Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The late afternoon Dusseldorf calm along the Rhein the day before the World Cup city sprint.
As I wrestle about in my coach cabin seat in seat seven hours into an eleven hour flight from Frankfurt to Seattle, the realization dawns on me - after six weeks and five World Cup starts in Europe - I am headed home. The day is Monday, December 23rd. Home just in time for the holidays.
I think everyone appreciates heading home. It's why we can relate to when Dorothy of Wizard of Oz clicked the heels of her glittery red shoes and said, "There is no place like home," for exactly this reason; there is no place like home. After spending a week in exile, in a Swedish cabin quarantined from the rest of my team, followed by five more weeks bouncing around Europe from ski race venue to venue, from hotel to hotel, I crave a little normalcy, the comforts of home. I look forward to the looks of city drivers as I ski through the snowy streets of Wenatchee on my rock skis with a yellow labrador as companion. I look forward to catching up with friends from the elementary schoolyard days; to striding it out along the first ski trails I ever knew; to sitting around the Christmas dinner table with my brother and sister, mom and dad, digging into a monstrosity of slow roasted prime rib with all the accoutrements.
And skiing. After starting the season with the most ebullient of hopes - I love that word, ebullient, meaning a bubbling up of high-spirited fervor and enthusiasm - I started the season slightly below my expectations and continued this progression through my next two sprint World Cups. Yesterday I awoke and I told myself, "Today is another chance. Let's make the most of it." Then I went out and did that in perhaps the most diabolical of ski race formats, the two-man sprint relay.
In bricks-and-mortar terms, the sprint relay begins with perhaps forty teams, broken up in two semi-final heats. The race starts with me racing one mile. I then tag off to my teammate Andy Newell. As he navigates his one mile segment of the race I try to recover before starting my next one mile race-within-the-race. This goes on for six miles.
The top three teams from each semifinal move onto the final. The next four fastest non-qualifying teams, regardless of which semi they raced, fill out the World Cup Sprint final. My teammate and I made it in as the 7th seed, the fastest of the "lucky losers." The eleventh fastest team, Switzerland I, was just .9 seconds behind us. Five teams, four spots in the finals, all separated by less than a second. Welcome to the razor thin edge separating success and close-but-no-cigar of World Cup competition.
Racing an hour later in the finals, under the floodlights of the otherwise dark of the Düsseldorf sky, is what it's all about. As I spin on an exercise bike trying to clear the leg-burning lactate acid out of my system between races, our Swedish wax tech Petter Johansson says, "You know, we could be on our way back to Sweden if you and Andy didn't ski so well." Johansson's smiling. Maybe even beaming, which is saying a lot of the most-practical of all people, the Swedish blue-collar worker. It's his way of saying, "Good job. Now forget this and focus on the task at hand. Let's do something special in the final."
It's chasing after moments like these that made me want to be a professional ski racer more than anything in the world - president, professional ball player, derivative analyst at Goldman Sachs - from the second grade on. Moments like these are confirmation that I made a pretty good decision.
For the coaches of the US Ski Team, I'm pretty sure helping athletes put themselves into opportunities like this is what keeps them in the sport, and away from their significant others for significant chunks of the year. For Johansson, I'm pretty sure watching his team rip around the track on race skis he prepared beats the 3400 kilometer road trip he made to get out fully-loaded Fiat Ducato cargo van from Northern Finland to Central Europe.
In the end, a Russian took out five other skiers in a horribly skied 180 degree turn on the fourth of six laps. Newell was one of them. Norway I, Sweden I, Russia I and France I all get away clean. We fight our way back, almost all the way. In the end, we finish fourth, four seconds behind the winning Norwegians.
Personally, only my third place in the 2007 Estonian World Cup classic sprint is a better result. For the United States, no relay team has done better, ever.
I am close. I am fit. After a couple weeks of mediocrity, the training, the talent, the desire and the racing opportunity are all coming together - an ideal way to end the first block of my racing season. Now I have a handful of days at home to enjoy, to get out for a couple hours on the tele boards, then sip afternoon cappuccinos, before my next hard period of training start.
The heart of the season beckons ahead. Bring it on.
Monday, December 8, 2008
"Abandon All Hope All Who Enter Here." -Dante
Man, could any old-time philosopher get it any more wrong?
When the big, white, fluffy flakes of powder stop confetting the sky, the sun of Central Europe rises from behind the Alps to coat the wintery valleys in sunny ecstacy. In the heart of the Alps, in a place like Davos, Switzerland, it is not hard to be a cross-country skier.
