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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.

Hire me. (Seriously)

How many of you readers have, at any point, ever clicked your way to the FasterSkier home page, perused my stories about cross-country skiing, and thought, “man, I wish that I could read that kind of aggressive reporting and original writing about the corrupt officials in the paper in my own city, which, by the way, also happens to be an excellent place to live, full of snow, cross-country ski clubs, and smooth roads upon which one can ride a bicycle?” Okay, admittedly, probably not very many of you. But, if you have, now is your chance to act!

I currently work as a reporter/postgraduate fellow at The New York World, a news website in Manhattan. I cover the fantastically colorful and often corrupt world of city and state politics and government. (See my best example here.) But my days here are numbered, thanks to a one year “appointment” that ends on June 31. Hence, I am now looking for a job. And, yes, I am asking you to help me find it. I mean, I figure it’s at least worth a shot…

There are a lot of great things about New York–Chinatown, subways, tabloid newspapers, people gawking at you while you rollerski in Central Park–but there are a few other elements that are generally in absence here that I have come to realize are requirements for me to have a fulfilling, soul-nourishing existence. Like, easier access to the outdoors/snow, abundant open space, etc.

However, I also have come to realize that I probably will not be happy living in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where the only person to investigate is the corrupt dog-catcher.

Over the past few weeks, I have been compiling, in my head, a list of acceptable places to move. So far, it includes, in no particular order: the Twin Cities, Seattle, the Bay Area, Bend, Denver, Anchorage, Boulder, Boise, Bozeman, Missoula, Salt Lake City, and a few Canadian cities that seem rad (Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary), but that I have written off because they cling to their maple syrup and their parliamentary style of government and make it difficult for foreigners to move and become employed there. I would also consider living in other exciting places that have not yet occurred to me.

This is where you come in.

I imagine that most FasterSkier readers are a well-connected bunch, presumably with close ties to people in senior positions at newspapers in all of these metropolises. Or, at least, with much closer ties than mine. If you read this blog post and feel so moved, please consider recommending me, or even putting me in touch. Then, we can all go skiing.

In all seriousness, I am really, actually, looking for a new job. Ideally covering politics/government/cops/courts/crime/business/real estate (or any combination) for a daily newspaper (or website), large or small. And, I figured that of all people, FasterSkier readers are the most familiar with my work, and probably live in good, wintry places…so why not ask for some help? If you have any ideas, email me! natherz[at]gmail.com

Also, as an example of my qualifications as a dirt-digging reporter, here’s a picture of my desk. Also, yesterday I was reprimanded personally by the New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly.

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.)

The Sean Kingston Rollerski Race

Ah, November…it’s that time of year. When the U.S. Ski Team heads to Northern Europe, and the members of the Manhattan Nordic Ski Club drive two hours up the New York State Thruway for the Kingston Rollerski Race.

You might be asking yourself why anyone would name a rollerski race after a rotund Jamaican-America rapper. However, the classically trained Mr. Kingston performed at Bowdoin during my senior year, and I can attest that his artistic prowess more than merits a rollerski race bearing his moniker. It doesn’t get much better than Fire Burnin’ on the Dance Floor. I also hear that he performed this song with Odd-Björn Hjelmeset in an attempt to woo Therese Johaug.

Anyways, on Sunday, I skied up the hill from my Harlem abode to meet my friends Sproule, Tim, and Sean for the drive to Kingston. Sproule’s GPS decided to take us on the scenic route, via some pleasant cornfield-lined backroads, but we arrived with more than an hour to spare.

Making our triumphant arrival at the race, with the GPS in question pictured at center.

My thinking about how the race would unfold is as follows:

–Sproule and Tim are both very fit.

–I am not as fit as Sproule or Tim, but I have been training enough that I was under the impression that I could go fast enough so as not to embarrass myself.

–Given the quality and number of skiers I was aware of residing in the Hudson Valley Area, I would probably finish third, and return to my Harlem apartment triumphant with the spoils of victory, which hopefully would include a fresh-baked pie, or something.

Upon our arrival, I noticed a disturbingly large number of athletes who actually appeared to be at least semi-competent on skis, including several from clubs that I’d actually heard of, like HURT Nordic. Who knew that when you drive two hours north from New York City, you end up close to places that actually get snow and have skiers? However, I still felt pretty confident when I lined up at the start, behind a guy who was wearing a bike jersey, and filling just about every inch of it.

My feelings of confidence lasted about as long as the 50-meter double pole zone—at the conclusion of which Mr. Heavyset Biker took off like he was on an actual bicycle, along with like five other people. I watched, and breathed heavily. After the somewhat frenetic start, I found myself in a group with three extremely skinny and gangly kids (one of whom I later learned was actually 32 years old), which I desperately clung to for two laps of the dead-flat 5-kilometer course, drafted like a true master blaster, and managed to sneak around one of them for an impressive 11th place finish, only two-and-a-half minutes behind the 46-year-old winner of the race, and roughly the same time behind the similarly aged Mr. Heavyset Biker. Results.

Lessons from the day?

–A reminder that despite the fact that I do relatively frequent interval sessions in Central Park, and am almost certainly the third-fastest cross-country skier in all of New York City (that’s 8 million people, for the record), those 7,999,997 other people will generally not be my competition in most rollerski and real ski competitions over the course of the winter. Instead, the competition will be people who also do frequent interval sessions—likely of higher quality—train more than me, and have more talent and potentially other helpful things like coaches and Scandinavian heritage.

–The Hudson Valley actually contains some residents who are legitimate cross-country skiers.

–Re: rollerski wheel speed– Do not bring a pea shooter to a gun fight. Or, if you’re going to show up with a pea shooter, be prepared to have the guns inflict grievous wounds to your pride.

Other than that, I would like to offer mad props to Kingston Nordic Skiing for putting on a fun and rad race for the low price of $20, which included a bag of free stuff like gels and drink mixes, and also lunch.

Finally, I will relate the following humorous anecdote, facilitated by my friend Peter Minde.

Peter: “Nat, this is my friend Josef. He lives in New Jersey, but he used to be on the Polish National Biathlon Team a while ago.”

Nat: “Oh, so you probably didn’t get to know Justyna Kowalczyk then, huh?”
Josef: “Kowalczyk? Oh, I know him! He lives in New Jersey, right?”

Nat: “Um…”

Josef: “He lives in New Jersey?”

Nat: “Uh, never mind.”

Buy My Gown

Okay, so I have now officially become one of those people who gets a blog on FasterSkier, updates it for a while, and then drops it when they realize that it actually takes work and does not lead to instantaneous fame, fortune, and book deals like Bill Clinton’s. Apparently, my last post was in November, which is just embarrassing.

Now, I know that pretty much the only reason you people even go to FasterSkier is to read about what I’ve been up to, so I’m sorry to have kept you on pins and needles. But, wait no longer! In this post, I will try to update you on all the things I’ve accomplished in the last eight months without putting anyone to sleep.

So, going back to November. Actually, I don’t really know what happened in November, but in December I left for Europe, and went to the Tour de Ski. Unless you were living under a rock (or like normal people you don’t pay attention to bylines), you probably knew that, so I’m not going to go into it in any detail. Suffice to say that highlights include a Topher locking himself in a bathroom, risottos of various flavors, and a Sarah Palin sighting in Oberhof. If you want to see my personal photos from the trip, you can look at this album.

After I got back from the Tour, I went back to school in New York, and cross-country skied a grand total of two more times over the entire winter. Then, between January and April, I spent pretty much all of my time doing schoolwork, as one might expect a graduate student to do…even a journalism graduate student.

This “schoolwork” really consisted of writing a bunch of stories. Of these, the most important one was my masters thesis. As far as masters theses go, I’m pretty sure the one you have to write to make it out of Columbia Journalism School has got to be the easiest out of any Ivy League graduate program—it just has to be 5,000 to 7,000 words, which for those of you who are out of academia or the writing profession is a mere 20 pages. My cat could do that, and I don’t even have a cat. However, for me, at least, this was still pretty hard.

