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The Oosik, the Wrong Way

The toll of a wrong-way Oosik. Photo, Aubrey Smith.

The toll of a wrong-way Oosik. Photo, Aubrey Smith.

The Oosik is one of the most infamous outdoor events in Alaska—a 50-kilometer ski race that doubles as an end-of-season festival for recreational and elite athletes alike.

According to one of my roommates here, there are a couple of right ways to do the Oosik, and a wrong way to do the Oosik. The right ways are this: you can either try hard and go fast, or you can not try hard, go slowly, stop at the beer and bacon station, and drink the various other alcoholic libations offered by your friends and fans along the side of the trail.

The wrong way to do the Oosik is to try hard, and go slowly.

I definitely did the Oosik the wrong way.

How do I know this? Because I tried so hard that today because my back is sore in places that I didn’t know my back even existed. And I definitely did not go fast.

Let’s back up a bit. I live in Anchorage. The Oosik is in Talkeetna. Saturday morning, I woke up at 6:30, got into my car with some instant oatmeal and leftover pasta from Friday night, and did the two-hour drive to Talkeetna, the first half hour of which (mom, skip this next part) included enough blowing snow and darkness that I was pretty sure I was going to total my car.

Upon arriving in Talkeetna, I went and found one of my friends from Anchorage who had graciously agreed to wax my skis for me. I’m not going to name him because at that time, 11 a.m., he was holding a piece of chocolate cake and a beer, which I’m not sure is something that he’d want published about him on the internet. But I think that we can agree that this friend of mine was doing the Oosik the right way. (For the record, I just want people to know that my friend waxed other peoples’ skis too—it’s not like I have a personal wax technician or anything.)

I took my skis and walked back to my car. Then I put on a one-piece spandex suit that’s pink and sparkly. At that point, I’d say that it was not yet clear to me whether I’d be shooting for the fast-right-way Oosik or the slow-right-way Oosik, but I felt that the suit was appropriately gaudy yet still functional enough that it would suffice for whichever path I chose.

There were something like 100 people doing the 50 k with me, which began at noon. We started with something like a 500-meter promenade around a gravel pit, and by the time we passed through the stadium at the end of that, there was already a 10-meter gap between me and the back of the pack of the people who had chosen to do the fast-right-way Oosik. (For the record, the 500-meter promenade may have been less than 500 meters, and the 10-meter gap might have been larger than 10 meters, but that’s how I’m choosing to remember it.)

This would have been a good place for me to choose the slow-right-way Oosik. Instead, I thought to myself, ‘those guys aren’t very far ahead of you. You should catch them.’ And I kept double poling as hard as I could without the gap getting any smaller.

And then Holly Brooks caught me.

You might have heard of Holly before. She went to the Olympics last month. And in 2010. So, she seemed like a pretty good person to ski with.

Holly, I’m pretty sure, was skiing the Oosik the right way. She didn’t seem to be trying very hard, firstly because she was able to carry on a conversation with me, and secondly because I’m pretty sure that if Holly had been trying hard she would have been going a hell of a lot faster than me.

This was maybe a kilometer-and-a-half into a 50-kilometer race. And because that kilometer-and-a-half had been almost entirely flat, my arms were already tired from double poling.

The slow-right-way Oosik thing to do at that point would have been to say, ‘See you later Holly, nice skiing with you, have a nice day and enjoy your leisurely slow-right-way Oosik, as I will be doing, just half an hour more slowly.’

Instead, I kept trying, because I did not really feel like admitting to Holly that my version of a slow-right-way Oosik would have taken half an hour longer (at least) than it would have taken her.

Then, after a few more kilometers, we caught Holly’s husband, Rob Whitney, who had briefly attempted a fast-right-way Oosik before being dropped by the lead pack, at which point he switched his approach to one that didn’t involve trying very hard. Skiing easily along with Rob was Don Haering, who works with the Alaska Pacific University club team while also still finding time to occasionally ski race pretty fast. At least, much faster than me.

Rob and Don had chosen to do a slow-right-way Oosik. And so, it seemed reasonable for me to join them.

A few other things I’ll mention here. Rob is a former a-lot-of-times national junior and maybe even national senior champion cross-country skier. Don is a former much-faster-than-Nat-Herz skier. I was three weeks removed from three weeks of working at the Olympics, which involved about four training sessions, no cross-country skiing, and a very unpleasant bout of illness. Also, I had classic skied one time since January.

(Yes, that was the obligatory paragraph in which I’m listing my excuses. I’m not a professional athlete at the Olympics so I’m allowed to list as many excuses as I want.)

Anyways, Rob and Don joined the pack that included Holly, me, and a bunch of middle-aged dudes who appeared to be doing fast-right-way Oosiks, given that they were going reasonably fast given their advanced ages. Although I will point out that one of them was blatantly marathon skating. (For those of you who don’t know what marathon skating is, it’s cheating, when you’re competing in a classic race like the Oosik.)

We arrived at the first hill on the course, which was at about 15 kilometers, where all of us discovered that none of our skis had any wax left on them, thanks to icy conditions and my beer-drinking, chocolate-cake-eating wax technician who is no longer my wax technician, because he’s been fired. (I’d say he actually did a fairly good job given that my kick wax remnants seemed slightly more numerous than those belonging to the other people I was skiing with.)

The lack of kickwax meant that the rest of the race became exclusively double poling and herringbone. (For those of you who don’t know what herringbone is, it’s a technique that is slow and uncomfortable and gets you up hills very slowly.) Given that I had done very little double poling or herringboning over the last couple of months, this was another good opportunity for me to switch my fast-right-way Oosik attempt to a slow-right-way Oosik.

But here’s the problem: I was now skiing with Rob and Holly and Don, all of whom were ALREADY doing slow-right-way Oosiks. And while I am not particularly good at skiing, I do spend a lot of time in Anchorage doing it and talking about it and spending time with people who are fast at it.

And that meant that I was really not prepared to slow down and let my three friends ski away from me, thereby admitting that my slow-right-way Oosik speed was a lot slower than their slow-right-way Oosik speed.

This is how I ended up doing the Oosik the wrong way: by trying really hard to keep up with a few people who were not trying very hard.

In my defense, I’d say that I did a pretty good job of concealing how hard I was working during the race. Because we were only double poling, I was able to make plenty of stupid jokes. And I did accept a gift of an open can of a Pabst Blue Ribbon that was handed to me after about 35 kilometers by my fired wax technician.

But secretly, though I was trying to remain outwardly cheerful—comfortable, even—I spent the entire second half of the race in excruciating pain and misery. And I did not stop at the beer and bacon station.

With about three kilometers to go, I was skiing behind Rob and Don as we were passing a bunch of slower people doing the 25 k race. As those two split around a guy on some gigantic wooden skis, the guy crashed in the middle of the trail. I decided to go around on the left, just as the guy decided to roll over to his left, presenting me with an exciting dilemma of skis-to-the-face, or tree. I chose tree, which may or may not have something to do with the small puncture wound on my left hand I discovered after the race.

I caught back up, and then a little later it was time for the finish. Rob and Don sprinted ahead of me, while I tried to sprint but just kept going the same speed I’d been going the entire race. Holly was a few meters behind us, most likely chuckling to herself and feeling glad about the fact that she hadn’t broken a sweat.

I’m pretty sure that I finished more than half an hour behind the guy that won the race. And today (Sunday), my back is so sore that it has been a huge struggle to bend over and tie and untie my boots.

I would like to say that I have learned my lesson about doing the Oosik the right way, but it may take me a couple more years before I’m willing to swallow my pride and go slowly enough that I’m not hobbling around the next day. Or maybe I’ll just do a better job of hiding how hard I was trying.

Time for Some Olympic Whining

The "cough drops" I was given by the desk clerk at my hotel.

The “cough drops” I was given by the desk clerk at my hotel.

SOCHI, Russia – There seems to be an unwritten rule among coaches and athletes here that you’re not supposed to say anything bad about the Olympics, lest you be criticized for being ungrateful, culturally insensitive, or making some kind of excuse for a poor performance.

I’ve generally tried to operate by the same principles since arriving in Sochi. I’m on a trip that cost thousands of dollars (not mine), to an exotic land, where my only job is to watch sports and write about them. It would be myopic and self-centered to focus on any minor inconveniences I’m suffering, like a problem with my hotel, or the moderately complicated logistics of traveling between my hotel and the competition venues.

Well, two weeks into the games, my moratorium is coming to an end, and I’m about to do something sacrilegious: I’m going to complain about the Olympics. Because if I don’t do it, who else will? And while my complaints may be self-serving and ungrateful, I do think that a little bit of whining can offer some insights into what it’s actually like to be here.

On the gondola up to the biathlon venue this morning, I took it upon myself to fill two notebook pages with things that I consider to be an Olympic-sized pain in the you-know-what. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

–Laundry. If I were writing this post for a general audience, and not just my family and friends, I’d lie and say that I was wearing a clean shirt and underwear today, and that there was a good chance that I’d be able to do laundry before the end of the Olympics. Wait, this post is just for my family and friends, right?

–Food. Contrary to popular belief, journalism is not exactly a cushy industry, and hence I did not arrive in Sochi with a four-figure expense account for meals and drinks. On the plus side, my hotel offers an awesome free breakfast, with pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, and coffee every morning, plus the occasional bizarre addition like baked beans, and crepes stuffed with cottage cheese. (At least they translated it as “cottage cheese”; I decidedly have not bothered to check.) This means that every morning I eat a breakfast that’s large enough to sustain me through an Olympic competition—except that I’m not actually participating in any Olympic competitions here and probably shouldn’t be eating that large of a breakfast.

On the minus side, the food at the competition venues is extremely expensive, meaning that lunch every day is peanut butter and jelly on bread that I’ve spirited out of the hotel in a napkin. It also means that most days, dinner is peanut butter and jelly on bread that I’ve spirited out of the hotel in a napkin. Except when we forget to eat dinner altogether.

To be fully transparent, there was a positive development yesterday, when we discovered that the media center sells bowls of borscht for 150 rubles, or about $4. Things may be improving.

–Working. You’d think that the best place to watch an Olympic competition is at the Olympics. In fact, this is not true in the slightest, at least for the events I’m reporting on. At the cross-country and biathlon venues, the areas where members of the media are supposed to interview athletes are tucked away behind the stands, where many reporters stand and watch the races on TV. Again, let me repeat that: reporters whose employers have paid thousands of dollars for them to travel to the Olympics and report on them watch the events here on a TV.

I’m in a slightly different situation as a credentialed photographer, which gives me access to the side of the trail. Again, you’d think that this would be really cool. And it is. But it’s not actually very good for reporting on a race. First of all, I generally watch skiers and biathletes go by through the viewfinder of my camera, which offers a fairly limited perspective on the race. And second, I’m standing at a single point on the trail, which means that I get to watch about 2 percent of the racing in person, and have to reconstruct the rest of it through split times and interviews afterwards.

Then, my colleagues and I have to contend with the other English-speaking reporters, who all descend on the same athletes we want to talk to as they are funneled through a gauntlet of plastic fencing that’s called the mixed zone. Each of the reporters has a different agenda—one might want to talk to an athlete about their own race; another might want to ask them about the weather, or about another competitor, or regrettably, about what they had for breakfast, what their favorite color is, or whether the lunar eclipse that happened 73 weeks ago might have had an impact on their performance. (These are just a few examples.)