After three weeks of Arctic darkness, I soak up every ray of sun I can. For the first week in Central Europe I've been pulling the daily double on the ski tracks, then combining this with a few minutes, at least, in the cafe or the solarium, leaving my epic wanting mind hightingled with a kind of satisfaction that goes deeper, lasts longer, than the kind that comes from soft aluminum pop-top cans. Like I said, its not hard to be a cross-country skier here.
The night before last I hit the walking streets of Davos for a nighttime stroll. It's a quarter to eight; early for the subterreans that come out at night, late for the apres-ski crowd. But there they are, wearing their hardshell Lange and Rossignol boots, huddled around the horseshoe bar, some standing,the others sitting, all watching the World Cup Super G live from Beaver Creek, Colorado.
It's times like these where I am baffled by Americana. Coming upon a situation such as this I can't help but think, "We have three hundred million Americans, more television channels than most people have patience to flip through, and not one broadcaster buying the rights to show off the jewels of the world's winter sports scene?" Pure madhouse like craziness.
If it's out there, if Americans are given the opportunity to follow sports outside the dominant American three (of baseball, basketball and football) - and see it week-in, week-out - to get to know the athletes, to appreciate the demands of inherent in each respective sport, I think Americans, too, would find the intrigue, the entertainment value, inherent in track and triathlon, or alpine and nordic skiing. And maybe, just maybe, some kid in Seattle or Cincinnati would be inspired. Least that's what I think.
After the World Cup races in Kuusamo, Finland on the way to the airport in Rouvaniemi, en route to Zurich, the sun poked through the trees. I'd just finished the weekend .3 second from racing the quarterfinals, my first, immediate goal in any World Cup sprint. I also got in my first World Cup individual distance start ever earlier that morning. A start - a decent one - to the year. I took the sighting of the sun as a good one. An omen of sorts.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Week out, my coach tells me to run through a whole practice in my mind, more or less in real time. The number one requirement he tells me is we don’t train physically if that gunk is still in your lungs. It reminds me of what all the best coaches I’ve ever worked with have said in their own way – that the body is trying to tell you something. It needs time to repair itself. It will. The body just uses its own timecard and rushing it usually just prolongs the healing process. Everything else, though, stays the same.
“Go ahead and challenge yourself. Do a workout in it’s entirety in your mind. See yourself at the venue. Talk to the service techs. Pick out your skis in the wax cabin. Run through a whole six-by-three-minute, double-pole-only intensity session. Don’t just see pictures in your head. Get the feelings of skiing. Get the feelings of motion. Feel what it feels like in your arms when reach high with the elbows. When you do this, your striding opens up. This gives you a higher starting position to start your kick from. This gives you a little more time glide. See yourself skiing big, strong and relaxed. Feel yourself becoming that purple wave of motion flowing and bouncing and gliding all the way around the course. When you ski like this, it hardly matters what’s going on around you (with the other competitors). You’re skiing so big, you’re going so fast, you’ll really be in control. Take forty five minutes, set aside an hour, and see if you can totally focus in on this and not lose that focus.”
Last year, I also came into Kuusamo sick. Only this year I’ve had a couple more days to recover, to get back all my health. Last year I knew I had, maybe, a C- body, for race day. Last year I knew if I wanted to be one of the thirty quarterfinal qualifiers I had to perform pretty much flawlessly. On that day, I did not leave myself a window of opportunity more than that if I wanted to score World Cup points.
In the prelim, I did it. The racing was super tight. I finished 2.3 seconds off the fastest time of the day on the two and three-quarter minute course, qualifying in 19th place. Another second faster and I would have been perhaps a top-five qualifier. Then again, another second slower and I would have been outside the top-30, an outsider looking in.
Making it into the next round I had the exact same chance to race for the podium’s top step as any of the other 29 other quarterfinalists. In that race, I blasted off the start, settling in behind Emil Johnsson of Sweden, the quickest prelim qualifier earlier that morning. Perfect.
Through the middle section of the course, I spent too much energy fighting with the other racers, jockeying for position. If I could change anything about how I skied in Kuusamo last year, this would be it. I burned up a few matches unnecessary. On a day when I was a ways away from having a full matchbox, that just doesn’t cut it. A Czech, a two time World Team Sprint medalist, cut ahead, though it hardly mattered. In Kuusamo, the final climb separates the winners from the pretenders.
