Wild Rumpus Sports
 

The Sun Always Shines in SoHo

When I first heard U.S. nationals were going to be in Soldier Hollow, I was flat-out jazzed. Yes, that’s the word I was looking for.

One of six laps in the men’s 30 k classic mass start at U.S. Cross Country Championships on Jan. 6 at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah.

Images of a brightly lit landscape under a bluebird sky and sun reflecting off seemingly endless kilometers of snow fluttered through my mind.

I had been to the cross-country ski resort made famous by the 2002 Olympics once before at Junior Nationals last March. Even though that involved long days standing alongside trails watching one age group after another ski by, it was a lot of fun. I got a sunburn on my face, under my nose and over my ankles (don’t ask), but who’s gonna complain about that? If you come home with a tan from work trip, it’s a good thing.

Nationals would probably be different. For one, they were in January, but I figured the weather would still be awesome then. This was Utah for goodness sakes, one of the first states I visited upon resolving to move to out West after college (don’t ask why I live in eastern New York now).

Brimming with excitement for my upcoming trip, I returned home from the World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, to dire forecasts for the Park City-region. Soldier Hollow was hurting for snow, and organizers were being up front about it. Nationals weren’t in question, but the size of the loop racers would ski on was.

Oh boy, I thought. One beautiful venue and Mother Nature’s going to let it go to waste. Then it snowed in upstate New York, feet upon feet, and last year’s U.S. nationals host – Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine – got perhaps the most snow of anybody in the region.

Funny, I thought. But not really.

It seemed the curse of nationals, with low snow challenging organizers the past couple years, had spread west. I tried not to think about it too much and spent the in-limbo time enjoying the snow in my own backyard and at local ski areas.

Then the news came, and I checked the online to confirm: Utah was also getting snow, and a foot or more of it.

Mountains of manmade snow at Soldier Hollow

Suddenly, I started feeling excited all over again, and asked my personal wax tech (a.k.a. my dad) if he had time to wax my skis before I left. The man did great work and within a few days I found myself happily cruising up and down the SoHo trails. The altitude bit me a bit at nearly 6,000 feet, but staying up in the nearby Park City (at almost 7,000 feet), I joked that we were living high, training low.

Except that my “training” skis were really just baseline, let’s-see-if-I-can-get-in-shape-again jaunts. Either way, toward the end of the 10-day trip, I started to feel better, last longer and explore higher reaches of Soldier Hollow’s 30-plus-kilometer trail system.

While trails like “Little Buckaroo” and “Goin’ Home” keep you coming back for more, one of my favorites turned out to be one of the most challenging: Roller Coaster. (Note: I HATE hills.)

It must’ve been SoHo’s lack of oxygen that made me feel giddy, or the sheer endorphin rush of the largely treeless landscape with tiny shrubs dotting the hillsides. The rollercoaster trail kept climbing, then descending, then shooting up higher toward the top of Hollow’s encompassing range.

The view from up top at Soldier Hollow.

At the high point, I could’ve taken off my skis and walked to the very top, but I decided I was close enough with a similarly unrivaled view of the entire ski area. I stopped, snapped a few photos and weaved back down to the stadium and media workspace inside a charter school (kids were on break, so we used their classrooms and desks for the week).

Pre-race and off-day skis like that were certainly a bonus and exactly what I had been hoping for in my visit to Soldier Hollow. But overall, they were a small part of the highlights: seeing both race favorites and underdogs win and athletes start to believe in themselves continually added to the experience. We covered adaptive races, heard some inspiring background stories, and watched one man finish a 15 k sit ski on two broken skis.

Meeting and interviewing different people, as always, kept the work fun and fresh. It didn’t hurt that the sun was out, either, and just as I wanted, I came home with a tan (on my face, or maybe it was windburn. Either way, it was color).

Peeking past a mound of manmade snow at Soldier Hollow for a glimpse of the nordic center’s day lodge.

