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Russia as we know it

19 Feb
Gorki village side street on one of several 50-degree days during the 2014 Winter Olympics

Gorki village side street on one of several 50-degree days during the 2014 Winter Olympics

You’re probably dying to know what Russia’s really like — I mean, it’s a big reason why I wanted to come here in the first place.

But to be honest, two weeks into my Olympic journey, I can really only tell you about the Olympics, specifically the mountain cluster, and really, the nordic events — if you want insider details.

The region of Krasnaya Polyana, and its villages of Gorki and Rosa Khutor, where I’ve been spending the last 13 days aren’t your salt-of-the-earth, local-yokel joints. Part of the reason is because they’re brand-new towns created for the Olympics.

One of the first days I was here, I went for a spring-like stroll down one of the main pedestrian side streets in Gorki. I heard an American say it reminded him of Disney World — and to a point, I agreed. The buildings are bold and impressive, and opening each day to reveal new hotels, businesses, and shopping malls.

You feel safe on these streets, with plenty of tourists and journalists buzzing around by day and bright lights and purple-coated security guards at every corner by night. I was most nervous about an inflated-chicken mascot, who playfully pecked at unsuspecting people passing by.

My biggest fear so far: the Gorki Square chicken

My biggest fear so far: the Gorki Square chicken

Most mornings, when the sun’s out, there’s a dance party in Gorki Square. Hello Kitty dances with Spiderman, the chicken bobbles around, and all the costumed characters toss a beach ball to one another while standing in a circle — and anyone else can join in. What a way to start your day.

I have to applaud Russia in so many respects. The Olympic organizing committee’s volunteers are friendly and generally speak good English, their security guards are often jovial, and even the police officers in those ushanka trapper hats (yep, they wear them even when it’s 60 degrees out) occasionally smile.

But my sense is this isn’t real Russia. This isn’t reality no matter what country you’re in. I’m living in an Olympic wonderland and sometimes I wonder if I’m falling into a false sense of security, or if I’m letting my guard down. As was swimming in my hotel’s five-day old lap pool this morning, I smelled something. Something like gas or diesel. I just kept swimming, swimming, until finally it got a little hard to bear.

You’re being over-sensitive, I thought. I finished my swim and still smelled it. The windows were open, and I think it was simply some kind of inversion, where the fumes from the highway down below wafted up to our mountain hotel. But I really don’t know.

Last night while I was in a deep sleep, Nat and Chelsea heard explosions around midnight. I’m assuming it was avalanche blasts from the several inches of snow we received yesterday. But who knows?

Regardless, I didn’t find out until the next morning, and it hasn’t affected anything as far as I can tell. Our all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast was still out with even more options to chose from, and for the second day in a row, there was a bonus food-and-drink spread in the lobby. If nothing else, this country knows how to feed us in the a.m.

As I sit in the hotel lobby in a swanky chair sipping my second cup of coffee, along with a free seltzer water, I’ve got to tell you, I can’t complain. Tomorrow, we’re planning to head down to Adler, the coastal town near Sochi. Maybe after that, I can tell you more about Russia. But somehow, I don’t think I’m going to get the full effect.

Sochi-bound and I couldn’t be more excited

27 Jan
Skiing in the Dolomites, because, why not? March 2013 after Nordic World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy

Skiing in the Dolomites, because, why not? March 2013 after Nordic World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy

I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now, ‘Gotta restart the blog. Where do I even begin?’

I guess the best way to jump right in is to make the point that everyone who’s traveled even a little bit has a war story. That’s why I’m not scared.

Yes, the Olympics, which start in less than two weeks in Sochi, Russia, about 500 miles from the volatile region known as Chechnya, present new fears — fears that are infiltrating our news and validated every time a terrorist strikes anywhere near Sochi. People are concerned and I don’t blame them.

Chicago's Midway International Airport on Jan. 2, 2014. My home sweet home for the next 24 hours.

Chicago’s Midway International Airport on Jan. 2, 2014. My home sweet home for the next 24 hours.

But back to the travel stories.

Two days after New Year’s, Chicago was a hub of airport mayhem and tens of thousands of unhappy passengers — customers, really — all trying to get to their final destination.

I stood inside one of Midway’s terminals for 24 hours trying to figure out how to get the heck out. It was Friday and I heard murmurs about how there was no way anyone was getting to Salt Lake (my final stop) until at least Monday. Succumb to hotel life for the next three days? Not an option. Everything was booked solid in the windy and snow-impacted city.

Fear never crossed my mind (why would it?), nor thoughts of what if I never get out, although a couple I befriended jokingly entertained that possibility. It wasn’t funny but it wasn’t scary either.

