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Diary of a Pregnant Reporter

3 Jan

I’m not going into details, I swear. But after about a year-long hiatus from the blog (yikes! I did make it out of Russia. Sorry to leave you hanging!) I’m back on the road again for my first work trip of the 2014/2015 winter season, and this time, with a little something brewing in the belly.

While this shouldn’t affect my reporting (unless I have to find a find a “facility” in the middle of a race … guys have it so good), I’ve noticed a couple changes in my regular ski-reporting routine so far:

1. My ski clothes are definitely tighter. And I don’t know how much longer they can take it. I’ll need a new wardrobe or look of some kind soon. Don’t judge me if I default to full-on snow pants.

2. On the flip side, packing just got a lot easier! Whatever fits, makes the cut. Now I just need to find a laundromat…

3. My brain might go foggy. If I forget your name, for instance, don’t take it personally. I thought it was a wives’ tale (haha, get it) that women lose their minds when they’re pregnant, and while I’m happy to announce I still have a decent amount of mine, I have blank moments. It could be the baby, or here in Houghton (on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) my brain could be literally frozen.

4. Just when I thought it wasn’t possible, I’m an even slower skier this year. Ironic that I’m one of the faces of FasterSkier.com. Good thing my coworkers are in much better shape.

5. And I’m OK with all this. Getting big, huffing and puffing on the flats, being hungry 100 percent of the time, it’s all good! I’m excited for what the rest of the year brings, from this next week at U.S. Cross Country Nationals in Houghton (my first time here) to World Championships in Sweden followed by Biathlon World Champs in Finland, to the due date of my first kid on June 1.

It’s going to be an interesting winter; I’ll share some of the funnier or more interesting stories about events or places along the way. Thanks for bearing with me!

Skiing and dining (minus the "wine-ing") at Bretton Woods, N.H.

Skiing, then wining and dining (minus the wine) at Bretton Woods and the Mt. Washington Resort in New Hampshire in mid-December. 

Week One in Russia: A whirlwind

12 Feb
Chelsea and I at the halfpipe qualifiers today. Fun in the sun on an "off" day.

Chelsea and I at the women’s downhill today, where we witnessed a first-ever Olympic tie for gold in alpine skiing, a sport (like nordic) that’s timed to a hundredth of a second!

I can’t believe it’s been a week since I touched down in Russia, hopped a Sochi 2014 bus and headed up into the hills of Krasnaya Polyana.

Sorry to keep any of you anxiously awaiting my fate, but I’ve been able to post photos on Facebook, Instagram and the like. And it’s no excuse, but we literally hit the ground running and haven’t stopped.

Our hotel in the Gorki mountain village at the top of a gondola

Our hotel in the Gorki mountain village at the top of a gondola

A typical day covering an Olympic event (or two or three) consists of sleeping six hours, waking up late morning, getting in some kind of movement (I hesitate to say “workout”), then eating as much of our hotel’s free breakfast spread as possible — which is supposed to hold us through the day.

By the time we leave the hotel, way up high on a mountainside in a newly constructed village for mostly Olympic media lodging, it’s around 11 a.m. and we’ve got a race in two hours.

It takes about an hour to get to the Laura Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon venues, and involves a 10-minute gondola (or “Karusel”) ride down from our little village — with two or three hotels fully operating out of a half dozen or more. We were some of the lucky ones; ours was ready upon my arrival late last Thursday night. The spa, including a pool and gym, were finished yesterday.

At the bottom of the gondola, Nat, Chelsea and I walk up the street and cross a bus-ridden, multi-lane road to start heading toward the venue. It’s a walk that gets more pleasant as you go along, and usually isn’t an issue with traffic in broad daylight. The buses don’t want to hit you, but they’ll honk if you run right in front of them.

There’s no need to play frogger in Russia.

Anyway, with some strategic J-walking (sidewalks are a little sporadic here), we make our way along the river that’s been rerouted in several different directions around the valley. It’s all part of Sochi’s $50+ billion dollar Olympic budget, and while it’s impressive they can move rivers, one can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen when the snow melts off the mountains this spring, or next spring, or in a couple years from now.

Hopefully all of the infrastructure and these villages built up for the Olympics hold up. Hopefully people come back and visit them as winter destinations.

With no need for a jacket in temperatures near 60 degrees, we walk 5-10 more minutes to the gondola. There, we’ve got a security checkpoint, complete with a rotating belt to put all of our personal items on and security personnel who make me take my food out of my bag every time I pass through.

I always agree, explaining the sunscreen is for my face and letting them scan my water bottle with whatever the heck is supposed to detect it’s not vodka. I’m not sure it would be a big deal if it was.

Our daily commute down to the valley, then back up another mountain to the Olympic cross-country and biathlon venues -- in a gondola

Our daily commute down to the valley, then back up another mountain to the Olympic cross-country and biathlon venues — in a gondola

Once through, we board the next gondola, which takes about 15 minutes to get to the top. At this point, we’ve usually joined some other international journalists or photographers, and sometimes we start up conversations. Other times, nobody wants to speak English, or they just want to hear us talk about nonsense.

