having been when I was seven years old. I take for granted how things work: I’m excited to experience them, but I know to some extent what I’m going to get. I guess you could say I’m “experienced”, or just, “almost 30.”

Seeing the high school athletes glimpse everything for the first time was, by far, the coolest thing I’ve done all year, and it will be hard to top for the rest of 2017. It made me appreciate every activity that we did in an extra way. And it was a special bonus to have Jørgen Grav around to obligingly answer our silly questions and point out things that we might not have even noticed.

The week was filled with long skis and varyingly effective kickwax. I loved every second of it. I spent time skiing with a lot of different people, from the high school athletes to Scottie Eliassen (who, despite the fact that she’s one of my dearest friends and role models, I basically never get to actually ski with – we’ve gone hiking or running together more often in the past five years than skiing!) and the Caldwells, Jørgen, Chris and Mary Osgood, and my partner, the “other” Chris.

Skiing up to Pellestova with Margaret. (Photo: maybe Mary?)

The day before the Birkebeiner, we tried rather unsuccessfully to do a short ski by walking up the road behind the ski jump and hopping on the trails there. The walk ended up being much loner than we expected… maybe two kilometers? Tim Caldwell and Chris Osgood were uninterested in walking back down the road, and I agreed, so we ditched the group and skied over to the stadium and then down the hill to town. By then, the trail hadn’t been recently groomed, but had been through several melt-to-slush, freeze-to-rock cycles. We gingerly made our way down the trail and I’m not going to lie, it was a bit terrifying.

But when we finally hit the giant field below the ski jump, there was perfect crust and cruised all around, making huge sweeping turns and actually whooping with joy. That was the highlight of my day. I’m not as good on my skis as Tim or Chris Osgood, but I do have 30 more years of practice before I hit retirement age so I’d better keep skiing as much as possible.

That afternoon, we klistered up 23 pairs of skis, first with base klister and then something warmer. Jørgen and I initially tried to do everything with our thumbs, but by only the second pair of skis it was clear to me that I wouldn’t make it without a massive blister. It was also clear that Tim Caldwell can perfectly smooth a layer of klister in one pass when it takes me five minutes, and I felt very inadequate. We sacrificed the one iron we had into a klister iron and after that everything went much more smoothly.

The maestro. Bow before him.

Then, it was all about getting ready for the race. I was able to get seeded into the fourth wave, Jørgen was in wave one, and my partner Chris was in wave five, so we had to get up and get going a bit earlier than the rest of the crew. As the whole group rehashed plans and details over and over and re-packed our race bags, my excitement grew, although also my dread. There’s something about heading to a start line several hours away not knowing if your skis will work that produces a certain amount of anxiety.

After an early bedtime, it was up at the crack of 4:30 to catch the 5:00 bus from Rena to Lillehammer. The hotel/apartment complex was full of skiers quietly scampering around with headlamps, full of calm anticipation. I’m terrible at sleeping on buses, so I just watched the landscape go by. For a brief period of time we drove through a snow squall, and I thought of the klister on my skis and gulped. But when we arrived at the start, the sky was clear again and a beautiful day was dawning.

That in and of itself was a bit of a victory for me. The last time I tried to do the Birkebeiner was in 2014, and the race was canceled, after having been initially just delayed morning-of. I, along with most of the rest of the field, had made it to the start line only to sit on our buses and then eventually drive back to Lillehammer. This year, I would actually get to race!

Based on the recommendation of the Swix representative who was talking over the PA system, Chris and I slapped a hardwax cover over our klister, and then walked around a bit before I headed over to the start line. I had thought I was just in wave four, but it was actually a separate wave a few minutes later: all the women who didn’t make the “elite” wave, but were still expected to do well in their age groups. I don’t know how many of us there were, but it was really fun to all be on the start line together getting ready. It has been ages since I have done a race with just women. The atmosphere was decidedly different.

