first day of (real) work: triumphs and tribulations.

Yesterday (Saturday) we had our first day of work! Okay, I had been doing work before: going to a press conference, snagging Rosanna Crawford and Matthias Ahrens for some interviews, taking photos. But basically, that was just a warm-up to stretch my legs. Yesterday, the racing began! First cross country:

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Then, at night, biathlon:

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It was a big day for us. When we thought about the Olympic schedule and started planning things out, we figured that we would be able to do some triage in terms of things that needed immediate, full-scale coverage versus those that did not. Yesterday, though, every race had a couple of big, important, interesting angles, so there wasn’t much we could let go. Check out FasterSkier.com to see our handiwork, but here’s a summary:

1) In the women’s 15 k skiathlon, Norway put three women in the top four, including the gold and bronze medals. The younger brother of Astrid Jacobsen, one of their top skiers (but who was not planning to start the skiathlon anyway) died unexpectedly on Friday. This had a huge effect on the team, who dedicated their performance to him, and rippled through a close-knit women’s field including Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, who earned silver. When gold medalist Marit Bjørgen of Norway and bronze medalist teammate Heidi Weng were crying on the podium, they weren’t all tears of joy.

2) American skier Jessie Diggins, in her first Olympic appearance, skied a gutsy race to finish an astonishing eighth place, tying the best Olympic performance by a U.S. woman at the Olympics. Teammate Liz Stephen, who has been in it for the long hall and sorely deserves an amazing Olympic result, finished 12th. This was far and away the best day a U.S. women’s cross country ski team has ever had at the Olympics.

3) In the men’s 10 k biathlon sprint, Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, 40 years old, beat competitors half his age to earn the seventh Olympic gold medal of his career and 12th medal overall. This tied him with legendary Norwergian skier Bjørn Dæhlie as the most successful winter Olympian of all time. Bjørndalen is a super cool guy and a total beast of an athlete. It’s an incredibly story and everyone we talked to was impressed, happy for him, and proud to compete against him. Some of his own teammates said he’s been their role model since age 10.

4) In the same race, Jean Philippe Le Guellec of Canada finised fifth, just seconds away from a medal. He increased his own record for best Olympic performance by a Canadian man by one spot and set himself up for a possible medal on Monday in the pursuit, where the start order and time gaps are based on finishes in the sprint. Furthermore, Canadian rookie Nathan Smith started in bib number one, shook his nerves, shot clean, and finished 13th. Brendan Green was 23rd. An excellent day for Canada.

So there we were: four really big stories, plus the hours it takes Nat to download and go through the photos he takes, the long time it takes us to transcribe all of our interviews (even after the earlier long time it takes to wait for athletes to come through the “mixed zone”, where they are led through a maze of media by their press attachés), and the fact that we still have to put up SOMETHING about the rest of the North American athletes who did not have record-best days, because fans at home still want to read about them.

It was a long day. We went to bed around 2 a.m.

A few comments on working:

I work at a lot of World Cup races and World Championships, so I consider myself a pretty seasoned on-the-ground reporter for these sports. But the Olympics is entirely different. Two things jump out immediately. The first is that there is actually other press there to talk to the Americans and Canadians! I’ve never had to fight to get my questions heard, but all of a sudden we’re competing with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBC, Globe and Mail, and a host of local reporters (I met one guy from Lake Placid, and Peggy Shinn is here covering the Vermont beat). It’s fun, in a way, and I think I’ll get to know these other reporters well, which is pretty nice. But it’s frustrating, too. I’m used to having almost unlimited access, as long as the athletes have time to talk. Here, they are led away by their press attachés after just five minutes, and all of the media outlets are supposed to get everything they need in those five minutes. Hint: it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to be a jerk, but we get frustrated when reporters who aren’t familiar with these sports ask really bad questions. We want to be asking important questions about the race, like, the waxing looked really tricky today and you were slipping, how much did that affect your race and how can it be fixed?

My favorite was a reporter who asked Liz Stephen about the Norwegian dominance in the skiathlon.

“What makes the Norwegians so good at this discipline?” he asked.

She looked a little bewildered and said something like, well, it’s not this discipline, they do this well in every race….

Come on. Cross country skiing. Norway.

The second huge difference is just the way things work on the ground. There are so many more rules here. On the cross country World Cup, I can wander basically anywhere. I’m used to being the one to take the photos AND do the interviews, so I head out on course to snap some shots and watch the race, then go back to the mixed zone. As long as I don’t go to the special “priority” photo positions where access is determined by a lottery, and as long as I don’t get in the way of the racers, nobody cares. It works out well for us because we get really high-quality race coverage.

The biathlon World Cup is a little more strict – it’s run by Germans, after all. I will definitely get yelled at if I walk onto some parts of the course where you should only be if you have a special photo bib (not even a “priority” bib, but just one showing that you are a photographer and not a journalist) or a team staff bib. But I can also often weasel my way around, climb over a fence somewhere around the corner and walk back. Once you are actually on the side of th trail, people very rarely kick you off. I also have amazing access to the athletes because the U.S. and Canadian High Performance Directors, Bernd Eisenbichler and Chris Lindsay, are super nice guys who try to help me in every way. Bernd even lets me come over to the hotel and hang out and have dinner with my old Dartmouth teammates.

