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Time for Some Olympic Whining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AK_Rad

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

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

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

Swim

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

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

Mine's bigger.

Mine’s bigger.

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

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

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

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

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

AK HARDCORE!

AK HARDCORE!

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

The interior of the Fred Meyer in midtown Anchorage.

The interior of the Fred Meyer in midtown Anchorage.

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

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

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

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

–A Vietnamese pho restaurant

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

–A sale on bear spray

Bear Spray

I did not buy any.

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

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What up Alaska?

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

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

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

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

I fit half the Empire State Building in here.

I fit half the Empire State Building in here.

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

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

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

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

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

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Hire me. (Seriously)

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

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

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

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

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

This is where you come in.

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

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

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

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Buy My Gown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo, Keldy Ortiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that is a bikeguard.

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

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

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Texts from Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, at 3:39, this exchange ensues:

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

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

Thomas Alsgaard: “As soon as possible?”

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

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

Me: “Hi mom!”

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

Me: “Yes, hi…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lime Rickeys Are the Best Thing Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo, Flickr, User jmdgolfman

This is not a professional bike racer:

Eyes on the prize. Photo, Don McEwan.

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

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

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

Awesome photo, Avery Briggs.

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

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

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

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Guest Post: Hayward Field vs. Holmenkollen

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

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

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

It still wasn’t as rad as this:

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

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

Click any of the photos to enlarge.

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

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

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

Credentials

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

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

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

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

Journalists, Photographers, and King of The Hill: TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool!

Some similarities I hadn’t thought of

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

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

Top Ten Differences Between Track and Skiing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I Got Fired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: “Hello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Championships Are Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The End of an Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Alcoholic Beer and HOOGVEIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coffee maker. Also upside down.

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

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

1. I didn’t do a real warm-up.

2. It was cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. I am a man

Time: 3:56.

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

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Astonia

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

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

"Artwork."

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

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

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

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

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

Scorch marks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the highlights from the grocery store:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Thought I Was Supposed to be a Huge Baller…

In theory, freelancing is a good way to bolster your resume and make some extra money. In practice, it’s the most effective way to have your confidence shattered on a regular basis.

Until this spring, I’ve had some decent success with freelancing. I had some scintillating articles published in the Central Maine Morning Sentinel about a summer music camp and a senior volunteer corps, and then during the Olympics, I wrote four pieces about Torin Koos for the Wenatchee World. The articles for the World were sweet, because they paid me well, put me on the front page or the front of the sports page, and gave me a sweet byline: “By Nathaniel Herz/For the World”. Darn right, for the World!

However, ever since I returned home in April, I’ve had fewer positive experiences. First, my overtures to cycling publications to go hang out and report on the mountain biking world championships in Quebec late this summer were rejected (“At present, we are already set for coverage of the Windham World Cup and Worlds in Quebec, but if anything changes, I’ll be in touch.”). This was bad enough. But then I tried to find a place to publish a more mainstream account of the Northug-Hellner Vegas spectacle. Below, you can read what I thought was an EXTREMELY meticulous pitch to an editor at a relatively well-known sports outlet:

“Hello _________–

My name is Nat Herz, and I’m the assistant editor of the cross-country skiing news Web site FasterSkier.com. _______ gave me your contact information.

I’m e-mailing to propose a story for _____ on one of the strangest events I’ve ever encountered on this beat. In early July, Petter Northug and Marcus Hellner–two of the best cross-country skiers in the world, and both winners of individual golds in Vancouver—are coming to Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker and a

rollerski race. Rollerskiing is what cross-country skiers do to train during the summer–it’s kind of like roller blading with poles. The two are both major celebrities in Scandinavia. Northug, especially, has a huge following–he was on the front page of all of

the major Norwegian newspapers’ websites today after bouncing out of a tune-up poker tournament this morning. He’s brash and cocky, loves to trash-talk, and has a rivalry with Hellner (who is Swedish) that the press goes crazy about.

The rollerski race should be quite a spectacle–two of the best athletes in the world duking it out in the desert, where average high in July are 104 (I checked). In all likelihood, there will be no more than a handful of people in Vegas who have any idea who they are. And the poker aspect makes the whole culture-clash even better.

I’ve spoken with Alexander Oysta, the editor of the Norwegian magazine that is sponsoring the trip, and he’s willing to help me set up interviews with Northug and Hellner. They also may recruit a few top Americans for the race like Billy Demong, who just won gold in nordic combined, and I’m in touch with those guys regularly as part of my beat.

I know that this e-mail is fairly straight and humorless, but I’d obviously approach the story with the style and wit that is ____’s trademark. The majority of my work for FasterSkier is straight reporting, but in my blog on the site, I take a lighter approach. I’m happy to send you clips, a resume, or more information on myself or the event–just let me know.

Thanks very much,

Nat”
So, decent pitch, right? Clear that I’d thought about it, tailored it to this specific media outlet, made it clear that I could make the story accessible to a mainstream audience? This is the e-mail I get in response:

“are you there already?

—————————-

Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail.”

I don’t think that I really need to say anything about the audacity of someone telling me to consider the effing environment when they’ve just responded to my elaborate and well-constructed pitch with a one-liner, without even the decency to give me a gosh darn capital letter.

I swallow my pride and answer, and we go back and forth for a few e-mails. The guy refuses to give me any guarantee ahead of time that he will publish anything, and we end with this exchange:

Me: “Can I get back in touch with you just beforehand to discuss details like angle, length, etc.? Or would you just want a draft, whenever it’s done?”

