Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reaching for the Red Line

Every athlete has their version of "the pain face". Some skiers proudly foam from the mouth, embracing the frozen drool that clings to both buffs and beards. Some skiers look angry while others appear on the verge of tears, and some simply look lost as their eyes roll back in their head, limbs wobbling precariously on a pair of skinny skis. To give you an idea...
Me illustrating the sad hurt face
My former teammate Eric Packer in full attack mode
Izzy Caldwell modeling both anger and drool
Heather Mooney of Middlebury and SMS embracing the drool (FlyingPoint photo)
The finish zone is a gallery of suffering, a place for spectators to view, grimace, and admire the physical manifestations of pain. Athletes push, reach and sometimes supersede their limits, offering an impressive (and at times ugly) show of grit and will power. I have come to appreciate, even envy the pain faces of others, so I was rather surprised last weekend when "the pain face" was not celebrated, but shunned at the finish line.

Last Friday and Saturday, I raced at the UVM College Carnival in Stowe along with SMS junior Katherine Ogden and the trusted support of our coach Pat. We started the weekend with a 5km skate race followed by a 10km mass start classic race. I finished 3rd on Friday, less than 10 seconds behind winner Katherine and looked to improve upon that result on Saturday. Fatigue from the week caught up with me however and I ended the day in 5th. After crossing the finish line and taking a few heavy breaths over my poles, I proceeded to shuffle out of the finish zone, encouraged by eager volunteers waiting to clear the area. Around me, a few girls had sprawled on the snow, their chests heaving up and down in obvious exhaustion. I could hear one female voice badgering some of the women in the finish zone, obviously annoyed by the athletes crowding the area, and yelling "C'mon ladies, let's go, get up, keep moving...(and finally)... the BOYS could stay on their feet why can't the girls?!"

I immediately had two thoughts cross my mind:

One...The boys obviously didn't try hard enough if they could stay on their feet and you, lady, have a rather distorted version of what happens to an athlete, male or female, after giving absolutely everything in a ski race.

And two...Why am I not laying on the ground?!

To be fair, the volunteers at Trapps are wonderful and it is their job to keep the athletes clear of the finish line for both safety and timing purposes. However, the gender bias evident in this particular woman's comment stuck with me. In that instant, she had reinforced the tired narrative of female weakness and inferiority to men. She also managed to do so in a context that actually criticized female athletes for doing exactly what they are supposed to do...find their limit.
The best women in the world laying it all out there at the 2014 Sochi Olympics
And yes, the best men in the world also collapse at the finish line
Gender bias aside, I suddenly wished I was lying in the ground. When I crossed the finish line I had felt no need to collapse. My legs were tired, my lungs hurt, I had raced hard, but had I really reached for that red line? As I looked at the women on the ground around me I realized that perhaps I had something more to give... and that was maybe the most disappointing thing of all.

Gotta make these things grow...and make these things hurt!
I may not fall across the line in every race enter but I do believe it is a goal worth striving for. Much like the pain face, collapsing at the line (and not just for dramatic effect) is something to be both respected and admired, regardless of whether you are a dude or a dudette. With a few months left in the season, each race is a new opportunity to reach for that line and find that limit. When I truly give a race everything I have, to the point where I physically and mentally collapse at the finish line...that will be a success. On to Craftsbury for back-to-back SuperTour weekends this week and lots more racing action to come!
Midweek training on some sweet point-to-point trails at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center
I owe a HUGE thank you to the Craftsbury Green Team for hosting Pat and I last week and also to Caitlin for making me some amazing pretzels!

