Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Extending the Narrative

“It is futile to see the road’s end. One cannot get down on not achieving some ‘details’ of their careers for maybe greatness is achieving – if only once – a superlative performance performed with all our potential,” Percy Cerutty once said. At times I find optimism in these words I did while running 4x8minutes intervals in the arid Wenatchee foothills here.

Sonic Youth’s on the radio. The song “Stones” plays. The melody, the pace, the ache and especially the line “we come together to gather stars” fills the void with toxic auditory bliss. In that moment, that line is transcending, unending. Over and over and over again it plays – “we come together to gather stars” – on a revolving loop in my mind and won’t let go.


Whistler was a chance to chase stars. January, the time I next return, is another. To have an August training session and know I’ll be racing Jens Arne and Lind and Emil up these very same hills at the Pre-Olympics helps my synapses fire faster. Even better, I can almost see the snow, can almost touch it. I see the A-Final unfold. My coach, too, is locked into the same groove. He’s on the side of the trail, quietly telling me, “This is the place” one lap. On the next, “It’s snowing, and snowing hard. We’ve got the skis dialed and you’re just flying.” I’m taking it all in. I’m, you know, locked in. This is the place. This is the place. This is the place. I’m gathering that star. For sure.

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:

Welcome to Wenatchee
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

Grade School Days - The 5th grade life

Carlos L. shows off his graceful, if unorthodox, jumping skills in the fifth grade Have-A-Healthy Heart obstacle course. Finding what motivates kids is pretty cool. This afternoon's exercise program started by running around the schoolyard two times. Twenty-two of twenty-five kids walked most of their way around. Then we set up an obstacle course, complete with hurdle sections, slalom style cones to race around and upper body strengthening stations like push-ups and pull-ups. In tweaking the challenge, the grade schoolers responded. Effort and intensity skyrocketed. The kids - all of them - couldn't get enough.

Clowning around with Mr. Peck's 5th graders for a yearbook photo, sporting the ITA colors. The ITA founders are onto something. Kids love feeling part of a team. Especially a team where everyone gets free matching t-shirts. Within the first minutes of joining the class its apparent these kids have some serious passion and energy for.. for.. whatever happens to be catching their attention that minute.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Young Rubes

Every so often talent merges with desire and you, the observer, are given the opportunity to see the explosion 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 places like Forks, Washington or Goldendale will usher their names beside the word combinations devastating speed, or incredible stamina. Even state champion. As a fan of sports, I am forward looking with anticipation as how this rivalry develops. As a part-time coach, I look to help this grow into a positive motivator. These two need each other to scratch the surface of their latent talent.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Distillery of Thoughts

Skiers and Dreamers, to acquire excellence, must start young. There is, from my experience, no other way.

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

Windswept Whistler

The view from the Callaghan Valley (a.k.a. the Whistler Olympic Venue) from a stormier, snowier, time.

At training camp, life gets pared down to the elemental. Stressing the body, fueling the body, and letting the body recover become more than paramount. This training-inspired trifecta dictates the ebb and flow of my day the way current affect a coastal doryman’s.

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.