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Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k

I’ve spent the last month not working, and it has been fantastic.

It was such a huge push to defend my PhD, and then I had a few more months of work at Eawag, trying to finish up projects and papers. I wanted to make sure to take some time to myself before starting a postdoc, because I’m not sure when I’ll have another chance to just completely unplug. Science moves fast and as soon as I start my postdoc, I’ll be applying for jobs all over again.

“That’s great!” People would say when I told them I was taking the summer off. “What will you do with yourself?”

“Well, a lot of hiking, sleeping late, and reading,” I’d say. “And in July I’m doing my first real mountain running race.”

Thinking back, I have realized that the race – the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30 k– isn’t really my first mountain trail race at all.

Last year I did a trail marathon, the Transruinaulta, with 6,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

In 2016, I did a trail half marathon that went straight up a downhill ski resort in Arosa, Switzerland, for 4,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

What about all the times before, during and after college that I time trialed up Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire? Or participated in the Presidential Ridge Relay Race?

Those were all, in fact, mountain running races. Especially the one in Arosa. But I for some reason didn’t consider them to be my “real” mountain running debut, probably for two reasons.

One was that maybe I wanted to be ready for that debut, to have prepared, to train, to take it seriously. I didn’t do that before Arosa, I just signed up and figured I was a cross-country skier so I’d be fine. Now, I’ve been preparing.

And the second one was maybe because, having lived in Europe for a while, I have this picture in my head of a mountain running race, with singletrack trail and glaciers in the background. I think in my mind my mountain running debut had to fit that image. And Arosa… it was up a ski resort. It didn’t feel so wild. Transruinaulta was as much on dirt roads as trails. Moosilauke, you only race up, not down.

Whether it was my “first real mountain race” or not, Gran Trail Courmayeur is in the books. It was awesome, and I’m excited to explore the mountain/trail race scene in North America after this intro from the Alps.

I had never really been to the Mont Blanc area, so went down the Thursday before my Saturday race. It was amazing to see this huge mountain, and so much ice crammed up in there. I’ve seen glaciers running into the ocean, glaciers filling valleys in the Alps, shrinking and sad-looking patches of glacier on mountainsides. But the amount of ice just perched up there, literally hanging off the side of the mountain, blew my mind.

I wanted to just look at it, to soak it in. What a cool place.

The Friday, I didn’t know what to do with myself – I wanted to explore, but didn’t want to get tired. So I splurged and took an expensive cablecar ride up to Punta Helbronner, 3,466 meters high and looking over at Mont Blanc.

Well, where Mont Blanc should be. It was covered in clouds.

 

The highest peak in Europe west of the Caucasus is back in there, somewhere.

View in the other direction was pretty nice though. (click to expand)

But being up there sure was amazing, and seeing ant-like figures trekking across the snowfields. I kind of couldn’t believe I was in Europe, and that the hot valley floor was just a few minutes cablecar ride away.

An aerial view down on the Rifugio Torino and onwards to my racecourse, over around and past the green ridge in the center of the photo.

Then, I went to the sports center to pick up my number. The race organization was typically Italian: everything worked out perfectly in the end, but it was very confusing. For example, I had studied the course map trying to figure out where the start/finish would be. It appeared to be in the middle of town, but on my way past, I hadn’t seen anything you’d expect for a race starting in just 12 hours.

The line to pick up our numbers; race officials had to check our medical certificates to make sure a doctor had said we could participate in such an event without dying. This is a common requirement for races in Italy and France, but explaining the request to a Swiss doctor was interesting. Also – do you see many women in this line? sigh.

“The race start is not here, it is somewhere else, is that correct?” I asked the woman who handed me my number.

“The start and finish are here,” she said, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Oh, really? Here?”

“Yes, down, outside, with the big arch!”

Okay, so I’d have to subtract two kilometers from everything on the course map/profile, because they seemed to be using the same loop as the map on their website [I assumed], but moving where the loop started and ended. Makes total sense.

I’m a pretty organized person, and I’m also a nerd, and I also worry a lot. At races like this, it can be challenging for me to prepare because I want to have a detailed plan of exactly how the race was going to go. This sort of uncertainty didn’t help.

I pored over the course map, sussing out how the 1,800 meters (6,000+ feet) of elevation gain and loss were distributed around the course. One big climb in the beginning. Then a flat that I doubted was actually flat, for six kilometers. Then a second major climb. A drop down to a valley, a shorter steep climb, and then all downhill from there. Steeply.

And I checked the finishing times from the previous year, trying to estimate how long the race would take me. Four hours? Five? It all depended on the trail. And whether there would be any other surprises in store for me along the way.

The next morning I hurried down from our AirBnB to get to the start, because it was written that we had to enter the start pen 30 minutes before the start, and then they would close it. Well, the start pen didn’t even open until 20 minutes til start time, and then it stayed open. Again, classic Italy.

Once the race began, though, everything was perfectly organized. We ran through neighborhoods out of town, with people cheering along the sides of the road. After two kilometers or so, we joined the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail and climbed upward: about two and a half kilometers of an average 25% grade.

This part of the race was a hiking race, and it felt a little bit silly to be hiking. The trail was crowded with hikers carrying backpacks big and small: tourists out for a day hike, or folks backpacking the whole TMB loop. We were sure moving faster than them, but we must have looked ridiculous.

I tried to stay at a steady pace, below my anaerobic threshold, and just climb away. By the top my legs were aching a bit, nothing major, but reminding me that although I had only been going for an hour, I’d already put in more than 2,500 feet of the course’s elevation.

We passed through the first aid station, then crested a pass. We had just been climbing straight up, and my eyes had been glued to the trail in front of me. But suddenly, there was no trail or hill in front of me.

Just the Mont Blanc massif in all its glory, basking a bit in the sun. Everyone around me paused and took out their phones for pictures. It was just amazing.

I really, really don’t usually stop to take photos in races. But this was such a scene, and everyone else around me was stopping to take pictures too. So I did.

That feeling, that image I had been looking for for my “first real mountain race”? As we set off on the singletrack along the Balcon de Ferret, I definitely had it. This was it. This was the stuff of dreams and legends. I was there and I was doing it.

As I had expected, the Balcon wasn’t actually flat. But for the most part, it was runnable, and a really fun trail.

There were a few guys around me and we cruised along. I felt better, like I was in a running race after all. The views were continually astounding, and every once in a while there would be hikers pulling off the trail or having stopped for a snack in an alpine meadow who would cheer us along.

“Brava!” they would shout as I passed. I wasn’t sure how many women were ahead of me, but there were few women in the field (just under a third of the entrants in the 30 k were women), and so seeing me among the sea of men was probably still notable no matter how many women were faster.

Before long, we ran out of Balcon and turned right up a steep hill. This was the start of the second big climb, and its beginning was a doozy, a shock after the easy kilometers we had been lulled into. Here there were even more spectators, because there was a hut up ahead where they were probably planning to have lunch.

We climbed for a while, and then the trail leveled off into a broad bowl-like meadow valley. Looking ahead, all you could see was mountain.

You might want to stay in such a nice, welcoming, pleasant spot. But we couldn’t. After a dissapointingly short flat section, up we went, steeply again, to the top of the second major climb.

And here I got my first surprise of the race. It had nothing to do with the organizers; it had to do with me. I wasn’t feeling strong exactly, and I was struggling to eat (not because of stomach issues, but on a hot day my food just didn’t seem appealing). And yet, I began to catch people who had hiked away from me on the first climb.

On these big hills, you can see everyone spread out way ahead of you, and I watched in amazement as I came ever closer to two women whom I hadn’t seen in over an hour.

“Don’t get too excited,” I tried to tell myself. “There’s a lot of race left. You could still blow up and they could pass you back. Just be careful and do a good job.”

But on the downhill to the next valley, I put distance on them (and passed some men, too). The “last” steep climb up to the final pass felt terrible, and my legs were screaming. For sure they’ll catch me, I thought. But they didn’t. In fact, I was catching more men, and another woman. Again, I was amazed. I didn’t feel strong.

The last pass!

And then, the big downhill. This was my second surprise.

I love downhill. Maybe it’s because I’m a skier, but running downhill is just fun. I’m pretty confident in my footwork, and I know that it’s easier to zoom than it is to be braking all the time and put so much stress on your quads and knees. I had dreamed of this downhill for kilometers. I was going to fly. My resolution: I wouldn’t let myself be passed by any woman.

Somehow, I had failed to completely account for the magnitude of this downhill. We had eight kilometers to lose 1,300 meters of elevation, and there were 150 or so meters of climbing thrown in there too. So on average, the grade was more than 15%. That’s steep. We classify “A” and “B” climbs in skiing, categorize climbs in bike racing, etc etc… but we don’t classify descents.

The beginning of this descent was unreal. Loose dirt, incredibly steep. I found myself taking tiny steps, putting on the brakes, terrified of sliding out and falling down the mountain. I was not zooming. I wouldn’t be at the finish line as soon as I had hoped, that much was clear.

And my concern was justified. A few kilometers later, I heard a terrible scream. I couldn’t place it – somewhere in front of me, but was it a person? An animal? Was it a racer, or a bystander, maybe a kid? I ran on, and eventually came across a few male runners stopped on the side of the trail. Ten feet down the side of the mountains, someone was moaning and trying to climb out of the brush and the forest. It was a racer down there, who must have tripped and fell over the edge. One of the men was on a cell phone calling for help.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“I guess you can go on,” one of them said. Not speaking Italian, I did doubt how useful I would be in helping this poor person, but as I ran on, it also felt wrong to leave.

When we reached the next aid station, the men I was following explained more to the volunteers about the injured runner. They were setting off to go assist.

I sucked on an orange slice, glad for the new option for sugar delivery. I was thirsty and knew I should eat more, but the downhill pounding and the heat made doing so very unattractive. Oranges, though? Perfect. I started running again.

Although I was so much more tentative on the downhills than I expected to be, I still passed quite a few people. No more women, after that, but some men. There were sections of trail that were less steep, or just more even, and there I could fly.

That’s what I thought, until a woman with a long braid went sailing past me. Shewas flying. I hadn’t even known what flying was. It was instantly clear that I could not keep up with her. My resolution was broken. I have to practice downhills before my next race, I guess.

We eventually hit a paved road and dropped down into town, across the river, and back towards the sports center and the finish. There weren’t many signs or markings through town; roads weren’t closed; people were watching, but they didn’t have any clues about what was happening. I had expected an adrenaline rush, but mostly, the tourists were just going about their day and we were some weird sideshow that they barely noticed.

The final 10 meters of climbing leading up to the finish line were brutal, and I felt I couldn’t push at all. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but happy, and took off my sunglasses and smiled big for the finish line photographer.

I had done my first “real” mountain race, or my second or third or or eighth mountain race. Who cares? It had been fun and brutal, which are two things I had been counting on. The trail had been technical – if 4:30 (my final time) seems slow for a 28 k race, the actual trail was a big part of that, besides the up and down.

I had felt okay, but most importantly, I had felt like I belonged there. I was running and hiking with people who obviously trained for this, but we also all had fun enjoying the spectacular scenery. The atmosphere and camaraderie were fantastic, a great combination of serious sport and doing this because we actually enjoy being in the mountains.

And I had finished ninth. I don’t know what top ten means in this field, and that’s actually something I love about racing in new places. I didn’t know a single person there, so my analytical mind couldn’t really consider whether that’s a good or bad or respectable result. A whole exhausting, self-defeating doom loop I could just skip. But top-10 always has a nice ring to it.

The next day it was a long trip back to Zurich, during which I read almost an entire book. Since I’m on vacation, I could recover on the sofa at home in the next few days, rather than dragging my tired body around at work and trying to make my tired brain be smart.

Instead of working, I’ve been dreaming up what my next adventures will be.

It’s Italy so… post-race (and post-shower!) aperitivo!

How to Give a Great Presentation

A few weeks ago now, I hosted the Biotweeps Twitter account for a week. It’s an account with rotating hosts: every week, a different biologist takes over and posts about, well, whatever they want, but usually at least partly about their research.

I had a lot of fun hosting. I talked about research in the Arctic and climate change; I talked about stream biodiversity and why freshwater conservation is important; I talked about what an ecosystem is and how ecosystems are connected in cool ways; and I also talked about work-life balance and what I do for fun. I had great discussions with the account’s followers about what other jobs they’ve had, if they always knew they were interested in science, and how life experience shapes us into scientists.

(You can see my whole week of posts here– it will show up with someone else’s name because someone else is hosting now, but these are my posts from June.)

But some of the threads that got the most attention were about organization and what we might consider “transferrable skills”: the non-research part of how to do good science (these skills are very important for many other jobs, too, not just science!).

I had the idea to post about this because last year, Kevin Burgio shared his organizational system when he was hosting BioTweeps. I have since adopted part of his system and it has been immensely helpful. I wondered if some of the things I’ve learned could help others.

So I posted about how to organize and manage data, from pre-experiment planning to analysis, both to make your life easier and to promote reproducibility. I talked about general organization, and how to get the most out of going to conferences. These posts generated a lot of discussion and I learned a few things too.

Hosting BioTweeps was a lot of work, and it took more of my time than I would have expected.

At the same time, I was in a bit of a blogging rut. I had resolved to blog more this year, and for a while I did, but then I sort of ran out of steam.

I realized that I was talking about a lot of things on Twitter that earlier I might have turned into blog posts. This wasn’t just true in BioTweeps week, although it certainly hit a peak then. I have been trying to think about which venue is more important to put time into in terms of communicating. There are a lot of stories, especially ones about travel or my outdoor adventures, that I don’t think I could tell well on Twitter. I want the space of a blog post to compose and tell them.

But there are other things that could be either. It’s a bit easier to make a Twitter thread than a blog post, so maybe I have been leaning in that direction, and I now have enough Twitter followers that I feel like I might reach more people that way.

But blog posts have their own plus sides. They are a bit more permanent, and they are easier to find with a search or refer back to. I don’t think I should stop blogging.

And so, here I am: I’m going to make a blog post out of one of my BioTweeps advice threads, about how to give a good presentation.

How to give a good talk

Why do I think I’m qualified to give advice about this? First, I really enjoy giving presentations. What’s more fun than talking about work you’re excited about? Second, I’ve won a few “best presentation” prizes at conferences, so I think I don’t suck at it.

Those prizes are not all because of me. Especially in the last 4 ½ years, I have gotten a lot of advice from colleagues. In my (now-former) research group, we had a culture of giving practice talks and getting extensive feedback on them. It was sometimes brutal but we all gave as good as we got. As a result, everyone in our lab gave great presentations.

But there are other things that go into making a talk that I do myself. I was motivated to share tips after I realized last summer that people thought it was easy for me to give a good talk. Haha. Nope.

I first saw the mismatch in expectations when attended a conference with my boss. He was shocked that the night before I was scheduled to give my talk, I locked myself in my room and practiced for hours. He thought that I was just good at presenting and didn’t need to practice.

I’m sure that there are people who can wing it and do great. But that’s not most of us, and it’s also not me. Quite the opposite. One way to make your delivery seem effortless is to practice it until it is, at which point, the hard work becomes partly invisible.

Practice is a basic, but very important, tip. Here are some others that will help make a great presentation, whether it’s for a class at school, a meeting at work, or at a big conference.

  1. How should you structure your talk?

I’ve recently moved away from structuring my talks like research papers, with sections for introduction, methods, results, and then discussion. Now I just try to tell a good story. My talks are better for it – and I think this would be true for any kind of presentation, on any topic.

I try to think a bit about what I learned about constructing a story as a journalist: how do you draw the reader in, and then keep them reading?

Just as in a written story, start with a lead that grabs the the audience’s attention. This probably shouldn’t take more than a minute or two, although depending on how long the presentation is, it could vary.

Then, you get to what in journalism we would call the “nut graf”. This follows the lead and should be one slide, if you’re using PowerPoint. It’s the thesis and motivation of your whole presentation: what question are you trying to solve and what are you going to do? Give this to the audience early enough that they know where you’re going with the rest of the talk.

From here, there are lots of possible structures depending on the length of your talk and the material. You could have a bit more introduction after the nut graf, or you could get into the meat of your presentation.

Supplement your story with technical details, but not too many. You want to include enough that people trust that you are an expert and did things right, but you want them to remember the big picture, not that you had a lot of equations on your slides. Once you’ve demonstrated your expertise, just highlight the things the audience needs to know. Don’t distract the audience with some number or result that isn’t important.

(If you really think someone will want more detail, make extra slides that you can go to in Q&A. But don’t overwhelm or bore the 95% of your audience that doesn’t want that level of detail.)

For scientists, I find that using the traditional paper structure can lead to a lot of repetition, and if you have several analyses or result to present, the audience might have a hard time remembering what methods went with which results or why you are jumping from one topic to the next. Remember that this is a talk. It’s not a paper where they can flip back and remind themselves which method you used.

So if you have several sub-questions/results, explain each one separately. For three research questions, this would go, methods, results, methods, results, methods, results. Use narrative to link them together: “based on result x, we were interested to follow up with experiment y.”

Then, make sure to have a discussion and conclusion that ties all those sub-questions together.

  1. Content: what do you put on your slides?

This is not original advice, but it’s advice I swear by: don’t put too much on your slides. I like to have some that are just a photo, a figure, or a few words. I leave them up as an anchor/background while I talk about something. You want people listening to you, not reading your slides.

I also use visuals because then the audience has two ways of getting information. The text you write will probably be very similar to what you will say, so if they don’t understand your spoken explanation, additional text might not help very much.

There are a few more things you can do to make it easy for your audience to follow the story. For example, choose a consistent font throughout the presentation and make the text big enough to read from the back of the room. You think it’s big enough? Make it bigger.

Do you have charts or graphs? Make the text big. Don’t just recycle figures from a research paper or take them straight out of Excel. Make the labels and text bigger and easier to interpret from far away, and if possible use the same font as your slides’ text.

Choose a nice color scheme. I make my graphs in R (a statistical software) and I like to use the online tool ColorBrewer or the ‘viridis’ R package to choose color schemes that are more pleasing than the defaults. If you have multiple charts with the same set of variables, make sure the color scheme is consistent throughout all of them – this makes it easier to follow.

No matter what software you are using to produce figures, make sure that they are easy to interpret for people who are color-blind, of which there will probably be at least a few in your audience. ColorBrewer indicates whether a color scheme is colorblind-friendly.

In PowerPoint, you can use the same tools to choose a color scheme to apply to your layout.

There are also some good sources of artwork you can use to make your slides nice. Pixabay has some free images, or search Wikipedia or Creative Commons. Phylopic is great for free images of plants and animals. Government agencies often have free imagery too. IMPORTANT: attribute any images that are not your own!

Whether it’s a chart or diagram, I often go through visuals sequentially. For example, for the first graph, I will often start with a slide that has just the axes, and I will explain what they are before adding the data to the plot. I will sometimes add the data in a few different steps if it is a complicated figure. This can make your results much easier to understand. The same goes for a complicated diagram: adding elements sequentially can allow you to highlight and explain what’s important about each one.

Finally, don’t forget to have a slide thanking people who helped with your research (including funders). I don’t like to end on this slide, because during question time I want to leave a slide about my conclusions up. Recently I’ve tried putting my thank-you slide second, or in the middle.

  1. Delivery: you’ve made your slides, now how do you do the talking?

As mentioned above, my best advice is simple: practice, practice, then practice some more.

I’ve been working in Europe for seven years, and people often tell that presentations must be easy for me because I’m a native English speaker. And yes, it’s obviously an advantage to give a talk in your first language!

But they’re surprised when I say, “Well, I practiced this talk 10 times…”

I am incredibly lucky that I don’t have to do science in a foreign language, and I don’t want to downplay this advantage. But remember: we’ve all heard terrible talks by people presenting in their native language. This might be because they haven’t practiced, or they simply don’t care very much, or they are nervous and uncomfortable with public speaking.

Practice and enthusiasm can go a long way. If you aren’t quite done with your project but have to present about it anyway, you can absolutely give a good talk despite lacking a finished conclusion. If your results are disappointing, your talk can still be great – it’s all about how you present and deliver it. If you aren’t completely comfortable giving a talk in a non-native language, copious practice can help. If your slides are clear and your demeanor is positive and enthusiastic, the audience will almost definitely be on your side.

Practice also helps me fit a lot of content into a short time slot. My talks are dense with information, but most feedback I receive is that they are still clear and easy to understand. By practicing repeatedly, I can pare my language down, cut minutes off of the length of the talk, and settle on the most concise, clear wording.

So, practice. One colleague said he didn’t want to memorize his talk because he didn’t want to sound like a robot. I told him if you memorize a talk well, you can actually be quite dynamic. The trick is to practice until your delivery is more or less automatic, and then keep going. Once you know it 100%, you will become so comfortable you will begin riffing a little bit, and you won’t sound like a robot at all.

One you’ve practiced a bit on your own, practice in front of colleagues and friends. Even if they aren’t familiar with the content, they can still give great advice on delivery and slide design. Scheduling this ahead of time and some days/week(s) before your presentation will also force you to make your presentation before the last possible moment.

Two reminders that should go without saying, but apparently are needed. No matter whether you think your voice is loud or not, use a microphone. Your audience might not be able to hear you, and you actually aren’t the best judge of whether they can or not.

And finally, keep to time. If you don’t, you are inconveniencing everyone else, whether it’s by making a meeting run long or running into the next slot at a conference and possibly costing someone else the chance to communicate their project.

I hope these tips can help you nail it next time you need to talk to an audience about whatever you’ve been up to!

Night to Day on the Hardergrat

Annie defending after the Augstmatthorn, partway across the Hardergrat and just after sunrise.

Annie & Joel descending after the Augstmatthorn, partway across the Hardergrat just after sunrise.

A few years ago I ran into a college friend who was visiting Zurich. When we met up, he and his girlfriend had just done a hike of something called “the Hardergrat”. It was an all-day ordeal that they said was amazing and terrifying and exhausting.

