Planoiras Part 1: This Doesn’t Feel Fun (A Pity Party)

Note: this is the first of two posts about my racing in Lenzherheide, Switzerland, this weekend. It’s going to be a little negative. Tomorrow’s will be positive though, so stay tuned! (Edited to add: Part 2 is posted here.)

Every year, I have a giddy feeling as the snow starts to fall. That means it’s ski season! Usually I’ve been waiting more and more impatiently for months.

This year was no different. I had trained for a marathon and completed it in late October. After a few weeks of minimal exercise to let my body recover (and to let me finish writing my dissertation), I couldn’t wait to get on skis. I wanted to get moving again, but while running less than I had been in the months leading up to my marathon. I sought glide.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and it was a very warm early winter in much of Europe. The skiing got good about the time I headed home for Christmas. Back home in New England, folks had been skiing for weeks – but it rained the day after I got home and much of the snow melted, so I didn’t ski much there, either. Of course, there was a huge snowstorm the day I left. I just had horrible timing.

In the last month, I’ve had a few skis here and there, about two of which have been in good conditions.

Just as I had been dreaming, gliding on skis was bliss.

***

Every year since 2003 I’ve done at least a couple of ski races, and it would feel weird not to plan some into my winter. My first race of this year was the Planoiras 25 k skate point-to-point in Lenzerheide this weekend.

I’ve done the race a few times before. Last year, I was recovering from a major ankle injury. I entered only to realize partway through that my injury still significantly limited my range of motion. I couldn’t get the ankle flex I needed to skate at speed. Worse than that, by halfway through the race skating was getting painful, including acute sharp twinges in my ankle whenever I slipped in the icy conditions. I slowed way down and limped my way to the finish.

That was a super frustrating day – one of the most frustrating in my rehab process. It had been six months since the injury, and I thought I was recovered. Turns out, I wasn’t. I skated only minimally for the rest of the winter, licking my wounds and (luckily) enjoying classic skiing pain-free.

This year, just signing up for the race was a reminder of my injury. But I feel like I’m legitimately healed, so it actually brought a smile to my face. I am still a little bit wobblier on the left side when I do balance drills, but I haven’t had pain in months.

I recognized that I haven’t been on snow much this season; when I tried doing some skating intervals last week, I was floundering all over the place. So I didn’t have super high hopes for the race.

But I thought it would still feel triumphant: I would do a lot better than last year, and be able to actually ski an entire race without having to pull up short and walk it in.

***

There was basically nothing about the day that felt triumphant.

The weather forecast called for a major snowstorm, and I did my best to psych myself up. “You can’t just wait around for a race with perfect conditions,” I admonished myself. “You have to go race anyway. Enjoying nice weather is not what this is about.”

I think I did a pretty good job with my mental attitude. I had accepted that it wasn’t going to be a beautiful day in the mountains, and that things were going to be slow and sloppy. I was just going to make the best of things and ski hard.

I did try my best. But everyone just kind of skied away from me. I felt slow and ineffective; my legs felt like lead. The climbs were such a drag. The way my legs were burning, I felt like I should be moving like Jessie Diggins. But, ummm, I wasn’t. (Let’s leave it at that.)

At first I wondered if I’d just picked the completely wrong skis. I might have, but that couldn’t explain the way that I just felt weak, heavy, and slow. I didn’t have any zip.

And at some point, I started wondering, is this fun? Why do I do this?

I managed to push that question from my mind and stay pretty focused. I pushed hard, even though it didn’t make me go fast. Looking at my heart rate data afterwards, I was hovering right around my anaerobic threshold for an hour and 39 minutes straight, often going above it. I can’t say I didn’t try hard.

I crossed the line to no fanfare, not happy with how I skied technically or speed-wise. I had been snowed on for more than an hour and a half and I was wet and cold and bedraggled, the top of my head actually covered in a crust of snow.

The sun was literally not shining on my face.

***

A lot of things about the day didn’t make me feel happy. But the feeling afterwards, as I struggled through a 10-minute jog, developed a race hack, and then proceeded to fall asleep on the train (narrator: this never happens, she’s terrible at sleeping), did make me happy.

One thing I love about racing is the feeling of completely emptying the tank and knowing that you worked as hard as you possibly could, that you are physically 110% spent. That might make me a crazy person, but it is a rewarding feeling. And I think it’s one that a lot of people don’t experience often if at all. When I push myself that hard, I am proud of myself, proud that I can do it.

Regardless of how fast I go, having this relationship with my body. I can ask it to do this massive effort and it delivers. To me, that is an accomplishment.

***

As I skied around the course, I had pushed the questions out of my mind. But on the way I kept mulling over that question: is this fun?

It’s been a few days, and the mental tricks we play on ourselves have already come into force. I’m painting the race all rosy, proud of how hard I tried, thinking it wasn’t so bad.

But I do remember. While it was happening, it didn’t seem fun. At all. Except for a few scattered moments here and there, I wasn’t really enjoying myself.

It hurt, and not in a good way. I wasn’t getting any power or speed out of the burn I was laying into my legs. Pushing hard is rewarding especially when it gets you somewhere, but it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.

Then there’s the reality of racing as a woman in Switzerland.