Anyway. The Olympics are not like this.

For the cross country race, Alex and I walked out to the spectator area and had a great time watching the race. I was able to take pictures, albeit not great ones because we were behind the spectator fence (Nat has the photo credential for us and was stuck dealing with a million photos).

It was once we headed to the mixed zone that the trouble began. They have it divided up by broadcast (television and radio) and print, and you absolutely cannot go to the wrong area. Team staff also have to be able to move through the mixed zone. In theory, there is an area and an entrance for each group, but really the whole thing is connected and often, the fastest way to get to your assigned spot is just to enter in a different part and walk behind everything (you are NOT in the way when you do this). The volunteers were not down with this, though. And worse, they were a little confused. You would try to enter in one spot and they’d tell you no, you can’t come here, go over there; you’d go “there” and you’d get yelled at for trying to go in where you didn’t belong. This got really bad about 60 seconds before the finish of the race, where a lot of media and team staff were coming from different parts of the course trying to both get to their assigned spots and, in doing so, to be able to look at a TV monitor so they could see the finish of the race. Instead, they were getting bossed around by firm but somewhat confused volunteers. There were a few shouting matches as the seconds ticked down before the finish and people who really needed to know what was happening were being turned away from certain entrances.

It might seem simple, just go where you are supposed to go. But when it’s totally unclear where it is that you are supposed to go, and when at every other race it’s not a big deal at all and we all get along fine and are friends and there’s nobody enforcing these rules, well. People get touchy.

This got even worse at the biathlon venue. The volunteers were much more zealous in enforcing the different zones. And they were just as confused. There is a huge tunnel under the stadium that allows access to the shooting range. I was coming back from the range and trying to head to the mixed zone, and at an intersection in the tunnel system, I asked volunteers which way to go. They pointed me one way and I walked, walked, walked…. and popped up sort of in the middle of the stadium with some IBU officials who made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to be there. But they had told me to go this way!

I also made the mistake, I guess, of carrying my camera out to the spot behind the firing line. I was taking a few photos before the race started when I was approached by a volunteer. “You can’t take pictures,” she said. “You only have the E credential, not EP.” So apparently, if you don’t have a photographer credential, you aren’t even allowed to carry a camera. I tried to point out that my little Pentax was in no way going to compete with the fancy-pants cameras of actual photographers, who have zoom lenses which are bigger than my head. She didn’t care. I put my lens cap on and said that I wasn’t going to waste my time putting my camera back in the press center, but that I promised I wouldn’t take more pictures.

Later, a second volunteer approached me and reminded me that I wasn’t allowed to take photos. To reiterate, my lens cap was on.

I even saw them chastise a team coach who pulled a small point-and-shoot camera out of his pocket and started to take a photo of his athlete. Really!? You aren’t even allowing team staff to take personal photos of their own teams!?

It seemed like overkill.

Anyway, a lot of lessons learned today. Things finished off with a long trip down from the venue. One problem with situating your race courses on top of a mountain is that there is pretty limited access up and down. In this case, it’s just a gondola (and then a bus to and from the other media centers or hotel complexes). It wasn’t so bad on the way up, but on the way back, everyone who had been at the race – media, spectators, volunteers – tried to leave at once. The lines were huge to get in the gondola and we wasted a lot of time. Time that we didn’t have, due to the amount of work we had left (we published four more stories after getting back to the hotel). We have to try to time it better tonight – I think if we had waited half an hour, it would have been less busy and then we could spend those 30 minutes working instead of waiting in line.

Anyway, the first day of work is done. Here’s a sunset to send you off.

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on brand new venues.

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Yesterday we checked out the biathlon and ski venues for the first time. We wanted to sort out the logistics before race day, and I’m glad we did. To get to the Laura endurance sports center, we need to take the gondola down from our hotel to Gorki City, then walk the ten minutes to the Gorki Media Center, go through security there, get on a bus up to the Laura base station, get on another, bigger gondola to the main station at the top, and finally take a van ride to one of the two venues themselves. The whole thing takes between an hour and an hour and a half – each way! It’s good to know that we need to build this time into our schedules.

(Additionally, here’s an amazing security story: we were waiting for the bus, and when it arrived it had a sticker sealing the door shut. We kind of laughed that once the bus driver was in there, they sealed him in. But it’s not a joke. A security officer inspected then broke the seal. As we boarded the bus, they scanned each of our credentials – then as I looked out the window I saw them put a fresh sticker over the door. When we arrived at the Laura base station, another security officer inspected and broke the seal, and then they scanned each of us off. It’s not like this on every bus ride, which is a little strange – but it does make you feel like they sure are keeping track of where everyone is, at least for bus TM18….)

Anyway, the biathlon venue is amazing. We were awestruck. The views of the mountains! The sheer size of the thing! Alex had never been to a World Cup biathlon race and Nat only to the ones in Fort Kent in 2011, so they were perhaps even more amazed. Even your standard World Cup biathlon venue is pretty darn impressive. But this was a whole new animal in terms of scale, and I was pretty amazed too. It helped that it was a bright, bright sunny day and everything was gleaming and sparkling. Here’s Nat’s reaction, and some more shots:

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We did a quick interview with Canada’s Rosanna Crawford and chatted with her coach, Matthias Ahrens, too. More on that later. We checked out the press room – palatial! – and then walked over to the cross country venue. It’s a five-minute walk and we also caught a ride on an awesome snowmobile coach.

