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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.

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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.

Three days ’til Beast Race

3 Aug

As if I hadn’t learned my lesson after struggling in the West Mountain Warrior Run, I’m about to get my you-know-what handed to me in the Spartan Beast Race on Saturday at Killington.

T.J. Hooker -- The Post-Star: Still a little spring in Alex Matthews' step as she leaps over a tiny fire at the finish of the Warrior Run at West Mountain in Queensbury in June.

For starters, it’s a 10-12 mile mountain and obstacle race. The Warrior Run was 3, maybe. There in June, my biggest problem was that I never looked at an updated course map. It was straight up hill then down, an absolute killer.

This race at Killington, the third tier of the Spartan franchise races (the fourth being the ultimate Death Race), has no definite length, no outline of obstacles and therefore, no course map. I am SCREWED.

At least I’ve been training … a little. Dehydration and poor preparation made the Warrior Run my toughest race yet (and I’ve run a marathon). I’ve never felt so sick or walked so much during a race.

For this event, I’ve recruited my brother, a burly yet fit and mentally tough rugby player. I knew I needed to do this race with someone, and I was hoping it would be someone bigger than me. Main reason: so he can help me with the heavy lifting and be there to hide behind when we run through the gladiator pit.

The gladiator pit? Yeah, that’s one thing I know is coming. Apparently, we have to run by a couple of men swinging long sticks, aiming for any and all body parts.

That sounds bad, but to me, the promised pond-swim is worse. I have a hard time getting into a lake where I know fish await. I think it’s only a 100 yards across, but still.

And then there’s the time. The fastest go-getters should finish in 3 hours. I guess Will and I will shoot for 4-4 1/2, but it’s hard to say. I’m going to get hungry out there.

So as I enjoy my “taper” over the next few days (fattening up and enjoying being pain-free), I likely won’t get much sleep. Has anyone done one of these? The stories about the Death Race were unbelievable, and from what I’ve heard about the Tough Mudder (another type of extreme race), these things are pretty intimidating.

For more info on the race, check out Killington’s Spartan Race website. And the example video on spartanrace.com is definitely worth watching.

I’ll try to get pictures, but am not sure I want this documented.

Run for a cause

25 Jul

I’m all about running for the heck of it. And racing, yeah, you’ll do that too just because. But when you can do both for a purpose, for a really good cause, it should be an extra incentive.

Last year, I attended the Miles With A Message 5K run/walk behind Queensbury Elementary School. It was organized by Katie Mannix and a group of classmates in memory of Mannix’s departed cousin. The idea was to get the word out about teen suicide and proceeds went to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

This year, the second annual event is scheduled for Saturday at the Queensbury school trails.

Here are the details:  http://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.eventDetails&eventID=1550

And the basics: 9 a.m. start on Saturday, July 30. Pre-registration $15 (click the link above) until July 26, then $20.

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