I don’t want to offend anyone with what I’m about to write, but sometimes it is less fun than it could be.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that everyone is racing. Keep racing, masters men! Start racing, folks who are just getting into skiing! It’s fun and healthy and I am all for more people ski racing.

But just 40 of the 313 finishers in this year’s Planoiras were women, or 13%. I would go long stretches without seeing another woman, and men just ski and race differently than women. In my experience, we women are more likely to set a steady, even pace (don’t @ me: this is backed up by research). In my part of the race, we also often have better technique to go the same speed as the men –we aren’t as big and strong , so we get to go that fast by other means – and so it’s nicer to ski behind another woman. I will never get passed by a woman who sprints by me in an effort to not get “girled”, only to run out of steam in the middle of the trail later and then try to block me from passing once I catch up. It’s men who do that. The same ones who repeatedly ski over your skis and step all over your pole baskets, but then turn around and yell at you if you accidentally do the same thing to them even once.

Look, there are lots of great men racing out there who excellent to ski with. In fact, I ski around a lot of them a lot of the time! Thanks, guys! It would be lonely out there without you.

But what I mean by “it’s less fun than it could be” is that for the men who are maybe prone to ski like idiots or jerks, I don’t think that the gender imbalance in these races contributes to bringing out their best behavior.

The numbers of women are better in the U.S. in many long races. I checked some data and at last year’s City of Lakes Loppet, between the skate marathon and 20 k combined 166 of 684 racers were women, or 24%. In the Tour of Anchorage 50 k, 43 of 172 finishers were women, or 25%. In the Rangeley Lakes Loppet, 25% of the 80 finishers were women. And in the Boulder Mountain Tour 34 k in 2017, 178 of 534 finishers were women, or 33%.

That might not seem like a big difference – in none of these cases are anywhere near equal numbers of men and women competing in ski marathons – but the difference is meaningful.

Think about if one out of every four people around you is a woman, versus one out of every eight. You’d notice.

So as my legs burned and I floundered in the sections of soft snow, I’d periodically get annoyed at unnecessary, impolite race behavior. Like, chill out! We are not at the front of this race. We are the slow people. We’re all out here trying as hard as we can, and it’s just unnecessary to make other people’s race experience worse in your pursuit of that goal.

Afterwards, the thought stuck in my mind. If I could ski in a pack like this for an hour and a half – worrying all the time that my poles are about to get broken and I’m about to get tripped and land on my face – or I could go have a nice quiet ski by myself in the mountains somewhere, which one sounds like more fun?

***

Then there’s the fact that I’m only going to get slower.

I trained a lot more when I was 23 and 24 and well, kids, it’s all downhill from there. Especially when you live in the city and there’s no skiing within an hour.

I’m probably never going to improve at ski racing again. And despite all the process goals I can make and all the other reasons that I race, that might mean that ski racing is a little less fun. I’m a competitive person, and as hard as I try to let go of that and detach, it’s a little brutal to watch yourself do worse and worse. It’s embarrassing to admit that I have a little bit of ego in this. I’m mediocre, so there shouldn’t be vanity involved. But I’m only human.

***

This is a passing hissy fit. Okay, so I did a race and I felt slow. Grow up.

But as I kept thinking about it – does this make me happy, and if so, what about it does that? – I decided maybe it was important to actually consider those questions, instead of just doing a couple ski races every year because that’s what I’ve always done.

If I think about the answers to those questions – really think about them – then maybe it will feel less disappointing next time I feel slow and weak, or finish twenty places worse than the last time I did a race.

Maybe my next race will be in the sunshine, with perfect kickwax, and I won’t have been too incredibly stressed about work all week, and I’ll feel great and have fun! I sure hope so.

But even if that’s true, too, having the answers to those questions won’t hurt. I don’t have them yet. But I’m working on it.

Why do you race?

Maybe it’s a good conversation to have.

***

Part 2 is posted here.

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spring resolutions.

Next winter I want more of this... and only like half as much racing.

Next winter I want more of this… and only like half as much racing.

Some people make resolutions at New Years. But I’m never very successful at keeping them.

This year I had a revelation: for me the calendar doesn’t start on January 1, but when the ski season ends and a new year begins. We’ve all kept track of it this way in our training logs for years and years, but I had never explicitly thought of it seeping into the rest of my life.

After all, semester schedules still go on. Grant cycles don’t depend on the seasons.

But emotionally, the end of the season is the time for me take stock of what happened in the last year, set goals, and decide what I want to do better – how to manage my time through the whole year, culminating in winter.

When I got back from World Championships, I started making resolutions. The first one: next year I’m not going to race as much. I’m going to enjoy skiing for skiing’s sake a bit more, and take some weekends where I just get out on the trails with no bib on.

This winter racing really did take up a lot of mental space, even though I tried to keep things low key. In the end, if you’re racing every single weekend it weighs on you no matter how relaxed any individual race experience is.

For the last two weekends I have had a blast enjoying the spring skiing in Switzerland, and I want to make certain that I do more of this mid-winter, too.