Soldier Hollow’s “solid”

Quebec/Canmore: That Was Cool.

(Sorry about the delay with this, we had a slight issue with our blogs… More recent update on Soldier Hollow coming up!)

The manmade sprint course in downtown Quebec City directly in front of the Parliament building. For the first time, the city hosted a cross-country World Cup, with team and individual skate sprints Dec. 7-8.

There’s something about arriving somewhere new in darkness that I love. It’s not that night that I care about, it’s the next day – waking up to new sights, landscapes, and if you’re lucky, places to explore.

Quebec City was just like that. Even if you’ve been to a certain place before, as I had with Quebec’s capital, it’s exciting to go back a second time, especially during a different time of year. I got my first taste of the French-speaking province in March at Canadian Ski Nationals. Organizers were able to pull off one race downtown, a team sprint, on the Plains of Abraham. That’s where the Quebec World Cup was originally supposed to be, and the organizing committee wanted to use nationals as a test event.

Melting snow in balmy temperatures forced the remaining races north to Mont Sainte Anne, where a 5 k loop at the nordic centre held up pretty nicely. The event turned out to be a success; it wasn’t on the Plains, but it worked. Organizers reconsidered their site and decided to move the World Cup sprints in front of Quebec’s Parliament building. They’d probably need manmade snow in early December, but they’d make it work. That kind of ambition piqued my interest.

So when I woke up Thursday morning, the day before the Friday-Saturday World Cup races, I couldn’t wait to see what the course looked like. They had laid most of the 850-meter loop out the weekend before, mostly on the grounds in front of Quebec’s governing house, but partially on a main street that was eventually closed to traffic. Sure, this might be expected for a city sprint, but not every city would give the go-ahead like this. Quebec was different.

The final product did not disappoint. The snow was hard-packed and pristine on Thursday, perfect for training conditions. One would’ve been hard-pressed to find snow anywhere else south of the city, but Quebec made it happen … in 10 days. As I skied about one hundred times around the loop (OK it was more like 10 times), I couldn’t get over how cool it was. The course practically banked against the walls surrounding Old Quebec, and with a series of sharp corners, it wove in and around the Parliament grounds.

This was also the first time I had been to a World Cup. The closest thing I could compare it to was my experience at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, but that was summer and China. This was cross-country skiing in Quebec. Both were pretty epic.

As I rounded the course for the eighth time, letting my mind wander and technique flop, I took note of the skiers around me – mostly racers. The good ones even had their names on their bibs. “Oh boy,” I thought, “Better get outta the way for that one… or that one! Yikes, they’re all over the place.”

Skiers training/testing on the World Cup sprint course in Quebec City on Thursday, Dec. 6.

Suddenly, I heard someone whoosh up behind me. “FASTERSKIERRR!” exclaimed Erik Flora, Alaska Pacific University’s head coach. Neither fast nor looking like a good skier, I quickly moved over and smiled. He was literally doing 100 laps testing skis.

Once I had gotten my fill and substantial feel of the course, I stepped out of the skis and took the bordering sidewalk back to the Hilton hotel on the course’s edge. That also struck me. Where else can you walk right out your door to ski? Well, probably a lot of nordic wonderlands, like Scandinavia and whatnot, but Quebec City? This place had won me over.

Of course, the races themselves were the highlight with thousands of screaming spectators hanging on barriers all the way around the course, waving a medley of Canadian and American flags. The most memorable moment came when Kikkan Randall won her second-straight race in Quebec – the individual sprint – and picked up a large American flag at the finish. Holding it high above her, she skied backwards down the finishing straight with Norwegian runner-up and third-place finisher from Sweden behind her. Randall looked to her fans along the fence line, many of which rode up from New England in buses. Several spectators had flown there from all over the continent – including Randall’s native Alaska – to watch the international event. Locals spoke French, but most everybody cheered; Randall’s success was North America’s.