Fortunately, because I managed to sneak my way into this rad investigative journalism program at Columbia, I had the privilege of working with a pretty awesome advisor. His name is Wayne Barrett. If you want to know what Wayne is like, you have two options. Your first-and-more-comprehensive option is to read this article. Your second option is to think of Marty Hall, subtract eyebrows, and replace skiing with journalism, and then you’re pretty much good to go.

Wayne basically gave me and his other advisees a few suggestions of stories to work on; in my immeasurable wisdom, I decided to pick the one that involved public finance and pension funds because those seemed like two things that would be good to learn about. Wayne gave me all his files on this story, and then I started accumulating files of my own, and eventually my locker came to look like this:

For this story, I spent a lot of time in the basement making phone calls, went to one meeting, and met one anonymous source in a Starbucks, which was pretty cool except for when the guys at the next table tried to have the homeless guy sit down with us. Eventually, I got the story published in the Daily News—though it ultimately got pulled down due to some miscommunication (not due to any errors!). Its permanent home is here. The whole process of writing, editing, and publishing it was a pretty fun experience, and though I’d like to think I could have tackled projects like this if I’d stayed at FasterSkier full time, the truth is that while Bill Marolt may have a six-figure salary, he is not yet to the point where he is developing large condominium projects, paying for lobbyists to do his bidding, or slamming Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policies as he gears up for his campaign for mayor in 2013—at least, not to my knowledge. (If it is to your knowledge, I can be reached at nat@fasterskier.com or 207-841-4199, and documents can be shipped to me care of my mom, 87 Second St., Hallowell, ME 04347.)

Other stories I wrote in the spring included the ones I did for my radio class. If you didn’t know, radio is pretty cool. Don’t take it from me—Andy Newell and Sam Evans-Brown think so too. In any case, over the course of the spring semester, I learned how to make radio stories by sticking microphones in peoples’ faces and then cutting up their answers with fancy computer programs. I also hosted our weekly broadcast a couple of times…shirtless. (The best part about radio is that nobody knows you’re not wearing a shirt.) (Also, for the record, I don’t know why that show that I hosted sounds like it’s broadcast out of a didgeridoo, but it’s not my fault.)

Photo, Keldy Ortiz

Eventually, it got to be the end of May, so then I graduated, which was pretty rad. Also, I am selling a blue gown. Or trading for a pair of Carbonlites or a mountain bike.

Seriously though, once I got my masters degree, it was only a matter of time: the New York Times was on the phone three days after graduation, and now I’m working as a metro reporter making seven figures and living in a sweet studio apartment on Park Avenue, since that’s what people with masters degrees do, right?

Haha, wrong! Gotcha! This may seem baffling, since most people, like me, do get into journalism for the money and women, but in fact, I am not making seven figures and living in a studio apartment on Park Avenue.

Instead, I am living in a single dorm room at Farmingdale State College on Long Island. There is no kitchen, and there is no alcohol allowed inside, but fortunately, there is a good consolation prize in the form of a high-quality dining establishment just across the street:

Okay, seriously though…starting a few weeks ago, I became an intern at Newsday, which is the daily paper covering pretty much all of Long Island, and a little bit of the city. It’s a pretty awesome paper—first of all, it’s a tabloid, so I get to have headlines on my stories like this one:

Second, they actually do really good journalism, and it’s been a good place to work. It doesn’t have the same name recognition or horsepower as the Times and the Wall Street Journal, but they’re very well respected, and have won a whole bunch of Pulitzer prizes. If the Times was APU, Newsday would be kind of like the Craftsbury Green Team.

Among the things I have discovered so far is that in general, Long Island is a pretty horrendous place to try to exercise. Outside my dorm (next to the Hooters), the road is a six-lane north-south race track that connects two of the island’s main east-west highways. I do a substantial amount of my training on the service road for the Long Island Expressway, which affords me an excellent view of people sitting in traffic on their way to work while simultaneously supplying sufficient particulate matter for my lungs to get a double workout. (Mom, don’t worry, I’m not actually training ON the expressway—the service road is, like, outside the guardrail and has a huge shoulder and generally no cars.)

There are a few bike paths, including one that goes to this sweet beach, but I’ve only done it once because they’re not actually that friendly there:

Yes, that is a bikeguard.

Anyways, I’m here for about four more weeks, then I have a 10-day vacation to go see my sister in Canada, and then I start a new, real job at this place called the New York World. It should be pretty sweet—I’m going to be covering city politics—and extra special bonus is that it comes with health insurance. While the job is in New York City, it’s only for about 10 months, and then most likely I will be trying to get a job somewhere with more things like snow and mountains, and hopefully equal levels of corruption to be exposed.

I’ve kind of fallen off the FasterSkier wagon, but hoping to maybe get involved a little bit more some time in the near future. If anyone’s ever in NYC and needs a rollerski tour of Central Park, you know where to find me.

Texts from Thomas

This week, I logged into Facebook and noticed something that was pretty funny: “Thomas Alsgaard shared BACKSTREET GIRLS’s status update.”

I’m not really sure what or who the Backstreet Girls are, but perhaps I should back up, because you might be wondering: How did that dweeb Nat Herz get to be Facebook friends with Thomas Alsgaard?

It all starts four weeks ago—last Saturday, the day before the New York City Marathon.

I was hoping to interview Thomas before he participated in the race, since I figured he wouldn’t be too busy during his time here—I’d e-mailed him way back in early October when I learned he’d entered, and he’d agreed not only to an interview, but also to a rollerski tour through Central Park with me and the three other members of the Manhattan Nordic Ski Club. We were excited.

As the date approached, I e-mailed Thomas to fix a day and time for our excursion…and, I heard nothing. So, I e-mailed him again. Still, nothing. There was a phone number under the signature on his e-mail, and I thought about calling, but I also had a ton of work to do that weekend, so I figured that Thomas and I just were not destined to meet, and that it was for the best for me to focus on school.

That morning, November 5, I woke up at about 7:00, and checked my e-mail. Among the new messages in my inbox was one from the NYPD’s media distribution list. I thought about pasting the whole message below, for effect, but I’m worried that I might get arrested for doing so, so instead I’ll just say that the e-mail said that a guy in the Bronx neighborhood I cover had been shot one (1) time in the chest early that morning. He was rushed to the hospital, but was pronounced DOA (dead on arrival).

One of the reasons I moved to New York for journalism school is because it would occasionally present me with opportunities like these. This was the third guy that had been killed in the last eight days on my beat; I decided I should probably head up there and check it out, even if I had some other stuff to do. (Plus, there is a Mexican restaurant up there that supposedly makes really good tamales, but only on the weekends, and I wanted to try them. Having now tried them, I can state for the record that they are awesome.)

Reporting on cross-country skiing is one thing; reporting on gang violence is quite another. I took the D train up to the Bronx and spent the morning trying to figure out what had happened. Nobody was really interested in telling me anything, but through a somewhat absurd series of coincidences (recognizing a guy who I had seen once at a meeting who happened to live on the block who happened to be the vice president of the local police precinct community council; running into an outspoken local pastor on the street), I ended up with a pretty decent story, and I even got some confirmations from my sources deep within the NYPD. (Kind of a joke, kind of not.)

One of my photos--see, I really was at a crime scene.

As I’m getting ready to head back to my home on the Upper West Side, I check my e-mail to see if I’ve gotten a response to the request I’ve sent the NYPD for an interview request. Instead, there’s a message from Thomas that says his e-mail hasn’t been working, that he’s not running in the race, but that he’s still happy to meet with me—just send him a message on his phone. So, when I get home at 1:30, I do. Still, for two hours, I don’t hear anything, which is actually okay, since now I’m trying to write up this story as quickly as possible so that I can be really important and pitch it to all the big New York City newspapers like the Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Then, at 3:39, this exchange ensues:

Thomas Alsgaard (who, yes, is now in my cell phone as “Thomas Alsgaard): “I stay at 96 st and Broadway. We could meet some place there?”