When we were living in a large shared house back in our early 20s, my friend hadn’t been much of a hiker or runner. He was paddling all the time, finding adventures in whitewater and not so much on land. The fact that he (1) had taken part of his Switzerland time to do this route and (2) was raving about how epic it was, made me sit up and listen.

It turns out that Hardergrat, a long ridge between Interlaken and Brienz, is low-key famous in the hiking and trail running community. And it is not a joke. The ridge is very exposed for long periods of time. The trail is just inches from thousand-foot drop-offs to one or both sides. People die there if they make a small mistake on footing. The Hardergrat is also very long, and has thousands of feet of climbing and descending.

When I heard about the ridge, it was just a few weeks after I had wrecked by ankle, and I wasn’t in any shape to be attempting a route so long and technical any time soon. Last summer also didn’t feel right: I was getting back in shape and training for a marathon, but I didn’t feel like I was actually *in* shape yet.

But the Hardergrat stayed in my mind, in the background. It was in my friend Annie’s mind too. I was determined that before I left Switzerland, I would do it.

Earlier this summer we emailed about possible dates with Joel, another adventure buddy. The Hardergrat has to be dry just to be attempted. The snow has to have melted, and many of the paths are just narrow dirt tracks through the grass. If you slip on the mud or wet grass, you will fall thousands of feet. It was a late-melting spring, so we waited impatiently, and then listed the possible summer weekends, the ones where none of us were traveling or racing anywhere, and then crossed our fingers for the right weather.

Last weekend, the weather came through. Sort of. Europe has been in a record heat wave, maybe you’ve heard. The Hardergrat would be dry, that was for sure. We didn’t know if we’d get another good opportunity, so we had to go for it.

But the heat… the ridge is completely exposed for about 17 kilometers, and the sun would be beating down on us. One thing I know about myself is that I suck in the heat. Even when I was training in Vermont, on hot summer days I would sometimes wake up at 5 or 6 and do my long workouts alone, because if I waited until 8:30 or 9 to start with the rest of the team I’d be roasted and useless before we even finished. I was worried about the heat.

Many people start the Hardergrat at 4 am for “various complicated reasons” (Annie’s quote), and so we began thinking. It didn’t seem worthwhile to get a room in Interlaken (incredibly expensive) for just a few hours. We could camp near the base of the trail, but then we’d have a tent, and since the route is point-to-point we would have to either carry it (not desirable, we wanted to be light and nimble) or leave it somewhere.

And so a plan was born: to avoid the heat of the day, we would take the last train from Zurich to Interlaken and start hiking up at 1:30 in the morning.

I also need a lot of sleep, so I definitely questioned whether this was a good idea. But for some reason, I just went along with it and didn’t really worry.

It turned out to be probably the best decision that we made.

It was surreal taking the train to Interlaken, carrying our small running backpacks and surrounded by people who were going home after a night of partying, many still drinking and/or smelling of beer.

When we got off the train, too, some people were biking home from nights out. We ran past them with our headlamps. On the steep climb up to Harder Kulm (about 5 km and 750 meters of up), we could hear the noise from Interlaken, parties still going on. In one sense, we couldn’t leave the crowded world of tourists and “culture” completely behind.

But in another one sense, we were in the forest, in the dark, focusing just on the trail in front of us. We weren’t sure which direction it was going to turn or where it was going to go. Insects flew into our faces, attracted to the light of our headlamps, which also illuminated ants and so many kinds of beetles scurrying around on the ground in front of us. Every once in a while we would hear the noise of bigger animals like deer crashing around in the forest above or below. At one point I heard what I thought was a stone rolling off the trail, and looked left to see that it was actually a large frog, escaping my disturbance to his night-time peace.

In the middle of the night with just the halos of our headlamps to follow, I entered some kind of meditative climbing. I didn’t really notice the distance or the time. When we came around a corner and the Harder Kulm restaurant/viewing platform was right in front of us, I was surprised we had come up so far, even though it had been over an hour of hiking. I’m actually very glad that we started in the dark with this unique night-time experience, because in some ways it made the climbing at the start mentally easier.

We paused at Harder Kulm and looked out over the lights of Interlaken below us. Then, we headed back into the woods and continued up and up.

By the time we reached the ridge, the horizon was getting a little lighter and tinged with orange. It was only 4 am, far from sunrise, but it felt like we had reached the next stage of our journey: a great combination of timing. The climb up and up and up (I know I’m being repetitive, but so was the climbing) through the forest was done. I felt a new level of excitement.

45 minutes later we came out of the scattered trees and took a short rest (Annie wanted to nap, but Joel and I were a little cold) in a ridgetop meadow, gazing over the ever-lightening landscape. The orange was spreading to more of the mountains and we could glimpse Brienzersee, as well as the outline of the first few mountains we would have to conquer on the ridgeline.

Photo: Annie Chalifour

We also started seeing a few headlamps in the distance, and when we got closer to those first mountains, we realized that people had hiked up (directly, unlike our long route…) to watch the sunrise, too. A few had also slept out overnight. We smiled and said hi as we passed them. A community of people who had sacrificed sleep for a pretty amazing experience.

By the time we stopped and sat down for “breakfast” on the Suggiture (2084 meters), it was 6:15 in the morning. We had five hours under our belts, maybe 12 kilometers, and at least 1500 meters of elevation.

Here’s looking at you, Alps. Photo of me by Annie Chalifour.

I’m not sure any sunrise view has ever been so special.

The air is full of dust from the Sahara right now, because the heat wave has blown in from Africa. In some ways this is a little unfortunate, as it made our views of the ridge and the snow-covered 4,000-meter peaks in the distance a lot less crisp. The air over the Lake of Brienz and the valley to the north was hazy.

But for the sunrise, I think it made the colors even more spectacular. We really couldn’t believe it. Looking around erased some of the effort it had taken to get up here. All I could do was be amazed that I was in this place at this moment.

As we got ready to continue, we began to have our first sense of what was ahead of us. We still had some climbing to get to the Augstmatthorn, the first “major” peak on the ridge. And now we could see the Brienzer Rothorn, which seemed very, very far away.

As we continued, at first we were still stopping every few minutes to continue gawking at the view. The sun was beginning to hit the snow-covered peaks and the dawn alpenglow was constantly changing. The morning light was incredible.

Photo: Annie Chalifour

Atop the Augstmatthorn, I think I had the first real sense of what we were up against on this adventure. Going up was one thing, but for the first time I got to see one of the big downhills, the ridge stretching ahead of us, and how full of uphills and downhills it was. It’s kind of impossible to count how many bumps there are on this ridge, but there is almost no flat.

It felt like we had put in a lot to get to the Augstmatthorn, the highest peak for a few kilometers in any direction. But we were immediately going to lose 300 meters (1000 feet) – and we were going to lose them steeply, with a cost to the quads because letting yourself roll and pick up too much momentum would be a mistake in terrain like this where tripping over a rock would have scary consequences. It hurt a little bit psychologically to immediately lose such a chunk of the elevation we had worked so hard to gain.

But as we continued, it was clear that this was the whole experience of the Hardergrat. The ridge is long, but in some senses not so long. From where we had come out of the trees and taken our rest/nap break, it was 17 kilometers to the Rothorn. That’s long, but I’ve done many runs and hikes far longer. So it’s not the length that makes the Hardergrat such an undertaking.

It’s the terrain. Sometimes you’d see the bigger peaks out in front of you. I remember at one point counting: one, two, three, four. One big-ish one, then the Tannhorn, then another big-ish one, and then up to Rothorn. Four big climbs left. But as soon as you got to the top of one hill, you’d see three or five more, with steep up and then steep down again, in between it and the next one. A kilometer or more of these big and little bumps before the next “peak”. And maybe even another one you hadn’t seen that was just as big as the one you were counting as “three”.

“It literally never ends!” Annie exclaimed at one point.

I must have mentally prepared well, because this actually never got to me too badly. I had heard one estimate that it takes 10 hours to do the Hardergrat, and I kept that in the back of my head. Even though the most elevation gain I’d done in a single hike/run so far this year was 1100 meters, I was pleasantly surprised when we were on top of Suggiture that even though we’d already come up more than that, I felt mostly fine. I think from that point on, I just thought, “You’ve come this far and you’re fine, so of course you can keep going. Stick to your pace and you won’t have any problem getting this ridge done. You’ve done the training to make you strong.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so positive on a hard route. The work I’ve been doing this spring on self-confidence seems to be paying off.

It made it fun to look around and enjoy the trail and the scenery.

Our little trail threading over the narrow ridge, kilometer later kilometer. Photo: Annie Chalifour

Pretty nice views.

There were a few more aspects of planning and execution that I’m also really proud of, that enabled this to be an amazing and actually fun experience instead of just a difficult slog. I am doing a race in two weeks, and I really wanted to make sure that this adventure was a good training stimulus, not something that destroyed me for days.

I was determined to go an “easy” pace, not above my aerobic threshold. I knew it would probably make me slower than Annie and Joel, but I managed to not let my ego get upset. I was going to do this at my pace (trying to keep my heart rate below 150 or 155 at the very most; my max is ~195, and my anaerobic threshold in the high 170s somewhere) and if they had to wait for me, they could wait.

(And they did. Repeatedly. I’d watch them just hike away from me, and then I’d focus on the trail in front of me and remind myself to enjoy going my own pace.)

I also brought a lot of snacks, and after the first hour I ate something (just a chunk of a bar, a few gummies, or a little ball of rice with soy sauce and honey) every 20-25 minutes. This is my strategy for long runs and races, but I’ve never done if for an effort as long as this ended up being (10 hours, counting all the big and small breaks we took). It was hard to keep eating, and I honestly didn’t know how well my body would handle it. But I also knew that after the halfway point, if I gave up on my eating schedule I would bonk, or at least have to stop and eat something more substantial. So the two times it was hard to choke something down, I did anyway. It worked. I never bonked.

Just keep grinding. Photo: Annie Chalifour

And finally, hydration. I was really scared of the heat. It was good that we got a lot of the distance over with before the sun really came out, but once it did it really was hot. And there was no place anywhere to refill on water. I had brought four liters of water – a full liter and a half more than Annie – and I drank almost all of it (with some Skratch Labs hydration mix). I had also drank plenty of electrolytes and sodium the day before to try to prepare. I was definitely thirsty by the time I finished, but I think I managed about as well as I could have hoped. Despite the extra weight I was carrying in the beginning, I was happy to have brought so much water. I needed it.

Those might seem like technical details, but on a route like the Hardergrat all these small aspects of planning are key to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time. Besides just not wanting to feel too wasted afterwards, I was nervous about the terrain. The consequences of a mis-step were so serious, and the more tired I was, the more likely I would be to make a mistake. I needed to be the least tired I could reasonably be.

So all the planning is indeed what enabled us to have such a great time. None of us ever took a serious stumble, even though the terrain got more and more scary as the ridge went on. The climbs were not so bad, most often a dirt path cutting through grass. If wet, this would be terrifyingly dangerous, but it was dry and so it was mostly just perfect; the only difficult aspect was the steepness.

Many hours in and still this happy.

Joel on one of the easier downhills. Photo: Annie Chalifour

But the downhills were something else. Often we were climbing down cliffy piles of rock and loose soil, using our hands to help ourselves. It wasn’t technical climbing, really, but it sure wasn’t just walking on a trail. The consequences of slipping were severe. Every peak or hilltop we reached as an adventure of looking down the other side and asking, “what’s in store for us on the downhill this time?”

As we crossed more and more of these downhills, I began wondering what would come after the Tannhorn. At 2200 meters, it’s the biggest peak on the ridge other than the Rothorn at the end. And I had read that the “crux” of the ridge came after the Tannhorn. So if the crux was more dangerous than what we were already doing, what exactly was it going to be!?

It turned out not to be what we expected. The part after the Tannhorn was in some ways easier: the trail was not as rocky or loose. It was actually a trail that if it was somewhere else, I would definitely run. It was some of the least technical trail we’d seen in a while.

… but… it’s the crux. That’s because this trail was a knife edge. It was probably less than a foot wide in many places, and the drop-offs on either side were even more enormous than most of the areas we had crossed so far. To the north, they led to a rock glacier. That would be even worse to slide down onto than a normal glacier.

Because the terrain was easy, I knew that all I had to do was just walk like normal. There was no reason I would make a mis-step. Just treat this like normal, I told myself.

But as I focused on the trail in front of me, the drop-offs on either side glided past in my peripheral vision. It was vertigo-inducing and made it impossible not to remember the risk of where we were walking. Good thing none of the three of us have a fear of heights.

Because we had prepared so well, though, we made it through no problem and were smiling after we got back on (comparatively) safer ground. Like, “that was it?” And by now we were so close to the Rothorn, just a few kilometers. We were tired but I felt somehow lighter, because I knew we were going to make it no problem.

We had one more fun ridge to follow, of relatively more gradual terrain; we could actually run a little bit of it. I was so full of happiness.

Me and Joel, on the next-to-last ridge! Photo: Annie Chalifour

We hit Wannepass, the last low point before the Rothorn. The finish was in sight! The trail wound up and to the left away from us, which didn’t make that much sense because the Rothorn was to the right. But I followed Annie and Joel on up.

Soon, I was looking up a steep couloir. I didn’t quite comprehend – I kept looking to the left to see if the trail perhaps wound all the way around these cliffs and somehow behind them. But then I saw Annie and Joel up above me, in the loose scree.

I heard Annie’s voice saying something indistinct, and then Joel: “well, if they are coming down this, than of course we can go up it.”

For the first time all day, I thought… fuck my life.

It was so steep, just a ribbon of scree between a cliff and a patch of snow. Near the top, someone had actually built concrete steps. But to get there, you had to climb up loose gravel underlain by dirt that was wet with the melting snow.

I had manage my effort and my pace well until here, but there was really no way to go up something like this after 25 kilometers and 2500 meters of climbing without going pretty hard. I periodically stopped to rest and wondered what the heck I was doing here. When would it end.

When I finally reached the top of the climb and rejoined Annie and Joel, they were similarly unimpressed with the end of the hike. But from there, it was an easy path over to the Rothorn; even a bit of downhill, and we could run again. Just a few minutes later, we were pulling out chairs on the porch of the restaurant and ordering cold drinks.

We had made it to the end.

Or, I had…

My knee had been bothering me since I tweaked it 10 days before, and had been quite painful on some of the downclimbing. So I decided that rather than drop the 1700 meters down to the lake, I would take the steam train down. Joel and Annie would continue running, making it a 40 k day for them by the end, but I had the chance to not further aggravate my injury and I took it. I felt no shame, because I had completed the hard part of the ridge.

So we said a hurried goodbye, and I trotted off for the train. The steam train was loud, but I fell asleep repeatedly. I had felt fine while hiking, but the lack of sleep finally caught up with me on the way home.

For the last 48 hours I have just been marveling over this experience, which is one of the most magical hikes I’ve ever been on.

I’m also just amazed that my body can take me on adventures like this: no sleep, heat, 9,000 meters of elevation gain. It didn’t kill me. I have so much confidence now, that I am putting in my pocket and taking with me on the rest of my summer adventures.

I’m really happy that my preparation and planning allowed me to enjoy it so much, and I can barely believe that we stood on that ridge, much less traversed the whole thing. There aren’t so many places in the world like Hardergrat.

If you ever get the chance, you should check it out. 1 am start optional.

All this we did! Plus some hiding behind the last peak in the background.

Easter Break in the Alps

Coming from the U.S. and a non-religious family, I never thought about Easter all that much once I grew up and stopped having Easter egg hunts. But in Europe, the Easter weekend is a major holiday, a kind of spring break of sorts. Even in places that are no longer particularly religious (or, no longer very observantly religious), Good Friday and Easter Monday are often off from work, making a long weekend for family, friends, and maybe travel. Many people tack on a day or more on either side, or take the whole next week off.

If you follow any Scandinavian or Finns, you probably saw pictures of their Easter holidays spent skiing (cross-country, downhill, or touring), snowmobiling, ice fishing, and getting sunburnt up north. This always makes me jealous – the days are getting long up there, the sun is warm, and there’s still snow to play in. Exhibits A, B, and C.

This year we decided to go to the Valais, one fo the parts of Switzerland with the highest mountains, for our Easter weekend. We arrived Thursday night just in time to take in the views across the valley from our AirBnB. Clearly, this was going to be a nice time.

We were staying in Riederalp, a car-free village accessible by cablecar. The offseason had begun and many hotels and restaurants were closed. There were tourists, but only a few to add to the less than 500 people who live there (some of whom were certainly off on their own holidays in warmer places). Our rented apartment was between the two village centers, and so very quiet. This was exactly what I needed. Every morning we would wake up and have a coffee on the porch looking at this view and how the light changed on the mountains.

Riederalp is just below a ridge, and if you hike up there you are offered a view of the Aletsch glacier, the largest one in the Alps. It’s 23 kilometers long, surrounded by 4000-meter mountains, and by 2100 is predicted to lose 90% of its 27 billion metric tons of ice.

The “Aletsch Arena,” as the greater area has billed itself, is one of the big tourist draws. But we realized that it wasn’t the perfect time of year to have all kinds of adventures.

Riederalp is on the south side of the ridge and much of the snow had melted even at 1900 meters where we were staying. I thought maybe that meant we could make a trail running loop around the closest small mountain, but once we got going, reality set in. There was kind of a lot of snow.

This was one of those days where I made a plan and Steve was maybe not thrilled to be tagging along with my bad plan.

Still, part of the reason I had wanted to go to the mountains – other than the extreme happiness I get from just looking at them – was to do some running with vertical, as I’m training for a trail running race in the Alps in July. So I tried to make better plans. A few days, we ended up hiking/running on the “Winterwanderweg” winter hiking trails.

These were pretty high up, so the views were spectacular. They were also packed down – occasionally groomed, and then walked on by people in boots and sometimes snowshoes. Depending on whether the snow was still frozen or soft and slushy, this made it quite challenging running, either sliding around or constantly stretching your ankles in different directions as your feet landed in frozen ruts. It wasn’t the most fun running and by the end of the last day my ankle was sore, but at the same time it was the most fun running, because who can argue with this scenery!?

Two other days, I mapped out routes of about 20 km each that we hiked/ran. Both had a lot of vertical, and some snow patches despite my attempts to route down to lower elevations. The first was through villages and involved losing and then gaining about 1000 meters of elevation to get back to our porch, and it pretty much destroyed me.

The other was a new favorite loop following two local trails, the “Massaweg” and the “Hexeweg”, which curved over singletrack around the side of a mountain and then down a stream valley.

Anyway, we certainly got in some miles and some vertical.

But the nicest part of the holiday in many ways was just being quiet and not worrying too much about work. Sleeping late, sitting on the porch and looking at the mountains. We took some walks around the near-empty village and wondered what it would be like to have a place here. What it would be like to grow up here. What it was like to live here 200 years ago.

Spring is a great time to stop and take a breath. And this was a great place to take that breath.

“I Contain Multitudes” Book Review & Sports Microbiome Speculation

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Perfect with a negroni.

What is the measure of a good science writer?

Both my boyfriend and I – one of us a scientist, the other not – adore reading Ed Yong’s columns in The Atlantic. That might be a pretty good measure, and it is one that Yong passes with flying colors: both the experts in fields he writes about, as well as nearly everyone else, are happy when he puts words on the internet.

(His Valentines tweets are no exception. I’m trying not to get sidetracked, but it’s hard, and that link is worth clicking, I promise.)

Nevertheless, when Yong’s first book, I Contain Multitudes, was released, I wasn’t that thrilled.

It’s about the microbiome, and I just wasn’t that excited to read about the microbiome. It seemed very of-the-moment, very bandwagon-y. As an ecologist I was kind of sick of hearing about the microbiome, and of people asking me whether my study organism’s microbiome might explain X or Y thing I had found about it.

Like, I’m studying all these complicated non-microbial things about my organism’s ecology, and I’m supposed to somehow have all the skills, techniques, and equipment to also understand its microbiome? Please go away. That’s so too much to ask.

Anyway, this month I finally read the book, and boy was I wrong.

The book was great.

And the microbiome is fascinating.

It was a delightful read, and among the reasons is that Yong describes perfectly some fundamental things about being an ecologist. Take this passage, for example:

“Here is a strange but critical sentiment to introduce in a book about the benefits of living with microbes: there is no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’. These terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world…. All of this means that labels like mutualist, commensal, pathogen, or parasite don’t quite work as badges of fixed identity. These terms are more like states of being, like hungry or awake or alive…”

For any scientist who has found a result, then explored seemingly the same situation over again and got a completely different result, this passage will spark a laugh or sigh of recognition.

It can seem like everything in ecology is context-dependent. Sometimes we can demonstrate what context matters and how the mechanism operates; other times it’s just a nice way of saying, we have no idea what’s going on.

Anyway, through Yong’s typically-excellent storytelling and the way I could identify with the scientists he profiled – men and women, young and old, at universities and zoos and NGO’s and research institutes around the world – I became immersed in tales about microbes.

As Yong points out, microbes were everywhere when multicellular life evolved. So we multicellular beings evolved with them. They made our lives easier, in some ways; and we helped them get ahead. Sometimes the relationship is good for everyone, sometimes not. But with microbes all around us for millions upon millions of years, the relationship is inevitable.

And so we have incredible interactions.

Of course, there are all the microbes in our guts: the gut microbiome, which is discussed all the time, it seems. Ours are worse than they used to be, worse than hunter-gatherer societies, worse if we eat more highly-processed food. This influences our health in so many ways.

But there are also more seemingly-fantastical things.

Microbes that help squids glow, canceling out the shadow that predators might see from below against the night sky, and thus protecting them from death! That makes a brilliantly intelligent cephalopod which just happens to be bioluminescent.

Mice that have gut microbes that help them eat creosote without any ill effects! Cute little fairy tail creatures that can eat a poison pill and just keep on going.