On this climb I swung wide left and start getting into my specialty – skiing uphill fast. I catch Emil. Then I pass the Dusan the Czech. I’m in the lead. Over the top of the climb, as it transitions from climbing to long striding to double poling, Emil accelerates away. The Czech powers by. Luckily, I still have enough energy to hop in behind him, my tips right on the tails of skis. With 100 meters to go, I’m okay. With 90 meters to go, I’m still right there. In the final 80 meters, though, I am no longer challenging for a top two position and a chance to fight it out in the semifinals and the finals. Somewhere before the finish a Finn and an Italian go by. I died up the home straight, coming in 5th of 6th in my heat, 1.9 seconds behind the Swede, or 21st place for the day.
As a result, it was not great. Nor was it bad. But on that day I left the race venue and headed back to our team’s cabin in the woods satisfied with my performance, fade up the homestretch included.
“If I don’t have my A-plus fastball, I have to use my A-plus mental approach.”
-Jonathan Papelbon, Rex Sox closer
In Kuusamo last year I hardly had skiing’s equilivant to my A-plus fastball. In the past year, I’ve had a year to ski bigger, to get stronger, to build more fitness, and I have some concrete data points that say I’ve done exactly this over the past 52 weeks.
Every week presents unique challenges. Every week presents its own opportunities. Coming into Kuusamo this year, I’m at least as healthy as last year. Fitter; and a more complete skier too. Last year I brought an A-game approach to the race venue. This year it’s time to add a + to that.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The World Cup opens this weekend. Unfortunately, my goals have changed. This weekend the odds are stacked against me sliding into a race bib. This week’s personal competition does not include competing against the Germans or Estonians or Russians. It’s all about regaining the ability to breathe in oxygen deeply without restriction. It’s about getting my strength and snap back. It’s about lying low in my classic little red Swedish cabin in the woods and resting and reading and relaxing. And not going stir crazy.
Next week is another chance. Next week I head to Kuusamo, Finland. I’ve been in the game long enough to know the pursuit to the top will be fraught with a little turbulence. Now I’ve got to show a little perseverance, a little resilience. Now is hardly the time to become brittle in the face of adversity. Until the next time.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Thursday, November 13, 2008
If only travel were to happen perfectly to script. Lost luggage, plane delays, and their near requisite doppelganger, missed connections, give opportunity to remind myself that life is ten percent wha happens to you and ninety percent how you react to it. Still, the sexiness of travel once presented to the public, is gone. Long since gone.
For the next three weeks I will live at a time of terminating daylight above the Arctic Circle. The memory of seeing the lemon yellow sun must suffice. The time to embrace living among domesticated reindeer, eating dense, dark bread topped with lingonberries and listening to Finnish love metal has arrived. It has been a slow train coming. Now the train is at the station. Now, the ski racing days are here.
For some reason it is somewhat awkward to admit, but just knowing I would be in Munio or Gällivare, Sweden or racing through the old-town streets of Dusseldorf, Germany later this December kept the engines of aspiration and resolve burning hot. Knowing that, on a none-too-distant Saturday the opportuity to race Jens Arne and Emil up the big hill of Kuusamo with a World Cup title on the line fills me with the most ebulliant of hopes.
But, alas, hope is not the same as experience. The time to just peek through the cracks or around the corner to glimpse boyhood ambitions is through. The time to tear back the veneer between thinking and doing, to bask in the afterglow of high achievement nears.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
“477” read the title of the letter my coach sent me. “You are as talented as anyone in the world. You are as well trained as anyone in the world. Against quite a few obstacles we have done great work this summer and in all the years previous.
“But we are not the only ones training hard. We are not the only talented ones. And we never cheat. We never dope or use any illegal methods or means to win. And we never, ever will.
“So what will separate us and put us in front of all the rest? The way is in daily psychological and physical preparation. This must be very specific. You must be able to answer this question specifically:
“What did you do today that will put you on the podium in 2010?”
This question gets me out training twice a day, most every day. In a year it’s questionable what accrues more miles, my rollerskis and skis, or my truck. As the title of my coach’s letter suggests I have 477 more days to improve my physiology - to build the pumping capacity of my heart, improve the economy of my ski stride, and boost my top-end speed. I have 477 days to go beyond believing that I am someone that can handle whatever the future throws my way. It doesn’t get more specific than this: I have 477 days to become the toughest athlete - both in the mental and physical arenas in the world - then showcase this in Whistler in 2010.
To get myself into a place where I’m in the start gate of the Olympic A-Final and know with every fiber of my body I am ready to fulfill my dream, my destiny, my potential – that is my goal.
I can see the crowd. I can hear the cowbells clanging. I can feel my classic skis underfoot, gripping, then gliding over the snow. It’s snowing. It’s snowing hard. I love it. And the energy’s rising. I can feel it. The crowd feels it, too. The starter makes his final commands.
