Maybe it is about the bike, actually

Lance Armstrong says that it’s not about the bike. I don’t know if he’s telling the truth though.

My last week was framed by two rides. On Monday afternoon, my roommate and I spun up route 132, over the hill from South Strafford into Sharon, and back along the river on Route 14. I rode with the understanding that I was hurting myself by spending these three hours on a bike instead of at a desk working on my thesis, but I didn’t care.

Riding bikes with girls is refreshing. I could have written a column last week that was called, “riding on bikes with boys,” and would have said how tired and sunburned I got, and how I never wanted to give up and be slower than the boys. I’m too competitive, and when someone is actually better than me, it leads me to exhaustion.

But Monday, that wasn’t a problem. Kristin and I don’t compete with each other. Not going up the hills, and not going down them, either. As we came down the hill into Sharon, we were followed by a logging truck. I tried to pull to the side, but with no shoulder and so much speed, I was worried about hitting the edge of the pavement. The logging truck had to wait for the curves to end. With boys, we would have had to race, and I would have been scared.

Kristin and I talked about school, our house, our team, boys, the economy, the future. The miles go fast when you’re talking, even if it isn’t anything particularly important.

She didn’t know the route, so as we rode I pointed out the things I grew up with: the Elizabeth Copper Mine, where my AP Environmental Science class did a lab in high school; the Strafford Saddle Shop, where my mom and I would drive every spring; the burnt-up parking lot that used to be Brooksie’s in Sharon, where we’d stop to get breakfast before going to Tunbridge.

It was the kind of ride where you feel the wind in your face without having to work for it. We basked in the sun and the green and the smells of spring, and the coolness rising from the river.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were not kind to me. I slept an average of three hours every night and spent the days frantically running statistics and trying to write them up coherently. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt so isolated in my life. I’ve been solo backpacking and felt less alone.

I watched my friends go about their usual routines, going running and biking after class, making dinner together and going out at night, while I was stuck. I didn’t even get much sympathy; nobody seemed to notice I was missing. I began to wonder what it said about me as a person if nobody noticed that I wasn’t there. Everything bad anyone had ever said about me came back and I began to think it was all true.

So by Friday, I was ready for another ride, regardless of whether I should be doing work instead or not. I e-mailed the team asking if anyone wanted to join me. Nobody did. But that was all right. I could go my own pace.

I set out at 1 p.m., and after a half hour of biking up into Hanover Center, it started pouring rain. I thought about turning around, but then I hunkered down and kept pedaling. In a sense, this is what I had wanted: an outlet for my frustration and anger. Unlike the million thesis revisions I had been frantically completing, this was something I could control and overcome. It was just rain. I was stronger than rain. It wasn’t going to stop me.

About as soon as I got into that mindset, I rode out of the rain. The pavement smelled wet and warm and I only worried for a moment that it was greasy. Then I bombed down the hills on Dogford Road. The sun started to dry the rain off my jersey.

Being alone, I could pedal slowly while I daydreamed. So what if my heart rate was below 130 beats per minute and my new coach had told me I’d have to train 5 hours to make that pace worthwhile? Today was not about training. I didn’t have that luxury. It was about mental recovery.

So when I pedaled back into the rain, which was almost hail-like on Greensboro Road and left pink welts on my exposed arms, I thought about my ride, and the one on Monday. No, they weren’t about the bike. But what allowed them to be about anything else? In truth, the bike.

Sorry, Lance.

Back to the Grindstone

With the ski season over, there’s only one event left in my Dartmouth career where there will be spectators. Well, two if you count graduation. But I was thinking of was my thesis defense in the ecology department: The Effect of Soil Metals on Pollination of Subalpine Wildflowers.

I don’t know when it is yet, but I am going to do a great job. The specter of possibly not doing a good job is guaranteeing it.

There were many occasions this winter that I did not rise to, the most important being Nationals, the Stowe SuperTours, Dartmouth Carnival. But a skier can do everything right to prepare for a race, and it can still go wrong. You can spend a year preparing for race season, but training hours are not linearly correlated to results. And in fact, their effect differs greatly from athlete to athlete. There are too many confounding variables.

It’s one of the mysteries of athletics: how two competitors who did the same preparation can get different results. And then the next year, the tables can be turned.