By comparison, the cross country stadium is pretty tame. If I hadn’t seen the biathlon stadium first, I would have thought it was beautiful. But it lacks a lot of the grandeur that we had just seen – it looked more like any old World Cup venue.

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Biathlon is, after all, a signature Russian sport. It’s not surprising that the Sochi organizers really put their best into this particular venue. As I’ve written on FasterSkier before, for a long time the biathlon relay was considered the most important winter Olympic event for the Russians to get a gold medal in. Even today, even globally, cross country skiing is not as popular to watch and is definitely not as big of a television phenomenon. Hence the smaller, less grandiose stadium.

Another amazing thing about the venues is that just a few years ago, they didn’t exist at all. You can sort of tell: they are draped on top of this amazing mountain. It’s not exactly a logical or easy place to build cross country ski trails. The terrain is pretty intense – big downhills where the U.S. women clocked themselves hitting 45 miles per hour, a speed I never wish to attain on cross country skis; grinding uphills that last a long, painful time. The whole thing is at 6,000 feet.

That makes for good panorama views of the Caucasus and amazing spectating.

But we chatted a little bit with the USOC’s Luke Bodensteiner yesterday, a former Olympic skier himself who has been doing site visits here since 2008 in preparation for the Games. He said that the first time he visited, there were no cross country ski trails. There was a stadium, but it was kind of on an awkward slant and didn’t have any of those characteristics we require for a high-performance venue: flat stadium, straight lines, etc.

Famed course designer Hermod Bjørkestol designed the courses, looking at GIS maps and imagery and using site visits to try to finagle the best way to cross country ski on the side of an exceptionally steep mountain. The results are beautiful courses that are very difficult. After all, that side of a steep mountain thing. Nevertheless, Luke reported that some of the looks ski very well, flowing with the uphills and downhills such that skiers can carry a lot of momentum. He said they were fun. That’s pretty much the best praise you can get for a race course. The Laura area has been completely transformed since Luke came here the first time. It’s unrecognizable.

But it’s a little crazy to build courses here. First of all, they are so difficult that it’s hard to picture people coming here to ski when they are on vacation. The downhills are a bit scary even for the best skiers in the world. The uphills, especially at altitude, are tough even for expert athletes. Your recreational joe schmoe probably wouldn’t have much fun here, and someone trying to learn to ski for the first time? Forget about it. So what are these venues going to be used for?

“Come back in five years, and tell me what’s here,” Nat said as we rode the gondola down. “I bet nothing.”

It’s also interesting that the biathlon venue was designed a little differently than any other I’ve seen (it’s not like I’ve seen them all, but still). Alex remarked on how far away the stadium seemed to be from the shooting range, and I agree, it seems a little more removed than most venues. I chalked it up to the fact that most venues have been in use for years, sometimes even decades, so they are from a time when biathlon was a more intimate sport. In Sochi, building from scratch, there was plenty of room to make a huge, expansive stadium. But I think it will be harder here for spectators to really see what’s happening on the range, which is the whole point of watching biathlon from a stadium in the first place. It’s exciting! It will be interesting to see if this extra space diffuses the usual biathlon atmosphere at all.

All the seats will be full today, but here’s Alex checking out a funny ground-level seat in the now-empty stadium – seriously, you wouldn’t be able to see anything, not even over the fence!

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Then there’s the range itself. As we discussed with Rosanna and Matthias (article here), it is carved into a hill. Now, I’ve seen ranges build into hills before – it’s kind of a common strategy, so that any stray shots go into a hillside instead of flying out into the distance. But this is different. There is a huge retaining wall, many stories high, which rises behind the range. (Athletes have to leave the range and then climb a long sweeping turn to ski up along the top of this wall as they leave the range and head out on their loops – it is a monster climb and one of the hardest on the course.) The retaining walls also extend along the sides of the range, with the effect that the range is protected from the wind on three sides. That makes it an exceptionally calm and “easy” shooting experience.

I am sure we will see plenty of high-pressure mistakes, but in my mind, blocking the wind on the range kind of defeats the point of biathlon! And as I discussed with Matthias, some athletes have a special ability to read and adjust to the wind. Famously, earlier this year when a World Cup race was canceled midway through in Ostersund, Sweden, due to gale-force winds that were knocking down trees, Norway’s Ann Kristin Flatland – swaying in the wind herself as she stood on her shooting mat – somehow managed to muscle her way through hitting her targets. It was one of the most amazing feats of shooting that I have ever seen. Megan Imrie of Canada is also an expert at reading changes in the wind. Biathletes who rely on this ability to get onto the podium are at a distinct disadvantage here in Sochi, since wind won’t come into play so much. That doesn’t seem fair. Everywhere else, this is an established and important part of the sport.

Amusingly, Rosanna also discussed how the shots also sound different because of the echo created by those huge retaining walls. She called missed targets “more heartbreaking” because they make a big “thunk” sound.

(There have also been some issues with the Organizing Committee laying out the courses wrong. At one point they put the starting line in the wrong place. Max Cobb is the technical delegate at the Games biathlon races and in charge of ironing out these problems when people notice and complain. Poor Max.)