Another charming example? Having a pet, and a dog in particular, is one of the best ways to have a healthy, robust, microbiome. The pet brings microbes into the house from its travels outdoors, and those microbes become your microbes. I’m tallying up all the possible justifications for why we should get a dog, and this is a great one to add to the list! We need a dog because, science.

(Also on the list is that a dog can help you decide author order on papers. I mean, there are other ways, but let’s get a dog.)

Some stories are discouraging, like how a microbes help mountain pine beetles process and disarm the chemical defenses of trees, and thus to kill vast swathes of forest in North America. I thought I knew a fair bit about pine beetle devastation, but this was new to me.

Others stories are hopeful, however.

One of my favorites was a story about researchers trying to combat dengue fever. They raise mosquitos with a bacteria living inside them which makes them resistant to the dengue virus. And now they are letting those mosquitoes loose: they started in Australia, and went door to door to convince neighborhood residents to foster the new mosquitoes, even though most people would say “no way” if you asked whether you could drop some extra mosquito larvae next to their house. Bzzzzzz.

Just by carrying a bacteria, mosquitoes as a vector of this particular disease might be a thing of the past, at least in some places.

Yong also highlighted the work of Dr. Jessica Green, who was a new-ish professor in my department at University of Oregon back when I worked as a technician there.

Green studies the microbiome of buildings. It’s fascinating stuff, and even more interesting when you get to hospitals: leaving the window open to let natural microbes in might help fight off the bad microbes that give so many hospitalized people infections.

Thanks to microbes, there are simple interventions that might make a big difference in people’s lives. Our modern way of living and germ-phobic worldview has broken many of the relationships we used to have, but we are learning more and more about which ones we should preserve or restore. And it’s leading us to create new ones, too.

Along the way, I also began to think about a lot of things not covered in the book.

(I Contain Multitudeswas published in 2016, so a lot of science has happened since then in this rapidly-advancing field.)

For example, how might the microbiome alter human performance? The first thing that popped to mind was sleep. I have pretty much always been terrible at sleeping. I have a hard time falling asleep at night, and sometimes my sleep is restless.

In many aspects of life, sleep is vitally important. I think back to my time as an athlete: rest is one of the most important aspects of training, but if you aren’t sleeping well, you’re missing some of it. I definitely was.

Since 2016, some science has come out suggesting that lack of sleep alters your gut microbiome, and that the relationship also goes the other way, that your microbiome affects the process leading to sleep. But it’s hard to parse this research and assess its quality. I need someone like Yong to do that for me, and condense the reliable findings down into something digestible (see what I did there?).

In fact, I wondered about how the microbiome might affect athletes more generally. People doing a lot of training would benefit from all sorts of specific adaptations, including to diet and metabolism. Do microbes help in that? Does having the wrong microbiome hold you back?

Here, too, there has been a bit of research. For example, Outside wrote up a piece where they had seven elite athletes get their gut microbiomes sequenced. They found plenty of deviation from the average American, but as you can read in the piece,what did that actually mean? Hard to say. There is still so much we don’t know about microbes and which ones do what.

Another recent paperfound that rugby players had increased prevalence of microbes that with functions that increased muscle turnover. This approach, looking at “metabolic phenotyping” and metabolomics rather than only the composition of the kinds of microbes, might be more informative. However, because the athletes in the study ate different diets than the non-athletes, it’s hard to totally understand the implications of such differences.

Still, I’m interested in work like this. What would it say about endurance athletes?

Something to remember, though, is that even if we figured out that the human gut microbiome could be used to get better athletic performances or to maintain a better training load, it might be hard to act on that information.

In humans, there are still few silver bullets for the microbiome. Knowing that a microbe is good isn’t enough. In many cases, a microbe can be helpful or protective in one context but harmful in another (for instance if it reaches too-high abundance).

And it’s also hard to deliver a microbe into the gut and have it take hold.

One of the first stories I heard about the microbiome was about fecal transplants, which were used with great success to reset some people’s guts and solve major, seemingly-unsolvable health problems. It was on a podcast, although I now can’t remember which one. It was a wild story.

Yong writes about this, too. But he points out something researchers have learned in the years since the first fantastic results using fecal transplants to cure people of aggressive diseases.

The reason that fecal transplants work so well with some diseases is that the native gut flora has been pretty much wiped out by the combination of the disease and the antibiotics used to treat it in its initial stages.

“This pharmacological carpet-bombing clears many of the native bacteria from their guts,” Yong writes of patients with Clostridium difficileinfections who receive fecal transplants. “When a donor’s microbes arrive in this wasteland, they find few competitors, and certainly few that are as well adapted to the gut as they are. They can easily colonise… ‘you can’t just infuse microbes into people and expect a transplant to happen’, says [gastroenterologist Alexander] Khoruts.”

So even if we knew of a silver-bullet microbe that would help you metabolize or do something else to perform better, could we get it to colonize an athlete’s gut? Unclear.

In the end, if you want a healthier microbiome, a lot of it probably just comes down to eating a healthy, diverse diet, and having healthy habits. And that’s what athletes should be doing anyway.

I wonder if the best way to have your microbiome help your athletic career is just to do a bunch of things that you already know you should do. Eat well. Sleep. Hug the people you care about.

Here’s my final take about the measure of a science writer. A good writer can make you understand things you’re already familiar with in a whole new light.

An entire research group in my department studies the aphid-Buchnerasystem.

Aphids are small insects that like to live on, for example, pea and bean plants. Buchnera are bacteria that live inside the aphids; they got there over 200 million years ago, and each strain of aphid has its own strain of Buchnera. The bacteria produce amino acids that they don’t get from their main food source, phloem. And there’s another microbe, Hamiltonella defense, that protects the aphids against parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in an aphid and whose larvae gradually consume them from the inside out, turning them into “mummies”. (Yeah, it’s gross.) Different Hamiltonella strains have different protective abilities and costs.

I can’t tell you how many research talks I have listened to about aphids. Usually, it has just seemed complicated and confusing – even when my friends and close colleagues are explaining it.

But when I read Yong’s description of the study system in his book, all of a sudden, the whole thing made sense to me. First of all what was going on, and secondly why it was fascinating. I will look at my colleagues’ projects differently, and with a lot more interest.

If that isn’t the measure of science writing success, I’m not sure what is.

You can purchase I Contain Multitudes at Powell’sor your favorite independent bookseller.

Ganghoferlauf 50 k and Feeling Like a Skier

At the finish of the Ganghoferlauf classic marathon. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

Wednesday night I couldn’t fall asleep.

We were supposed to leave on Friday to go to Austria for a Saturday ski race, and the forecast was for rain all day on race day. Would there even be snow left, after the crazy-long warm snap that we’ve had plus even more rain? Would I make it through 50 k of being out in the rain? Should I just bag the trip if it was going to be miserable?

Racing isn’t my whole life so these questions shouldn’t have weighed so heavily, but the next 48 hours provided me with so many highs and lows.

I traveled to Austria. I was disappointed with the ski conditions. I loved our hotel setup! I despaired about the wax. I had a really fun 25 k of racing! I felt so alone and discouraged and stopped dead in the middle of the trail to eat a snack. I got my motivation back and careened another 25 k around the course, stuffing my mouth with Clif ShotBloks along the way.

I felt like a skier. That was the best part, the highest high.

And then, when I crossed the finish line exhausted, a guy asked to take my picture. Sure, why not? I smiled, with the Tirolean Alps in the background. As the shutter clicked, I heard the announcer.

“And this is, from Switzerland, Chelsea Little, she is the third woman to come into the finish after 50 k.”

What?

After all that angst, it turned out to be a very good day.

***

I’m not good at giving up on things, but the idea of skipping the race really was going through my head mid-week. I didn’t know what to do. I’d imagined this classic marathon, the Ganghoferlauf, as my season finale. It looked like it was literally going to rain on my parade.

By Thursday the forecast had changed, and it looked like it would be right around freezing and with a light snow at the start, warming up to the mid-40’s and sunny over the course of the race. How do you wax for that?

I’m not good at giving up on things so I got on the train on Friday, but somehow things didn’t get better once we got to Leutasch.

Midwinter skiing this ain’t. Note all the dirt in the snowbank in the left foreground.

I tested klister on Friday afternoon and nothing felt good. My skis alternately slipped and iced up. The snow was basically slush and as we ate dinner, it rained some more. Completely saturated. Lovely.

I had figured I could buy some of the appropriate wax at the expo when I picked up my bib, but there wasn’t really an expo (or a ski shop within a kilometer). The small collection of the klister in my wax box was all I had to work with: Swix base green, KR 45 purple, and one each of Toko green, blue, red, and yellow. Because I’m not good at giving up on things, before bed I re-applied the KR45 and Toko red to one ski each of my test skis – not at all confident either of these things would work the next day – and a thin layer of base green on my race skis.

“Shit, I really wish I had a riller,” I lamented.

“A what?” Steve asked.

“Never mind.” Right. Riller is not a word used by 99.99% of the human population.

Miraculously, I managed to get a good, deep sleep.

I woke up to the fact that it had frozen overnight, which was actually more than I had dared hope for. The tracks would be fast, so I reasoned that I’d have to suffer for much less time than if it had been slush from the start, like I’d been imagining.

But after eating a quick breakfast and hopping on my test skis, I found that both the KR45 and the Toko red were grabby and iced up. Not good. I was practically falling down on the flats they were so grabby. I tried covering them with a warm hardwax, but then I couldn’t kick up the hill.

I saw a fast-looking young woman out testing wax, but she was discussing with her coach/wax tech and was clearly testing more options. I haven’t had a team in years and this was a problem I needed to figure out on my lonely own.

Thinking about the forecast, I picked the KR45, crossed my fingers that the snow would stay relatively frozen, and heated it into a pretty layer on my race skis using the hotel room hairdryer. And then I went to the start.

The days leading up to the race had been so stressful as the weather forecast changed constantly. I was also mentally exhausted from a very intense three-day retreat with my research group. It was a gray damp morning. I had zero confidence in my skis. I have to say, I really did not want to do this race.

Then the gun went off, and the race started.

***

I’ve had a weird year of ski racing, and really of skiing. There was no snow early, so I bagged the race I had planned to do in December because I hadn’t even been on skis once. Then in January I went to Cortina, Italy, to do the Toblach-Cortina 35 k, but it was canceled.

The Ganghoferlauf 50 k was what I picked to make up for that race. A few years ago I went to Seefeld (just a few kilometers away) for the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, back-to-back 60 k’s where I did the skating and classic races. They were very well organized, on fun trails with beautiful views. So when I was looking for a late-season classic race in central Europe, it was pretty appealing to go back. I booked a spot in Leutasch.

The race start. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

And as we headed off the line, I felt like I had made a good decision. There were plenty of classic tracks for the first kilometer or so, and I easily had room to pass people despite starting near the back of the pack.

Very early, after about a kilometer and a half, we hit the biggest climb of the whole race. It was steep and long and much of the field immediately got out of the tracks and started herringboning their way up it, occasionally tangling up with each other.

I stayed in the tracks to the right. My purple klister, which an hour earlier when I was testing had been a disaster, was fantastic. I just strided past people and probably had a big grin on my face because I seriously couldn’t believe my luck. Out of a pretty limited wax box, it seemed like I had nailed it.

A kilometer later on the first downhill, I realized that not only was my wax not so grabby that I’d be falling down, but my glide job was also decently fast.

This was going to be fun. In the space of just a few minutes, my entire perspective shifted.

I cruised around the course, and after skiing through a rolling meadow system for about eight kilometers, we hit the flats of the bottom of the Leutasch valley. I was still skiing with packs of people, and just trying to hold a steady pace. At some point, we started up the hill and into the forest on the other side of the valley, and zig-zagged up and down smaller climbs for a few kilometers.

On the downhill of one of these zags, I caught a woman I had seen in front of me for the whole first 15 k of the race. We double-poled along the flat for a while, and after two more sets of uphill zigs and zags, caught another woman.

For the last seven kilometers of the 25 k loop, the three of us skied together, with the occasional guy trying to jump in between us, as they usually do. It was really fun. Johanna and Sanne – our names were on our bibs, so I weirdly felt like I got to know them – were good skiers. They were fun to follow and we had our own little race dynamics doing on, especially through the “Waldloipe” forest loop that had lots of fun ups and downs, twists and turns. Sometimes one of them would sprint over the top of a hill, but the other two of us would usually catch up.

As we looped back through the start/finish area, Sanne pulled away, and then I watched as she and Johanna turned left.

They were doing the 25 k.

Crap.

***

After I signed up for this race, I was describing it to Steve, and mentioned that it was a two-loop 50 k.

“When you have to ski straight past the finish and go out on a second loop, that’s going to be so terrible,” he said, already half laughing at my future anguish.

And oh boy, was he right.

A view from the 8 k meadow loop, the day before the race.

I’d had so much fun skiing with those two women, and I had worked pretty hard to stay with them over the last few kilometers. Maybe it wasn’t the most clever thing to do halfway though a 50 k, but it had felt good. Except now they were gone, the sun had been out for half an hour, and the snow had turned from ice to slush. I was staring at the big climb again, and could barely see anyone in front of me. I turned around and saw only other skiers turning left.

Yes, this was despair.

I realized that I hadn’t eaten any solid food, and stopped and dug out a Clif bar. On a hunch, I had decided to race with my running vest, something I’d never really done before. I knew it would be hot by the end of the race and that I might need more hydration than usual, and it also gave me the chance to carry some klister in case my wax job sucked as the conditions warmed up.

Now, I was very relieved to have the vest because it had snacks in it. There were a few spectators on the side of the trail who weren’t sure how to cheer for me as I stood there eating a bar, but it was completely worth it.

The calories almost immediately made me feel better, and I tackled the hill. I was tired from my ill-advised battle with two 25 k skiers, but my skis definitely didn’t suck. (I later realized this was because my kickzone consisted entirely of pine needles, not that the KR45 was somehow still working.)

The course consisted of little finger-like loops, the zigs and zags up and down hills. Coming out of one such loop I saw that there was another woman coming out of the next loop. I had no chance to catch her – we were separated by maybe two kilometers – but it was nice to see here there.

And coming out of another loop, I saw two other women just beginning it. They were perhaps another two kilometers behind me. This provided some good motivation: they probably wouldn’t catch me unless I really ran out of steam, but this was a marathon so you never know. I had to keep pushing just in case.

For most of the second 25 k I was in no man’s land. I could see a guy in a pea-green suit ahead of me, and sometimes I got within 20 meters, but then he’d pull away again.

I kept drinking from my vest and eating snacks, and trying to push on through the deepening slush. I was striding on the flats because it was so slow, and it made my back hurt. Then there were the road crossings, where the crossing guards let cars through between racers and only sometimes shoveled snow back onto the road. I cringed for my poor race skis, which were surely going to have a permanent reduction in speed by the time the day was over.

By the time I made it through all the zigs and zags and around the Waldloipe – no friends to chase this time – I emerged into the big field to see that there was nobody behind me. It was a relief, because there was a kilometer of flat to go and I had no sprint in me.

I took a purposeful but relaxed double-pole to the finish, and was smiling by the time I crossed the line.

***

On the podium! (Photo by Steve)

It turned out that I was third (out of just 25 women) in the race, and won my entry fee back. It had been impossible to tell my place when I was racing because of all the 25 k racers mixed in with us. So it was a legitimate surprise to realize I was on the podium.

It was a very nice reward at the end of the season, and I got a funny antler trophy as a prize.

But the result was just gravy. The best part of the day was feeling like a skier.

As I wrote, it’s been a weird year for me for skiing. In some ways it has been great; I have done a fair amount of skiing in some of my favorite places, including making time before work once a week many weeks (okay, getting to work extremely late once a week many weeks…).

But I’ve raced a lot less than planned – the Ganghoferlauf was just my third race of the year. The first race was not a positive experience. The second race was pretty fun, but on my “home” tracks in Einsiedeln and quite low-key.

In this 50 k, I felt like I was competing. I had a blast skiing with the sixth- and seventh-place women in the 25 k. I was engaged and focused, using my technique and my strength.

And then came the hard part: going another 25 k alone. It was hard, but I did it!

I did it because I’m decently fit and I planned my training to be rested (physically, if not mentally) for this race.

I did it because I used my experience and logic and a little bit of luck to make good skis.

I did it because diagonal stride is my favorite.

I did it because I wanted to use every tool I had to get to the finish line fastest.

In that lonely loop, I still felt like a skier.

I live in a city where it rarely snows, but skiing is what I love. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a skier anymore because I can’t ski out the backdoor and I don’t have a team or skier training buddies. Sometimes I get to the ski trail and I feel uncoordinated and floundering. Or I get to a race and I look at all the skinny, strong, fast-looking people in trendy ski gear with this year’s skis and boots, and I feel like I’m not one of them.

Those aren’t the things that define who is a skier and who isn’t, but sometimes it feels like it.

When I get to feel like an actual skier – which I am – it’s the best feeling.

Finally, My Almost-Perfect Davos Ski Day

Midway up the Sertig valley, striding along the classic tracks. This is what dreams are made of.

(Before I start: I’ve been featured two places online recently, talking about being a scientist. Check out Episode 4 of the MEME Stream podcast talking about my research on climate change in the arctic tundra, grad school in Europe, and the importance of hobbies (like skiing!). And fellow ecologist xc-skier Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie invited me onto the Plos Ecology blog to talk about reading a lot of papers and combatting imposter syndrome.)

If you’re a cross-country skier, you have probably heard of Davos. There’s a World Cup there every year, and it’s also a favorite training camp location for the U.S. Ski Team, among others. There are always blog posts and Instagram stories showing sunshine and powder days that recharge the soul.

Despite living in Switzerland for four years – and visiting a few times before that – I’ve never had what I’d consider a great Davos ski day.

The best part of the Davos trail network is probably its extensive classic-only trails which go up long side valleys out of town. When I was living and working there in the summer of 2013, these were some of my favorite places to get out for a hike or rollerski, and my gateway to mountain passes.

I immediately looked forward to coming back in the winter so I could ski them.

When I was in Davos for the World Cup in 2017, it had snowed, so I wanted to explore the Dischma valley. They hadn’t groomed yet though. D’oh.

But things didn’t really work out. For several years I went to the December World Cups to work for FasterSkier, but those years happened to be times when there was barely any snow, just a snowfarmed loop on the race course. (It’s been a bad few years.) This year, there was apparently good skiing, but I was at a conference in the UK that weekend.

I went back a few times to skate, but then you can’t access those long valley trails. And last year I had a long classic ski in a rain/snowstorm, where I did traipse up one of the valleys, but visibility was basically zero and the huge temperature swing made my classic wax a complete disaster.

So I’ve been to ski in Davos at least once each year, but I’ve never had the kind sunny alpine day that dreams are made of.

This really is my last winter in Switzerland, and I realized at some point that I was running out of chances. So on Sunday I woke up early and took the first train to Graubunden. Davos is quite far away (by Swiss standards), so even catching that train, I only arrived just before nine.

If you’ve been watching World Championships, you know that the Alps have been going through something of a heat wave. Switzerland is no different than Austria in that regard, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuffed hardwax ranging from blue to red into my drink belt and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t need klister instead.

Scenery.

Click. Click. Into my skis. It was cold when I arrived, and after days of freeze-thaw cycles the tracks were fast as I double-poled down to Frauenkirch, at the bottom of the main valley. I skied in and out of the shadow of the steep hillsides, and through hollows by the river where the cold had really settled overnight.

But an hour in, the sun had come over the mountains and suddenly, it was hot. I stopped to re-wax my skis. Blue clearly wasn’t right anymore.

I meandered through the Junkerboden, a forested hillside. After a week of relatively hard (for me) training, my legs were feeling tired as I climbed the steep trail through the woods and traversed its switchbacks. But this is a part of the trail system that relatively few people visit, and I sank into the quiet and peace of the forest.

Then I dropped down to the Sertig valley proper, and all of a sudden I was in 50-degree heat and immediately sweating. I took off my headband, unzipped my jacket, took a swig of water. My skis were slow, but miraculously my wax was still kind of kicking.

Heat is not my strong point, and I bogged down as I ticked through the kilometers up the valley. But it was so beautiful. I’d stop to take a breather and look around, captivated by the scenery. This wasn’t the extra-blue skiing of my dreams, but the sun was so bright, the mountains so crisp, the sky so blue. Aside from overheating, it was everything I’d imagined the valley to be as I hiked and ran it so many summers ago.

Everyone I passed was smiling, as if we couldn’t believe our good luck to be out here in the sun. It was the kind of day where even if you don’t feel great, you feel happy.

And I was particularly happy to be striding up the valley. Every time I classic ski, I’m reminded that it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s so natural to settle into the rhythm of kick, kick, kick. In this snow, a little less glide.

Nearing the top of the valley.

I eventually reached the top of the valley, where you are faced with a large mountain face and, for a ski tour or hike, the choice of two mountain passes, one left and one right. For cross-country skiers, it’s the end of the road, although you can stop for food or drink at a restaurant looking out across the meadow.

Sweaty. Go away tropical heat wave, I want winter back.

I opted out, and instead headed back down the valley. Despite the snow rapidly becoming slush, I whizzed down the trail, trying to thread between the skiers coming up the narrow trail. The fresh air on my face a welcome respite from the heat. Several kilometers were gone in no time, and I was back in the main valley, heading towards town.

By the time I clicked out of my skis, it was almost 60 degrees, and I was happy I had done this ski today. Unless the weather pattern changes drastically, I’m not sure how long the lower-elevation trails will last. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have skied another hour easily, but I was wiped out from the heat.

It wasn’t a completely perfect day, but maybe that doesn’t exist. I got to see the mountains, and the groups of classic skiers striding ant-like up the narrow classic-only trail through the valley. The next day my face was a little more tan and my legs a little more tired, and I added one more happy memory to all my summer memories of Davos.

Keep on skiing.

From #fieldworkfail to Published Paper

Amphipods are, unfortunately, not very photogenic. But here you can see some of my study organisms swimming around in a mesocosm in the laboratory, shredding some leaf litter like it’s their business (because it is).