“Racers to the line.
Fade to the now.
Friday, October 10, 2008
The story of love is hello and goodbye.
Until we meet again.
Out my Grandmother’s second story window the sun intermittently sparkled on the open water of Lake Superior. I had eaten my pickle, finished my sandwich. Time to leave neared. My grandmother and I talked one last time. At times directly, most others indirectly. Before leaving, I visit my Grandfather’s studio one last time. Pictures line the wall facing the greatest of the Great Lakes. Bookshelves full of books line the westward wall. I try to take it all in, capture an accurate postcard in my mind that resists the fading of time. I pick up a work by Robert Frost. My fingers run over the book’s binding. Inside, I see the poems from North of Boston. The words on these pages have been read, over and over. I wonder what my grandfather thought about the line “I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” Did meaning of these words change to him over time, in the twilight of his days?
I say these lines over and over, as if repetition itself will lead to revelation. Some thoughts we wish to hear will never be said. A clearer meaning to this question will have to come another way on another day. Maybe true meaning eludes us with those we live with and with whom we love and remembering them and the little time we shared together is enough.
During the Renaissance the idea of virtu – a kind of excellence that went beyond competence – took hold. My Grandfather was loving and caring. But he also believed in this holding those around him to the highest and hardest of ideals.
I do know my Grandfather was a surgeon. I am told a good one at that. He worked in a specialized field of urology, though I knew my Grandpa as a fisherman and an artist. No clear line of division separated his passions. Attributes of one merged into the other.
“The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.” -Joseph Campbell
In each, you use your hands. The skills are kinetic-based. Surgery is one of the few areas of expertise the practitioner gets better at the farther one gets away from their formal training. It’s not that the rigors of surgery or learning the art of a four-count rhythm get in the way of perfection. It’s just that reaching an epiphany in fly fishing – or medicine, or sculpture, or sport – requires the artist to work beyond the rigid definitions of what is known to what is possible. “Let rules melt into pure action,” is how my Grandpa put this.
In medicine, each patient, each operation, is unique to the here and now, causing an inquiry into questions. “I had no choice now but to cast into the willows if I wanted to know why fish were jumping in the water all around me except in this hole, and I still wanted to know, because if is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions,” wrote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It. While fishing or melding clay into form, my Grandpa was participating in a search for harmony - a quest I believe worthy of consideration of Joyce’s proper art title.
In dry-fly fishing, surgery and sculpture, the learning curve is steep. So steep in fact that mastery is fleeting. A writer once told me, “When I was young, a teacher also forbid me to say “more perfect” because she said if a thing is perfect it can’t be more so. But by now I have seen enough of life to have regained my confidence in it.” My Grandfather was one who chased the “more perfect” moments.
For this, among much more, thank you. When I left your house Grandma told me to “keep following my bliss.” I promise to take Grandma’s advice. I will be a seeker of the more perfect of the everyday. Until we meet again.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Since the Whistler days I’ve had two weeks back at my parent’s house in Washington. Last month they moved from the place of my youth, the alpine town of Leavenworth, thirty miles eastward. The city rests along the mighty, mellow Columbia River. Coming into town, a candy-apple red sign, backlit with granny apple green neon, takes the form of a certain orchard fruit. The sign proudly proclaims:
The Apple Capitol of the World
Every so often talent merges with desire and you, the observer, are given the opportunity to see the explosing of interest unfold before your eyes. At Cascade and Cashmere, rival schools separated by twelve miles of pear and apple orchards, two eighth graders are simultaneously fanning the flame of their ambition. Sometime, perhaps as soon as next year, people in Forks, Washington or Goldendale will usher their names beside the word combinations “devastating speed,” or “inexhaustible stamina.” Even state champion. As a fan of sport, I look forward as to how this rivalry develops. Will the young athletes have the consistency of purpose and the desire to transcend the schoolyard definition of success to, as Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore might say, “Come together to gather stars?”
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Friday, September 19, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
If this idea gets distilled down from the wastebasket of my mind – the one filled with musical riffs I cannot play, works of art I cannot comprehend, and conversational conventions I cannot understand – and instilled in the minds of the kids in the classrooms of Cascade that’d be something; the something that will make my year with In The Arena a success.
If I can help a handful of students at Cascade for their passion - into learning, into sports, into whatever, really – bubble up organically and follow this passion beyond the spark of initial excitement to become like steel, an element that grows stronger when exposed to the forges of fear or a kiln of scathing criticism that’d be something. That something is my personal challenge this year.