Finally, consider how challenging and uncomfortable it can be to get the athletes to say something that fits into your story—especially if they’ve been struggling, as has been the case for many of the athletes I’ve been talking to. Essentially, my questions have been boiling down to: “So, you just had the worst day of your life out there. Tell me about it, in excruciating detail!”

–Illness. About a week ago, I got sick, which turns out to probably be a semi-natural consequence of traveling 8,000 miles across the globe, then sleeping about six hours a night.

Being sick in Russia actually turned into a pretty amusing caper, except for the part where I felt totally miserable. The first part was when the hotel desk clerk gave me something that she said was cough drops, but which was wrapped in dubious-looking gold foil covered only with Cyrillic characters. I took it anyways—it didn’t seem to make much of a difference either way. Hopefully I don’t test positive for a banned substance when I race in the Tour of Anchorage early next month.

The second part was when I went to the conveniently located medical desk at the biathlon media center, which is ostensibly for athletes but where the staff was kind enough to offer me assistance. All I wanted was aspirin for a headache; what I got was aspirin, a blood-pressure check, some weird test that involved sticking my finger into a device that looked like a stapler and recorded my heartbeat, and a proclamation that I was suffering from the altitude, and should take some aspirin.

Finally: Just imagine what it’s like trying to hydrate in a place where you can’t drink the tap water. (Honestly, it’s harder than you’d think, given that I take at least four gondola rides every day and can’t just haul a gigantic jug of water around with me.)

Okay, well, anyway: Sochi really is a fantastic place, and I’m generally having a good time. I could probably put together a list this long of my problems in Anchorage, as could just about any other Alaska resident. Most everything is great here, especially the borscht—and I look forward to eating more.

AK_Rad

I just created a Microsoft Word file for this blog post and saved it as “AK_Rad.” Here’s why.

On Tuesday, my flight landed in Anchorage at 11 p.m., about three hours after taking off from Seattle. It was lighter when I landed in Anchorage than it was when we took off.

Holly Brooks picked me up from the airport. I was really tired, haven awoken at some 21 hours earlier that morning to finish packing my stuff. But she suggested that we go for a swim in a nearby lake, which in addition to being a swimming hole also doubles as a seaplane takeoff and landing area. Actually, I’m pretty sure that it’s not a swimming hole at all, as the water was rather lukewarm and mucky, and consequently Holly pulled a total bait-and-switch on me and decided that instead of both of us going swimming, she’d just watch, laugh at me, and take pictures. Not that I’m complaining, really—I got to go swimming in the midnight sun on my first night in Alaska:

Swim

( (Technically this was the 11:55 p.m. sun—I was a little early)

The next day, Holly took me on an amazing run with Reese. We drove like 20 minutes out of town up a big hill, then ran up into this wide-open valley with steep mountains on either side. This photo captures about 50 percent of the awesomeness.

Mine's bigger.

Mine’s bigger.

Thus far, in four days in Anchorage, I have done two epically awesome mountain runs, two absurdly rad mountain bike rides, and one extremely painful rollerski session with the APU ski team. They did intervals; I did interval (singular), then flailed around for another 20 minutes before one of my pole tips fell out and I got tired, and then skied easy while dodging mosquitos for the rest of the session.

Okay, so, those pleasantries out of the way, I have numerous further observations about Anchorage as a place to live and work.

First is that it is amazing when it comes to access to outdoor things. I have heard once or twice that people say that Anchorage “is 10 minutes from Alaska.” Well, okay, first of all, I saw a moose in a subdivision yesterday while warming up for rollerski intervals. And, second, even if that saying is true, then whatever, because 10 minutes is not that far, and it is an amount of time that I am totally willing to spend getting to Alaska, because Alaska is sweet. I mean, my apartment in Harlem was 12 hours from Alaska, so Anchorage is definitely an improvement.

Second is that it is a really strange place with a lot of unexpected things. For now (until I can come up with a better metaphor), I’ve been saying that Anchorage is kind of like a weird mashup of Long Island suburbia, Vermont red-neckness, and Florida bizarre-ness. For those of you who are skeptical, I present the following evidence. First, the blessing of the float planes.

Second, this decal on the back of some dude’s truck in downtown Anchorage.

AK HARDCORE!

AK HARDCORE!

Third, the supermarket, which is just like any other gigantic big-box suburban supermarket. There are no polar bears roaming around, no seal blubber for sale (at least that I could find), and there’s heat and electricity too. In fact, I learned today that Anchorage even has Groupon!

The interior of the Fred Meyer in midtown Anchorage.

The interior of the Fred Meyer in midtown Anchorage.

Seriously though, the city is a surprisingly interesting and diverse place. I kind of knew that already, but it’s even more so than I expected. I was taken on a driving tour of the city today, and saw:

–Gleaming office buildings owned by corporations controlled by Alaska natives.

–A movie theater/brew pub, which is a great combination.

–A gourmet cheese store called Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese (no word on whether the proprietor is named Fromagio)

–A Vietnamese pho restaurant

–A building that used to be a strip club until it got busted for being a front for selling cocaine, or something along those lines

–A sale on bear spray

Bear Spray

I did not buy any.

Time for bed—it’s 11 p.m. and the sun is getting somewhat close to the horizon.

What up Alaska?

So, a couple of months ago, I posted here about how I was looking for a job…ideally in a place that had cold and snowy winters, skiing, friendly people, and a large enough population so that there would be at least a few crooked politicians to report on.

Yesterday, I got an email from a reader in Alaska who suggested I look for jobs there, as the Anchorage Daily News was hiring. It was a pretty awesome email to get, because I then got to tell him that I already had a job with the Anchorage Daily News, was flying out there the next day, and would be starting the gig the following week. Boom.

So, yes: I am currently sitting in JFK Airport, having just checked my deconstructed bicycle, eight pairs of skis, and god knows what else I shoved in my duffel. (Oh yeah: a couple of large kitchen knives—hope you’re cool with that, TSA.) And I am in the middle of demolishing a gigantic amazing plate of nachos. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually bought airport food, but I left my breakfast in the kitchen in all the hubbub of trying to catch a ride from my apartment to JFK with all the aforementioned items, plus a 50-pound carry-on LL Bean backpack, a shoulder bag, and a sport coat. [Gotta keep it classy in Alaska—I heard polar bears can detect mismatched clothing at 300 yards away.])

For anybody wondering, moving to Alaska is a pain in the ass. It’s also very expensive. I’ll send a FasterSkier sticker to the first commenter who can guess within $10 the cost of sending these two 50-pound boxes from 10026 to 99508. (I’ll give you a hint—it’s slightly fewer dollars than there are acres in Alaska.)

I fit half the Empire State Building in here.

I fit half the Empire State Building in here.

I’ll be covering city government for the ADN, which I’m really, really excited about. If you’re confused about why someone would think covering city government is fun, just remember the way your friends look at you when you tell them that your idea of fun is dressing up in spandex and skiing UP hills in sub-zero temperatures. Government reporting is kind of the same way. After two years of doing it in New York City, I’d like to think I’m kind of at the Junior Nationals level of journalism, but I’m hoping by moving to Alaska and training with Erik Flora and Kikkan Randall, I can make it to the Olympics. (That metaphor works, right?)

I’m thrilled to be moving to Alaska, but it’s definitely a bummer to leave behind all my friends in New York who, it should be noted, almost convinced me to stay. When they didn’t, they then made me this wicked sweet poster, which is probably the most awesome thing anyone’s ever done for me.

If you don't get the reference, google "Ford to City."

If you don’t get the reference, google “Ford to City.”

I’m looking forward to a whole lot of skiing and outdoor adventures over the next couple of years. Not totally sure how this blog and my role with FasterSkier will change, since the ADN is one of the few American newspapers that actually does a good job covering cross-country skiing, but I’ll definitely continue to stay involved in the sport at some level. Stay tuned.

I’m the Fuc*in’ Man, Bro!

Some of you might know that I live in New York City. For those of you who don’t, I live in New York City. While New York City is known for and very good at many things, producing quality cross-country skiers is not one of them, Caitlin Gregg notwithstanding.

There are actually a couple of other exceptions to this rule. Namely, Tim Donahue and Sproule Love, a pair of impressive athletes—role models, really—who have somehow figured out a way to be pretty damn good at skiing by dint of hard work, perseverance, and acceptance that they will have to sometimes resort to some peculiar training methods, like climbing the stairwells of downtown hotels.  Some of this acceptance has rubbed off on me.

Yup, that’s indeed a dead cockroach.

(If you want to read more about Tim and Sproule, you can, because they’re SUCH HUGE BALLERS THAT THERE WAS A WHOLE STORY ABOUT THEM IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.)

Anyways, while stair workouts are good, most of ski training in Manhattan is decidedly less glamorous. It consists, mostly—okay, actually pretty much entirely—of outings in Central Park. Typically, laps—big ones and small ones. For long workouts, 10 k laps of the road around the whole park, and for interval workouts, 2 k laps of the North Loop, which features what I’m pretty sure is Manhattan’s largest hill, which takes about 2 minutes to ski up, and about 3:30 for an interval when you tack on a flat prelude.

I was living in Manhattan all of last year, then moved to Long Island for the summer and then back to Manhattan in the fall. I trained primarily for skiing, mostly by rollerskiing, through this entire period. Some people might ask why I wouldn’t just take up another sport that makes more climatological and geographical sense. In fact, in recent days, I’ve been seriously asking myself that question, and I am pretty bemused by the fact that honestly, I did not seriously ask myself that question all summer and fall—not before, during, or after rollerski sessions on the access road to the Long Island Expressway in sweltering heat, or during 4×4 interval sessions on the one big hill that I found near the state college I was living at in the middle of the most unpleasant suburban car-packed part of Suffolk County. I will point out that through the early part of the summer I had a foot injury that made running difficult, and that bicycling in the most unpleasant suburban car-packed part of Suffolk County is about what you would expect. But that does not explain the fact that from about June through the middle of February, I persisted in trying to make myself good at a sport that I would only very rarely actually get to practice in its idealized form. (Meaning, going skiing, as opposed to rollerskiing, which in general is tolerable and sometimes fun but largely sucks, in my opinion.)

Anyways, I am pretty sure that obtaining a true understanding of my motivations will probably require some Freudian psychoanalysis or something like that, which in all likelihood is not what most people come to my blog to read. Bottom line is that yes, I might be a little bit crazy, but for whatever reason, I spent a fair amount of the last several months rollerskiing around Central Park, occasionally with training partners, but mostly by myself, in the dark, before or after work, and increasingly, as winter set in and the Central Park people decided to salt the ever living bejeezus out of the road, in conditions like this:

Yuck.

(For the record, training in Central Park can be pretty awesome, and can give rise to some awesome things happening, like this one time a few weeks ago when this skateboarder told me, as I approached the top of the hill at the end of an interval: “You’re the fuckin’ man, bro!”)

Anyways, at a certain point in December, it occurred to me that, if I was going to be doing all of these Central Park workouts, it might make sense to actually enter a race.