It can be intimidating to try to turn your research into an academic paper. I think that sometimes we have the idea that a project has to go perfectly, or reveal some really fascinating new information, in order to be worth spending the time and effort to publish.

This is the story of not that kind of project.

One of my dissertation chapters was just published in the journal Aquatic Ecology. You can read it here.

The project originated from a need to show that the results of my lab experiments were relevant to real-world situations. To start out my PhD, I had done several experiments with amphipods – small crustacean invertebrates common to central European streams – in containers, which we call mesocosms. I filled the mesocosms with water and different kinds of leaves, then added different species and combinations of amphipods. After a few weeks, I saw how much leaf litter the amphipods had eaten.

We found that there were some differences between amphipod species in how much they ate, and their preferences for different kinds of leaves based on nutrient content or toughness (that work is here). But the lab setting was quite different than real streams.

So I worked with two students from our limnoecology course (which includes both bachelors and masters students) to develop a field experiment that would test the same types of amphipod-leaf combinations in streams.

We built “cages” out of PVC pipe with 1-mm mesh over the ends. We would put amphipods and leaf litter inside the cages, zip tie them to a cement block, and place the cement block in a stream. We did this in two places in Eastern Switzerland, and with two different species of amphipod.

After two weeks, we pulled half the cement blocks and cages out. After four weeks, we pulled the other half out. Moving all those cement blocks around was pretty tough. I think of myself as strong and the two students were burly Swiss guys, but by the time we pulled the last cement block up a muddy stream bank I was ready to never do this type of experiment again.

Elvira and our two students, Marcel and Denis, with an experimental block in the stream. This was the stream with easy access; the other had a tall, steep bank that was a real haul to get in and out of.

Unfortunately, when I analyzed the data, it was clear that something had gone wrong. The data made no sense.

The control cages, with no amphipods in them, had lost more leaf litter than the ones with amphipods – which shouldn’t be the case since they only had bacteria and fungi decomposing them, whereas the amphipod cages had shredding invertebrates. And the cages we had removed after two weeks had lost more leaf litter than the ones we left in the stream for four weeks.

These are not the “results” you want to see.

We must have somewhere along the way made a mistake in labeling or putting material into cages, though I couldn’t see how. I tried to reconstruct what could have gone wrong, if labels could have gotten swapped or material misplaced. I don’t have an answer, but the data weren’t reliable. I couldn’t be sure that there was some ecological meaning behind the strange pattern. It could have just been human error.

I felt bad for the students I was working with, because it can be discouraging to do your first research project and not find any interesting results. It wasn’t the experience I wanted to have given them.

My supervisor and I agreed, with regret, that we had to redo the experiment. I was NOT HAPPY. I wasn’t mad at him, because I knew he was right, but I really didn’t want to do it. I’ve never been less excited to go do fieldwork.

But back out into the field I went with my cages and concrete blocks (and no students this time). In case we made more mistakes, we designed the experiment a bit differently. We had one really well-replicated timepoint instead of two timepoints with less replicates, and worked in one stream instead of two.

Begrudgingly, we hauled the blocks to the stream and then hauled them back out again.

Cages zip-tied to cement blocks and deployed in the stream. You can see the brown leaf litter inside the enclosure.

And then for 2 ½ years I ignored the data, until my dissertation was due, at which point I frantically analyzed it and turned it into a chapter.

The draft that I initially submitted (to the journal and in my dissertation) was not what I would call my best work. My FasterSkier colleague Gavin generously offered to do some copy-editing, and I was ashamed at how many mistakes he found. I hope he doesn’t think less of me. A fellow PhD student, Moritz, also read it for me, and had a lot of very prescient criticisms.

But through all of that and peer review, the paper improved. Even though it is not going to change the course of history, I’m glad that I put together the analyses and published it, because we found two kind of interesting things.

The first was about species differences. I had used two amphipod species in the experiment (separately, not mixed together). Per capita, one species ate a lot more/faster than the other… but that species was also twice as big as the other! So per biomass, the species had nearly identical consumption rates.

The metabolic theory of ecology is a powerful framework that explains a lot of patterns we see in the world. One of its rules is that metabolism does not scale linearly with body size (here’s a good blog post explainer of the theory and data and here’s the Wikipedia article). That is, an organism twice as big shouldn’t have twice the metabolic needs of a smaller organism. It should need some more energy, but not double.

This relates to my results because the consumption of leaf litter was directly fueling the amphipods’ metabolism. They may have gotten some energy and resources from elsewhere in the cages, but we didn’t put any plant material or other food sources in there. So we could expect to roughly substitute “consumption” for “metabolism” in this body size-metabolism relationship.

Metabolic theory was originally developed looking across all of life, from tiny organisms to elephants, so our twofold size difference among the two amphipod species isn’t that big. That makes it less surprising that the two species have the same per-biomass food consumption rates. But it’s still interesting.

The second interesting result had to do with how the two species fed when they were offered mixtures of different kinds of leaves. Some leaves are “better”, with higher nutrient contents, for example. Both species had consumed these leaves at high rates when they were offered those leaves alone, and had comparatively lower consumption rates when offered only poor-quality leaves.

In the mixtures, one species ate the “better” leaves even faster than would be expected based on the rates in single-species mixtures. That is, when offered better and worse food sources, they preferentially ate the better ones. The other species did not exhibit this preferential feeding behavior.

I thought this was mildly interesting, but I realized it was even cooler based on a comment from one of our peer reviewers. (S)he pointed out that this meant that streams inhabited by one species or the other might have different nutrient cycling patterns, if it was the species that preferentially ate all of the high-nutrient leaves, or not. We could link this to neat research by some other scientists. It was a truly helpful nudge in the peer review process.

So, while I had hated this project at one point, it’s finally published. And I think it was worth pushing through.

It was not a perfect project, but projects don’t have to be perfect for it to be worth telling their stories and sharing their data.

Eastern Switzerland XC Skiing Guide: 12 Top Spots to Visit

A lot of people have asked me: where should I go cross-country skiing? Or, I’d like to try cross-country skiing – but where can I go around Zurich?

Well, here are my answers.

I’m basing this loosely on the template for my guide to hiking and trail running in Eastern Switzerland, but with some changes. Rather than posting routes, I’ll post a description of the trail system, along with a few other pieces of information: can you rent equipment there? What’s the train connection? Where can you leave a bag with your wallet and dry clothes?

I give directions and time estimates for arrival by public transportation; check the SBB schedulefor exact information about connections.

Especially for the lower-elevation areas, it’s important to check ahead of time that the trails are actually open. Most websites have up-to-date reports on the trail system. I also sometimes find it useful to look at webcams to roughly gauge the snow conditions.

Another important piece of information is regarding trail passes. You can purchase a “langlauf pass” from Langlauf.ch (including in an app on your phone) for 140 Francs that is a season pass for every cross-country ski area in Switzerland. Day passes are usually around 10 Francs, although some places like Davos-Klosters are free, so depending on how often you ski this can be an incredible deal.

As with the running/hiking guide, this is not an exhaustive list. There are some places even quite close to Zurich that I’ve never skied! I’ll start with my top two suggestions: one very close to Zurich which still offers great skiing, and another if you’re willing to spend a bit more time on the train, but still an easy day trip. These are shown with red markers on the map below. After that, I’ll arrange my other favorite places to ski based on their proximity to Zurich; these are in blue in the map below. Finally, I list some other places that you could explore if you have more time, get bored, or the weather isn’t great in any of the places listed above. These are less favorite spots or places I haven’t yet been, but have heard are nice, and are shown in gray on the map below. Below the jump, all the info you need!

 

My Two Top Suggestions: One Near, One Slightly Farther

  1. Schwedentritt (Einsiedeln)

Trail network (km): 21 km (all trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: 45 minutes each way on the train: Zurich HB – Einsiedeln, with a connection in Wädenswil. From the train station in Einsiedeln, it’s a 10-minute walk up to the trails. Enter “Schwedentritt” or “Parkhaus Brüel” into Google maps, or see this diagram.

Website (German only)

Rentals? Yes: 30 Francs/day; lessons and courses also available. Info here.

Bag drop? Yes, two options. There are heated men’s and women’s locker rooms in the underground parking garage where the trails start, which have small lockers to leave your belongings (a 2-Franc coin is needed). There’s also a large wooden trailer with built-in shelves at the start of the trails where people leave bags, shoes, etc. It is not locked, but I have never heard of any issues with theft. Make your own choice.

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: Schwedentritt is what I think of as my home trails. Easily reachable from Zurich, it’s a twisting and rolling loop that swoops from the impressive Einsiedeln Abbey down to the Sihlsee lake, then meanders around farmland, wetlands, and nature areas. There are some great views towards the mountains, but what I like most is just the terrain and openness of the trails. With lots of transitions, it’s really fun skiing, and gives you a great idea of the patchwork rural landscape of the cantons surrounding Zurich. The grooming is often great and you see lots of folks out enjoying the snow. The payoff in terms of quality skiing for short travel time from the city is really unbeatable.

  1. Lenzerheide

Trail network (km): 56 kilometers (all trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: An hour and a half to two hours each way, depending on where you want to start your ski. Either way, catch a train to Chur, and then make the connection (it’s just a few minutes) to bus 182 towards Bivio. You can get off the bus either at Parpan Post, Valbella Canols, or Lantsch/Lenz Biathlon Arena (see below).

Website: An overview of the whole trail system is available on the Lenzerheide website (English/German), but it’s one of those interactive maps that I actually don’t find that helpful. This PDF version puts it all in one place.

Rentals? Yes, from the cross-country ski center in Parpan (26-38 Francs, info here [German only]) or at the Biathlon Arena in Lantsch (info here [German only]). Lessons and other activities, like learning to do biathlon, are also available at the Biathlon Arena (info only in German).

Bag drop? Yes. My preferred spot is to go to Valbella (get off the bus at Valbella Canols; map to the cross-country center is here). There is a small building with men’s and women’s locker rooms; you need a 2-Franc coin to get a locker. There is also a small kiosk/restaurant where you can grab food and drink while waiting for the bus. There are also reportedly locker rooms at Parpan and at the Biathlon Arena, but I haven’t used either of them; those areas likewise have food of some kind (bistro, cafeteria).

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: Lenzerheide is the place I ski second-most-frequently, behind Schwedentritt. It’s a bit farther away, but it’s really in the mountains and is spectacular; I don’t think you can get that experience (and certainly not World Cup trails!) anywhere so easily reachable from the city. It’s a shorter trip than getting to Davos or the Engadin, but still has great trails of all types, and lots of them. There are the World Cup ski trails at the Biathlon Arena, which are pretty hard, but also a long rolling loop between there and the town of Lenzerheide. My very favorite ski is going from Lenzerheide over Parpan (a big-ish and fairly steep climb followed by a fun descent) and out past Churwalden to the Capfeders viewpoint. You feel quite high up and eventually leave the alpine ski areas behind you to have some quiet skiing among the small alpine farms and patches of forest. On a sunny day, it’s absolutely the best.

 

Other Top Suggestions, Ordered In Time From Zurich:

  1. Zugerberg

Trail network (km): 15 kilometers (11 k skating/classic, 4 k “Nollen” loop which is not classic tracked)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: An hour each way. Take a train to Zug, then hop on city bus 11 to Schönegg. Hop on the funicular and take in the view as it goes up the steep slope towards the top of Zugerberg. From the funicular, it’s a five-minute walk along the street towards to the start of the trails – head uphill to the left and then just follow the road.

Website (German only)

Rentals? No

Bag drop? Yes: following the road to the ski trails, you will pass through a meadow where the trails start and see a building on your left. There are men’s and women’s heated changing rooms. There are only tiny lockboxes (for example, to leave your wallet or valuables in), but I just leave my backpack in the main women’s changing room and nothing bad has happened to it yet…

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: The Zugerberg trails are really fun! They are rolling and relatively hilly, traversing a large hilltop/ridge area that offers views out over the lake of Zug and towards Rigi, Pilatus, and other nearby mountains. For me, it’s a great place to sneak off to if I can manage to leave work early – there aren’t unlimited trails, but plenty to keep you enjoying the skiing for an hour or two. The “Nollen” skate-only loop is fun and just be warned, offers some downhill S-turns through a huge, steep field – be prepared to make a lot of turns at high speed! Because there is no rental place, it is often fairly quiet skiing, although the trial network criss-crosses with walking trails; you can also stop at a restaurant partway around if you would like. Unfortunately, in bad winters there often isn’t enough snow to ski at Zugerberg.

  1. Studen (Einsiedeln)

Trail network (km): 27 kilometers (all trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: ~1:10 each direction: by train from Zurich HB to Einsiedeln, connecting in Wädenswil along the way, and then bus 553 to Studen SZ, Dörfli. From there the way to the ski trails is signed.

Website (German only)

Rentals? Yes: 35 Francs/day for a skis/boots/poles set, less for individual components, from Schaad Nordic Sports (info here). You can also have lessons/courses, including the option to book them online, info here.

Bag drop? Yes: in the basement of the nordic center is a large locker room area (including a place to wax skis and several showers). Lockers are free of charge.

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: Despite being only a 20-minute bus ride past the Einsiedeln train station, Studen often has earlier and more snow than the trails in town. The other reason I recommend it is that it has some of the best infrastructure anywhere. There is a fantastic nordic center built just a few years ago – a huge improvement from the dingy basement locker room available my first winter in Switzerland – which includes a comfortable cafeteria and Schaad Nordic Sports, which is where you should go if you need ski wax or other gear. The Schaads are very nice people and their shop has everything you could need, and they are happy to share their expertise. They even post a wax tip every day, which is really helpful if you live in the city and can’t tell what the snow will be like! The trail system has a couple parts. Most of the trails are in a wide, flat valley leading towards Hoch-Ybrig, an alpine ski area, so there are nice mountain views but very flat terrain. There are two loops, however, that offer more interesting skiing: a 7 km loop at the end of the Eastern side of the trails, and a 5 km loop at the end of the Southern side of the trails.

  1. Klosters

Trail network (km): 35 km (all trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: Just under two hours each way. Take a train towards Chur and hop off in Landquart, switching to a regional express train to Klosters Platz. From there it’s a ~5 minute walk to the trails (directions/diagram here).

Website (Joint website Davos/Klosters)

Rentals? There are several places to rent equipment in Klosters, but they are not at the trail start – you will need to go to a shop in town. Here’s a list.

Bag drop? There is a changing room at the Arena Klosters, the general sports building near the start of the ski trails. There are also lockers at the train station; I usually stash my bag there. You will need a coin for the locker.

Trail pass? Free!

Description: Klosters is a nice, accessible mid-sized trail system. It begins with flat, easy trails along a pretty river, before the valley narrows and provides more interesting terrain. The quietest trails and most spectacular views are at the top of the trail system (map here, on the second page); this is the area where the train tracks have gone deep into the mountain through the Vereina tunnel, so it’s just mountains and a few alp farms. You can stop for lunch or a snack at Alp Garfiun and enjoy the views. The trip back towards Klosters is rolling at first, before hitting a fun, fast, and long downhill back – enjoy a rip!

  1. Langis-Glaubenberg Pass

Trail network (km): 25 km skating / 25 km classic (trails mostly separated)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: About two hours each way from the Zurich main station. Again, check SBB because there are multiple connections that could get you to Sarnen, but that is where you need to go, before switching to bus 344 and taking it to the end stop at Langis.

Website (German only)

Rentals? Yes, at Freddy Glanzmann (info here) sport in the building near the bus stop. They also offer lessons, bookable online (info here).

Bag drop? Yes, in the locker room of the hotel building where the bus drops you off.

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: Langis was a late discovery for me, but it’s a really neat area. The inner trail system is winding and fun, with separate skating and classic loops that traverse through meadows and forests and past a small chapel. There’s also a long trail out a summer road towards Lochalp, which is wide graded for cars and bikes, but pretty cool for a cruise. There’s no alpine ski area here, although a lot of people use the parking lot as a jumping-off point for ski touring; between that and being sort of in the middle of nowhere, Langis is a really nice, quiet, human-powered playground.

  1. Valünalopp (Steg, Liechtenstein)

Trail network (km): 15 km (all trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: Two hours each way. Take a train to Sargans, then switch to bus 11 or 12E (check SBB) to get to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. At Vaduz Post, hop off the bus and cross the road to catch bus 21 going in the opposite direction, towards Malbun. Take it way, way up the hill to the stop Steg Hotel. From there it’s a 10-15 minute walk around to the touring center on the roads (diagram map here), or you can take a winter walking trail there (signed in pink), or pop on your skis and ski over with a bag on your back (there will be green signs pointing to the ski trails).

Website (German only)

Rentals? No.

Bag drop? Yes, at the “Loipahötta” hut. It’s a small hut and there are no lockers, but space to hang up a jacket, stash shoes, and leave a backpack; you can also buy a trail pass or a coffee. The bathrooms are in a separate building three minutes down the road (signs show the way).

Trail pass? 8 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card – and yes, the Swiss card works here too!

Description: Want to up the number of countries you can say you’ve skied in? Head to Liechtenstein. It’s not a particularly long trip from Zurich, and the trails are lovely. They mainly meander along a very pretty small river, but there’s also some meadow loops. As Steg is midway up the road to a ski resort, but not there yet, it’s also a very quiet area where you can enjoy some quality nature time. I only skied there once, but I had an absolute blast.

  1. Davos

Trail network (km): lots: 76 km classic, 56 km skating (most of the skating trails are dual-use)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: ~2 ¼ hours each way. Take a train towards Chur and then hop off in Landquart. From there, check the SBB app: you may need to switch again in Klosters Platz, or you may be able to get a train that goes all the way to Davos Dorf. From there, the Cross-Country Ski Center– which is otherwise great – is a bit annoyingly situated (search for Langlaufzentrum Davos on Google Maps). So there are a few options. You can take bus 3 or 4 to Hertistrasse and then have a short walk. You can also walk to the ski trails (diagram here) and pop on your skis, either leaving your bag at the train station first or skiing with a backpack to the Langlaufzentrum.

Website (Joint website Davos/Klosters)

Rentals? There are several places to rent equipment in Davos, but they are not at the trail start – you will need to go to a shop in town (or at the train station). Here’s a list.

Bag drop? As mentioned above, there are two options. You can leave a bag at the train station, for which you will need a coin to lock the lockers. There’s also nice changing rooms at the Cross-Country Ski Center, which also has a cafeteria where you can grab a bite.

Trail pass? Free!

Description: Davos is one of the best places to ski. To understand how to make the most of the trail system, it’s helpful to understand the layout (map here). Davos itself runs along a valley, and the ski trails follow the river through this valley; different trails snake up side valleys, and these are the ones that people rave about. So don’t waste your energy down in town, get out to one of the side valleys, preferably Dischma or Sertig. The views up there are fantastic and both valleys feature restaurants at the top where you can refuel. The other reason that people rave about these areas is that these two side valleys have classic-only trails, which are just so fun. On skate skis, my favorite spot is down past Frauenkirch. There are, of course, also the World Cup trails in Fluela (which is also where the saved-snow early season loop is), but in my opinion they are not the most fun trails to ski, and don’t have the amazing views of the other side valleys. 

  1. Gantrisch

Trail network (km): 45 km (most trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: 2 to 2 ½ hours each way. These trails are in the Gantrisch Naturpark, and are possibly the most annoying to do by public transport of anything I’ve listed here. There are many access points to the trails (shown here), but only one of these has both a bus stop AND direct access to the ski trails. That’s at Gurnigel Wasserscheide. Check SBB because there are several possible connections to get there, but it will involve a winding bus trip from one side or another. You’ll be deposited at a parking lot where you can see a small container/hut which signals the start of the ski trails.

Website (German and French only)

Rentals? Yes, but not at Wasserscheide, so if you are arriving by bus you need to arrive with skis.

Bag drop? There is a very small changing room in the container/hut at the trailhead. No lockers, but you can leave a bag under a bench.

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: These trails are special because they are situated in the middle of a 400-square-kilometer nature park, while still not being too far from Bern, the Swiss capital. The network is laid out around a main trail, the 11-km “Königsloipe” or King’s Trail. From there, a series of peripheral trails loop up and down off the side of the ridge in either direction, offering a narrower and more technical way to enjoy the forest and catch some views. And the views are spectacular, looking out at the 2000-meter peaks of the Gantrisch massif. There’s a lot to explore and it’s worth the somewhat annoying bus trip to and minimal facilities to do so.

  1. Melchsee Frutt

Trail network (km): 15 km (all trails skating & classic)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: About two and a half hours each way, including the gondola ride up to the mountain station where the trails begin. Yes, a gondola ride to go cross-country skiing – for real! There are several ways to get there so check SBB, but you will need to get to Sarnen, where you will switch to bus 343 to Stöckalp. From there, take the gondola up. At the top station, take an elevator down to the floor below (weird, I know) and walk along a long hallway; the locker rooms will be off to your left. From the open area down there, walk straight out across a downhill ski/walking/connection trail and you will hit a cross-country-skiable trail that curls around and drops you down to the start of the real trail system.

Website

Rentals? I am pretty sure you can rent cross-country skis at the top of the cablecar… not certain though.

Bag drop: There is a changing room at the top of the cablecar; you will need a coin if you want to use a locker.

Trail pass? 8 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: Melchsee-Frutt is one of my favorite places to ski in the late winter and spring. I guess it’s probably great the rest of the time too, but because the trails start at nearly 2000 meters (5,600 feet) and is nestled in the higher mountains, it holds snow a long time, and to ski it basking in the longer days and sunshine always leaves me feeling just so happy. The trails are well designed and graded, but not exactly easy; maybe it’s partly the elevation, but there are some big climbs, including right off the bat at the start of the trail. The views are just incredible though, so if you can use that as an excuse to stop and catch your breath. You will see lots of people walking, and sometimes people using the cross-country trails as an easy way to start their ski tours before skinning up the mountains. There’s a restaurant partway around the loop, too, where you can stop and have a snack in the sun.

