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.

College athletics vs. pro athletics

(author’s note: I feel that I didn’t have enough time to work on this week’s column. As a result it sucks. I am sorry.)

Ruff Patterson.

I swear I'm moving forward and not just standing in a really awkward position. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

I don’t often think of the difference between being a college athlete and a plain-vanilla athlete. I dream about how great it would be to keep competing after college, when I would have more time to train, but these thoughts are purely theoretical.

This weekend, our races were a sprint and a 10k skate. In the sprint, an event I skied decently in December, I just plain wasn’t fast. In the 10k, I had patches of good, aggressive skiing, but when Beth Taylor of Norwich, skiing for Bates, put the hammer down on me on the last uphill, I couldn’t react.

I felt the same way the previous weekend, too. For the last month, my legs have gotten more and more tired, and the speed that was once in them has all but disappeared.

I’m in a bit of a mid-season slump.

Talking to my coaches, I came up with a plan to get things back together for this weekend’s races in Stowe. Take an extra day off. Focus on short, intense sessions rather than long ones that drag out. Jog in the mornings.

But I also needed to approach my problem from a more philosophical standpoint. Shouldn’t I be able to train in between races without ruining my race potential? Isn’t that what every other ski racer does?

Then I realized that yes, every ski racer does it, but it’s a lot easier when you’re not going to school.

This doesn’t explain why I’m more tired and lackluster than my teammates; I’m not going to claim that my biology seminar is setting me at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the college field.

But it reminded me that college skiing presents challenges that professional athletes don’t face. This isn’t the World Cup. We don’t have a team masseuse or even a team doctor, we don’t have bikes to spin the lactic acid out of our legs after races, and we don’t have infinite time to sleep, eat, and recover.

Several weeks ago, I moved into a new apartment for the term. My housemates, who are not varsity athletes, asked how many hours per week the ski team demanded. I considered: 10 or 15 for training in the fall, plus a few more on your own. In the winter, 8 hours of practice plus three days of traveling and racing.

That doesn’t sound like much. But it also only begins to describe the time commitment that we make. That leaves out taking care of our equipment and waxing our skis. It leaves out the team functions, the meetings with coaches, and the hours spent worrying, planning, and preparing for races.

After I ran down this list, my housemate pointed out that I was missing something: sleep. Sleep is a double-edged sword for a college athlete. I need 10 hours every night, which is significantly more than most of my non-athlete friends. But those hours are also hours that I can’t spend doing my homework.

I had another seminal conversation came a few days later, when my friend and former teammate Susan Dunklee asked me how school was going. It was all right, I said. My biology seminar was sometimes a struggle, and I had to stay up later than I’d like to finish the reading for my comparative literature class.

Susan asked about the seminar. Despite the fact that we shared a major, she had never taken a class with the professor. “You’re going to pass, right?”

Yes, of course I’m going to pass (right, Professor McPeek?). But just as I tend to put a lot of pressure on my self to ski phenomenally well, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get A’s in school.

Scholar-athletes are perfectionists. Passing isn’t good enough, and neither is finishing in the middle of the pack. Last year, of our twelve nordic skiers competing at EISA Championships, seven were named Academic All-East. We want our cake and we want to eat it, too; we don’t want to compromise on either scholarship or athletics. This is one reason there was so much press when Dartmouth won the NCAA title for skiing two years ago.

Susan said, “Looking back on Dartmouth, I have no idea how we did it. Keep it up.”

I have no idea how we do it, either. Every once in a while, we feel doubt that we can pull it off. But most of the time, we’re so busy trying that it never occurs to us that what we are doing is improbable.

And even if the college athletic experience presents challenges, let me be clear: none of us would trade it for anything.

So I’ll take the tired legs, thanks, and I’ll take that extra day off and read some ecology papers. This weekend I’m going to put on a green suit and take some names out on the racecourse. Every time I put on that green suit, it’s a privilege, and I plan to keep putting it on all the way through March. My legs don’t have a choice in the matter.