I got out of Midway by staying alert and being somewhat savvy. I made sure I hustled, stayed on top of my game, and didn’t let the situation take control of me. While Russia and the Olympics are an entirely different ballgame, I’m approaching it similarly.

Fact is, you can’t prepare for the unexpected. At least that’s how I feel. You can, however, be as alert and savvy as possible, stay on top of real threats and warnings, and seek out the safest environments in a given place. But I won’t stay home or let opportunities pass me by out of fear alone. It simply isn’t worth the risk to me of not going to the Olympics, of not experiencing a once-in-four-years Winter Games, which will be my first.

Up at dawn to watch the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square, just outside the gates of the Forbidden City before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

Up at dawn to watch the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square, just outside the gates of the Forbidden City before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

Six years ago, I went to China. For two months. As a student. I interned for the Olympic News Service at the 2008 Summer Games and ran around greater Beijing with little international travel experience and learned a lot in a hurry.

Russia will be different than China, no doubt, but one thing I took away from there was to not be scared of feeling uneasy. Instinct is our most basic and often most reliable form of security. Stay in tune with exactly how you feel in a situation and try to figure out what’s behind those feelings, whether those nerves are justified or not. You won’t always know what’s ahead — but when does anyone, ever?

Above all the stresses that surround travel, there’s the underlying reason some of us love it. New experiences. That’s why China and its Olympics left me wanting more; that’s why I’m going to Sochi.

I wrote this blog post in my head while hiking in Lake Placid, N.Y. Thirty-four years after this region last hosted the Winter Olympics, that spirit is still going strong in this little touristy-yet-twinkling village. That’s the kind of spirit I can’t wait to experience again, and that’s the spirit I hope will outweigh, overshadow and defend against any kind of radical acts in Sochi.

Alex is heading to Sochi with two coworkers to report on the 2014 Winter Olympics from Feb. 7-23. Check out their stories on FasterSkier.com and follow her on Twitter @Active_Alex.

Let’s get summer started

1 Jul

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It’s been a while, I know. Rather than rehash my entire winter and why I didn’t blog from March until now, I’ll get to the point about what’s been up.

I had an amazing winter in my first year with FasterSkier. I went to an incredibly diverse set of places, including British Columbia, Quebec, Wisconsin and Park City. I caught some fresh tracks and sunburns, met nice people, made new friends and interviewed some of the world’s best athletes. I need to write about some of my experiences later in the season (including a week in Craftsbury, Vt), so stay turned to my FasterSkier blog for that.

On the home front, I got engaged nearly the second I came home — Brian surprised me in early April while we were on vacation in Florida. The wedding’s planned for next September so that gives a stress-case like me some time to relax.

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And that’s the life I’m leading now. Lady of Leisure II (following my cousin Lindsey, who called herself that when she was pregnant with her first child and not working. Two years later, she’s got a beautiful little girl and another baby on the way … I think my life is way more laid-back than hers!)

I’m still full time with FasterSkier in the summer, but this job rocks — to give it that ’80s enthusiasm. I work from home and generally on a self-driven schedule. If I get the work done, I can go out and play. I’ve been trying to improve my time management and productiveness, and the summer’s already shaping up to be a fun one.

Yesterday, I participated, err, competed in my first triathlon of the season. I’m hesitant to say which I did at the North Country Triathlon in Hague, N.Y., whether I took part or really raced, because it was a mix of both. For starters, my mom and I teamed up in the Olympic-distance race: she did the 1-mile swim, and I did the 25-mile bike and 6-mile run.

Charlie’s Angels

That was our team name and we came in 11th of about 20 teams. Not bad considering we were nearly dead last of the relays last year. My biking improved — I would say I raced that part. It’s a challenging course with about a three-mile climb that’s the toughest I’ve ever done. But it went better this year. I ended up averaging nearly 16 mph over the entire course, up from around 13 last year.

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My mom, Wendy, did outstanding. Pretty sure she was the sixth woman out of the water and fourth of all the relays — which are coed. I was in decent position for a top-10 finish after the bike, but things fell apart in the run. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever experienced, but around the turnaround point at 3.1 miles, I was toast. My body started to shiver in the 85-degree heat, my fingers swelled so much they hurt and my stomach turned upside down with each step. I had to walk several times on the way back because I was struggling to keep it together. About a quarter mile from the finish, I saw my mom, dad, cousin and parent’s dog, Archie, smiling and cheering. That got me to the finish.

And that was the day. I went for it in the bike and suffered in the run. I need to learn how to hurt more, how to keep my head straight and body moving when I feel that bad, but I have no regrets. It was a great experience with family, a beautiful day on Lake George and a good way to start summer.