I finally checked out Melchsee Frutt, a ski area that my friend Jonas gushed about all winter. It’s outside of Lucerne and you take a bus up to the bottom of a big gondola. Then, with your skinny cross-country skis, you take the gondola up with all sorts of alpine skiers, snowboarders, and families with toboggans (alpine sledding is a big and awesome thing here – don’t believe me? Read about when I sledded Grindelwald….)

The top of the gondola is at 1900 meters. The snow is sparkling. The sun is strong. There’s a 15 k loop, which isn’t really all that much, but it’s plenty to keep you entertained. It’s one of the first times cross-country skiing in Switzerland where I have really felt, dang, I’m in the Alps.

Melkst Frust.

Melchsee Frust.

There's a dogsled outfit called "Swisskimos", which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

There’s a dogsled outfit called “Swisskimos”, which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

I went there the day before Easter, and then on Easter Monday I skied 40 k in Lenzerheide. The first hour was incredible, but then I started skiing from town towards the biathlon/Tour de Ski stadium and realized that in this direction the cover was terrible and the snow was melting.

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction...

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction…

... with glimpses of summer on the way.

… with glimpses of summer on the way.

It was still an amazing day, though, and I had a blast using the fitness I’d accumulated over a season of racing without the pressure of, you know, racing.

This weekend I went one last time to Melchsee Frutt, with Jonas.

Smile, Jonas! You're skiing in April!

Smile, Jonas! You’re skiing in April!

One of us is more tired than the other one.

One of us is more tired than the other one.

We agreed: this was the last ski of the year. Time to summer wax the skis. Thanks skis. Til next year.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

My second resolution: cook more diverse and interesting food, and don’t fall into ruts. When I was skiing in Craftsbury I tried to bake a lot of different fancy desserts because I had too much time on my hands. Then when I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to take a job as a research assistant, I lived for the first time in a pretty diverse city. I took advantage of the Asian and Mexican grocery stores and went on a lot of culinary adventures. Since then, I mainly cook new things when I’m at home and making dinner for my parents. It turns out okay.

But at my own apartment, I’ve been a little bit lame. Sure, I make some good food, but often I resort to things that are quick and I usually stick to the safe, central European aisles of the neighborhood grocery.

So a few days after getting back from Oslo I finally, after a year and a half, went to an Asian grocery store in Zurich. I had been saying ever since arriving that I would do it. I found good dark soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mirin (Japanese cooking wine), rice vinegar, black bean chili garlic sauce (which is the best thing ever), lots of fun noodles, oyster sauce, better tofu, and fresh cilantro.

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I already need to go back and re-stock up on a few things that I’ve run out of, as well as more things, like peanuts and light soy sauce. I’ve had a blast cooking. A few favorites: this delicious stir fry recipe (using tofu instead of chicken), hot and sour soup, and some stir fried cabbage and rice noodles.

Spicy cucumber salad (this, but using cucumber you have chopped up, salted, and drained the water off of for 15 minutes) is a new side that I’ve been making to go with basically anything.

I also bought a cookbook which I have seen have glowing reviews in multiple places. It’s called Made In India, and it’s awesome. The author, Meera Sodha, lives in Britain and sprinkles the book with stories about her family. The recipes are great, but they’re also designed to be made with ingredients you can find at a normal grocery store.

My housemates have been thrilled that I’ve cooked a bunch of new curries: chickpea curry (Chana masala), potato curry (Aloo tamatar), roasted cauliflower. Buy this book. Your housemates, family, husband, wife, coworkers, whatever – they will love you a little bit more.

My third resolution: do more squats. I actually haven’t been to the gym in over two years. Gym memberships are expensive here. There’s a university facility that I could go to for free, but I hate the atmosphere. In Switzerland sports are already such a man’s world, and not surprisingly, on a college campus the gym feels like a meat market. At 28 years old I no longer feel like participating in this “see and be seen” and “leer at the girls working out in spandex” situation.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

When I was living in Eugene I went to a great high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program called Tabata. The details are a little different from other HIIT programs, but in the end most of these things are similar. If you are on a team or part of a training program, you don’t need any gimmicky workouts: just do what your coach says. For those of us training alone, sometimes we need extra motivation and organization.

Anyway, Jon’s Tabata program is based on just a few exercises: body-weight squats, squat-thrusts, and jumps. The workouts take just 30 minutes and they make you exhausted. You will sweat like a pig. Walking around the rest of the day your legs will shake.

But you will get strong. My legs became more powerful and I was more lean when I was doing those workouts. I have Jon’s “recipe book” for workouts and this year I’m determined to do some regularly. I need some power and fast-twitch muscles in my life.

Lastly: Productivity. It might seem like I’m pretty productive – I guess I am. I manage to do an okay job at being a PhD student and regularly produce content for FasterSkier.

But…. I could do better. In my PhD, things have gotten a bit overwhelming in the last six months. I’m stuck with a lot of data which I don’t really know how to analyze, but I should be analyzing it and writing it into manuscripts, at the same time that I continue to conceive of and execute new experiments. It’s a lot!

Just focus and get it done, for Pete's sake.

Just focus and get it done, for Pete’s sake.

When I get completely overwhelmed, my productivity crashes. It feels like I’ll never accomplish everything even if I try, so where do you even start?

This post from WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool really explains it best.

