Silver Fox Trot success!

I woke up this morning and thought, shit, I am sick. I went through a whole box of kleenex before our bus left at 11:45. I wasn’t sure whether I should race or not, but at this point in the season, it’s not like I’m saving myself for any more carnivals, so I decided to go for it.

I felt surprisingly good in the race, although afterwards I felt really sick – more sniffly, fevery, sick to my stomach, lungs hurting more than from a normal race. So I doubt this was a good move for getting better quickly.

But, I had a ton of fun racing! I made a new discovery about V1 when I was doing speeds on Friday so I got to try it out. On top of that, I felt like I was skiing technically well overall for the first time in weeks. It was a blast to be out there. I finished 8th, which isn’t super impressive (if I was healthy, I would have been gunning for the podium), but to keep it in perspective it IS my best Eastern Cup result of my career …. so I’m very happy with it!

Today I raced in my old Ford Sayre tights with my Dartmouth top. It felt like home to be whizzing around Oak Hill, seeing so many familiar faces – different ones than those that put on our Dartmouth carnival. It was a lot of fun.

Love Story: Dartmouth Carnival

We get our kicks at Oak Hill. Photo: mama Koons.

We get our kicks at Oak Hill. Photo: mama Koons.

This has been a season of second chances. I haven’t been skiing as well as I think I ought to be, but I have somehow still been able to race on the best and deepest women’s team in the East, and perhaps in the country.

How? Luck. And the Flu.

In our four weekends of college action so far, I have been named the alternate every time. Unusually, I’ve gotten to race three of the four weekends as first Rosie Brennan, then Hannah Dreissigacker, then Steph Crocker succumbed to illness.

For four years, I have dreamed of racing for Dartmouth at Oak Hill, my home course ever since I started skiing in 10th grade. My sophomore year, I made the cut, but there wasn’t enough snow in Hanover; we raced in Stowe.

This year, I muddled through the early part of the season and Cami Thompson promised that if there was any way she could get me the start at Dartmouth, she would.

Last weekend at UVM, I completely imploded in some tough waxing conditions. I even tried to drop out of a race for the first time in my life (the spectators wouldn’t let me). I was sure that my chance to race at Oak Hill had disappeared, but Cami named me the alternate anyway.

At 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, Steph Crocker decided that she was too sick to race. I ran around Robinson Hall telling anyone I saw, “I’m racing! I’m racing at Oak Hill!”

Never mind that after UVM, I was unsure about how to move forward and hadn’t been planning on starting even a non-college race this weekend. Never mind that I had stayed up until 1 a.m. writing a paper on Wednesday because I figured I wasn’t racing so sleep didn’t matter. Never mind that I hadn’t worked on my skis at all.

I was racing! Even though I had done nothing to deserve it, my dream was coming true.

***

Friday was bright and clear, and the rain had stopped. The Oak Hill trails were covered in sugar snow, the S-Turns in sheet ice. Our development team raked snow over the ice after each racer went by, and then watched it pushed to the edges as nervous skiers snowplowed and slid the corners.

My teammate and captain Courtney Robinson was in the announcing booth with “the voice of American skiing,” Peter Graves. As I inched closer to the starting line, Courtney talked about me over the loudspeaker and I grinned up at her.

I crashed in the first kilometer, narrowly avoiding a tree. And I had serious difficulty with my classic wax, as has been unfortunately usual for me this year. Maybe I just didn’t have enough time to get into race mode after the late notice; excitement only takes you so far. In any case, it didn’t match what I had visualized the night before.

But instead of getting upset and crying as I often do after an unsatisfactory result, I just rolled with it. No matter that my five teammates were all in the top 10 and I had struggled into the top 50, by far my worst carnival finish of the year. I was there. I had raced. I told Ruff Patterson my wax had slipped in case he wanted to adjust it for the men.

Then I walked out on the long, rolling stretch behind the ski jump with my high school teammate Jennie Brentrup. It was sunny; we didn’t get cold. She cheered for her Colby teammates and I cheered for the Dartmouth men, and we urged on anyone else we thought was cute.