I’m not sure how many triathlons I’ll do this year, but my mom and I already decided to each do the entire race — all three legs — next year. Something to look forward to, for sure.

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This summer, I’m excited for a few events. After surviving the Spartan Beast race last year, my brother and I signed up for another obstacle-course trail run — this time a 10- to 12-mile Tough Mudder at Mount Snow, Vt. The race is July 15, so the countdown begins now! We’re raising money for The Wounded Warrior Project in the process, so please consider donating to this important cause.

Two days after that, my father and I are doing our somewhat annual hike-to-the-huts trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We try to go somewhere different in the AMC’s trail system every year.

After that, I’ll keep trail running in preparation for the Jay Peak 50 k in September. (I did my first trail half marathon in Paul Smiths last month, which went well, otherwise I wouldn’t have signed up for anything longer!) I’ve written before about the importance of goals, especially in training. I don’t always follow my own preachings, but this summer, I’m making a point to.

I’d like to get back on the running wagon after having too much fun (and workouts spent) on the bike. Trails are a great place to lose your mind and get in some jog time. Sometimes, I just feel happier in the woods. You forget you’re running, you forget your to-do list (or figure out how to tackle it later), and occasionally you get lost. Or at least I do.

That’s why I’m going to leave you with an important message from experience: if you’re going to go to an unfamiliar trail system, or one you’re not 100-percent comfortable with, bring a trail map. Many are online so just print it out, fold it up and stick it in your shorts. Especially in places like Moreau State Park with intersections marked by a letter (usually S) and a number (1-17), it’s good to know where you are and how to get out. Oh, and bring water. My dog peed in a brook today; I’d hate for you to be downstream of that.

Minneapolis to Madison

17 Feb

A little pile of trucked-in snow in the heart of Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 17. Capitol Square is hosting the Madison Winter Festival on Saturday and Sunday.

So I’m back on the road for another FasterSkier stint. This time it’s all about the Midwest as I flew to Minneapolis on Thursday, am in Madison today and will be covering cross-country skiing races here this weekend. Then it’s up to Hayward, Wis., to write about the biggest nordic ski race in the U.S., the American Birkebeiner.

If you know nothing about the Birkie, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll explain what’s worth explaining to those with no real interest in ski marathons later. Right now, I’m getting through an afternoon in Madison.

It’s not that I’m not enjoying the Midwest. It’s great here. Had a little blip in the trip today when I drove four-plus hours from Minneapolis (after waking up at 7 a.m.) to figure out there’s no way I can write a preview for the weekend this afternoon. There’s no snow in Capitol Square, where they’re supposed to hold the races, no one to answer questions and so I have to kill time until 6 p.m. when the magic happens (and they dump truckloads of manmade snow onto the streets, I’m assuming).

If you know anything about me, you know I don’t like the unexpected. I thought I’d find race organizers and maybe a ski racer or two in downtown Madison, where the SuperTour sprint races start at 9 a.m. Saturday, yet I found nothing but protesters and regular-looking streets. I went to the Madison Winter Fest website and it told me to go to the historical museum on capitol square. The guy at the info booth knew nothing, and one of the gift shop girls said she thought the whole weekend might be canceled because of the unusually warm weather. Yikes.

Inside "Graze" in Madison, Wis.

I took a breather and went outside. I called the race organizer and he confirmed that they were putting snow down Friday night. There wasn’t much I could do from noon until then. So I went for a run.

Two and a half hours after I embarked on my tour of the city by foot, I’ve cooled down. I know how I get: tired, rundown, cranky, overwhelmed. But that’s part of the game that I love. Travel is in my blood, and this is what you have to deal with. No big deal; I’m now sitting at an AMAZING lunch/dinner spot called Graze on Capitol Square. I’ve downed a beer after a 45-minute run and am eating lunch at 3:30 in the afternoon. I’m staying with a host family tonight so at least they don’t need to feed me.

The restaurant has Wi-Fi, tons of windows overlooking the capitol building and good food. This will be my go-to restaurant for the weekend. They forgot me at first (ouch, I know), then felt so bad that they gave me some complimentary coffee cake. Madison is so cute.

I’ll let you know how my time here progresses. Please check out my FasterSkier blog for more ski-related updates and to hear about my fun stay in Minneapolis.

The thing about luck

16 Dec
My home away from home Friday-Thursday: Silver Creek Lodge in Silver Star

I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the experiences I’ve had, but I’m grateful. Now that the sentimentality’s out of the way, let me bring you up to speed on what amazing adventures I’ve had in the last few days.