  1. Engadin

Trail network (km): 220 km classic / 200 km skating (most of the network is groomed for both)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: I think if you’re going to go to the Engadin, you should stay at least two days, because there’s so much to explore! It’s 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours each way from Zurich. Almost the entire Oberengadin (Upper Engadin river valley) is covered in cross-country ski trails, so it’s your choice where to start (overview map here). You can choose Maloja at one end, Lavin in the Unterengadin, or anywhere in between. My best choice would be to go to Pontresina, which is closer to 3 ½ hours, but from where you have easy access to many of the best trail directions. Zernez is only 2 ½ hours however, and offers a lot of exploring at the less-touristy end of the valley. In both places, the ski trails are very close to the train station.

Website

Rentals? Yes, at many places throughout the Engadin valley (list here).

Bag drop? Yes, at several places. At Pontresina, walk across the street from the train station and the cross-country ski center is in the basement of the youth hostel, where you will find locker rooms and bathrooms. In Zernez, there are changing rooms in the main sport center. In Samedan and St. Moritz, there are luggage lockers at the train stations which are probably the best options for where to leave a bag. You can use the interactive map to see the cross-country ski centers throughout the valley and check if they have changing room facilities.

Trail pass? 10 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: As mentioned, the Engadin has just so many trails to explore. It would be a big challenge to ski everything there in one day! There’s lots of variety, too; a main trail meanders all the way down the river valley, crossing several frozen lakes along the way. But especially from the Pontresina area, there are also trails going up side valleys towards glaciers, which is an incredibly beautiful ski experience. The Engadin/St Moritz region is infamously one of the sunniest places in Switzerland, so it’s a very happy place to be. I’d go more often if it wasn’t so far from Zurich!

  1. Goms

Trail network (km): 86 km classic / 90 km skating (most of the network is groomed for both)

Distance & Directions from Zurich: Three or more hours each way from Zurich. You can get on the trail network in many places, from Niederwald to Oberwald or anywhere in between (trail map here); the most developed part of the trail network is in Ulrichen, where the Nordic Center is and where races are hosted (directions from the train station to the Nordic center in a diagram here). All of these places are accessible by a train that runs up the valley, so use SBB to figure out your route, but it will either involve taking a train directly to Brig and then switching to the regional train to Goms, or taking a train to Flüelen, switching to a different train to Andermatt, and then catching the regional train to Goms.

Website

Rentals? Yes, from many places in Goms, but not at the Nordic Center in Ulrichen, so you’ll need to make a detour (list here).

Bag drop? Yes, there are locker rooms with showers at the Nordic Center in Ulrichen, There are also “garderobe” facilities in Niederwald and Oberwald.

Trail pass? 16 Francs for the day if you don’t have the Swiss season card.

Description: The trails in Goms often have early snow, and the long valley has an incredibly extensive trail netowork. They mainly follow along the river in the bottom of a valley surrounded by big mountains, but there are some loops which offer more interesting terrain. It’s a long way from Zurich and for me, if I’m going to spend that much time on a train I’d rather go to Davos – but Goms is a good option to get in a lot of kilometers and the weather can sometimes be better than in Graubunden, so it’s a good option to keep open. They also have a great marathon/half marathon weekend of skating and classic races, the Gommerlauf, which is a fun mid-sized marathon to check out.

 

Other Spots, Roughly Ordered In Time From Zurich:

  1. Gibswil Panoramaloipe: This is one of the few cross-country ski areas in the Zurich-Oberland, and I’m ashamed that I haven’t been there yet. In bad winters, it’s often not skiable, and it’s just on the other side of the lake from me, so it’s more straightforward to go to Einseideln or Zugerberg. Still, I’ve heard this is a fun place, so you could check out their ~34 kilometers of trails, 15 of which are classic-only. (Website, German only)
  2. Pfannenstiel-Guldenen-Hombrechtikon: Another Zurich-Oberland trail which I haven’t skied. Like Gibswil, this one is not always snowy; it’s also not super convenient to access by public transportation. But I have run in the area in the summer and the views over Lake Zurich are sweet, so it’s probably worth checking out. (Trail report here, trail map here)
  3. Finnenloipe, Rothenthurm: 25 km of trails around a wetland/moor area, in the same direction as Einsiedeln. The trails are nice but I’d recommend Schwedentritt instead, if you’re going in this direction and can only sample one. (Website, German only)
  4. Bolzberg, Einsiedeln: The town of Einsiedeln is surrounded on all sides by cross-country ski trails! I have never skied the Bolzberg ones, which go under the town’s ski jumps, but they are pretty easily reachable from the train station. (Website, German only)
  5. Rigi Panoramaloipe: Rigi is one of the more iconic peaks in Eastern Switzerland, not because it’s so high or spectacular, but it is prominent and visible from many cities. Their panorama ski trail is another spot I haven’t yet visited, but this one was recommended by my friend Simon who used to go there after work sometimes. You take a little train up to Rigi Kaltbad and then there’s a 7-km loop. (Website)
  6. Flumserberg: Flumerberg is the closest big-ish downhill ski area to Lake Zurich, so a popular spot on the weekend. I haven’t checked out their 22 km of cross-country ski trails, but my friend Annie skied them as part of a lab retreat and the pictures were kind of stunning. (Website)
  7. Trin Nordic, Flims: I haven’t skied Flims, but my colleague Joel says it’s one of his favorite places to go. They have 47 kilometers of trails and based on the views in the summer, I bet they are spectacular. (Website, German only)
  8. Arosa: I haven’t skied here, but I hear that their ~25 kilometers of trails – half of which are classic-only – are lovely. Arosa is a mountain town nestled between Lenzerheide and Davos, reachable via a connection in Chur. (Website)
  9. Engelberg: A classic downhill-ski area and jumping-off point for ski touring, Engelberg also has trails down in the valley and an 8-km loop reachable by a funicular up on the mountain. My friend Greg has recommended Engelberg but I haven’t made it happen so far. (Website)
  10. Romandie: For the north-center and north-west part of Switzerland, check out the website for Romandie Ski de Fond, which has interactive maps and lists all the ski areas. It’s a very useful resource, but I have found that reaching a lot of these places by public transport is not easy or convenient. Too bad, because they look great! A few are possible, if you’re looking for that area or the Jura seems like the place to find the sun on a given weekend.

2018 in Reading: A Tally and Favorite Recommendations

In 2017, I set a New Year’s resolution to read more. I wanted to set a resolution that would help me do something I liked more often. And it worked! I read a lot, and I enjoyed it so, so much. It definitely improved my quality of life.

For 2018, I wanted to keep reading, but I set some new goals. I wanted to read more diverse authors, including more work translated into English from other languages. I kind of succeeded in my goals; I read 58 books (!), and 35 of them were by women. Again, I would say that reading a lot improved my quality of life.

Clearly, I spent a lot of time reading. This year, I did a lot more reading while commuting; at some point I cut the data plan on my phone drastically so I couldn’t read about politics on my way to work, because I was arriving already in a bad mood. Instead, I read books. Much better. (There was one time I missed my tram stop because the book was so good, but I can no longer remember which book it was!)

Here are some stats, trends, and recommendations of my favorite things I read.

Read More Women: 34 of those books were by women, and 22 by men. Two were academic books with multiple authors. One of my big goals this year was to read more women, and I definitely succeeded in that!

Read In Translation: Only four books were translated into English from another language. I failed on the goal of reading a lot of translated literature, but I can say all four were great.

  • Inheritance From Motherby Minae Mizumura (translated from Japanese) was charming and heartfelt, and given the story line it’s amazing that it never felt cheesy or cliché; I loved it.
  • Lullaby by Leila Slimani is a Prix Goncourt, a prize in France for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”; part of it is a ripped-from-the-headlines crime story, but the examination of class in Paris fascinating and sad at the same time.
  • Fever Dream by Argentinian Samanta Schweblin kind of defies classification. It’s short, surreal, creepy, and fantastic, which is probably why it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize.
  • I’ll talk about the fourth one, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, below.

Read Diversely: Including the translated books noted above, here’s my geographic tally for authorship: Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Finland, France/Morocco, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Swaziland, Trinidad, UK (7), USA (27). I only succeeded in reading more books by authors not originally from the U.S. by reading more books, total. (And some of those international authors reside in the U.S., U.K., or elsewhere.)

I Fell In Love With Short Stories: I have to admit, I was never much one for short story collections. They bring back memories of schoolwork and “best short story” anthologies that I for whatever reason didn’t connect with. This year, though, I read several incredible short story collections and it totally changed my opinion!

Among those that I loved was Damned If I Do, by Percival Everett, partly for its descriptions of life in the West. Florida by Lauren Groff was a pick for our climate fiction book group (see below); the opening story left me “meh”, but several others killed me dead with their perfection, including “Dogs go wolf” and “Above and below”. Then there was Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh, which I became a huge cheerleader for and recommended to everyone I knew. It’s a rare book that Steve and I both completely loved and found un-put-downable. The stories are weird and you often feel painfully uncomfortable on behalf of the characters, but they are so, so good in that weirdness.

Crime Writing Kept Me Going: I like crime fiction. And for a chunk of this year, it kind of saved me by being a great distraction from my dissertation; a good crime novel has the capacity to just completely suck you into its world, which is sometimes very necessary. This was particularly true in the very last month of my dissertation, when I wasn’t exercising much because I had just run a marathon and my body needed a rest. I had to fill the time that I’d been spending running with something else, and I ended up tearing through crime novels. A full 20% of the books I read in 2018 could be classified as crime, and several more have criminal deaths at the center of the story, but I’d say are more literary fiction than “crime” (A Separation by Katie Kitamura and History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund come to mind).

I read some great crime fiction. A Beautiful Place To Die by Malla Nunn was one of the best books I read this year in that it transported me to a place I know nothing about, 1950s South Africa. It was brutal, beautiful (as in the title), and educational all at once. Then there were some just simply good books. I love the Irish author Tana French, whose police novels are dark and serious. Broken Harbour is both completely creepy, and a social comment indicting of the housing bubble. I like J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike mysteries, which are different in that they are a bit comic sometimes as well (the crimes are no jokes though, actually sometimes quite gruesome). Then there were the less-literary crime novels that nonetheless helped me through. The afternoon I handed in my dissertation, I came home, sat on the sofa, and read Jane Harper’s The Dry all in one sitting. It’s not going to win a Man Booker but it was a good story set in an interesting place and pulled me along when my brain literally couldn’t make up its own thoughts anymore.

(I also enjoyed some true crime books this year, particularlyKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, which taught me a lot I didn’t learn in history class and was both gripping and devastating, and The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson.)

I Joined A “Climate Fiction” Book Group: My friend Joan started a reading group around the theme of climate fiction. We have read a lot of different kinds of things. Some about dystopian futures; The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi and Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta both hit me hard because I can picture the landscapes where they are (partly) set, south-central Colorado and Finland respectively, based on my own travels and/or residency. We also read some just plain weirder speculative fiction, including Annihilation by Jeffrey Vandermeer, which I loved so much I went out, bought the other two books in the trilogy, and devoured them. We read a long literary noel with a Big Environmental Message, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and I loved that too (I put a quote from it on my holiday card). And we read Florida, which is not explicitly about climate change in a bang-you-over the head way, but it’s there. This group has been a great thing to join and if you’re interested, you can find out more on Twitter.

The Weirdest Book That I Absolutely Loved: Steve gave me Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk because he read a review of it in The Economist and thought I might like it. I dove in without learning anything about it, to the extent that through the whole first chapter I wasn’t sure if the narrator was a man or a woman. This book is super bizarre, but I liked it – it was so different than anything I’ve read this year or maybe ever. I won’t give it away other than to say that may or may not be your cup of tea. Steve tried to read it after my rave reviews and got most of the way through before flinging it onto the table as he shouted obscenities, so, your mileage may vary.

Two Books About Science and Society That Changed Me: Two nonfiction books stuck with me and will probably alter how I go about my life as a scientist and human being. The first was The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham, a book that my mother gave me as a gift. The memoir resembles an essay collection, and I typically don’t love essay collections, so I put off reading it. Then I picked the book up and wanted to savor every word. The book details the author’s relationship with nature and the place he grew up, and the challenges he faces as a Black wildlife biologist. It is beautiful nature writing, and made me see my field differently, too. It rightfully won the 2017 Southern Book Award.

The second was Inferior by Angela Saini, which highlights how understudied women are compared to men and how many of the things our culture, or indeed our whole women, believe about women based on centuries of “knowledge” are simply bullshit propped up by pseudoscience, because nobody thought it was interesting or worthwhile to do the real work. This book blew me away and made me mad, but it also profiles researchers working to change the game. Maybe there’s hope.

A Delightful Novel That Will Change Your Opinion of the Author: Some feminist websites I read have occasionally gushed about Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I finally picked up a copy. I like Woolf; if that makes me pretentious, I don’t care. If you don’t like her, though, try this book anyway. It’s about an ageless character who lives for hundreds of years and transforms from a man to a woman in the process. It’s legitimately hilarious in places, but also has some beautiful descriptions of tons of different settings, and musings on the human condition.

Other Books I Highly Recommend: Circeby Madeline Miller; Black Riverby S.M. Hulse; The Invention of Natureby Andrea Wulf.

***

What’s next? I’m going to keep reading, of course. These two years of trying to read a book a week have reignited a habit in me that was last seen in middle school. My inner bookworm has re-emerged.

In fourth grade we had some kind of reading contest, challenging the class above or below us (I can’t remember which) to see who could read the most books in a month. This brought out my competitive side and while some of my friends struggled to read one book because they just found it boring, I read at least one per day (these were middle-grade books, so nothing too dense)– it was partly because I wanted to win, but it totally wasn’t a chore. It was like getting a prize for something you wanted to do anyway.

Now, I have 11 books on the “to-be-read” shelf of my bookcase, and my Amazon wishlist is hundreds of books long. It would take me well over a decade to read them all at my current rate, even without the many that I add based on new releases each year. I’ll never get there. But I’m excited for the ones I do read.

Want to track your own reading in a systematic way, for example to make sure you really are reading women authors? The website BookRiot has a nice spreadsheet you can use (and adapt).

Planoiras Part 2: Seeking Confidence and Resilience

Note: This is the second of two posts about my racing in Lenzherheide, Switzerland, this weekend. For the first post, click here.

Saturday morning I woke up to one of those emails you don’t want to get at the start of the weekend. A paper I had submitted was rejected. Argh!

This happens all the time if you are an academic, and I think I have generally gotten slightly better at dealing with it. I was able to find some positives: the paper did go out for review (rather than getting rejected by the editor without review, something that is quite common), and all of the reviewers and editors agreed the premise was interesting. It’s not like they were telling me I, or my science, was garbage.

But it was still very disappointing. It was the chapter of my dissertation that I felt the most ownership over: the thing I felt like I had come up with all by myself and then convinced my supervisor and co-author to pursue, and that had turned out to have really interesting results. I had sent it to one of the journals I admire most in my field, and to have it published there would have felt like an incredible milestone.

Luckily, I was meeting some friends for a ski that morning, so after reading the reviewer comments over breakfast I hopped on the train and got some beautiful, sunshiney snow time. Glide. Good therapy.

Later in the day, I skyped with Steve, who is traveling for work. We chatted about a bunch of different things before I even remembered to mention the paper rejection. Then he asked if I was ready for my ski race the next day.

“I’m trying to be,” I said. “But it’s hard. The weather is going to be pretty terrible. It’s just blah.”

“You’re paper got rejected and now everything is painted gray,” he responded. “I know how you will be. The weather is gray and I don’t like it. The skiing is gray. This breakfast is gray, yuck. Gray gray gray.”

I laughed, because he was right, kind of. I definitely get that way. Sometimes when one bad thing happens, it leads me right down a chain of negativity until everything seems overwhelming, bad, and unsolvable. I can’t seem to see anything good in the world.

But I also laughed because it’s something I’m working on. For Christmas I bought myself Kara Goucher’s new book, “Strong.” It’s about building confidence. Some of the presentation is a little too girly for me, but there are aspects of the book that I love. It all works because Goucher is completely honest about her struggles, and she’s easily convincing when she relates how mental training helped her.

One section is about reframing negative thoughts and turning them into strengths, and this is something I really liked.

Here’s an example. These days when I go to a ski race, I’m aware that I probably don’t train as much as most of the people who are around me – people who look all pro in their shiny suits, who own the newest skis and boots and poles, and who probably poured a couple hundred Francs into their wax jobs. I certainly don’t have as much time on snow, because I live in Zurich, and most of them live much closer to the mountains, if not actually in the mountains.

As I see all these people warming up and putting their skis on the line, sometimes I feel like a complete imposter. What am I doing here!? These people are so much better prepared than me! Look how fit they all look!

And, well, some of them are better trained. But physical preparation is not the only thing that makes you go fast. You could have done the best training this year, but if you show up at a race and don’t work hard, you’re probably not going to reach your goals.

I work really, really hard in races in order to make up for my lack of ski-specific (or some years even total…) training. I try to target my effort in the ways that will help the most, take advantage of my love of downhills and corners, and attempt to finish the race having spent every bit of energy I have.

And so when there was an exercise in “Strong” to write down a common negative thought you have and reframe it, this is what I picked.

“Everyone here has done better training than you,” I wrote down for the negative thought.

“You know how to get the most out of the training you’ve done,” I wrote down as a new mantra.

I hadn’t really thought about things that way before, but it felt good.

Did it help me in my race on Sunday? I don’t know. The race still wasn’t that fun, but I did stay focused even though I was performing worse than I had hoped. N=1. Maybe I would have anyway.

A few days later, I was listening to the Science of Ultra podcastwhen an episode came on about mental training. The host describing the RISE approach: recognize, identify, switch, and execute. His example for recognizing your emotions hit home.

“First, recognize the thoughts you’re having. Be aware of negative, unhelpful, and destructive thoughts…. maybe you’re going much slower than expected, and disappointed that you’re not going to make your goal time, or embarrassed that so many people are passing you.”

As I wrote in part 1 of this blog post, I need to clarify why it is that I race. Skiing doesn’t really have goal times (one of the things I love about it!) and you never know who will show up at a given marathon. Setting results-based goals seems particularly futile when you’re in a field of competitors you don’t know anything about, and I wouldn’t say that I am driven to race because I think I’ll do “well”. I don’t train full time. I’m getting worse at skiing. I know that.

And yet, that embarrassment when lots of people pass me is real. That’s something I need to recognize. Even though results are not the main reason I do this, it feels bad.

What’s funny about all of this is that I have been thinking about mental resilience a lot lately, but not because of sports. Instead, I’ve been thinking about it in my life as a scientist.

Finishing my dissertation was really hard, and I still don’t feel like I’m fully recovered. It took a lot out of me intellectually and emotionally. Two months after handing it in, I sit down at the computer to write on one of the other papers I owe my boss and I just can’t. The words don’t come out. The ideas I had disappear.

And even before that, sometimes I get into these negative spirals. Everything gets painted gray. Science has highs and lows and sometimes I feel like I’m swinging wildly between them from one day to the next. Going through something like a dissertation doesn’t help you deal with all the “normal” lows like getting a paper rejected.

I love science, and I want to keep doing it. But I need to do everything I can to be healthy.

And so when I was at the British Ecological Society annual meeting in Birmingham, England, in December, I headed to a lunchtime workshop about mental resilience in academia.

I was relieved to see that the room was full of people. I wasn’t weak for thinking I needed help in this department. Apparently, this was something that everyone thought sounded like a lifeline. Including people I recognized and admired.

Some things we talked about I already knew. Others I hadn’t thought about, or not in the same way. One of the latter was the instruction to recognize and accept your emotions.

“Sometimes we think that resilience is bouncing back, getting over it and soldiering on,” the workshop organizer said. “But there’s a danger in that. You need to recognize and deal with your emotions, with how you feel about the bad things you’re experiencing. If you bury them in an effort to just ‘soldier on’, that’s not going to work in the long run. That’s not resilience.”

All of these things – confidence, recognition, resilience – seem tied together for me, even though I’m not doing a good job of explaining why. But even though I’m exhausted by my PhD and frequently overwhelmed, I think that thinking about all these things has made me more balanced in the last month or so.

Kara Goucher’s book is about keeping a confidence journal. The premise is that every day, you write down something specific, that you will remember immediately, and that will make you feel more confident when you go back and read it later.

I’ve enjoyed keeping a confidence journal so far. I always write something about the training/exercise session I did each day (or what was good about resting instead of training), and some days I write about science, too. Both sides of my life are places where I need to go back and find some extra confidence sometimes.

My weekend started off with a rejection, but it didn’t have to end that way. I recognized my disappointment and frustration with racing, but found the positive side in my journal entry.

My Ford Sayre ski coach, Scottie Eliassen, always had us talk about one thing that went well and one thing to improve on for next time after every race. This is what I channeled.

“I didn’t go fast, but dang I worked hard. My threshold HR is 177 and my average for the 25 k race was 175. Despite the snowstorm and feeling bad, I hit my process goal of not getting complacent and giving up. I kept pushing.”

Next time I’m about to race and I begin worrying that everyone is more fit than I am, maybe reading that message will help. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know how to get the best out of the training I’ve done.

Planoiras Part 1: This Doesn’t Feel Fun (A Pity Party)

Note: this is the first of two posts about my racing in Lenzherheide, Switzerland, this weekend. It’s going to be a little negative. Tomorrow’s will be positive though, so stay tuned! (Edited to add: link to part 2 here)

Every year, I have a giddy feeling as the snow starts to fall. That means it’s ski season! Usually I’ve been waiting more and more impatiently for months.

This year was no different. I had trained for a marathon and completed it in late October. After a few weeks of minimal exercise to let my body recover (and to let me finish writing my dissertation), I couldn’t wait to get on skis. I wanted to get moving again, but while running less than I had been in the months leading up to my marathon. I sought glide.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and it was a very warm early winter in much of Europe. The skiing got good about the time I headed home for Christmas. Back home in New England, folks had been skiing for weeks – but it rained the day after I got home and much of the snow melted, so I didn’t ski much there, either. Of course, there was a huge snowstorm the day I left. I just had horrible timing.