After everyone was finished, Mr. O’Brien grilled up burgers and Mrs. Koons ladled out hot cider. I sat alongside my teammates, the freshmen with their neon pink hair (girls) and mohawks (boys), which they had spiked with wood glue and spray-painted green.

With a few exceptions, the men hadn’t raced particularly well, but for them that meant filling in the spots between 10th and 20th. They asked how my race was.

“Oh, I rocked 49th place,” I would reply.

“Nice!” Ben Koons said. “You made the top 50!” And so we joked about it, all understanding that it shouldn’t have gone that poorly, but it did, so what can you do.
***

women's start. Photo: Judy Geer.

women's start. Photo: Judy Geer.

I was more excited for Saturday’s mass start race. The 10k course climbed all the way up Oak Hill. This intimidates a lot of skiers, but I wasn’t scared. Long skate races had been my strength all year.

The men raced first. It was exciting and inspiring. Nils Koons hung with the lead pack the whole time and finished 4th; Eric Packer moved up from bib 23 to finish 5th. Juergen Uhl of UVM lost a ski in the final 300 meters and dropped from podium position to 8th as he scrambled to find it in the ditch.

I have been told that Robinson played Britney Spears’ song “Womanizer” as we sprinted out of the stadium, but I didn’t notice. The sound of sixty pairs of skis on the icy snow was loud. I looked for gaps and had made up a few places by the time we headed down the hill. Chunks of ice flew up in my face as the girls in front of my snowplowed. Two racers crashed in the deep sugar snow, but I managed to get around them.

Then the uphills started and the field slowed down. We came to a standstill at several points as racers tangled up and fell. I relaxed into the pace of the skiers around me, slipping by them when the time was right.

The race course was lined with spectators shouting and screaming, mostly for Dartmouth; I imagine that racing up the Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France would feel like this. Senior co-captain Hannah Dreissigacker said, “Racing up the Oak Hill switchbacks with a huge crowd of people sprinting up the hill to cheer for us at each one was just really exhilarating.”

By the time we reached the outback loop, I was in contact with the top 20, skiing behind Alice Nelson of Williams and Beth Taylor of Bates, both fellow Ford Sayre alumni.

On the next S-Turn, I fell hard. I guess I was overconfident after too many days of skiing Oak Hill in powder; I forgot that it was sheet ice. My pack was gone and another had passed me as I got up. I couldn’t make up much ground over the last three kilometers because the skiing was fast and most of the terrain was downhill.

***

froshies with pink hair. Photo: mama koons.

froshies with pink hair. Photo: mama koons.

It is tradition for racers to exchange Valentines on the last day of Dartmouth carnival, and we ran around giggling and watching each other’s presentations. And we had the customary barbecue with 26 species of meat. I was a particular fan of the quail Don Cutter had been advertising to me for days.

Saturday was the most fun I’ve had in a ski race in almost two years. The scrambling, the sun, the hint of spring, the crowds shouting my name. Once again, I didn’t mind that my results weren’t as good as I thought they should have been. I soaked it up: my last Dartmouth Carnival, my only college race at Oak Hill, and, excluding any more cases of the flu, possibly my last college race, ever.

As every Dartmouth skier knows, our home carnival is the most special race of the year. Dreissigacker says, “There’s something about racing at Oak Hill that is just awesome.  It’s more than just the fact that it’s our home course. I’m sad that it’s my last Dartmouth Carnival-it’s always been the highlight of my racing season.”

And Robinson said, “standing up in the little announcing shack and watching all of you start, I just wanted to be able to fly over you, encouraging you strong women. I felt so lucky to be able to call this group of green clad racers my friends, teammates, suds buddies. Perhaps it comes a little close to what a parent might feel watching their children out in the world. Not that I am the Mom but I know what it took all of you to be on that starting line, or crossing the finish!”

I have to thank luck, and Cami, for giving me the opportunity to be one of the green-clad racers.

Ode to Oak Hill.

Ruff Patterson.

Alice Bradley, Katie Bono, and I (l to r) skiing at Oak Hill last year. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

After traveling around the country for ski races over the holidays, it was great to come home to Hanover. For the first time in years, there has been consistent snow through December and January, and Oak Hill is a wonderland. It’s some of the best skiing I’ve ever seen in town.