When you’re a North American ski reporter, it doesn’t get much better than that. I left Quebec with a huge sense of fulfillment. If I never saw another ski race that cool again, it would be OK. At the same time, I didn’t want to come down off that high. Lucky for me, I had a two-day turnover before flying to Canmore, Alberta.

Standing on the fortress walls overlooking Quebec City on Dec. 6, the day before the city hosted its first cross-country World Cup on a downtown sprint course.

Standing on the fortress overlooking Quebec City on Dec. 9, with some natural snow blanketing the ground near the sprint course.

 

Part II: Canmore

I asked my coworkers while squished in the middle of the backseat during a six-hour car ride home from Quebec (with one beside me eating fast-food poutine), what’s your all-time favorite ski venue? “Canmore,” they all responded. There were a few additions and honorable mentions, with so many beautiful and exciting places in the world, how can you fit them all in? But Canmore, they agreed, was pretty darn unrivaled.

I couldn’t wait. It had been my dream to visit this ski/mountaineering town just west of Calgary since I first heard about it. The Canadian National Ski Team is based there along with several top domestic squads. Mountains supposedly sprang right up from the town, and I had seen pictures so I knew it wasn’t bull. But come on, I had seen high peaks before, impressive mountain ranges and snow-covered ridges.

World Cup spectators line the skiathlon course at the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park on Dec. 16 in Canmore, Alberta.

But not like Canmore, I thought as I slowly glanced around the following Thursday morning. Anywhere you go in the town, whether on Main Street or up at the nordic centre, there’s an unobstructed 360-degree view that stirs up a very profound appreciation of nature. Not to get all gushy, but it’s that powerful.

At this point, you might think I see the world through slightly rose-colored glasses. (Meet me and you’ll understand why that’s funny.) But seriously, when you go from running along the top of Quebec’s old fortress for a practically aerial view of the city to skiing some of the best-groomed trails in the world (ask anyone) to alpine fields with a gigantic range behind them, it’s hard not to be positive. I call it like I see it, and during my first ski at the Canmore Nordic Centre, I saw several mule deer hanging out on the trail in front of me.

When the races started on Friday, it was back to that same high-energy feeling. “I am feeling very Olympic today,” I thought, quoting my favorite Disney film, Cool Runnings, which was about the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

(I first remembered the movie when I arrived at the Calgary airport. “It’s not so much the heat, it’s the humidity that’ll kill you,” coach Irv Blitzer said as he led his Jamaican team out of the airport into the blustery cold. We passed the famous bobsled run and ski jumps on our way to Calgary. So cool.)

Watching the sun rise on my last day in Canmore, Alberta.

As the races played out, I realized they should have the Olympics here. The course was incredibly tough, putting athletes to the test in all disciplines. Conditions were solid and straightforward, which essentially evened the playing field. Racers from several different nations spoke of their affection to Canmore – it was hard, but beautiful.

Race organizers were experienced with three World Cups under their belt since 2005. This year marked the fourth and in 2016, they have another one scheduled in February (and likely again in December 2018), according to chief of competition Mike Norton.

Leaving the nordic centre and Bill Warren Training Centre, where Canada’s top skiers are based, I hoped to return soon. Quebec’s also on the World Cup schedule for February 2016 and is aiming for more races on a shorter rotation after that, so the sense is that the World Cup could more regularly stop in North America in the future.

Sometimes, the most impressive sights are in your own backyard – or the opposite end of your continent – not necessarily across the pond. As someone who loves to travel overseas, that’s important to keep in mind.

Up Close and Personal at the Birkie (with Video)

My feet placed firmly on the floor where the center console should have been, I braced myself for any bumps in the snowy road ahead.

At 5-foot-8, girls my size are too big to sit on a box in the middle of an Astrovan, but I was lucky to be there and had no complaints whatsoever. Andy Gerlach graciously let me tag along with the Salomon support team on Feb. 25 as they chased eight racers throughout the 2012 American Birkebeiner.

