The marathons of 2018.

This autumn I ground away at two big goals: finishing my dissertation, and running my first trail marathon.

A number of people told me I was insane to try to do both of these things at the same time. But everyone has different ways of staying happy and maximizing what they are capable of. For me, it’s essential to have more than one thing to focus on. I have a few friends who must live like I do: they said, oh, that’s perfect!

The last few months of dissertation writing were really hard. Although I made a plan with my supervisor about how to get everything done, work didn’t really proceed according to plan. Some things took longer. Other tasks required waiting on collaborators for feedback. Sometimes I simply realized that I had no idea what was expected as a certain output. I tried to start working anyway, only to have my first attempt deemed garbage.

By contrast, my marathon training was straightforward. I won’t say it was easy, but I knew what I had to do.

***

I didn’t sign up for just any marathon; the Transruinaulta in southeastern Switzerland is mostly off-road and features 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) of climbing, plus the corresponding 1,800 meters of descents. In order to do a race effort I felt good about, I knew I would have to take training seriously.

I bought a training plan from Uphill Athlete, a company and community run by Scott Johnston and Steve House. I have known about Scott for years through the cross-country ski community (though I have never met him), and I respect his work, experience, and philosophy so much. I knew that whatever plan I got from Uphill Athlete would deliver me well-prepared to the start line. It had been seven years since I last followed a training plan, but at last, I was ready to return to intentional, organized training. I dove in and had confidence every step of the way that I was doing the right thing.

“The right thing” involved functional strength training exercises that did more to rehab my ankle from last year’s ruptured ligaments than anything my non-skiing PT had taught me. It included interval sessions that I found I really enjoyed – a surprise, since in those last seven years I had done intervals less than a dozen times annually, and some years probably less than five times.

One week “the right thing” involved a 30-kilometer run/hike one day and a 20 k  run/hike the next day. That was hard, but I planned in advance to head to the Engadin valley for the weekend so that I the spectacular scenery would entice me out the door on Sunday when my body was already tired.

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Enjoying some amazing trail running/hiking around Pontresina.

And maybe the hardest week was when “the right thing” had a 30 k run scheduled on a weekday. I woke up early, took the train to Baden, and ran all the way to the office. I have to admit I wasn’t a very effective worker that day.

But even though it was often hard, I knew what I had to do. Just follow the plan. The plan will get you where you want to go.

Training for a marathon was probably the easiest thing I did this fall.

***

The trauma (there, I said it) of the last month of my dissertation has almost blotted out the months that came before, work-wise. But looking back, I can piece together what they looked like.

I want to be clear that a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I’m a perfectionist. I hate doing less than the best I could possibly do.

I also have a strong viewpoint that data should not go un-analyzed and un-reported. It’s not good for science if we leave something in a file drawer just because it didn’t turn out to be interesting. That means that someone else will repeat our experiment in the future. And if they also leave it in a file drawer because it turns out to not be interesting, then some unsuspecting third scientist will also decide to tackle it. And so on. You get the picture.

My natural tendency to overwork myself was at some points made worse by my supervisor. Florian is a great supervisor – I would highly recommend working in his lab, and the effusive thanks I eventually wrote in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation were not exaggerations. But he knows how to get the most out of all of us. And at this point, he has known me for four years. He probably knew that if he told me he didn’t think I could do something, that would make me try that much harder to get it done.

All of which is to say that in late August when I sat down with Florian to plan the final few months, I should have been confident that my dissertation would be fine. I had already published three chapters of it as papers, which is a great position to be in. If I had wanted to, I could have coasted in to the finish, writing up one more chapter and calling it a day. Nobody would have said my dissertation wasn’t adequate.

But neither Florian nor I were interested in that option. Instead we planned out three more chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion to the dissertation. I had the data already for all of those chapters, but I still had to analyze it and I still had to do the writing.  I had until mid-November to get all of that done.

And so I made an estimate of how long everything would take. Choosing and learning the appropriate geostatistical method to upscale my survey data: would that take two days, or two weeks? Better just schedule one.

“You can write a paper in a week,” Florian said. I didn’t feel like that was true, but sure, chapter four, let’s schedule a week for the writing.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan. And I also had to apply for postdoc fellowships, too, an exhausting process during which I came up with a research proposal that didn’t even strongly relate to my dissertation. Charging ahead on both of these fronts required shifting between intellectual arenas in my brain.