It would make sense to do things in chronological order, but for the sake of grabbing your attention, let me tell you about what I did Thursday.

Silver Star on Thursday morning, with the sun shining on a few inches of powder

For my last morning in Silver Star, British Columbia, I’d planned to do a long ski. I had yet to connect the two nordic areas — Silver Star and Sovereign Lake — and I figured I could wake up early and manage the 2-hour loop.

A few things got in the way. For one, considering this is a working vacation, I had to do some work. By the time I wrapped up and stepped out on my — yep — balcony, I realized skiing any kind of long loop in time to check out would be tough. For the first time in several weeks, Silver Star had a powder day.

It was still snowing by the time I clicked into the only skis I brought, the good ol’ Madshus skate. And so I trekked out in four inches of snow, uphill of course, since I had to try that loop around the ski mountain.

The Paradise "green" trail at Silver Star, on the backside of the mountain

That loop started out on an easy green, which was straight up an ungroomed alpine traverse trail. Thirty minutes later, I found myself at the T-bar, which runs to the summit. I thought about it, but decided to skate on — stopping every few strides and every single hill to catch my breath at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level.

At 9 a.m., few downhillers were out enjoying the powder, and as my tracks proved, I was the only one doing nordic. I knew the further out I ventured, the less chance of grooming there would be, yet for some reason I refused to turn around. I had glanced at the trail map before heading out and decided I wanted to see the summit.

A day earlier, the chairlift brought me there on a pair of rented alpine skis. But now, I wanted to conquer this mountain on my own two feet. I didn’t realize the amount of strength it would take me to get up there.

With the clock ticking faster and faster, I realized I was covering less ground. My heartrate was out of control, my face beat red, and yet I refused to turn around (if you know anything about me, this is a common thread).

Finally, one cross-country skier came zooming down the trail — an older man, Scandinavian or something. “You’re getting quite a workout,” he said, looking at me like I was some kind of idiot for doing the route this way, in these conditions, on skate skis.

I was an idiot.

A blue nordic trail at Silver Star. Not recommended, especially in powder.

Scanning his tracks for an indication of some kind of break for me, I was slightly disappointed when I saw that they never broke from their parallel path. It wasn’t all that surprising, though, considering where I was headed.

At the top!

About an hour and 15 minutes after I started, I made it to the top of Silver Star Mountain at 6,280 feet. I snapped a quick photo of a tower to prove I was there (and the chairlift) and headed down. No time for nordic, I was going down the alpine side.

A bit tentative to begin with, I tucked in my shirt and hoped for the best. Despite heading down a green trail, it was pretty challenging carving on edgeless skinny skis. My thighs burned from several necessary snowplows, yet I only wiped out once.

A ski instructor looked at me as I narrowly avoided skiing off into the glades. I can only imagine what she was thinking. Within five minutes of reaching the summit, I was back to my home base and skied right up to my hotel. Breathing a sigh of relief for surviving in without eyewear in my thin tights and little nordic hat, I packed the skis away into the rental car.

Now I had done it all — or as least as much as I could fit in.

Silver Star chairlift at sunset (taken during an evening ski around the nordic trails)

***

The day before on Wednesday, I spent the morning and early afternoon alpine skiing, then joined a master’s program at Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre.

View from the Christmas Bowl at Silver Star Mountain

A 25-year-old in a master’s program? Hey, don’t knock it until you try it, especially when there’s an Olympian giving you pointers.

The head club coach at Sovereign Lake, Darren Derochie, who competed for Canada in the 1992 Winter Games, led the program — which started at 6:30 p.m. under the lights at the nordic center’s stadium. This Wednesday was double-pole night. Perfect, I thought. Let’s work those triceps.

The Sovereign Lake staff graciously lent me some classic gear and I joined the group of about 20 adults of ranging abilities and goals. Derochie and two other Sovereign Lake coaches divided the group by interests — if you wanted to work on stride, go here. New to double pole? Here. And experienced and craving a double-pole workout/tuneup? Come with Darren.

I floated among the groups, taking photos and videos and making mental notes about technique. I needed some work on my DP as well, and Derochie was eager to give it.

“Arms up even higher, Alex!” he shouted as I skied by him. “Don’t push the snow, flick it.”

For a session I had been up-in-the-air about attending, I was happy I joined Derochie and his master’s crew on the 20-degree evening. When I got cold, I double poled more, training the body and refreshing my memory on how to ski. Without a coach since high school, it helped.

***

How did I hear about this once-in-a-lifetime chance to ski with and get tips from an Olympian? Julie Melanson, Sovereign Lake’s communication director.