I’ve always liked racing marathons, and plus, since it takes a while to get from New York to anywhere that has legit races, I figured that I might as well get a lot of bang for my driving buck and race for a long distance. Fortuitously, I am friends with former FasterSkier Canadian Bureau Chief Kieran Jones, who lives in his country’s capitol city of Ottawa, which hosts an annual World Loppet race called the Gatineau Loppet. (Yes, technically the Gatineau Loppet takes place across the river from Ottawa in Quebec, but no one I know knows where anything in Quebec is.) He kindly agreed to allow me to sleep in his spare room for a few nights, and even offered to give me feeds during the race. Given that Kieran is a PROFESSIONAL COACH for a local elite ski club, this seemed like an offer that was unlikely to be topped by anyone anywhere—professional feeds at a World Loppet race!

So, last Thursday, I did a very adult thing and rented a car. It was definitely on the expensive side, but since I live in New York City, I get paid enough to rent a car even if it’s on the expensive side, which is pretty sweet.

After renting the car, I drove it to Topher’s house in Williamstown, crashed for a night there, where I ate part of one of Topher’s cows and also acquired some gels for the race. (They were not cow gels.) Then, on Friday morning, I woke up, drove to Middlebury College, watched the Bowdoin Polar Bears kick some Colby Ass, and proceeded to Chalet Jones. The Canadian border guard was kind enough to wish me good luck when I told him I was on my way to a ski race.

After a good ski with Kieran’s club and some other fun shenanigans on Saturday, I woke up on Sunday morning mostly excited for some racing. However, there was one thing I was not particularly excited about, which was the temperature. The general perception of the Gatineau Loppet seems to be that it is both awesome, and reliably butt-ass cold—and clearly, the race organizers had done a good job coordinating the competition with a deep dive of the thermometer.

C’mon, Canada.

Now, minus 17 Celsius or whatever that chart says for Sunday may not seem all that cold to a lot of readers—okay, actually, I take that back. If minus 17 doesn’t seem all that cold to you then you’re fu—ing insane. I suppose that people who live in more northern climates than New York City’s might be able to get somewhat used to fu—ing insane temperatures. In any case, I do live in New York City and have for a year and a half, which means that even though I grew up in Maine and went to high school in Vermont, I now bundle myself up in a down jacket and hat whenever the temperature drops below 50 degrees, and carry an umbrella everywhere. (This is not actually true but I’m trying to make a point here.) And which further means that for me, minus 17 degrees is really, extremely fu—cking cold. I wanted to go to the start line looking like this:

Me, training with Kieran in Ottawa the day before the Gatineau Loppet. Photo, Deetrak, Flickr.

Unfortunately, instead I had to rely on spandex and double windbriefs. However, the eminently rational race organizers did give the athletes the courtesy of delaying the start of the race half an hour, giving me ample time to make sure that my gels were well-pinned to my tights.

At about 9:15 (the race start was at 9:30), I went outside, jogged around in my down jacket, and went to the start line. Based on my last marathon finish of 2:27:21 in 2009, I had been assigned to the “D-Wave” for the Gatineau Loppet, with the “D” signifying the domination that I was about to apply to my fellow “D-Wave” competitors. At 9:36, six minutes after all the fast people had departed, the “D-Wave” was released, from which I shot like a cannonball from a cannon.

A few disjointed observations from the race:

1. I had an extremely meticulous feeding plan, thanks to Coach Jones. It involved Coach Jones giving me a banana at 10 k, then following up with a gel, conveniently safety-pinned to my tights, every 10 k thereafter.

Unfortunately, as I neared arrival at the 10 kilometer mark, Coach Jones was too busy walking or chatting or making snow angels or something to notice my rapid approach. (And trust me: it was rapid.) He proceeded to rummage around in his backpack for like five minutes before handing me an unpeeled banana. UNPEELED! So much for being a “professional coach.” Henceforth readers should automatically add air quotes to any reference of Kieran Jones as a professional coach. After giving me the unpeeled banana, said professional coach also did not appear at any other locations along the course to deliver feeds of lobster, or poutine.

2. Racing a ski marathon from the D-Wave is both awesome and decidedly un-rad. Awesome because I did officially Dominate all the other skiers in the D-Wave—that’s right, every single one—and also felt like a total champ as I passed the hordes of skiers who’d gotten a head start. I even told one that I was coming by on his left so forcefully that he sat down on his skis out of sheer terror. (I felt bad, but it really was hilarious, and it wasn’t my fault.) Un-rad, however, because I had to pass like a bajillion people, sometimes on sections of single-track trail that made for a lot of painful double-poling, or even waiting, at times. And also un-rad because I didn’t find any friends to ski with until like 35 kilometers into the race.

3. Do not eat spicy Sri Lankan food the night before a ski marathon. (I think I’m making myself fairly clear here, but if further explanation is warranted, email me.)

4. Sometimes two pairs of windbriefs are not enough—specifically, at times when you’re racing for three hours at like 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s windy. Re-warming on the occasional downhill was sometimes necessary.

5. Gels are hard to eat when it’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, I’d say that gels actually become solids when it is 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

I estimate that all of these problems—solids, D-Wave shenanigans, TBFD (total banana feed debacle), partially frozen reproductive organs—cost me about 16 minutes and 17 seconds. Apply that correction to my finishing time of 2:46:25, and one gets 2:30:08, which is coincidentally three seconds faster than the time of the race winner, Ian Murray. (I actually would have been a lot faster than that, but I slowed down at the finish to take an American flag to pre-emptively celebrate my victory.)

[If I were to deliver a serious appraisal of the race, which I hate to do because being serious is no fun, I would say that it went pretty darn well, save for some of the traffic and some pretty bad cramping at the end. I did, in fact, win myself a bronze medal for being such a huge baller and crushing all but two of the other 24-29 age-group participants in the race.]

Humor me. I don’t win medals very often.

After the race, my professional coach redeemed himself by taking me for the only acceptable recovery meal for an Ottawa ski marathon, which consisted of a cheeseburger the size of my face, and a poutine. While some people are skeptical of poutine’s nutritional benefits, I have it on good authority that Quebec native Alex Harvey subsists on it exclusively, which actually makes a lot of sense, because the dish includes all of the important macronutrients: carbohydrates (potatoes), protein (cheese curds, duh), and fat (gravy, and trace amounts in the other elements of the dish like the french fries and cheese curds).

Yup.

The recovery meal was followed by a shower, and then skating down the Rideau Canal. I’m really bad at skating, but this was still an exceptional way to spend the afternoon, especially since I could do it in a down jacket, not spandex.

We really were right-side up, but I’m not good at uploading photos.

There are a few more vignettes I wish I could include, but right now I’m tired, having just arrived home after 8 hours of driving, a $13 toll to get over the George Washington Bridge (seriously?!), and a subway ride home.

All things considered, I am calling this an extremely successful vacation. Hopefully I will get to ski race again this winter, because it’s pretty damn fun.

(Editor’s note: Kieran Jones is a highly competent and eminently professional ski coach, as well as an excellent host. Just not when it comes to delivering peeled bananas to his needy houseguests.)

Why I Got Fired

In a couple of days, if you’re a regular FasterSkier reader, you’ll most likely be seeing some kind of a job posting.

Not just any job posting. This will be an advertisement for what is very possibly the sweetest job in the entire world: mine.

Sadly, it’s true—I’ve been fired. For inappropriate contact with a member of the Norwegian women’s cross-country ski team. (For the record, it was totally worth it.)

Just kidding. After almost two years as FasterSkier’s associate editor, dozens and dozens of race reports, features, interviews, investigative pieces, and blog posts, I am moving on.

This isn’t intended to be melodramatic or anything. Basically, the only reason I’m making any kind of “announcement” is because I don’t want Topher to scoop me. But I feel like I owe at least a brief explanation to the people who have so avidly followed my work on the site for the past two seasons.

My tentative plan for the next year is that I’ll be attending Columbia Journalism School in New York, which offers what sounds like a pretty sweet 10-month masters’ program in exchange for approximately $5,000,000. That may sound like a lot, but trust me—I’ve been making boatloads of money for the past 24 months, and also, the earnings potential for reporters has never been better.

No, for real, the reason it’s tentative is because I haven’t really been down there and gotten a good sense of the place to see if really makes sense to give them my $5,000,000. I’m kind of assuming that it will be, but it seems worth it to go down for a real visit and check it out before making the call.

In any case, my role with FasterSkier is definitely going to diminish in the next few months. It won’t disappear—school doesn’t start until August, and I’ve got a laundry list of about a dozen stories that need to be written before then. And hopefully, I’ll be able to work something out with Topher and Matt that will give me a longer-term role. So don’t worry—I’m going to be sticking around. Everything is still on the record, unless you tell me it’s not.

I’m definitely still planning on posting a recap of Spring Series, as well as the second half of the Craftsbury weekend, and an explanation of what the heck Kris Freeman was doing with my skis. And also, perhaps some reasons why you should apply for my job. But you’ll have to wait a couple of days, because right now, it’s time for vacation.

The Norwegian Lexicon

Spend enough time in a country with its own rad language, and you will eventually pick up some new words. I have spent the last two weeks repeating my favorites over and over, which I’m pretty sure has been obnoxious for those around me, and very entertaining for myself. Below, a list of the best:

Trygve (Trig-vuh): The name of one of our hosts. It looks unpronounceable, but you just say it like it looks.

Felle-start: Mass start

Skihopper: Ski jumper

Gull: Gold

Gullweiner: Gold hot dog—see here (http://narvesen.no/)

Varme pølse: Warm sausage. Possibly my favorite.

Varm sjokolade: Hot chocolate (okay, something’s breaking down here—maybe a varme pølse is actually a hot sausage?)

Kvikk Lunsj: Quick lunch. Otherwise known as the name of the best kind of Norwegian chocolate ever.

Takk for Turen!: Thanks for touring (?). The slogan on Kvikk Lunsj.

Takk for festen!: Slogan at Holmenkollen—thanks for the party!

Taco: Taco

Buffet: Buffet

Hocus-pocus: Tennis. Just kidding—hocus pocus means hocus pocus.

Trafikkskole: Traffic school

Slikkepott: Spatula.

Vafler: Waffle. After two weeks of free vaflers from the media center at World Championships, we knew this one well.

Honorable mention: Juha Lallukka. Because it’s Finnish, and actually a name for a very fast skier. But it’s awesome nonetheless.

Getting an Exclusive W/ Rus. Ski Fed. Pres., In 6 Easy Steps

How does one get an interview with Elena Vyalbe, one of the best Russian cross-country skiers in history and the new president of the country’s ski federation?

Step 1: You have to know what she looks like. Fortunately, I do, because I’ve read enough Google Translate articles about Russian skiers and dopers over the last year to make a normal person go cross-eyed. Vyalbe is…well…let’s just say she’s changed a bit from when she was an elite athlete. When I spotted her on Saturday, she was wearing a bright pink Fischer hat and, no joke, smoking a cigarette.

Step 2: Go and lurk next to the athlete lodge and wax cabins, and wait for stuff to happen. And not be afraid to be a little awkward. Basically, I was waiting to see who would walk past on their way to the lodge, in search of a quote that could help with the afternoon’s story, but once I saw Vyalbe, I decided it would be worth it to see if I could talk to her, since I was already working on a couple of related stories. I didn’t know if she spoke English, though, and there was also a big fence and a bunch of security guards in the way. So I stood on one side of the fence and watched her having a conversation with her companions, until it got weird enough that she looked up and made eye contact, through the fence.

Me: “Hi—do you speak English?”
Vyalbe shakes her head. A very large but amiable-looking guy dressed in Russian ski team garb walks over.

Him: “Hello.”