Academics, to me, seems a little more straightforward. It is usually pretty clear what you have to do to succeed, and you know exactly how close to being done you are. Working hard now will have a direct effect on how well I do in my defense.

Yes, people will ask me questions which take me by surprise, which I was not expecting to answer, which maybe I will do a bad job answering. But at least I should have a good sense going in about whether I’m well-prepared or not.

And so I am creating contingency tables for whether sample mass and run order affected detection of metals in my plant tissues.

I am feverishly learning how to analyze nested and crossed variables with the statistical software I bought, and repeatedly asking my statistics professor for help (he must be getting sick of me).

I am reading more and more papers – each useful one seems to have five new references I should check, which in turn have three more new references, et cetera, et cetera.

I am trying to use my statistical software and Microsoft Excel to make graphs, tables, and figures, which always takes an incredibly frustrating amount of time.

The thesis holds an interesting place in Dartmouth culture. Unfortunately, it’s often a culture of holing up in the library and becoming a social recluse. Many people attempt theses; those who don’t pity us and say something like “I’m glad I’m not spending my senior spring doing that!”

Why do so many people want to do this despite the fact that they have spent three years watching senior friends stress out in their last spring? Well, we’re Dartmouth students. We got in here. We’re pretty smart and we’re pretty well organized. Somehow, all of us look at the poor souls holed up at their desks and think, “I could be more organized that that. It wouldn’t be so bad for me.”

And despite the fact that some people inevitably think that athletes are only here for sports, avoid hard classes, and are lousy students, we don’t evade the thesis any more than the general population. We accept the challenge. After all, we’re used to testing what we can do, and we obviously expect a lot from ourselves. There are at least four of five nordic skiers working on senior projects right now.

But everyone, athletes and otherwise, end up stressed and scrambling during in the last few weeks, even though we were sure we could do a better job managing our time than the last year’s seniors. I only know one person who finished his thesis well ahead of its due date. I don’t know how he did it.

At dinner last night I wondered out loud whether every thesis was good. After all, just attempting a thesis doesn’t make you a good student.

As my friend Mark Davenport replied, “There seems to be sentiment here that, by taking on a big project or responsibility, a person automatically will ‘rise to the occasion.’ When really, what makes rising to the occasion such a big deal is that most people don’t. So if you take for granted success, you’re either being overconfident, or you’re mistaking something trivial for a challenge.”

I think I was as prepared for my thesis as any other student. I got the idea for my project a year before I started fieldwork, and I had plenty of time to prepare. I had abundant resources, both in grants from the college, my advisor’s funding, the support of the field station where I worked, and a very full complement of professors and researchers willing to consult on the project.

But just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I realized how much work it was going to be. I didn’t realize how many steps backwards I would be taking for every step forward. I didn’t realize that multiple times, I would want to break down crying as my analysis fell apart in front of my eyes.

This morning, I listened to my statistics professor tell me, “If you have nested data and your replicates are not balanced – you don’t have the same number in all parts of your study – then it’s a nightmare. I think you’re in nightmare mode.”

I am? Shoot, and I didn’t even know it. Back to the drawing board.

But no worry. Somehow, I’ll be ready when I have to defend myself.

15 things that can happen in marathons.

Earlier this month, I competed in the Rangeley marathon, a 50 kilometer skate race in Maine.

Thing #1 which can happen in a marathon: you realize you hate them. At about 16k, I turned to Courtney Robinson and told her that I remembered I hated marathons. “Well, I like skiing marathons with you,” she said in attempt to cheer me up. Then she skied away.

Despite this realization, I decided to ski another marathon this weekend. At Sugarloaf, I took the 30k option instead of the 50k offering, mostly because of a bad head cold. After about a kilometer, I was struggling to breathe at a pace far below normal, and knew I was probably ruining my health for at least the next week. Thing #2 which can happen in marathons: you are sick.

As I put my jacket on at the finish, I listened to the announcer speculate on who would win the women’s 50k. “Sarah Wright of UNH had a sizeable lead entering the third lap. But anything can happen in a marathon, so stay tuned.”

