Riemenstaldnertal, a hike of necessity and a hike of beauty.

My dear friend Tim is soon leaving for Australia, and as all of us do before we depart a place, still has many places on his list of “I should hike here” for Switzerland. It being May, many of these places are still under snow, but we came up with an idea of where to go this weekend: from Muotathal (outside of Schwyz) over to the Urnersee. There are a couple of different ways to make this trip, but I suggested that we take the lowest-elevation one – that way we could go up higher into the mountains on a detour if we wanted to, but we would be guaranteed to make it across the pass with only as much snow as we chose.

We chose the route out of necessity, but it revealed some surprising wonders. First of all, crazy rock formations that I can’t describe or understand. I tried briefly to look them up in a geological map, but everything was in German and I don’t know enough about geology anyway to make any sense of it. Later, we did indeed detour up into the snow and it was pretty magical to be doing past shrubs that were just beginning to leaf out, while standing in snowbanks.

I will really, really miss hiking with Tim.

Here are a few photos.

Murgsee lakes.

A few photos from our run/hike up to the Murgsee lakes – a route I picked because it’s easily accessible from Zurich. What I hadn’t well accounted for was how much snow there might be! At higher elevations, the trail became quite treacherous and icy. By the time we reached the hut and asked for a warm drink – sadly they had no milk so instead of hot chocolate we had tea – we were pretty much frozen little icicles. The descent was chilly but it was a shockingly beautiful day as we experienced two seasons in the course of just a few kilometers. By the time we got back to Zurich I felt like I had really accomplished something and deserved that hot shower.

Is it possible to race yourself into shape?

Sedrun, Switzerland, in January 2016. This was one of just two non-racing instances where I have gotten to go skiing since the Swiss Loppet series kicked off.

Sedrun, Switzerland, in January 2016. This was one of just three non-racing instances where I have gotten to go skiing on snow since the Swiss Loppet series kicked off.

Sometime partway through 2015, I made a goal of competing in the Swiss Loppet series this winter. It is a 10-race series of half- and full marathons, almost exclusively skating, in different places around Switzerland. I reasoned that it would be fun to compete, I could probably do decently well in some of the races, and plus I’d get to tour the different cross-country ski areas of the country.

The first race was in Campra, Ticino, in early January. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the race was fairly small and a ton of fun. I finished fourth and set my sights on getting a podium by the time the season ended. (No luck yet…)

Part of that race was figuring out exactly what I was doing. I haven’t raced a ton of 20k’s or 25k’s in my life, and in fact I had only raced four or fewer times each year since I left Craftsbury in 2011. Some parts of racing you never lose: when I put on a bib I can focus and push harder than I can ever make myself go while training (maybe partly because I train alone). I’m a competitive person! And it’s so much fun to be around other people, trying to pick your line and carry your momentum so that you can use what fitness and power you have in the best way possible.

Other parts, like how to pace a longer race and when to listen to your body crashing instead of just pushing though, I was nervous that I might screw up.

But in Campra things had gone pretty smoothly.

The three ladies in front of me lived in places with snow and ski trails. I live in Zurich with no snow and no ski trails. In December I had raced La Sgambeda, where there was actually basically no skiing to be had, then gone to a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland (where there was also no skiing to be had), and then home to New Hampshire (where there was also no skiing to be had). I had very little time on snow, so I was just glad that I felt relatively coordinated and didn’t rip over myself.

The other three ladies also seemed like they might train quite a bit more professionally than I do. By that I mean, following a plan. Compared to an average person, I think I’m in okay shape. I run fairly regularly during the week and during the summer and fall I loved going on long running and hiking adventures in the Alps. But I don’t do a ton of intervals because they are the hardest thing to motivate myself to do by myself. When you train on your own, you end up doing the training you like, for better (in terms of happiness) or for worse (in terms of race prep).

Anyway, back in Campra, I told myself a story: that as the races went on, I was going to get faster. The intensity that I didn’t do during the summer (much) was coming now in the form of races. And my on-snow time was coming in those races too. I would start feeling better and more competitive as the season went on; the races would start feeling easier. Racing 20 kilometers hard every weekend has got to do something for your fitness.

I’m not sure if that was a legitimate thing to tell myself or not, physiologically speaking, but I think it was a good move mentally. The next few weeks I went into my races confident that they would start feeling smoother. I didn’t worry so much.

Then came a race in Sedrun which went in the opposite direction. The picture at the top shows sun on Saturday. On Sunday it was snowing like… whoa. My skis started off okay and then got slower and slower and slower. I had made a bad choice, probably not in terms of wax but in terms of structure. By the end, old guys were coming up behind me with so much more speed on the downhills that instead of pushing my pole basket forward, they had to just put a hand on my back and push me forward. I was WAY off the pace of those top ladies.