Julie Melanson, Sovereign Lake communications director showed me around the nordic center's trails

A professional mountain bike racer as well, she took me out for a recreational ski at Sovereign Lake on Tuesday. After venturing on the trails at Silver Star on my own on Monday (where it took me 10-minutes to go up one hill), I warned her to go easy on me at Sovereign Lake.

She did, helping me snap photos for FasterSkier along the way. We started on green, progressed to blue and ended with a short black — a perfect variety in about an hour or so of skiing. I tried to shoot some video, but the phone kept freezing up.

Julie said it was colder there than usual.

“We have a minus-10 rule,” she said.

That’s not negative 10-degrees Fahrenheit, but rather Celsius. Locals in Silver Star and Vernon don’t ski when it’s below 14 degrees Fahrenheit, she said. Why would you when the weather almost always around 30 degrees?

 

Skiing at Sovereign Lake

***

As I packed up to leave Silver Star, I felt a little pang of nostalgia, and I hadn’t even left yet. I’d be back, I resolved. There was more to ski, more powder to crush and more incredibly friendly locals to meet.

Driving down the Silver Star access road on Thursday

On the road, I found myself making good time to Kelowna. Despite the snow, the roads were dry the two cities outlying Silver Star — Vernon and the much-larger Kelowna. I was heading south, about five hours to Rossland, yet the drive involved me to go up into the mountains, away from the valley and its lakes and back into tough driving conditions.

It wasn’t horrible, you just had to be alert. It was a good thing I was, too, considering I saw a moose and two deer right off the side of the road in about a half hour. A little spooky to see at dusk, but I pushed on.

After a few hours, one of which I was stuck behind a large pickup going about half the the speed limit, I drove under the gate reading “Bonanza Pass.” Chains weren’t necessary, thank God, not sure what I would have done if they were. The road was decent, but as the incline increased, I wondered what was ahead of me.

As it turned out, another pass. About 30 kilometers — 18.6 miles — from Rossland (where Red Mountain and the second set of NorAm XC races are), I trekked up Strawberry Pass. (Bonanza Pass was also called Blueberry-Paulson, so these two made a pair).

After a slow and careful drive, I pulled into Rossland only to find that I had arrived well beyond the check-in time. I called the number listed, and they gave me the access code to a lock box.

Everything to that point had seemed like a little bit of an effort, yet from that moment on, it was gravy.

In the lock box, I found my registration material — four keys, all of which let me into a heated garage. There, I had a designated spot, and one elevator ride later, I was a few steps away from my home for the weekend.

As I opened the door to the rented condo unit at Red Mountain Resort, I held my breath. I knew it would be nice — I had been told it was a two-bedroom unit (completely unnecessary, but nice!). With one swipe of the key card, I was in, and the place nearly made me cry.

My Rossland digs!

It was unlike anything I had ever seen before — like something straight out of a magazine. Aside from the two bedrooms and two bathrooms, there was granite kitchen, a big screen above a large fireplace and a private hot tub, accessible by either the living room or the master bedroom.

My mind swirled. I was overwhelmed.

The shower doubled as a sauna for crying out loud.

Now lying on the couch with my feet up and a heated-up cookie at my side, I know how lucky I am. I’m just trying to figure out what I did to deserve it.

A few minutes ago, I spilled chocolate on my shirt, and I’m not upset. Go figure.

First impressions

13 Dec

Driving north from Spokane in my rented Subaru Impreza (I got a free upgrade to this sweet all-wheel drive ride!)

One of the greatest things about coming to the new place is the endless list of firsts. Everything’s new, everyday is an exploration and you never know what’s coming next.

Since arriving in beautiful British Columbia four days ago, I haven’t stopped smiling. The people are nice, the experiences have been great and I feel so lucky to be here. I spent the greater part of the last three days working — with two 14-hour days of covering NorAm cross-country ski races this weekend and a Monday afternoon spent pouring over notes.

But it’s still a vacation. In my first of two weekends covering races in western Canada, I’ve been able to meet new people — Canadians and Americans alike, whom I deeply respect for their commitment, talent and knowledge of the sport. Aside from the skiers, I’ve had some neat encounters with locals in the village of Silver Star. Everyone I’ve met on this trip has been so friendly. It’s unbelievable how kindness snowballs and affects those who pass it on. (Part of it is that the Aussies are a big part of this town’s workforce. Their “no worries” attitude is contagious).

The view from my balcony at Silver Creek Lodge in Silver Star, B.C. One happy girl here!