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So here’s a plan I didn’t end up following, like, at all… in fact, the chapters aren’t even the ones that ended up in my dissertation!

Most days I came home from work exhausted, but through early fall, I was making progress. I submitted the fourth chapter to a journal two weeks before we had planned. Things weren’t going exactly as I had thought, but the parts going better than planned seemed to be making up for the areas where I was way behind.

***

In mid-October, with one month until my dissertation was due, I took the train to southeastern Switzerland on a Friday afternoon and got ready to race the next day. I had been tapering, which felt weird. I hadn’t done any competitions I felt strongly enough about to taper for since my only other marathon run, back in 2013 in France. (That one was on the road; I trained for it, but not according to any real plan.)

My friend Annie came down to race too, and was likewise stressed by work. She had been in the field all week, hardly ideal preparation. We went to bed early, and neither of us slept well. We made some overnight oats for breakfast and found a regional bus that would take us to Ilanz, where the race would start.

In the leadup to the race, a lot of people would ask how long I thought it would take. I had no idea what to answer. Five hours? Four hours? There was all that up and down. Plus, though it was clear that the race wouldn’t have much pavement, would the balance be dirt/gravel roads, or singletrack? How technical would the terrain be? This was clearly not a race where you could pick a pace or split and just try to consistently hit it.

Instead, I made a race plan based on heart rate. I wanted to start off easy on for the first few kilometers and then get into an easy but fast groove for the first ten or so kilometers, which looked mostly flat on the course profile. I set limits for the big climbs: don’t let your heart rate go above this. If you have to walk, walk. You’re in this for the long hall and you are not going to make yourself bonk. Downhills are one of my strengths, so I wanted to run every downhill as fast as I sustainably could.

Oh, and I planned to eat as many calories as I could stuff in my face.

I more or less followed this plan. My slow start meant that people poured past me in the opening kilometers (it was an individual-start marathon, weirdly), and I ended up going a little harder than I planned – but still easy enough that I don’t think it taxed me too much. My plan had probably been too conservative.

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First 10 k: whee, this is fun!

After that, my plan worked great. On the climbs that went for kilometer after kilometer, mostly on dirt roads but sometimes on singletrack, I kept up a steady effort hovering just around my anaerobic threshold. The downhills were a blast as I flew past people. Sometimes they would pass me again as I slowed to my steady pace on the uphills, but it paid off.

We hit the high point of the course around 30 k (20 miles) into the marathon, and there was an aid station at the top. One guy who had been running around me – sometimes ahead, sometime behind – staggered over to a picnic table and sat down heavily.

“Scheisse,” he groaned.

I ran through the aid station, stopping only for a few seconds to refill a water flask. I had quite a few kilometers of gradual to steep downhill to look forward to. I hadn’t completely wrecked myself on the uphill, and I started reeling people in. I was flying, catching runners whom I had told myself not to worry about as they went past me on the last climb.

It was pretty fun until a few kilometers to go. We had all been warned that there were three steep hills just before the finish, so to save something. The first one was a reality check after those nice kilometers of downhill, and it was longer than I had guessed, but not so bad.

The second one was short and very steep. I walked. Everyone walked.

The third one: very steep. It was terrible. I mentally cursed the race organizers. I came over what I thought was the top only to see that the hill went on. I felt like I was crawling. My swagger from a few kilometers ago was long gone. But at least from here it would only get easier towards the finish.

Down the other side, around a corner and… what the hell? Another steep hill. Like, really steep, find-something-to-grab-ahold-of steep. There were two retirees by the side of the trail. The runners ahead of me swore out loud this time, and the retirees laughed at them. At us. If I wasn’t so tired I would have fixed them an evil glare as I went by.

By the time I went down the fourth of the three hills, I wasn’t even fast on the downhills anymore. There was a very, very gradual climb to the finish line, back on pavement, which should have felt fast and easy. Instead, I struggled to maintain a jog. But I got to the finish, clocking a time just under five hours.

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The organizers set up this sweet panorama so you could mug and get a cool finish line photo as if you were running on the trail, but I was so beat I didn’t even notice. Whoops!

The sun was shining as we congratulated each other and began to refuel the calories and salt we had lost. Dry clothes felt so good. Sitting down felt good. I was proud of myself – my result was not particularly great, but I had worked hard and followed a plan and, I believe, done the best race I could do on that day. I was just over a year out from a major injury, and another major victory is that I hadn’t hurt myself again. That functional strength had worked: even when I was so tired, my feet nimbly navigated the trails and my ankles stayed stable.