Nat: “That’s great—I am at 115 and Broadway. There is a Starbucks coffee at 95 and Broadway—when is a good time for you?” (Subtext: tomorrow? Later this evening?)

Thomas Alsgaard: “As soon as possible?”

Right. Well, given that this is Thomas Alsgaard, and I am Nat Herz, we agree to meet at 4:15, which gives me approximately half an hour to get myself 20 blocks downtown and come up with whatever questions I possibly can. I do wish I’d had a little more time to prepare, but I think it ended up okay—Thomas seemed to be in a very good mood despite his having to pull out of the marathon, and he was incredibly accommodating…although he did let me pay for the coffee. (Topher, you owe me like $5 for that, by the way.) Things that didn’t make it into the interview: he was wearing skinny jeans, which I think is hilarious; he was entirely anonymous in the diner (Starbucks was too packed); but yes, Olympic champions still do have a pretty intimidating aura. (Nonetheless, we are now Facebook friends.)

That’s about all, except for one other story that I think is worth relating. So, I’m sitting at school last week, working on some stuff, when my phone rings. The caller ID says “private,” which is what my mom always shows up as. So, I answer the phone:

Me: “Hi mom!”

Phone: “Uh, hi. This is Rabbi Katz—I’m looking for a Nathaniel Herz who left a message for me earlier today.”

Me: “Yes, hi…”

How to Become More Badass Than Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall in One Easy Step

So, it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog—even longer, in fact, than it has been since Reese updated his blog. It appears that I am joining the long list of delinquent FasterSkier bloggers.

My lifestyle has undergone some serious changes over the last couple months, since I moved to New York City and started at Columbia. For example, instead of typing this post in my underwear and a t-shirt, as I would have done in the past, I am now typing it in my underwear and a collared shirt and a tie, something I would have punched myself in the face for doing just a few months ago. (For the record, did you know that a collared shirt and tie on top and underwear on bottom is perfectly sufficient for conducting video skype interviews? Just sayin’.)

Other ways things have changed: I have become a hardened New Yorker. How? Well, mainly, I got mugged. Fo real. No joke. I am now more badass than Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall combined.

So, as part of school here, I cover this neighborhood in the north Bronx called Norwood, which, I concede, is a place where you might not want to leave your valuable rubies and emeralds unattended on a park bench for more than a few minutes at a time. However, it is not a place where people regularly fear for their health and well-being.

A few weeks ago, I’m walking around on my beat, minding my own business, checking out some basketball courts under construction in a busy park in BROAD DAYLIGHT while wearing a backpack and collared shirt. In retrospect, I had not actually drawn a logo in block letters on my collared shirt that said “please mug me, as I am from a rural area of Maine where people smile at each other when passing on the street,” but I think that that is how two area youth may have interpreted it anyway.

So, yeah. I finish up looking at these basketball courts and try to leave the park so that I can go, of all places, to the police precinct, where I am trying to make friends with the cops. (Yes, I know, irony: I am about to get mugged while I am on my way to the police precinct.) Sample conversation between me and the NYPD:
Me: Can you tell me about any of the unusuals that have happened here over the last few days? (Translation: I just used the word unusuals, which makes me a hardened police reporter who knows what he’s talking about—will you please give me information that you’re not authorized to give me even though I am wearing a shirt that says “please mug me, as I am from a rural area of Maine where people smile at each other when passing on the street”?)

NYPD Officer: No. (Or some variation on this theme.)

Anyways, back to the story of me getting mugged. I am trying to leave this stupid park. But instead of finding the exit, I run into this fenced-off construction area, and there’s a guy walking the other way who says that I can’t go through there. So I’m like, okay, and I turn around, and then there is another gentleman who is walking towards me who decides that, instead of returning my friendly nod, that he will heed the instructions on my shirt and take the opportunity to lunge towards me and punch me in the throat.

Keep in mind that this is all unfolding with like one dude watching from behind a fence but apparently minding his own business, and then a handful of other people within a hundred meters or so, pleasantly enjoying their day in the park. Just another day in the Bronx. Anyways, I humbly offer the contents of my wallet and backpack to these dudes, as well as my dignity, and they proceed to make off with my iphone, $10 from my wallet, and my dignity, leaving my computer charger, library books, credit cards, and even my subway pass intact. Which is fortunte, because it means that I don’t even have to call my mom in Maine to have her drive me back to Manhattan from the Bronx! Also, my memory is not 100 percent clear on this, but I think they left the day’s edition of the Wall St. Journal, as well.

After a brief stop at several local institutions that do not let me use the phone, I walk the rest of the way to the police precinct, which was my intended destination in the first place. A wait ensues. Then, I am led up to the stairs to be interviewed by a detective.

Me: “This was not how I wanted to get inside the precinct office.” (Translation: I am a reporter who would like to view the interior of your offices without being subjected to physical violence.)

Officer: “At least you’re not wearing bracelets.” (Translation: handcuffs. Fair enough.)

After telling the detective that I don’t have much of an interest in looking through, no joke, 7,483 mugshots to see if I can identify the perpetrators, I depart, and my work for the day is finished.

Other than that, things are going pretty well. The Manhattan Nordic Ski Club, which consists of me and three other exceptionally friendly dudes, has already had its first team practice, and we are excited for Thomas Alsgaard’s visit to the city in a few weeks.

I have been busy reporting. And I also managed to con some people into letting me sneak in the back door to an extremely awesome investigative reporting program that runs concurrently to all the other classes I was already signed up for. One of the teachers is a private investigator. So suffice to say that if anyone is laundering their SuperTour prize money, I will be the first to let you all know, unless Chelsea or Topher or someone else at FasterSkier beats me to it. Over and out from NYC.

No Escape from the Guinea Hens

So, I’m not sure that anyone really cares, but I’m planning/hoping to keep updating this blog throughout my year of grad school in New York City. I do hope to write about ski-related stuff at some point along the way, but if that’s what you’re looking for right now, I’d suggest you head back to the FasterSkier main page.

I moved down here on August 1, into an apartment that is awesome, large, ideally-situated, and also, literally, infinitely more expensive than my lodging in Williamstown, where I was living rent-free.

The arrangement is kind of interesting. I came by the apartment through my sister, who went to school at Barnard for a year. Two of her friends were moving out of an apartment that was owned by one of their aunts, and they asked me if I was interested. I ended up getting a good deal, but because the place is rent-controlled and in a relatively nice building, it’s not actually supposed to be sub-let. Which means that I have no lease, and also that when I moved in, I had to do so between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. My mom was kind enough to help with this process.

School started on August 4th with orientation. And if you anything about orientation, you know that it’s scintillating: epic sessions of deans and administrators presenting information that is simultaneously delivered by way of printed materials. I had assumed that if Columbia thought you were smart enough to go to their grad school, they’d trust you with being able to read, but apparently this is not the case. To be fair, judging from some of the questions that were asked by my peers, perhaps some of them don’t know how to read. But anyways…

After four days of orientation, we started a month-long session of multimedia training that includes lessons in audio, photo, and video. We just finished the audio unit (you can check out my pieces here http://soundcloud.com/nat-herz/bond-parade-floats and here http://soundcloud.com/nat-herz/raymond-myrie-jr-profile-v-2 ), and now it’s on to photo.

Starting in September, I’ll be covering a neighborhood in the Bronx for the remainder of the semester. Most likely it’s going to be Norwood, a formerly-Irish community with now-shifting demographics. Needless to say, I don’t think it will be very much like covering skiing. So far this year, through August 7, there have been three murders in the area’s police precinct, which, while a 50 percent decline from last year, is (I think) three more murders than I covered at FasterSkier last season. Demographically, I think it will also be somewhat different. For example, according to the 2010 census, there are 7,391 people of Dominican descent residing in Norwood, or, approximately, 7,391 more than reside the cross-country ski world. I had hoped to be able to at least do some stories on waxing and grinding technologies, but my google search for “ski shop Norwood Bronx” did not turn up very much.

