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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.

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.

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.

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