Most importantly, I had a ton of fun and I was already dreaming of what long trail or mountain race to sign up for next year.

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With Annie at the finish: we did it! (Photo: some older lady walking by, who we accosted…)

***

The race hadn’t been easy.

If I’m thinking about the events that cap off my grueling goals, I think my PhD defense – scheduled for January – will be much easier. I like giving presentations, and I am excited to tell my colleagues, friends, and family about what I’ve been working on. I’m sure I will be nervous, but mostly, it will be fun. I’ve been imagining that day for months and months and months.

Compared to a mountainous trail marathon? PhD defense = easy.

But if I’m thinking about the paths that lead to those days, the running was much easier. The day after my marathon, I went for a little walk in the mountains with Annie, because we were already there and the views and mountain feeling are too good to miss even when your legs are jelly.

On Monday I went back to the office, and I didn’t take another day away from my dissertation until I handed it in just over a month later.

Again: that bad, bad situation of overwork, and everything it led to, was somewhat self-inflicted. I could have told myself, look, this is crazy. You don’t even really need six chapters. Florian, I can’t do chapter six. I’m going to take the weekend off and unscramble my brain and work on giving you a great five-chapter dissertation.

But that is not what I did. I wrote for hours at a time. I revised. I formatted. I cried. I ate a lot of cookies (a lot!). I asked colleagues to read terrible drafts. I rarely went running. I kept writing. I slept badly. I complained. I became a bad friend and officemate. I resented Florian. I cried more.

What I lacked was confidence. I was trying to follow the plan we had made, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have that feeling that if I just did what was on the schedule, everything would be fine. Most days, it felt like there was no way in the world that everything would be fine.

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You think you’re doing okay and then you start correcting your bibliography and it looks like this…

Maybe partly because my training was over and I was rarely exercising, I totally lost perspective. My dissertation seemed like the only thing in my life, in some ways, and it felt like a slow-rolling disaster. Every little setback seemed like the end of the world.

But, on November 19, I handed Florian a printed version of my dissertation.

He made some minor corrections and told me it was very nice. This was classic: he had previously told me that he expected he would make a lot of corrections and there was no way I’d be able to turn it in the next day. But by saying that, he had ensured that I would ruin myself attempting to give him a nearly perfect dissertation.

I made those small corrections, and on November 20, I submitted my dissertation to the University of Zurich. It was anticlimactic. I uploaded a PDF to the online interface, and then walked some paperwork over to the Faculty of Science. The woman at the desk who accepted my registration for a PhD defense didn’t even say congratulations. Nobody had come along to give me a high five or hug, because I hadn’t asked them to.

Instead I went home and, much like after my marathon, lay on the couch. I sank into the leather cushions and felt like maybe I could stay there forever.

***

Recovery began the next day.

If there’s anything that being an athlete has taught me, it is that recovery is important. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s also something that I didn’t really value for much of my “serious” athletic career. I was interested in too many other things – when I didn’t have to train, I filled that time with something else. I’m pretty sure I would have been a lot faster if I had just taken a nap.

But now I’m some combination of older and wiser, and my body is older, and my brain is older. They need recovery and I fully believe in its value.

I took almost a week off from work, and now I’m back. I’m able to enjoy going to the office again. I’m able to get excited about reading papers, another thing that I almost completely neglected while I was writing. Many of the projects I am working on now, in this time between my dissertation and defense, are collaborative, and that feels great to get back to, too.

And in the back of my mind I can say that no matter what else happened in 2018 – the political, the personal, the stupid stress I put myself under – I accomplished my two big goals. That feels pretty good.

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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.

training camp in the Jura.

Skiwalking in the Swiss Jura. (Photo: Roli Eggspühler)

Coming from North America, I often think that the other side of whatever country I’m in is very, very far away.

Happily, here in Switzerland things are a little closer together. I live in Zürich and while the nearest big mountains are at least an hour away, nothing is very far. Going south or southwest through the Alps takes a few hours, but driving across the Swiss Plateau to the French border is easier.

A few weeks ago I was able to take part in a training camp in Les Cernets, which is on the border with France. Literally, after dropping our bags off at the inn where we were staying, Fabian and I ran up a hill a few kilometers and peered into the European Union. We followed a well-marked trail and there was a small monument at the top of the height of land. Anyone could take this route into France, although of course you have to get into Switzerland first, which is no easy feat.

