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!

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ten days in Norway.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop - which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop – which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

I just got back from a trip to Norway. As always, it was phenomenal. I have nothing against Zurich – I’m pretty happy here and it is as close to an ideal situation as I could think of living in a city – but I came home thinking, why didn’t I do my PhD in Oslo?

There’s something about seeing the T-Bane packed with skiers of all ages and ability levels, or heading out to ski on a weekend midday and running into probably hundreds of people out on the trails just outside the city. It’s a city where everyone is chic and blond, usually dressed in black, very stylish. But nobody looks at you with eyes askew if you’re out in Bjørn Dæhlie ski pants and a ratty old Swix jacket.

Or, if you’re going to watch a ski race and you pull on a classic Norwegian wool sweater instead of an expensive technical jacket. Wool keeps you warm. Nobody laughs at that.

I stayed with my friend Knut in Oslo, and by the end of the week, I was thinking about what a great life it would be if, like him, I could just take the T a few stops to access hundreds of kilometers of ski trails after work every day.

Because even if Zurich is pretty darn close to optimal, from my naive, short-term-staying experience, Oslo might be just that tiny little bit closer.

But anyway. That was a lot of digressions. I headed to Oslo to cover biathlon World Championships for FasterSkier. Apparently it was snowing in Oslo on the Friday night when I was supposed to arrive, and my flight got canceled. Nearly all the other people on the plane were heading to watch World Championships and cheer for the Swiss, and we all groaned as the news came over the PA system. It’s snowing? They can’t handle snow at an airport in Norway?

I scrambled to find a new flight, thinking that there was no way that they could get a whole airplane’s worth of people rescheduled, especially if the weather continued to be bad. This involved a lot of research on my phone, and getting someone else to buy me a ticket on a different airline as I scrambled around, and then getting to the front of the customer service line and getting offered a flight that night anyway, and canceling the ticket that had just been bought (we got a full refund). I arrived to the Oslo airport at midnight and schlepped my stuff via the night bus to Knut’s house. It was around 2 a.m. and he was waiting for me… thanks Knut, you’re the best.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men's sprint.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men’s sprint.

Saturday and Sunday were sprint and pursuit racing, and it was pretty exciting. The crowds at Holmenkollen National Ski Arena are no joke, so when Norwegian Tiril Eckhoff won the women’s sprint and Ole Einar Bjørndalen took silver in the men’s sprint it was serious. Seriously loud. I immediately remembered why I loved this job. In the pursuit I managed to sneak onto the course and take some photos with the Holmenkollen ski jump in the background, even though I didn’t have a photo bib. (When I tried this later in the week, I got yelled at and kicked off the course. ‘doh.)

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men's pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men’s pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

On the plus side, races started in the afternoon- so in the mornings I skied out of the end of the race course and into the Marka, the big forest area in the north(ish) of Oslo. The ski trails! There are so many, and they are so fun! Wide trails and narrow trails, hilly trails and flat trails, trails through bogs and trails through forests. Trails to huts that serve waffles and hot chocolate. Trails that are criss-crossed by winter hiking trails; trails that go all the way down to the edge of the city. So many trails!

On Sunday I checked out the old 16.7 k race loop, which was historically used for the famous Holmenkollen 50 k: three loops of that bad boy. Parts are still used for the current course configuration (which has a longest loop of 8.3 k). The 16.7 k has a lot of uphill, and, of course, a lot of fun downhill, but it’s a workout. I was getting tired by the end but my skis were flying and I was on real snow! Cold, dry(ish) snow. That hasn’t happened to me so many times this year. I was in heaven!

There weren’t many people who brought skis into the media center, so I always accidentally make a spectacle of myself when I do this. But the woman I was sitting next to thought it was cool.

“Now you know the course conditions for writing your story!” she said.

Yes. Exactly.

A journalist who skis? No way!

A journalist who skis? No way!

But to have two sprints on Saturday and two pursuits on Sunday is a lot of work for the press, and afterwards I was pooped. I ate dinner at the media center and was late getting home, only getting to hang out with Knut a little bit.