That meant I could squeeze in a van loaded with skis, energy gels and water bottles and listen to Gerlach and the Birkie radio announcers narrate the 50 k race. What a great way to cover it.

Hinging my head forward to avoid hitting the ceiling, I chatted with Gerlach in the driver’s seat and his passenger, Salomon Nordic Brand Manager Alex Haas. Once the man behind the Subaru Factory Team, Gerlach was back for his 18th Birkie. He took two years off, but caught the bug once more and was back.

Haas was in Wisconsin for his first Birkie. He had come all the way from France along with Salomon’s designer to see what this race, the largest nordic event in North America, was all about. Salomon sent nine service people to the race, including U.S. nordic product manager Isaac Wilson and Zach Caldwell, the guru of stone grinding.

And here I was, bouncing around the back roads near the Birkie trail with them. I had been told we’d have to run on some snowmobile trails to get to the feed spots, my vantage points.  I planned accordingly, wearing a pair of tennis-shoe-like kicks that were paper thin.

Tad Elliott of the U.S. Ski Team with the support of Salomon leading the pack by a long shot at 44 k at the 2012 American Birkebeiner. Elliott went on to win the 50 k.

One spectator even made fun of me out on the course. I’ll be better prepared next year, I thought. Meanwhile, I pretended they were warm, and when the packs of racers whizzed by, I forgot about my frozen toes.

I was like a kid on Christmas, but this was better than the excitement one feels that December morning. I hadn’t been to the Birkie in 10 years, and 10 years ago, I was an adolescent newbie on the scene.

Back then, I skied the 23 k Kortelopet and didn’t see any elite racers until I hopped on a bus and rode down to the Birkie finish in Hayward. And I don’t really remember what I saw, except Main Street brimming with groomed snow, lots of spectators, and finally, my mom struggling to stand up at the finish.

Now I was taking in every sight, smell, sound.

“Pole, pole, pole, POLE!”

The cry for help intensified as the chase group entered an open field and skated toward the Salomon guys around 44 k.

2012 American Birkebeiner 50 k skate podium (from left to right): Matt Liebsch, Caitlin Gregg in 2nd; Tad Elliott, Holly Brooks in 1st; Brian Gregg, Jennie Bender in 3rd

Liebsch had been using a some kind of touring pole for the last five kilometers; his former Central Cross Country (CXC) teammate, Santi Ocariz was still trying to give him his. The Team Strong Heart/Team Birkie skier refused at first, but accepted when he realized a replacement wasn’t waiting for him with 6 k to go.

Liebsch ditched the heavy pole he picked up after breaking his, and Ocariz handed his over. Both yelled for a pole. Once Salomon figured out who needed it, they ran it to Ocariz (CXC) and he continued behind the group.

After the race, Ocariz said he didn’t need the pole as much as Liebsch did. He knew Liebsch had a shot at the podium, and Ocariz was OK with finishing a few spots back.

“What’s the difference if I’m eighth or 14th? He had the chance to win,” Ocariz said after placing 11th.

Sometimes, acts like those go unnoticed. That probably didn’t matter to Ocariz and his wife, Carolyn (the women’s 54 k classic Birkie winner), who will start rollerskiing across the country in early March to raise money for those starving in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, most every man in that chase group had something nice to say about Santi after the race. At the end of the day, he was a human rather a competitor.  He had grit, he had endurance, but he saw the big picture.

As the top elites and citizen finishers looked up at the banner stretching high above the finish in downtown Hayward, many of them wore similar expressions. They were either ecstatic or exhausted. Either way, I’m guessing they were thrilled to be done.

After the Birkie and the next morning at Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wis., I’ve never seen so many athletes high on endorphins. They were still happy, giddy even, and it was contagious.

I don’t even remember when my feet thawed out. It didn’t matter.

