Placid.

I’m going to tell some stories, but before I do that, two notes.

First of all: there is a cake in this blog’s future. Just staying, stick around for cake.

Secondly, my boss over at FasterSkier, Topher Sabot, took some great pictures at the SuperTours in Lake Placid this weekend. Mostly he took pictures of the men and women who were going really fast and winning and all that good stuff, because that’s what belongs on FasterSkier. He also got a few pictures of me, which he was kind enough to share. I’ll post a couple of them today and a couple maybe later this week. Thanks so much, Topher; best editor ever. Dear reader, if you think it’s cool that Topher gave me photos, go to Cricket Creek Farm – his other business – and buy some cheese. They ship. My colleague Nat says that Maggie’s Round is the best.

But anyway: I wanted to write a little bit about Lake Placid. Not even just about Lake Placid this weekend, but about Lake Placid in general.

Placid is a pretty cool place. In a lot of ways it represents the past: the city hosted the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics. Most of the motels are pretty old-school, from the paint jobs and signs down to the appliances inside them. The Olympic Training Center and the ski jumps are hulking, blocky, and grim.

But one of the cool things about Placid is that it really, really loves sports. The area has produced at least one winter Olympian for every Games since 1924, and they’re still doing it: in Vancouver, there were eight Lake Placid natives and four athletes from the surrounding towns. And several of them won medals. This town doesn’t joke around.

So in that way, Lake Placid also represents the future.

I’ve been visiting Placid since I was quite small, when my family would pile in the car over New Years and drive over, almost always through a snowstorm, to watch my aunt compete in the World Cup moguls competitions. We’d stand on the side of the course on Whiteface Mountain, which was windy and freezing cold, and cheer her on. Then she’d have me stand on the tails of her skis and ski me down to the lodge and we’d drink hot chocolate.

One year we stayed in Elizabethtown (which I thought was really cool, because my aunt’s name is Elizabeth; my eight-year-old self was sure that was why we were staying where we were) and my parents took us out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. They ordered all the entrees by saying their Indian names, and tried to trick me into eating Baingan Bartha, an eggplant dish. I hated, I mean hated, eggplant. As soon as I had one bite I could tell it was eggplant and got very very mad in an eight-year-old sort of way. That’s my biggest memory of the trip that year. I’m pretty sure the waiter laughed at me.

When I was in high school, my aunt was no longer competing in moguls, but she was coaching the U.S. Ski Team. They still had those World Cups during the first week of January, which coincided with final exams my junior year. I scheduled all my exams for one day (which my friends considered suicide) and then went to Lake Placid with Lizzy. She hated living in the Olympic Training Center, so I was her excuse to get a room in a dingy motel in town. We bought oatmeal and brown sugar (the IGA only had granulated brown sugar, I remember this quite clearly, and there was dust on the shelves) and ate it in the motel room before she’d go off to coach and I’d go ski at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

I felt pretty special on that trip. Lizzy taught me how to drive in a rental van loaded down with all of the U.S. Ski Team’s ski bags, and we did donuts in an empty parking lot where I couldn’t hit anything because she said it was important not to freak out when you weren’t in control. She introduced me to all of her athletes, and Toby Dawson said hi to me, which made my day (week? month? thanks Toby!). And she took video of me skiing and analyzed it with DartFish, which at the time was super-secret technology. We drew the blinds on the windows of the hotel room so that the Canadians wouldn’t see what we were doing. She was very worried about other teams figuring out what their computer program was. Or maybe she was just humoring me, who knows.

In college, I raced in Lake Placid twice. The first time was my freshman year, and it was my very first college carnival. There wasn’t much snow so the races were moved to the ski jumping complex, a two-kilometer loop which goes straight up a huge hill and then straight down it. I think I was so out of my element that I skied quite well out of surprise more than anything – I skied the first lap with Anja Jokela, who raced NCAA Championships for UVM that year, before dying pretty hard. Still, in that first college race of my career, I finished 35th, which isn’t bad by a long shot. I was less than a minute behind Dartmouth’s last varsity skier. It still amazes me that I did that – it was definitely my best race that whole season and I didn’t even realize it because I was in a sea of new skiers.