Before I rave about Silver Star — which I’ll likely do later once I spend more time here — I wanted to reflect on my trip up here. Throughout Friday’s travel, which included six hours of flights, three hours of layovers and seven hours of driving, I made a few notes of first impressions that struck me as funny. That’s one way to stay sane when you’re traveling for 16 hours alone.

Step 1: Spokane-Bound

As we started our descent into Washington State, I finally drummed up the courage to talk to my seat mate.

Do you know what ski mountain that is? He didn’t. Are you from this area? No.

Then the man, who appeared in his 60s or so, must of realized I was trying. He started asking me what my deal was. He was a devoted sports fan of Michigan State and made the trip to watch its basketball team play Gonzaga. He had been there a couple times before.

What’s Spokane like? He thought about his answer, and when he finally found words, it was something like, “Eh.” For someone from the Midwest, someone who joined the Topeka Ski Club just for the social aspect (he didn’t ski), I didn’t think that was saying much. I decided not to let his opinion sway me.

As we touched down, out of the sun and into some foggy mess just above the ground, I saw what looked like snow. But no, the pancake-like landscape was covered in frost, and lots of it.

A resident across the aisle — one who made me think I should’ve worn my cowboy boots — said he should’ve listened to his wife and moved back to Arizona.

My seat mate wished me good luck, and I wished his team the same. “Don’t let the survivalists get you,” he said.

Great, I thought. What the heck am I headed for?

A few steps later in the manageable Spokane International airport, I was put at ease by a friendly woman behind the counter at Thrifty car rentals. As we wrapped up the conversation and she handed me the keys, she called me cute. Wow, I thought, people really are friendly out West.

Step 2: The Drive

Even the border patrol officer was. He said he was jealous of my job.

A few hours later, I finally succumbed to the fact that I needed to use a rest room. There had been plenty of opportunities to do so a few miles beyond the Canadian border, but I refused to stop. I was fine.

By Kettle Valley, B.C., I couldn’t hold it anymore. As I ran into a gas station, a drawing on the glass door pointed me to the outdoor facilities. It was a picture of a smiling outhouse. Real funny, I thought. In reality, it was a portal potty. I would have rather gone in the happy outhouse.

Unsure of where I was staying until about halfway through the drive, I inched closer, grew more tired, but kept my eyes on the prize. It didn’t matter where I was staying, as long as I could grab some decent grub and lay down as soon as I got there.

I wheeled into Silver Star, a village about a mile high and accessible by a gnarly 15-mile access road. Luckily, the roads were dry, but Canada’s lack of guardrails kept me on my toes.

At about 8:30 a.m. I parked the car and walked into what turned out to be an amazing lodge. My bosses had hooked me up with what was essentially a condo — with a kitchen, living area, queen bed, two bunk beds, fireplace and a balcony. This is too much, I thought.

Step 3: Food

Friday night takeout from The Bulldog Grand Cafe (Charlie's much cuter)

I dropped the bags and walked down a snowy path into the village. There were no cars, no plowed roads between buildings. You could walk or ski anywhere.

The place that called out to me had a huge cartoon bulldog as a sign. Yep, I thought about my lovable bullie, Charlie, and headed inside. I wasn’t going to have a beer (I was so dehydrated from the day), but I threw that out the window and sat down at the bar as I ordered chicken tenders to go.

Do you want honey mustard or plum sauce, the friendly bartender asked? I didn’t know what plum sauce was. Honey mustard, I said. No, better give me the plum sauce. When in Canada …

It was good! Pretty thick and sticky — like honey — but good. I found jam was the same way.

In one of the favorite bakery/cafes in town, I grabbed breakfast two days later. It was in the 6 a.m. range, I had just gone out for a run in the dark (and straight up a seemingly endless hill, by accident), and I needed some coffee. I wasn’t sure what would be open but this place, Bugaboos, was.

The owner smiled as I walked in the door. They didn’t have a ton of baked goods on display, so I grabbed a menu. Do you have scones? Let me look out back, he replied.

They did. He asked me if I wanted butter and jam.

Jam, please.

Not butter as well?

No… (why would I need both?). Well, as I discovered, because Canadian jam is sticky. Really sticky.

I asked Mr. Bugaboos owner when they opened each morning. “7:30.” I was there nearly an hour before. I apologized for walking in and ordering, but the man assured me it was fine. “I was here at 5 o’clock,” he said.

That set the tone for the weekend. Everyone was accommodating from the staff and officials at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre to the wait staff in town.

This was going to be a good trip, I thought. It had been one already.

I celebrated my 25th birthday Sunday night with a couple drinks and a long night of writing, but it was fine. I curled up with a heated-up peanut butter cup, the biggest I’d ever seen: a half-pound Reeses. Silver Star and peanut butter = Heaven.