Across the plateau. (Photo: Sportograf)

When the gun went off, we headed out of the start and had the trails all to ourselves for several kilometers before the fastest men from the wave behind us began to catch up. The pace felt high – I later realized that this was because I wasn’t feeling my best, not that we were actually going very fast – and the tracks were already a bit sloppy because at these lower elevations it may not have frozen overnight.

Despite those two things, I was just so happy to be with the other women. Women are much easier for me to follow in terms of technique and cadence, and as we discussed with the team, women are also much better at skiing an even pace for kilometers on end. The going was easy and the camaraderie fun.

But the first several kilometers are not spectacularly beautiful. It wasn’t until we had climbed a bit and all of a sudden the snow was dry and the tracks were hard that I really began smiling. I wasn’t feeling great, but the Birkebeiner is a perfect race in that there’s a lot of climbing but at a very manageable grade. Gradual/moderate striding has always been my biggest strength and strongest technique, and I could just stride along as the vistas opened up and the sun lit everything up. You get in a rhythm and you go.

Regardless of fatigue, regardless of anything, I thought: this is the best of all days. Here I am, out in the hinterland surrounded by thousands of people, skiing along in the sun on perfect wax. As always, some dedicated fans or friends of racers had somehow made their way out to seemingly inaccessible parts of the course and were shouting or just calmly spectating while drinking who knows what and roasting sausages. Aside from the American Birkie, you rarely if ever see this in North America. The atmosphere is truly magical.

That’s not to say there weren’t sections of the race which were hard. It’s surprising how spread out things get, even with so many thousands of skiers, and some parts were rather windy; I also simply got tired. At some point Sjusjøen felt like it would never come.

Me (right) heading through the woods just a few kilometers from the finish. (Photo: Sportograf)

But it did, and all of a sudden there was an order of magnitude more shouting from a huge crowd of spectators. Sjusjøen is the most accessible waypoint along the trail, and it seemed like everyone from miles around must have made their way there to watch. Dennis and Liz were there too, and I was really excited to see them! It was insane. I took a coca cola feed and immediately felt energized. I never ever drink soda, but that really hit the spot.

From Sjusjøen there’s a great, long, fast downhill towards the Olympic stadium. My skis were fast and the biggest challenge was navigating the other people in the trail, especially on a few tight corners. Then the last few kilometers are flat and ever-so-gradually climbing towards the stadium. Even if I was tired, I was still picking people off. I didn’t bonk, which I considered an accomplishment, and a competitiveness which had lain somewhat dormant through the middle of the race kicked back in.

By the finish, I wasn’t thrilled with my performance exactly, but given how heavy my legs had felt the whole way, I was happy with what I had done. Not a single fast-twitch muscle had been firing, but I had tried hard, stayed focused, and knocked an hour off the time I skied back in 2006 as a freshman in college. And I made ‘the mark’, something which I had been certain wouldn’t happen.

Scottie later emailed me my athlete evaluation from the 2006 trip, and it was funny to look back on my assessment of that first Birkebeiner. It was only the second marathon I had ever done, the first one being a skate race in Rangely, Maine.

I snapped this picture of very happy Erik at the finish.

“I think that completing the Birkebeiner was the coolest thing I did,” I wrote of the trip. “The feeling I had after I skied across the finish line was unbeatable. That feeling, and the knowledge that I did something really amazing, is going to stay in my memory for a long time… I also learned that there are a lot of different goals you can set and ways you can succeed.  In the Birkebeiner, I achieved my goal of finishing. That means a lot to me.”

The high school athletes on this trip were probably feeling the same way. (Or better? Every single one of the Ford Sayre high schoolers skied the Birkebeiner faster this year than Natalie Ruppertsberger and I did in 2006.)

Long before Scottie sent me those remarks, I had immediately known that my delight about the race and the conditions was definitely not the coolest part of the day. As I wandered around the finishing area realizing that we had made absolutely zero plan for meeting up afterwards, I eventually ran into Erik Lindahl and then Tim Cunningham. They were both simply amazed at how much fun they’d had. They were still marveling at the wonder of everything and that brought me my biggest smile of the day.