(Certainly there was no border station on our running trail; even the one on the main road in Les Verrières, the bigger town, appeared to be minimally manned and just waved cars through without stopping.)

The camp I joined was with the Swiss Academic Ski Team (SAS), a group of college and older athletes. Once you are a member (I’m not), you’re a member for life, so a few masters-aged athletes also join us and sometimes kick our butts.

cowsAt camps we train hard, double sessions a day like the pros, but only for a few days. I can’t speak for the others, but for myself, I then go back to work, train fairly minimally, and engage in magical thinking to assure myself that these few days will somehow make a difference come winter…

Ironically, the team doesn’t have any athletes I’ve met so far from the French part of Switzerland. But in an effort for geographic fairness and also to keep things new and interesting, we went there.

We spent three days in the Jura mountains. It’s at the same time remote and not remote; growing up in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, I felt right at home. The area is a mix of farms and forest, with some small homestead always hidden behind the next roll of the hill. But the city of Neuchâtel isn’t far, and in no time at all you are back on the big lake, feeling like you’re in metropolitan Switzerland.

There are a lot of dairy farms in the Jura. We missed, by just a few days, the annual festival where the cows walk from the high meadows down to town with flowers braided around their horns. On the main road you can find an unmanned, automated cheese vending machine with the local wares.

morningThis is the region that absinthe comes from, and you can imagine perfectly how even when it was outlawed, production continued just the same. There are infinite places to hide things and you can’t travel too fast on the country roads. All you need to do is call your neighbor to warn him someone was coming, and he could take care of his materials no problem.

The mascot of the Val de Travers region of Canton Neuchâtel region is a small green fairy, and it is plastered everywhere.

Come to the grocery store! With the absinthe fairy.

Take the train! With the absinthe fairy.

Stay at our hotel! With the absinthe fairy.

Here’s some highway information! With the absinthe fairy.

On our last night we tried some absinthe, which probably ruined our training effect. We stuck to one glass each and, it turns out, did not see the absinthe fairy. Shoot, I’ll have to try some again some other time.

creux du van 1But about that training effect: the Jura is a great place to train. There are tons of trails through the forest, some of which are ski trails. Les Cernets is connected to hundreds of kilometers of ski trails, including a few long point-to-point trails like the 65 k Franco-Suisse loop, where you can do inn-to-inn touring. I can’t wait to come explore in the winter.

Jogging the farm roads in the morning through the fog felt mystical. And in the forest, clearings, bogs, and other areas are given fairy-tale names painted on old, peeling signs.

I was also thrilled to return to Creux du Van, a huge rock cliff formation which I had hiked with a friend in the spring. The closest thing I can compare it to is Cannon cliffs in New Hampshire – if you made Cannon much more even and bent it in a gently arching bowl around the valley. And plopped a picturesque farm and some happily grazing cows on top.

Creux du Van speaks to almost everyone, I think. My housemate told me that being up there, with hundreds of meters of empty space in front of you and birds playing on the wind, gives you power.

Sometimes that kind of phrase can sound woo-woo, but when you stand on Creux du Van, it’s not inaccurate.

rollerskiing 2But that’s not why we came to the Jura. A short drive into France is a rollerski loop at the Stade Florence Baverel in Arçon. So every day we would drive to France to ski.

(Inaugurated in 2009, the venue is named after the French gold medalist from the 2006 Olympics. You can also rollerski around the biathlon stadium in Le Seigne, a bit south in the Département Doubs, but we didn’t check it out. Prémanon, the training site for the French national team, is also only an hour away.)

The center has a nice biathlon range, a few kilometers of paved trails to train on. I would describe it as if John Morton had been given the assignment to design some kilometers of trail, but only given half the space that he’s usually given in North America. (After all, there’s less space for basically everything in Europe.) And, in this scenario he was also denied vital information about the length of classic rollerski shafts.

So it was with some trepidation that I first set out around the course. I’m not a particularly timid downhill skier, but the turns are, umm, very tight – and there’s a pretty decent height differential given the tiny postage stamp of land the center is crammed onto, so you come into them with momentum.

There were posters all over the main building for the French biathlon festivals hosted at the venue. I was trying to imagine mass start or even pursuit racing on such narrow trails with such sharp corners. I pictured carnage. I’m interested to try to find video of how it actually works.