“Birkie Fever” is overused, but it’s appropriate. Glad I caught it. I’ll be back.

Note: This blog has been corrected to reflect that I apparently never met Matt Liebsch’s dad and it was someone else that ragged on my shoes. Too bad.

Mark Walters of Bemidji, Minn., a member of the Birchleggings Club for completing at least 20 American Birkebeiner ski races celebrates finishing the 54 k skate on Saturday, Feb. 25. (Photo by Darlene Prois)

The Weather’s Great in Wisconsin

Parked at the world-famous “OO” trailhead about halfway on the Birkie trail, I stood outside my little Nissan Versa rental trying to figure out what to wear after sitting in the car for more than five hours on Monday.

I turned around to a man who looked like he was in his 80s and was carrying his waxless skis in crisscross fashion. He stopped at his vehicle next to mine.

American Birkebeiner warming hut at "OO" halfway on the 51 k Birkie trail on Monday afternoon.

“Is it going to snow?” he abruptly asked me with a Scandinavian accent.

I thought he said, “It’s gorgeous, no?” then put his words in context. It didn’t make sense why I would know with my Minnesota plates; I didn’t look like a weatherperson. Heck, I didn’t even look like a skier in my yoga pants and scarf.

But the old man asked anyway, and I told him I heard something about an inch or two on Monday night. Suddenly, I was glad my iPhone didn’t work with the car’s stereo and left me with nothing but local radio for my entire drive north from Madison to Seeley, Wisconsin.

“We need it,” he said.

The Birkie trail south of "OO" on Monday, less than a week before the 39th American Birkebeiner on Feb. 25.

Looking around at the snow-covered woods, I could already tell the conditions were better than most everything I skied this season. I changed the subject and asked him if he had a good ski.

“Yes, a few hours,” he said.

I’d say that’s good, I responded. He wanted to do 40 kilometers, but retracted his plan in preparation for the Birkie.

“I don’t want to burn out,” he said.

An 80-year-old man worried about burning out. I held back my giggles and watched as he quickly loaded his Lincoln town car and drove away.

That was my first taste of Birkie fever and the angst, dedication and buildup that surrounds the 51 k event. I got another more relaxed perspective from a family of four out on the trail.

Two Midwestern-born sisters in their 20s were getting ready for their first Birkie. Their dad and brother would be at kilometer 39 hooting, hollering and cheering them on.

It’s a big party, the father said. We listen to Motown and dance.

I turned around near the 29 k mark on the skate trail, meandering back north to the parking lot before dusk. It was firm, but not too icy, especially on the lesser-traveled parts of the extremely wide trail. Yes, more snow would help, but this was pretty awesome. Tracks were sold and the conditions were fast – just the way I like it. I zoomed back to the parking lot and packed up, taking a few photos before I left.

One woman said I should take a picture of the clouds in the distance and hope they were snow clouds. What am I now, some kind of superhero with the power to summon precipitation? These people are funny, I thought.

 

The SuperTour

I figured the comments were linked to their excitement. Everyone wants the 39th American Birkebeiner to be perfect. That meant great snow, ideal conditions and reasonable temperatures on race day.

Looking out across Lake Monona at downtown Madison on Feb. 19.

Although days are rarely perfect, I would argue Wisconsin has recently had some of the best weather of the year, if you like plenty of sunshine and mild temperatures.

While in Madison covering the SuperTour sprints last weekend, I was able to stand around and enjoy the races in 30-degree temperatures – and get a tan while I was at it.

My gracious hosts, Don Becker and his fiancé Heidi, lived about a mile and a half from downtown so I was able to walk along Lake Monona to the state capital both Saturday and Sunday.

Not a bad commute, I thought as I looked out at the ice fishermen around dawn and some recreational hockey players skating before dusk.