I would like to say that I grew up skiing at Oak Hill, but I didn’t. I grew up on touring skis in my grandparents’ woods in Lyme, where there is a small trail system groomed by Mike Smith. As an elementary school student, the trails there seemed endlessly long.

When I started ski racing my sophomore year of high school (thanks to peer pressure), I found out that skis were made for more than walking on: you could glide! I began training on the 5k loop at Garipay Field and the 15k system at Oak Hill. Although I still do easy training at my grandparents’ house once or twice a year, it’s just for fun; we rarely race on such small trails.

Learning to ski at Oak Hill was an adventure. One of the first things people mention about Oak Hill is the technical downhill corners. Some people I know have hit trees or skied off the trail on the S-turns coming down from the 10k; I’ve been spared that fate so far.

In the beginning, it was because I was timid. I remember one Saturday that first year when my friend Julia Schwartzman made me ski the S-turns coming down from the 10k, over and over, probably ten times, so that I would stop being terrified of them.

Now, they don’t scare me, and I can make it down with the best of them. In practice, we sometimes race from the top all the way to the stadium, or that’s what it feels like at least, trying new lines and seeing how far we can lean into the corners.

The other thing people mention about Oak Hill, of course, is the uphill. Switchbacks cut across the old alpine trails and wind up and up. Then there’s the outback loop, which isn’t actually very long but has a monster climb.

I remember once in high school I watched a Dartmouth carnival race, a 15k skate, and the girls were suffering up the switchbacks, complaining to the spectators about how hard it was. The Dartmouth girls, of course, were doing fine.

Our coach, Cami Thompson, made us ski the whole 5k loop without poles once. So when we race there, the hills don’t seem so bad. If you can ski them without poles, then when you have poles, you’d better be able to catch that girl up ahead.

We have a definite home course advantage on the whole course: the uphills, the downhills, and the way they go together. We know where we can recover on the switchbacks, we know exactly when they’ll be over, and we can make up time on the downhills. The men do workouts on the outback loop so that when they get there in a race, they can make a break and drop the competition.

It’s too bad that with the snow conditions over the last few years, we had a three-year period where Dartmouth carnival was held at other venues. We did fine for ourselves, but we didn’t have the advantage or the satisfaction of winning on our home course in front of our home spectators.

Because, in my seventh year, Oak Hill really is home. When we leave college carnivals on Saturday afternoons, we know that we have to do a long ski the next morning. I look forward to it. Skiing the familiar terrain can cheer me up if I’ve had a bad race, and it’s like a victory lap if the weekend was good to me.

One day on our long ski, I came across Katie Bono sitting in the trail. This isn’t our usual practice activity, so I asked her what she was doing. For her Environmental Studies class, students were supposed to sit outside and write about their relationship with the natural world around them. The back loop seemed like the perfect place to her.

Another time, Hannah Dreissigacker was lying the middle of trail. She was tired and thought she might rest.

Did I mention that Oak Hill is our home?

When I got back from Alaska last Friday, I put on my skis and was very excited to get out on the trails. It completely escaped me that the freshmen had never skied in Hanover before – fall term ended and we left for ski camp before the trails were skiable.

I started out of the stadium, cutting up to the switchbacks rather than starting the 10k or the 5k loop. Steph Crocker began skiing the wrong way up the trail leading into the stadium.

“Steph!” I shouted. “The trails here are one-way!”

“OK,” she said, and kept skiing.

“No, one way the other way!”

There’s a lot of learning to be done your first time at Oak Hill. Another freshman, Nancy Dietman, is from Minnesota, where hills are not so technical. She is a tentative skier. We predicted, “Oh, Nancy, you are NOT going to like Oak Hill!”

We have exhorted her to wedge instead of snowplowing, and to step the turns instead of wedging. Keep your hands in front of you, Cami always says.

When I asked her about her first impressions of Oak Hill, Nancy said, “Ouch!” But she’s learning. I don’t think she loves Oak Hill – the downhill corners have already sent her flying and broken one of her skis – but maybe she’s getting used to it. Maybe by the time she graduates, she’ll feel as at home there as I do.