Spurred on my a comment from my housemate, I started looking into software that would keep me from logging onto facebook or checking my FasterSkier email during the work day.

Have you heard of the Pomodoro method? It sounds really dumb: you break your day into 25 minute chunks, and allow yourself five minutes in between to make a cup of tea, go for a quick walk around the building, check your email, whatever.

I’ve started using an app called Pomello which merges this technique with your to-do list. You pick a task and the timer starts counting your 25 minutes. When the 25 minutes is up, bingo! Reward yourself by replying to an email from a friend. Then you can restart the same task or pick another one. You can compare day-to-day how many of these 25-minute chunks you get done and how youre productivity is doing.

This sounds so completely trivial and pointless, but it has actually really helped me. I think it taps into some part of my innate insane competitiveness, so I do actually focus during the 25-minutes blocks. It’s short enough that you can keep yourself focused, sans distraction, for the whole time and chide yourself when you think about checking facebook. But it’s long enough that you can get some meaningful part of a task done, too.

If you’re a better worker than I am, this will seem irrelevant. But if, like me, you are getting bogged down and discouraged and reading interesting articles on the internet instead of doing your work… maybe give it a try?

Hopefully I can keep this newfound improvement to my focus through the whole year.

I think that part of the reason that “new years resolutions” never stuck for me is that if I make them on January 1, my day-to-day life if much the same before and after this magical cutoff date. I’m still on holiday (for a short time), I’m still balancing skiing and work, it’s still winter.

(The other part of why they don’t stick is that resolutions rarely work, period.)

This year, I’m thinking about them at a time when my life really is different: with the changing of the seasons, I have a real chance to start afresh. Things feel new, and like if I really wanted to change my life, I could succeed.

Ladies get no respect.

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: we wished for snow, and then it snowed during the race which made things a lot slower and more grueling.... Also, pro tip, when it's obviously going to be a snowstorm, remember your glasses or visor!

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: the snow we so desperately needed came during the race, making things a lot slower and more grueling…. Also, pro tip, when it’s obviously going to be a snowstorm, remember your glasses or visor, dummy! It gets hard to see! (Photo: AlphaFoto)

This weekend my race was in Lenzerheide. All in all it was a good experience – we raced four loops around the Tour de Ski trails, with one extension and the steepest ‘A’ climb cut out.

That turned out to be a good thing, because the first rough part of the race is that it was in the middle of a snowstorm. I can’t complain too much because we have been wishing and begging for snow – the race was actually supposed to be a point-to-point but there wasn’t enough cover, hence the loops of the World Cup course – but it slowed things down considerably. Whereas the weekend before I had felt like I was flying, this weekend not so much. In the slow conditions I guarantee I would have been single-sticking up that ‘A’ climb by the fourth go-round. At least on the long grinding climb out of the stadium, which lasts for 2/3 of a kilometer, I felt like I was moving.

I struggled with the start, where skiers were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and then trying to skate all over each other’s skis, and immediately lost a lot of ground (though luckily no poles or baskets!). The few women were scattered throughout this pack and the others, having done these races before, seem to have figured out something about how to deal with the start that I have just totally missed. I caught and passed one woman after five kilometers and wanted to shout as I went by, “how did you manage that!?”

Overall it was a fun racing experience. Crossing the finish line and feeling like you have given it your all, no matter how fast or slow that ended up being, is such a great feeling. Going home feeling like you have really worked yourself over and earned your dinner is I guess what keeps us endurance junkies going.

Another week, another "I finally made it to the finish line". (Photo: AlphaFoto)

Another week, another “I finally made it to the finish line!” wave of relief. This week it was also “This means I get to put on warm, dry clothes now! Do I have to cool down?” (Photo: AlphaFoto)

After the race though, I had a bit of a sexist experience. I was hanging out with Jackson Bloch and Tyler DeAngelis, the gentlemen from 477 Kilometers who had come for the chance to race at a World Cup venue. We enjoyed some phenomenal cake at the post-race lunch and laughed our way through the awards ceremony which was, of course, conducted all in Swiss German.

The organizers called up the women’s podium: Sereina Boner had won by five minutes and, according to the timing, outsprinted the seventh-place man at the line. Go Sereina! Fellow Olympian Bettina Gruber was second, and Claudia Schmid third. The emcee did nice little interviews with each of them after handing out the awards.

Then it was time for the men’s prize ceremony. Remo Fischer had beaten Valerio Leccardi by a minute; as in the women’s race, both were Olympians. Leccardi outsprinted two others to earn second.

But… after calling up the third-place guy, the organizer just kept going. Where the women’s ceremony had featured the top three, the men’s featured the top eight.

What!? We looked at each other like, hmm, that definitely doesn’t seem right.

It’s true that many fewer women entered the race: 42 compared to 285. That is something I see every weekend and it always makes me sad.

And it’s true, full disclosure, that if they had called up eight women I would have been up there. But as I think you will see, this is definitely not why I’m mad.

Even if the women’s field is so much less deep, there is such an incredibly obvious value judgement going on when more men are recognized as prize-worthy than women.

Switzerland is a country which has already shown me all I need to know about its attitude towards women’s sports. There are many fewer female athletes at almost any co-ed sport event.

