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Hochfilzen: U.S. Gold and the Best Skiing of My Winter

I’ve been in Hochfilzen, Austria, for a bit over week now, and dang, it has been AWESOME!

I spent all my mornings in the first week skiing, including one great 40 k day on classic skis:

The last time I was here, in 2013, it was one of those bad winters the Alps have had recently. I showed up with some brand new Fischer skate skis that I was dying to test out. I did test them out, but barely any of the ski trails were open and I ended up hitting some rocks that were poking through. After just a few days in Hochfilzen, my skis were no longer pristine (and I felt pretty stupid – although luckily the scratches weren’t too bad and those are still my favorite race skis).

This winter could not be more different. There is tons of snow, thanks in part to good grooming. It has been warm and some of the south-facing slopes have melted down to brown hillside. But where the trails were packed, it’s no problem. Pillerseetal, as this region is referred to, advertises 100 kilometers of ski trails. I’ve checked out a lot of them. The trails connect different villages, each with their own little flavor, and it has been a blast to explore around.

I’ve had some great skiing in Switzerland this year, but only being able to ski on the weekends is tough. To have this whole week to literally ski my brains out, I’m in heaven. Before I left on this trip I had reached a big milestone in my PhD, submitting the first chapter from my dissertation to a journal. Being able to take a mental break after that was perfect.

(Of course, while I was here, I heard back that the paper was rejected and I had to reformat and rewrite bits and submit it somewhere else but… that’s academia. Get used to failure.)

While I have definitely been taking some recharge time, I’m also here for biathlon World Championships. (And in fact, that’s why I’m in Hochfilzen instead of somewhere else – thanks, biathlon, for bringing me to this place I have totally fallen in love with!) The weather was sunny until Friday, which meant that watching the races from behind the shooting range was a real treat:

The races have also been great. A highlight was seeing Lowell Bailey win the 20 k individual, the first World Championships gold ever to an American biathlete. I’m really proud of the story I wrote about that; I think it might be the best race story I’ve ever written.

It was fun, and funny, to be an American journalist on that day. Often, I’m the only one in the mixed zone who wants to talk to the Canadian or American athletes. There are a few exceptions – Lowell has been doing more interviews because he is doing really well this season and also his work on anti-doping issues has raised his profile. Tim Burke and Susan Dunklee get some attention from the foreign press and anyone who does well on a given day might get one or two questions. But mostly it’s me.

On the day Lowell won: not so much. Every single television crew wanted an interview. He took longer to go through the mixed zone than any athlete of the entire Championships so far, I think. The media coordinator actually pulled him before the last TV crew could get an interview, and sent him to the press conference. Then, he had to take photos with his medal, before popping back to take more questions. Because television always gets first priority over written press, I didn’t get to talk to him until more than an hour after he finished – even though I was basically the only home-country press on site! By then, I was getting pretty hangry, so I have no idea how Lowell held it together through the whirlwind. Although I’m sure he just wanted to have some quiet time, it was really cool to see how much interest there was in American biathlon, all of a sudden.

Here’s Lowell answering questions from Norway’s TV2, while a journalist from France’s L’Equipe looks on:

All the races have been fun to watch, though. When the race is over every day, it is sort of a bummer to have to leave the beautiful weather to go inside to do the writing. At least the press center has some good windows, that’s not always the case.

Recently the weather turned, with a big snowstorm rolling through during the women’s relay. The coaches looking through scopes on the shooting range put up little umbrellas to shield their expensive scopes and the whiteboards they use to track where shots go. Photographers were wearing ponchos and fashioning protection for their telephoto lenses out of basically anything they could find. Personally, I wished that I had a hard-shell jacket… but luckily it was still warm, so a raincoat would do.

My time here is almost over, and soon it will be back to work on science stuff. I can’t say that there has been any day here that I have taken completely off from my PhD, but it has still been a nice break. It has also given me time to catch up with Susan Dunklee, who has been one of my closest friends for ten years regardless of the fact that we occasionally have a reporter-athlete relationship! It was Susan’s birthday earlier this week. She organized a little pizza party for herself using an outdoor grill made by one of her sponsors, and then her coach Jonne organized a second little party too.

And, I’m feeling better and better about my skiing. I’m way more fit and strong than I was last season, and I’m looking forward to hopping in some races again, maybe as soon as next weekend.