It wasn’t just the high school athletes; the coaches also seemed to have had a really great experience. After so many years of running this trip, Scottie finally got to do her first Birkebeiner, and she did great! That was actually really, really cool for me to see, and it made me really happy to see how much she enjoyed it. The Caldwells and Osgoods were beaming and joyful, Jørgen said he bonked really hard but was pretty good natured about it, and Chris – who usually complains about classic skiing and hates klister with the wrath of a thousand fiery suns – admitted that it was an extremely cool event.

The whole day also reminded me how great it is to have a team. Since moving to Switzerland two and a half years ago, I’ve gone to ski races with another person approximately, what, four times? I have no team or even any training partners, and I’m almost always alone. It’s much harder to put things in context. You get stuck with your own interpretation of the day, and even if it was a good day, that’s just not as fun or as interesting. If it was a bad day, you don’t have a teammate who did great to celebrate. So in that sense, too, thanks a lot to Ford Sayre for having me along on this trip.

The next morning, Chris and I had to leave early and catch the 7 a.m. train to get our flights back to Zurich (me) and Canada (him). It was tough to leave the crew, knowing that they would go for one last long, beautiful, special ski and I would be sitting on an airplane going in the opposite direction.

I owe a huge thank you to the whole Ford Sayre team for having Chris and I along. It was a fantastic trip and so much fun to hang out with everyone for the week.

Photo stolen from the JNT blog, where you can read lots about the athletes’ perspectives on the trip!

the Eastern Cup experience.

High school racing trips mean high school kids cooking. Read about the Ford Sayre kids' experience with skiing on the team's blog.

High school racing trips mean high school kids cooking. Read about the Ford Sayre kids’ experience with skiing on the team’s blog.

I started cross-country skiing in an organized way when I was 15, a sophomore in high school. Before that I had grown up skiing on fishscales, clomping around on the trails behind my grandfather’s house, which were groomed by a devoted local skier (Mike Smith, town hero!) and his snowmobile. We knew that skating existed and every once in a while my mother would try it for ten strides or so, but her skis were classic skis from before skating was even invented and so it wasn’t very practical. As for me, I lived in ignorance.

But in high school it became clear that my career as a basketball player wasn’t going anywhere. I joined the ski team because I had run cross-country and many of my friends skied. It seemed logical. Besides joining the high school team I also enrolled with the Ford Sayre club, a local program with a higher racing focus which practiced two times a week.

By the end of the year I entered my first regional races: the Eastern Cups in Hanover (on my home course at Oak Hill) and Holderness, New Hampshire. I finished last and second to last. Luckily things improved in subsequent seasons!

I raced many more Eastern Cups with Ford Sayre, then with Dartmouth, and then with the Craftsbury team after graduation. And after I stopped ski racing seriously, I kept going back to the first Eastern Cups of the season when I was home for Christmas to coach for Ford Sayre, my original club. At the first big races of the season things are always a little hectic so they are happy to have an extra helper on hand. Each year I get to check in with the kids who are coming up through the program, and it’s a blast.

Racing in Craftsbury at the Eastern Cup in 2013. (photo: Adam Glueck)

Racing in Craftsbury at the Eastern Cup in 2013. (photo: Adam Glueck)

(Sometimes I race, but this year with the 1 k manmade loop I didn’t feel the need to. Once you’re old, you can be a fair-weather racer, so to speak.)

This year I was particularly excited to go to the Eastern Cup because it was in Craftsbury, Vermont, on my old stomping grounds. With so little snow in Europe, I was excited to bring my skis home and go for long distance skis around my favorite Craftsbury trails – finally, some good training! My boyfriend was also coming to help coach, and he had never been to the Outdoor Center or that area of the Northeast Kingdom. I was doubly excited to show him the trails.

….. then I actually took a look at the snow situation in New England. Craftsbury did an amazing job pulling off races at all, especially since it rained two days before the races and reduced the snowpack on the manmade loop down about as low as it could go. But a kilometer was as much as they could muster. My boyfriend and I brought our running shoes and explored the trails that way. It was still fun.