So I was pretty thrilled that Monday and Tuesday were off days from competition. Monday around lunchtime, I went downtown and hopped on a train to Lillehammer.

Side note: I love the trains in Switzerland, and for sure the country is more connected via the train system than any other country. But Norway has one thing on them: wireless. My train had perfect, fast, wifi the whole time, and I felt really spoiled. Way to go, Norway! #richcountries

My friend Erik picked me up at the train station after work and we headed up to the Birkebeiner Skistadion, the home of the 1994 Olympic trails. We had about an hour before we had to pick up his son from daycare, so we cruised around, Erik classic skiing and me skating. Erik is a good skier. I could barely keep up with him and was glad I wasn’t classic skiing! But actually, I bet he was working pretty hard too. Neither of us would say, “slow down!”

I have stayed with Erik, Emily, and their family a few times, and it is always delightful. I spent some time hanging out with their kids, playing games, drawing pictures, building obstacle courses for marbles, reading bedtime stories. I don’t generally want to have kids, but every time I hang out with their kids, I think, well, maybe…. 

After we’d put the kids to bed we watched all the available episodes of “Pling i Kollen”, the comedy news series of the World Championships created by NRK personality Nikolay Ramm and Swedish skier Robin Bryntesson. They are hilarious, even if you don’t speak Norwegian or Swedish. We were dying laughing – particularly at the fake hip hop music video made by Ramm, Tarjei Bø, and Emil Hegle Svendsen (here) or the music video “the story of biathlon.” Later in the week they did a great segment with Canada’s Macx Davies called “Macx The Man” (google it). You can find all the episodes here if you want to catch up on Norwegian ski humor.

The next day was a beautiful blue-sky day – something we hadn’t had much of in Oslo, which is often rather foggy. Erik pointed out that it might be one of the best skiing days in a while. So after dropping off the kiddo at daycare, Emily and I drove up to Sjusjøen and went for a ski! It was my first time on classic skis in two months (races in Switzerland are almost entirely skating…) and my first time on extra blue in, I don’t know, two years!? A really long time, that’s for sure.

Happiness.

Happiness.

It felt phenomenal. It was one of those days skiing where you think, this is what I was made for. Running? It’s okay. But my body is meant for skiing, and it’s the thing I love. Can this season go on forever?

I absolutely love the landscape of the Lillehammer/Sjusjøen area. It’s hard to describe to someone from most parts of the lower 48 in the U.S.: it’s not the arctic tundra. There are trees. But they are small and scrubby, and sort of sparse. The landscape is open, but not flat. It rolls away from you for what feels like it could be forever. It’s easy to get into a trance-like state of mind striding your way along these trails.

Beauty.

Beauty.

After about 15 k we were back at the car, and Emily headed home. I knew that this would probably be my best ski day all season (things were already melting back home in Switzerland), so I kept skiing. I headed down from Sjusjøen to Lillehammer on the Birkebeiner trail, which is a super fun descent, then cruised around on the Inga-Låmi trails for a while before finally skiing all the way down into the town of Lillehammer. A short ten minute walk brought me back to Erik and Emily’s house where I scarfed down some leftovers and took a much-needed shower.

I’d skied a full marathon and was rarely been happier all winter.

That afternoon Emily and I took their daughter into town to a nice coffee shop and hung out, just the girls.

The next morning I had to leave and, as always, it made me sad. I hopped on the train and then once in Oslo headed directly to the venue, where I met up with our occasional reporter and photographer JoJo Baldus, who had been at the Vasaloppet over the weekend but was now in Norway with his dad getting ready for the Birkebeiner. He was set up with a photo bib and we chatted about the Vasaloppet (not the favorite race either of us had ever done…) and photos for the day. It was the women’s 15 k individual, and it seemed possible that American Susan Dunklee might win a medal. She had been skiing out of her mind fast so far in the championships.

She didn’t, but it was a great race. It was a relief to have JoJo doing photos. I was able to get home to make some dinner for Knut, which was nice, and we caught up on a new episode of Broad City. Life was good.