Best birthday treat, a 1/2-lb peanut butter cup! Oh, Canada.

Headed to B.C.

9 Dec

Sitting in the Albany airport at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., I decided it was about time to give you all (or anyone who cares) an update. I’m headed to Spokane, Wash., today, where I’ll hop into a vehicle of some sort and drive 6-7 hrs north to Silver Star, British Columbia.

Image

Alex in the a.m., Albany airport, Dec. 9, 5:50 a.m.

I’m off to the mythical land of B.C. for work, and I’m very excited about it. I’ll be in Canada for 10 days covering NorAm races for FasterSkier. I’ll provides updates as the week progresses but I’m starting the weekend off in Silver Star and then driving south about mid-week to Rossland for the second weekend of races.

Wish me luck. I’ll be traveling alone, but it doesn’t bother me one bit. Looking forward to seeing some beautiful places and meeting new people!

Feel free to follow my Twitter account for some Twitpics: twitter.com/Active_Alex

See you on the flip side!

Stepping it up as the season winds down

12 Oct
Strength circuit with Craftsbury GRP

No, that's not me, but I was recently in Craftsbury with a few members of its Green Racing Program, an elite cross-country ski team based out of northern Vermont. These 20-something-year-old women inspired me during a strength circuit. They did six rounds. I struggled with two.

I had an exercise epiphany earlier this month. Of course, in the average Joe’s world, that means I was feeling a little bit chubby and a whole lot of pain.

After beating myself up mentally on a slow and awkward run, I decided to do something about it. No, this time I wasn’t going to resolve not to eat for the rest of the day (I always end up scoffing down a brownie or cookie a few hours later), cut down calories, or give up anything not organic or “whole” altogether (in my world, that just doesn’t work).

I needed to set some goals and find satisfaction from my workouts rather than disappointment.

For many avid athletes, autumn is a time to wind down. After a summer full of races, they’re tired.

Not me. I had done a couple Spartan/Warrior runs, a few short-distance races, but nothing serious — or nothing I specifically trained for (with the exception of the Spartan Beast … I did plenty of trail running in nervous preparation).

I needed a longer race, something I could put on a calendar and look forward to — maybe. At least I knew it would jumpstart my training.

A few weeks later, I’m feeling much better. Enough with moral victories; I’m really not that sappy of a person. I’m feeling good because I’m fitter.

The race I’m planning on — the 15k Stockade-athon in Schenectady — is still about a month away, but that’s a good thing. I’m getting faster, runs are getting easier and less time on the bike (a sport I love) is forcing me to propel myself on my own two feet.

Running is simple. So why is it so hard? I think because many of us don’t do it enough. Even if we’re pretty active, we do many other things — biking, swimming, hiking, weight lifting — all of which can bring on sore, tired muscles. Then we hit the road on foot and it flat-out hurts.

Maybe nobody else in the world feels like I do. But if you do, consider signing up for something this fall. If you’re not into distance training, how about setting a desired time for a Turkey Trot 5k run? Something is better than nothing, and if you register now, you’ll probably get a T-shirt.

Working out with fast skiers (a new series)

24 Aug

From FasterSkier.com:

Working out with Perianne Jones

By Alex Matthews

Note: This is the first of a new series about working out with high-performance athletes. The idea is to shed light on the daily routine of someone dedicated to training and share a regular Joe’s story of trying to keep up.

Excerpt: 

A member of Canada’s Senior World Cup Team, Perianne Jones started her classic rollerski with a smooth kick double pole up a gradual climb to the main road. With a sense of what was coming, I ambled along on my road bike.

We chatted throughout the nearly 13-mile workout while Jones and a friend of mine rollerskied at a pace I gauged as moderate. In reality, the 1-½ hour session was part of Jones’ recovery: a 10-day vacation from training full time.

***

For the full story, please visit FasterSkier.com or click here: http://fasterskier.com/2011/08/working-out-with-perianne-jones/

Surviving the Spartan Race

8 Aug

Two days after the Spartan Beast Race, a 13-mile trail and obstacle course challenge in Killington, Vt., I think I have the brainpower to reflect on the 6 hours and 15 minutes my younger brother, Will, and I spent out on the mountain.

Before the start, we watched a couple hundred in the elite crew head out at 9 a.m. We were in the 10 a.m. wave and happy to have them go first, break the trail and show us what we were in for. Just before 10, the leaders were back near the base after scaling 1.5 miles up a ski trail and 1.5 down to what we thought was their first obstacle. In all, I think there were 26 out there, and the rock-climbing-like wall and barricade near the bottom ended up being No. 4 or 5 on the list.

