Into Dark Places

 

I’m sitting alongside the stacks on the third floor of Berry library at Dartmouth, finishing up the last bits of final papers that will be due next week. I’m ready to go home, and I’m ready to start training, and when I think about those things, I can’t help but remember one particular ski last January.

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I’m skiing up the small cat-tracks of Stratton Mountain in Southern Vermont, and it’s raining. The rain pools in the tread marks of the Snowcats, leaving slush underfoot. Rain is corrosive. It doesn’t come to me as it did to Noah, to wash away the evils of the world and start us anew. It comes to wash away all that is good. At least that’s how I see it today.

Not that I can see much to begin with. The downpour fogs the lenses of my visor, giving the mountain a kaleidoscope effect. It leadens my clothes, making it harder to move. It saps my body heat, and it erodes the snow, the very lifeblood of my sport, out from underneath my feet. It is misery anthropomorphized, making it harder and harder to enjoy anything as I stride up the hill

I am out training. I am a professional cross country skier, and so, it is my job. A few feet behind me is my coach, Patrick O’Brien; I call him Pat. His blond hair is jutting out from underneath his hat, he hasn’t decided to shear it yet. He is only a few years, but a world of experience older than I am. He used to be a ski racer like me, now he is a coach. He is one of few people that understands what I do. He calls up to me: “Bigger…Bigger…yeah that’s it…now start to shorten it up.” “Bigger” and “smaller” really mean faster; He is crowing about my technique.

On the climb up the mountain, I am battling the earth itself, but also my own body. As I get tired I know that my arms will turn into chicken wings; my legs will turn into graceless tree trunks. I’ll loose precious seconds, and I can’t afford that. I want to be carry speed, I want to win. I want desperately to be the best, and the best cross country skiers in the world? The people I hope to beat one day? Their feet never seem to touch the ground at all, just speeding forward, adjusting to every shift in weight and terrain with preternatural poise. But me? Sometimes, my feet slap the ground, and snatch only moments of momentum from the jaws of gravity. The only way to combat this is to work on my technique, and that’s why Pat is with me, we are searching for more speed.

The trail rises steeply ahead, and I straighten my back just a bit. I’m just beginning to slide my foot left forward; the hill begins in just a few feet. The variables here begin to assault me. Even the smallest misstep will be costly. I lunge forward with one leg, pushing back with the other. Angling my knees and ankles and toes just a bit could slam my ski into the ground too early dampening my momentum and tipping me forward. Or, it could slide it smoothly against the snow bringing my body along with. My arms reaching ahead; too far, and I will stretch my body into too oblong a shape, forcing me off balance; too short and I will lose velocity. Each breath matters too: If I breathe too deeply I will lose my rhythm; too shallowly and I will risk the sharp pain of oxygen debt.

Tiny decisions, such as where I plant the baskets of my poles, and the angle at which I hold my chin, all affect how my body feels at the start of the next stride. I must also maintain my momentum, shifting my muscular gears like a car’s, careful to never let my groundspeed slow. That, of course, is just my body. The skis themselves, flex differently from pair to pair; the snow crystals (microscopic as they are), determine my most efficient stride across the mountain. And the wax, too, is key: If I have chosen correctly, it will give me grip as I compress my ski. If i’ve guessed wrong, not only will I slip, but the gooey substance will drag me back like a forgotten anchor. I am already an object in motion, coming into each stride, as the best skiers do, at speeds that make easy choices impossible. The fastest skier in the world this year was an Italian named Frederico Pellegrino. In the final stretch of a sprint race, he can complete a stride almost 3 times every second. 0.4 seconds is less than the time it takes to realize a light is green, and push the gas.

At the same time, it’s a good thing that I can ski faster than I can think. Skiing is reflexive, a series of purely physical reactions that bypass concerted thoughts, always focused on a singlegoal: “Where can I find more speed?”

As I try for an answer, I float over the snow, through the rain, tired. I listen to wind under oak archways. I pull my zipper a little tighter to cover my neck from the cold damp. I watch the trail float on the edge of my vision in ethereal mists.

——————

I was a hyperactive child, or maybe more accurately one who always wanted to move up. I needed to be at the front of every line, provoke the loudest laughs, and run the farthest. Speed was always something that felt liberating. The faster I could go, the more I could move up in the world. And so I always found myself racing friends, bikers, dogs, even gravity, on foot, bike, rollerblades, and every other means I could find growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Whatever made me feel like I could go fast, I wanted to do.

The first time I ever put on cross country skis I was 15, in the small town of Bottineau, North Dakota celebrating Christmas at my Grandparent’s quiet cabin. Bottineau is only 10 miles south of the US-Canadian border, and is populated by the same type of people that could live anywhere in the upper midwest. They are stout Lutheran farmers that could come straight out of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, and they are proud. They are proud of being cold, because it means that they do not bend to nature; they stay outdoors where they believe men and women should be, even in December. They are proud of being sore, because it means that they must have worked hard. They are proud of making mistakes, because it means they must’ve learned something along the way. They are proud of their squabbles, because it means that they are part of a family. They are proud of the love in their hearts, even when it breaks. There is something about people who embrace those discomforts in life. Something about the way they are proud of believing in something, even when it hurts. Those are the people of Bottineau, the people of the midwest; those are my people. They do not believe in skiing as a grand sport entrenched in their Norse ancestry, but as a chance to do what Teddy Roosevelt called “work worth doing.” I believe that’s why my grandparents ski, and that that’s why they dragged me out the door that day, put me in a pickup truck, and pulled into a trailhead before I could blink.