The rest of the week proceeded pretty much like that: I’d ski in the morning, report in the afternoon, get home late. From my usual wake-at-6:30, bed-by-10:30 old-lady schedule, I shifted to waking up at 9 in the morning and staying up past midnight: operating on Knut time, perhaps?

The finish zone in the women's pursuit.

The finish zone in the women’s pursuit.

The highlight of the week results-wise was when the Canadian men won bronze in the men’s relay, a race that Norway won. Both things were good: the Norwegians winning meant that the stadium was loud and the atmosphere completely unbelievable. The Canadians’ result was also unreal. They are all good athletes, but it had never come together for them like that. It was crazy to watch. I was interviewing Scott Gow when Brendan Green was in his final shooting stage, in position to lock up the medal. We stopped the interview and watched the broadcast screen.

Brendan hit one, two, three, four… five shots! The bronze was theirs!

Scott looked pretty blown away and something that’s weird for me as a reporter is that, I guess I’m pretty empathetic or something, so when someone cries in an interview about retirement, tears come to my eyes. If they had a bad race, I feel bad bugging them about it. It’s a little awkward and sometimes borders on unprofessional, maybe? I can’t help it, though, so I like to think that there’s a balance between doing my job, and being empathetic, and that athletes might appreciate that I’m not totally oblivious to their state of mind. But I’m not sure.

In this case, the excitement totally caught. I’m a journalist, not a PR person working for the Canadians, yet after interviewing all of them so many times, I felt so darn excited and proud for them. While the other journalists were sort of bemused – well that’s something, isn’t it, Canada, huh – I was cheering along with Scott.

“Can I give you a hug or something?” I asked.

“Yes! Please!” he said.

And then an organizing-committee media person whisked him away: he and his teammates had to get ready, with all of their identical team-issued gear and their bibs on over their jackets, to go mob Brendan as he crossed the finish line. Sarah Beaudry and Julia Ransom, watching the race from the side of the trail above the mixed zone, shouted down to Christian Gow to change is hat so it was an official Biathlon Canada one. Good discipline, team.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

It was kind of a whirlwind trying to track down coaches to talk to for the story and even just to talk to the Canadians. For once, they were asked to do many, many interviews for foreign broadcasters. The written press is the last group to get access to athletes in the mixed zone, so by the time the team made it to me there were literally two minutes before they had to go to the press conference. I didn’t get to ask many questions and it made me mad: here I was, the only journalist from their home media who was here, the only one who would actually be transmitting their comments back to their fans at home. Shouldn’t I get the same chance to ask them questions? Isn’t that what their friends and family wanted?

I complained vigorously to the organizing committee media guy who had hauled them off, and he was very apologetic, but said there was nothing to be done. Luckily after the press conference I could chat with them plenty.

(I later ran into that guy at a party, and we ended up laughing: both of us are scientists for whom this was not our main job. He was just working at Holmenkollen for the week. It was fun, he said, but he was glad it was over.)

As the week wrapped up, Knut and I were able to catch up with Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee, U.S. athletes who had been our teammates at Dartmouth College. Living abroad I don’t see friends from home very often at all – in fact, they are probably the ones I have seen the most since moving to Europe in the fall of 2012. They come to Europe to race; I try to see them, or sometimes we get together in the spring after their race season is done.

It was fun to get some time together, and definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. After all, you can find good skiing if you just have enough time and money to travel, and most of my skiing I do alone. But friends? For me, spending time with old friends, friends with whom I have a history of more than a year or two, is such a rare treat.

Now I’m back in Zurich, back to work. Every day that passes, this idea that I should be living in Oslo recedes a little further away into the back of my mind.

After all, here the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming. It’s spring. There’s plenty to be done, plenty of friends to have lawn parties with, a bit of last spring skiing to seek out, and after that, mountains to climb.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

olympic memories.

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Dedicated readers of this blog will remember all the things I wrote about this winter when I was in Sochi, Russia, for the winter Olympics. What a trip that was! You can revisit it here.