Editor: “draft when you’re done.” (if you’re going to give me a period, can’t you give me A GOSH DARN CAPITAL LETTER?!?!)

So I go to Vegas. Then I come back, and spend four hours the other night putting together what I felt like was a relatively entertaining and accessible piece (for the general public) on the whole trip, replete with clever metaphors about how Petter Northug is kind of the Lady Gaga of Norway. I send it to him the next morning, all 988 words, along with this greeting:
“Hi Mr. ______–

So I did end up going to Las Vegas for this event with the Scandinavian cross-country skiers, and I’ve attached a draft of an account. Let me know what you think–and I’d be happy to provide you with some pictures, if necessary.

Thanks,

Nat”

Response in its entirety, two hours and 10 minutes later:
“why is there only 1 quote?”

Not only are there no capital letters, but this time I don’t even get a f—king reminder to consider the environment before printing this e-mail.

How I want to respond:
“Why is there only 1 quote? WHY IS THERE ONLY 1 QUOTE?! BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T GIVE ME ANY FU—KING INSTRUCTIONS FOR HOW TO WRITE THIS THING, A—HOLE, AND I DID IT THE WAY THAT I THOUGHT WOULD MAKE FOR THE BEST STORY!”

How I actually respond:

“I’m happy to work some more in–do you just want more from the skiers?”

Response:

“it needs to be written as a news story with color and quotes. not observation.”
How I want to respond:
“All right, jerk, maybe if you’d told me to do that in the first place, as opposed to just giving you a complete draft, I would have done it with enthusiasm. But now you can shove it—I’m taking my polished work to the scores of other media outlets that are breaking down my door for in-depth coverage of cross-country skiing.”

How I actually respond:

“Hi _____–

Does this work? Reworked it a bunch–let me know… [attached file representing two more hours of work]

Thanks,

Nat”

Response:

“did someone shoot photos?”

My (hopeful) response:

“Yup–I did. I have a few decent ones from the race and the poker tournament. I’m out at the moment, but I can send some a little later this evening. Is there a particular format that would be best?

Thanks,

Nat”

“i need to see whether there is anything there. the story doesn’t do much. but maybe the photos could help.

the story is too long.”

I send along photos. That was six days ago, and I have heard nothing since.

In addition to the above media outlet, I also sent a pitch to the magazine that I worked for last fall, and also heard nothing. I am beginning to think that perhaps I should stick with FasterSkier for the rest of my life—my superiors are all kind and respectful, and I can prolong the conceit that I am actually a huge baller.

If anyone has any freelance assignments for huge baller international ski journalists, I’m taking them.

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A Blight on Humanity, Yes, But an Awesome One

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

The Stratosphere, my home for the next three days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ski jump is behind the sign...

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

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FasterSkier World Headquarters

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

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

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

This is awesome for a whole handful of reasons:

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

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

Scone.

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

The Greylock summit yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

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Scooped.

Imagine you’ve trained hard and dominated the domestic circuit all season, winning races and collecting prize money along the way. Then, in the last, biggest race of the year, Kris Freeman or Kikkan Randall comes back from Europe and gives you a sound beating—a firm reminder of your place in the pecking order.

That was what I felt like yesterday, when I opened up the New York Times home page on my computer to find a story detailing the annual salary of U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) CEO Bill Marolt. Whether or not it’s justified, it’s a lot of money–over half a million dollars–and that’s something that people should know. From what I’ve gathered online, not very many people did.

To get a few things out of the way: until yesterday, I didn’t know. And I’m sorry and disappointed with myself that the majority of the cross country ski community learned of the figure from the New York Times—which covers skiing only occasionally—rather than FasterSkier, where that’s our primary responsibility.

Coincidentally, I was at a conference just this Friday to learn about how to conduct research and investigation of non-profit organizations like USSA. In fact, Saturday morning, hours before the story on Marolt was published, I was parsing through the very files that the New York Times must have used in order to get the data that they did. They’re called Form 990s, and every non-profit organization has to fill one out. They’re then made available to the public—you can see USSA’s by searching for it at Guidestar.org.

This kind of journalism is more complicated and more challenging than covering a race, where you can watch it, talk to a few racers and coaches, then go inside to write it all up. For the story on Marolt, Katie Thomas—the New York Times reporter who’s been covering skiing all winter—teamed up with a computer-assisted reporter, Andrew Lehren, presumably to interpret the information in the 990 and to gather and wrangle all the additional data required to put it in context. (Computer-assisted reporters specialize in data gathering and analysis; one of Lehren’s colleagues at the Times taught a session on it at the conference I attended on Friday.)

But just because it’s more complicated—and because the New York Times has special reporters to do it—doesn’t mean that we’re not going to try to tackle this stuff ourselves. This is the most exciting type of reporting (and most challenging), and rest assured that we’re going to keep looking into these kinds of issues, because the flow of money in the sport is just as important as who wins and loses—and it can often be a determining factor.

As much as it sucks to get scooped, in the end, it’s a good thing, because it pushes us to do better work. We will learn from this experience: we’ll be doing some more digging, and we’ll follow up when the next set of forms come out. Will we get scooped again in the future? Probably. But we’ll do our darndest to ensure that we don’t make the same oversight twice.

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