Me: “Does Ms. Vyalbe speak English? I was wondering if she might be able to answer a couple of questions.”
Him: “No. Where are you from?”
I explain—American cross-country skiing website, FasterSkier, etc. I figure I’m about to get shut down. The guy walks back over to Vyalbe and her group, chats a bit, and walks back over to me.

Him: “She cannot do this now, but maybe you come to our hotel this evening and we have translator.”
The guy then wrote down the name of the hotel for me on my notepad, complete with a room number, and told me to show up around 7:00.

Step 3: Use Google Maps and Google Translate to divine the correct permutation of buses, subways, trains, and bike paths to arrive at the SAS Radisson Hotel Fornebu with a few minutes to spare.

Step 4: Arrive in Fornebu, an Oslo suburb that appears to be the Scandinavian version of a suburban wasteland, complete with sketchy empty public buses, huge dark office complexes, etc. After overcoming our fears of being mugged or otherwise hassled on our way there, we set out from the train station, and proceeded to be very unsure of our direction and surroundings until we ran into a couple of older, friendly-looking guys in our path, again dressed in Russian ski team garb.

Generally, the Russians don’t speak English—in fact, most of them seem to get offended when you ask if they do. So I kept things simple: “Hotel—that way?” I asked, pointing.

One of the guys smiled. “You—journalist? USA? Elena Vyalbe? That way.”

That was our entire interaction—they moved on, we moved on.

Step 5: Arrive at the hotel, call up to Vyalbe’s room, and get informed that she will be right down. After a couple of minutes, she gets off the elevator, waves to us, and walks in the other direction towards the hotel restaurant, where it appears that the Russians, Finns, and some of the Estonians are dining. Towards us steps the very large but amiable looking guy from early in the day, and he directs us to a pair of couches in a dimly-lit corner of the lobby, next to an artificial fire coming through a metal grate. The couches are separated by a coffee table with a candle in a glowing, purple holder—the atmosphere felt like it was out of a 007 movie.

We sat down with the Russian guy, who pulls out what looks like an iPad.

“The translator will come soon. How much for iPad in the United States?”

We tell him, and engage in requisite small talk, until I ask him if he is a press attaché, or what…

“No—I am just husband.”
“Oh, you are Ms. Vyalbe’s husband?” I asked him. “Are you Urmas?” (Urmas Vyalbe was an Estonian cross-country skier who married Elena, formerly Trubitsyna—I knew this because I’d spent time in Estonia, and I was very pleased with myself for remembering.)

“No—Urmas and Elena were only married one year, with one child.”
Oh. At least the guy didn’t look pissed.

After another minute or two, Vyalbe finally shows up with what feels like an entourage, but turns out to actually be just a highly stereotypical elderly female Russian journalist (think blond hair, very elaborate make-up, serious designer jacket, etc.) that I recognize from the Olympics, and the translator. The translator was priceless—almost indescribable, but I’ll give it my best shot. There were just so many ridiculous things about him. He was older middle-aged, with big glasses, styled, spiky grey hair that was coiffed into something like a pompadour. His pants were pulled up high, he was wearing a tight, colorful sweater, and spoke in a flat, nasal voice, in an animated fashion.

Before departing, the elderly Russian journalist gave the translator a kiss on the top of his head, then deposited her tape recorder on the edge of the coffee table. This pissed me off—she would end up with all the material, without having to work for any of it—but I was not in a position to object. (However, I know this woman to be a very good journalist for a respected Russian publication, and if she pulls anything, I will be sending a grouchy Google Translated message to what will no doubt be a very befuddled editor.)

Step 6: Conduct your interview, doing your best to be firm without offensive, and rolling with the punches when the translator appears to have totally misunderstood your questions, or Vyalbe’s answers. Thank Ms. Vyalbe for her time, and for the opportunity, and escape into the night.

World Championships Are Hard

After writing this, I have come to the conclusion that it sounds whiny. My goal was not to complain, but rather to give people a sense of what we’ve been up to for the past few days here, and while there has been tons of awesome stuff, there are some frustrating challenges that have been tough – amusingly so – to overcome…that’s all…

Oslo continues to be awesome. Today, first, we got up and went for a ski. An awesome ski, for like three hours on the trails just above Holmenkollen, which appear to go on literally forever. My guess is that if you skied on them for long enough you could probably go over the North Pole and find a way back to Maine, but we went as far as this amazing hut place with a thoroughly unpronounceable name, where we acquired waffles with jam and brown cheese before skiing back to the subway. Yes, the subway. Again.

However, while there are a lot of awesome things (the skiing, the food that our host family continues to prepare for us despite us showing up tired and smelly at 9 o’clock every night, brown cheese, and free waffles in the press center), there continue to be a few challenges, which I will describe below.

First, there is transportation. There are many options for getting around Oslo: the subway, known as the T-Bane (so dubbed after the American hip-hop artist), the bus, even a sweet tram that runs around the center of the city on rails. There are also some stations with pretty cool names: Makrellbekken (this is the one closest to where we are staying), Frognerseteren, Majorstuen (pronounced May-or-stewen), and Jår (Yarrr!). However, our efforts to use these methods to our advantage have failed. Miserably. Take, for example, Sunday night. We had taken the train back from Drammen—which, I have to say, worked very well—and had taken a bus to our colleague Inge’s house on one side of town. Inge was going to drive us home, but then she drank some wine, and then, by about 10:30, we realized that we had already missed the last bus.

Fortunately, Mayor Stewen was not very far from Inge’s house, so after determining that we had 15 minutes to catch the last bus there, she sent us off with directions, tearing around Oslo at 11:00 on a Sunday night, me wearing two backpacks, one of which is on my chest and is swirly fluorescent blue and green. Fortunately nobody punched me. Topher had our massive ski bag, which he was also using as a substitute for his own bag, at that point still somewhere in shipping limbo between Massachusetts and Europe. We were both running while wearing gigantic jackets, and neither of us were very happy, considering the Danvik/Hovik debacle of the day before, the fact that we still had work to do, and the fact that we’d been carrying around our stupid bags all day.

After making our first two turns, we realized that we had absolutely no idea where we were supposed to go next. A guy working behind the counter at a Domino’s Pizza told us that we should keep headed in the same direction. But by the time we arrived at Mayor Stewen, the subway station was locked, and it appeared that we were going to have to pay approximately $2,000 for a taxi to get home. Not cool. But after standing around and looking for a taxi for a few minutes, we finally noticed a few people trickling out from a nearby corner—the subway!

Unfortunately, the line to the Makrellbekken was shut down, so we had to go on a different one to a station that happened to be a 25-minute walk from our house. By the time we got home, it was after one, and no joke, we slept until 11 o’clock the next morning—something I’m pretty sure I haven’t done since college, if I even did it there.

Since then, I’m pretty sure we have sprinted for a train, bus, or shuttle pretty much every day since then. Fortunately, we’ve made most of them, except for the one this evening that left us waiting half an hour in the Jerbanetorget (T-Pain’s house). We have also made 40-minute walks to and from Holmenkollen, which in and of itself is not unreasonable, but is a little bit frustrating considering that we’re only like two miles away, and there are both bus and subway stations within a five-minute walk. Somehow, though, none of those lines end up at the venue.

The venue. This is the next mildly-frustrating thing. I’m not sure the image that most people have of big races like Olympics and World Championships, but these are not U.S. Nationals-style races, where you can chill on the side of the trail and shoot the breeze with assistant coaches while they give splits. This is lockdown, you-can’t-go-there-because-the-crown-prince’s-Lexus-needs-a-10-meter-bubble serious.

For me, this is actually not that cool—what I like about reporting at ski races is that most of the time, you can get within a few feet of the action. Close enough to see the pathetic attempts at growing facial hair by the eastern Europeans, close enough to cheer on your old college teammates at U.S. Nationals and have them laugh at you, close enough to hear the words of encouragement that coaches are yelling at their athletes. This is the kind of stuff that makes it worthwhile to be at a race in person—collecting those kinds of details and getting that kind of access. For this reason, in a lot of ways, World Juniors and U-23’s have actually been my favorite races to cover in my two winters of working for FasterSkier, because the performances are still spectacular and the stakes still high, but the attitude a whole lot more laid back.

While Oslo is kickass as far as its ski culture goes—15,000 fans screaming their faces off on Thursday!—it’s actually been the most challenging place for reporting I’ve found so far, even more so than Vancouver last year.

After scouting out the stadium earlier this week, I knew this would be the case on Thursday, so I went outside to start my reporting on the skate sprint a full hour-and-a-half before qualifying, to make sure that I had a good sense of the best places for me to watch. First, I got carried off in a sea of fans up to the top of one end of the stadium—the view was great and the ambience was awesome, but there was no way I’d be able to make it back-and-forth from the finish quickly enough with the throngs of spectators blocking my way. The other end of the stadium also had a good view of the final half of the course, but again, I wasn’t confident in my ability to be in striking distance for interviews. So I headed down to where many of the other reporters were gathered: the mixed zone, which is meandering corral—or gauntlet, depending on how you finished—that athletes must navigate on their way out of the finish.

From the mixed zone, though, pretty much all there was to see was the video board, and a barely-decent view of two short stretches of the course where athletes left and came back into the stadium. No view of the finish. Really? I figured that there must be some other place that reporters could watch from. I asked a few volunteers; none had any answers for me, so after doing some more wandering around, I climbed back up to the plaza area, where there was a pretty sweet balcony above the stands with a view of the whole stadium—roughly half the course. This would have been a good spot, but I was told that this was for VIP’s with tickets. And the stands wouldn’t do either—they were sold out, dedicated to ticket holders. Finally, I found Bente Skari, the legendary Norwegian skier who is acting as chief of competition here, and I put the question to her (respectfully): where was the best place for media to watch the race? Unfortunately, the answer was the mixed zone—there was no space anywhere else.

I ended up sprinting back and forth between the mixed zone and a spot behind a row of Norwegians on the aforementioned pretty sweet balcony, where, during critical sections of the race, I leaned over so far to see that I was essentially draped over the people in front of me. I had a pretty decent view and was able to catch most of the key moments of the race—all I was asking for. All in all, a pretty awesome way to experience the day, if somewhat frustrating at times.