In the last month, I’ve had a few skis here and there, about two of which have been in good conditions.

Just as I had been dreaming, gliding on skis was bliss.

***

Every year since 2003 I’ve done at least a couple of ski races, and it would feel weird not to plan some into my winter. My first race of this year was the Planoiras 25 k skate point-to-point in Lenzerheide this weekend.

I’ve done the race a few times before. Last year, I was recovering from a major ankle injury. I entered only to realize partway through that my injury still significantly limited my range of motion. I couldn’t get the ankle flex I needed to skate at speed. Worse than that, by halfway through the race skating was getting painful, including acute sharp twinges in my ankle whenever I slipped in the icy conditions. I slowed way down and limped my way to the finish.

That was a super frustrating day – one of the most frustrating in my rehab process. It had been six months since the injury, and I thought I was recovered. Turns out, I wasn’t. I skated only minimally for the rest of the winter, licking my wounds and (luckily) enjoying classic skiing pain-free.

This year, just signing up for the race was a reminder of my injury. But I feel like I’m legitimately healed, so it actually brought a smile to my face. I am still a little bit wobblier on the left side when I do balance drills, but I haven’t had pain in months.

I recognized that I haven’t been on snow much this season; when I tried doing some skating intervals last week, I was floundering all over the place. So I didn’t have super high hopes for the race.

But I thought it would still feel triumphant: I would do a lot better than last year, and be able to actually ski an entire race without having to pull up short and walk it in.

***

There was basically nothing about the day that felt triumphant.

The weather forecast called for a major snowstorm, and I did my best to psych myself up. “You can’t just wait around for a race with perfect conditions,” I admonished myself. “You have to go race anyway. Enjoying nice weather is not what this is about.”

I think I did a pretty good job with my mental attitude. I had accepted that it wasn’t going to be a beautiful day in the mountains, and that things were going to be slow and sloppy. I was just going to make the best of things and ski hard.

I did try my best. But everyone just kind of skied away from me. I felt slow and ineffective; my legs felt like lead. The climbs were such a drag. The way my legs were burning, I felt like I should be moving like Jessie Diggins. But, ummm, I wasn’t. (Let’s leave it at that.)

At first I wondered if I’d just picked the completely wrong skis. I might have, but that couldn’t explain the way that I just felt weak, heavy, and slow. I didn’t have any zip.

And at some point, I started wondering, is this fun? Why do I do this?

I managed to push that question from my mind and stay pretty focused. I pushed hard, even though it didn’t make me go fast. Looking at my heart rate data afterwards, I was hovering right around my anaerobic threshold for an hour and 39 minutes straight, often going above it. I can’t say I didn’t try hard.

I crossed the line to no fanfare, not happy with how I skied technically or speed-wise. I had been snowed on for more than an hour and a half and I was wet and cold and bedraggled, the top of my head actually covered in a crust of snow.

The sun was literally not shining on my face.

***

A lot of things about the day didn’t make me feel happy. But the feeling afterwards, as I struggled through a 10-minute jog, developed a race hack, and then proceeded to fall asleep on the train (narrator: this never happens, she’s terrible at sleeping), did make me happy.

One thing I love about racing is the feeling of completely emptying the tank and knowing that you worked as hard as you possibly could, that you are physically 110% spent. That might make me a crazy person, but it is a rewarding feeling. And I think it’s one that a lot of people don’t experience often if at all. When I push myself that hard, I am proud of myself, proud that I can do it.

Regardless of how fast I go, having this relationship with my body is special. I can ask it to do this massive effort and it delivers. To me, that is an accomplishment.

***

As I skied around the course, I had pushed the questions out of my mind. But on the way home I kept mulling over that question: is this fun?

It’s been a few days, and the mental tricks we play on ourselves have already come into force. I’m painting the race all rosy, proud of how hard I tried, thinking it wasn’t so bad.

But I do remember. While it was happening, it didn’t seem fun. At all. Except for a few scattered moments here and there, I wasn’t really enjoying myself.

It hurt, and not in a good way. I wasn’t getting any power or speed out of the burn I was laying into my legs. Pushing hard is rewarding especially when it gets you somewhere, but it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.

Then there’s the reality of racing as a woman in Switzerland.

I don’t want to offend anyone with what I’m about to write, but sometimes it is less fun than it could be.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that everyone is racing. Keep racing, masters men! Start racing, folks who are just getting into skiing! It’s fun and healthy and I am all for more people ski racing.

But just 40 of the 313 finishers in this year’s Planoiras were women, or 13%. I would go long stretches without seeing another woman, and men just ski and race differently than women. In my experience, we women are more likely to set a steady, even pace (don’t @ me: this is backed up by research). In my part of the race, we also often have better technique to go the same speed as the men – we aren’t as big and strong, so we get to go that fast by other means – and so it’s nicer to ski behind another woman. I will never get passed by a woman who sprints by me in an effort to not get “girled”, only to run out of steam in the middle of the trail later and then try to block me from passing once I catch up. It’s men who do that. The same ones who repeatedly ski over your skis and step all over your pole baskets, but then turn around and yell at you if you accidentally do the same thing to them even once.

Look, there are lots of great men racing out there who excellent to ski with. In fact, I ski around a lot of them a lot of the time! Thanks, guys! It would be lonely out there without you.

But what I mean by “it’s less fun than it could be” is that for the men who are maybe prone to ski like idiots or jerks, I don’t think that the gender imbalance in these races contributes to bringing out their best behavior.

The numbers of women are better in the U.S. in many long races. I checked some data and at last year’s City of Lakes Loppet, between the skate marathon and 20 k combined 166 of 684 racers were women, or 24%. In the Tour of Anchorage 50 k, 43 of 172 finishers were women, or 25%. In the Rangeley Lakes Loppet, 25% of the 80 finishers were women. And in the Boulder Mountain Tour 34 k in 2017, 178 of 534 finishers were women, or 33%.

That might not seem like a big difference – in none of these cases are anywhere near equal numbers of men and women competing in ski marathons – but the difference is meaningful.

Think about if one out of every four people around you is a woman, versus one out of every eight. You’d notice.

So as my legs burned and I floundered in the sections of soft snow, I’d periodically get annoyed at unnecessary, impolite race behavior. Like, chill out! We are not at the front of this race. We are the slow people. We’re all out here trying as hard as we can, and it’s just unnecessary to make other people’s race experience worse in your pursuit of that goal.

Afterwards, the thought stuck in my mind. If I could ski in a pack like this for an hour and a half – worrying all the time that my poles are about to get broken and I’m about to get tripped and land on my face – or I could go have a nice quiet ski by myself in the mountains somewhere, which one sounds like more fun?

***

Then there’s the fact that I’m only going to get slower.

I trained a lot more when I was 23 and 24 and well, kids, it’s all downhill from there. Especially when you live in the city and there’s no skiing within an hour.

I’m probably never going to improve at ski racing again. And despite all the process goals I can make and all the other reasons that I race, that might mean that ski racing is a little less fun. I’m a competitive person, and as hard as I try to let go of that and detach, it’s a little brutal to watch yourself do worse and worse. It’s embarrassing to admit that I have a little bit of ego in this. I’m mediocre, so there shouldn’t be vanity involved. But I’m only human.

***

This is a passing hissy fit. Okay, so I did a race and I felt slow. Grow up.

But as I kept thinking about it – does this make me happy, and if so, what about it does that? – I decided maybe it was important to actually consider those questions, instead of just doing a couple ski races every year because that’s what I’ve always done.

If I think about the answers to those questions – really think about them – then maybe it will feel less disappointing next time I feel slow and weak, or finish twenty places worse than the last time I did a race.

Maybe my next race will be in the sunshine, with perfect kickwax, and I won’t have been too incredibly stressed about work all week, and I’ll feel great and have fun! I sure hope so.

But even if that’s true, too, having the answers to those questions won’t hurt. I don’t have them yet. But I’m working on it.

Why do you race?

Maybe it’s a good conversation to have.

***

Part two of this blog post can be found here.

Book Review: Spying On Whales by Nick Pyenson

My aunt sends us books for Christmas every year, a.k.a. the best kind of holiday presents. In this year’s box was Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson, and I sat down to start reading it that very night.

In some ways, I’m the perfect audience for this book. I’m interested in nature, natural history, and evolution, but I actually didn’t know much of anything about whales.

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Whale territory. You just can’t see them because they are under the water – as Pyenson discusses, this is one of the things that make these giant animals so mysterious and compelling.

In November I had gone on a whale-watching boat ride in northern Norway, and more or less everything I knew came from the Ukrainian guide on the boat. It wasn’t much, but before and after the trip, I thought whales were cool, when I thought about them at all.

If you are already a little obsessed with whales, then I think you’ll like the book too. All the facts are there for you to nerd out on.

9780735224568But Pyenson writes impressively well, and the book is never bogged down in this nerdery. Instead, it’s fun and adventurous. Chapters sometimes end in cliffhangers – I certainly couldn’t stop reading. And at times, it’s quite a moving read.

In the prologue, Pyenson describes how the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft are carrying whalesong into the outer reaches of the solar system. We may not understand what whales are saying, but we intuitively feel that they are intelligent and powerful – and that their communication is not only beautiful but probably important.

“They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting,” Pyenson writes of whales.

And yet, he continues, we know very little about whales, either the ones that live in our oceans today or the whales of the past.

I’ll admit: I didn’t actually really realize that.

Pyenson fills in details that I never knew I didn’t know, and certainly didn’t realize were so recently discovered. He discusses what things we still don’t know, and what mysteries will be exciting to solve. This book is filled with behavior, anatomy, and evolutionary history, as well as discussions of how all three connect to make a modern whale.

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, foundational biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote as the title of one of his essays.

In my fields – ecology and evolutionary biology – this is tossed back and forth. “Nothing in ecology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” an evolutionary biologist will say, scoffing at ecology as boring (yes, this has happened to me, in person).

“Well, nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of ecology,” a ecologist might retort.

Pyenson’s book is a great demonstration that both are true. In trying to piece together – literally, based on fossil fragments – how whales went from living on dry land to being the biggest animals in the oceans and indeed on the planet, ever, both ecology and evolution are needed. The two are woven together throughout the book as Pyenson describes working with one collaborator after another.

“The trip was an opportunity to push at the questions sitting on the edges of our disciplines, at the intersection of Ari’s understanding of behavior and local ecology, Jeremy’s grasp of physiology and biomechanics, and my background in paleontology and Earth history,” Pyenson writes at one point. “The basic questions about how whales do that they do require all these fields of understanding, and I’ve always thought the best way to answer them was through this Venn diagram of disciplines and personalities.”

Now that’s a scientific approach I admire, and he demonstrates that it’s fun, too. Minus the part at the whale slaughterhouse.

How does this approach deliver answers? Here’s an example question. If whales have gradually evolved to be bigger and bigger, why aren’t they even bigger still? That evolutionary question has an ecological answer.

The first two-thirds of the book are about the past and the present of whales. But my favorite part was the last third, about the future of whales, and of us. Whales live a very long time, sometimes two hundred years. There is a beautiful description of all that a 200-year-old whale has seen in its lifetime.

And then, a description of what today’s whales might see in the future, things that you and I will not live to see.

“Any bowheads living today do so in a liminal gap between a familiar past and a potentially unrecognizable future,” Pyenson writes of climate change in the Arctic. “A bowhead calf born today will live in an Arctic that, by the next century, will be a different world than that experienced by all of its ancestors.”

Maybe that sounds trivial – like, duh, climate change is happening fast – but after reading a hundred pages about all of the different environments that whales have encountered through their long evolutionary history, it is powerful when you reach this point.

And that is one of the things that kept me reading this book. It is peppered with fun facts – large baleen whales grow at a rate of a hundred pounds a day before reaching maturity, dang, that seems impossible! – but also with profound observations and good writing.

Finally, as a field ecologist, I really enjoyed Pyeson’s descriptions of fieldwork trips. He takes us to Chile, Panama, Iceland, and Antarctica, as well as more familiar-to-Americans spots like California and North Carolina. All of his descriptions of the challenges and successes of fieldwork, the camaraderie between colleagues, and even that one wonderful-but-definitely-weirdo collaborator (we all have at least one), feel authentic.

If you like science and nature writing, and compelling nonfiction in general, I think you’ll like this book. I did. Thanks Lizzie!

Understanding our values of nature

Above: a view from the Lägern forest outside of Baden, Switzerland, one of the research sites for Katie Horgan’s PhD work. I ran the Lägern ridge while I was training for a marathon this fall.

I’ve always been interested in conservation. Okay, maybe in the beginning it wasn’t a choice. My mother worked for (and now runs) a land conservation nonprofit, and I grew up kicking around the office and volunteering at events.

Some of my first research and jobs in ecology were about topics related to global change: invasive species, contamination, climate change. I was motivated to take these jobs because I cared about the issues and thought that doing research related to them would help.

But these projects were all very much ecology. The grants weren’t written and the studies weren’t designed with an outcome in mind that could be translated to stakeholders or implemented as policy. They were pure basic science: what is happening? Hey, that’s cool (or alarming, or boring, or …. ), and it’s good that we know it now!

Even though so many of our ecology results are framed in the context of global change, including sentences and maybe even paragraphs talking about implications for land management, I’ve never studied conservation biology. Neither have most of my collaborators.

Recently, I have begun to understand how my good intentions and environmentalism don’t help the environment that much. I’ve been doing ecology in a vacuum: I care about “issues”, but those issues are separate from my science (even if they are merged on my Twitter feed). I really like community ecology and understanding species interactions, and that’s what drives my research questions.

I’m not sure that in and of itself is problematic. But what is certainly problematic is the extent to which I didn’t realize what I was doing. It’s hard to expect your science to connect to and inform conservation and planning if you don’t really understand conservation and planning.

One of the things that made me more cognizant of this was the defense of a fellow University of Zurich PhD student, Katie Horgan, last week. Katie’s dissertation was highly interdisciplinary, and it exploded my conceptions of how we think about nature and ecosystems.

Embarrassingly, the big thing that I realized should be obvious: how we value nature depends more on us, than on nature.

(That might seem like a bit of a jump from my first few paragraphs, but I promise I will link it together at the end.)

When I write out my “big realization”, it looks stupid. I find myself thinking that I already knew that. I interact with people every day who think about the outdoors in a different way than I do.

My boyfriend illustrates this perfectly. When I go for a long run, I want to go somewhere new and see a new view. Steve? He would be happy running exactly the same loop around Uetliberg, the local ridge, that he ran the previous week.

“Why do you need to take the train for two hours?” he asks me. “It’s still just a forest.”

The value we place on seeing and experiencing ecosystems is completely different. Running around in the same forest, or similar forests, we pick up different things and take away different experiences.

How does that relate to ecology? In the past few decades, there has been a push to quantify the value of the natural world. We call them ecosystem services – things like clean water, clean air, the provision of fish to eat and wood to build with, nice places to go recreate in. All of these things can be assigned a dollar value and deemed “natural capital.”

This approach can then be used to make policies protecting natural areas. Asking people to identify what is valuable in their landscape helps set conservation priorities. This approach can also demonstrate that neglecting such protection would be economically costly. In some places the ecosystem services approach has worked great, and in others not so much.

Until last week, I have to admit that I kind of saw ecosystem services as black and white: this ecosystem either provides this service, or it doesn’t. This forest provides X and Y. That lake provides X and Z. I saw ecosystem services as something you could measure objectively.

Then I walked into Katie’s defense.

Katie’s research is fascinating. She worked at eight different research sites scattered around the world, from two right here in northeast Switzerland to those in Siberia and Borneo. At each site, she asked people who worked at the conservation areas a series of questions: did they think that ecosystem service X was being provided by this area? What about ecosystem service Y?

This is a seemingly simple dataset and study, but the work and the results are far from simple. Just getting the interview responses, despite cultural and language barriers and all the rest, was a huge feat.

The thing that struck me most from Katie’s talk was that even in ecosystems that seemed in some ways similar – and actually, even at the same ecosystem– the people Katie interviewed had different answers about whether an ecosystem service was provided or not.

In other words: assessing what ecosystem services are provided does depend on the ecosystem. It depends on how people see the ecosystem.

Katie also mined through the responses and deduced how people thought about the value of these conservation areas. Rather than thinking only about an ecosystem service, she classified the responses by what this service corresponded to.

Did people see the service provided as something more utilitarian (“instrumental”)?

Or did they value this service differently, in a more “intrinsic” way – is the service provided something more fundamental, like biodiversity, that just is?

The third type of value is the one that makes me go run in a new place whenever I can – “relational” value, defined by the way that we interact with nature.

Different ecosystem services, which are the metric by which we turn nature into “natural capital”, were valued in a wide range of ways. And importantly, nearly every ecosystem service that Katie asked about was valued in each of the three ways by at least one study participant. In fact, most participants places more than one value on a given service!

Katie’s big question was, what are the things that motivate people to take positive action about biodiversity?

I had been thinking, like a cold scientist, that the natural capital of an area or ecosystem was defined by the ecosystem itself: the biodiversity contained within, the black and white ecosystem services it provided. I thought we had to convince people of that value, and then they would be motivated to protect it.

What Katie illustrated so powerfully was that actually, the value of nature is defined by the people valuing that nature. If we don’t recognize that, then we won’t really succeed with protected areas and conservation policymaking.

And because of that, it’s a little bit stupid for someone like me who leaves human interaction completely out of my research to put in pompous statements about how that same research will inform conservation.

A few days later, I saw the following tweet from Andy Gonzalez, from a presentation by University of Vermont professor Taylor Ricketts at a science conference in Quebec. It distills this point in a different, perfect way.

I bet I’m not the only ecologist who needs to mull over that message.

We live and we learn, and I’m trying to become a better scientist and a better person all the time. Part of that is being humble and realizing when you’re being clumsy or just kind of an idiot.

Hearing from inspirational colleagues definitely helps in that process.

Trail marathon / PhD marathon

This autumn I ground away at two big goals: finishing my dissertation, and running my first trail marathon.

A number of people told me I was insane to try to do both of these things at the same time. But everyone has different ways of staying happy and maximizing what they are capable of. For me, it’s essential to have more than one thing to focus on. I have a few friends who must live like I do: they said, oh, that’s perfect!

The last few months of dissertation writing were really hard. Although I made a plan with my supervisor about how to get everything done, work didn’t really proceed according to plan. Some things took longer. Other tasks required waiting on collaborators for feedback. Sometimes I simply realized that I had no idea what was expected as a certain output. I tried to start working anyway, only to have my first attempt deemed garbage.

By contrast, my marathon training was straightforward. I won’t say it was easy, but I knew what I had to do.

***

I didn’t sign up for just any marathon; the Transruinaulta in southeastern Switzerland is mostly off-road and features 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) of climbing, plus the corresponding 1,800 meters of descents. In order to do a race effort I felt good about, I knew I would have to take training seriously.

I bought a training plan from Uphill Athlete, a company and community run by Scott Johnston and Steve House. I have known about Scott for years through the cross-country ski community (though I have never met him), and I respect his work, experience, and philosophy so much. I knew that whatever plan I got from Uphill Athlete would deliver me well-prepared to the start line. It had been seven years since I last followed a training plan, but at last, I was ready to return to intentional, organized training. I dove in and had confidence every step of the way that I was doing the right thing.

“The right thing” involved functional strength training exercises that did more to rehab my ankle from last year’s ruptured ligaments than anything my non-skiing PT had taught me. It included interval sessions that I found I really enjoyed – a surprise, since in those last seven years I had done intervals less than a dozen times annually, and some years probably less than five times.

One week “the right thing” involved a 30-kilometer run/hike one day and a 20 k  run/hike the next day. That was hard, but I planned in advance to head to the Engadin valley for the weekend so that I the spectacular scenery would entice me out the door on Sunday when my body was already tired.

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Enjoying some amazing trail running/hiking around Pontresina.

And maybe the hardest week was when “the right thing” had a 30 k run scheduled on a weekday. I woke up early, took the train to Baden, and ran all the way to the office. I have to admit I wasn’t a very effective worker that day.

But even though it was often hard, I knew what I had to do. Just follow the plan. The plan will get you where you want to go.

Training for a marathon was probably the easiest thing I did this fall.

***

The trauma (there, I said it) of the last month of my dissertation has almost blotted out the months that came before, work-wise. But looking back, I can piece together what they looked like.

I want to be clear that a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I’m a perfectionist. I hate doing less than the best I could possibly do.

I also have a strong viewpoint that data should not go un-analyzed and un-reported. It’s not good for science if we leave something in a file drawer just because it didn’t turn out to be interesting. That means that someone else will repeat our experiment in the future. And if they also leave it in a file drawer because it turns out to not be interesting, then some unsuspecting third scientist will also decide to tackle it. And so on. You get the picture.

My natural tendency to overwork myself was at some points made worse by my supervisor. Florian is a great supervisor – I would highly recommend working in his lab, and the effusive thanks I eventually wrote in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation were not exaggerations. But he knows how to get the most out of all of us. And at this point, he has known me for four years. He probably knew that if he told me he didn’t think I could do something, that would make me try that much harder to get it done.

All of which is to say that in late August when I sat down with Florian to plan the final few months, I should have been confident that my dissertation would be fine. I had already published three chapters of it as papers, which is a great position to be in. If I had wanted to, I could have coasted in to the finish, writing up one more chapter and calling it a day. Nobody would have said my dissertation wasn’t adequate.

But neither Florian nor I were interested in that option. Instead we planned out three more chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion to the dissertation. I had the data already for all of those chapters, but I still had to analyze it and I still had to do the writing.  I had until mid-November to get all of that done.

And so I made an estimate of how long everything would take. Choosing and learning the appropriate geostatistical method to upscale my survey data: would that take two days, or two weeks? Better just schedule one.