But I have a three year head start on everyone else, so maybe not.

Piney Relays.

someone else.

Women's nordic team at the ski banquet last spring. Note my awesome bike-jersey tan; it's perfect for formal occasions. Photo credit: someone else.

Monday was our only practice of the year with both nordic and alpine athletes. It was part relay race, part teambuilding. I assumed that meant “easy,” because even the best of the alpine skiers, the All-Americans who can lift twice as much weight as we can, aren’t the quickest runners.

At 2:45, we “nordies” ran out to Oak Hill. After doing weekly intervals there all fall, the jog out is getting a little too familiar. The “pineys” took a bus out instead of running, and I was jealous.

When we arrived, we toured the three race loops. We would have to run each one twice.

The first loop curved up the hill leading out of the stadium, crossed the parking lot, and dropped down to Storrs Pond. Another was an out-and-back on the first hill of the 10k loop. The last was “tree slalom,” winding up and down small, steep hills and narrowly avoiding the big white pines.

We divided into teams of three, with a nordic and an alpine boy and one female skier. My teammates were also seniors, making our team unusual. After all, we were supposed to be making connections with skiers we didn’t know. Sean is a nordie and Michal (pronounced MEE-how) was in my freshman dorm, so we had a head start and could get down to the serious business of racing.

We decided that I would lead off the relay, which consisted of each of us running the first leg, one after the other, and then the second, and so on. I felt like I was back in my high school cross country days as I lined up in the start box.

It was a mad dash up the hill, with runners of us slipping in the mud grass as we tried to get traction. Entering a section of thorny bushes, one of the piney girls darted in front of me to get on the single-track path. I was dismayed. How could I let a piney beat me at my own game?

Along the flat of the parking lot and the access road leading to Area One, I stretched out my stride. It felt good.  Despite the fact that I quit the Dartmouth cross country team after two worse-than-mediocre seasons, I’m in the best shape of my life and that ironically means I’m running faster than I ever did when I raced.

I dropped Corinne Rotter and caught one of the straggling boys, pushing to beat him to the tag zone. When Sean took off, we were solidly in the middle of the pack.

I leaned over to catch my breath and remembered I had five more loops to go. The uphill had not felt good. I chatted with Hannah Dressigacker, who agreed that her legs felt heavy, and had experienced a piney scare of her own. We agreed: we weren’t as fast as usual!

The week before had been a “special intensity week,” with the Moosilauke time trial Sunday, 4 x 4 minute intervals Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and a 5 kilometer rollerski time trial on Friday.

Despite time off and easy distance over the weekend, we hadn’t fully recovered. Training plans depend on having a different focus from week to week, varying the stresses on a skier’s body and forcing it to adapt. Sometimes, you are going to feel tired and slow, but that’s part of the plan.

The teams were in a different order when I started my second leg. I chased down the piney girl who had started in front of me, even though I sometimes felt like I might as well be walking up the hill. Boys who started behind me flew by almost as if I was standing still.

The race wore on and everyone tired. Michal thought he would throw up after every loop he finished; luckily, he didn’t.

When I wasn’t racing, I enjoyed watching the other skiers tackle the tree slalom course. The boys tried to cut the corners as close as possible. A few fell while trying to make quick turns, and they loved to cut each other off and pass on the inside.

It was especially entertaining to watch Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess, who gets quite competitive, attempt to pass 5-foot-1 Alice Bradley, who tried sabotage to hold him off.

The peanut gallery kept track of what was going on. Coaches, injured athletes who had come to spectate, and resting competitors laughed at slips and falls and cheered their teammates as they came into the tag zone.

At the end of the day, Sean, Michal and I finished in the middle of the pack. The race was won by a team of eager freshmen who had somehow amassed a huge lead. I was exhausted; the workout had been far more difficult than expected.

The pineys got back into their buses, and we started jogging back to campus in the gathering dark and cold.

I think the relays achieved their goal of teambuilding. Maybe I can’t remember the names of all of those freshmen boys on the alpine team, but at least I can recognize their faces when I see them on campus.