As for physical activity, things have been going fairly well, if not very ski-specific. My apartment is just five blocks from Central Park, which makes it very easy to access for morning runs, bicycle rides, etc. My excursions in Central Park are almost always the highlight of my day. Why? Well, I thought that it was because I was living in New York City, and people living in New York City are ridiculous. For example, in my first few weeks here, I have seen both men and women riding bicycles while wearing skintight pink clothing (the woman was in a one-piece, complete with pink shoe covers but no helmet), a woman pushing a dog in a baby carriage, and a 200-plus-pound woman go absolutely rocketing past me on a triathlon bike in impressive fashion.

At first my attitude about the people exercising in Central Park was kind of condescending, as I was sure that they looked strange because they were bizarre New Yorkers, while I looked completely normal and badass because I am normal and badass. But upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that with the exception of maybe Petter Northug and Kikkan Randall, we all have our own idiosyncracies and look pretty silly when we are exerting ourselves. Of course, this is a matter of degree, but the thing about exercising in Central Park is that you go past about 1,000 people every morning, and even if the factor of ridiculousness is constant between here and Maine, you’re more likely to run into hilarity in New York because of the sheer numbers.

That’s it. Actually, that’s not it. You know why? Because even in New York Effing City, you can’t escape those god-damn guinea hens:

Okay, this isn't exactly NYC. But it is just across the George Washington Bridge, on a bike ride.

Lime Rickeys Are the Best Thing Ever

The beginning of August marks the end of the summer for me: I start orientation at Columbia Journalism School on the fourth—this coming Thursday.

But before any more discussion of my impending move to the city, there’s some important business to attend to—namely, a wrap-up of the last few weeks of my summer.

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in my first multi-race weekend since my escapades at the Craftsbury Spring Tour. First up was the Old Hallowell Day 5 K—a pleasant jaunt down (and up) the streets of my hometown. The race literally went past my front door, which was pretty awesome.

Any time I go to a 5 k or a smaller road race, I always hold out a little bit of hope, usually until I arrive at the start line and get a look at the competition, that I might be able to win. I suck at running, but every once in a while you can look in the local paper and see results for 5 k’s that have the winner running it in like 19-and-a-half minutes, which is achievable even for me. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the registration table, there was a disappointingly large number of legit-looking skinny people wearing visors and sunglasses—not to mention a really tall, really skinny shirtless dude with a chestful of tattoos, including one that said “sic semper tyrannis.” Prancing around shirtless with ridiculous tattoos is okay if you’re legit, but as it turned out, the guy didn’t even win, so, bummer for him.

Anyways, the race started, and for a couple hundred meters I ran with the huge pack of people that sprinted out of the start, including a very not-legit-looking girl with tie-died leggings who looked like she was 15 years old. Initially, this did not seem like a promising start for me, but after about 45 seconds of running she got tired and all the people who sprinted out of the start died and the pack thinned out. I settled into about sixth place and did battle with a handful of folks over the rest of the race. Highlights included when I dropped a guy wearing those stupid running slippers, and also when I accidentally spit all over some poor woman’s car. (It was totally unintentional—there were like 200 meters to go and I was dying—but it was still hilarious enough to make me laugh through the excruciating pain.) Ultimately I finished seventh, as well as FIRST PLACE IN MY AGE GROUP, which meant that I got a kickass mug that I meant to bring with me to New York City but forgot at my house.

The second event of the weekend was a bike race at the Yarmouth Clam Festival, the very next day. My friends and I call this race, simply, “the Clam Fest,” but to Yarmouth residents, spectators, and readers of the local newspaper, the event is known as the Yarmouth Clam Festival Professional Men’s and Women’s Professional Bike Race, which makes it sound about 10 times more badass than it actually is. For whatever reason, the Clam Fest bike race holds some kind of mystical appeal to the people of Yarmouth, and apparently, if you do it, you are a badass, even if you’re like me and you haven’t cleaned your bike, you have hairy legs, and you haven’t actually used your bike in eight days because you’ve been busy moving all your sh-t to New York City. Fortunately, however, nobody in Yarmouth was aware of my personal history, and thus all morning people looked at me like I was a huge baller, including many long stares, and questions about how far I’d come to participate. (Answer: I woke up half an hour ago and drove the 15 miles from Brunswick.)

The treatment continues at the start of the race—there’s always a national anthem (helmets off!), and approximately one zillion spectators yelling and screaming. Technically, I suppose the Clam Fest is actually a “professional” race, since the top six get paid, but in reality, it’s about 50 local amateurs for whom the race is the focal point of the season, 48 or 49 regional elite amateurs, and one or two actual professionals. Just to hammer this point home, this is a professional bike racer:

Photo, Flickr, User jmdgolfman

This is not a professional bike racer:

Eyes on the prize. Photo, Don McEwan.

All this is not to diss the race at all—it is far and away one of the most awesome athletic spectacles I have the privilege of participating in, year after year. It is just to highlight the wide gap between perception (of the spectators, that the race is a Lance-Armstrong-style production) and reality (that I ride a bicycle with mismatched bar tape and a dried leaf that has been stuck to the front derailleur for six weeks).

The race was extremely painful, and not actually very much fun—the best part about it was when it was over. It was very, very hot—my estimate of the temperature pegged it at somewhere around 350 degrees F—and because we were hurtling at breakneck speeds of up to 75 miles per hour, I was too scared most of the time to pull out my water bottle and drink from it. By the time the race was over, my internal temperature had reached the point where it could only be cooled by one thing: a lime rickey, which consists of seltzer, lime, and sugar, and which I think is the only consumable item at the Clam Festival that costs less than $300. It made me feel a lot better. I finished with the group and I didn’t die, which were the two criteria I had to fulfill for the race to qualify as a success.

With the conclusion of the epic race weekend, it was time for my athletic focus to shift to ultimate frisbee. I’ve been playing in a summer league in Portland since June, and the weekend following the Clam Festival, we gathered for an awesome barbeque and lawn games session to prepare ourselves for the next weekend’s season-ending tournament.

Awesome photo, Avery Briggs.

That tournament was Saturday, and after a regular-season campaign that saw us go 19-1, our juggernaut of a team swept five straight games to win the summer league championship. It was awesome, although our team captain is known throughout the region as a huge jerk, so our victory was met with disappointed silence by the dozens of spectators who had been rooting ardently against us.

Today (Monday), I’m on a bus on my way to New York City, where I’ll be living through next May while I spend a year at Columbia Journalism School. That’s half of the reason I’m moving; the other half is so that I can really ramp up my post-collegiate cross-country skiing career as a member of the Manhattan Nordic Ski Club.

I will not be employed by FasterSkier on a day-to-day basis for the next year, but I do plan to stay involved and in touch with the website as Topher, Matt, and the rest of the robust and talented staff keep it growing and changing. I also plan on continuing to chronicle my athletic shenanigans on this blog, whether it’s rollerskiing in Central Park or Alleycat racing in Brooklyn. Thanks for reading!

Guest Post: Hayward Field vs. Holmenkollen

Hi there. It’s Chelsea Little here. I work for FasterSkier too but Nat is better at his job AND a more entertaining blogger. I’m not sure I can live up to expectations here but I’m going to try.

Last weekend I was working at USA Track and Field National Championships here in Eugene, Oregon. Nat thought that it was pretty cool and said something like “keep FasterSkier in mind and see if you can write something up.” But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t come up with a legit reason to write about track on a skiing website. Since Nat’s blog is sometimes about the experience of being a journalist, I asked to do a guest spot here instead.

So, while it was really rad (to say it like Nat):

It still wasn’t as rad as this:

Skiing still wins, hands down. Being at Holmenkollen for World Champs was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Period.

Having said that, I think that Hayward Field might be the Holmenkollen of track. It’s a totally sweet venue and the spectators arguably care more about track than anywhere else in the world. I mean, the University of Oregon sells season tickets to track races. How many other places can do that? Every day of the four-day event the stands were packed with more than 10,000 people (okay, that’s 1/10 of the fanbase at the Holmenkollen 50 k, but they have a lot more space there!). The spectators got psyched for every event, even the masters racing.

Click any of the photos to enlarge.