Work itself was fun with back-to-back sprints Saturday and Sunday on a 1-kilometer loop around Capitol Square. The Central Cross Country Ski Association (CXC) as the SuperTour host coordinated with the city to create and stockpile snow at a nearby energy plant. At 6 p.m. Friday, they shut down the square and dumped it on the streets.

Wisconsin's capital building in Madison surrounded by a 1 k cross-country ski loop for the SuperTour sprints Feb. 18-19.

From my understanding, the whole process of unloading about 90 dump trucks and spreading the snow with a single Bobcat bulldozer took more than five hours.

I was there until about 10 p.m., and race director Yuriy Gusev was still zipping around in his John Deer Gator to make sure everything went down according to plan. Later that night, they used a PistenBully to groom the track.

Click here for more photos.

It looked great Saturday morning with four meticulously set tracks for the classic sprint. And while the SuperTour races were the first events of each day, they were only a part of Madison’s eighth annual Winter Festival.

Up on the backside of the hill, skiers and snowboarders competed in a rail jam. Organizers had built a ramp and lifted snow onto it to create a steep enough slope. On the square, junior and high school races also used the cross-country course, along with disabled sit skiers. On Sunday, a fleet of rental skis and boots was available for anyone to rent and ski a few loops.

The all-CXC women's freestyle sprint podium at the Madison SuperTour on Feb. 19 with Wisconsin's capital building in the background.

Working inside a coffee shop overlooking the capital, I watched as some people came by lap after lap. Unlike the newbies on skis, they looked more focused, like they had something on their minds.

Must be the Birkie.

 

Fever in the Twin Cities

Before Madison, I flew into Minneapolis and spent an afternoon and evening in Saint Paul. I stayed with family friends, including Jay Tegeder, who is embarking on his 26th Birkie. Already a Birchlegger, someone who completes 20 American Birkebeiners, Jay said he might as well go for 30. Maybe they’d have a new club by then.

Jay is about my dad’s age, in his early 50s, and loves the Birkie. I knew this before I stayed with him and his wife, Kathleen, but I didn’t understand how serious he was about it until then.

He’s in Wave 1, right behind the elites. Enough said.

A former top-notch racer, Jay would rather be in Wave 2 so he could pass others more than be passed, he said. But he didn’t seem too concerned about it.

A few hours after my plane ride in from Albany, N.Y., Jay took me to Green Acres, a little nordic and tubing facility east of Minneapolis. There, we skied a 3 k loop around a farm and on a frozen pond, and while it was in an open field on a 40-degree day, the snow and crust skiing was great.

The nordic trails at Green Acres Recreation near Minneapolis on Feb. 16.

According to Jay, the owners were farmers, not skiers. They apparently knew how to please the nordic community with snowmaking capabilities and some variable terrain (including one honker hill). On a Thursday afternoon, a manure spreader ejected snow out onto the course and rolled along to fill in the thin spots. There were about five people skiing, but it didn’t matter. They made keeping up the trails a priority.

The big hill at Green Acres

Coming from the East, where you might drive an hour to a nordic center to find that they haven’t updated the website and didn’t groom or aren’t open at all, I was impressed. Tubing was probably the moneymaker of the operation, with plenty of kids zooming down the large hill on a school day (must be worth skipping class for!), but having somewhere to ski close to the city was important, too.

Most years, people in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have plenty of options for pre-Birkie training with several golf courses allowing skiers to putz around for free. This year, they were lucky to have places like Green Acres.

As we zipped around the loop with Jay’s friend, John Wyland, we enjoyed the sunshine and chatted. Wyland, who was also doing the Birkie, was particularly inspirational. After having shoulder surgery last spring, he essentially skate skied with one arm, yet was committed to his training.

We spent some time on an upper flat loop – too long for John. He wanted some hills. And so we dropped down and did some hills, and the two told me their different approaches to racing the Birkie. Jay would try to attack the last half like he always did, and John would aim to survive. I gave them both a lot of credit.

Throughout our 1 ½ hour jaunt, we ran into a few skiers, most of which Jay and John knew.