I was thinking about the Olympics this week as Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 winter Games in Oslo. Man, that would have been a lot of fun. The whole ski world was holding our breath, daring to imagine how insanely awesome an Oslo Holmenkollen Games would be. But they won’t be. I thought not only about my experience this winter in Sochi, but also a long time ago when my family went to Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 to watch aunt Liz compete.

The result is this editorial, which I am pretty proud of.

When I was putting it together, I flipped through our photo albums of the Albertville and Lillehammer trips, which was super fun. I scanned a few of the photos, which I’m posting here! One takeaway, for sure: I used to smile more, when I was a kid….

The top photo is of a birthday party in Lillehammer. My uncle, father, and grandfather all have February birthdays, so there were always birthday parties at the Olympics. For this one, we brought a book of paper cut-out masks, and colored them all in. Lizzie is hoisting a glass of wine (I can’t remember if this was before or after her competition); I appear to be killing my poor cousin Mary, as my mom reaches across like stop, you insolent pain in the ass…

I have a new plan for 2022, which is that even if the Olympics aren’t in Oslo, that might be the best place to be. We already know that their television coverage is infinitely superior to what we get here in the U.S., so why don’t we all just head to Oslo and watch the Games from there? We can hit the Nordmarka on our skis in between events. Please join me. Oslo, I think this is a big tourism opportunity for you.

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birken.

Well, this is not as exciting of a post as I was anticipating. I spent Friday evening waxing up my skis here in Lillehammer. Nothing fancy, just some HF7 and binder ironed in to the kick zone. After extensive consultation with Erik, who I am staying with, we decided that for the Birkebeiner it was impossible to tell whether it would be klister conditions or hardwax, so I packed a bag of goodies and figured I would wax once I got to the start and could scope out the situation.

I woke up at 4 a.m. to eat some yogurt, and Erik was up half an hour later and drove me to catch the 5 a.m. bus from Håkans Hall in Lillehammer to Rena with the Lillehammer Skiklub. I slept most of the way there and we arrived shortly before 7 a.m. I was set to start around 9 a.m.

As we got in the car in the morning, Erik had said something like, “just so you know, NRK was reporting that a meteorologist said there were such high winds that organizers should think carefully about whether they were going to send people over the mountains.”

You see, the Birkebeiner is not like the Vasaloppet – it is an extreme experience! The course climbs to almost 3,000 feet and spends a lot of time in the mountains. Bad weather there is not atypical. Participants have to carry a 3.5kg backpack to symbolize the weight of the baby in the old story the race is based on, but also because they must carry food, drink, an extra shirt, pants, jacket, and wax with them. Things in the mountains can get crazy.

Anyway, when we arrived in Rena we learned that the race had been delayed an hour so organizers could continue to assess the weather at the top of the course. I was somewhat dismayed because I hadn’t planned for this and an extra hour meant an extra hour of when I should be eating, only I didn’t really have any “extra” food, just what I had brought to tide me over to the normal start time.

After the hour of deliberating, though, the race was canceled completely. I was sad but at this point honestly I had sort of begun expecting it, so I didn’t feel quite as dismayed or furious as the Norwegian skiers around me seemed to be. We waited for everyone else to come back to the bus and headed back to Lillehammer. Erik picked me up back at Håkans Hall around 10 a.m. As I walked back in the door of the house, I told his daughter Greta, “it only took me an hour to ski back here! I won!”

All day she asked me whether I was really, really sad. I kept saying no. I mean, yeah, I was sad. I was really looking forward to the Birken. But this wasn’t the defining point of my season and honestly, while I feel a lot better than I did before the Vasaloppet, I’m still not very fit. Instead of racing, I have been hanging out with the Stange family and Erik and Emily have made sure that I have the opportunity to ski every day. It’s a different trip than I was envisioning when I hopped on the train, but it has been perfectly lovely in a different way.

Many Norwegians don’t feel the same way. I wrote a short article for FasterSkier summing up the controversy around the race cancellation, which you can read here. Wind gusts reached almost 50 mph and the wind chill was at -14, but there were windows of more okay weather and some people skied over the mountain anyway. They said it was fine, and that is what is pissing people off – the idea that maybe everything would have turned out okay.