“Practising a sport in a voluntary club does not seem to be a very popular approach with women, particularly older women,” a 2011 report by the Council of Europe stated. “In Switzerland, many more men are members of clubs than women (30.6% compared to 18.9%)…. women account for only 36% of trainers and managers. This proportion decreases the higher up the sports hierarchy one goes, reaching 19% in elite sports. It is very likely that this situation has an impact on the development of women’s sport although we do not yet have any precise data on this link. On the one hand, the under-representation of women in sport’s managing bodies may mean that it is considered less necessary to implement policies designed specifically to increase women’s and girls’ involvement in sport (Koca & al., 2010). Secondly, the woman trainer represents a model with which many girls identify when they take up organised sports such as football, basketball or rugby. As a result, the over-representation of men among trainers may prevent girls from starting such activities.”

The women’s soccer team is called the Nati-Girls, which seems insulting to full-grown, elite, full-time athletes like Fabienne Humm who scored a hat-trick in just five minutes against Ecuador in this summer’s World Cup, setting a new record.

As in many places, professional athletes who are women get paid much less than their male counterparts. Their teams get less attention from the media and sponsors.

This lack of female participation or recognition extends outward from the playing field. As of 2011, although there were more and more female journalists in Switzerland, not a single newspaper had a woman running its sports section, for example.

This is not to say that there are no female athletes. Of course there are. Boner won the Ski Classics series three different years; Switzerland’s alpine skiers are phenomenal; the ice hockey team won bronze in Sochi and the curling team won 2015 World Championships; Nicola Spirig won triathlon gold in London 2012. That’s just to name a few, and there are obviously many more. These women are adored and admired by their fans.

But there’s no denying that women’s sports are generally underdeveloped and underemphasized in the country.

So when you go to a weekend race and twice as many men get recognized at the prize ceremony as women, what message does that send? Does it send a message that people are trying to fix the problem?

Not really.

That’s all.

Having said all that and complained, I have to say thank you to the men I ski with in these races - they are great. They step on my poles no more than they would step on a dude's poles, and they are nice. On the last time up the long hill I pushed really hard and passed a long train of guys. On the long downhill into the stadium, most of them went flying past me, their bank- and insurance-funded wax jobs being a bit speedier than my grand-student-salary-funded HF6. But when we crossed the line, one turned around and told me, 'wow, that was a good push' (loose translation of the Swiss German...). (Photo: AlphaFoto)

Having said all that and complained, I have to say thank you to the men I ski with in these races – they are great. They step on my poles no more than they would step on a dude’s poles, and they are nice. On the last time up the long hill I pushed really hard and passed a long train of guys. On the long downhill into the stadium, most of them went flying past me, their bank- and insurance-funded wax jobs being a bit speedier than my grand-student-salary-funded HF6. But when we crossed the line, one turned around and told me, ‘wow, that was a good push’ (loose translation of the Swiss German…). (Photo: AlphaFoto)

what it’s like to be a ski reporter.

Finn Hagen Krogh was a thoughtful and fun interview despite already going through the television gauntlet. (Photo: Markus Schild/www.nordic-online.ch)

Finn Hagen Krogh was a thoughtful and fun interview despite already going through the television gauntlet. A reporter’s key tool: phone with voice recorder. If I try to take notes my shorthand is insufficient and I miss things, so I record interviews and then later listen to them and type out what the athlete said. (Photo: Markus Schild/nordic-online.ch)

Note: to see the writing and reporting I’m referring to, head to http://www.fasterskier.com.

Last weekend I headed to Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for the opening three stages of the Tour de Ski. It’s just an easy two hours on the train and bus from Zurich, and I found a great airbnb in town. They were my first races of the season reporting on-the-ground for FasterSkier and I have to admit I’m not sure I was totally prepared. The first day was a sprint, which is basically the most hectic race from a reporting perspective, so I had my work cut out for me.

The first step is, of course, watching the race. Usually it’s nice to be out on the course, but in a sprint that’s impractical. The race is so short that if you are out on a hill you can’t get back in time to catch the athletes at the finish line. So I just watched the qualifier from the mixed zone and caught some athletes as they went by.

What is the mixed zone? It’s basically a gauntlet that athletes have to walk through before they can go back to their team trailers and changing huts. Athletes walk on one side of the fence and media line up on the other side. The first boxes on “our” side of the fence are reserved for TV and video, outlets like Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s Expressen. There’s also radio. After interminable interviews, the athletes reach “us”: the written press. If they are tired of talking about their races already (understandable) sometimes they just blow past us. If they stop, depending on the athlete, it can be a total media scrum (looking at you, Norwegians; I’m usually one of the only people trying to talk to Americans and Canadians, so if someone has a good day and suddenly everyone wants to talk to them, it’s sort of a shock to have to fight for minutes). As one of the few women there and one of the smaller people in general, I’ve gotten elbowed in the face a few times. I’m trying to get better about asserting myself.

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With one of the other women journalists in the mixed zone.