From there, we’ve got a short shuttle ride to the biathlon venue, where the print media center for the two locations is located. This is where we can work for an hour or so before the race and then, usually around 2 p.m., it’s go time.

I won’t bore you with the details of the races, but if you care, check out FasterSkier.com. We’ve been working our tushes off covering cross-country and biathlon races each day, and I couldn’t ask for two better co-workers to handle the workload with. Every day has been fun, and so far, historic for the U.S. nordic and women’s biathlon teams. It’s a good trend that I hope continues — it makes our jobs more rewarding and I’m sure it’ll make the whole experience more memorable.

Two days ago, we had a bit of a curveball in the women’s cross-country sprint. American Kikkan Randall had been the favorite in the skate sprint, right up there with Norwegian great Marit Bjørgen, and she was expected to end a 38-year Olympic medal drought for U.S. nordic skiing with the first medal since Bill Koch’s silver. On a perfect day, she could win gold.

That didn’t happen. It didn’t even come close. Randall qualified in 18th out of the top 30 that get continue racing in the quarterfinals. She led most of her quarterfinal, which was stacked with two other medal contenders in Bjørgen and Germany’s Denise Herrmann, but lost steam down the stretch toward the finish. Herrmann and Bjørgen whipped by her to place first and second, and an Italian came from behind to beat Randall as well.

Fourth wasn’t enough to lift Randall to the next round. She had been eliminated in a skate sprint quarterfinal for the first time in three years — the last time being at 2011 World Championships. The reality of the situation hit me with a sinking feeling, something I’ve rarely, if ever, felt as a journalist regarding the outcome of an athlete’s performance.

But Randall is especially unique, an athlete who’s led her sport to unprecedented success in her nation and really never faltered — at least not recently — along the way. She’s an iron woman who’s also human. And that showed Tuesday.

Kikkan Randall with her husband after being eliminated early in Tuesday's freestyle sprint at the 2014 Olympics.

Kikkan Randall with her husband after being eliminated early in Tuesday’s freestyle sprint at the 2014 Olympics.

As Randall walked slowly down the stairs out of the broadcast zone into the print area, she stopped for a moment. Sheltered behind the U.S. Ski Team’s media attache, Margo Christiansen, Randall let it all out — or whatever she needed to get out at the time — then wiped her eyes a minute or two later and got back to answering questions.

For the first one, she walked right over to me. Reporters from major news outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and several others swarmed around to get a piece of the interview and questions in edgewise. But for the next couple of minutes, Randall answered my questions. She spoke about emotions, tactics and initial reactions, plus her ever-successful team.

It was a nice acknowledgement to the work we’ve put in over the years, in which we’ve extensively followed and written about Kikkan and the U.S. and Canadian ski teams on the international-racing circuit.

But at the end of the day, her Olympic dream was lost, and we had to write a story about it. Meanwhile, another American, Sophie Caldwell of Peru, Vt., achieved the best-ever U.S. women’s Olympic finish of sixth in the same race. It was the silver lining and an incredible surprise for Caldwell, who graduated from Dartmouth College fewer than two years ago.

We wrote about that one, too, along with the women’s biathlon pursuit, which started at 7 p.m. that night.

Getting back to our hotel around midnight, we decompressed on leather sofas in the cushy lobby. There was still work to be done, which carried into the next day and the next, and I nodded off at the usual 3:30 a.m.

It’s 2:30 a.m. tonight and I’m psyched to go to bed a whole hour earlier, if I can get to sleep. After grabbing some dinner at an Irish bar in the town just north of us (complete with Russian waitresses in kilts and $10-dollar Guinesses), we rode up the gondola with a Canadian couple. Not knowing who they were, we asked the usual: why they were there, who they were supporting, where they’re from.

They had just come from the women’s luge competition, where their daughter Alex Gough was competing. We asked how she did.

“She was fourth,” they said. “Thanks for asking.”

She lost out on bronze to an American that hadn’t beat her all year, they said. And she’d been on the podium for essentially every event leading up to the Olympics.

Now that’s tough to swallow.

So whether you’re 18th, like Randall, or fourth in an event you were favored in, the fact is the Olympics are the Olympics. It’s hard to put a perfect performance together on a given day, and that’s what makes this pinnacle of many sports so fun to watch.

The stars have to align, and when they don’t, you have to pick yourself up and try again. This is why I love sportswriting, and this is why I came to Russia — for a little more perspective on life and the most incredible athletes in the world, and how they’ve become great at what they do.

Several women on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team strike a pose with Norwegian skiing legend Bjørn Daehlie on the course during training on Wednesday. (Photo: FIS Cross Country/ Twitter) https://twitter.com/FISCrossCountry/status/433533578878517248/photo/1/large?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=fb&utm_campaign=brooksha1&utm_content=433579507241746432

Several women on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team, including Kikkan Randall (127), strike a pose with Norwegian skiing legend Bjørn Daehlie while training at the Laura Cross-Country Ski Center on Wednesday. (Photo: FIS Cross Country/Twitter)

Trailside at the American Birkebeiner (with Video)

4 Mar

Want a taste for what the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America, is like? Take a look at my video and blog post on FasterSkier.