Putting on boots and stepping into skis for the first time left me disoriented. The boots, uncomfortable and boxy, were pulled on first. They then clipped into long, skinny skis which slid underneath my feet making my balance uneven. It was arduous. Instead of running with on two legs, I was now working all four limbs to propel myself down the packed snow like some sort of arctic orangutan. But it wasn’t slow.

It was evening, and as the orange sun dove down into a purple abyss the shadows quickly lost their definition. As my apprehensions and reticence faded with the shadows the strains of effort became punctuated with moments where I felt my own movement. I was going somewhere fast, just like I always wanted.

——————

Today much is different. The skis on my feet aren’t made of plastic and fiberglass; they’ve been built in an Austrian factory where someone laid delicate carbon-fiber sheets into a wooden core that looks much like a beehive, and glued everything together with a p-tex base. My poles are not aluminum, but a more space-age carbon fiber, woven together by a machine in Norway. My clothing is not cotton, but a wicking fiber from Sweden that does its best to keep me dry. Today I may be more gilded, but skiing is not always pretty.

I can feel the water from the sky finally starting to seep through my gloves, and I know that a bone-cracking cold will soon come, followed quickly by the early stages of frostbite, a feeling with which I am all-too familiar. First there is numbness in the tips of my fingers, then comes the pressure and itching. Thawing them out on the drive home will be the very definition of pain. Why the hell am I out here? It’s a fair question.

I have given up many things to be a skier. I spend most of my time away from my family, and when I see them, I still have to find time to train twice a day. My hours are often spent in between screaming infants and snoring geriatrics in the all too small seat of an airplane. I don’t drink as much as some people think I should, and I don’t often stay out late. Finding friendships, or a girlfriend for that matter, outside the ski world is hard to do and even harder to maintain. After all, I am on the road close to 6 months a year. My schooling is slow, I only finish one-trimester per year, and my college major will be dictated by the classes available to me, not the ones I would choose to take. I am not part of a fraternity, and I don’t belong to many clubs. There is a lot I have given up. There is another other life I left behind when I decided to go ahead; but I chose to go ahead, and my life is better, because that’s what skiing is.

Skiing is cold fingers and cold toes. It is long van rides and expensive plane tickets. It is living far away from my school and farther still from my family. It is an aching body and burning lungs. It is the snot dripping down my nose, and the sweat beading on my back.

If skiing is not pretty at all. Why the hell am I out here?

One year ago, I stood on the start line of the World Championships in Falun, Sweden. The World Championships take place every 2 years when skiing nations send their best competitors to compete for medals against the rest of the globe. That was why I was out here a year later, in the rain in Vermont.

——————

I had warmed up on the trails lined with spectators packed 10 or more deep and through the stadium with its massive grandstands. Bright flashes of blue and yellow fabric swirled around my head as the home crowd began its roar. The screams of dozens of languages echoed in my ears, “Heia Heia” from the Scandinavians “DIE DIE DIE” from the Italians. There were over 50,000 people in all that day, a living symphony of sound and color hanging on the fences, close enough that I could feel their breath hot on the back of my neck.

I told myself that this race was my reward, a prize for hours spent suffering on the trails and roads of Vermont. Recompense for running up hills when my legs burned hot with lactic acid, for refusing to take time and catch my breath but push on instead. After all, No athlete ever truly enjoys practice. When deep practice begins, it is long after the initial excitement of learning something new leaves. The greatest secret of sport is that it is mostly a slog. The teammates and surroundings provide semi-frequent moments of joy, but it is far from the blissful existence that many people imagine it to be. Run after run, and ski after ski blend into one another, just another day spent working hard, far from any crowd and its melodic roar. I told myself that only by enduring the grind, and continuing to face it, long after its seductive glow has faded can an athlete gain the chance to do something that will make it all worthwhile, and it hit me that skiing is essentially a sport of refusing to yield, refusing to be swept away, refusing to accept the fleetingness of a pursuit, of a dream.

At the starting gate in Falun, I toed the line in the snow, and the last mechanical beeps sounded down to my start, the crowd had reached its crescendo and I was a part of it. *beep* Three. Skiing is not always fun, *beep* Two. But its suffering can lead to that highest of moments *beep* One.

——————

That is what I think about on days like today. That out of misery can come something perfect, something worth chasing into dark places.

I peer out from under my eyebrows up the trail of the foggy mountain, and I hear Pat’s breathing. “We can turn around and head back down,” he says. “We don’t have to stay out if you don’t want to.” I am worn out and I cannot see far. “I am a long ways from the top” I tell myself. But, the top is there, waiting for me; it is time to decide what to do. I don’t break my stride.

The wind is damp. It’s February, so I don’t see any birds. It is an ominous day, so I do not see the sun. It’s still raining.

But the funny thing about a winter rain is that it is never more than a few degrees from being something else entirely. The temperature has begun to drop, and as I work my way across the mountain, the misery becomes snow.

——————

 

 

 

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