“Are you doing the Birkie?” Jay would ask.

It almost wasn’t a question. In the Midwest, if you’re skiing, doing the Birkie is pretty much a given. It seemed that unless you were sick as a dog or had some other unforeseen circumstance, you would do pull yourself together and ski 51 k.

I’m not sure I could handle the pressure. Then again, if you live in the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota or Wisconsin, maybe it’s just a way of life, something you don’t think twice about. Maybe that’s what the fever is.

Jay Tegeder (l) and John Wyland (r) at the top of the tubing hill at Green Acres in Lake Elmo, Minn.

First Time in Rumford

Rumford

Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine, site of the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships

I had heard a lot about Rumford.

Born in Littleton, one of New Hampshire’s northern “cities,” I spent my early days on skis at Bretton Woods, where my dad was the nordic center director. But that was about as far east in the state as I remember venturing, except for the occasional visit to Mount Washington.

From the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, Rumford was still an hour an a half away. It was in Maine for crying out loud. When would I have ever gone there?

As a kid, that’s how I saw it. For the first nine years of my life, I grew up singing UNH rally songs with my grandfather and just assumed the Granite State was superior to the 49 others in this country. While I couldn’t know for sure, I was pretty confident were were better than Vermont, the upside-down version of New Hampshire.

But I haven’t given Maine much thought. The coast was nice, cold, but fun, with good lobster rolls. The interior had flannel-wearing men’s men with beers in hand as soon as the workday was over — or during their shift if they could get away with it.

That said, I grew up around a similar crowd. The accents were just thicker in Maine. People were nice, winters were cold, and locals would call you stupid if you drove anywhere without snow tires or four-wheel drive.

At least we were adequately prepared with the latter while driving to Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, for the Eastern high school championships nearly 10 years ago. I was an underclassmen, my dad was the chauffeur and a few friends from nearby schools were the passengers. By this point, the family and I had relocated to Queensbury, N.Y., and I went on to graduate from Lake George High School.

But back as a sophomore, I just remember passing Mexico, Maine. Funny, I thought. Rumford was a passing glance, a paper mill town in the middle of no where. I mean, it was somewhere. Next to Mexico.

***

Fast-forward to December 31, 2011: I was going to ring in the New Year in Rumford. I embarked on the five-hour drive from upstate New York to the site of the U.S. Cross Country Championships alone and without much in the expectations department. Several people told me to count on it being freezing. Toss out the forecast and just bundle up.

So I did. In an attempt to refine my packing skills (I’m usually pretty excessive), I brought with me only outdoorsy necessities. I wasn’t going to Rumford to impress anyone with my ever-changing wardrobe, I just needed to stay warm through seven days of races Jan. 2-8.

Rumford

The lodge at Black Mountain

***

After a scoping out the venue and course at Black Mountain with my co-worker, Audrey Mangan, who had raced there before, we drove back into town to figure out where we were supposed to spend the night. We had the address of a house on a backstreet of Rumford and instructions to get a key from the neighbor. Which neighbor? Not a clue.

When we pulled up the ice-covered driveway to a friend-of-a-friend’s house, Audrey made the executive decision that there was only one neighbor to go to: the closest one. Still in ski boots, she shuffled across the ice, which covered the neighbor’s yard as well. I stood in neutral territory between the homes in complete darkness while Audrey knocked at the front door. The welcome she received wasn’t exactly what either of us had expected.

Audrey on the neighbor's stoop on New Year's Eve. What a way to ring in the New Year. Thankfully, they let eventually let us in to get warm.

In the neighbor’s defense, it was New Year’s Eve, and we did look like a couple of hoodlums in our matching black Bjorn-Daehlie “uniforms,” which were really just FasterSkier-labeled ski clothes labeled we happened to wear the same day. (Our matching clothing turned out to be an inadvertent theme of the week).