The Green Team does it right

Also...Happy belated High Pony Day from UVM!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Ode to Host Families

There is this thing that happens in the Nordic ski world that is a little unique, a little strange, and also a little bit wonderful. As "full-time, semi-professional, elite super star athletes" one might think that our travel matches our title. I always imagine professional athletes leading very glamorous lives, traveling from 5-star hotel to 5-star hotel via tour bus and private plane and fans knocking down their doors. Perhaps this is something found in slightly more mainstream sports (i.e. football, basketball, etc.), or far off places like Norway, but in the U.S, we are extremely lucky to have something called the "host family."
I spent the last week in Minneapolis, MN staying at the home of my teammate Anne Hart. We had a great week recovering from Nationals and taking advantage of the awesome skiing at Hyland Park thanks to some impressive snowmaking and grooming. We also soaked up as much sun as we possibly could after the snowy week in Houghton.
After packing up my bags in November, I spend most of my winter on the road traveling to races across the U.S. and Europe. I've had my fair share of nice hotel stays (and an equal share of bad hotel stays...does anyone remember the Viking Lodge? I think it is a pile of bricks somewhere in Midway now). However, I have been lucky enough to spend most of my time on the road in real homes with real people thanks to a network of host families and friends.
Lucky to be staying in my teammate Sophie's room for a little bit!
Being a host family is no easy job. Skiers travel with hundreds of pounds of baggage, both literally and at times figuratively (pre-race stress, post-race tears, race withdrawal syndrome, etc.).
And those are just the ski bags...

Skiers also eat a lot and will proceed to stuff cartons of eggs, orange juice, oatmeal and peanut butter into all available cupboard and fridge space. I am also sure that more than one host family has had to deal with klister on the fridge door handle and clothing that smells less than Oxi-Clean fresh. I am forever grateful to those families, friends, and sometimes strangers who repeatedly agree to let us take over their kitchen and living space for a few days (or sometimes weeks) in exchange for...well nothing really except an invitation to return the favor. Its like couch surfing for skiers! This post is for the host families of past, present, and future..Thank you for all you do to keep us fed, rested, and ready to race while on the road!
Back in Vermont and loving the view!

Ode to Host Families

1. Thank you for home cooked meals. I have the utmost respect for anyone even willing to try cooking for a small army of hungry skiers. Never an easy task, I am always humbled and impressed by the incredible meals host families prepare and share with me and my teammates.
Thank you to the Hart family for a wonderful stay and treating us to some incredible pizza!
2. Thank you for space. Having more than one room to occupy is incredibly liberating.

3. Thank you for pets! Nothing like a snuggle from a cat or dog to brighten your day.
Breakfast with Mac the Cat!

4. Thank you for your stories. We spend nearly every minute of every day with the same people and while I love my teammates, a new story or perspective is extremely energizing. It also keeps us from wanting to bop our teammates on the head for telling that story about their awesome ski trip to Switzerland/Norway/Alaska for the 4th time in a row. You are the peacekeepers and for this we thank you!

5. Thank you for your junk drawer filled with bandaids, rubber bands, and sometimes the keys to an extra car we get to use for the week.

6. Thank you for blankets

7. Thank you for welcoming our wet stinky ski clothes into your home and for kindly offering your washer and dryer for our use. You keep us from becoming immune to our own stank.

8. Thank you for your wide selection of coffee and tea and for understanding that we are addicts and that the kettle will be constantly steaming with hot water during our stay.

9. Thank you for ziplock bags and tinfoil and tupperware. Nothing is better than putting your post race snack in a trio of tupperware containers and securing your apple and PowerBars with a new Ziplock.

10. Thank you for your generosity, your home, your time and your understanding. You help make all of this possible.

These guys are headed to U23s next week along with my teammate Ben! Wishing them the best of luck in Kazakstan! 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Re-Defining Winter

Growing up in Montana, I used to think I knew winter. I had suffered through weeks of sub zero temperatures before they were called polar vortexes. I had weathered multi-day winter storms before the networks gave them names. I could handle myself in snowy weather and when asked, often defended winter as my favorite season. I am a skier so all of this made sense...until last week. On December 30th, I traveled to Houghton, MI with the rest of my SMS T2 compadres for the U.S Cross-Country Championships. It only took 12 days in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to turn my definition of winter upside down.