“You can write a paper in a week,” Florian said. I didn’t feel like that was true, but sure, chapter four, let’s schedule a week for the writing.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan. And I also had to apply for postdoc fellowships, too, an exhausting process during which I came up with a research proposal that didn’t even strongly relate to my dissertation. Charging ahead on both of these fronts required shifting between intellectual arenas in my brain.

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So here’s a plan I didn’t end up following, like, at all… in fact, the chapters aren’t even the ones that ended up in my dissertation!

Most days I came home from work exhausted, but through early fall, I was making progress. I submitted the fourth chapter to a journal two weeks before we had planned. Things weren’t going exactly as I had thought, but the parts going better than planned seemed to be making up for the areas where I was way behind.

***

In mid-October, with one month until my dissertation was due, I took the train to southeastern Switzerland on a Friday afternoon and got ready to race the next day. I had been tapering, which felt weird. I hadn’t done any competitions I felt strongly enough about to taper for since my only other marathon run, back in 2013 in France. (That one was on the road; I trained for it, but not according to any real plan.)

My friend Annie came down to race too, and was likewise stressed by work. She had been in the field all week, hardly ideal preparation. We went to bed early, and neither of us slept well. We made some overnight oats for breakfast and found a regional bus that would take us to Ilanz, where the race would start.

In the leadup to the race, a lot of people would ask how long I thought it would take. I had no idea what to answer. Five hours? Four hours? There was all that up and down. Plus, though it was clear that the race wouldn’t have much pavement, would the balance be dirt/gravel roads, or singletrack? How technical would the terrain be? This was clearly not a race where you could pick a pace or split and just try to consistently hit it.

Instead, I made a race plan based on heart rate. I wanted to start off easy on for the first few kilometers and then get into an easy but fast groove for the first ten or so kilometers, which looked mostly flat on the course profile. I set limits for the big climbs: don’t let your heart rate go above this. If you have to walk, walk. You’re in this for the long hall and you are not going to make yourself bonk. Downhills are one of my strengths, so I wanted to run every downhill as fast as I sustainably could.

Oh, and I planned to eat as many calories as I could stuff in my face.

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First 10 k: whee, this is fun!

I more or less followed this plan. My slow start meant that people poured past me in the opening kilometers (it was an individual-start marathon, weirdly), and I ended up going a little harder than I planned – but still easy enough that I don’t think it taxed me too much. My plan had probably been too conservative.

After that, my plan worked great. On the climbs that went for kilometer after kilometer, mostly on dirt roads but sometimes on singletrack, I kept up a steady effort hovering just around my anaerobic threshold. The downhills were a blast as I flew past people. Sometimes they would pass me again as I slowed to my steady pace on the uphills, but it paid off.

We hit the high point of the course around 30 k (20 miles) into the marathon, and there was an aid station at the top. One guy who had been running around me – sometimes ahead, sometime behind – staggered over to a picnic table and sat down heavily.

“Scheisse,” he groaned.

I ran through the aid station, stopping only for a few seconds to refill a water flask. I had quite a few kilometers of gradual to steep downhill to look forward to. I hadn’t completely wrecked myself on the uphill, and I started reeling people in. I was flying, catching runners whom I had told myself not to worry about as they went past me on the last climb.

It was pretty fun until a few kilometers to go. We had all been warned that there were three steep hills just before the finish, so to save something. The first one was a reality check after those nice kilometers of downhill, and it was longer than I had guessed, but not so bad.

The second one was short and very steep. I walked. Everyone walked.

The third one: very steep. It was terrible. I mentally cursed the race organizers. I came over what I thought was the top only to see that the hill went on. I felt like I was crawling. My swagger from a few kilometers ago was long gone. But at least from here it would only get easier towards the finish.

Down the other side, around a corner and… what the hell? Another steep hill. Like, really steep, find-something-to-grab-ahold-of steep. There were two retirees by the side of the trail. The runners ahead of me swore out loud this time, and the retirees laughed at them. At us. If I wasn’t so tired I would have fixed them an evil glare as I went by.

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The organizers set up this sweet panorama so you could mug and get a cool finish line photo as if you were running on the trail, but I was so beat I didn’t even notice. Whoops!

By the time I went down the fourth of the three hills, I wasn’t even fast on the downhills anymore. There was a very, very gradual climb to the finish line, back on pavement, which should have felt fast and easy. Instead, I struggled to maintain a jog. But I got to the finish, clocking a time just under five hours.

The sun was shining as we congratulated each other and began to refuel the calories and salt we had lost. Dry clothes felt so good. Sitting down felt good. I was proud of myself – my result was not particularly great, but I had worked hard and followed a plan and, I believe, done the best race I could do on that day. I was just over a year out from a major injury, and another major victory is that I hadn’t hurt myself again. That functional strength had worked: even when I was so tired, my feet nimbly navigated the trails and my ankles stayed stable.

Most importantly, I had a ton of fun and I was already dreaming of what long trail or mountain race to sign up for next year.

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With Annie at the finish: we did it! (Photo: some older lady walking by, who we accosted…)

***

The race hadn’t been easy.

If I’m thinking about the events that cap off my grueling goals, I think my PhD defense – scheduled for January – will be much easier. I like giving presentations, and I am excited to tell my colleagues, friends, and family about what I’ve been working on. I’m sure I will be nervous, but mostly, it will be fun. I’ve been imagining that day for months and months and months.

Compared to a mountainous trail marathon? PhD defense = easy.

But if I’m thinking about the paths that lead to those days, the running was much easier. The day after my marathon, I went for a little walk in the mountains with Annie, because we were already there and the views and mountain feeling are too good to miss even when your legs are jelly.

On Monday I went back to the office, and I didn’t take another day away from my dissertation until I handed it in just over a month later.

Again: that bad, bad situation of overwork, and everything it led to, was somewhat self-inflicted. I could have told myself, look, this is crazy. You don’t even really need six chapters. Florian, I can’t do chapter six. I’m going to take the weekend off and unscramble my brain and work on giving you a great five-chapter dissertation.

But that is not what I did. I wrote for hours at a time. I revised. I formatted. I cried. I ate a lot of cookies (a lot!). I asked colleagues to read terrible drafts. I rarely went running. I kept writing. I slept badly. I complained. I became a bad friend and officemate. I resented Florian. I cried more.

What I lacked was confidence. I was trying to follow the plan we had made, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have that feeling that if I just did what was on the schedule, everything would be fine. Most days, it felt like there was no way in the world that everything would be fine.

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You think you’re doing okay and then you start correcting your bibliography and it looks like this…

Maybe partly because my training was over and I was rarely exercising, I totally lost perspective. My dissertation seemed like the only thing in my life, in some ways, and it felt like a slow-rolling disaster. Every little setback seemed like the end of the world.

But, on November 19, I handed Florian a printed version of my dissertation.

He made some minor corrections and told me it was very nice. This was classic: he had previously told me that he expected he would make a lot of corrections and there was no way I’d be able to turn it in the next day. But by saying that, he had ensured that I would ruin myself attempting to give him a nearly perfect dissertation.

I made those small corrections, and on November 20, I submitted my dissertation to the University of Zurich. It was anticlimactic. I uploaded a PDF to the online interface, and then walked some paperwork over to the Faculty of Science. The woman at the desk who accepted my registration for a PhD defense didn’t even say congratulations. Nobody had come along to give me a high five or hug, because I hadn’t asked them to.

Instead I went home and, much like after my marathon, lay on the couch. I sank into the leather cushions and felt like maybe I could stay there forever.

***

Recovery began the next day.

If there’s anything that being an athlete has taught me, it is that recovery is important. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s also something that I didn’t really value for much of my “serious” athletic career. I was interested in too many other things – when I didn’t have to train, I filled that time with something else. I’m pretty sure I would have been a lot faster if I had just taken a nap.

But now I’m some combination of older and wiser, and my body is older, and my brain is older. They need recovery and I fully believe in its value.

I took almost a week off from work, and now I’m back. I’m able to enjoy going to the office again. I’m able to get excited about reading papers, another thing that I almost completely neglected while I was writing. Many of the projects I am working on now, in this time between my dissertation and defense, are collaborative, and that feels great to get back to, too.

And in the back of my mind I can say that no matter what else happened in 2018 – the political, the personal, the stupid stress I put myself under – I accomplished my two big goals. That feels pretty good.

Autumn in the Engadin

I love shoulder season in the mountains.

Autumn is incredibly beautiful, but for a lot of alpine resorts, it is the slow time of year. Business owners take a break before the winter tourism rush begins. Kids are back in school, so the summer vacationers are long gone. Maybe it rains a lot. In many senses it’s an in-between.

And yet: the mountains are still there. The days where it doesn’t rain can bring the most glorious blue skies. The plants start turning pretty colors, mostly reds and yellows. The highest peaks start accumulating snow. The weather is cooler, and as a person who suffers greatly in even moderate heat, that sure brings a smile to my face. It allows me to play outside for longer.

Fall is a great time for the budget traveler, because it’s not high season (except if you’re headed to leaf-peeping land….) and rates are reduced. Last year I had a great getaway to the Austrian Alps and stayed in a hotel I would never be able to afford in the winter season. I had the elaborate sauna suite all to myself one rainy afternoon.

This year, we headed to the Engadin valley in southeastern Switzerland.

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Upper Engadin. Cross-country skiers are probably most familiar with it as the location for the Engadin Skimarathon, which I’ve done just oncedespite being in Switzerland for several winters. We also had a nice ski weekend in Zuoz at the end of this winter. The Lower Engadin is one of my very favorite places, full of small villages with Romantsch writing on them, surrounded by big mountains: so quiet and peaceful. But I really had only been to the Upper Engadin once in summer, and it was a day of frustration while I was mentally processing some work-related problems.

It being shoulder season, we found a great AirBnB in St. Moritz, which again, is more posh that I would usually choose; nearby Samedan, Celerina, or Pontresina are more affordable.

The day before we left, I ran into my colleague Chris, a group leader in my research institute, on the train on the way to work. He had just returned from Val Roseg, a valley in the Engadin where he and another colleague, Amael, study biodiversity and ecosystem function. (You can find out about their research on this valley – with a big glacier at the top! – here, and watch a video they made about it here.) Chris was raving not just about a cool scientific result they had uncovered, but how beautiful it was.

“We’re going there this weekend!” I said excitedly.

We discussed a little, and when I said we were staying in St. Moritz, Chris looked at me like I had lost my mind. But, shoulder season!

Anyway, I arrived on Friday evening and picked up some locally-made mushroom pasta, wild mushrooms, bacon, and alp cheese, and whipped up a dinner as the alpenglow faded. I had big plans for the weekend: part of the reason we had come was that as part of my marathon training, I had two big runs on the schedule. 30 km on Saturday, and 20 km on Sunday, each with some elevation. It seemed a bit intimidating, and I doubted I would get out the door for Sunday’s effort if I was just doing it in my backyard. Hence, I picked some spectacular scenery to get motivated.

But where to go? There are so many trails, valleys, mountains, ridges, bowls… too much to explore in a single weekend. I pored over the Alps Insight trail running site looking at routes, and then pored some more over online topo mapslooking at more routes.

On Saturday, we woke up, made breakfast, and then ran over to Pontresina, a rolling six-kilometer stretch along the lake and through pine forests. The trail was cushy under my feet and I marveled, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to run on trails like this every day?”

After going through Pontresina, we hit the big hills, climbing about 700 meters in five kilometers. I didn’t even try to run – I knew what we still had ahead, and just kept to a steady hiking grind.

But then we were above treeline near Alp Languard, and everything was spectacular. We were looking more or less straight across the valley into Val Roseg, where my colleagues had been doing fieldwork just a few days prior. The glacier hung, shimmering white, on the mountains in the back. Looking to the other side, we were surrounded by the alpine meadow playground we would inhabit for the next few hours.

Finally above treeline!

We climbed along a small ridge called Paradis – fitting. It was more gradual and a bit of a rest after all the steep climbing. We passed a small hut before descending some hard-won meters into a gorgeous bowl just below Lej (Lake) Languard. For much of the climb we hadn’t seen other hikers, but here people converged on this small alpine lake perched on the side of the mountains. I couldn’t capture its turquoise blue color, but believe me, it was special.

We descended the trail you can see snaking along the left to reach a wide bowl, before climbing back up to Lej Languard. This part of the trail is a runner’s dream.

The route was like a series of step: up to the lake, pause. Up a headwall to another plateau with tiny lakes, pause. We finally hit a traversing trail that cut below some big cliffs near the tops of the mountains. I ran off an extra kilometer or so to a pass, Fuorcla Pischa, just to see what was on the other side. It was a huge, rocky, open bowl with several more lakes, and in this direction, not a ski lift to be seen. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but it was the wrong direction.

Instead, we traversed back to the northwest, finally on gradual terrain through the scree, and spectacular view ahead of us. After a while we hit the spur up to the top of Piz Languard, which we ignored – the route had 1500 meters of climbing already, and I didn’t feel the need to add a few hundred more. We dropped down a bit before joining the “Steinbock-weg”, and a hard truth. I had looked forward to this section of the run because it was gradual, high-altitude traversing – the hard work of climbing was done, I was tired, and I expected to be able to cruise. But the Steinbock-weg was basically navigating boulderfields. I had to take care and go slower than expected. The last thing I wanted was to reinsure my ankle. That was okay, but not what I had pictured in my mind’s eye.

The last major point on our route was Chamanna Segantini, a hut where we could have stopped for something to eat and drink. But instead we descended a fun trail and than ran on beautiful, easy dirt paths around the side of the mountain a few kilometers, before taking another steep drop down all the way back to Pontresina.

30 k and more than 4 1/2 hours, and I had one workout done for the weekend. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch. It was great.

For day two, I knew I couldn’t handle so much climbing again, so I reluctantly left the Alps Insight website behind and picked an easier route. On Sunday morning I took the bus west and up the valley past a series of lakes toward Maloja. It was such an incredibly beautiful morning, it almost broke my heart to think that soon I will have to leave this country and find a job somewhere else.

I started by run by going along the south shore of the Sils lake; the path over big rocks and under the trees reminded me of running on a lake shore in New England.

But after a few kilometers I turned uphill, the only big-is climb of the day taking me over a headwall and into the Val Fedoz valley. Luckily, the climb was along a dirt road, so I didn’t have to think too much about where to put my feet – I was mentally tired from the previous day. I just tried to keep my heart rate from going too high, and savored the view out over the lake of Sils.

The view was stunning, and the valley nearly empty. The singletrack was faint and in places I lost its thread, and would have to pause to find it again. The stream meandered through the valley bottom until I got to one steep drop, where it had carved its way through with a waterfall. There, as I was climbing up through the boulders on one side, I met two hunters packing out their kill. After finally identifying that French was our only language of common currency, we discussed how beautiful it was, and that winter would come soon.

At the top of the waterfall, I climbed on top of a huge rock, stopped my watch, and ate a snack. The glacier at the end of the valley – there’s one in every valley here, it seems – beckoned, but I didn’t have the time, or extra kilometers, to explore further on the ever-fainter trail. Instead, I turned around and headed back down the valley on the other side of the stream.

Eventually I dropped down into Sils, where I caught a bus back.

Back to the St. Moritz train station, then back to Zurich, then back to home, and then, the next day, back to work.

My dissertation is due in a month now, and I have been working like crazy to get it done. Every day I feel completely mentally exhausted. Maybe hiking and running 50 k in two days doesn’t sound relaxing, but it was: relative to mental work, physical work is not so taxing.

Taking in the color and the sun, the mountain air and the mountains, was the best way I could possibly have spent a weekend, and I was thrilled to finally get to the Upper Engadin and explore with shoes instead of skis.

There were seemingly infinite valleys and mountains to explore, and I’d love to get back one day. Two friends are there right now, and they have been ensconced for a week or so, having a different incredible adventure every day. I’m jealous, but it’s not my time for that. Hopefully, in the future I’ll have more chances, because the mountains are there waiting.

Seven More Routes on my Swiss Hiking/Trail Running Guide

I haven’t been blogging this summer, and for that I’m sorry. It has been busy, but when hasn’t it been?

Anyway, maybe I didn’t write at the time, but you can still take advantage of all the adventures I’ve been having. I added seven new routes to my Swiss Hiking & Trail Running Guide, based on the favorite spots I went this year so far. I still have a few long runs planned for the fall, so the guide could see one more update before I leave the country after defending my PhD this winter.

Click here for the guide.

The new routes:

Schwyzer Hohenweg from Brunni to Einsiedeln:

Innerthal to Ziegelbrucke over Schwarzenegg and Scheidegg:

Maderanertal Höhenweg:

Glattgrat on the way from Klewenalp to Urnersee:

Glattalpsee, from Bisisthal to Braunwald:

Glaubenberg to Glaubenbielen and into the Marienthal (pic by Annie Chalifour):

Trans Swiss Trail from Lugano to Morcote (pic by Steve Towler):

Bye for now, Holmenkollen

A few weeks ago I headed to Oslo for the last* World Cup biathlon races of the season. I had some serious flip-flopping about whether to go or not: FasterSkier didn’t cover the trip financially, but I wanted to go see the races, I wanted to get away from PhD work for a few days, I wanted to go ski in the Nordmarka, I wanted to have one last hurrah. But it was expensive! Norway always is, especially last-minute. After lots of soul-searching and budget-considering, I bought a plane ticket, got accredited for the races, and arranged an AirBnB.

As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made the right call. In mid March the days are already starting to get longer in Scandinavia. I arrived in the late afternoon and went for a jog in the evening light, skidding around on icy paths and sidewalks.

Then I made dinner in the absolutely perfect apartment we had rented. I had worked on some manuscript revisions on my flight, so I sent those off. I felt like leaving work early on a Thursday hadn’t made me much less productive. As a reward, I pulled up the extremely extensive trail map of the forests around Oslo (the marka) and got ready to head off skiing the next morning.

It turned out to be the perfect trip. The skiing was the best I’ve ever had in Oslo in all of my visits there – I was remembering a few years before when I went skiing with my Dartmouth friends Hannah and Knut. Knut had been living in Oslo for a few years at that point, and he picked out a loop for us in the marka. But it was so slushy and warm that we were dodging dirt and rocks, ice sheets above streams of snowmelt the whole way.

Quite a contrast. This year, it was quite cold overnight (and in the mornings!), but getting balmy by midday, true spring skiing but with a phenomenal base of snow. On my last ski, I was passed by a guy decked out in University of Denver gear. He saw that I was wearing an old Dartmouth Ski Team jacket and stopped to chat. I gushed about how beautiful the skiing was.

“I grew up in Oslo, and this is the best winter we have had in 15 years!” he exclaimed.

It was truly great. That first ski that I went on, I meandered for 35 kilometers, over hills (a lot of them: nearly 1000 meters of climbing on the day, Strava told me, explaining why I felt way more worn out than 35 k would suggest…), across lakes, through the woods, and past huts serving hot chocolate and waffles (I didn’t stop).

I could not have been happier. I was glowing.

“Why aren’t you looking for a postdoc here?” People kept asking, seeing just how happy I was and as I raved on and on about how you could ski for 100 km or far farther than that, if you wanted to, without ever doubling back. And all this, accessible from the metro line!

It was a good question, but also highlighted why I was there. At this time next year, I will be done with my PhD, and I don’t know where I will be but hopefully I will be starting a postdoc. The chances are pretty high that I will be back in North America. Oslo won’t be just a quick hop across Europe like it is from my current home in Zurich. I won’t be able to make a last-minute decision to fly over and watch the World Cup. Probably, I won’t be going to any World Cups at all.

So I enjoyed watching the races. The weather couldn’t have been better – instead of the fog that sometimes characterizes the Oslo fjord, it was spectacularly sunny every day. I got sunburned, and for one of the first times ever while reporting at a race, my hands didn’t even get cold operating the voice recorder app on my phone. The races almost didn’t seem long enough: standing out on the side of the trail, I could have just stayed there basking in the sun and the atmosphere for hours. When the racers were heading for the finish line and I had to get back to interview them, it was only grudgingly that I headed in that direction. In a way there didn’t even need to be a race. I would have sat outside anyway.

I enjoyed the culture, jogging through the Vigeland Park sculpture garden and visiting the phenomenal Fram Museum with Susan. Steve and I lit a fire in the wood stove in our AirBnB and cooked salmon for dinner, feeling cozy.

And I enjoyed the skiing.

On Sunday, before the last races of the weekend, I headed off on a ski – as always. Because I look more or less like I know how to ski, I can usually cruise around the race trails during training if I have my media accreditation and nobody looks at it too closely. So I headed out of the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere but trying not to attract any attention, and then off onto the bigger loop – the trails used in the cross-country World Cup but too long for biathlon, the ones that wouldn’t deliver skiers back to the shooting range fast enough.

I remembered what it was like there in 2011, my very first reporting trip with FasterSkier. It was cross-country World Championships, and we got a bib that allowed us to ski around the race course before the 50 k. I think at least two, if not three, of us took turns with that bib so we could each head out on the trails.

That morning, I skied two laps (which was maybe 8 k or maybe 13 k? I’m not sure…) and the 100,000+ people were already out there ready to cheer, having been camping in the woods around the trails and already drinking and grilling sausages. I had been to Norway before, for the 1994 Olympics when I was a little kid and then with two Ford Sayre trips. But to ski the trails before that race exponentially altered my understanding of our sport even above having been a spectator at the Holmenkollen in 2003 and 2006. Two laps of the loop used for that 50 k are no joke on the legs, but the adrenaline of all the half-drunk and fully-drunk fans screaming for me as if I was an athlete and the race had already started, rather than being two hours away, pushed me harder and harder, barely noticing the lactate building up.

This time, as I skied up the huge climbs of the Holmenkollen race trail loop and headed for the marka, they were quiet. I found myself crying. For seven years I had been going to World Cup races, and this pre-work ski was an integral part of my ritual. We don’t do this job for the money, and the chance to get out on ski trails in new and special places is always one of the best parts of a trip for me.