That said, once I’d made a few trips around the loop, I wasn’t nervous and instead the twists and turns just made for super fun skiing. One corner was still a little dicey on classic skis, but on skate skis you can tear around with little fear of serious repercussions, at least if you don’t get tangled up with someone else.

It’s an excellent, and tough, loop for intervals. There’s not much recovery because the downhills are short and technical, so you’re always on your toes. And with limited places to easily pass, it’s good practice for rubbing elbows and making tactical choices in where to use your speed… for instance, before the beginning of the next downhill!

I was a bit sad to go back to Zürich and work, and away from the Jura and Doubs regions which seem to be a perfect playground for training in summer and winter.

Finland at last.

The day you have all (?) been waiting for has arrived – I’m going to tell you about the great white north.

I made it to Finland, safe and sound, after about 29 hours of traveling. Yikes! I’m still very jet-lagged and having trouble sleeping at night, which means that I am not enjoying things as much as I otherwise would. I haven’t taken any great pictures yet, but here are a few mediocre ones so you can see what it’s like here.

We’re staying in a cute little cabin complex. We have two cabins, one for boys and one for girls. Our cabin has two rooms with two little twin beds each, and a living room/kitchen/dining room with a pullout couch that our coach sleeps on. The kitchen has only two burners and no oven, so cooking is interesting but hasn’t been a total bust. The boys made a delicious stir-fry last night and Dylan is planning to make stew this evening, so we definitely aren’t starving.

The first day we skied, there were only 3.8 kilometers open, but it was very good skiing. We were literally overjoyed to be on snow and probably zipped around a little faster than we should have, just due to the exuberance of the situation. Skiing in late October is unheard of in all but a few places in North America, and even in those places, it certainly isn’t reliable. Here we were on well-groomed trails, doing real skiing! It is still unbelievable.

It snowed for much of the last 24 hours and there were a lot more trails open this morning. This was a relief because pretty much all of our skis have been 2 hours long and doing so many little laps gets a bit boring. Today I got sick of skiing around the short, well-groomed loop with a hundred other people, so I struck out up the hill and ended up skiing along the top of the ridge below some windmills. I had a beautiful view of the countryside, which is comprised entirely of wooded hills and a few lakes. No mountains, just hills. Even at noon, the sun hangs in the corner of the sky, casting everything in a pinkish yellowish glow. I was psyched to be up on the hill with no other skiers around, enjoying the view, even if it meant skiing in some ungroomed powder.

It is a little stressful to ski here – there are so many people, with skiers from Finland (of course), Russia, Sweden, Belarus, Estonia, the Ukraine, and God knows where else. I am constantly getting passed by people who are faster than me, and the Russian coaches have a disconcerting habit of wordlessly staring at you when you ski past them. Being off on my own was so much more relaxing – I could think only about myself, what pace I ought to be going, and not worry about everything going on around me.

At this point, we are very much in training camp mode, doing a not-insignificant amount of volume. In between sessions we only have the time and energy to do things like read and knit. During our jogs around town we have found some cool stuff, though, so here’s a bit about Muonio.

There are two grocery stores, called S-Market and K-Market. Both stores count yarn and canned reindeer meat, and thermal underwear among their wares. S-Market is my favorite, perhaps because it is a little bit more light and seems to have a slightly better selection. The other one, Pepa refers to as K-Mart, which is funny because it doesn’t sell appliances, clothes, or plastic crap like the American chain. The boys theorize that S-Market and K-Market are owned by competing families a la Mantagues and Capulets, except that because we are so far north, the feud is progressing very slowly.

We also found a thrift store which we intend to hit up next week. We were running along, arbitrarily deciding what all the buildings we saw were – Finnish doesn’t have much in common with any language I’ve studied, so the names weren’t much help. For instance, one building we decided was a nursing home because it just felt right. Then Lauren said, “I bet that one is a thrift store!” Yeah, right. How likely is that? We ran up to the door and under the hours, in English, it said “Secondhand Shop.” Wow!

We have also found a couple of schools, a café, and what Lauren calls an “olden-days museum,” which unfortunately seems to be closed for the winter. Also closed for the winter: the “Grilli,” which is too bad because I would love to buy a reindeer burger there.

We ran by a number of bus stops, which I thought was really cool since the town isn’t even very big (about 2,000 people), but yesterday I realized that I hadn’t seen a single bus, so public transportation might not be a reality after all. Very confusing.