As Will and I planned to run up to and over the raging fire at the start, we did a little fist pump. No idea how this is going to go, but we’re going to do it, we thought.

Alex and Will Matthews, center, embark on the beginning of the 13-mile Spartan Beast challenge at Killington Mountain on Saturday, August 6.

The first 3 miles were tough, as expected. Up and down one of Killington’s steeper trails (Superstar, I think), we caught a whiff of the beating sun and the high humidity. When we weren’t on the ski trail hiking amid chest-high grass (the first guys packed it down), we were in the woods ascending steeper routes with rocks and trees to aid us.

The numbers we had been told to write on our heads (for photography purposes) had by now sweat off, and later in the day, our paper bibs would tear off and be lost in the abyss. (Will’s fell off earlier, I think after the mud mounds — think big hills of dirt and hay with waist-high puddles of muddy/hay water between. Mine came off in the final swim — yeah, there were two.)

Either way, we were anonymous out there, like everyone else. We soon found that no matter how fast we completed an obstacle (Will and I were champions at not failing the tasks, the punishment for each was 30 burpees) or how slow we moved up each seemingly endless trail, we were usually with the same people. There was comradery among the suffering and friends that had no names, just funny outbursts or mantras. One guy said it best with each step: “Hard work, dedication. Hard work, dedication.”

There were points of soreness, acid reflux, nausea, cramping (some for me, others for Will), but we moved forward. Will hit a breaking point around mile 8 (we only knew the distance because someone asked an official). He had a severe quad cramp, but kept on keeping on. You couldn’t sit down to work it out; you’d never get back up.

He helped me over 15-foot walls, which he muscled over, and we each carried a 50-pound sandbag for a 1/2-mile hike up annoyingly technical terrain. My neck hurt with the weight bearing down on it, but I pretended the bag was something too valuable to drop: Charlie, my 50-pound bulldog. At that point, some kid looked at me and told me I was a champion. Not exactly, but at mile 9, I took the compliment.

Not knowing when the race would end was a little grueling. We were told it would be 10-12 miles, but in the end, it was longer. Why wouldn’t it be? As we neared what I thought was the finish, Will and I picked up the pace. We could hear the announcer and taste the end of the self-inflicted pain.

We emerged from the woods, and I saw my mom. She looked relieved, and we were too, for a moment, until she said, “Throw me your packs!” We had another swim.

Alex tosses her water pack before the final swim.

This one was longer than the previous pond and in about as murky water as I could stomach, but we jumped in.

Will, center, and Alex, right, keep their heads above water during the final swim of the Spartan Beast Race at Killington.

About 10 minutes later we were still in the water, treading below a bridge and dreading the cable obstacle some 25 feet above. We had to get upside down on a rope strung across the water and inch ourselves across.

One Spartan competitor hangs from the rope cable before attempting to cross the pond at Killington Mountain.

Will and I both tried (he had much more success in getting halfway there before the rope burn and cramping got the best of him), and we both dropped like boulders to the water below. We backstroked to the far side to complete our punishment on a rocky beach, a sad display of pushup-jumps that are burpees, and we walked on.

With three obstacles to go, Will almost completely ceased. The volunteers at the javelin throw told him not to throw it — they could see his muscle spasming. I knew I’d be terrible at tossing the makeshift spear into a hay bale, so I chucked it and got on with the penalty.

Finally, Will threw it. His broomstick hit the bale but didn’t stick, and he moved to the side for his 30 jumps. There was no one counting but yourself at this point, but after everything else we put ourselves through — including a low-lying barbed wire crawl over rocks and muddy water — we weren’t going to cheat ourselves.

Will finished his burpees, we hightailed it over the final wall and darted through the gladiator pit (the two stick-wielding men went after Will and accidentally hit me on the follow-through).

Will waited for me before the finish, and we crossed the line together. A storybook ending to one hell of a day.

As we reflected on the strangeness of the race, the highs and lows, and the accomplishment of it all, we left proud of ourselves and each other. If you can do one of these things (and I recommend nothing longer than the 10-12 mile race), do it with somebody else. Not only can they help you, physically and emotionally out there, but you’ll have the memory to share. No one is going to be able to picture what you went through, no matter how good the photos or videos are.

Alex smiles with her Long Trail Ale after completing Killington's Spartan Beast Race with her brother.

***

Will, a 21-year-old rugby player at UNH, called me up yesterday.

“Want to go for a hike sometime this week?” he asked.

With scraped and bruised legs and soreness just about everywhere, I didn’t think twice.

“Sure, whenever you want,” I said.

It’s pretty neat when something like that makes you want to keep going.

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