What I love about Eastern Cups is that they have something for everyone – from top seniors vying for international race spots who treat the races as training tests, down to high school athletes jumping in their first regional races – and that the entire ski community of Eastern North America shows up. I could catch up with so many old friends in one place, and trade cards and Christmas presents too! I would have loved to go for a ski with my friends who are now coaching full time, but we stuck to chatting on the side of the trail given the conditions.

Ford Sayre coaches Scottie Eliassen (right) and Dennis Donahue under the wax tent in 2014.

Ford Sayre coaches Scottie Eliassen (right) and Dennis Donahue under the wax tent in 2014.

A ski race is a ski race is a ski race, and one of the things that has gotten me through my 2 1/2 years in Europe is that you can show up to ski anywhere and things are basically the same and people are friendly and nice. But the Eastern Cup is particularly familiar, whether it is Pavel Sotskov’s announcing or walking by tables full of food for various clubs and college teams where athletes, coaches, and parents all congregate post-race.

I also particularly enjoy going with Ford Sayre. Every year it’s a reminder of what I learned from the club about how to be an athlete. Before every race, each athlete has to come check in with the coaches to talk about two (no more, no less) specific objectives for the competition – be it a technique cue, something about pacing, a mental aspect, or just the process of the race from warm-up to cool-down.

At the end of the day, the athletes cook dinner and we all sit around a big table as a team. Each athlete says one thing that went well for them, and one thing that they want to improve on in the next race. Then the coaches do the same thing.

The club always has a good system of setting short- and long-term goals, and revisiting them when appropriate. It teaches athletes early in their careers to have purpose and to do things for a reason. That’s something that carries through to everything else you do in life – I regularly set goals for my academic life, some which I want to achieve in the next months and some which I want to achieve two or five years from now.

This year’s group was particularly awesome and respectful, and super fun to work with. It’s great to be hanging out in the house with kids who are so smart and have so much interesting to say! In a lot of years the only athletes in the club are from Hanover High School (so Hanover and Lyme, New Hampshire, and Norwich, Vermont, and sometimes surrounding towns). This year there are four high schools represented and a home-schooled athlete as well. That made things a lot more interesting, and it was amazing how well everyone got along on their first real race trip.

There’s also always the comedian of the group, and always one athlete who was quiet the first three years I showed up to coach but suddenly has become the group’s ringleader. People change so fast in high school, both athletically and on a personal level.

So my annual Eastern Cup trip is a reminder: sports are a good an essential things for kids to do. Encourage your family, friends, and neighbors to get their kids to do sports! As many as possible!

And coaching? That’s a pretty good, fun, and rewarding thing for grown-ups to do, too.

circular.

me! heading out of the gate in qualifying. photo: Adam Glueck.

me! heading out of the gate in qualifying. photo: Adam Glueck.

Of course, one of my first days back in the States for Christmas I headed up to the Northeast Kingdom. Craftsbury. My old home. For years and years I have gone to the opening Eastern Cup races of the season, first at Trapps in Stowe, then up in the County in Maine, then in Craftsbury. I’ve worn many different hats (and suits) but I’ve pretty much always been there. This year was no different. With Ford Sayre facing a coaching shortage because of various people traveling, I was super psyched to lend a hand with my old team.

And hey – why not? Put on a bib. I’d been skiing a fair amount (although let’s be honest, not really that much, I never did a ski longer than 2 hours) in the past two weeks in Austria and Switzerland. I’m signed up for one ski marathon this winter and considering entries in two more, so I need to get in some intensity. The easiest way to do that is with a bib on, not by yourself out on the trails thinking, “well, this is sort of hard so I’ll just stop right here.”

I’ve helped out with Ford Sayre a lot in the past, though not nearly as much as they have helped me. My first year of college – the first year out of the program – I signed on as an assistant coach on the team’s trip to Norway. I’ve been helping out here and there ever since. In the past few years my coaching and leadership chops have gotten better as I’ve put things in a little more perspective. It helps not to be fully consumed by racing yourself!