The venues were also built in a pretty ecologically special area. After all, it is the summit of a mountain in a protected mountain range. We cracked up (but also cried inside) when we saw these signs on the cross country course:

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Umm, what does that even mean? Spectators aren’t supposed to… walk their? Drop their trash? Sorry, you already built the stadium and the trails here. Putting up a sign isn’t going to fix the fact that you ruined this area. In fact, it’s almost a sort of embarrassing advertisement: look! An environmentally sensitive area! Let’s show off how we wrecked it!

Anyway.

The biathlon and ski venues were beautiful. I think they will be excellent for the competition, something that hasn’t always been true in the past for these sports (people complained about the trails in Vancouver, for instance). In that sense, I really salute the organizers for getting it right. Who can argue with this?

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But it just brought up a lot of interesting issues that people have been mumbling about in the run-up to the Games. The venues were built so specifically for the Olympics – none of them existed before. That doesn’t seem like the best way to organize an Olympics. Can’t we use existing venues, instead of making a mess somewhere and then, as is true here and at the endurance venues from Vancouver, likely never returning again?

I was reminded of this again at the Opening Ceremonies. The Fisht stadium is being used pretty much just for the ceremony. Supposedly it will turn into a training and competition venue for the Russian soccer team, but Sochi is a pretty far-flung place and the city itself is quite small. I can’t really picture it getting a lot of use – it’s not like the national team is going to move its base to Sochi, no way! The design of the stadium, too, seemed specifically suited to the ceremony choreography. The huge set pieces were pulled across the stadium on cables, through the middle. So the stadium had roofs on two halves, and then a weird different section running through the middle like a racing stripe. This was where all the cables and machinery was to move these set pieces. I wondered if the stadium came first and then the ceremony, but I suspect that they were designed hand in hand. Who makes a $779 million stadium just to match your opening ceremony design? Russia, that’s who.

It’s just a shame to imagine so much money spent, land wrecked, and work put into something that will never get used to this extent again. Even if it’s a great Games, which I have a feeling this will be, we have to ask whether it’s worth it. That gets into questions of the IOC and the Olympic bidding process, which as I mentioned I will expound upon sometime soon.

Even as the Games begin, there is last-minute building and touch-up at the stadiums. We saw a guy in a climbing harness washing all the windows on the biathlon stadium building (it’s a lot of windows). I’ll leave you with a few pictures of behind-the-scenes at the ski venue, which I snapped as we waited for a shuttle down to the gondola. It’s from an area restricted to press, volunteers, and teams, so spectators will never see it. There’s a certain amount of this at any World Cup, as each race definitely needs a staging area. Here’s what it looks like in Sochi.

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Okay, now I’m heading off to the first races of the Olympics! I’m so excited for everything to get started! At World Cups sometimes I get this overwhelming rush of adrenaline as I watch. I guess that’s why we watch sports – but sometimes it’s so exciting, I’m so nervous to see what happens when an athlete I know or like is in the lead, I swear it’s more of a rush than I almost ever got when I was racing myself. I expect the Olympics might be like this several times a day for two weeks. It’s going to be incredible and it all starts NOW!

Hello old friends.

Hi there. Are you still there? Anyone? Have you missed me? Probably not. I’m afraid you’ve all given up permanently on reading anything here.

But, as my good friend Tim pointed out when I was home for Christmas and mentioned that I was giving up on the blog and even considering deleting it, “But Chelsea. Then the least thing people would ever see would be you coming out of a portapotty. Is that how you want to be remembered?”

Well, now that you mention it, not particularly. So now, only one cover letter away from the grad school application finish line, I’m coming back and offering you a picture of me skiing, inside a giant inflatable snowman lawn ornament with armholes and eyeholes cut out of it.

This didn’t happen recently. I flew home for Christmas and was so happy to be back in New England, seeing my family and my dog (who was recovering from surgery like a champ) and many old friends. And then all too soon I had to come back to Oregon to do some fieldwork – we have weekly tasks, and while I could skip out on one week, I couldn’t miss two in a row. So I arrived on a Monday night, worked three days, and then took advantage of our New Year’s vacation and headed over to Bend with the South Eugene High School nordic ski team.

The team is surprisingly large considering that there isn’t actually any nordic skiing to be had in Eugene. It’s a really fun group of kids, parents, and coaches, and so when they said they were doing an on-snow camp over in Bend over the New Year, I signed up to help out. The first surprise was when I woke up in the morning, saw that a blizzard was forecasted for the Cascades, and promptly received a phone call telling me that Janice, the head coach’s wife, had broken a crown and needed to get emergency dental work, so she couldn’t drive the van. I was the only other coach with experience driving in snow, so all of a sudden, I was going to be captaining an unfamiliar minivan full of giggling teenagers through a huge storm. Awesome.

The drive was actually fine – we slid around quite a bit, but never going too fast, and I was somehow able to stay calm and hide my occasional freakouts from the kids. As we went over Santiam Pass, it was clear that there was going to be tons of snow at Mount Bachelor. We were scheduled to skate this afternoon and I began mentioning that this probably wasn’t going to be very much fun, in six inches to a foot of new snow. Maybe we should classic ski, I suggested. This idea was met with opposition as “waxing is hard and takes a really long time.”