In big events like World Championships and Olympics, the volunteers and officials are pretty militant about making athletes go through the mixed zone. At smaller World Cups this isn’t so much the case, so a few times athletes just grabbed their warm-ups from the bags that had been transported to the finish line and headed out for their cool-downs. I don’t blame them, but it meant that I had to hunt them down later at the wax trucks. I’m not technically supposed to go into the “team areas” (each different area of the venue has a separate accreditation category and normal journalists are only accredited for specifially media areas like the mixed zone and the press center) but in this case it worked out because the same lax attitude that let athletes skip the mixed zone allowed me to walk straight in where I should have been stopped.

Anyway… after the qualification I chatted with some athletes: Sophie Caldwell from the United States, who had a great qualification round, and the American and Canadian athletes who had missed the heats and were done for the day.

I ran back to the media center and quickly filed a short story about Sophie’s qualifier. There was less than an hour between when I finished talking to athletes and when the first quarterfinal started, so I worked quickly. I had also talked to Simi Hamilton about what pressure he was feeling after winning the race the last time a Tour de Ski stage came through, so I had to transcribe those two interviews, write the story, and list the results of all the North Americans in the qualifier. We quickly pulled a picture of Sophie from the qualifying round. I posted the story and ran back to the mixed zone just as the heats started.

Immediately, things were confusing. Sophie had a tough round and finished in fourth. She could move on as a lucky loser, but it depended on how the later quarterfinal heats went. If she was out I didn’t want to miss talking to her; but if she was in, she needed to be focusing on recovery. I also didn’t want to be insensitive or insulting by saying, “hey, if you don’t move on, can you come back?” Then it would sound like I was doubting her, and she was probably already not thrilled with how things had gone. I’m not sure what exactly I said as she walked by, but it was slightly awkward. Later, she ended up making it all the way to the final and I talked to her after that.

For most of the others, it was clear by the time they came through the mixed zone after a quarterfinal or semifinal heat whether they had made the next round or not. So I did more interviews. They usually take just two to five minutes. A hard thing is to keep watching the heat that is taking place, so you know what’s going on, while paying attention to the interview you are in the midst of conducting. Luckily, athletes usually want to watch their teammates, so I was able to watch some of the exciting heats on the big screen after all.

I made some poor choices in terms of clothing and got super cold while interviewing athletes. It had been sunny and warm and gorgeous, but the thing about the Alps is that the mountains are steep and once the sun goes behind them the temperature drops precipitously. I wasn’t prepared for this. Not for the first time, my iPhone was shaking as I held it out to record. U.S. sprinter Andy Newell took pity on me and gave me his parka, which was super nice of him. At first I didn’t want to take it because it was too awkward, but I was really cold and so eventually I did, and it helped immensely.

A few fun facts about this:

(1) The interaction happened at the end of my interview with Andy. Gerry Furseth had to transcribe this and he left it in the transcription, me saying, “Yeah, I’m fucking freezing!” I will try to be more professional in the future.

(2) Wearing a U.S. Ski Team parka led to one of the Swiss reporters asking if I was the U.S. press attaché and if I could get him a chat with Simi Hamilton. The U.S. does not have a press attaché at these events and I am definitely just a journalist, but Simi is nice and accessible so I just pointed the guy in his direction.

(3) Those parkas are SUPER WARM! If you are in the market for a super sweet parka, this is it.

After that, it was back to the media center. I didn’t take any photos of this media center, but here are a few I have from past World Cup trips. Here’s the one in Oslo before a biathlon competition, with the famous drummers lining up to enter the stadium. These tables are equipped with lots of outlets and by the time the race is over will be packed with journalists shoulder to shoulder (or computer to computer… with lots of paper start lists, camera equipment, and cups of coffee scattered everywhere).

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Oslo, 2014 Biathlon World Cup.

In Lenzerheide, there are few permanent buildings so the media center was less substantial – a big tent with a floor put down and heating inside. There were probably 50 or more of us working in there and it was perfectly pleasant and adequate. I started working immediately after grabbing a cup of coffee from the media center’s food table. That meant deciding how we would divide up our coverage – how many stories to write about each race, what the narrative is, what athletes’ quotes go in which story.

Soon, though, the press conference began. The podium finishers, once they are done with TV and print media in the mixed zone, come into the media center for a press conference run by the international federation (FIS for skiing or IBU for biathlon). It’s really handy that the press conference is held in the media center where we are already working because it means we’re much less likely to accidentally miss it!

(That said, FIS now doesn’t always do press conferences – specifically, not on the last day at each venue during the Tour de Ski, and sometimes in Davos they haven’t had them either. This is a huge pain in the butt for me. Of all the journalists, FasterSkier staff are probably responsible for talking to the most athletes – we check in with almost every North American in every race, and also need quotes from the podium finishers if they are not American or Canadian [which is most of the time]. Most others only talk to the top one or two finishers from their country in each race – we have two countries to cover, not to mention that most readers want to hear from each of their local heroes! It takes a long time to talk to all the North Americans and so sometimes we miss international athletes as they walk through the mixed zone at the same time. Knowing that the podium finishers will be in a press conference is huge, and I dislike it a lot when there’s not press conference.)

Oslo women's biathlon sprint press conference with race winner Darya Domracheva (center), Marie Dorin Habert (left) and Susan Dunklee (right) who had her first World Cup podium that day.

Oslo women’s biathlon sprint press conference in 2014 with race winner Darya Domracheva (center), Tora Berger (left) and Susan Dunklee (right) who had her first World Cup podium that day. Note the journalists watching and typing on their computers at the tables in front of me.