So, on Thursday, I had gotten about 3 hours of sleep when I left Davos for Zurich, Zurich for Dulles and a sprint through the airport, Dulles for Boston, and eventually Boston for home. 24 hours of traveling.

Saturday morning I woke up at 5:20, which seemed not that bad because I was still on European time, and drove up to Craftsbury. The roads were a little sketchy and icy. Fun times! I arrived a little before the Ford Sayre crew, who had stayed in Barton the night before. But eventually they arrived. This year there were just a few kids racing, almost all freshmen in high school. Scottie and I took them around the sprint course, talking about strategy and how to ski each section, answering a million questions. The kids’ approach ranged from focus and planning, to ADHD focus and planning, to ADHD distraction. I loved them. It might be my favorite group of Ford Sayre kids I’ve worked with. Okay, that’s hard to say, I love them all, but seriously, these guys are great. They are a lot of fun, and they aren’t intimidated by much, and they are eager to learn and go and do. Coaching is a joy (even when it became “Chelsea Little’s ski delivery service”, running to the starting pen with race skis because I was afraid the kids would forget to pick them up otherwise!).

It was also my turn to race, eventually. I headed out of the start box, not feeling like I was skiing very well. It had started to rain. But then I zoomed down a hill, tuck-skating and gathering momentum, and boom! pop pop pop over the top and swooping down again. I shot partway up Dinosaur Hill. My goal had been to use my time on snow so far this year to my advantage, skiing the terrain efficiently and getting the most momentum I could out of every transition. I was definitely doing it. So what if every time I hit an uphill I came grinding to a halt? Living in Munich and going for 30 minute runs every other day doesn’t prep you well for climbing on skis.

Also, my skis were incredibly fast. I got them from Caldwell Sport and geeze, thanks Zach. Best skis I’ve ever had, by a mile. (As my mom said when I arrived home: “isn’t it kind of too bad you never had skis this nice when you were actually racing seriously?”) I felt like I was cheating, because my speed wasn’t coming entirely from my own motor.

Anyway, I finished, headed back to get dry clothes, got distracted talking to a million old friends. I finally ran into Judy Geer when I was almost out on the trails, and she happened to have a copy of qualifying results in her hands. I asked to take a peek.

“Chels, you made the heats!” she said.

“WHAT!?”

“I know! We checked, like, four or five times!”

Well, THAT was unexpected. Sprinting requires a fairly specific kind of training, which I definitely haven’t done in about three years. I mean, these weren’t super elite races, but still. Last year I didn’t even come close to qualifying when I did this race last year. But here I was. I ran back to the tent, realized that it had been 45 minutes and I had neither cooled down nor eaten anything… broke the news to my stunned team, and got on things.

Long story short, I had a great start to my quarterfinal heat but crashed soon afterwards, getting tangled up in someone else’s skis when I tried to move over and get off the outside lane. I haven’t skied around people in a while, definitely not at top speed, so I was probably a little overconfident in my own ski-handling and definitely way overconfident in the rest of the field’s. This isn’t the World Cup, where you can just slot in right behind someone. The thing is, my main connection to skiing the last few years has been not from doing it myself, but instead from watching the World Cup. You get some unreasonable expectations for how things are going to work.

I crashed just before the first downhill, which was unfortunate because the rest of the field got that momentum before I even really got up. With my rocket skis I came within 5 meters of catching up on Dinosaur Hill, but then I got really tired. Finished dead last. Walked it across the line. If this had been the World Cup I would have waved to the crowd, like, “that was fun, thanks for your cheering and I did the best I could if not for that stupid crash.” This isn’t the World Cup though. It’s an Eastern Cup. I’d been beat by some college kids and another old lady like myself.

By then it was really pouring – I was soaked through completely, spandex stuck to me – and I managed to cool down for real. We stuck around because one of the kids was in the J2 heats, so we cheered like maniacs. One of the high points was actually watching one of the kids I used to coach in BKL back when I was at Crafstbury, Anders Hanson, ski like a boss in the J2 heats and finish third in the final. He’s come a long way and it was incredible to see.