While this kind of stuff is certainly challenging, I obviously wouldn’t trade this job for anything, and in a way, the logistical difficulties make it all the more satisfying when you get it right. Hopefully by the end of the next few races, everything will be dialed in…

Norway: 100 Percent Awesome

Packing for a month-long trip to Europe isn’t easy, and chances are that we were going to forget something. But I don’t think Topher or I would have predicted that we would be so stupid as to actually leave Topher’s entire BAG at his house.
We realized this upon pulling into the Albany airport on Thursday afternoon, with about an hour and a half until our flight to Newark, and on to Oslo. A last-ditch effort to have a friend drive us the bag failed miserably, so Topher has been without any clean underwear for the last two days. (They’re wool, though, and he said he’ll probably wash them in the sink tomorrow.)
Other than that, our trip over to Europe went reasonably well. Continental served us some pretty delicious vegetarian dinners, I sat next to a very stoic Norwegian man from Newark to Oslo, and none of our remaining bags got lost. From the airport, we caught a sweet regional train into the city, which went very fast except for the part when we got stuck in the tunnel for 15 minutes, without power. Once we were in the city, we met one of our hosts, Bodil Strom, and she took us on the subway back to her house, which is five kilometers from the city center towards Holmenkollen, the World Champs competition venue.
We cooked eggs and bacon for lunch, tried to watch some snowboarding on NRK, but promptly started falling asleep, so instead, we decided to go skiing. Topher scored some sweet 1980’s classic boots from the Stroms, and we drove up to Holmenkollen for some of the best skiing I’ve done all winter. (It doesn’t hurt when the snow is sweet, you are using brand new Swix stars, and your skis are waxed with FastWax HF Tan [FasterSkier only travel waxes with HF.])
I expected that there would be awesome skiing in Norway, and what we got yesterday was right in line with that. I don’t have a very good handle on the whole system, but basically, there are trails everywhere on this gigantic hillside where Holmenkollen is—mainly going up, and even over the back. We started above the venue, and went hammering around some awesome, double-tracked, rolling terrain. It seemed wicked moist—Oslo is right next to the ocean—but somehow we still had great kick with extra blue.
Since it was getting dark, we eventually started making our way back downhill. Our original plan was to try to ski all the way back down to our house, but then we ended up skiing right into the middle of the real deal, Holmenkollen stadium—like, where the races will be held. I think a few of the Norwegian sprinters were doing a workout there—Eirik Brandsdal went by, and it was pretty hard not to rubberneck. Everything was lit up, including the massive new jump, but there wasn’t really anyone around, so we cruised around and checked things out, waiting for someone to tell us to stop. I did some sweet Kowalczyk-like maneuvering to cut off Topher on the sprint course, then promptly yard-saled it on the homestretch, in front of thousands of Norwegian fans.
At that point, it was dark and getting pretty late, so after some Kvick-Lunsj (dankalicious Norwegian chocolate), we opted to catch the subway back down. Yeah, the subway. There’s actually a subway that goes from Holmenkollen right back down the hill to striking distance of the house we’re staying at. Subway to skiing=the train to awesome. We caught it, with all of our gear, walked back to the house, ate the ridiculously tasty dinner that Bodil had cooked for us (and an entire German apple cake), and then wrote up previews of the Drammen races. That led us to the most interesting part of the evening, in which we sat/stood in the driveway in single-digit temperatures to get internet access, do research, and make a Skype telephone call or two.
Then, we woke up, caught the subway in the other direction back into town, and then doubled back again, this time on a real train. It took us exactly the 36 minutes advertised to get from Oslo to Drammen, where we got off and walked to credentialing in the race hotel. (We couldn’t find it until Marit Bjoergen jogged past us; we followed her.) There, we were informed that we could use our FIS season credentials, which we got in the mail in like October—except that since Topher didn’t have his bag, he didn’t have his. So we had to wait like 15 minutes for them to print him a new one—apparently their computer was working very slowly, and it seemed to be powered by cups of coffee that they kept carrying to the back of the room. Then, we got on a bus and drove like 10 minutes up a gigantic hill to Konnerud.
I asked around, and I guess while Konnerud has never hosted a World Cup, it’s a totally legit Norwegian venue—they race here all the time, and it has even hosted Norwegian nationals once, in 1978, if not twice. There’s a serious ski and orienterring club based there, and while it hasn’t turned out any super-legit skiers, it did produce former Canadian coach Steiner Mundahl, and has a bunch of promising juniors. The place appears to be a big sports complex, with a turf soccer field, and a big indoor basketball court, which on Saturday was home to the press center. We set up our stuff, went for a walk around the courses, which were essentially closed even to media, hung out for a few more minutes inside, then watched the races, which were basically like a big party. I plan to write some more about Norwegian ski culture in the next few days, but I am too tired to do it real justice now, so I’m not even going to try.
After the races were when things started to get interesting. First of all, we missed the last bus back to town, so the Konnerud press folks were kind enough to offer us a ride back. They asked us where we were staying, which is this funky hostel-type place called the “Hovik Overnatting.” The dialogue essentially went like this:
Them: “Where are you guys staying?”
Me: “This place called the Hovik Overnatting.”
Them: “The Hovik? That’s in Oslo…”
Me: “No, I’m pretty sure this place is in Drammen—let me look it up on the internet for you.”
(I proceed to look up an address for this place: 3 Stromm Terrace 19, 3096 Drammen. I show it to them.)
Me: “Here it is—yeah, the Hovik Overnatting.”
Them: “Ah, ohkay! The Danvik. That’s the high school—yes. We can take you there.”
Me: “The Hovik Overnatting?”
Them: “Yes, the Danvik.”
So we get in the car, the driver gets slightly lost, but eventually we get dropped off at a place that looks like some kind of a campus. I see a sign that says “Overnatting,” so we get out, say thanks, and they drive off. The door to the office-looking place is locked, so we find an office in an adjacent building with internet, and a phone that apparently is the direct line to the proprietor. But judging from the signs, this place is definitely the Danvik, not the Hovik.
Topher: “Hello. Do you speak English? We think we might be staying here for the night.”
Other dude: “I’ll be right down.”
We start doing some computer work while we’re waiting. 15 minutes later, me: “I think maybe we’d better go find the place where we’re actually staying…”
We do some more sleuthing with poached internet, and determine that we need to head up the hill, and to the left. We head up the hill, and to the left. This is not the right direction. It is also now butt-ass cold outside, like definitely no warmer than 10. Fortunately, I still have the Google Maps page pulled up on my computer. After knocking on one door and about half-an-hour’s worth of meandering, we finally make it to the Hovik (which has no sign) at around nine, whereupon we found the Australian team and the proprietor, who apparently is a ship’s pilot who works 19 weeks out of the year and spends the other 33 not putting up a sign on his business. By 10:00, we were mostly done with work, and we headed down the road to pick up some pasta and tomato sauce ($22 for a pound and a jar at a gas station—I think there must be gold inside them somewhere). It was delicious. Now it’s time for bed. Today was pretty sweet, but I’m pretty sure that tomorrow has a chance to be even better. The only thing I’m worried about is actually seeing the race over the heads of tens of thousands of Norwegian fans—which is seriously going to be an issue.

The End of an Era

Around 10 years ago, my mom and my sister came back from a Freeport excursion with a preposterous backpack. It was neon green, and had my name on it. Apparently they’d found it at the LL Bean outlet just like that—it already said “Nat” on it. What are the chances?

There was no way I was going to be caught dead using it, though—I stuffed it in a closet and didn’t pull it out again until I was partway through college, and wearing a bright green backpack had become something that was kind of ironic and funny rather than just stupid. I basically didn’t take it off for the last four years. It was a totally sweet backpack—gigantic, with a spacious main pocket, a secondary one that was perfect for my computer, and a front one that was perfect for peanut butter, jelly, and pencils.

The backpack went pretty much everywhere with me—college carnivals, all the way through to the Olympics, Las Vegas, Estonia, etc. It’s fairly probably that walking around with a gigantic neon green backpack didn’t do much for my professionalism, but if you take yourself so seriously that you can’t wear a ridiculous backpack, you’re probably wound a little bit too tightly.

Sadly, as I prepared to leave for Estonia, I discovered that there was a growing problem with my zipper. So on my way back to western Mass. from Fort Kent, I stopped at the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport and made an exchange. I was a little bit disappointed that they wouldn’t let me keep the original, but I think the replacement makes up for it. Yes, yesterday may have marked the end of the neon green era, but it also marked the beginning of the kickass blue swirly era.

Faithful green packpack is on the right, before I had to send it off to suffer whatever horrible fate LL Bean had in store for it. Kickass blue swirly one is on the left.

Other than that, there’s not a whole lot, other than some pretty crazy travel shenanigans as far as getting in and out of Boston. Basically, airport parking was not a good option for the 10 days I would be in Estonia, so we opted for Topher’s girlfriend Jen’s mom’s house, in Lincoln. Which seemed like a totally reasonable idea, until I got back and found this.

For the record, Jen had already dug out my car once – and for this, many thanks. But I still had to deal with this mess. As I got started shoveling, a woman literally drove by, opened her window, laughed at me, and then drove away. This was at, like, noon, and it took me until one to shovel the car out and realize that it was not going to make it out of this mess by itself. Fortuitously, there was a gentleman passing by on a tractor, so I flagged him down and he pulled me out. And we didn’t break anything. It was, I have to say, pretty rad.

Then I went to northern Maine for two weeks, drove home, went to visit my sister at Bates, and finally made it back to western Mass. yesterday. Tomorrow, we fly to Oslo. To say that I am excited would be like saying Petter Northug is a pretty good skier. A few more pictures from my travels are below.

This is one of my socks after skiing in Estonia. As you might be able to tell, it is somewhat sticky, thanks to a massive jam catastrophe that occurred in my ski bag as it traveled here. (Funny story about that ski bag–Finnair lost it, then sent its driver to drop it off at approximately 2:40 a.m. at the apartment where I was staying. [When I say approximately, I mean plus or minus five or 10 minutes, not, like, it actually happened at 6:00 a.m. They actually dropped off a ski bag at or around 2:40 a.m.] The dude called my cell phone five times; I finally answered the last time, went out into a snowstorm in my underwear to meet him, whereupon I was informed that it was a good thing I finally answered, because that was the last time he was going to call before leaving. I was speechless. And also cold, because I was wearing only underwear and a headlamp.) Anyways, not only did Finnair think it would be funny to deliver my ski bag at 2:40 a.m.–they also thought it would be funny to shatter the jar of raspberry jam that I, for some reason, had been stupid enough to assume would remain intact inside a ski boot during a transatlantic jet flight. Instead, I ended up with a ski bag full of glass and raspberry jam, the latter of which made a sticky home inside my skate boots. Sweet. (Pun intended, I guess.)

One of the advertisements in the in-flight magazine on my way back to Boston. I hope for their sake that none of the U.S. world juniors or U-23 competitors were convinced by this advertisement.

Non-Alcoholic Beer and HOOGVEIN

There’s a lot going on in Estonia, with what feels like one million races happening every day. Blog-worthy stuff is happening pretty much every half-hour, but with a pretty packed schedule, I’ll just offer a few quick highlights.

First, the press room. It’s on the third story of the newly-renovated main building at the Otepaa stadium, and it is staffed by stern-looking security guards who asked to see my credential once and now just smile and nod as I go past. Also, almost to a man, they all have ridiculously sketchy facial hair—even worse than mine.

The press room. Oops--these photos are all going to be upside down, I think. Sorry.

As far as actual accommodations go, the place is pretty sweet—there are big wide windows overlooking the stadium, faster internet than what we have back home, nice tables, plenty of electrical outlets, abundant start lists, etc. Compared to last year’s press center in Germany, which, as I recall, was unheated overnight and with extremely sketchy internet, this is pretty good.

However, as far as things that are peripheral to my job but extremely critical to my psyche, Otepaa is not the best. And when I say “things that are peripheral to my job but extremely critical to my psyche,” by psyche I mean stomach, and by this whole phrase, I actually just mean food. In Germany last year, there was pretty much an unlimited supply of these effing awesome sandwiches—crusty bread with butter and different things on top, including pickles and smoked meats, or smoked salmon and delicious horseradish sauce. This pretty much endeared me to Hinterzarten for life—I look upon the time I spent there as halcyon days of my ski journalism career.