So, we slowly inched our way up to Mount Bachelor to find that they were not grooming due to the blizzard. It was windy and there was a lot – a LOT – of new snow. Wonderland, sort of. I was assigned to go on a jaunt with our star skier, Trevor, and impress some of my technique knowledge on him. We set out and it immediately became clear that technique work was NOT going to happen. Since nothing we could do would have been “good training” anyway, we went on an adventure, slogging around a six or seven kilometer loop down through the middle trails. We were essentially trying to stride, step, herringbone, or do anything to move forward on our skate skis through what was now almost a foot of new powder. It took us about an hour.

It was fun, but I really wish we’d been on classic skis. I was silently cursing the other coaches and thinking, oh, right, waxing would have been hard but this isn’t!?

The worst part of the afternoon was when we finished skiing and tried to pack the skis back into the roof boxes of the vans. It was blowing really hard – the temperature was about 25, but with the wind and snow and ice, it felt like it was 20 degrees colder. The boxes had iced up and were impossible to open, then impossible to close. Kids were shivering, yelling, in some cases almost crying in their wet workout clothes. I was almost crying. I was frozen.

Luckily day two was sunny and the fresh snow had been packed down into perfect corduroy. We had a great day of training. That night was New Year’s Eve and I went into town to meet up with some college friends, Matt and Anna, who I hadn’t seen since graduation. The three of us had run together at Dartmouth before one by one quitting the team. Matt and Anna are married now, and were visiting Matt’s family in Bend for the holidays. It was great to hang out.

The next morning I woke up not exactly hung over, but thinking that I probably should have skipped that last beer because wow, I didn’t feel awesome. The team was supposed to head up to the mountain for MBSEF’s annual New Year’s Relay, a fun event where costumes are encouraged. We figured all the kids would make teams and it would be great. The problem was, on Sunday morning none of them seemed very enthusiastic. We went from having every kid on a team – many had even brought costumes – to all of a sudden not having a single three-person team.

Another coach and I charged in, saying we wanted to do the relay, would just one person do it with us? And got three responses. That gave us five people. We recruited vigorously and managed to get a sixth so we could field two teams.

My team consisted of me, Natalie, and Langdon. Natalie had skied the year before and was pretty athletic. Langdon was tall and athletic, too, but had never skied before this weekend. He also had a costume, an inflatable snowman of the sort that people put on their front lawns, which he had cut armholes and eyeholes out of and dismantled the bottom so you could move your legs a little. There were also a series of small holes around the mouth so you could breathe a little bit. He was too embarrassed to wear it, though.

So guess who did. That’s right. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met a costume I didn’t like, and this was no exception. In a matter of minutes I was no longer Coach Chelsea, but…. Snowwoman!

The course was just three kilometers, but it was deceptively hard – three one-kilometer loops going up and down and twisting around. I was the leadoff skier and given that I had no peripheral vision inside the snowman suit, at first I just tried not to get tangled up with anyone. Then I realized that I had extremely limited mobility – I couldn’t open up my stride and was stuck taking very short steps. When I double-poled, my arms bashed against the bulky middle of the snowman so I had to have a very wide stance.

I also realized, pretty quickly, that the mouth holes did not line up with my mouth and that I was essentially trying to race with my head inside a plastic bag.

It was hard, and I felt a little lightheaded, but it was fun. A lot of people cheered for me – “Go Snowman!” and “Wow, here comes the snowman already!” Apparently they don’t expect snowmen to be quick on their skis. And I wasn’t, particularly – I think I tagged off somewhere in the middle of the field, maybe the front of the middle. I quickly took the costume off and enjoyed sucking all the oxygen I could out of the thin 6000-foot-high air.

My teammates did the best they could. Langdon really struggled, which was understandable given that he had basically never skied before. We dropped to last, but we didn’t care. Natalie and Langdon both said they’d had fun, and they had a sense of accomplishment that their other teammates, who hadn’t raced, couldn’t have understood.

And me? I had a slobbery snowman suit. What a prize.

Times They Are A-Changin’.

Notes: First of all: I’m sorry. I owe you a post about Oslo. It might come, someday. I’m so scared to post a crappy post about an amazing trip that I haven’t posted anything at all. I regret it. Second: Rather than make that mistake twice, here’s a hasty post about leaving Craftsbury. So at least you have something long and self-pitying to read while you wait. Third: And no, just because I’m quitting ski racing doesn’t mean that Make It Someday will disappear. Like everything else in my life, it will simply change.


I am not a crier. I would say that on average, I cry perhaps two or three times a year. I’m sure that in my 23 years of life here, there have been some years when I didn’t cry at all.

But so far in 2011, I have already cried twice. I’ve used up my quota of tears, and I’m at risk of regressing to the days when I was a small child throwing fits in the grocery store.

The first time was on January 25th. It’s not like I wrote down the date; I remember it because it was the Tuesday before the Craftsbury Marathon.

For a long, long time, I had been wondering if I would keep ski racing after this season. I’d discussed it with a few of my teammates and in every conversation, I had said that I thought I would know when the time came to leave. What I meant is that my results would bad enough or good enough to guide my decision. But so far, that time hadn’t come. My results so far had been far from strong, but I’d also had very few races where I felt good. I was sure that if I felt good, I could ski faster.