Balancing.

I spent a lot of time dancing with Brett Palm on Wednesday.

It wasn’t at a frat party. Instead, we were on wires and logs suspended thirty feet off the ground.

In order to balance, I found myself putting my hand on his shoulder, and sometimes we’d take up a waltz position.

Some of us were skeptical when it was announced that we would be completing Dartmouth’s ropes course. We’d miss our usual Wednesday practice, a 2 or 3 hour rollerski which increases endurance and gives us a chance to work on our technique.

Sure, it would be fun, but what was the point? Shouldn’t we be doing something that would help us ski faster?

(l-r) Sophie Caldwell, Development Coach Martin Benes, Eric Packer, Alice Bradley, Sean Jones, and John Gerstenberger prepare for a challenge. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

We ran out to Oak Hill and counted off to divide into groups of 7 or 8. My group was half boys and half girls, and also half upperclassmen and half freshmen. On solid ground, we practiced watching and checking each other as we transferred our carabiners from one wire to another.

After climbing up a cargo net, our first challenge was traversing four wires with a few square wooden platforms scattered in the middle. Each one could comfortably fit three or four people, and was a diagonal leap from the one before.

After we unsuccessfully tried to develop at strategy for the challenge, Brett Palm jumped out onto the first platform.

I was excited to get started and not intimidated by the height. Using Brett’s arm to stabilize myself, I moved onto the platform. As I landed, it tilted and wobbled back and forth until we had moved to balance our weights. I felt like with one wrong move, I might slide right off.

We huddled into one corner to provide a landing spot for Minal Caron. Then Brett leapt for the next platform.

We tried to keep two or three people on each platform as we moved across,  so that they could use each other for balance while moving.

But at one point, after Brett and I had already reached the other side and were on solid wood, Erika Flowers was left alone on one of the wooden squares.
She looked terrified. “Someone has to come get me! I can’t stand here by myself!”

Our teamwork, frankly, sucked. Looking around, we saw that the other groups had already finished their first challenges and were partway through the next ones.

Rory Gawler, an alumni now working for the Outdoor Programs Office, was our guide. He asked us to think about how we could have done the challenge better; by working together, we could have finished much more quickly.

We did improve over the course of the afternoon. Our breakthrough challenge was one with two large logs, a few feet apart, swinging back and forth.

The first pair to cross, leaning across the void to each other’s shoulders, was Steph Crocker and Wiley Dunlap-Shohl, both freshmen. Steph is over six feet tall, and Wiley is very small. Wiley was nervous and didn’t want to commit to leaning forward; his hips were back and he pulled Steph towards him, almost off her log.

“Put your hips forward!” We encouraged. “It’s just like skiing! Hips up, hips up! Come on, Wiley!”

Despite a few tense moments, the pair made it to the midway station on the other side.

Brett and I went next and we sashayed across the logs in about half the time they had. College athletes are competitive – but more to the point, we’ve known each other for four years and we trust each other.

After Rosie Brennan and Erika followed our example, there were two skiers left on the far side of the obstacle. Without any teammates to support them, Minal and Alex Schulz needed to trust-fall to lean on each other’s shoulders.

Minal was convinced that they couldn’t do it. So Rosie and Erika – who had been so scared before – scampered back across the logs and assisted the boys.

Steph Crocker lends a hand to Rosie Brennan and Wiley Dunlap-Shohl. Or was it the other way around? Photo: Ruff Patterson.

By the end, we were moving faster than some of the other groups.

In athletics, being the best is exciting – but being the best because you have made enormous improvements is even more satisfying.

Do I still think we should have rollerskied on Wednesday? I will admit that I’m nervous about losing those hours of training, but I know that we learned a lot when we were using each other to balance 30 feet off the ground.

Yes, it sounds cheesy, but you can’t be an athlete by yourself. I’m surrounded by fast skiers who have the same goals as I do. If we work together, we can all get a lot faster.

This attitude has been a constant during my time on the team. It makes our team unique and fun – and also one of the best teams in the country.

(more photos can be found here)