Can anything really happen in a marathon? Yes. My teammate Pat O’Brien says that in a good marathon, you have to go through at least five phases of feeling completely miserable. Here is a short compilation of ways this can be accomplished.

#3: You can fall once. Example: me at each of the races.

#4: You can fall more than once. Sam Evans-Brown of Bates joked at Sugarloaf, “I think I get the prize for 1:1 ratio of falling to finish place.” Sam finished seventh.

#5: You can fall and get tangled up with your teammates. At Sugarloaf, Natalie Ruppertsberger of Plainfield was skiing with two of her Bates teammates, Abby Samuelson and Megan McClelland. Natalie fell. Abby ran into her. Wildcats down all over the trail.

#6: You can really, really fall. At Rangeley, my teammate Katie Bono hurt herself in a bad crash. I saw her finish: she was crying, she wasn’t using her poles because of the pain in her shoulders, and her legs hurt, too, so she was having trouble skating.

#7: You can break a pole. As I skied through the lap this weekend just ahead of Sam (who was in the 50k with an earlier start time), the announcer said, “It looks like Sam Evans-Brown of Bates is just off the pace of the leaders, and it looks like he broke a pole. If you have a left pole, please give it to Sam. Does anyone have a pole? No?” Sam, who is a tall guy, skied about 15 kilometers with one normal pole and one “midget pole” before he found someone his own height who could donate one.

#8: You can break a binding. One of the most exciting storylines going into the Rangeley marathon was the rivalry between two of my teammates, many-time carnival winner Ida Sargent and her boyfriend John Gerstenberger, mostly known as a sprint specialist. The competition was, as the Manning brothers would say, “on like Donkey Kong.” Then, at 30k, John broke a binding and couldn’t finish. Ida won by default, and John has repeatedly accused her of somehow sabotaging his binding.

#9: You can break yourself. See #6. I am sure you could break a ski, too, but I don’t know anyone this has happened to.

#10: Your skis can be slower than the rest. Our development team usually doesn’t have the resources to pour 50 kilometers worth of expensive fluourocarbon wax into our skis. At Rangeley, Dartmouth freshman Eric Packer found himself skating down the hills while two Colby skiers coasted. Figuring that the uphills were the only place he could break them, he put in a huge effort on a 5 kilometer hill and gained a total distance of about 20 meters. On the next downhill, they caught him.

#11: Everyone’s skis can be slow. In the last fifteen minutes or so of my race at Sugarloaf, it started snowing. Shortly after, my skis started sticking. Maybe I had skied through Hammer Gel that someone had discarded in the trail? I assumed that the guy behind me would catch up. But he didn’t. It turned out that every pair of skis in the field had iced. In a skate race. Nobody had ever heard of this happening before.

#12: You can remember you hate gels, that staple of mid-race nutrition. At Rangeley, I almost threw up when I tried to give myself some energy from a vanilla-flavored Power Gel, which tasted like rotten yogurt.

#13: You can bonk, as is legendary in marathons of any discipline. This might involve hallucinating, stopping on the side of the trail, or even sitting down and eating snow. You might be unable to ski much at all, which happened to Ida in the last few kilometers of her win at Rangeley. “I tried to coach’s skate up the last hill,” she said, implying that regular skating was too difficult, “but I couldn’t!”

#14: You can lose a sprint finish. Even after 50 kilometers, sometimes it comes down to a sprint. Granted, it may be not be fast. It may be, as Pat says, a “slow motion sprint.” Regardless, it’s hard. Eric’s aforementioned slow skis did him no favors at Rangeley; he managed to stick with the Colby kids to the finish, but couldn’t get going fast enough to get them in the end.

#15: You can win! Fresh off of an All-American finish at NCAA’s, Pat won the Sugarloaf marathon this weekend, ahead of Pat Weaver, Olympian and UVM assistant coach. A battle of the Pats: Weaver tried to break O’Brien on a hill a few kilometers before the finish, but O’Brien hung on and passed him. They skied in more or less together; the two sprinted but the finish was never in question.

So why do we keep doing marathons? It’s the possibility of #15, the camaraderie in the lodge after the finish, and just the feeling of having completed the darn thing. Endurance athletes: sometimes not the smartest bunch….