Strides

In the beginning, I really loved classic skiing, much more than skating. I didn’t learn how to cross-country ski in a competitive sense until high school, and for the longest time skating was so hard: sure, I was fit, and I succeeded at it the way every high school runner-crossover does in the beginning. But even through college the idea of doing a 2-hour OD skating was exhausting. My balance was bad, so V2 was the opposite of relaxing. My technique was bad, twisting to the sides and wasting a lot of energy. All this wasted movement made it tough for me to skate easily at a true “level one” with a low heart rate (especially going up Oak Hill….). It wasn’t until after college that I began to get some acceptable skate technique, thanks to video session after video session with Pepa Miloucheva in Craftsbury. I began to get…

Before and After the Fall: A Meditation on Healthiness

It was a busy summer. And so, I inevitably got sick. After a rainy ridge run in the Jura mountains confirmed that me and my friend Steve were more or less compatible overdistance-run partners, we ran across Liechtenstein. I often do these sorts of point-to-point runs in the mountains in spring and fall, but a certain amount of caution is usually maintained in choosing routes when I’m alone. Having a buddy willing to go the crazy places I suggested opened up new route possibilities and with it, more wear and tear (and fitness!) for my body. The summer was full of opportunity and I was giddy. We ran a section of the Via Alpina, a 1500-mile trail which traverses the Alps from Monaco to Slovenia, crossing through six other countries on the way. While I’d love to trek the trail some day, these days section runs are the best I can do. We “only”…

Three Countries, One Six-Hour Run

Sometime in the last year, my friend Greg casually mentioned to me that it was possible to run across Liechtenstein. “Oh yeah, we did it,” he said. I guess I knew that the country was tiny. But – not to diminish Greg’s running chops – it didn’t occur to me just how tiny it was. 62 square miles. I started looking into it and, of course, there are quite a few writeups of how to “cross an entire country on foot!” The shortest way across is about eight miles. A fast runner could do that in an hour. The idea of crossing the whole country definitely appealed to me. I knew that I had to do it. But an eight-mile run along the flat part of the country? That didn’t really inspire me. I started looking at the map. There were mountains along the Liechtenstein-Austria border. That is more my speed. When my…

January 1? No Way. Spring is the Time for Resolutions!

Some people make resolutions at New Years. But I’m never very successful at keeping them. This year I had a revelation: for me the calendar doesn’t start on January 1, but when the ski season ends and a new year begins. We’ve all kept track of it this way in our training logs for years and years, but I had never explicitly thought of it seeping into the rest of my life. After all, semester schedules still go on. Grant cycles don’t depend on the seasons. But emotionally, the end of the season is the time for me take stock of what happened in the last year, set goals, and decide what I want to do better – how to manage my time through the whole year, culminating in winter. When I got back from World Championships, I started making resolutions. The first one: next year I’m not going to…

Ten Days in Norway

I just got back from a trip to Norway. As always, it was phenomenal. I have nothing against Zurich – I’m pretty happy here and it is as close to an ideal situation as I could think of living in a city – but I came home thinking, why didn’t I do my PhD in Oslo? There’s something about seeing the T-Bane packed with skiers of all ages and ability levels, or heading out to ski on a weekend midday and running into probably hundreds of people out on the trails just outside the city. It’s a city where everyone is chic and blond, usually dressed in black, very stylish. But nobody looks at you with eyes askew if you’re out in Bjørn Dæhlie ski pants and a ratty old Swix jacket. Or, if you’re going to watch a ski race and you pull on a classic Norwegian wool sweater instead…

Things I’ve Learned Racing in Switzerland for a Year

On Sunday I did the last race of my season, the 42k Gommerlauf in Valais, Switzerland. There are actually two more races in the SwissLoppet series, but I will miss them because I’m taking a trip to Norway. Having done the other seven races (it would have been eight but one was canceled because central Europe has had terrible snow problems), it seems like I’ve locked up third place in the overall series anyway. A series podium had been my goal going into the season so I’m thrilled to be able to check that box. (It’s a lot harder to check boxes off in my academic life, so at least I have this one thing!) The Gommerlauf was great, and definitely my favorite race I’ve done this year. Goms is not exactly a town but a region of Switzerland, a valley high up accessed by tunnels and winding mountain passes. The…

Is it possible to race yourself into shape?

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…

Swiss baked goods you win as prizes, ranked.

This weekend I went to Rothenthurm for a 22.5k skate loppet. Rothenthurm is quite close to Zurich and probably one of the lowest-elevation places you’ll ever race in Switzerland. The snow was not fantastic – it’s basically a moor or fen of some sort, so there’s a lot of water bubbling up. This turned into yellowish ice which was in some parts covered in a thin dusting of snow, and in others not. In a few of the drier spots there was grass poking through, or gravel dragged up by the groomer. The ice did make it fast though – the race was over before I knew it, which was very okay! I saw a lot of crashes in this race which were caused by peoples’ skis slipping out from under them on the ice as they pushed off one leg. It happens so fast and all of a sudden…

Ladies get no respect.

This weekend my race was in Lenzerheide. All in all it was a good experience – we raced four loops around the Tour de Ski trails, with one extension and the steepest ‘A’ climb cut out. That turned out to be a good thing, because the first rough part of the race is that it was in the middle of a snowstorm. I can’t complain too much because we have been wishing and begging for snow – the race was actually supposed to be a point-to-point but there wasn’t enough cover, hence the loops of the World Cup course – but it slowed things down considerably. Whereas the weekend before I had felt like I was flying, this weekend not so much. In the slow conditions I guarantee I would have been single-sticking up that ‘A’ climb by the fourth go-round. At least on the long grinding climb out of…