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.