In Otepaa, things are a little tougher. The food pretty much amounts to crackers, and cookies, of which, to be fair, I have

The HOOGVEIN vat. Sorry it's sideways, but it's time for bed.

consumed an astonishing number over the past few days. There are also some things in the press room that some other people might find extremely enticing—namely free beer and “HOOGVEIN,” which I’m pretty sure is some kind of mulled wine. However, at least half of the beer appears to be non-alcoholic, and regardless, I don’t think that it would come off very well if I started slurring my speech in the press conferences. Maybe if I shared with the athletes…

The one thing that I have really enjoyed is the automated coffee maker. You press a button, and it makes you your own cup of something between a cappuccino and a regular cup of coffee. It is too bad there’s no decaf option, or I would drink like eight cups every day; unfortunately, my body’s ridiculous response to caffeine has limited me to one.

The coffee maker. Also upside down.

As far as other media go, there aren’t a whole lot of people—one dude from Norway, a couple folks from German, Finland, Sweden, etc. The German guy was around last year—he recognized me, and even though he basically doesn’t speak English, he gets very excited and smiles every time he sees me. Speaking of English, nobody seems to speak it, even though it seems to be the language of choice for official things, like videos and press conferences. (To be clear, I am fully aware of my status as an ignorant American who only speaks one language. My point is that if English is going to be the official language, it would be nice if the people conducting the introductory interviews at the press conferences and doing the translations had a lexicon of greater than 100 English words. So far, I have been in eight press conferences in Otepaa, and heard iterations on no more than like five questions: “What was your tactic for the race? Did you expect to win today? Were you afraid of your competition? Where do you go next?) The best part of the day was hearing about FIS’s efforts to do a post-race video interview with Evgeniy Belov, the winner of the men’s race. Apparently, according to the guy who conducted it, Belov was actually being coached on his answers by someone standing right next to him—somewhat like this speech (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nx5k7jKGQyU).

That’s about it for today. Well, okay—there was one more thing. On my ski this evening, I got curious about how I would stack up among the junior women’s field, so I time trialed their 1.2 k sprint course. I will publish my time below, but only on the condition that you read all my excuses first.

1. I didn’t do a real warm-up.

2. It was cold.

3. I was wearing my jacket and warm-ups.

4. I was on skis that hadn’t seen glide wax in so long that I am embarrassed to write the number of days (weeks).

5. The kick wax on those skis was the same stuff I used in the Eastern Cup in December.

6. I have worked 37 hours in the past three days.

7. My only sustenance for the last three days has been non-alcoholic beer and HOOGVEIN.

Okay, that last part’s not true, but all the rest of them are.

I suppose I should also list a few one moderating factors.

1. I am a man

Time: 3:56.

Hanna Falk’s winning prelim time from last Sunday’s World Cup sprint here was 3:08.62. I can only hope that conditions have slowed a lot since then.

Astonia

It has officially been a long-ass time since the last time I posted a blog—nearly a full month—and it’s gotten to the point where if I don’t do something now, nothing will ever get done, because the prospect of encompassing all the awesomeness of the last month into one single update is intimidating enough as it is.

Briefly, before nationals, I went on a sweet ski vacation in Canada with my sister in late December, which included a 30-kilometer ski in on a snowmobile trail; a 240-pound rubbing-alcohol-swilling Belarussian named Paul (no joke—it’s all true), and some artwork:

"Artwork."

Quickly, here are a few other shots that my sister took:

Epic rock paper scissors game--when you're in the wilderness without cell service, internet, or electricity, sometimes you have to play best out of 87...Yes, I f--king lost.

The quick summary and few photos don’t do it justice—it was a truly kickass trip. But my attention is now directed to the place I’m currently residing: the city of Tartu, in the country of Estonia. (Note, Estonia is not Astonia, as the guy I talked to at ATT yesterday thought it was spelled…)

Except for the fact that Finnair lost my ski bag, my trip here went very smoothly. In fact, incredibly smoothly: I was supposed to have to walk two kilometers from the airport in Tallinn (the capital, where I landed) to the bus station, then catch a three-hour-long bus to Tartu. Instead, traveling ski announcer Kjell-Erik Kristiansen was on my flight from Helsinki to Tallinn, and let me ride along in his VIP BMW with the two friendly Estonians that had been dispatched to pick him up.

Actually, let’s back up a minute. So, Tallinn—it’s only like 40 miles over water from Helsinki, and to get from one to the other, you have the option of either taking a ferry across the Gulf of Finland, or a quick puddle-jumper airplane flight. The ferry seemed sweet, but was sadly more expensive and logistically challenging. My mom had also warned me not to take a sketchy ferry, which also seemed like good advice…until I got on the plane from Helsinki to Tallinn and it appeared to have scorch marksno, seriously, scorch marks—behind the engine on my side of the plane.

Scorch marks.

This was a bit disconcerting, but in the end, everything went okay, and it took us no more than 20 minutes in the air to get from takeoff to landing.

I am very excited to be in Estonia, but I have to say that the drive was pretty darn boring, aside from the occasional nugget of wisdom dispensed by Mr. Kristiansen (example: “Do not go to the disco tomorrow. They get all the girls from Estonia in one place. [I think he is coming from the perspective of a family man, but I can’t be sure.]) Not to say anything bad about the country, but there is absolutely nothing scintillating about its landscape. The only place I’ve been that’s challenged its monotony is Kansas.

Someone should do some large-scale "artwork" here to liven things up...

That changed once I got to Tartu, though. Tartu is the city where I’m currently staying, with the family of Vahur Teppan, an Estonian who raced for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and lived in Fairbanks this fall with my friend Nick Crawford.

Tartu is a big university town in the southeast, and Otepaa, where the races are held, is a tiny village roughly 20 miles south—I’ll catch a bus to the races in the morning.

I haven’t really accomplished anything since getting here except for eating my first-ever Big Mac for dinner (who ever thought that it would be in Estonia?), watching a bunch of World Cup skiing reports on Estonian television, and taking a walk to the grocery store. But the area seems really cool—there’s a mix of new and really old buildings (Estonia has some really rich history, based on my hour’s worth of research on Wikipedia and in guidebooks yesterday—hopefully I can tackle it in a later post), and there was also a permanent-looking street sign directing people/cars/somethings to the Tartu marathon.

Some of the highlights from the grocery store:

Fish, and lots of it...I'm definitely going to try some of the smoked stuff, if not the pickled herring...

Pretty sure this is either hot (cold) chocolate or chocolate milk in a strange tube. (I felt it--it's not solid...)

And finally, the least appetizing thing I've ever seen in my life. I opted for rye bread, nutella, and jam for tomorrow...

More Chili Than the Colby Ski Team Could Eat in a Week

Until this week, West Yellowstone had always been a really sweet-sounding place with lots of snow (except when there wasn’t) that good skiers got to go to in the beginning of the season.

When I was in college, I never went to West Yellowstone, because I was not a good skier, and also, because it 2,500 miles, three airplane flights, and a ridiculously expensive shuttle ride from my house.

Fast forward to 2010, when I have the sweetest job in the universe. Finally, I would get a chance to head to check out what one ski-acquaintance calls the “cross country skiing jock-sniffing capital of the world.”

First, though, since I would be missing Thanksgiving at home (otherwise known as the raddest holiday in existence), I had to head back to Maine for what has become an annual tradition: the Bowdoin ski team’s rollerski to my house. Basically, this is exactly what it sounds like: the Bowdoin team gets in a van, drives a few miles out of Brunswick, and then rollerskis the 40 or so kilometers to my mom’s residence in the town of Hallowell, where she cooks enough vegetarian chili to feed an army. Yes, that’s hyperbole, but not actually that much, because the first year we did this, the team plowed through the food that my mom had prepared in about ten minutes, which I’m pretty sure blew some (or all) of the fuses in her brain and reconfigured them so that now the amount of chili she makes can be measured in proportions of metric tons. Needless to say, despite the presence of Dan Polasky, who probably eats more in a single meal than the Colby Ski Team does in a week, there was still enough chili left for me to take some back to Williamstown and stick in the freezer, which I was pretty excited about.

Bowdoin Ski Team. My mom's house. Chili. PHOTO BY HALLIE HERZ.

Twelve hours after arriving back in Massachusetts, Topher and I were in the car headed for the Albany airport. For some reason, Delta decided to let us check our bags for free, which was the last non-stupid thing they would do all day. I guess they did give us vouchers for free lunch/dinner, but that was only after the data link between the terminal and the airplane in Detroit failed, preventing the transmission of some crucial information about the weight of the airplane. We waited on the ground for no less than one hour for this problem to be resolved, although Topher and I had both immediately come up with what we thought were some innovative solutions to this problem (handwritten signs? text message? carrier pigeon?). Oh yeah—and before this, we also had a ridiculously awesome interval session between two terminals in Detroit that entailed a ten-minute sprint with bags and jackets and ended with me smelling not delicious, and sitting down in my seat next to a very nice minister named Keith and his wife with my t-shirt entirely soaked through with sweat.

Topher post airport intervals. Note the sweatiness. Also, our airplane was not in an extreme vertical climb; I just couldn't figure out how to make this photo be rightside up.

Eventually, we arrived in Bozeman, which is a pretty rad place, and from there, we caught a ride with one of Topher’s friends, whose name is Erik. Despite preposterous quantities of snow and temperatures I had not seen since hitting up Fairbanks last January, Erik managed to get us to West Yellowstone on Tuesday in time for us to go for a ski and hang out at the Expo for the evening.

I don’t have much cohesive to say about West Yellowstone, aside from the fact that it is a pretty fun place, and that the skiing was absolutely fantastic—classic earlier this week, and skating today. But a few disjointed observations:

–We had a bunch of meals at the Freeheel and Wheel, which in my mind is probably the coolest possible set-up for a store: a ski and bike store combined with a coffee shop, which also has ridiculously delicious enchiladas. And a cool guy that works there whose name is Thor.

–Elevation. It is hard enough to ski in a place where there is no oxygen. Add in the fact that West Yellowstone was my first few days on snow this year, and the fact that I seem to have an especially hard time with altitude, and I was basically at level 2.5 for all eight hours I was skiing in West Yellowstone. My heart rate would get jacked up just opening and closing my bindings. No joke. Sometimes I would be in the hotel room and realize that I was out of breath just from walking around. Ouch.

–Two miles down a road out of town is Wyoming. Topher and I skied there today, which was sweet. I got to add another state to my lifetime tally, although he won the sprint to the state line.

Finally, I leave you with this parting shot of Topher in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, with a new friend.

Tour de Clam

Since returning from the frying pan of Las Vegas to the furnace of the East Coast, I’ve been at home in Maine. After such a wild time out west, it took me a full week to get back on my feet. But now I am ready to rock once more.

The reason I came home was to race in the Yarmouth Clam Festival Bike Race tomorrow. But before I could do that, I had to warm up, having not raced my bike since crashing out at the finish of the Lake Auburn Road Race in early June. Which meant that I had to do the Brunswick Time Trial (RACE SEVEN IN THE MAINE TT SERIES!!!!!).

I really don’t like time trials. Maybe it’s due to my lack of true aerobic fitness. Or non Miguel Indurain-like build. But whatever it is, I suck at them, at least compared to climbs and uphill sprint finishes. This one was basically in my backyard, though, so there wasn’t much of a choice.