And their level of bias and support for anyone who is or was a University of Oregon or Oregon Track Club Elite athlete is definitely analogous to the Norwegian support of their own home team. It was crazy. I sometimes felt bad for the other competitors.

As far as venues and atmosphere go, I guess one major difference is that you can’t bring alcohol into Hayward Field, although it’s possible to be sneaky. But I definitely wasn’t going to have the same experience I did when I was skiing around the Holmenkollen course before the men’s 50 k and getting offered various unidentified alcoholic beverages from spectators’ flasks and water bottles. It’s not as rowdy and obviously, there are no tents or campfires or sausages roasting away, which is a strike against track as far as I’m concerned

Here are a couple of stories, and then my list of the top ten reasons that track is different from sking, including a Serena Williams wannabe, tattoos, and Twizzlers. But first:

Credentials

Our story starts when I biked down to Matthew Knight Arena to pick up my media credentials. It was a much simpler and easier process than when I was hiking around Holmenkollen with my klistery skis in hand and my laptop in my backpack, and hoping that none of the klister would end up on the laptop over the course of the day.

I walked in the door and the helpful lady directing everyone to the right registration table asked, “So you’re here to register for the junior meet?”

No. No, I was not. I was pretty torn between feeling flattered that I apparently looked like I was in good enough shape to be competing at junior nationals, and being insulted that I also apparently look like a teenager. I’m 24, people! 24!

The name above me on the list of media was someone from the New York Times. I was kind of intimidated- for obvious reasons but also because this isn’t something that happens at ski races. Not at national championships, not at World Championships, and only maybe at the Olympics. Holy crap. I was there working for a regional NH/VT newspaper with a circulation of 16,000. I’d be up against some big guys when I tried to snag Andrew Wheating for an interview….

Journalists, Photographers, and King of The Hill: TV

I later realized why that nice lady thought that I must be a competitor. I spent a lot of time in the photo zone at the finish line on the track, and I think I saw three other women there, total. (One was a kind of overweight woman from the University of Minnesota who obviously wasn’t used to big events, because she kept walking in front of people’s cameras and ruining their shots and never even realized it. party foul!) I was definitely the youngest of the ladies and also one of the only people there who looked like I ran fairly often.

Bottom line: sometimes when I walked in there people would kind of look at me like, uh, what are you doing here? The upside was that I didn’t actually have a photo pass, but nobody checked or gave me shit about it because they just didn’t really know what to do with me.

I didn’t experience the photo zone in Oslo – that was reserved for Topher – so I don’t know what it was like. But here in Eugene, the photographers felt very entitled to getting their shots. The senior guy from Sports Illustrated seemed to run the show and would occasionally joke with younger photographers that he knew their bosses before they were born. Was I scared of him? Yes. According to Nat I should have chatted him up, but I’m kind of a wuss.

Here’s a typical story though. Before the final of the women’s 100 m hurdles, two women began rolling out a tape at the finish line just as they had in the 800 m races before. The photo zone began to buzz with complaints.

“They’re going to ruin the shot! I can’t see the hurdles!”

Mr. Sports Illustrated was griping about how he had discussed it with the meet director and they had agreed: no tape on the hurdles. He talked to the media attaché who was organizing all of us. Still, those two women held the tape. The situation was becoming more desperate. The announcer called runners to their marks. The stadium went quiet.

“Lower the tape!” the photographers shouted into the silence. I cringed, but the two women kind of squatted down a little bit and the tape sank lower. All of the sudden the hurdles were in each camera’s view. The photographers were happy. The race went off, and they probably all got their shots.

Even the photographers didn’t act as entitled as the NBC TV guys did though. I was over on the far curve to watch the start of the 200 m heats and was standing behind a meet official who was checking whether any of the runners stepped on lane lines. As the runners took their marks he stood up to get a better view.

There was a camera about 20 feet away on the curve and the cameraman became agitated.

“Please sir,” he said. “Excuse me. Sir. Sir? Could you step back please? Or sit down? You’re in the shot.”

The meet official grumbled, but he tried his best to accommodate the TV guy. He later told me that he also wasn’t allowed to stand in front of any of the signs lining the sides of the track, either, because he couldn’t obscure any of the advertising logos.

“It gets hard to do you job,” he said.

While these stories probably give media a bad name, mostly everyone was really nice. Just like in Oslo, where we ended up talking to a journalist from Sweden when Alex Harvey decided not to race the relay, people were interested in talking to other journalists who might know more specifics about something they were interested in.

The first interview I did was with Andrew Wheating after the 1500 heats. Andrew had won his heat and was in a pretty good mood, so rather than wait for him to go through the athlete area and out into the mixed zone, I approached him on the track. You’re technically not supposed to do that, but I didn’t want to miss the other heats so I just went for it. He sat down under a tent to change his shoes and I sat down next to him. Andrew is a really nice guy and was pleasantly surprised to see someone from his hometown paper, so we chatted for a few minutes before he went to cool down. I returned to the photo zone and everyone kind of looked at me.

Then a guy approached me, handed me his business card, and said, “Pitch me a story about Andrew Wheating.”

Cool!

Some similarities I hadn’t thought of

If you had asked me where else I expected to see the pig-snout masks that some skiers use when it’s really cold out, Hayward Field wouldn’t have been high on the list. But there one was: distance standout Galen Rupp started both the 10,000 and 5,000 meter races wearing a breathing mask, supposedly because he struggles with all the pollen in the air in Eugene. Even though Rupp went to Oregon, nobody really likes him and he got a lot of boos, especially with the mask. I mean, he looked like Darth Vader. Some of the biggest cheers of the night came when he took that mask off and threw on the side of the track.

Also, you can still fall down even if you’re racing on the track, which hadn’t actually really occurred to me. It happened a couple of times but I felt the worst for this lady in the steeplechase.

Top Ten Differences Between Track and Skiing

1. Doping, meh: One of the first events I saw was the 100 m prelims. As he came onto the track Justin Gatlin, who is returning from a four-year doping ban, waved to the stands and tried to get the fans behind him. Very few of them responded and it must have been pretty discouraging. But by the time he made it to the finals, he had full crowd support and everyone loved him. In the ski world, would he have been able to win in the court of public opinion? Probably not. Nobody will ever like Andrus Veerpalu again, which is too bad because he has the nicest blue eyes.

2. Victory celebrations that make Petra Majdic look subdued: There’s screaming, there’s jumping up and down, there are tears. The whole gamut. The 100 m hurdles had two of the biggest celebrations in a single race. It was intense.

3. Food in the media center: in Norway, there was coffee, some fruit, and a lot of waffles. Every once in a while there would be a display of local foods and they’d have crackers and fancy cheese, jam, and even sausage. At Hayward field, there was coffee, Gatorade, and Twizzlers. A few battered-looking apples and brown bananas went mostly untouched. Did I take an extra pack of Twizzlers when I left for the last time? Yes, I did.

4. Diversity of suits: This isn’t the land of Swix and Adidas domination. There is no smattering of Craft and Toko and Oneway. While Nike was definitely the predominant attire, I saw lots of interesting outfits, including a male javelin thrower in what appeared to be a neon green bodysuit. It was bright. I also saw some triple jumpers in pink and black leopard print bootie shorts and rainbow tiger print spandex. Finally, there was this woman, who was probably trying to be the Serena Williams of sprinting. My only comment there is that as a fellow woman, I can’t imagine sprinting in that getup. Where’s the support? Lady, you’re not doing yourself any favors! Also, a lot of women sprinted with their hair loose… not sure how they do that.

5. You can actually see tattoos: A lot of athletes who have been to the Olympics get tattoos of the rings. For example, Canadian biathlete Jean-Phillipe Leguellec has some big ones on his calf, which I noticed at a rollerski race last year. But when skiers are racing, you can’t see them. Here, tattoos were everywhere, and not just in sleeves covering the sprinters’ massive biceps. A lot of distance runners had their school logo tattooed on the side of one thigh. Nick Symmonds’ rings peeked out from under his jersey as he waited for his start in the 800 m final.