According to Merriam-Webster:

winter (noun): the coldest season of the year that is after autumn and before spring

According to Erika pre-Houghton experience:

winter (noun): the season of ski racing, warm scarves and mittens, lightly falling snow, and clear cold days filled with brilliant sunshine

New definition:

winter (verb): to freeze, blow, and snow all at the same time and without any sign of stopping
Learning what a real winter looks (and feels) like...ooof
I've experienced this type of winter is small doses before...for a few hours or maybe a day at most..but never for two weeks straight! From the moment we entered Houghton to the day we left the temperatures never rose above the single digits, the windchill always had a negative sign next to it and the visibility ranged from poor to impossible. After a little trial and error I quickly learned that staying warm depended on wearing ALL of my clothes every single say. I also have an entirely new appreciation for those who live and experience this true winter for months at a time.
Getting bundled and taped up for the day became a daily ritual
Once the weather shock wore off (or at least we realized there was no end in site and we were going to have to find a way to get used to it), we turned our attention to the races. The 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships was comprised of four races: a skate 10km individual start, a classic sprint, a 20km classic mass start, and a skate sprint.
Part of being prepared for the races meant learning how to dress...which for me meant wearing all of my Swix layers every single day including my down jacket for warm-ups and an entire Costco size box of toe warmers. 
 I have a history with Houghton, and not all of it positive, but I was determined to make the best of my week in Michigan and set small goals for each day.

Day 1: Start and finish...and I did this! I squeaked into the top 10 and although my goals for this year were far above 10th I was happy to see improvement from the early season races in West Yellowstone and start rebuilding my race confidence.
Snowy sprint qualifier
Day 2: Treat each race and round like an opportunity. Approximately 8 inches of snow fell over the course of 4 hours during the morning of the classic sprint race. During my qualifier, I flailed from start to finish, fighting the blowing snow, skiing like I had a hat covering my eyes, and finishing in 29th place, just barely fast enough to make the sprint rounds.
I actually have no idea who is pictured in this photo but it gives pretty accurate portrait of the conditions during the sprint qualifier.
I had nothing to lose in the heats so each round was simply another chance to learn how to ski in the snowy conditions, to practice sprint racing and to try and get just a little bit better. I felt much more relaxed during the heats...which incidentally seemed to work way better in the snow-filled tracks.
Lining up for the classic sprint heats 
Racing to 3rd place in a fast quarterfinal heat. I moved on to the semi-finals as the lucky loser.
I finished the day in 9th place, something that a few hours earlier had seemed nearly impossible after starting the day in 29th! The race was a good reminder that every round is like a clean slate and a new race.
Goob raced to 4th and her best place at Nationals ever! I was so proud and psyched for her!!!

Giving Rosie B a hug after dominating the classic sprint from start to finish to take her first victory of the week. She goes on to win all of the remaining races at Nationals. 

Ben also had a bomber day racing to 2nd place in the men's race! Here Annie P and I give him a congratulatory hug.
Day 3: Ski relaxed. 
20km Mass Start
Building on my experience in the classic sprint I knew skiing relaxed rather than fighting the snow was my best chance for success. I lost the lead pack early on but skied most of the race with my teammate Annie Hart and we worked our way up the entire time.
Cruising the downhills with Goob.

20km is a lot more fun with a friend

Final push to the finish line....

I finished the race in 11th but the biggest win for the day was finding that I actually had energy to spare, maybe even a little too much energy, and that I finally felt good racing!

Day 4: Fierce, Fearless, and Fearsome. After feeling strong on the classic day I was psyched to test my new found fitness on the skate sprint day. I had my best sprint result, and best U.S. Nationals result ever making the A-Final for the first time and finishing in 6th! I may have been last in the A-Final...but just making it there was a huge accomplishment for me and every round I was learning something new about sprinting and strategy. I also had my teammates there cheering me on which made a huge difference.
Best teamies Tom! (Anne H.'s boyfriend)
As soon as the sprint heats finished the sun came out and just like that we emerged from winter.
Oh happy day!