The day before the race, my friend Morgan and I went over to the Brunswick High School, where the Maine Bike Rally was taking place, in search of someone who might be able to help us register the day before and save us some time. After being passed between like four different people, we finally were introduced to a man eating a large bowl of cake and ice cream. Between bites, he managed to give us absolutely no useful information and simultaneously thoroughly insult us, by asking us questions like, “have you ever done a time trial before?” and informing us that “helmets are required,” and “no drafting.” I suppose that I had hairy legs and in general behave like an amateur, but still.

The time trial itself was uneventful, and the only other amusing thing that happened was as we were leaving. As we pedaled away on our bikes, we thanked one of the volunteers, who yelled after us to “come back next year!” and to “stay the whole weekend!” “We live here!” we shouted back to her, to which she responded by yelling, “no I don’t!”

Since Morgan is an out-of-shape extremely qualified cyclist and I am a moderately fit not-particularly-qualified cyclist, we decided that the time trial would be the first event in the Tour de Clam, the winner of which would would be the person with the lowest combined placing between the TT and the Clam Fest. Morgan beat me by three places in the TT, but as it turned out, we did another ride on Wednesday, in which I took five of nine town line sprints. So, in tomorrow’s race I only have to make up two places. Loser has to buy lime rickeys at the Clam Fest after the race.

Other unwitting participants in the Tour de Clam include Middlebury Coach Andrew Gardner and MWSC VP Eileen Carey, both of whom are signed up for tomorrow’s race. Each has a large deficit to make up after having forfeited the Brunswick TT. And after having talked a big game all spring, Bowdoin ski team member Walt Shepard appears to have forfeit the entire competition, given that he has only entered a single bike race all year, and no stages of the Tour de Clam. This will be an especially tough defeat for him to stomach, since the course for the Clam Fest race travels past his house.

I promise to have a much less stupid and hopefully more entertaining blog post after tomorrow.

A Blight on Humanity, Yes, But an Awesome One

If you are a huge baller for long enough, then eventually you are going to end up in Vegas. That’s just how it is.

The Stratosphere, my home for the next three days.

I flew here yesterday from Boston. It was pretty sweet—on the leg from Newark to Las Vegas, I sat next to a well-groomed Danish dude who was competing in the World Series of Poker. He is not a professional—it sounds like (I couldn’t hear him that well over the roar of the jet engines) he splits his time between poker and working on his farm. I think he told me that he lost a million dollars or two in the last year, which seemed like no big deal.

Most of what I know about Las Vegas is what I have seen from the movie The Hangover and from what I have been told by others—mainly that it is the most horrible place in the whole world. So far, I believe that neither of these representations are accurate. I did not wake up to any tigers in my bathroom this morning, and after 24 hours here, I actually have to say that I kind of like Las Vegas.

To be sure, I emphatically agree that this place is an incredible waste of space, water, and energy. It’s can also be depressing—most of the people I’ve observed in the casinos actually look pretty lonely and miserable while they’re spending their money. However, there are a lot of good things as well.

First of all, people are quite friendly and convivial. On my run down the strip this morning, a surprising proportion of people I jogged past said hi. And I was also accosted by a crusty, unshaven, potentially-still-drunk-from-last-night middle-aged man who was waiting for the bus. As I approached, he grinned at me and shouted: “I keep telling you people…well, I don’t remember! But have fun!”

Also, where else are there things like slot machines in the airport, gigantic fountain-volcanoes that simultaneously belch water and flames, and absolutely gigantic buildings with seemingly no order or aesthetic sense?

Caesar's Palace. I couldn't quite tell if that thing was meant to have a head but doesn't, or just wasn't.

I hate it when people take themselves too seriously, and I think what I like about Las Vegas is that in general, everyone here seems to realize how utterly ridiculous this place is—and that there’s no point of being serious here, because you’d be like that guy who gets super-pissed off during the game of Monopoly and stalks off. (Yeah, okay, that guy is definitely me sometimes.)

Now, in no particular order, a few observations from vegas:

–The public transportation here is absolutely horrendous. The bus that I took this morning took about half an hour to go three miles, and it was a similar issue last night, except packed with belligerent drunk people. It’s basically like riding the subway at rush hour in New York, except it isn’t underground, it doesn’t go fast, and everyone has had eight margaritas.

–There are a lot of people around whose sole purpose it is to get you to do or buy things. Foremost among them are sketchy dudes standing on the curb passing out these cards with pictures of naked women on them, with phone numbers and pricing information. Wow. The number of people doing this was incredible—certain sections of the strip were just lined with guys shoulder-to-shoulder handing them out. I collected a few for the benefit of the reader (they give them to you a few at a time, I swear)—I haven’t called any of the numbers…yet.

Come to think of it, I do actually have a queen-sized bed...

–Caesar’s Palace has erected a ski jump—yes, a real ski jump, with snow—for the fourth of July. I am going to go check it out right now before it’s time to watch Marcus Hellner and Petter Northug play poker.

The ski jump is behind the sign...

Honestly, I could not dream up a stranger assignment than this one. More to come soon–honestly, how could there not be?

FasterSkier World Headquarters

For those of you still in the dark (which would be surprising, given the intense scrutiny that the ski-journalism community gets during the off-season), I have signed on to work for FasterSkier for another year. Thus, late last week, I packed up all the important things into my car (bike, ski poles, underwear) and drove five hours to FasterSkier World Headquarters in western Massachusetts, stopping along the way for a burrito in Portsmouth. Little did I know that there was a ski-related standoff occurring at the same time in the parking garage in town, which explains, in retrospect, why the traffic in Portsmouth was even more heinous than its usual insanity-inducing state.

Late that afternoon, I arrived in Williamstown, which will be my home for the summer and fall. If you didn’t already know, in addition to being the editor of FasterSkier, my boss, Topher, also is the manager of a dairy farm (it’s basically a hedge fund—one investment in the high-tech industry, and one in the more traditional agricultural sector [or you could also just say that they’re both very poor/high risk investments, but whatever)], and as part of my generous compensation package, he has kindly offered me a place of residence in one of the buildings here.

Topher preparing an IV as part of my training regimen for next winter. Or, actually, for one of the sick cows...

This is awesome for a whole handful of reasons:

1. I don’t have to live at home. Home is a very nice place—friendly parents, comfy bed, delicious food—but as I have previously written, there’s only so much you can get out of Central Maine.

2. There is a bakery on the farm that produces awesome bread, cookies, scones, etc. for the farm store. This is incredibly dangerous—kind of like if a gambling addict took up residence in Las Vegas—but also incredibly awesome. If Topher were not here to supervise me, I would eat ten scones per day. There’s also homemade yogurt, raw-milk cheese, a mango tree, and eggs (okay, no mango tree, but pretty much everything else you’d ever want).

Scone.

3. Western Mass. is an endurance athlete’s paradise. In contrast to Central Maine, where the largest hill is my own sh—tily-paved street, in this area, they actually have rad real climbs and spectacular paved roads. My workout yesterday was 1xGreylock (Mt. Greylock is the tallest “mountain” in Massachusetts, at a whopping 3,491; it has a freshly-paved road that goes up and over the summit), and the Taconic Ridge trail is right out the back door. The tentative plan is to get fit enough to win the Cat. 3 race at the Tour of the Hilltowns in late July.

The Greylock summit yesterday

4. Given that Topher and other mysteriously-titled employee of FasterSkier Matthew Voisin both live in Williamstown, we are now able to plan our schemes for world domination in person.

This evening, Topher and I are heading up to Burlington to compete in the Spartan Race, which will be the first in many contests taking place over the summer to determine who is the hugest baller ski journalist. After today’s bike ride, in which I delivered a Northug-esque beatdown on all the town line sprints, Topher has some work to do.

In the interest of fairness, Topher was asked if he had a comment on his crushing defeat.

“I was slowed down by my massively bulging biceps,” he said.

Expect a full recap of my awesome victory in the coming days–it will be something like this. Except instead of “this…is…SPARTA!” the rallying cry will be “this…is…NORTHERN VERMONT!”

Don’t Drink the Septic Juices

There are many, many perks involved in the life of a huge baller international ski journalists, but one of the unexpected disappointments of the last winter was how little time I had to ski, and especially to race. In the 2009-2010 ski season, I raced a grand total of three times. One of those was in Fairbanks, where I wore Swix warm-up pants because it was -15, and another was a 6 k citizens’ biathlon race in Fort Kent, where I beat up on masters, kids, and shot at the wrong targets. (At least I hit them.) Training wasn’t much better—I got a few chances to ski in some beautiful places (Germany, Anchorage, Whistler), but I was usually too busy to put much time in.
So when I got home a few weeks ago, I was excited to be able to jump on my bike and start riding. I put some pretty good days of training in this month (hill repeats! intervals!) in anticipation of some solid spring racing.

The only problem is that paying for races, and for getting yourself there, is expensive. And since I only recently graduated from college, have little talent, and am not “all in,” I have not been recruited to ride for a club or a team. Therefore, I’d been sticking to local group rides and training races until this last weekend, when I caught a ride down (or up, as it were, or actually, down and up, since there’s absolutely no efficient way to drive to central New Hampshire from Maine) to Dartmouth for the eastern collegiate cycling championships.

I know, I know—I don’t go to college any more. But there were open races both days—individual and team time trials the first day, and a road race the second. And you can’t argue with a free ride to New Hampshire, especially when the alternative is sitting around the house.

As it turned out, one of the Bowdoin cyclists got sick, so on Saturday, I raced in the Men’s Collegiate C Team Time Trial as J.B. Chun. Yes, for about twenty minutes on Saturday morning, I was Asian, and still a college student. It didn’t matter because we didn’t win, and it was wicked fun.

In the afternoon, I hung out and watched about eight different criteriums. I spent most of the time sitting on the grass in someone’s yard watching people overshoot the course’s most technical corner, except for when I conned my way into the pace car with one of my friends for the women’s intro race. It was pretty rad—we had to drive pretty fast just to stay in front of the women who were just learning how to race, and I can only imagine how awesome it must have been to rally around that course in front of the Men’s A race.

The view from the pace car

The other highlight of the day had to do with that aforementioned corner. It was a tough, 180-degree bend that came right after a pretty fast downhill. People would often be going too fast and end up in the grass on the outside (in the best-case scenario). At one point in the men’s B race, this UVM kid comes flying down the hill, and I guess he sees some senior citizens step out into the road without really realizing what was going on. He screams at them to get out of the way (we can hear this from about 100 yards away up on the hill where we were sitting), has to swerve to avoid them, and goes straight into the grass, falling off his bike as the rest of the field goes by.

By the time this guy fell off, he wasn’t going too fast, and it looked like he probably could have caught back up. Instead, he picks up his bike and starts screaming and running with it up the hill where we’re sitting. His parents are about ten yards from us, and they ask the kid if he is okay as he goes by. In this high-pitched, hysterical, breathless voice, he goes “FU–ING OLD PEOPLE!!!” Then, later, when his race is over, he comes back and is complaining to his parents again–he sounds like he is about to cry. “Fu—ing old people! They should just put them all in a home or something!!! I worked all year for this! These two fat, old people…” and so on, and so forth. Good stuff.

A few other highlights—we parked next to the West Point squad. These guys do not f—k around. As we were packing up our van and discussing what we wanted for dinner, who was buying beer, etc., these guys were having a serious meeting about the day’s races and about the plan for Sunday, which involved being ready to rumble at oh-six-hundred hours. We had the option of asking these guys to get out of our way and pulling out of our parking spot forwards, or backing out. We backed out.

Don't f--k with the cadets...