6. Girls who make Marit Bjoergen look like a twig: Much has been made of that famous picture taken of Marit Bjoergen’s back while she’s flexing her muscles. But let me tell you something: you haven’t seen anything yet and if Marit wanted to kick these girls’ butts, she would have to get on a serious lifting regimen or maybe take some steroids. There were some big athletic women out there. Sprinters have big butts and they use them.

7. On the flip side, Athletes who make Therese Johaug look like she eats Big Macs three meals a day.

8. Generally, more diversity: Not only does track feature some people who aren’t white – what a revolutionary idea! – there were a wide variety of body types at work. You had tiny distance runners. You had muscled-up sprinters. You had pole vaulters with bodies like gymnasts. The guys who throw the hammer are HUGE. Also, unlike in skiing, you don’t have to have Scandinavian blood in your veins to be good. It was pretty refreshing to see a wide swath of Americans excelling.

9. Heptathlon: Multi-events are the coolest sport that doesn’t make any sense. The decathlon and heptathlon have arguably the most athletic people in the world in them. They are badass. But the problem with these events is that in order to get an overall score they have to convert everything to points, which makes it harder to get psyched as a fan. The times and distances aren’t what get you the win; it’s the overall points. For instance, look how much this girl won the 800 m race by. And she finished third overall.

10. Friends: Well, to finish up, nationals wasn’t as cool as Oslo because I didn’t have the wonderful FasterSkier team there with me. Missed you guys!

That Really Hurt

If you ever have the opportunity to eat your 3-hours pre-race breakfast BEFORE YOU GO TO SLEEP, you might want to reconsider your racing plans.

For better or worse, I was too stupid to do so this morning, which was how I found myself toasting bread for a peanut butter and jelly at 4:15 a.m., in anticipation of the half marathon that I was about to run at 7:30. The birds were chirping, and I’m pretty sure it was getting light out. I couldn’t find peanut butter, so I went to bed instead of eating the sandwich. Then I got up two hours later and drove to the race.

To step back a bit: thus far, this summer seems to be dedicated to me making a mockery of my body, and endurance sports in general. What happened this time? It starts last night at Bowdoin College, where we were having a ski team reunion.

Ski team reunion—how cool is that? This was not, just, like, me and a bunch of friends deciding that we wanted to get together and screw around over the weekend. (Not entirely.) This was official, organized-by-head-Bowdoin-ski-coach-Nathan-Alsobrook, legit ski team reunion, featuring past coaches like Marty Hall, athletes dating back to the 1980’s, and a scrapbook featuring absolutely awesome party invitations created by the legendary Badger brothers, who I wish I’d had the privilege of skiing with. (Example: one of the party invitations in this scrapbook had a condom taped to the inside, along with a postscript to the directions to the off-campus house that read, “If you get lost, pull over your car and drink all the beer in your trunk.”

After the official part of the reunion was over, a group of recent graduates departed and engaged in various shenanigans, which included, in no particular order, brownies from scratch, at least one game of Go Fish, and streaking. A good time was had by all, and we left Bowdoin College at about 3:15 a.m. for the drive back to my house in Hallowell

Sorry, you just wish you could see pictures of streaking—you get the brownies instead.

I had been planning to do this half marathon for the better part of the last week. I had not spent the $40 to pre-register, so in theory I could have backed out, but you really can’t do that after telling like a dozen of your friends that you’re going to run a half marathon.

Secretly, I was hoping that I might be able to turn in a performance a la Kikkan Randall in last year’s Spring Series, when she won the U.S. 30 k title after 300 races in 12 days and singlehandedly flying her airplane from Sweden to northern Maine via the Bermuda Triangle and the International Date Line. I was thinking that when I was interviewed by the local newspaper after winning the race, I could tell them all about my Go Fish exploits and give them a quote like Randall’s: “My body really doesn’t know what to think. But it’s in good shape, so we’ll just keep rolling.”

Unfortunately, the difference, in this case, is that Kikkan Randall is a world-class athlete, and I am a barely fit weekend warrior/borderline master-blaster/idiot who stays up with his friends until 4 a.m. And running is definitely not my sport of choice—example A: what my running shoes look like.

Yo, sock.

So, yeah—I don’t really know what I was thinking not rolling over and staying in my bed at 7:30 this morning. Instead, whatever the reason, I was on (or at least near) the start line in Augusta when a gigantic cannon went off and scared the bejeezus out of the 200 runners that were milling around and waiting for someone to organize them.

For the first mile, I ran behind NENSA Executive Director Pat Cote, before realizing that doing this was decidedly not following my race plan of “start slow, and don’t die.” So I had to let Pat go, and he went on to utterly destroy me by like five minutes—apparently the morning after his sister’s wedding, as well as despite a bathroom break, which really put a damper on my potential excuses for a slow time. (Fortunately, I did manage to beat Pat’s wife Tracey, who is the head coach of the Colby College Ski Team; if I hadn’t, I probably would have gone to the zoo and fed myself to a polar bear out of shame.)

After Pat went away, I ran with some people who looked like runners for a while, before this girl Anna who still goes to Bowdoin caught up with me. Anna is really little and cute, which meant that I could not let her beat me, because then she’d be really nice about it afterwards and that just wouldn’t work at all. So instead, I drafted her for like two miles. And then she dropped me just before the turnaround at 6.5 miles.

Yeah—the turnaround. That was the point at which I realized that I’d already been running really hard for 45 minutes, and that I would have to continue doing so for at least that long again, which made me really upset, because my body was really starting to hurt all over. Especially my knees and legs. For the next three miles, this caused me to go slower and slower, whereupon I was caught by another woman, and a couple of dudes.

But then, at like 10 miles, this guy with a red shirt came by me, with another guy who looked kind of legit. Red shirt guy was moving pretty quickly, so I hopped onto the back of the kind of legit dude, but then he stopped briefly for some Gatorade, so I decided to make an effort to bring back red shirt guy. Surprisingly, it didn’t turn out to be all that hard to reel him in, which in turn led to a Eureka moment: my knees and legs might be in excruciating pain, but they did not seem to be in greater pain the faster I went. It was a pretty exciting feeling—first, I reeled in red shirt dude and chilled behind him for a while, while we caught a couple of other folks, and then I was actually able to make a Kikkan Randall-like move with two miles to go (if Kikkan Randall were running seven-minute miles in a half marathon instead of winning World Cups) and drop everyone around me, including Anna from Bowdoin. (It’s okay—I was very nice to her after the race was over.)

With two miles to go, I ran through my town and past my friend Nick, and I asked him calmly to please to get me my fu-king bike out of the garage so that I could ride the rest of the way, but he ignored me so I had to keep running. Which I did.

So, yeah—I ended up with, given the circumstances, a reasonably adequate performance of 1:31:42. How anybody could possibly run twice that distance at the same speed, or potentially much faster, (and want to) is way beyond me. But that’s beside the point. More to the point is that the race was sweet, and I won a hat in the raffle. And now I’m going to bed.

Haha! At Least You Finished…

If I had a motto for bike racing (I don’t, because I don’t do it enough), it would probably be something along the lines of “leave as much of the preparation and logistics as possible until the last possible moment”—which surely makes any respectable endurance athletes reading this cringe.

Some of the things that I would not recommend to others that I did before this year’s edition of the Lake Auburn Road Race on Saturday include the following:
–First, I broke one of my shifters on Monday, and while I obtained a new one on Wednesday, I wasn’t able to install it until Friday, because I had lost one of the necessary pieces of cable housing. Since there is no bike shop in Damariscotta, it took me a few days to get down to Bath to get a new piece.

–Then, I actually had to do the work of installing the shifter, less than 24 hours before the race. Given that I am a horrendous bike mechanic, this was no small task. I actually did fairly well—only temporarily turning one screw in the wrong direction—but I did a worse job with my brakes. One of my wheels is about to explode and fairly out of true, and as a result, it was rubbing against my brakes. When I tried to adjust them, I ended up with my brake pads totally off target, hitting my tires and threatening to slice through them. Which I decided was related to the fact that my rear brake pads are totally used up—a problem that in turn I decided would be alleviated by switching the front and rear brake pads. All told, this whole maintenance process took about three hours (to be fair, punctuated by frequent breaks to watch scenes from Talledega Nights with my sister), and by the time I was done, my hands looked like this:

–Since my bike was broken all week, I didn’t ride it at all between Monday and Friday.