Oslo hadn’t been a new place in a while, but it will always be one of the most special places.

When would I next ski on these amazing trails, with all their lore and all of my own memories of famous battles which unfolded there?

When next would I be able to turn to the right as I climbed, and look out over the city and its fjord?

I kept thinking: this the the last time I’ll ever go for a ski before a race like this. I’ve done this so many times, and this is it. Not only it for skiing before the Holmenkollen races, but who knows when I’ll next be in Oslo, period.

The fact that it was such a perfect day didn’t help make that any easier to take.

Nor did the fact that when I got back to the stadium, I would be covering the last World Cup race ever for Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke of the United States, and Julia Ransom of Canada. The retirement parties planned somehow made my own upcoming life changes come even more to the fore.

But, of course, that is being melodramatic and overblown. Oslo isn’t going anywhere. Probably I won’t be back there reporting for FasterSkier. But that’s not to say that I can’t go back, during the World Cup or any other time. I have my whole life ahead of me. In theory, I will have a job and some income. (Ha!! That’s delusional!! I’m a scientist!!) I can come back whenever I want, if the pull is so strong. It’s not my last time on these trails.

I kept repeating this to myself and by the time I peeled off of the cross-country race loop and headed into the marka, the tears had stopped.

On the slightly-less-manicured trails, I passed dozens, probably hundreds, of skiers. Some in trendy Scandinavian ski clothes. Others retirees, on old skis, moving slowly. Families with kids, with the parents carrying backpacks for a picnic later. Guys pulling babies and toddlers behind them in pulks. People my age who weren’t out there because they were great skiers, but because it was a beautiful day, skiing around in old sweaters and knit headbands. Women of all ages, some wearing lipstick, several with dogs bounding beside them or ahead of them or, in the case of one lady with a dachshund, trailing behind her working very hard but utterly unable to keep up on his stubby little legs.

The whole world was out skiing because, in the end, it was a perfect day. And I was out with them.

I didn’t forget that in a way this was the end of everything, but the acute grief faded. I enjoyed the ski without thinking constantly about what it meant. I basked.

I skied the longest loop I could manage until it was almost time for the races, then snuck back into the stadium past some course marshals who just nodded instead of checking my credential. I took off my skis and stood for a moment, looking first at the ski jump just across the bowl, then at the grandstands full of fans. The television cameras were panning back and forth. The commentators in their little booths were already commentating. The stadium announcer was pumping up the crowd. A few athletes were starting to do pickups, speeds, or threshold work as they skied out of the stadium, the final pieces of their pre-race warmups. Photographers were starting to filter out onto the trails and their special priority positions hauling their gigantic zoom lenses, bigger than my head.

I took several deep breaths. I smiled.

I told myself, this will still be here.

And I went into the media center to change into dry clothes, grab something to eat, and then get out there and do some reporting.

 

*Oslo was last World Cup of the season that wasn’t in Russia, which is currently not in compliance with the WADA Code. A number of teams and athletes skipped the Russia finals.

Seiser Alm and perfect ski vacations

I’m seriously late with this trip report, but no matter. I want to tell you about a trip I took back in early February.

Earlier this winter, when I realized that I was not going to the Olympics and thus had more time to play with in Europe (ha! only kind of! I need to finish my dissertation!), I asked on Facebook: what were my friends’ favorite places to cross-country ski in Europe? Places that I shouldn’t leave next fall without having visited?

Yes, I am in that mode. I anticipate defending my PhD in September, which means that I am looking for postdoc positions and in all likelihood I’ll be headed back to North America. It’s not that I’ll never take another ski trip in Europe, of course, but doing so will be a lot harder once I’m based on a different continent. There is such a world to explore here, and I’ve had so many great trips and experiences – many of which you can read about on this blog, like this, this, or this – but there are so many places that I still want to go, and not enough time to visit them.

So I wanted some help narrowing down my list.

A suggestion from multiple people was Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) in Italy. I had known for a while that this would be a nice place to go, as evidenced by the fact that oh so many national ski teams do training camps there: it is a favorite of the Americans, the Canadians, the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Finns, among others. Marit Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla each decided to ditch their teams’ pre-Olympic training camps and train in Seiser Alm instead. (And that turned out to work out well for both of them, as each came home with individual gold medals.)

Seiser Alm isn’t all that hard to get to, if you’re coming from afar. Go to Milan, take a train to Bolzano, and then it’s a quick bus ride to Seis/Siusi, the town below the plateau. You can stay there and take the cablecar or bus up to the plateau of Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi every day to ski, or you can travel up the big hill and stay up there, for example in the village of Compatsch, as we did.

Pro tip, do some work on the train.

The reason I hadn’t been to Seiser Alm so far, however, is that if you are coming from the north it is not so convenient. With a car, it’s probably not that bad. I don’t have a car, however, so the trip was a long combination of train and bus connections. Crossing the Alps is never a simple feat and I took the train into Austria, then another train to the top of a pass, then a another train down the other side of the pass into Italy, then a bus from Brixen/Bressanone to Seis/Siusi*, then the cablecar. I had wanted to take this trip before, but the logistics put me off. From Zurich it’s literally as fast to fly to Oslo and then take a train to Lillehammer, as it is to take public transportation to Seiser Alm!

I’m bad at writing blog posts, because my introductions are always longer than the meat of the post. But here, I’ll finally get to the point: I took a few days off work and made it a long weekend, reserved a hotel, and traveled to Seiser Alm. I went with my boyfriend, who had never cross-country skied before. I was hoping he wouldn’t hate it, and figured that if I wanted him to love my sport, I might as well introduce him to it in the awesomest place I could think of.

Because of all those logistics, we arrived in the mid afternoon. After checking in I immediately wanted to go for a ski before the sun went down, so I grabbed my skate skis and headed out. It had snowed the day before and the grooming was imperfect for skating (classic would have been better, but I didn’t want to take the time to pick and apply kickwax, I just wanted to get out there).

But it was beautiful. Everything I had dreamed of. And I had plenty of time to appreciate the scenery, because skating through the powder up some big climbs at 1800 meters of elevation (around 6,000 feet, and higher once I went up some of those big climbs) is really hard. I just skied until the sun was setting, maybe an hour and a half, but I was already pooped.

Luckily, I could refuel. Our hotel was delightful. As is probably the case for most or all of the hotels in Compatsch, half-board is the default: breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. That’s because Compatsch is a tiny, tiny village at the top of the cablecar. There are a handful of hotels, some of them fairly big, but maybe only two or three bars/pizza places that aren’t associated with hotels. There’s just not many other places you are going to eat, and the hotels aren’t really going to get dinner guests who aren’t staying up there because the cablecar stops running at 6 p.m. and you aren’t allowed to drive up to the plateau unless you are staying there (which makes the plateau very nice and quiet!). So, half-board makes sense for everyone.

The dinner was superb, including a great salad bar, some handmade pasta (of course), and a *dessert buffet*. I generally try not to eat dessert, but this was too much to resist. When I saw the 70-something-year-old German guy from Hamburg who was sitting at the table next to us get up and choose a second dessert, I decided that’s what I should do too.

Yes, even if you don’t count the phenomenal skiing, I was spoiled on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed a similarly great breakfast, and then set out to ski. That first afternoon I had remembered how exhausting it is to skate at altitude. I haven’t been doing a lot of skating this year because I’m still recovering from an ankle injury that has really affected my mechanics, so I had somehow forgotten that fact.

So we stuck to classic skiing. After the moody weather of our arrival day, it dawned bright and sunny. I slapped some blue hardwax on my skis, we rented some skis for my boyfriend, and set out.

Same view, this time with A+ grooming.

I can hardly explain how spectacular it was. I tried to be a good teacher but was distracted by the scenery, the perfect conditions, the feeling of sun on my skin (we hadn’t been getting a lot of that in Zurich). Every few minutes I would look around and grin, and sometimes spread my arms like, can you believe this?

From Compatsch, it is a few kilometers up to Ritsch, which is the true center of the trail system. From there, there’s a few kilometers of easy, rolling trails (and actually even a one-kilometer “practice loop” which is totally flat). We started there, but continued around the 12-km “Hartl” loop that goes far out the plateau to the northeast, and at its farthest point loops around alpine meadows with overlooks across a valley into Val Gardena.

I live in Switzerland, so I’m used to mountains, but the mountains in the Dolomites are totally different. They are made of, well, dolomite, and they are sharp and craggy. I think this is one thing that made me so awed by the scenery: it was just so different than what I was used to seeing. Take my wonder at the Swiss Alps, that feeling I have in Lenzerheide or Gantrisch or even Einsiedeln, and increase it by an order of magnitude, because these mountains are simply not what I usually look at. And throughout the day, the sun plays across them. Different parts are lit up or shaded. Clouds and snow squalls play around the spires. Every time you look is a little different.

My boyfriend survived the loop and we stopped in Ritsch for lunch at the hotel/restaurant there, devouring some excellent local-style dumplings. One was made with cheese, another spinach, a third one beets.

After replenishing, we parted ways and I skied down into Saltria and cruised around the 6 k loop there. Now is a good time to explain Seiser Alm. It is really just a huge alpine plateau, with hills and meadows, and sharp mountains on several sides. On every edge of this plateau are ski lifts and tiny resorts with a one or two hotels each; many of these areas are accessible from one another, albeit not by steep ski runs. Sometimes the cross-country ski trail would be running parallel to an alpine run, on a gradual downhill across the plateau. Even just in a tuck, on my cross-country skis I would be going faster than the downhill skiers on their heavy equipment, who couldn’t get up a head of momentum on such a gradual hill.

Saltria is another medium-sized village, a bit like Compatsch, but nestled down in a mini-valley a bit instead of totally perched on a plateau. To get down to Saltria, I dropped almost 200 meters of elevation in about two twisty kilometers, which was a lot of fun. I then cruised around the medium loop there, which was comparatively deserted and quite lovely, going up this mini-valley along a babbling river/stream instead of offering the bam-bam-bam of the plateau’s mountain views. And then I had to climb back up those 200 meters in two kilometers, which was slightly less fun.

Again, I was exhausted. But as I waited hungrily for dinner time, I appreciated the view, again. Perhaps some of the most special views of the spiky mountains are in the morning and the evening. As the light gradually disappeared, the spires were framed in different colors, just there right outside our window. The beauty and the quiet are so striking. Unless you have a really good reason to do a budget trip, it’s worth spending a little bit more money to stay up on the plateau and experience the mountains through whole days and nights instead of just enjoying the views from your skis during the day.

We had another great dinner, after which we sat in the hotel’s lounge area with a couple of beers. We were joined by two German couples, and the two men in the group began playing music on a guitar and singing. They were great, and played songs from several cultures and in several languages. The experience of this type of hotel, where everyone sticks around for meals, is a very different atmosphere from the impersonal settings of bigger resorts, and it was a lot of fun.

The next day was again beautiful and sunny, and we skied the “Panorama” loop, in total about a 20 km round trip from Compatsch, with a huge elevation gain.

Suddenly you find yourself skiing past the top of a ski lift, an experience you rarely get in the U.S. or Canada! The way that nordic and alpine skiing are integrated into the same space in Seiser Alm (and a few other places I have been, like Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees) is really neat. Groomed winter hiking/snowshoe trails are also embedded into this matrix, so up on the plateau at nearly any point you can look around and see people doing three or four different kinds of recreation. I wish more resorts would do this, instead of making these all totally separate activities, each with their own “area”. It’s great to be able to use the same space, and simply provides more terrain for everyone – why is that not a win/win!?

The panorama loop indeed offers spectacular panoramas. Again I was on blue hardwax, cruising around perfect classic tracks. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Perhaps because we set out directly after breakfast, we encountered relatively few other skiers, particularly in the outer parts of the loop.

The loop was so great that I went back the next day, when I skied as much as I could – the Panorama loop, the other loop overlooking Val Gardena – before reluctantly putting my skis back in their bag, getting on the cablecar, and starting the long journey home to Zurich. I had skied about 30 km each day, on average, and I was satisfied, exhausted, sore – but wished I could have just stayed and kept skiing.

I know exactly why so many people, from the world’s best skiers to that old guy from Hamburg who told us that he comes to Seiser Alm for two weeks every year, want to go there. I can’t wait to go back, even though it might be five or ten or twenty years before I have another chance.

Not only the snow, but that handmade pasta and an excellent glass of wine are waiting for me when I do.

*Why does everything have two names? Südtirol is an interesting region with an interesting history. It’s currently an “autonomous province” of Italy, but more than half the people living there speak German as their first language. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the region’s history, and a link to a 1927 article in Foreign Affairs stating that “the German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy… Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol.” That article is obviously not completely unbiased, but it’s quite interesting to read.

2017 Was a Year of Reading, or, What I Do To Escape Reality….

Last year, I made a resolution to try to read more. I did it because I really love reading, but I realized that I wasn’t doing so much of it outside of work. I wanted my New Years resolution not to be something that was a responsibility or a chore, but something that would increase the time I spent doing something that I liked. Something that would improve my quality of life and bring me some happiness. So: I resolved to read 52 books. One a week.

And, dear reader, I did it! This might be the first time that I can say I hands-down nailed a resolution and kept it going all year long. I read 20,300 pages in print, aside from papers read for work or things read online (which is a lot; after all, one of the reasons for this resolution was to spend less time staring at a screen, but I still have a lot of screen time!).

Here’s what I read, with some notes below about

  1. my favorites,
  2. how I chose them,
  3. who the authors were
  4. and why my resolution this year will be to read even more diverse authors.

(I also read an issue of Brick, the Canadian literary magazine, but this output is captured from Goodreads and I can’t find Brick on there.)

A Few Favorites (although nothing in here was bad):

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys: This book seemed life changing. I put it down and thought about the world differently. It is an inherently feminist book, and I also reveled in the different characters’ descriptions of nature. Why is this not required reading right after high school students read Jane Eyre!? I feel strongly about that, but I also think that if you had never even heard of Jane Eyre and picked up this book, it would be revelatory. Obviously, it stands on its own. I wanted to read the whole thing all over again, immediately. I think there was some aspect in which it was the right book at the right time, too, but I can’t exactly put my finger on how. (Link to buy at Powells)

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: A gem; there’s a reason Eugenides became a big-name author. (Link to buy at Powells)

Evicted, Matthew Desmond: This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is so important to understanding how things work in America and the structural inequalities our population faces. It is also simply a dang good read, with compelling characters and stories amidst the facts and statistics. An amazing book. (Link to buy at Powells)

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: I know some people have issues with this book because they think it glorifies working too hard and some behaviors that are, well, not the best way to supervise students. However, I think it is clear that the author is writing about mental health issues that she suffered for a large chunk of the time covered in the book – certainly not saying that how she worked in the early part of her career is healthy, or that it is the way everyone should work. I also found it to be a great description of doing science, and the magical opportunities but also complete failures that you bounce around in from month to month. Plus the naturalistic and biological descriptions used as metaphors are so sparklingly beautifully written and crafted. I love this book. (Link to buy at Powells)

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears: Rarely have so many completely unreliable narrators combined to tell such a great story. All the political, historical, scientific, and religious details are fantastic, and for me it was an intriguing reminder that a few hundred years ago we considered philosophy, medicine, biology, and physics to basically all be part of the same field. Plus, it’s a great mystery! (Link to buy at Powells)

How To Be BothAli Smith: I didn’t know what to expect from this book, and I’m still not sure what it really even is, but every part of it is delightful and thought-provoking, with fascinating characters. Their inner thoughts and dialogue are so fresh and new. (Link to buy at Powells)

Best Gift From a Stranger:

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins: I did one of those pyramid-scheme type things, only with books. You receive an email with two names, move the names around and add yours, and send it on to friends. A few days or weeks later, you receive books in the mail as friends of your friends send you a book that they liked. It was great fun and I ended up reading several things I never would have otherwise. This was one of them, a classic and among the first great detective novels (and I love detective novels!), and it was one of the best things I read all year. The fact that I received it in this unusual way made it all the more fun. (Link to buy at Powells)

Most Frustrating Read: 

The Sport of KingsC. E. Morgan: 4/5 of this book was one of the best books I read all year, an absolutely incredible accomplishment of storytelling. I was amazed at every page. The next 9/10 was… less good. The 10th 10th was disappointing, I thought. (If you’ve read the book I’d be fascinated to know your reaction.) But I wouldn’t say that this disappointment makes it not worth picking up a copy. It’s still special, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next. (Link to buy at Powells)

Weirdest Read: 

Norma, Sofi Oksanen: If I tell you the plot of this book, you will not even believe that someone would come up with it, much less that it would have a fairly successful launch. I’ll just say that it’s set in Finland, it’s super strange, and involves both organized crime and some sort of genetic magic? I picked this novel up after reading the author’s piece on LitHub, “How Women Experience Beauty”. It’s a fast and fun read, if you’re up for something weird. (Link to buy at Amazon)

Only Thing I Was Reading for the Second Time:

Middlemarch, George Eliot: I rarely re-read books. But I got this for a friend who I then didn’t see for a while, so I decided to read it myself first before gifting it. It was just as good as I remembered. A favorite from the Classic English Novels canon. If you haven’t read it, do; if you start it and hate it, keep going. Both the book and Dorothea get more interesting. (Link to buy at Powells)

How I Chose What To Read

As the year progressed, I kept track of what I read, when I finished it, etc. I got this idea from a blog post I read somewhere but… I can no longer remember where. The spreadsheet I used was adapted from Nicole Zhu. So I can say:

  • 13 books were received as gifts from various people (mostly my parents, but also friends), plus The Moonstone  which was received in the book exchange (most of the other book exchange books I had read the previous year).
  • One book (The Haywire Heart) was sent to me by a publisher asking for a review.
  • A few I chose because they were classics (East of Eden) or at least, classics for a particular crowd  (The Selling of the President, Wide Sargasso Sea, Desert Solitaire), which I had never read.
  • Some I picked up off my parents’ bookshelf when I was home (The Painted Drum, East of Eden, Cod).
  • Others were recommended to be by friends (Burmese Days, Where the Rivers Flow North, Outlander, Solar Bones).
  • One I picked up from a bookshelf at Powells which highlighted their selection of women authors in translation (Adua).
  • Some I picked because I loved previous works from the authors (The Unconsoled, The Buried Giant, The Dispossessed).
  • And most of the rest I chose because they were award winners, I had read reviews of them, or they were parts of various lists that I saw.

I read a lot of books that were either gifts or recommended to me by friends. They were mostly excellent. I found Thank You For Being Late a bit long – there were sections that I found really interesting and inspiring, and long sections which seemed tedious. Solar Bones I did not find as magical as some other people did, but, again, there were entire sections which were amazing – and as a feat of writing it is stylistically a marvel. If you can’t think of what to read, definitely ask friends for recommendations. You’ll get out of your rut and find some amazing stuff.

Of the work-related books, four were chosen myself and three were chosen for me, either as part of our research group’s book club or because one was a “gift” of my boss (probably a signal I should read it…).

Who Wrote These Books? 

In my spreadsheet, I kept track of some basic data about the books and authors I was reading. I was going to make some nice R ggplot graphics of this data, but I’m just way too tired. So I’ll describe the data verbally instead.

Of the seven work-related books, all the authors were white men. Sigh.

Leaving out those as well as the two literary journal issues (which featured writing by men and women, and of various nationalities), I read three short-story collections, 29 novels, and 13 nonfiction books.

29 books were published since the year 2000, with BY FAR the biggest year being 2016 (11 books). I’m ready new writing, for the most part. The earliest books were The Moonstone (1868) and Middlemarch (1871), with a big jump until Burmese Days (1934) and then East of Eden (1952).

25 books were by men, and 19 by women. The disparity really comes on the nonfiction side: with novels and short stories combined, 16 books were by men and 15 by women. For nonfiction, nine books were by men and four by women.

11 books were by non-white authors – and interestingly, it was 5 by men (20% of the total number of male authors) and 6 by women (32% of the female authors).

28 authors were American, of which at least two were born outside the country (Viet Thanh Nguyen in Vietnam and Yaa Gyasi in Ghana). 7 authors were British, of which at least two were born out of the country (Jean Rhys in Dominica and Kazuo Ishiguro in Japan). The other authors are one each from Finland, India, Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, North Korea, and South Korea, and Ideaga Scebo is Somali-Italian. Most of the works take place completely or partly in the country of the author’s origin.

4 books were translations: Adua (from Italian), Norma (from Finnish), The Vegetarian (from Korean), and The Accusationhow the translation process helped verify that it is an authentic North Korean work (from Korean, and you should read about ).

Next Thoughts…

I found this year of reading so rewarding! A few close friends almost made fun of me for how voraciously I was reading, but I learned so much, and learned to think about things in a different way, even if sometimes only temporarily. I also fairly frequently read on the bus or tram to work, which is a big improvement over reading about politics on Twitter and getting mad. I read a lot of fiction, and I read a fair amount of work that is set somewhere else, maybe in the future or the past, and some that involves magic. I do read some nonfiction to learn, but a huge aspect of my current love of reading is to be transported somewhere away from work and my daily life. And I think that spending more time in these other universes imagined by some fantastic writers has, indeed, improved my outlook on things and my balance.

More generally, this resolution reminded me how important it is to make space for things you love to do. Maybe that isn’t reading for you, but think of something that is and that you find yourself not doing as often as you used to or as you’d like to. Try to make a habit to carve out a little bit of space for it. We spend a lot of time doing things that just make us tired and frustrated and aren’t helping us out (hi, Twitter…). Eliminating those habits completely is not a realistic goal. But trying to replace them some portion of that time with a different thing that makes you happy is both realistic and more likely to succeed than simply resolving to NOT do something.

This year, I’m going to make more of an effort to read a better balance of male and female authors, and more books that aren’t by Americans. Although that’s hard, because there are so many good books by Americans. I’d also like to read more translated work. We’ll see how that goes.