The second time, my junior year, I was a complete different athlete. I had had a breakthrough the year before and had raised expectations for myself. In a 5k skate race on the biathlon trails, I felt fast and went slow. For some reason, I didn’t even race the next day. I can’t remember why.

When I came to Lake Placid this weekend for the SuperTours, the specter of that race was hanging over me.

“Don’t think about it,” Pepa said. “It won’t happen again.”

So I didn’t. I just raced.

Climb to the Castle

(Author’s Note: The first three (3) sections of this were published in the Valley News today. The last section, the one where I ramble about my personal relationship with racing, was not. Also, I don’t have any pictures from this race – I gave my camera to Pepa but she forgot to actually use it – but some great ones can be found at TeamToday.)

When most skiers head to Lake Placid, New York, they find themselves racing down Whiteface Mountain.

Early Friday morning, I found myself racing up it on my rollerskis.

Ahead of me were eight of the fastest cross-country skiers in the country. Behind me were a handful of other formidable competitors. And if I looked to my side, I was surrounded by autumn foliage lit up in the sun and expansive views of the Adirondacks.

I didn’t have many chances to appreciate the scenery, though. The toll road up the mountain is five miles long, with an average grade of 8%. It finishes at the “castle”, 300 feet from the summit of Whiteface, which is the fifth tallest peak in the ‘Dacks. Construction of the toll road began in 1929; then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt officiated the ceremony.

On Friday, our little ceremony was officiated by the New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) and the U.S. Ski Team. White team vans leapfrogged past me as I skied, and periodically I would pass coaches from the country’s various elite teams taking video and cheering for their athletes.

At the halfway point, a group of NYSEF juniors offered me a paper cup with water in it; I skied past them. I haven’t done many hill climbs in my life, and certainly none on rollerskis, but here’s one thing I have learned: you can’t stop for anything. What little uphill momentum you have, you must conserve. Your body is moving, and if you let it stop…. you’re screwed.

Up ahead, I could see my own coach, video camera in hand, shouting at my teammate. “Come on Hannah! Turn it over!” For the last two miles, Hannah had been maybe 30 seconds ahead of me, tantalizingly close, but a gap too big to close on the windy course. If I had tried, after just a minute or two the effort would have shot me out the back of the race. You can’t get excited in a hill climb. It’s a deliberate slog.

In a few seconds, my coach’s attention would turn to me. I hoped that her voice would tell me whether I was doing well enough, or not. Preferably the former.

Two and a half miles left. I kept climbing.

Up ahead of me, the race for the podium was heating up. Climb to the Castle, as the competition is called, is the closest thing we skiers have to a national-level race in the off-season. While the teams from Alaska don’t make it to New York, many of the country’s other best athletes do.

The women’s field was small, with only fourteen finishers. The men’s field had sixty. But the main difference between the two was not the quality at the top, where both fields featured multiple Olympians and national champions. The nordic combined team – the men who won all the medals in Vancouver – were out in full force.

The front of the women’s race included Dartmouth student and Olympic biathlete Laura Spector; U.S. Ski Team Olympians Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola; and Dartmouth senior Ida Sargent, the seventh-ranked skier in the country.

Last year, Sargent and my teammate Hannah (Dreissigacker) finished third and fourth.

This year, it was not to be. Sargent said, “Last year it went really well, so I was actually psyched to race it again. This year I thought I would know what to expect, but you can’t ever predict how something like this – which is just so hard – will unfold.  I felt tired and instead of being able to attack like I had hoped for, I was just kind of holding on.”

Spector’s experience was different. As a biathlete, her races usually consist of shorter loops with rifle-shooting stages in between them. She hadn’t raced against regular skiers recently, but was excited to see how she stacked up.

In the beginning, the pace conservative; everyone knew that they had 50 minutes of climbing ahead of them. Spector said, “A large group stayed together for nearly two miles.  It first started to split up when Morgan [Arritola] took the lead from Liz [Stephen]. I was working my way up one spot at a time. Every time I thought I saw a gap forming between the leaders and the person in front of me, I would jump ahead and fill that spot.