Jumbo Elliott liked to tell his troops at Villanova to “keep running until you can smell the roses.” That is, to get to a point of conditioning and callusing that strenuous physical exercise becomes more than sidestiches, soreness and six a.m. morning runs.
In cross country skiing we have the saying, “a skier is born in the summer.” In the hottest months skiers train the most hours. In the summer skiers push the aerobic limits and hopefully come close, but do not quite, break the body down into sickness and lingering fatigue. Skiers, the good ones at least, need to have that spark in July, not just January.
All these ideas swirling around get me thinking. And searching. With the runners - and come springtime the throwers and jumpers and hurdlers – I hope to help make my old hometown school the envy of the state, becoming a new, smaller schooled Mead High from the Pat Tyson era. Only Leavenworth has better mountains and trails to revel in.
The most important responsibility coaches have is building the team and environment the team inhabits. From here the athlete can chase peak experiences in the competition arena or come out for sport to be part of a social club that happens to exercise. A coach, in my opinion, cannot build another’s desire or toughness or resolve. But the coach can aid the athlete in cultivating these skills and help the channel it. When Bill Bowerman said, “Tigers are tigers” I believe he was expressing a similar sentiment.
So how do I help build the Cascade exercise-as-a-way-of-life movement? By tweaking what I see as the prevailing, and antiquated, American definition of success and failure in sports. Most people interpret winning as a standard for success. Instead, imagine if success - and its ancillary doppelganger, failure – became a psychological state, not an objective one. Success and failure no longer need express themselves merely in win-loss outcomes. Rather, performance becomes a series of process goals leading to personal accomplishment. No longer is anything less than winning a threat, a threat that increases a young athlete’s fear of failure.
“An avoidance of failure is a self- perpetuating process that serves to exacerbate the tendency to avoid failure, leading to more mistakes and failures,” is how a peer-reviewed article titled “Why Young Athletes Fear Failure: Consequences of Failure” puts it. To me, this says those who fear failure the most are also the most likely to experience it the most. And that’s not ideal.
The normal reaction to threats, real or imagined, is fear. The young Cascade Mountain Lions will not be part of a team burdened by simplistic definitions of success or of failure. We will hold ourselves to a higher, more enlightened standard. The budding athletes will not toe the line in an emotional state defined by words like apprehensive or scared. I cannot wait to see the mighty Mountain Lions free to run, free to strive, free to compete – tasting, enjoying, and basking in the beauty that is competition and sport.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Conversation, television series reruns on dvd, afternoon strolls through Whistler’s Upper Village and a few lines from a book fill the ether. These days Windblown World rests on my bedside table. The book is a collection of Jack Kerouac’s notebooks and journals he kept from 1947 to 1954, a time when thoughts like, “Beyond the glittery streets was darkness and beyond the darkness the West. I had to go,” were fermenting away, preparing one for his creative explosions.
Today I find comfort with the thought Kerouac’s first works were not On the Road or Dharma Bums or The Subterraneans. Rather he had a few fits and starts, even a couple finished-but-unpublished manuscripts in the family filing cabinet in Lowell, Mass. before a publisher took in The Town and the City. Even then, Kerouac would write “I do not have much opportunity to pout, and now I realize this: -- I had to fight to write Town and City, so I’ll have to fight to sell it.”
It’s a sentiment I at times share with skiing. Through a workout, a week or months sometimes I feel as if I’m in a bare-knuckled brawler. Finesse and footwork and strategy have led me to where they can. Now it’s up to endurance, aggression and a granite chin, or better yet, a granite mind to lead; to lead me where I need to get.
The Sirens along my Olympic Odyssey have been calling. As a twenty-eight year old endurance biased athlete I am now neither young nor old. The sirens of civilian employment, of mortgages and settling down with a hot little number, have not yet begun to call my name. Still, I will never, ever again be called a rube, a talent, a brightly burning star with nothing but my future ahead of me.
The details of my career I aspire towards, but as of not yet reached, drive me, inspire me, torment me. It is why I am in British Columbia, getting intimately familiar with the Whistler 2010 ski trails that wind through the wilderness.
It is the Sirens of the XXI Olympiad that I hear calling. From today on, I have five hundred odd days to prepare. The Sirens are saying, “Get ready for your beautiful moment. It’s coming.”
Maybe this is like when Kerouac said, “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life."
And to think, all this from a man who found happiness living off ice cream and apple pie in middle-of-nowhere diners.
The Apple Pie and Ice Cream found out, along the road. In Stockholm, Sweden exactly.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
With a suitcase of courage Marit Bjorgen charges the final climb at the 2007 Sapporo World Championships