It was frustrating, probably more so because the weather had been so bad and it was a relatively miserable way to spend an hour and a half. I began wondering: what if I was doing the opposite of racing myself into shape? What if I just simply hadn’t done the training needed to race a Loppet every consecutive weekend, and now I was getting more and more tired?

With one more race under my belt, a fourth-place effort in Kandersteg where I was again just off the podium but felt pretty good, maybe I have a little more perspective. Or maybe it’s just time, and that directly after every tough race you always start questioning everything.

I’m not sure if I’m getting faster, but I think the races might, in general, be getting easier for me. So I’m really not sure if racing yourself into shape is a thing. Or maybe it is a thing, but I’m held back by other things like the fact that with my two jobs I can’t ever get on snow during the week or ski in between races.

The couch-to-5k phenomenon suggests yes: if you’re not in great shape and sign up for, say, a weekly 5k running series, you are doing to be demolishing your initial times by the time you’ve done five or six of them.

But if you’re in moderate shape and just not in race shape? Is there anything to be done, other than suck it up and actually train like a real athlete?

I have two more races to go, so I guess we’ll see.

more sports commentary.

I spent a lot of the weekend working on a story about the International Olympic Committee bidding process that led to Beijing being awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics. I think it might be the best thing I’ve written! But I think that’s the exhaustion and euphoria speaking. (Update: I also published a different version at the Valley News, which greatly benefitted from some editorial help by Greg Fennell. Thanks Greg, I definitely need editing, and gives me a glimpse of how much better my stuff could be!)

You always feel that way after you deliver a big piece: unsure if it’s correct, terrified of small mistakes, but sure it’s awesome. That feeling fades. But right now I have the journalism hangover. I even wrote multiple drafts of this, which I am ashamed to admit I don’t usually do.

Please go read the piece, “IOC Membership and Regulations Combined to Reliably Hand Beijing 2022 Games,” here.

Here are some fun infographics I made to promote it.

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Beijing vote infographic 1

sledding as an extreme sport.

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I always kind of wondered where bobsled came from. I mean, you could say that of plenty of sports which I like – who had the idea of biathlon? I understand horse racing, but why stadium jumping? Like all of these sports, there is an answer to where bobsled and luge originated. With their carbon-fiber sleds, spandex suits, and bobblehead helmets, it had never occurred to me that after all, it’s just sledding. But it is. It’s just sledding.

Don’t believe me? Watch this amazing video of the first Olympic bobsleigh competition, held in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

Switzerland won, natch.

And I’m in Switzerland. All across the alps they take sledding, or sledging, a little more seriously – something which U.S. skiers are always delighted to discover when they have an off day from a competition trip or training camp. Rubber inflatable tubes? Flying saucers? No. This is sledding in a different form.

The trails are groomed (at times I wished I had my cross country skis… the climb would have gone a lot faster!). And go on for kilometers and kilometers, in some cases.

This weekend my friend Daniel came to visit us, and we took the opportunity to go to Thun to see our buddy Reto. From there (after his mother fed us a lot of amazing food) we drove to Grindelwald. Reto has his learner’s permit for driving and there were a few scary moments, but actually he’s a pretty good driver.

Grindelwald is home to what is assumed to be the longest toboggan run in the world. First you take a gondola up through the First ski resort (yes, it’s called First, not a typo), then you walk about two hours pulling your sled behind you. When you reach 2,680 meters, you turn and go down.

And down. All the way to Grindelwald. It is 15 kilometers and 1600 meters of elevation drop, although the weather is so warm right now that we had to walk the last bit because the snow had turned into slush or just melted completely.

Up high though, it’s amazing. It’s so white. It’s so wide open. It’s the last place I would imagine to take a sled… but I’m sure glad we did!

I didn’t take any photos once we started the descent, but here are a few from the climb up. The saddle of this ridge is more or less where we started the sled ride. Wow!

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schnee!

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One of the promises I made to myself recently was to spend more time outside, more time on skis, more time exercising because it makes me feel good. I had sort of forgotten that for a while, or rationalized that I was “so busy” with starting my PhD that it was okay if I didn’t exercise for days on end…. then I wondered why I felt shitty.

On Saturday I gamely headed to the train station an hour before sunrise and hopped on a train for Graubunden. It was raining in Zurich. I got to Chur and switched to a bus. As we climbed up to Churwalden the rain turned to snow; I eventually got off in Valbella and headed into the Lenzerheide touring center. I’ve learned that in Switzerland, trails might not open until 9 a.m. on Saturdays. I guess the Swiss, with all their leisure and their money and their time, don’t start skiing at the crack of dawn like so many of the endurance junkies I know in the States. The kiosk was not open when I arrived at 8:30 so I didn’t buy a ticket: I just hit the trails.