As for me, I went for a pretty blustery ski today and was distinctly glad that I wasn’t racing, especially not in conditions that were significantly worse. Eh, well. You win some, you lose some, Norway.

I joked to U.S. biathlon coach Per Nilsson this weekend that I seem to be some sort of curse on races in terms of weather and snow conditions, and he wrote, “We see if it’s bad in Oslo, then you are not welcome to World Cup Biathlon anymore…”

uppland to oppland.

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My time in Uppsala came to an end in a whirlwind, but I compensated by taking the best vacation afterwards: heading to Lillehammer, Norway, to ski a lot and stay with my friend Erik Stange, who had been a TA in one of my biostatistics classes when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth and he was a PhD student.

The truth is that I never knew Erik all that well, but he seemed happy enough to pick me up at the train station at midnight and ferry me back to his family’s house. A former ski racer, much more successfully and long term than I was, he understood why someone would want to come visit, and has made his house open as a home base for other former Dartmouth skiers as well. As ski racers, we travel around and crash on people’s floors all the time; he’s returning the karmic favor. I can’t wait until I’m stable enough to do the same. (‘Yeah, you can come sleep on the floor of my 9-square-meter dorm room’ isn’t a particularly generous offer, but it’s all I’ve got right now.)

In the morning I met his wife, Emily, and daughter Greta. Growing up without any younger siblings, I was never much one for babysitting, but I had so much fun hanging out with Greta. So over the weekend we spent a lot of time around the house and out and about in Lillehammer. On Saturday, we went up to the Olympic trails and skied a little bit. In Norway daycare is partially subsidized by the government, and kids go to various “barnehagas” around town. Greta’s is right in the Birkebeiner stadium. We skied out to a little hut that the daycare owns and played in the woods for a while. Growing up in Norway must be a treat.

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Next I got to go for a ski on my own on the Olympic trails. I’d been here before: on two trips with my Ford Sayre club ski team, in high school and college, and maybe even in 1994. I remember skiing with my family and cousin when we were here for the Olympics, but I have no idea where we went.

The Olympic trails are really hard. After my ski marathon two weeks before, I hadn’t really done much in terms of exercise; at winter school I tromped around on my skis in the fields, and did one ski at Skyttorp with the UVK club. I found myself crawling around the 5 and 10 k courses, walking up the hills and stopping to catch my breath at the top. I’ve skied a few World Cup and World Championships courses now, but I have to say that the 5 k in Lillehammer must be one of the hardest. There were some truly giant, grinding climbs.

But as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to set, I would come upon scenes like this. It was great to be skiing, no matter how hard it was, and the picturesque tableaus of the Norwegian countryside made it even more worth it. DSCN0011

Sunday brought another fun day with the family. We went to Maihaugen, amazing sort of living museum in Lillehammer. In the 1880’s a dentist named Anders Sandvig saw that many of the farm buildings in the small towns he visited were being knocked down as farming became less of a focus. So he picked up some of them and moved them to this spot. Erik said that the number of buildings at Maihaugen is actually difficult to pin down, but there are houses, barns, churches, fishing shacks, and every type of structure you can imagine, all arranged into groups that you can go look at.

I know that my parents have a Maihaugen coffee-table book, so we probably went there in 1994. But I don’t remember it. Instead, I just enjoyed exploring and looking at all the cool old buildings.

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We marveled at what it would be like to tough out the Norwegian winter in one of these wooden buildings. Smoke would fill the central rooms; having enough food, grown in the short northern summer, would be a serious and worrying question every single winter. Lifespans were short, and probably not that happy in a lot of ways. Erik mused out loud: think how few generations ago that was. Our world has changed immensely.

But Greta was unconcerned with these deep philosophical questions. We were actually there to skate! Greta had never skated before; Erik had grown up in the midwest, playing pond hockey before he took up ski racing. I’m not much of a skater myself, but with the borrowed hockey skates, it was okay. We traipsed around a small pond, each holding one of Greta’s hands to keep her fuzzy side up. She seemed to have a blast, although a few times she insisted that we not squeeze her hands quite so hard. This led to an attempted explanation of the concept of tradeoffs: well, if we don’t hold your hand as tightly, you might actually fall down! A happy medium was struck.