After the press conference, it’s back to work. On a sprint day everyone finishes at more or less the same time, so there’s one press conference and then the other. On a distance racing day, if the women go first, at this point there might be just an hour or 45 minutes before the men’s race. I usually try to really quickly write a story about the most important thing (to our readers) that happened – either running a story about a North American who did particularly well, or writing a recap of how the race played out at the front. It’s a sprint to get it done and frequently it needs proofreading by someone else as I run back outside, but it makes things so much easier later, when you have one more race under your belt and are even more tired, to know that one story is already out of the way.

Why does it matter psychologically to have one story already published? On a day where there is a women’s and a men’s race both (so, all days for regular skiing World Cups; most but not all days for biathlon World Cups; and only a few days at Championships and Olympics) we might produce four stories: one about the winners of the women’s race, one about the winners of the men’s race, and two more. That could either be a story about Americans and a story about Canadians, or a story about North American men and one about North American women. Four is a lot of stories.

In Lenzerheide I was really lucky because there was little else going on in the nordic world. No biathlon World Cups, no NorAms in Canada. Only on the last day, Sunday, did U.S. National Championships start. Usually our small staff is trying to cover both World Cup circuits and any domestic racing all at the same time. If I’m at a biathlon World Cup alone, that means that maybe I end up writing all four stories, start to finish, including taking the photos, sorting through them, doing and transcribing my own interviews, and then writing. I remember nights in Ruhpolding where I’d stay up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. writing and then have to wake up and do it all over again. Some of those later stories are decidedly NOT GOOD.

Since nothing else was going on, though, I had a lot of help, both on the ground in terms of some volunteers and remotely. Alex Kochon, the head honcho for our FasterSkier reporting team, would help me go through the process of deciding what the stories should be and then took on one of them herself each day. We also had help from Jason Albert in Bend, who wrote one story each day. Jason and Gerry Furseth (a Canadian helper) were also total heroes and transcribed a lot of the interviews I did. Listening to your own interviews is bad enough (I hate the sound of my voice and some mannerisms I’ve unfortunately developed when interviewing), but transcribing someone else’s is ten times worse because you don’t know what was talked about. Since you don’t know what’s coming, you’re more likely to have to listen to the same section several times.

Thanks Jason and Gerry, and I hope you never have to listen to my stupid voice, bad interview questions, and awkward laughter again… but probably you will.

I also had a helper to sort through photos, which was huge. When you have hundreds or thousands of photos, picking out a few to go with your story and then cropping or editing it appropriately takes a surprising amount of time.

On the sprint day things took a long time and I didn’t leave the venue until after 8 p.m. I think that the grocery store was closed by the time I got back to the town of Lenzerheide, so it was good for my hunger levels that I had eaten a lot of snacks in the media center. Probably not so good for my health though as candy bars and hot chocolate have dubious nutritional value…. no regrets.

After reporting all day and, that first day, writing three stories of my own, I was exhausted. I had written more than 3,000 words, under time pressure, and tried to make sure they were good ones. It takes a lot out of you. Doing a race weekend or a long series like a Championships is like being in college and having a major take-home exam every single night. And it adds up. Over the course of two weeks at the Olympics in 2014, I wrote something like 55,000 words, or the length of The Wind In The Willows.

So exhaustion? That’s what reporting for FasterSkier is like.

Luckily, reporting can also be really fun. In the distance races on Saturday and Sunday I got out on the course to watch. Who doesn’t want to be here? Watching races still often gives me goosebumps and rushes of adrenaline at the finish. Being there in person is a total experience.

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Lenzerheide on the sprint day. Actually the distance day the weather was totally gross.

Being with buddies, I also took advantage of some things that I usually don’t – namely, events organized for the media. In this case it was a dinner organized at the Panoramarestaurant Rothorngipfel on Saturday night. We all took the gondola up; unfortunately it was sort of stormy and socked in that night so we did not get views from either the gondola or the restaurant, which is 2865 meters (9400 feet) high. But it was a really nice dinner and I got to meet some other media people as well as learning more about Lenzerheide from the organizers. That makes it sound like they forced us to listen to publicity, which is partly true, but I have really enjoyed skiing in Lenzerheide since I moved to Switzerland so I was actually very interested. They are aiming to host biathlon World Cups in the future and now have both a paved rollerski loop around their range and a snowmaking loop for early-season skiing. It will be interesting to see how things go in Lenzerheide, and I hope they succeed.

We soaked up the atmosphere. It was unique as usually I sleep on people’s couches and spend as little money as possible on these trips. We have a minuscule budget compared to major news outlets. Not a single FasterSkier employee makes their full living out of this work. To be able to keep more money as salary, we try to spend as little as possible when we are on the road. So to be a bit more high class was a treat. (To be clear, we did not pay for the dinner… thanks Lenzerheide folks!)

With Jojo Baldus (right), a Twin Cities skier who is volunteering with us this winter as he spends some time in Europe around the WorldLoppet races, and Kim Rodley of nordic-online.ch. (Photo: Markus Schindl)

With Jojo Baldus (right), a Twin Cities skier who is volunteering with us this winter as he spends some time in Europe around the WorldLoppet races, and Kim Rodley of nordic-online.ch. (Photo: Markus Schild)

The scene.