–Even though I had not actually raced my bike this whole spring (save for three training criteriums in Scarborough—which were awesome), I decided that it would be a good idea to compete in the Pro-1-2-3 race, rather than the dedicated Cat. 3 contest. For those of you who don’t know about cycling and its byzantine system of categories, that’s essentially like choosing to race against Lars Flora and Mike Sinnott when you could be racing Bates and Colby in the Chummy Broomhall Cup. (If you don’t know who Chummy Broomhall is, go read Wikipedia now.) The pro race was six laps of the course, for 70 miles (I haven’t ridden my bike more than 50 miles all year), and among the entrants was Will Dugan, fresh off racing the Tour of California with Levi Leipheimer and Andy Schleck. (One year, Ted King raced the Lake Auburn Road Race fresh off the Giro D’Italia, and I was riding like an idiot and he gave me a (friendly, assistive) push IN THE MIDDLE OF THE RACE. And then I was really out of shape and got dropped after 20 miles. No joke.)

–Despite my best efforts at being punctual, I arrived at the race at 11:15—only 45 minutes before the start. Among the things I still had to do (in order of priority) were use the bathroom, get and pin my number, change a tire, make sure that my bike wasn’t going to fall apart in the middle of the race, make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and make a bunch of Gatorade. Time was short, and I had no utensils, so I resorted to using a greasy tire lever for my sandwich:

Not recommended. (Yes, that is grease on the end. But I used the non-greasy end.)

Now, you may be reading all of this and thinking, ‘What kind of an idiot goes to a bike race when he has prepared like a 14-year-old?’ (Answer: me. But that’s beside the point.) But one of the things that I have discovered about post-collegiate athletics is that unless athletics is a serious part of your life, and you are training for cycling in the middle of the winter or skiing in the middle of summer like a crazy person, you’re probably not going to be doing all that well. Mostly, you’ll just be surviving. So, if you do just about everything you can to mess it up, any small measure of success feels pretty good. And, you can allow yourself to think that you might even be a little bit better if you had actually trained during the off-season. Is this an approach that will lead me to excellence? Certainly not. But it still is better than the opposing method of paying someone else to fix my bike, buying pricy Cytomax instead of Gatorade powder, and showing up at the race two hours early in hopes that those three things will make up for the training I missed in February. (For the record, I do think it would be pretty sweet to train through the winter for bicycle racing, actually take it seriously, and see what would happen. But that didn’t happen this year.)

So, yeah: as I rode up to the start line with hairy legs and a bike that was still muddy from riding in the rain two weeks ago, I was just looking for some small, personal victories. Racing against fit people when you’re underprepared is kind of like picking a fight with a large, mean person in elementary school: you know you’re going to lose, and it’s going to hurt a lot, but maybe you can scratch him hard enough with your fingernails to draw blood before he gets you in a headlock. (Okay, the metaphor kind of fell apart at the end there, but, yeah…at least you’re standing up to the bully. Even if in this case the bullies are a bunch of relatively friendly skinny dudes with shaved legs.)

As it turns out, there isn’t actually that much to say about the race. It did really hurt. But at at least one point, I was in front of Will Dugan, and I heard him breathing pretty hard. I made it more than three laps with the group—which included four trips up the steep, evil “wall,” as well as the big hills at the end of the loop—before, embarrassingly, I got dropped on a flat section at around 40 miles, when my legs just kind of stopped working. But I did finish the race—I rode a couple laps by myself, and a couple with some other dropped folks—and while I may have been the last finisher (I’m not actually sure…), there were definitely some people that got dropped before I did, who quit. Definitely a little bit of blood drawn.

Other highlights? When I tried to eat my PB+J and essentially choked on it when it got really fast all of a sudden. And then tried to put half of it back in my pocket, but mainly just succeeded in slathering peanut butter and jelly all over my hands, shorts (how the f— did it get there???), and even my shifter:

See that weird texture? That's strawberry jam. Smuckers Orchard's Finest Pacific Mountain Strawberry Jam, if you really wanted to know.

And then, the best part of the day was when I was limping into the finish, like half an hour after the winners. I must have looked pretty bad, because this crusty old lady looked at me and went: “Haha! At least you finished!” Amen.

The Tilsetningsstoffer Saga

There’s not a lot going on in the ski world right now, so it’s time for me to catch everyone up on a couple of other things.

First is my ongoing war against the vile animals of Cricket Creek Farm, where I live.

I’m not a hater. I get along with most animals, or at least dogs. But at this point, I have had more than enough guinea hen and rooster for my entire life.

The enemy.

Do you know what it’s like to live with a flock of guinea hens and chickens making its home directly outside your house? No? Well, here’s a thought exercise.

First, imagine a car alarm. One that goes off at 4 a.m., every morning, directly outside your house. You can’t turn it off, because its internal circuitry has malfunctioned. And, it’s organic, which means that you can’t kill, bludgeon, or otherwise harm it—not even chase it around. Basically, the only solution is earplugs. And even those can be insufficient at times.

If I were a James Bond villain, I would kill all of my victims through sleep deprivation, by locking them in a room with thousands of guinea hens and roosters.

In any case, during the winter, these animals were mostly quiet, huddled in their shelter behind the house. But with the onset of spring, a fire has clearly kindled inside them, and precipitated a conflagration of crowing and squawking. Before my trip to New York City this weekend, I still hadn’t determined the best way to handle this—although I was starting to think that the only solution was going to be to move back to Maine. But that all changed when I walked into an Italian foods-store.

I went straight to the manager, and signed a contract to deliver a dozen guinea hens next week...

The second story is the Tilsetningsstoffer Saga. When Topher and I arrived in Norway, we noticed an excellent advertisement on the subway, for a delicious-looking noodle casserole called Fiskegrateng—macaroni, with salmon and broccoli:

Yum.

I don’t know why this company thought that sticking in a random Norwegian word in an English-language advertisement would be effective—but in the end, it kind of was. I thought this was so funny that I actually spent something like 68 kroner on a box, when we were in Lillehammer, just so I could say I tried it.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/dBBYligiyC8" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

(If you look at my plate, you might be skeptical—it looks like I’ve already been eating fiskegrateng all evening. But that really was my first bite—Topher and I had had some pasta as an hors d’oeuvre.)

Unfortunately, Findus, the company that produces the fiskegrateng, did not respond to repeated requests for comment—I called, and e-mailed, to no avail—so we will never know the thinking behind their ad campaign. On the bright side, Topher and I went on a ferry ride in Oslo the night that they were swapping out their advertisements. This was possibly the best thing that happened to me during the entire month that I spent in the country, because I managed to convince a ferry employee to give me the poster—which is now adorning my bedroom.

(For the record, tilsetningsstoffer means additives. I can attest that there really weren’t any in there—or at least, it didn’t taste like it.)

Boo-yeah.

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.

At Least A Meteor Didn’t Hit Me

It probably is a sign that you should lower your expectations for a ski race in late March when, the day beforehand, you find yourself removing the road tips on your ski poles and replacing them with snow baskets.

To be fair, I’ve actually done a decent amount of skiing this winter—probably more so than last year. But never with my own skate poles—I borrowed my boss’s, or just used my classic poles for skating.

But this weekend, I was planning on competing in the Craftsbury Spring Mini-Tour, which included a pursuit. Therefore, both sets of poles were necessary, (or so I initially thought).