Then, sledding and grilling sausages behind Hakon’s Hall, where I picked up my bib for the Birkebeiner back in 2006. A truly lovely weekend.

The next two days went by in a blur: Erik arranged for me to do some interviews with important race organizers in town, including the woman who runs a women’s-only race that sounds like so much fun that I will definitely have to do it sometime in the next few years.

My last afternoon, Erik played hooky from work and we went up to Sjusjoen, one of the best places in the world to ski, hands-down. High above Lillehammer, it is home to hundreds of kilometers of trails connecting various little hamlets – and plain wide-open vistas – by ski trail.

An earlier morning, Erik and I had skied up past the Olympic stadium towards the Nordseter ski center, where I remember skiing with Ford Sayre. It was beautiful, but I was walking up the huge climbs, shuffling along like the American that I am, embarrassed at what the Norwegians would think of my classic technique. Things just weren’t working for me. Erik took off, as he should have, and I wondered what he thought was wrong with me.

In Sjusjoen I was determined to keep up, and I did feel a lot better. Maybe I had better wax, but mostly I felt like I was getting my striding legs under me, skiing like a skier again. I guess four days was what it took to get my mojo back. As we adventured through the landscape, we were able to cruise easily up the long climbs, and I could chase him down the twists and turns on the other side. Every once in a while, I’d remember to stop and look at the views.

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There was one hiccup. We ended up in a slightly different place than expected, and had to ski seven more kilometers back to the car, part of which climbed over a little knob. By then I was toast, definitely bonking. Erik could tell I’m sure but I didn’t want to admit it.

At that point I knew it might be one of my last skis of the year: I was headed to places that didn’t look like Sjusjoen. At the time, I was so happy to be skiing on blue hardwax, just cruising around for kilometer after kilometer, that I didn’t mind that thought. A few days later I’m getting more disappointed – I want to be back skiing again. I know that repeating the amazing days in Lillehammer is a bit much to ask, but I’d take any trails, anywhere, just to get back on my skis.

It’s a problem with my current situation. Uppsala was great, and I’m sure Montpellier will be too, but Montpellier has no snow. Why did I think that was a good idea? Skiing is part of my identity that I will never be able to give up.

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That’s one reason it was so cool to stay with the Stanges in Lillehammer. Erik told me time after time that doing his PhD was not fun, maybe not the right move for him, and that I should consider the decision very carefully if I think I might embark on one. I appreciated the advice, a lot – most people aren’t so honest about the challenges of academia. There’s a reason I’m doing a masters now, not a PhD right away, and it has to do with all the things he said. But it’s a hard thing to admit when you’re in a program – everyone else is focused on getting the next PhD, the next postdoc, the next professorship. To say that you’re not interested in all that, or even that you’re just not sure that you’re interested in all that, well, they look at you a little funny. They maybe respect you a little less.

But despite all of his reservations, Erik has worked out a seemingly perfect life in Lillehammer. He was lucky to get a job with a research institute there, and he can do his work, raise his family (in Norway, which as I said above is a great place to raise a family), and ski his face off, or at least he could if he wasn’t so busy raising Greta and remodeling the house that he and Emily bought. Things haven’t gone completely smoothly: Emily is having trouble getting her midwife experience accredited so that she can work in Norway. But the rest seems to be good enough that, well, they bought the house.

Being let into their life for a week was just so fun. I immediately felt at home and had a great time hanging out. I could talk about biology, about skiing, about hopes and dreams for the future. One night the three of us watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, admitting that it was the main way we got our news of home; at lunch Emily and I listened to an independent radio station from the Twin Cities, laughing as we listened to a weather forecast that would never affect us. And I could hang out with Greta. I hoped that a little free babysitting would pay for the time I spent imposing on their family, and I hope I’ll get the chance to come back and visit again.