The scene.

It was fun to have JoJo Baldus around. He is in Europe on a gap year before college, aiming to ski all the WorldLoppet races. In between races, he’s helping out FasterSkier – very generously, as I made clear many times that we can’t really pay him! Luckily he seems to be having fun. He doesn’t have any reporting experience but is very enthusiastic and asks all the right questions. He tried to learn some interviewing techniques from me, but since I have zero formal training I don’t know how helpful I was. JoJo is also a great guy to hang out with, so it was a blast!

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JoJo listening in on an interview…. For blog aficionados, note the blue mittens in my hands.

I crammed in as many interviews as I could, publishing some on Monday when the Tour de Ski had a rest day. My theory is that when I am on the ground, I might as well take every five- or ten-minute chat that I can and somehow, we will turn it all into content.

But I have to say, even with all the help, it made me exhausted. The most fun trips are when we have a few reporters along, because the people who work with FasterSkier are fantastic, each and every one of them. My first trip was to Oslo World Championships in 2011 with Topher Sabot, Matt Voisin, and Nat Herz. It was so much fun! Then I went to biathlon World Championships in 2012 by myself. It was also fun, but a lot more work and with nobody to sympathize with. Trips to the Olympics in 2014 with Alex and Nat, and to skiing World Championships in 2015 with Alex and Lander, were highlights.

As I look towards this year’s biathlon World Championships in Oslo, I’m excited because, well, World Championships! Oslo! Biathlon! Fun! But I have to admit that I’m dreading doing all the work myself. There will be other racing going on, like the FIS Ski Tour Canada, so it won’t be like this Lenzerheide weekend where I could simply send interviews off to our other staff to transcribe, or expect some of the writing to get done by them as well.

Sometimes what gets me through is going skiing, and this was also true in Lenzerheide. Mostly we skied on a loop in town, but after the races finished on Sunday and volunteers took the stadium apart with amazing efficiency, we went out for a ski on the World Cup course. It was hard. But it was magical and fun. I love ripping downhills and World Cup courses deliver in ways that trails designed for tourists do not. I was pretty worked over by the time we had done a few laps though – the uphills are for real!

(In this case, the long uphill out of the stadium was great, really skiable, and would be fun to push in a race. The steep uphill out at the edge though, before the athletes zoomed down to lap through the stadium? Not so fun.)

It was a great weekend, but a lot of work. Now, time for me to be back at my “normal” job, doing science.

Interviewing Jessie Diggins.

Interviewing Jessie Diggins.

schnee!

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One of the promises I made to myself recently was to spend more time outside, more time on skis, more time exercising because it makes me feel good. I had sort of forgotten that for a while, or rationalized that I was “so busy” with starting my PhD that it was okay if I didn’t exercise for days on end…. then I wondered why I felt shitty.

On Saturday I gamely headed to the train station an hour before sunrise and hopped on a train for Graubunden. It was raining in Zurich. I got to Chur and switched to a bus. As we climbed up to Churwalden the rain turned to snow; I eventually got off in Valbella and headed into the Lenzerheide touring center. I’ve learned that in Switzerland, trails might not open until 9 a.m. on Saturdays. I guess the Swiss, with all their leisure and their money and their time, don’t start skiing at the crack of dawn like so many of the endurance junkies I know in the States. The kiosk was not open when I arrived at 8:30 so I didn’t buy a ticket: I just hit the trails.

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It had been snowing all night and was still snowing, so they weren’t exactly groomed. But it was really exciting to be back on skis for the first time since Christmas, and I had a great time tooling around for 2+ hours. It was slow going – I covered far fewer kilometers than the time would imply – but also totally beautiful. Unfortunately the connector trail from Valbella to the World Cup Cross Country trails and biathlon arena was closed, which was a bummer because I wanted to check out their biathlon stadium and see the course where Simi Hamilton won his first World Cup last season. Oh well, I’ll have to make another trip back.

As I was on the train home – hurrying to get back so I could meet my friend Lore at the train station as she arrived from Paris – I got a text from my friend Brook. He was taking a van full of high school skiers to Davos the next day. Did I want to come?

I thought for five minutes. I had planned to do work all day Sunday, and there was definitely a lot of work that needed to be done. But… a free ride to Davos… to ski… with a new friend…. yes, I was definitely going.

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Day two had all of the lovely snow, but it was no longer actually snowing and instead it was beautiful and sunny. I was tired from my snowstorm slog the day before, but I had a blast with the Zurich International School crew and it was the best snow conditions I’ve seen yet in Davos (I always seem to go there when there’s no snow).

By the end of our three hours skiing, I was completely exhausted. But when I collapsed into bed that night I did, indeed, feel very happy and satisfied. No matter what (and no matter if I’m out of shape and tired), skiing feels easy to me. My legs move in the right way, my core crunches. If I was running and I was the same amount tired, it would feel worse. Skiing I can rely on; skiing I can do. It’s nice to feel competent at something, especially as I start a new PhD where I often feel like I’m in completely over my head.

Cheers to more skiing!

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