College athletics vs. pro athletics

(author’s note: I feel that I didn’t have enough time to work on this week’s column. As a result it sucks. I am sorry.)

Ruff Patterson.

I swear I'm moving forward and not just standing in a really awkward position. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

I don’t often think of the difference between being a college athlete and a plain-vanilla athlete. I dream about how great it would be to keep competing after college, when I would have more time to train, but these thoughts are purely theoretical.

This weekend, our races were a sprint and a 10k skate. In the sprint, an event I skied decently in December, I just plain wasn’t fast. In the 10k, I had patches of good, aggressive skiing, but when Beth Taylor of Norwich, skiing for Bates, put the hammer down on me on the last uphill, I couldn’t react.

I felt the same way the previous weekend, too. For the last month, my legs have gotten more and more tired, and the speed that was once in them has all but disappeared.

I’m in a bit of a mid-season slump.

Talking to my coaches, I came up with a plan to get things back together for this weekend’s races in Stowe. Take an extra day off. Focus on short, intense sessions rather than long ones that drag out. Jog in the mornings.

But I also needed to approach my problem from a more philosophical standpoint. Shouldn’t I be able to train in between races without ruining my race potential? Isn’t that what every other ski racer does?

Then I realized that yes, every ski racer does it, but it’s a lot easier when you’re not going to school.

This doesn’t explain why I’m more tired and lackluster than my teammates; I’m not going to claim that my biology seminar is setting me at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the college field.

But it reminded me that college skiing presents challenges that professional athletes don’t face. This isn’t the World Cup. We don’t have a team masseuse or even a team doctor, we don’t have bikes to spin the lactic acid out of our legs after races, and we don’t have infinite time to sleep, eat, and recover.

Several weeks ago, I moved into a new apartment for the term. My housemates, who are not varsity athletes, asked how many hours per week the ski team demanded. I considered: 10 or 15 for training in the fall, plus a few more on your own. In the winter, 8 hours of practice plus three days of traveling and racing.

That doesn’t sound like much. But it also only begins to describe the time commitment that we make. That leaves out taking care of our equipment and waxing our skis. It leaves out the team functions, the meetings with coaches, and the hours spent worrying, planning, and preparing for races.

After I ran down this list, my housemate pointed out that I was missing something: sleep. Sleep is a double-edged sword for a college athlete. I need 10 hours every night, which is significantly more than most of my non-athlete friends. But those hours are also hours that I can’t spend doing my homework.

I had another seminal conversation came a few days later, when my friend and former teammate Susan Dunklee asked me how school was going. It was all right, I said. My biology seminar was sometimes a struggle, and I had to stay up later than I’d like to finish the reading for my comparative literature class.

Susan asked about the seminar. Despite the fact that we shared a major, she had never taken a class with the professor. “You’re going to pass, right?”

Yes, of course I’m going to pass (right, Professor McPeek?). But just as I tend to put a lot of pressure on my self to ski phenomenally well, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get A’s in school.

Scholar-athletes are perfectionists. Passing isn’t good enough, and neither is finishing in the middle of the pack. Last year, of our twelve nordic skiers competing at EISA Championships, seven were named Academic All-East. We want our cake and we want to eat it, too; we don’t want to compromise on either scholarship or athletics. This is one reason there was so much press when Dartmouth won the NCAA title for skiing two years ago.

Susan said, “Looking back on Dartmouth, I have no idea how we did it. Keep it up.”

I have no idea how we do it, either. Every once in a while, we feel doubt that we can pull it off. But most of the time, we’re so busy trying that it never occurs to us that what we are doing is improbable.

And even if the college athletic experience presents challenges, let me be clear: none of us would trade it for anything.

So I’ll take the tired legs, thanks, and I’ll take that extra day off and read some ecology papers. This weekend I’m going to put on a green suit and take some names out on the racecourse. Every time I put on that green suit, it’s a privilege, and I plan to keep putting it on all the way through March. My legs don’t have a choice in the matter.

Sitting.

When you watch a college game on the television, do you see the athletes getting off their buses and wonder what they do when they’re traveling?

Perhaps the best thing that happened to me the first four days in Anchorage, Alaska, was that I found myself standing in the street in my pajamas when it was -20 degrees, with a towel wrapped around my head. I was watching fireworks.