I have only raced one other time this winter—a sensational performance in Jericho, Vermont, where I skied more than fast enough to avoid having to eat any of my equipment. Despite the fact that my annual salary is not among the upper echelons of the tax bracket, I decided that it would be a good idea to drive up to Craftsbury this weekend and spend $80 to compete in their season-ending mini-tour—a classic prologue on Friday afternoon, a pursuit on Saturday morning and drag-race sprints that afternoon, and a 20 k skate on Sunday. (I should add: the $80 was money well spent. In addition to four races, Craftsbury also gave us two awesome meals—dinner Saturday night, which included a delicious cheddar-squash casserole [not necessarily two things I would have combined, but after eating it, I can recommend it], and a barbeque lunch Sunday that included donuts and sugar-on-snow.)

Looking at the list of entrants was interesting. Between men and women, there about a half-dozen or so athletes who I had interviewed for stories this winter—a sure harbinger of an impending beatdown if there ever was one.

I drove up to Vermont on Thursday evening and met Topher and Jen (boss+girlfriend) in Waitsfield, where we spent the night. Then, after watching the World Cup men ski their own prologue in Sweden and writing a race report about it, we went off to get our Ilia Chernousovs on—my goal for the day, aside from not embarrassing myself, being to better Chernousov’s winning time of 10:51.

One thing I have discovered since graduating from school: I suck at waxing my skis. (So much so that I am surprised that Topher has not fired me.) A second thing I have discovered since graduating from school: having yourself as a wax tech when you suck at waxing skis also sucks. And it’s a gigantic pain in the butt—how are you supposed to get in an effective warm-up while simultaneously applying and testing different kinds of klister, clumsily applying top coats, and complaining about how much you suck at doing those things?
Fortunately, on Friday, I had Topher. He came prepared, with a pair of test skis (something that I most certainly had not thought to bring myself), and a wax box containing numerous types of klister. After Topher set up his test skis with two different types of klister, we headed out on the prologue course to check it out.

As I recall, I think both types of klister seemed to be working reasonably well for Topher. Unfortunately for me, the type that we selected did not seem to work on my skis whatsoever—and I think I also just sucked on Friday, too, which certainly didn’t help. Afterwards, I think Topher’s quote about the wax when someone asked him about it was something like, “Oh yeah—it was great. Any issues we had with it were almost definitely operator error.” Agreed.

I really, really do not want to delve deeply into the results from Friday. They were so bad that I am reluctant to even point anyone in their direction, lest they see that I was only 20 seconds from being beaten by a 14-year-old, and soundly beaten by two high school girls. (Not to take anything away from those athletes at all—only to say that as a 23-year-old male in, ostensibly, my “prime,” it would be a little more dignified if I were competitive with my peers.)

While Friday was disappointing, the great thing about the mini-tour was that I still had two more days of racing to go! My next chance at glory or humiliation was in the “15 k” pursuit, on Saturday morning. Just like the Swedes at World Championships, I was planning on drawing some lessons from my poor waxing performance in an early event, and using them to my advantage in my next event. The only problem was that unlike the Swedes, I hadn’t really drawn any lessons at all from Friday—aside from the fact that I fared about as well with klister and a blowtorch as the Swedish waxers would have writing an English-language race report on the U.S. Ski Team.

It didn’t help that it froze up hard overnight on Friday, and conditions were very different the next morning. Fortunately, I got a very helpful e-mail from Topher: “Probably try something purple – KR40, and if it warms up a lot, KR50. If there is enough new snow to cause issues, you can try throwing some kick wax over the top once it has cooled. Probably won’t work as well with the the 50.” Excellent—a starting point!

Actually, before I get back into this waxing business, I suppose I should probably mention a few other things. First, because I have two different binding sponsors (or, actually, because my friend Walt gave me a pair of skate boots and NNN bindings at school one year), I was in a bit of a pickle for the pursuit—my classic boots wouldn’t work on my skate skis, and vice versa. So I had to borrow a pair of classic skis with NNN bindings. My co-worker, Chelsea, was kind enough to set me up with some belonging to her teammate at Craftsbury—obviously, a very good thing, but also, perhaps a bit of a question mark, given that I had never used them before, and had no idea whether they would work for me. (I was going off the sticker behind the binding that recommended a skier weight of 60 to 75 kilos.)

I also didn’t have a wax bench. Fortunately, there were a couple of forms in the house where I was staying in Craftsbury, which happened to be directly adjacent to the trails—though a 10-minute ski away from the start of the race. Thus, I devised a plan:

  1. Apply KR40 and KR50 to my own classic skis (the ones with SNS).
  2. Ski to the stadium on these classic skis. Drop off my skate skis, and go to the classic course to test.
  3. Return to the house, and apply the superior klister to my race skis.
  4. Head back to the stadium on the race skis, with skate boots—but also with test skis and classic boots, just in case the race skis ended up being a total debacle. (Yes, using the test skis for the classic leg would have entailed a boot switch before the skate leg. But I was prepared to do it.) Bring klister in pocket and hope that someone will be kind enough to let me borrow a wax bench in the event of an emergency.

Everything went according to plan until, of course, step four. The test skis were fu—ing awesome—they kicked like a mule. VR 50 seemed to be slightly better, and it was warming up pretty quickly, so I went with it. Except that the race skis didn’t kick at all. I chalked this up to too short of a wax pocket and, as the start approached, I lengthened it, and managed to convince Marc Gilbertson (Craftsbury coach and wax tech, as well as an Olympian) to iron it for me. (Further research reveals that he is an alumnus of Colby College—I guess it was a good thing that I opted to race in a sparkly red one-piece, rather than my Bowdoin suit. Or nobody else but me actually cares about where anyone went to college.)

At this point, there was no time left for testing, so I just ran down to the start with my skis. I don’t really remember what I was thinking at this point, although in retrospect, whatever it was, I’m fairly certain that it was absurdly optimistic, given the state of my skis immediately prior. (Given the way things turned out, in fact, anything short of anticipating a maiming from a direct meteor strike would have been optimistic.)

My skis did not kick whatsoever going up the first little hill from the start. This was fine, because it was a short hill, and I was extremely jacked up on adrenaline. This was the best moment of the race. Then, we went downhill for a while, and through some rolling terrain before we hit the first reasonably-sized uphill, and I realized just how miserable things were going to be.

You know how in elementary school, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all? That’s probably the best approach for the classic leg of the pursuit. Although I did, actually, think of a few things that were good about it:
1. I have arms. It would have been even more difficult to get around the classic course with no kick if I had no arms.

2. Though I didn’t do any weight training over the summer, my arms are pretty strong from grasping pencils, lifting notebooks, and typing. Vigorously. (I am a fierce typist.)

3. Most of the people who were watching along the course had left by the time I came through, which at least made my suffering slightly less embarrassing.

4. The classic course was supposedly like 7.5 kilometers, but I think it was actually more like five.

5. Thanks to Marc’s ironing, I had a wax tech that I could blame. (Really, it’s okay—he said I could blame him.)

Basically, the classic leg was pretty miserable. Fortunately, I had an ace in the hole in the exchange zone. The night before the race, I had checked the FIS rules to see if it was legal to race a pursuit with just one pair of poles. Lo and behold, “Skis must be exchanged, poles and boots may also be exchanged.” So, I decided that I would use my classic poles—which are new, and a little too long still—for the whole race. Clearly, this strategy was a good one, because my 30 seconds in the pit tied for the ninth-fastest exchange time, out of 54 men. (Actually, it’s a little embarrassing that despite the fact that I didn’t change my poles, Scott Patterson still managed to get in and out of there six seconds faster than me. But whatever.)

There’s not a lot more to say about the race, aside from the fact that my left quad actually cramped when I started skating, which was utterly preposterous. It’s okay for Alex Harvey to cramp an hour into the 30 k pursuit at the Olympics, when he’s trying to hold off Petter Northug and the Russians—but for me, 20 minutes into a 10-kilometer pursuit? That’s just bad. Fortunately, it went away after a while, but the psychological damage was done. I almost caught a Stratton kid before the finish line, but then I didn’t.

I know after this account of the first two races of the mini-tour, you’ll be very anxious to hear about the last one. But I’m tired, so that one—and it was epic (at least, as epic as 52 minutes of racing can get)—will have to wait until tomorrow. Until then…

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.