But I finally realized that I didn’t want this question to dominate my season. I had to choose one way or another and get it over with. So after thinking for two days, I decided: I wasn’t going to keep on.

(So to Anders, who said he was “mad at the people who fired me”: I guess you can be mad at me. I fired myself.)

In my season and a half with the GRP up to that point, I hadn’t had a single result that had jumped out and grabbed anyone’s attention, especially not my own. I was fitter, stronger, and a better technical skier than when I graduated from Dartmouth. I trained better: longer on distance days and faster on intensity days. I was more coordinated and I had developed fast-twitch muscles for the first time in my life. But when I got in races, for whatever reason, the promise shown in training didn’t pan out. It’s something that Pepa and I have never figured out – I just should have been racing much faster than I ever did.

If I hadn’t improved with the GRP in two years, I didn’t think a third year would do the trick. Plus, I felt guilty taking up the incredible resources that this team had to offer when someone else – someone who was developing and improving – potentially had to leave skiing because they couldn’t find support for their racing career.

I toyed with applying to a different program because I was confident that I hadn’t reached my potential as a racer. But in the end, I felt that my time was up. When I became part of the GRP, I felt like I held a winning lottery ticket in my hand. I didn’t want to become addicted to gambling, so to speak; I didn’t want to be one of those racers who hangs around forever, racing to mediocrity and always hoping for the mythical result that would justify their ever-lengthening commitment to skiing.

In some ways it was like a huge weight was lifted. I could race for the rest of the season just for racing’s sake, for the fun of it all, without worrying about how my results or my FIS points would set me up for next year. I could really enjoy skiing in a way that I hadn’t before, not since high school, before the days when I put pressure on myself.

But I cried, too. I love skiing, and I love racing. Even though I had made my decision and I knew it was time to move on, it was hard to give up something that I loved so much. That’s where the tears came from, a realization that simply loving racing wasn’t enough to let me stay.

I decided to make the next eight weeks the best weeks of my life as a skier. I planned out some races I was excited about. I wasn’t going to mess around, now that these were my last chances.

That very weekend – the weekend of the Craftsbury Marathon – I competed in a mini-tour in Orford, Quebec. While I certainly wasn’t winning or setting any records, they were the best races of my career with the GRP. I felt like I was skiing well. I was “in” each race, responding to what was happening around me, attacking, making things happen. I had a ton of fun. I immediately wondered if I had made the right decision. What if every race could be like this? Wouldn’t that make it worth staying?

But I think that part of the reason I skied well was that I wasn’t worrying about anything. I didn’t change my mind – instead the races reinforced my commitment to leaving the sport.

After races in Stowe, Vermont, and then in Gatineau, Canada – both of which were fun but unspectacular, results-wise – my season veered away from its planned course.

I headed to the Midwest, where the SuperTour races I was signed up for in Madison were canceled due to political protests. After an unexpected training weekend, I raced the American Birkebeiner, which was supposed to be something for fun – I’m not a strong marathon skier – but had suddenly become the focal point of the trip.

I also got the opportunity to travel to Oslo, Norway, to help FasterSkier cover World Championships, most-expenses-paid. With few races in New England in early March, it seemed like a no-brainer to go. And it turned out to be the best trip I’ve ever been on.

But I didn’t really train while I was there. I skied, but it was the opposite of training; practically all of my skiing was in that grey zone where you are going hard, but it’s not a quality workout.

Then I came back to the U.S. and got a cold. Too many late nights, too little eating, too much drinking, and that not-training all added up to poor health.

By the time the Spring Tour rolled around – the last races of my career – I was in a bad spot, athletically. In the last month, I had done one race, which was a marathon, one set of max intervals in late February, one aborted threshold workout in which I felt terrible, and a set of thirty-second intervals to wake up.

I was not in shape to go hard. And it showed in the first two races. Yikes.

I had had this idea that I would finish my career with a bang. I think, somehow, I had believed that all the karma from anything good I had ever done as a skier would come back to me, and I would go out in a blaze of glory; maybe I’d even win a race.

Obviously, this is not how things work. Especially when you haven’t been training.

The last race of the tour was the best, in a number of ways. I just went out and skied. I caught a few girls in the pursuit, I raced as hard as I could, and I basked in the sun. Then I continued to bask in the sun during the men’s race, and during the post-race barbecue, and during the second ski that I made myself go on through the fields on Sam’s Run, and as we sat around in the yard drinking beer, our last activity as a team before Matt and I left. By that night, I had a vicious sunburn.

It was the best way I could have ended my career as a “serious” racer – even better than if I had won. On a perfect spring day, I was reminded of the best things about the ski world: camaraderie, community, and fun.

And when I left the assembled chairs, crates, and logs where my teammates were sitting in the sun, still drinking beers to celebrate a season well-done, I was sad to go pack up my few remaining belongings.

I had thought that since I had decided to leave two months ago, I would have had time to sort out these feelings. I didn’t think it would hit me all of a sudden as I left my now-empty room and carried the last box out to my car. But it did hit me, and I started crying for the second time in 2011.

Craftsbury has been my home for two years. Not since high school have I lived in a single house for as long as I lived at Elinor’s. Nor have I lived with the same people for so long, or felt as much part of a single place. For all the ups and downs, the adventures and bonfires, the frustrations and disagreements, the good races and the bad, this had been my place, where I belonged.