I had a great dinner with the team (and made chocolate cake with lots of candles to celebrate the solstice), and we woke up the next morning to a crazy ice storm.

again: Adam's photo.

again: Adam’s photo.

Basically, no power, no heat. We told the kids to go back to bed and almost 2 hours later learned that the Sunday race had been canceled. Bummer. I was psyched for the 10 k classic and had a much better seed than the previous day, when I’d had no points and started fourth-from-last, hardly advantageous. It would have been fun. It was so icy on the interstate that we couldn’t leave immediately, but had to hunker down for a few more hours before we dared test the roads. I also had to cancel plans to visit friends in Craftsbury and then spend the night with other friends in Hardwick. But probably for the best, I needed to work on my thesis so that’s what I did when I got home!

(well, sort of. I was pretty exhausted. Also, Scottie and I went to a lovely Wassail party hosted by Margaret Caldwell.)

Anyway, it was a great weekend and brought back a lot of memories. It’s the first time I have races in the full Ford Sayre suit in many, many years. I now have no other team to train with (well, no team at all) and I am thrilled to be able to rep them. The program is very young so it was important for people to see their suit in the senior heats, and I was definitely the only way that was going to happen. More than being surprised to make the heats, I was pretty proud I could do that for them.

It has been more than 10 years since my first race for Ford Sayre, which I was thinking about too. In January of 2003 or so, I went to my first Eastern Cup, but I wasn’t even good enough to race. I skied around with Dennis and worked on just learning to ski. Making it 5 k felt like a huge accomplishment. To be able to waltz back in with no serious training, a thesis due in 10 days which I had been putting off to do work on my part-time job, no sleep, jet lag, etc… and somehow make the heats, well, in a way that feels like an even bigger change then the days when I was training full-time like an insane person.

It was fun! Gotta run but wanted to post an update from a super fun weekend! You can read the team’s blog about the sprint day here and about the ice storm here.

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.

Silver Fox Trot success!

I woke up this morning and thought, shit, I am sick. I went through a whole box of kleenex before our bus left at 11:45. I wasn’t sure whether I should race or not, but at this point in the season, it’s not like I’m saving myself for any more carnivals, so I decided to go for it.

I felt surprisingly good in the race, although afterwards I felt really sick – more sniffly, fevery, sick to my stomach, lungs hurting more than from a normal race. So I doubt this was a good move for getting better quickly.

But, I had a ton of fun racing! I made a new discovery about V1 when I was doing speeds on Friday so I got to try it out. On top of that, I felt like I was skiing technically well overall for the first time in weeks. It was a blast to be out there. I finished 8th, which isn’t super impressive (if I was healthy, I would have been gunning for the podium), but to keep it in perspective it IS my best Eastern Cup result of my career …. so I’m very happy with it!

Today I raced in my old Ford Sayre tights with my Dartmouth top. It felt like home to be whizzing around Oak Hill, seeing so many familiar faces – different ones than those that put on our Dartmouth carnival. It was a lot of fun.

The season of giving: from the USST to me to Ford Sayre

Greg DeFrancis.

Racing in heavy snow, with Ford Sayre support, at the Stowe Eastern Cups. Photo: Greg DeFrancis.

While many winter sports continue team competition through the holidays, we skiers are lucky. There are no college races until mid-January, so we are free to return to our families.

This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook, of course. We have to keep training and racing, but rather than doing this with the team, we work independently or with our club teams from high school.

The holidays are about giving, and in a sense, this is our chance to give back to our old teams. I return to Ford Sayre, the club that most of the area’s elite skiers call home.

The club’s nordic program, like its alpine program, has produced quite a few college athletes in my age group: Dartmouth teammate Max Hopkins, Alice Nelson of Williams, Jennie Brentrup of Colby, and Natalie Ruppertsberger and Beth Taylor of Bates.