“When we got to around 3 miles I offered to pull because everyone in the lead group was taking a turn on the front.  I soon noticed that I had opened up a gap and decided to push it from there.”

Spector held her lead through the final kilometers of the race and ended up winning by just over a minute. She said, “My win was for my teammates. I feel like there have been doubts in the past as to how well American biathletes train and perform physically, and I was out to prove that our training is just as rigorous and effective as what the cross-country skiers are doing.”

Sargent finished fifth, unable to recapture the podium. She said, “I’m sure I’ll do [the race] again next year, but right now I’m glad there is a full year before it happens!”

One thing that we all faced as we neared the finish – regardless of whether we were headed toward victory or not – was the wind.

With just a half mile left, the toll road takes a turn, and the castle is visible, tantalizingly close. But this turn exposed us to the wind’s full force for the first time; estimates had the gusts reaching 50 miles per hour. It literally stopped us in our tracks; multiple athletes I claimed to actually have been blown backwards (rollerski wheels roll both directions).

“I don’t think I’ve ever skied in wind that strong before,” said Sargent. “It was brutal.”

Personally, I wanted to sit down and cry. Even though I could see the finish, I had no idea how I was going to get there. My strides were only gaining me a few inches each time I pushed forward. I could have walked faster.

In the end, I made it to the finish by reminding myself that the wind was just as tough on my competitors as it was on me. My teammate Hannah had put two minutes on me in the last mile, when all the climbing had finally caught up with me, but nobody had passed me.

Honestly, I was just relieved to have made it to the top.

There’s a month until the racing season begins, and it’s all going to feel easy after Whiteface. I guess I’m prepared now.

You might think the story ends there. But it doesn’t. Something surprising happened to me on that mountain. I stopped being afraid of ski racing.

The end of my season last year was an absolute disaster: race after race of burying myself to go slower and slower. I dropped out of a race for the first time ever. I skied like a sack of dog poop. I felt tired all the time. I couldn’t go hard, but it was so hard to go even not hard. Something was terribly wrong, and everyone had a different theory about what it was, but the case was never resolved completely.

It had made me forget what racing was supposed to be like. I dreaded racing. Going into Climb to the Castle, I was terrified. I was sure something was going to go horribly wrong, I was going to feel tired, I wasn’t going to be able to turn it over, I was going to get dropped by everyone, left to ski, cold, alone, perhaps sobbing, up this indescribably steep road to the top (when I got there, it wasn’t nearly as steep as it had been in my mind). You can’t drop out of an uphill rollerski race. What are you going to do, turn around and ski downhill for three miles? You would have to be crazy to attempt to ski down a toll road.

I was afraid because it was a hill climb, but what I didn’t realize was that I was also afraid because it was a race. The last race weekend I remember was Spring Series in Madawaska, Maine, where I dropped out of the first race, missed the heats in the sprint, and then did terribly in the hill climb. It was not a fun weekend of ski racing. But that was the most immediate sense I had of racing. Everything in my body and my mind expected that experience all over again.

Almost as soon as I started Climb to the Castle, though, it was different. I was skiing! I was skiing well, I would even say. I felt in control. I was deciding my pace; I wasn’t fighting with my body. I was relaxed. I was beating people. All of this, honestly, was a complete shock.

Sure, I did really fall apart in the last mile. I bonked. I was really, really slow. And I almost sat down on the side of the road and cried in that 50 m.p.h. wind. But that was different. Everyone gets tired after climbing a mountain for 4 miles. Pacing yourself perfectly in a hill climb is pretty tricky. The fact that I didn’t nail it doesn’t mean that I’m not ready, that I’m not fast, that I don’t have the ability to go do an actual, normal race, and pace myself as I should.

You might not think that finishing a five-mile race 9 minutes behind the leader would boost my confidence. But it did.

I don’t dread racing anymore. Now I remember why I love racing: it’s a thrill when you feel good. I can’t wait. Bring it, races.