Saying goodbye to a place that has affected you so much is impossible, even if you’re excited about what comes next.

I kept crying as I gave my teammates hugs, wished them luck, and promised that I’d see them again. After briefly putting myself together, I cried as I drove by the Common for a last time, and then shed my final tears – perhaps for the year – as I turned off of South Craftsbury Road, onto Route 14, and towards the future.

My first mini-tour….

… and I’m in love.

I’m also exhausted. We don’t do three races in three days very often, and let me tell you, it really wears you out. I’m pretty much toast.

This weekend a couple of us went up to Orford, Quebec for a NorAm mini-tour and it was tons of fun. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a mini-tour, think of it as kind of like a three-day stage race in biking. The difference is that on the last day, everyone starts in a pursuit format with the time gaps based on your times from the first two races, and the first skier to the finish line wins the whole weekend. NorAms are the Canadian equivalent of SuperTours; they are the highest level of racing in the country. So these races were guaranteed to be good.

I was particularly excited for the pursuit because I haven’t done a mass start all year (well, I did the one at the Eastern Cup, but I dropped out after 2k, so that doesn’t really count does it?) and I was really psyched for some head-to-head competition. I used to love mass starts. Now I almost never get to compete in them.

It was just Ollie, Tim, Matt, Alex and I, and then Ollie got sick and couldn’t join us on Saturday and Sunday, which was a bummer. We were flying solo without Pepa or any sort of wax support, but it worked out totally fine and we all had good skis – even though the boys and I put completely different things on our skis for both of the classic races! On Friday, I went on Swix and they went on Rode. Then on Saturday, I went on Rode and they went on SkiGo. On both days, I raced first and I was done waxing my race skis before most of them had even started testing – Tim was nice and talked to me about the wax on Saturday, which was a bonus. Even if you know what you think, it’s nice to bounce it off someone so you have a little more confidence in what you’re doing. Anyway, I realized that I am grown-up enough to go to a race and do all of the testing and prep work on my own without getting too stressed out or running out of time to warm up, which is cool (more on that later).

Friday and Saturday went okay for me – I was tenth both days, and felt like I skied pretty well on Saturday in particular. But I feel like I’ve kind of been in a rut lately; it took me a long time to get back into racing shape after being sick for a while in December, and while I have been very consistent all season, it’s been consistently mediocre! That isn’t really our goal around here so I’ve been hoping to have a good race that broke the cycle.

On Sunday, I had that race. For the women, it was a 15k pursuit, consisting of three loops on a fast but difficult 5k course. There was a kind of flat rolling section between 0.5k and 1.5k, and then a loooooong multi-pitch climb for about a kilometer, followed by some shorter hills and more rolling terrain back through the lap.

I started in bib 9, six seconds behind Sheila Kealey from XC Ottawa and ten and fifteen seconds ahead of two other skiers. Part of the beauty of racing in Canada is that you really know nothing about most of the people you are competing against, so you have to kind of just ski your race and see how it all shakes out. Anyway, I started off thinking I could catch Sheila; part of the reason I thought this was that she’s only five years younger than my mother. So I took off pretty hard, trying to bridge the gap so I could have someone to ski with.

This turned out to be completely misguided. I never caught her and after a few kilometers of maintaining the gap, she simply skied away from me. It turns out that Sheila is a fast lady- she had the 5th-fastest time on the day! Wow.

At this point, I panicked for a second. I was sure that I was being dropped because I’d gone out too fast, not because she was speeding up. But then I realized that the pack behind me, which had grown to three or four women, was always ten or fifteen seconds behind me and not gaining ground. So I couldn’t be slowing down that much.

By the time I got to the third lap, I was sure I was dying and was about to be enveloped by the pack chasing after me. That first kilometer and a half of rolling stuff was the toughest part of the course for me; I skied it pretty poorly. But when we got to the long climb, I gave it everything I had. Megan McTavish of XC Ottawa was in the chase group and must have done the same thing, because the next time I looked back it had shattered. She was still behind me but the other women had disappeared. I now had two tasks to focus on: one, staying somehow in front of Megan, and two, trying to catch bib 3, Michelle Workun-Hill, who was clearly having a tough race and who I could see up ahead despite the fact that she had started almost two minutes in front of me.

I went for it. I really, really went for it. And Megan didn’t catch me, not even close. I didn’t catch Michelle, either, but as I crossed the finish line I was mostly just relieved to be ahead of Megan.

Anyway, if you’re even still reading this long drawn-out race report, here’s the takeaway message: this was the best skate race I have ever had. I felt great. It was the perfect skate course for me, with manageable climbs that I could really attack. It was so fun to feel like I was going for it after a couple weeks of races where I was definitely not on the offensive as much as you should be. I love racing again.

And at the end of the day, I decided that I want to be as fast as Sheila Kealy when I “grow up.” So it’s a good thing that I felt like I was fairly competent at waxing my own skis and all that good stuff…. I have a lot of racing ahead of me!

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.

racing sick.

This is a nice bench, isn’t it?

The bench is where I belonged this weekend. Maybe not this particular bench, considering that it is out in the cold, but a different bench, a metaphorical bench, a bench where you sit and are not subbed into the day’s athletic competition.