The river is quite beautiful and full of swans, both white and black. The whole setting is very picturesque; it’s too far in the middle of nowhere, but other than that, I could see Lapland getting a lot of tourism.

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll get some better pictures up soon!

 

A fun, blustery day on the Long Trail north.

Our team suffers from a certain lack of adventurousness in our training, I would say. We rollerski in approximately three places; every once in a while, we’ll venture out for a longer point-to-point, but this happens literally three or four times a year. If we need to do a long run/hike, we go to Stowe and Mount Mansfield. We do the same running workouts around the ski trails or around the lake every week.

So many times, one of us (or even two of us) have wanted to go somewhere new, but the rest of the team, tired from a long week of training already, has argued that it’s too much of a drive, too much of a hassle. I’ve been on both sides of this argument.

Every once in a while, though, we break out of the mold. Today Lauren and I decided that, goshdarnit, we were going to explore the Long Trail going over Jay Peak. It would have been easier to do with support, and with an extra car to make a point-to-point, but no matter; we were going to go anyway, even if it was just a self-supported out-and-back. We were aiming for 3 to 3 1/2 hours of running and hiking.

And so after a 7 a.m. breakfast at the Outdoor Center – French toast, bacon, yogurt with raspberries and dried fruit on top, cantaloupe, tea – we set out in the silver 4Runner, northbound.

When we arrived at the Long Trail crossing on Route 242, it had turned blustery. I was nervous that it was going to be a long, cold hike. But after only 5 minutes of jogging, we were plenty warm and shed our long-sleeve shirts. I was impressed with the trail – while there were certainly some steep, rocky sections, much of it was a nice, dirt path, and the grade was gradual enough that we were able to run in many places. As we rose higher on the mountain, we were able to look south over Green Mountains.

All of a sudden, the trail entered a giant rockpile with two snowmaking pipes on top. After scrambling over this odd collection of items, we were dumped out onto a ski trail, where we could look East towards Jay as well.

We were immediately pummeled by the wind, but we took a few pictures before putting our long-sleeves back on. I think my favorite part about the landscape was the combination of dying yellow grass and fading wooden snowfence. Many alpine ski trails (ahem Stowe, I’m looking at you) are covered in taller plants which need to be bushwhacked. These trails were just soft, billowy grass. With the gray clouds overhead, I felt like I was in northern Britain or something. Or something.

After appreciating the scenery, we crossed the trail and scrambled along the white-blazed rocks that would lead us to the summit.

The wind up here was even stronger. We felt a bit like we might blow away. Or at the very least, our hats might blow right off of our heads. At the summit, clouds seemed to be flying by and there was barely a view. We hurried down, past the summit lodge and back onto the alpine trails, and began to head down the north side of the mountain.

After the trail went back into the woods for a short period, it popped back onto the ski trail briefly, and this is where our adventure began to get strange. There were two trails heading into the woods. Neither showed any evidence of white blazes. We ventured down the ski trail a bit further, but became convinced that this was the wrong move. The first unblazed trail ended at a small pond 100 feet into the woods. The second, well, it was covered in orange tape and warning signs: ski area boundary.

Then the signs got bizarre.

Huh?

The next sign was special, too:

It’s not just the photo…. 95% of the writing had disappeared from the sign. But as best as we could tell, it said, “This is the place that if people get lost they spend the night outside. Is it worth it?”

I felt a little bit like we were in some horror movie: Long Trail Gone Wrong. To make matters worse, the white blazes were very few and extremely far between. We still weren’t completely sure if we were even on the Long Trail or some other weird side spur. But we continued on down the side of the mountain and eventually made it to a shelter, where we saw some other hikers. We knew we were in the right place.

On our way down, Lauren had really slipped on some wet rock and kind of tore up her leg. We both began to trip more. Oops, it turns out we were both really tired! How did that happen? Well, a long week of training, not quite enough sleep, and yesterday when we were supposed to have the afternoon off after a glycogen depletion workout, I had gone down to Stowe and hiked Mount Mansfield with the rowers. Was this the best idea for recovery? No, and my quads and calves were punishing me for it. But it had been a beautiful day and I had needed to fulfill my spiritual yearning for the mountains. Plus, getting out of Craftsbury, with people I don’t spend every minute of every day with, is always a bonus.

Anyway, we passed the shelter and kept running for a bit, then decided we should probably turn around and head back to the car. In our exhausted state, who knows how long it might take us?