New blog up on FasterSkier

18 Jan

After nearly six months at FasterSkier, I’ve started my own blog there. While I’ll continue to update this one with less ski-specific stuff, here’s an intro to what I’ve been doing on the job — and what Rumford, Maine, is like. 

First Time in Rumford” via FasterSkier.com

 

How to chase balloons

23 Sep

It’s balloon time in the Queensbury-Glens Falls region! While you may not be overly excited for the annual Adirondack Balloon Festival taking place near the Warren County Airport this weekend, here is a video and a recycled column on why and how you should get out and watch. (Bring your pet, too!)

For a schedule of events for this weekend’s balloon festival, check The Post-Star and it’s balloon-specific section.

Sportswriter Alex Matthews took her “Anything Active” column to the 38th annual Adirondack Balloon Festival, where she found out what it’s like to chase balloons.

***

Post-Star commentary by Alex Matthews | Posted: Monday, September 27, 2010; poststar.com

As I rolled into the Glens Falls YMCA parking lot in complete darkness at 6 a.m. Sunday, I wondered what I was doing.

I had committed to hot-air balloon chasing – something not entirely “active” but interesting nonetheless – and my mom agreed to meet me before the Adirondack Balloon Festival’s 6:30 a.m. launch time.

Still, it was painfully early for a night-shift sportswriter, and I have no real fascination with balloons. Riding in one seemed almost less appealing than following in my own car.

So why did I do it? The balloon festival comes once a year, and we’re lucky to have it. Besides filling the sky with beautiful hues and bubbly shapes, the balloons are weekend-fillers that create activities.

Chasing one by way of rural roads is one of them. So I filled the gas tank, grabbed my car-loving puppy and left the maps at home for a new experience.

In reality, balloon chasing isn’t high speed and a few gallons of gas on a calm day should be sufficient. My mom and I traveled about 10 miles round trip from the Warren County Airport. Each balloon is typically airborne for about an hour.

The landing site on County Road 36 in Kingsbury was actually a little farther from the airport than others ended up. After chatting with our balloon’s crew members, the local Blacksheep Squadron, we discovered they launched independently from Route 4.

Balloon-chasing lesson No. 1: Pick an unmistakably recognizable balloon. I’d go with a cupcake or a fruit shape rather than a certain color. And don’t detour for coffee.

The day was a success regardless, and we were glad to have found a balloon with local ties and a smiling landowner to greet them.

For those thinking of balloon-chasing next year, here’s an outline of how the morning might go:

6:40 a.m.: Watch some 80 balloons launch from the airport in Queensbury. We chose an outside spot on a hill off County Line Road for a quick exit.

7 a.m.: Coffee stop. Skip it. You’ll get distracted and lose track of your balloon.

7:15-7:30 a.m.: A very slow drive to your destination. We stopped once to see if the balloon was moving.

7:45 a.m.: The landing. Run into the field if you want, but stay out of the way. The crew usually helps move the hovering balloon closer to the road.

8-8:30 a.m.: Talk to the balloonists and their crew members. Feel free to offer a hand in deflating the balloon and packing it up.

***

Active Advice: Ways to actively chase balloons

— Follow on a bicycle: We drove, but the total mileage was only about 10 miles, and some balloons landed closer to the Warren County Airport launch site.

— Wear jeans or long pants and sneakers: If you’re planning on running through a field to meet the balloon.

— Ask the crew if they want help: They’re usually happy to have extra hands deflating the balloon and keeping it off the wet ground.

— Don’t expect champagne: First of all, it’s 8 a.m., and you weren’t really that involved. Bring a bottle of water instead.

— Inquire about riding in a real chase vehicle: Many balloon festivals seek local volunteers as guides to ride with crew members. Visit www.adirondackballoonfest.org to contact organizers.

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.

Welcome!

19 Jul

Thanks for checking out Alex Matthews’ brand-spanking new Anything Active website!

Anyone that followed my weekly column at The Post-Star newspaper in Glens Falls, N.Y., will have an idea what this is about. But rather than stick to the Adirondacks, I hope my first-person testimonials about recreation and fitness will interest readers from all over.

I’m moving on to a new position as associate editor at FasterSkier.com. There, I’ll be interviewing cross-country skiers and coaches from around the world, traveling throughout the winter and living the good life working from home for the racing website out of Williamstown, Mass.

At the same time, I plan on keeping a personal blog here with everything from cross-training tips to my own exercise experiences.

Let me know what you’re interested in, what you’ve tried or what activity/event is on your mind right now. I’d love to hear from you, see your photos and get the dialogue going, so let’s have it!

As always, feel free to email Alex at her new address: alex@fasterskier.com.

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