I took this picture on Thursday. I had been sick, and still had a head cold. On Wednesday, I had walked around on my skis for twenty minutes, enjoying the small amount of snow we had on the trails and imagining that I would be better soon. But on Thursday, I wasn’t better. In fact, I was worse. For my “workout”, I went for a nice walk to the end of the road. If your workout for the day is a walk, you know you’re in trouble.

By Friday I was feeling a little better, and on Saturday, I was ready to race – I thought. But even then, I was hedging my bets. “Oh, I’ll just race the sprint qualifier, and sit out the heats so that I can make sure to be healthy for Sunday’s race,” I told myself (and my friends). Sprinting isn’t what I’m good at, but Sunday’s mass start classic race seemed to be designed exactly for me.

And as I was cooling down from the qualifier – which went mediocre-ly – I thought to myself, “well, now I’ve skied more than I have in the last four days combined! That can’t be good.” But I was excited, too. I hadn’t skied particularly well in the qualifier but I felt that if I just got in the heats, I would ski better, and perhaps I could do pretty well.

So, I decided to ski the heats.

What was I thinking!?

My quarterfinal itself didn’t go too badly. I got off to a great start – which is shocking, really, because I’m not the quickest skier. I spent most of the race sitting in third. The pace felt slow and even easy until the last 200 meters or so. All of a sudden I got very, very tired. The finish line was right there! But I didn’t have any gas left in the tank (had I had any to start with?). The girl who had been behind me in fourth sprinted by me like I was standing still. I ended up 18th on the day, not my best Eastern Cup result for sure but not a complete disaster given the circumstances.

The race had been special in a way, because as I said, I’m not the quickest skier. I’m pretty bad at sprinting. But I had been really engaged in the race, and I think that tactically I had skied very well. With 400 meters to go, I was right where I needed to be – in contact with the leaders and a ways ahead of the fourth-place skier. If I’d had a bit more in me, I could have fought for a place in the semifinals. It was really good practice, and exciting for me to be excited about sprinting.

But it came at a cost. I went home immediately after my heat was over, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed for a nap. When I woke up, I felt like absolute crap and was coughing and coughing and coughing.

I immediately realized I had made a big mistake.

Falling asleep that night was terrible. My throat hurt, my nose was running, and I was still coughing even though I had been doing my best to combat and alleviate all these symptoms. I was sure I was going to wake up in the morning feeling worse than ever – and that’s not a thought that helps you fall asleep, let me tell you.

But I woke up feeling okay. Sure, I was coughing up nice yellow stuff, but I felt okay. Having not learned anything the day before, I jumped in the van with my race suit on.

“If you feel bad at all, you shouldn’t race,” my coach told me when we got to Jericho.

“But I want to race! Mass starts are so fun! And I want to do a mass start before the one at Nationals. I need the practice. I’m just going to see how it goes….”

“Okay,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you feel bad at all, drop out. Even if you are in the top three, if you feel bad, drop out. We need only high quality workouts right now.”

So, off I went, testing my skis, warming up, chatting with all my ski racing friends who I hadn’t seen in a year. I love racing! Why would I give this up if I didn’t have to?

I was seeded 20th in the mass start, so was stuck in the third row. As soon as the gun went off, I was fighting to move up in the pack. I had made up a few spots in the first couple hundred meters when I came around a downhill corner and of course there was a girl sprawled in the middle of the trail. I chose to take the outside route around her and came perilously close to going over the side of the trail into a ditch. But I didn’t! That really got my adrenaline going and for the next kilometer I was on fire, working my way up into the top eight or ten, where the pace was slow and we were all skiing comfortably, albeit all over each other’s skis.

Then we got to a hill.

Adrenaline can only get you so far. As I said, the pace was slow, but when we got to this hill, I could barely move. It was like my legs were part of someone else’s body, not my own. I was working really hard to go very slowly, and it felt terrible. Really, really terrible. I remembered that I was really tired. So I decided to drop out, just like Pepa had said.

Now, once you decide to drop out, there are some logistics to figure out. This hasn’t happened to me very often – this was only the second race I had quit in my entire life – but you can’t just stop skiing. I mean, you can, but then you’re out in the middle of the course in the middle of a race. No, it’s much better to ski to somewhere close to the stadium and then drop out, so that you’re not stuck out there.

I was contemplating where to drop out when I came around a downhill corner and, since I wasn’t paying attention, of course I crashed. Complete yard sale. So I decided that would be a nice place to drop out, actually.

My race was over. I think I had made it two kilometers.

Even if you know it’s the right thing to do, dropping out doesn’t feel good. I was able to joke about it a bit, telling people that I had won the race because I “finished first”. But after using that line a couple of times, it didn’t seem funny. I was sad, frustrated, upset. Why was I sick? I always get sick and it makes me feel like everything I have done for the last nine months has been pointless. I’m ruining all my hard work and preparation. It’s a pretty depressing situation, really.

So now I’m at home, sitting on my bum and drinking tea. I’m hoping I’ll get better, but if the past is a guide, it’s going to take me a while. Which is bad, bad news indeed.

Kids: don’t race when you’re sick. Or even when you’ve been sick, or think you might be getting sick, or feel funny at all. It’s dumb. Don’t do it. Stay on the bench.