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It had been snowing all night and was still snowing, so they weren’t exactly groomed. But it was really exciting to be back on skis for the first time since Christmas, and I had a great time tooling around for 2+ hours. It was slow going – I covered far fewer kilometers than the time would imply – but also totally beautiful. Unfortunately the connector trail from Valbella to the World Cup Cross Country trails and biathlon arena was closed, which was a bummer because I wanted to check out their biathlon stadium and see the course where Simi Hamilton won his first World Cup last season. Oh well, I’ll have to make another trip back.

As I was on the train home – hurrying to get back so I could meet my friend Lore at the train station as she arrived from Paris – I got a text from my friend Brook. He was taking a van full of high school skiers to Davos the next day. Did I want to come?

I thought for five minutes. I had planned to do work all day Sunday, and there was definitely a lot of work that needed to be done. But… a free ride to Davos… to ski… with a new friend…. yes, I was definitely going.

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Day two had all of the lovely snow, but it was no longer actually snowing and instead it was beautiful and sunny. I was tired from my snowstorm slog the day before, but I had a blast with the Zurich International School crew and it was the best snow conditions I’ve seen yet in Davos (I always seem to go there when there’s no snow).

By the end of our three hours skiing, I was completely exhausted. But when I collapsed into bed that night I did, indeed, feel very happy and satisfied. No matter what (and no matter if I’m out of shape and tired), skiing feels easy to me. My legs move in the right way, my core crunches. If I was running and I was the same amount tired, it would feel worse. Skiing I can rely on; skiing I can do. It’s nice to feel competent at something, especially as I start a new PhD where I often feel like I’m in completely over my head.

Cheers to more skiing!

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on top of the world!

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I’m in Davos, and I’m on top of the world! Okay, not quite literally, I’m not on top of the biggest mountain here and the mountains here certainly aren’t the biggest in Switzerland. But I’m on top of something, and I can see quite far, and thankgodI’mbackinthemountains.

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But also… I feel emotionally like I’m on top of the world. I have an exciting announcement: I’ve been accepted to do a PhD at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. I will be working in the lab of Dr. Florian Altermatt, which I’m really looking forward to. My project on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning using a meta-ecosystem framework will be fun and challenging. I’ll have to learn a lot! Already, I know that I will need to learn to identify and work with amphipods, small crustaceans which will serve as our main study taxa, and how to set up mesocosm experiments. There’s also talk of using stable isotopes to track carbon and other fluxes through ecosystems, which I’m excited to tackle. I was at Eawag on Thursday for a visit and interview, and I think that it will be great group to work with. A lot of smart people but all really friendly and, most importantly, everyone seemed very happy. That’s something important when you are deciding whether to make a 3-year commitment!

I’m really relieved to have my future worked out a little bit and to think that I won’t be unemployed once I finish my masters. I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for 3 years – I want to continue traveling and having adventures, but I haven’t felt like I have had a home base to come back to in my time in Europe so far, so that will be a very welcome change. I can have a few more belongings than fit into one suitcase, and hopefully my road bike too. I never realized how much I would look forward to a little bit of stability.

And, I’m excited to be at Eawag for a few more reasons. It is a very amazing research institute, highly respected and covering all aspects of freshwater research, not only ecology but also more applied things. For instance, on the news page you can find, in close proximity, an announcement of Dr. Altermatt getting the big grant which will fund my project; “Combining the best of both toilet worlds“; “Cocktail of pesticides in Swiss rivers“; and a notice about extending the wastewater treatment plant. I think that working in a place which has multiple fields of focus will be a great opportunity and hopefully make my research more dynamic. It’s great to think of being able to check ideas with people looking at other aspects of river ecosystems. And, because of their focus on sustainability, the main building is the amazing Forum Chriesbach which is built from a lot of prototype materials, harvests rainwater for the bathrooms, and is so energy-efficient that it doesn’t have a heating or cooling system!!

Finally, my degree will be through University of Zurich, which is also pretty cool. While I was in town for the interview I stayed with my friend Timothée and visited the campus and his lab. There is a lot of very cool research going on there, and in general, Zurich is an amazing academic environment. There’s also ETH Zurich, the Swiss university, and the two institutions collaborate on seminars and courses. It is going to be a very stimulating few years.

So, I have a lot of joy in my life right now. For the weekend, I’m focusing on tying up some loose ends and spending a bit of time in the mountains which I have missed so dearly.

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