I am in Anchorage for the U.S. National Championships of nordic skiing. I had thought, Alaska! I’ve never been to Alaska! And it’s Nationals! This is going to be great!

Wrong.

It’s worse than freezing up here. The first training day was all right, cold but bearable. On the second day, the thermometer in the stadium read -13 Fahrenheit while we skied. While I survived without frostbite, it’s not the most enjoyable skiing I’ve ever done. Gliding is a joke when the snow is Styrofoam.

On the second day, the heaters in our hotel rooms began to fail. Mine, which I am sharing with Audrey Weber, is the only room for the entire women’s team that stays where we set it at 62 degrees. The rest of the girls are stuck in 50 degree rooms or colder. They come to visit us a lot.

Then came Saturday. The minimum legal temperature to hold a race is -4 degrees, and the forecasted high for the day was -7. We were supposed to be racing at 10 a.m., but the start was postponed until 11:30. Then at 11 it was postponed to 1:30. Then at 1 it was postponed to 2. Then at 1:30 it was postponed to Sunday.

Sunday was just like Saturday, except that the race was cancelled at noon instead of 1:30 and we never received bibs because the organizers never thought we’d actually race.

Needless to say, we’ve been doing a lot of sitting around. Sitting in our (cold) hotel rooms, sitting in the “chalet” at Kincaid Park wondering if we’ll ever get to race, sitting at dinner because there’s nothing else to do except go back to sitting in our rooms.

Why aren’t we doing our homework? The term started Monday and we don’t have any yet.

Why aren’t we sightseeing? We try. Audrey, Hannah Dreissigacker, Katie Bono and I went for a walk one day. After entering several shops simply because we were too cold to keep walking, we ended up at Alaska Native Arts, where we perused paintings and ceramics that we couldn’t afford. Some of my favorite pieces were clay tiles with impressions of leaves and feathers.

As for our coaches, Cami Thompson and Ruff Patterson, they’re in this strange loop too. I asked Ruff what they do all day, and he said, “We just brush skis over and over and over again, and then I get take pictures of the Sound, and then we brush skis over and over and over again. We talk to the other coaches about thermometers, and then we brush skis some more. You know.”

So we find ourselves, night after night, sitting in our hotel rooms. On Saturday we were watching “Little Miss Sunshine” when Brett Palm came over and mentioned that there would be fireworks in a few minutes. We all pretended to be excited, but nobody moved, and fifteen minutes went by.

Then, all of a sudden, there were crashes and booms. We raced out onto the balcony in our t-shirts, but couldn’t see anything. We raced to Brett’s room, where the balcony faced a different direction. Alex Schulz came out in his bare feet. I had just finished showering, so I had a towel-turban on my head. A building just barely blocked the view.

We took the elevator to the 14th floor, but the conference room windows faced the wrong way. We tried the external stairs, but yet again found ourselves facing the wrong direction. The door to the roof was locked.

The only option left was to actually go out on the street. After a few moments of hemming and hawing about the cold, we ran outside. We guessed if we ran we’d be warmer, and when we reached a giant crowd of people, we looked up. It was spectacular.

It turns out that this week was the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood, which is a strange concept for someone from the New England. The Alaskans had decided that the best way to celebrate would obviously be to buy more fireworks than anyone had ever bought before, and set them off from the tops of buildings.

Drunken revelers shouted “50 years, everyone!” and screamed when the biggest bangs came around. We huddled together, completely unequipped for the cold. I took my towel-turban apart and reconfigured it as a shawl to cover my neck as well as my head. My hair was completely frozen.

Brett was wearing a flannel shirt, Carhartts, and no hat. “I’m fine except my ears,” he kept saying, to which I would reply, “too bad you don’t have a wet towel like I do!”

Katie and I almost retreated to the hotel several times because of the cold, but every time we started to leave, a bigger display would get going, and we’d be drawn back towards the crowd. We joked that we would all get sick and not be able to race, if racing ever even happened.

As Audrey noted, if we had planned to watch the event and worn our parkas, we would have complained about the cold anyway. This way it was like an adventure, and the excitement kept us from freezing. It might be the only interesting thing to happen all week.

The rest of the time, I guess, we’ll just be sitting.