When we ski with the Upper Valley’s high school athletes, we can tell them this: we may be training more than you are now. But when we were your age we were doing exactly what you are doing, or maybe less, and look where we are now. You can ski in college, too.

Last Friday, Alice, Jennie and I went to practice and gave the Ford Sayre athletes some tips about sprint racing. Alice was the best resource, since she’s raced in the quarterfinals at U.S. Nationals. “The reason I like sprinting,” she told a group of high school freshmen, “is that you don’t have time to think about it. You just go.”

I added that for me the key is not to relax instead of skiing frantically. If you ski poorly because you are trying to pick up the tempo, you’ll actually be slower. Alice reworded it more eloquently: “Don’t ski faster than your technique allows.”

The next day we had a chance to demonstrate at an Eastern Cup sprint in Stowe, Vermont.

In the quarterfinals, Dylan and I made strong charges out of the back of our heats, and Alice advanced all the way to the A-Final. I like to think that watching us may have inspired some younger athletes, if only a small amount.

Then I wonder who I am kidding. Skiers like Lizzie Anderson and Heidi Caldwell have podium finishes at junior nationals under their belts, something I had certainly never accomplished at that point in my career. Every year, there is exceptional talent in this pool of junior skiers.

This was illustrated on Tuesday when U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Matt Whitcomb came to practice at Oak Hill.

We huddled around for introductions and Matt explained why he was there. “You may not realize it,” he said, “But Ford Sayre is an important pipeline for us. There’s probably gold medal potential in this group.”

We were going to be working on skate technique. Matt reminded us that he wasn’t scouting, so we shouldn’t try to impress him. Besides, he said, “If you’re relying on me to pull you out of obscurity, sorry, I don’t have that kind of power!”

Matt is a man on a mission. When he’s not coaching his athletes on the national B-Team, he travels around the country making sure that clubs are effectively teaching up-to-date technique. He wants every club to be on the same page, so that when athletes reach the next level, they can focus on fine-tuning.

We skated a few laps holding our poles vertically in front of us to make sure we didn’t bend over as we shifted our weight. Then we held them horizontally across our hips to make sure we faced forward instead of twisting from side to side.

Matt knew all of our names after a few laps, and his attitude was a hit with the young skiers. When he explained things, he started serious, and then moved into more fun analogies. It’s rare to find a coach with such technical skills who can also connect well socially with skiers of all ages. A friend had told me, “Matt is a kick in the pants,” and I would have to agree.

The next drill was what he called the “skate sprint”. The goal was to use both edges of our skis. As we skated we hopped from edge to edge on each ski, and I couldn’t help laughing as I tried to learn the pattern. I felt absurd and was thrilled that I didn’t fall down.

After watching the mayhem, Matt reminded us that playing around on skis is a great way to gain better balance and push the envelope with technique. Training should be fun, and you can’t get better without trying new things.

He mentioned Andy Newell of Shaftsbury, Vermont, one of the fastest sprinters in the world. “Andy will be rollerskiing down a hill at 30 miles per hour, and then, bam, pull a 180, and he’ll be going backwards down the hill at 30 miles per hour.” Our eyes widened. “My point is not that you should try that – please don’t – but that experimenting makes you more comfortable on your skis.”

As the temperature warmed from 8 degrees and the snow softened, we practiced taking corners at speed. Much like bike racers in a criterium, we were asked to commit fully to the inside edge of our skis and lean into the corner. It was fun, and there were a few crashes.

At the end of the session, Matt wished us good luck with our seasons, and told us to ski as much as possible over the break. While we had done a lot of talking, standing around doesn’t make you faster. Skiing makes you faster. Then he added, “Actually, just do what these guys tell you!” and pointed towards Ford Sayre coaches Scottie Eliassen and Dennis Donahue.

I’m taking my cues from Cami Thompson these days, but it’s because I did what “those guys” told me when I was in high school.

And while the gold medal potential Matt was talking about probably isn’t me, I hope I can give back to them some other way.