So the neighbor wasn’t too happy with us. She had no idea we were coming; somewhere along the line, communication took a nose dive. And she wasn’t about to let just anyone into her neighbor’s vacant house.

Before I could ask what she said, the woman shut the door. Audrey remained on the stoop, patiently waiting for her to return.

After a few phone calls and some convincing that we had permission from the friend of the friend who owned the house, they let us in. For two nights, including New Year’s, we stayed in the home, which apparently hadn’t been lived in since at least the summer, according to the expiration date on a block of cheese in the fridge.

There was no internet or a shower curtain and the place had little furniture, but it was all we needed to start the week. It gave me a chance to make a trip to the local McDonald’s for Wi-Fi at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning after a wild New Year’s. (Actually, New Year’s Eve was memorable. Audrey and I ate dinner at two-time Olympian Chummy Broomhall’s house and had some nice conversations with the 92-year-old living legend.)

Chummy Broomhall (1948, '52 Olympian, born in Mexico, Maine, and a member of the Chisholm Ski Club since the 1930's. He donated the land where several cross-country nationals have taken place at Black Mountain of Maine).

***

A day before the races were scheduled to kick off, I realized I had packed entirely wrong. Up at the mountain on Sunday, coaches and athletes attempted to test skis on a sunny 45-degree afternoon that reminded many of spring skiing.

Regardless of what time of year it was, the conditions made for happy skiers. Wearing sunglasses and smiles, hundreds zipped around the 1.4 and 1.6 k sprint loops. One person even donned a sleeveless T-shirt.

2012 U.S. Nationals

New Year's Day at Black Mountain

***

Around 6 a.m. Monday morning, as I mentally prepared for the first day of races in the curtain-less shower (sharing my concentration with keeping the water contained), I heard a knock on the bathroom door. Matt Voisin, one of two bossmen at FasterSkier, was on the other side.

“No races today!” he shouted. He had just received the message from the race organizers at Black Mountain that overnight rain had saturated the manmade course.

Surprisingly, the artificial base held up. There were a few thin spots on the course, but organizers were confident they could blow snow and groom as needed to get the races going on Tuesday. They also had stockpiled snow, which could be shoveled onto the course, but it had to dry out.

Sitting in the museum-turned-media center at the Black Mountain alpine lodge, the four members of the FasterSkier crew watched as the overcast morning took a strange turn. Around 10 a.m., it was snowing, yet the temperatures remained above freezing. Then the clouds lifted to reveal blue sky.

“If you don’t like the weather in Rumford, wait a minute,” said one woman, who was knitting by the window.

She smiled.

Her words became the catchphrase of the week, as Tuesday revealed cooler temperatures and adequate conditions for snowmaking and races. The adjusted schedule continued as planned, and even on the coldest day (Wednesday), adaptive skiers toughed out single-digit temperatures to race.

I went for a run that day. I hoped that maybe a few minutes after I started, the weather would suddenly shift and I’d have to shed layers on the side of the road. It didn’t.

Fortunately, all the extra clothing forced me to regroup on the side of the road, tucking in as needed. There, I took a photo of this sign, which was one of many things that made me smile in Rumford.

Missing turtle, I mean, tortoise in Greenwood. I was hoping I wouldn't stumble over him/her!

Here are a few of the others:

 

The sauna at our first house in Rumford. No joke.

Rumford  

The vampire kit at our first place in Rumford

Rumford

Audrey's mom filling in as our photographer and doing a great job!

The second place we stayed: a four-building rental in Greenwood, Maine, with a game room, caboose sleeper cabin and lakeside shack (not shown)

The caboose at our rental in Greenwood

Rumford, media

Our fashionable and flattering green bibs

adaptive nordic sit-ski

Watching Matt try the adaptive sit ski with the help of NENSA Adaptive Program Director Eileen Carey. He wiped out on a downhill.

Rumford

Watching the sun rise at Black Mountain