Ben reminisces of past workouts and why he’s training so hard.
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.
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.
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.