Going back up the mountain, we saw an additional sign that really clarified what was going on with this section of trail:

Right! So all those people getting lost were in the winter! Which would explain why they were so concerned, because getting lost in the winter would be a huge bummer. All of a sudden, things made sense. I even hypothesized that maybe the trail wasn’t blazed because they didn’t want skiers trying to follow it.

Anyway, we eventually hiked back up the section of ski trail (my calves were seriously questioning my instructions at this point) and found a nice older couple to take our picture at the top. We got to enjoy the yellow grassiness one more time before jogging back down to the car, where we more or less collapsed. Neither of us wanted to move any part of our body in the near, or distant, future.

It was a great morning, no matter how tired we felt. I can’t wait to try running that same section from the north side, perhaps when I am less exhausted. In any case, we were thrilled to go somewhere new, somewhere that lived up to and even surpassed our high expectations.

Finally, I swear we didn’t try to coordinate our clothes…. we just accidentally turned out matching!

Gloomy Days

When you open your eyes and see this out the window, it’s hard to get out of bed:

Dark. Gloomy. Rain in the distance. These are things that seriously hamper my motivation to go train.

Yesterday was particularly tough – the morning workout was threshold around the lake, something I often struggle with. “Around the lake” sounds flat, doesn’t it? And Big Hosmer Pond isn’t that big, is it? Well. The loop is actually 7.1 miles long, and starts with a long climb – about 200 feet of height differential in a mile.

Threshold work is supposed to be light and fun. The idea is that you are working hard, but not accumulating too much lactic acid. For me, I try to keep my heart rate at 180 to 185 beats per minute for threshold work. That’s about 90% of my max.

When you do 8 minute intervals at threshold pace, it feels good, like you could keep doing intervals at that pace forever.

When you run for 7 miles straight at threshold pace, it doesn’t feel so easy. Except for the fact that you don’t sprint at the end, the pace is not all that different than racing over the same distance.

Anyway, yesterday morning I woke up and looked out the window. It was gray. It was drizzling. It was a little bit cold. And I didn’t have a training partner for the workout: Ida, Susan, and Hannah are gone on extended trips, and Lauren was in Jericho doing biathlon. I ate a quick breakfast and set out on the workout.

Even on gloomy days, you have to suck it up and try to motivate yourself. Was I as excited for the workout as I would have been if it was perfect running weather and I had a buddy to run with? Absolutely not. But I did manage to get the workout done and accomplish what I was supposed to accomplish. When I got home, I made zucchini bread, with lots of chocolate chips, and ate it warm out of the oven. Gloom calls for hot baked goods with melty chocolate.

This morning, I was faced with another similar situation. Before I went to bed last night, I checked the weather, which called for rain all day. Lauren and I had planned a 3 1/2 hour bike ride, and we had to do the workout no matter what the weather did. When we woke up, it was indeed wet and cold. But we put on our long-sleeve shirts and headed out promptly at 8 a.m. anyway.

On the first downhills, our fingers and toes felt frosty. But after ten minutes of riding, we were headed up the East Craftsbury road, which climbs about 700 feet in 4 miles. It’s no mountain pass, certainly, but it did warm us up.

On numerous occasions we felt sure we were about to ride into the rain. We could see it, right there, on the hill across the road. But after a minute of light sprinkles, the rain would disappear, and we would once again be riding through the wet, cold air – nothing to get too excited about, but at least it wasn’t wet, cold rain.

The ride went perfectly except for one thing: I flatted twice. The first time, I was upset, but changed the tube and used one of Lauren’s CO2 cartridges to fill up with air. As neither of us had used one of these handy tools before, there was a lot of giggling and screeching, especially when the cartridge seemed to freeze onto my valve. New skill: check!

The second time, we were in Irasburg, with less than 45 minutes left to ride. I chickened out and didn’t feel like fixing another flat so close to home. Luckily, my housemate Anna happened to be driving through Irasburg and picked me up! So I got a ride home, where I took a long, hot shower and ate some more zucchini bread.

Fall is in a way the toughest time of year for finding motivation. It should be easy, because racing is so immediate: you need to get out there and get ready. But at the same time, you’ve been doing dryland training for months already, and you’re kind of sick of it. Do you really want to go for another long rollerski now that it’s cold and, invariably, raining?

I know that I have to buckle down and stop being such a gloom-bucket myself. There’s always a hot shower waiting for me at home – so how bad can it be?

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