I owe a huge thank you to Pat and Sverre for all their work testing skis and battling the elements this week to make sure we had some speedy boards for racing.
Planning and prepping
I also want to thank the entire volunteer and U.S. Nationals organizing crew for helping host an awesome and very professional race series. On sprint days some of the volunteers were out there from 8 AM to almost 5 PM and all had a smile on their face despite the whipping wind, blowing snow and freezing temperatures. We all finished the week a little bit tougher, a little bit thicker-skinned, and yes, a little bit more frost-bitten. However,  I also came out a lot more confident in my ability to handle almost any sort of winter racing conditions. I am excited to see what the rest of the year throws at us... but for now some extra rest and a hot chocolate :)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Butter is the New Kale

Christmas Morning Pecan Sticky Bun Cinnamon Rolls
Butter is everywhere these days and not simply because it is December and the the number of cookies and pies has tripled in the last 27 days. Butter for cooking, butter for baking, body butter, even butter in coffee (yes, its a thing)...Some might even say butter is the new kale*...or at least thats what I kept telling myself as I took down cinnamon roll number 3 on Christmas morning. I will be the first to admit that perhaps cinnamon rolls 4 and 5 (and a half) were a bit over the top but there is something to be said for trading in the kale salad every once in a while for something a bit richer. 

Home sweet home
My last few weeks have been more butter-filled than usual. After a slow start to the season a little extra rest was in order. I spent an easy week at home in Bozeman and then headed to Vermont to celebrate an early Christmas with Andy. I called it my "non-training" training week. I still skied every day, went to the gym for strength, even jumped in some Eastern Cup races, but the focus was different. I tried to give myself a mental break and just enjoy the extra time with family and friends, the butter if you will. 
A sweet and snowy breakfast courtesy of Maine and Andy Newell
Andy and I spent three days in a snow globe after traveling to his parent's cabin in Rangely, Maine. We indulged in all forms of winter holiday merriment including snowman building, hot cocoa drinking, snowshoeing, holiday music singing, and some skiing on snow-filled trails. 
The Newell Ski Cabin
Christmas Caroling
Some of the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen!
Enjoying the piles of fluffy snow
After a mini vacation we headed to Middlebury, Vermont to race the Eastern Cup openers at the Rikert Nordic Center. The top three in each race were awarded Vermont maple syrup so I had plenty of motivation to try and ski onto the podium. Similar to butter, a little extra sugar is rarely never a bad thing. I finished 3rd on day one, a classic 5km, and 2nd on day two, a skate 10km mass start. Around 140 girls started the mass start skate race which made for a rather crazy, crash-filled and exciting start. I spent much of the race chasing down SMS junior Katharine and although I couldn't quite catch her, I was excited to find some of those good race feelings again...and another bottle of syrup definitely sweetened the pot.
Sunday's podium showing off our race goodies

Andy cruising to victory in the men's 10km on Saturday

The beautiful Marston home..thank you for hosting us!
After saying goodbye to Andy, I returned to Montana for a family Christmas. I have spent the last few days in heaven between the butter-filled cinnamon rolls and buttery powder conditions. Although I know I will probably start eating kale again soon, the holidays are a good reminder that a little extra butter can be a good thing and sometimes, just the right thing. 
Nothin' like a little extra butta' to turn things around
My last few days at home included hitting the alpine slopes with my dad and sister, a few more adventure skis, and jumping into the Annual BSF Bozeman Creek Hill Climb! I always enjoy toeing the line with some of my long-time rivals and BSF master skiers and had an epic battle with one of the junior boys that came down to a sprint finish. I have a few more tune-up workouts before the start of U.S. Nationals and am looking forward to finding more of those good race feelings. But even if they don't come...cinnamon rolls will always be there :)

Trading skinny skis for something a little fatter
Papa Flow and I doing our best to show off some downhill steez
Midwinter sunset over the garden at home 
Nordic adventures with the family at Bohart
Christmas day ski perfection

Butter buddy
Snowglobe skiing
Happy Holidays!

*Thanks to Holly Hart for coining the title of this blog wise.