We stopped to pick up dinner at the Co-op in Hanover. I know that Dartmouth kids have some funny traditions and odd proclivities, but I was especially amused by this aisle sign (and yes, I am equating the weird hippie co-op in town with the college itself). I have no idea what an aseptic juice is, although it does make me wonder if I’ve been drinking septic juices my whole life—I certainly hope not.

Ew.

Sunday dawned sunny and warm, and I was incredibly excited to step up to the line for my first road race of the year—60-ish miles over Vermont hill and dale. I was pleasantly surprised to see former Harvard skier David McCahill in my field, as well as the guy who advised the cycling club at the Putney school my senior year.

The first forty miles of the race were relatively uneventful. The most exciting thing that happened was when I shoved an entire apricot Clif Bar in my mouth all at once about thirty seconds before a gigantic hill popped up out of nowhere. With some serious nose breathing, I barely managed to keep drooling and choking to a minimum before we got to the top. Other than that, I’d felt great—in the front going up the climbs, staying out of trouble, yelling at my friends on the side of the road, etc.

At about 45 miles, we came down a big hill about to start our last of four ten- or 12-mile laps. I am not a super-ambitious descender (they don’t not call me Il Falco (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paolo_Savoldelli) for nothing), and every time we’d gone down this hill, I’d been just about the last one in the group. As I downshifted and accelerated to close up the gap, I heard a loud “PING,” and then some serious tinging and more pinging. F—k. I stopped to check things out. My frame appeared to still be intact (good). So did all my cables (good). Then, I glanced at my rear wheel. Oh yeah, broken spoke. Not good. All I wanted to do at that moment was scream “FU—ING OLD PEOPLE,” but sadly, there was no one around to get the joke.

Not cool.

So that was the end of the day for me. Pretty big bummer, since I’d felt pretty good, and I was curious to see how my legs would hold up on the final climb against the small field of Cat. 3s and 4s. Hopefully, though, I will get a few more chances this spring. If there are any cycling company executives reading this post, I have yet to secure my free bike(s) for the year, and at the very least, I am in need of a new spoke.

A few other things of note:

–This photo

This does not seem like it should fly at West Point, but...

–Free gas (for me)

Thanks Bowdoin!

And the fact that Bowdoin called me to try to get me to donate to the alumni fund as I was literally in the car on my way home from Brunswick on Sunday night. I have copied and pasted their thank-you note. Please note my title—all future correspondence with me should use it.

Gift Detail

Name:  The Most Rev. Nathaniel Herz

Gift Amount:  $1.00

Gift Date:  4/26/2010

Designation:  Alumni Fund”

Thanks!

I drove home yesterday morning from Fort Kent. The last time I was here was December 21, and that was for one night. All I have done since getting home is read, eat, sleep, and watch an episode of 24.

It has been an awesome winter—one that went far, far beyond my expectations. And there are literally dozens of people that I need to thank for helping me along. If you’re not interested, at least take a glance down this list and make a note of just how many people in the ski world pitched in, because I think it reflects the warmth and generosity of this community.

In reverse order:

The Hussain family welcomed me into their house and gave me my own room and hot meals in Fort Kent. That was much appreciated at the tail end of a long winter. The Shepard family also took me along for a couple of dinners in town, as well.

On my way to Fort Kent, I was lucky enough to have a place to crash every single night between Salt Lake City and Northern Maine. I stayed with Steven Kolberg in Ithaca, Dave Falkof in Chicago (we had a hot dog at the renowned Wiener’s Circle [this is where people who get fourth at the Olympics get their

dinner], where the women at the counter swear at the customers. the woman who gave dave his change told him to tip, or she would “smack the motherfu—ing color out of his eyes.” he tipped.), Kendall in Kansas (sorry Kendall, but I never found out your last name [no, that’s not as bad as it sounds), and Lily Morse in Aspen.

My friends in Seattle, Erin York and Hannah Wadsworth, probably win the award for the most awesome friends ever. They picked me up from and dropped me off at the airport at preposterous hours, let me sleep on their couch for multiple nights, leave my car outside their house while I was in Alaska and Germany, and took me out for a really fun night that included some amazing chocolate and good beer.

At the Olympics, Topher and I went out for one of the most amazing dinners I have ever had, courtesy of John Borstelmann. Neither of us had ever met Mr. Borstelmann before, but he got in touch with us saying that we should go out for a delicious meal, on him. If anyone knows me or Topher, you know that a delicious meal is one thing that you do not have to offer us twice. And at the tail end of a ridiculous amount of work and PB+J lunches, it was double appreciated. We started with fresh oysters (and each of us had like eight rolls with this amazing olive spread that they kept replenishing—I think the waiter probably thought that we’d just returned from the Arctic or something), and then I had roasted beets with goat cheese, risotto with something delicious (I don’t remember exactly what, although sage was somehow involved), and a baller cappuccino to finish. Dessert was not necessary.

On the way to Canmore, we stayed with Mark Waechter, owner of Nordic Ultratune, who took us on a wicked fun ski and let me use a blazing fast pair of his test skis. As is consistent with the rest of the winter, we had a delicious dinner and some really good beer, and I think I ate about seven cookies before that night was over—which for me was like seven o’clock, since I was still jet-lagged from Europe.

Sue Faulkner and Darren Rorabaugh invited me to stay with them in Germany to cover World Juniors and U-23’s, and there is no way that that trip could have happened without them.

In Fairbanks, John Estle let me jump into the local race free of charge, and also had me over for some delicious nachos and beers (this post makes it sound like I had a lot of beer over the course of the winter, but I swear, it actually was a pretty rare occurrence—I only had about four throughout the entire Olympics), some excellent stories, and a shower (if you use Nick’s shower [where I was staying in Fairbanks], you have to bail it out into the toilet afterwards because the drain is frozen, so this was a nice respite). Oh yeah, and Nick, despite the frozen shower, thanks for letting me stay at your house. And also in Fairbanks, Nick and I had a pair of delicious dinners with the Buetow family and with Dave Offer. Reese Hanneman and David Norris drove me all the way up there from Anchorage in their sweet Suburban—we had a fun time watching the thermometer on the rearview drop a grand total of like 50 degrees, from like 20 in Anchorage to -30 (no joke) by the time we finally got to Fairbanks.

In Anchorage, Rob Whitney found me an awesome place to stay, at Rachel Goldberger’s house while she was in South America. I only met Rachel when she got back from her trip earlier than anticipated to find my stuff all over her sofa and a Jenga tower standing in the middle of her carpet, but it was awesome to have a free place to stay and a car to drive around.

On the way to Seattle (where I caught the flight to Anchorage), I stayed with Forrest Horton in western Montana (the elk lasagna was awesome) and in Caroline Silver’s house in eastern Montana. That was pretty clutch, because there really isn’t very much in eastern Montana aside from Caroline Silver’s house.

In Minnesota, I stayed with Jeff Bush and his family. Due to the epic snowstorm that decided to coincide with my visit to Minneapolis, I ended up spending like three or four nights at his house, including Christmas. There are very few places I can think of where a Jew would have been more comfortable on December 25th—and the skiing at Wirth Park was awesome.

Some thank you’s that are less obvious: skiers and coaches who had the patience to modify their routines to take the time to talk with me and answer my questions this winter (there are some 350 interviews stored on my iPhone now), and all the people who gave us positive feedback and constructive criticism. Readers who suggest story ideas and who voraciously devour anything we have to offer. My mom for being an incredibly patient editor and advisor (mom, feel free to say something about this, but please don’t express yourself in the form of an embarrassing comment). I’m sure there’s more, and I’m really, really sorry if I forgot anyone.

Really guys. I am trying to think of another metaphor. This is like if we wrote a story about nordic combined and called it biathlon.

The one person/persons I am not thanking? The staff of the 2009 Bowdoin Bugle (our joke of a yearbook), which I found three copies of when I got home. On the page where there should have been a photo of the 2008-2009 Bowdoin Nordic Ski Team, there is a picture of the 2005-2006 crew. WTF? It’s egregious enough to be one year off (that’s 365 days!), but four? That would be like if we wrote a story about Giorgio di Centa winning this year’s Olympic 50 k, when in fact that happened in Torino. Wow.

Fact or Crap?

So I’ve been in Fort Kent for more than a week now, and I’m still alive. A few tidbits below.

1. Before I arrived last week, one of my friends from college, a biathlete, had told me he could set me up with a place to stay through the race organizers.

When I got to Fort Kent, I was informed that I would be staying with a local family. Now, this being Fort Kent, I have to say that I didn’t know what to expect. Would I be sleeping on the couch? On the floor? In the garage? Maybe if I was lucky, I’d get my own bed. What about internet?

When I arrived at the house, I was immediately greeted by the most gigantic dog I had ever seen—a 140-pound Newfie named Chessie. I thought it was a

That's a big dog.

bear, but it was just really really big, and fluffy as f—. And friendly. And a prodigious drooler.

My hosts, Tricia and Khal Hussain, showed me my room, which was decked out with a TV, a huge bed, and cookies! Sweet! The Hussains have also been packing me lunches and letting me eat dinners at the house, too. I’m getting soft—all I have to do is watch ski races and take pictures.

2. Last weekend, I competed in a citizens’ biathlon race. I was one of very few people wearing spandex, and definitely the only person who warmed up (in my own defense, I did so before realizing that I would be racing against far less-serious competitors). I shot ten times and hit two targets, one of them in the prone, and one in the standing (full disclosure: one of the targets was in the wrong lane. but it was the honor system, and since I was aiming at it, I counted it). Sadly, my performance was not good enough for the podium, because am either too poor of a shot, too slow of a skier, or—the most likely case—both.

3. On Monday, one of the off days between the biathlon and SuperTour races here, I skied the uphill climb. Background: I skied for two hours in the morning and did intervals. Then, later in the day, I interviewed Will Sweetser, one of the race organizers, and mentioned to him that I wanted to check out the uphill course. “Yeah, it’s open. You want to go check it out this afternoon?” Gulp. “Okay.”

For anyone who didn’t see the picture in the article about the mini-tour, or who for some reason still doesn’t get it, let me say it right now: 150 skiers ascending that thing at the same time will mean that Aroostook County will probably be the pain-center of the entire universe on Sunday. According to Will, our pace was “medium,” and it still made me want to curl up into a ball by the time I got to the top of the hill. Actually, I wanted to curl up in a ball long before I reached the top.

4. So I only had one person take me up on my Boggle challenge (since I have thousands upon thousands of blog readers, I was initially very surprised, until I realized the reason was that everyone else was just too scared. i’d be scared too, honestly—my boggle skills are fearsome).

I didn’t have my own Boggle up here, so on my way to check out the venue at Madawaska yesterday, I stopped to see if I could find a set at K-Mart. As it turns out, they have a vast array of board games, but no effing Boggle! They even had a game called “Fact or Crap” in the “Adult Board Games” section! Hey,

Fact? Or crap? Stupidest game ever.

K-Mart, telling fact from crap isn’t a game—that’s my job! How could you have a game called “Fact or Crap” and not have Boggle, one of the all-time greatest? After searching every nook and cranny of the store without success, I ended up buying a box of Cheez-Its and a copy of Vanity Fair (book excerpt by Michael Lewis) and calling it good.

5. This stretch is impressive. And painful-looking. Yes, I know this is possibly the sketchiest video ever, but it seemed merited at the time.

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