Road Ski Race

(This is first of a new series: my mom sent me a bunch of my old pictures for Christmas and I’m in the process of scanning them and uploading them.)

Newspaper coverIn 1980, I was doing most of my training on road skis because my knees were already hurting. The Southern Ontario Ski Division had their first ever road ski race, and I figured I had an edge on the guys who were normally better than me on the snow because they probably trained mostly on foot. So I lined up on the front row beside guys I knew were way better than me on skis. Well, it turned out that they were still way better than me on road skis, so I quickly ended up in the back of the pack. But at least I was near enough the front of the pack in the first lap to get my picture on the front cover of the first (and probably last) issue of “Track”, the newsletter of the Southern Ontario Ski Division.

In case you can’t figure out which young fit hirsute guy is hiding inside my current old bald and obese shell, I’m the one wearing bib number 532.

Athletes and drugs

I didn’t write a summary of the last couple of days of the Tour de France as I usually do because I didn’t actually get to watch them on TV until I got back from Oshkosh, and by that time the news was all about Landis’ failed drug test. I want to reserve judgement about Landis until we hear the full results of the investigation. But one thing I read in several discussions of this whole thing is “we should just allow the athletes to use whatever drugs they want”. This is a damn stupid idea for a couple of reasons, and I’d like to expand on this.

The first reason it’s a stupid idea is that athletes will do anything to get an edge on their competition. If everybody else is using drug X, then you have to use X or you’re going to be at a disadvantage, even if you’re a better athlete than them. The drugs would become just another arms-race situation. The various sports governing bodies have done what they can to reduce technological arms races – they want technology to evolve, but they don’t want it to decide competitions. Back in the days when fibreglas skis were new, the FIS had to step in and say that cross country skis had to be a minimum of 44 mm wide at the widest point, because people were trying narrower and narrow skis to get a speed advantage, to the point where a large number of competitors were breaking their skis in a race – if you didn’t break, you’d gain a few seconds over everybody else. The UCI does the same thing in bike racing with their weight limits on bikes. The limit is arbitrary, but you have to draw the line somewhere. If drugs got to be the next arms race, people would be doing major damage to themselves.

And that’s the second reason why it’s a stupid idea: athletes don’t care about the future. If you told an athlete that if they take this drug they’d win the Tour de France but they’d drop dead two weeks later, but their win would still stand, there would be a line-up around the block for the drug. How do I know this? Personal experience.

Most of my competitive life was in pain. I was pretty sure that continuing to compete would make the pain problems worse in the future, but I cheerfully accepted that trade-off. I’m not as cheerful about it now, but I stand by the decision. And I wasn’t competing for prize money, million dollar endorsements and world wide fame. The sports I was competing in were obscure to the point where most of my friends had never even heard of them. And I wasn’t even winning most of them – I never won a Canadian Championship in anything. In cross country skiing, I wasn’t even in the top 4 on our university team. But I loved the competition against myself, and the feeling of doing my best, and the knowledge that I’d tested my limits and come through them. I basically ruined my knees and condemmed myself to lifetime pain for nothing more than a feeling. Can you imagine what an athlete would do to himself if there was more at stake?

I miss it so much

This morning I watched NBC’s “The Great Race”, a recap of the men’s 4x10km relay at the Lillihammer Olympics. (It’s available on Google Video if you didn’t catch it, but it costs money and requires Windows to do so.

It was an extremely well done piece, although they didn’t show the famous bit where Dahle stopped and tried to force the Italian to go ahead of him, but he wouldn’t. At least I think that was in this race – maybe I’m thinking of the 4×10 at Salt Lake?

Anyway, I’m watching these guys race in brilliant sunshine, and it’s a similarly brilliantly sunny and cold day here. And I feel every movement – my muscles are twiching in time to them, and I can feel it, I can smell it, and I can taste it. I feel the fatigue, the joy, the accomplishment. I remember the way your lungs burn and your muscles work, I remember the way you could smell the humidity and temperature, see and feel the condition of the tracks, and adjust your stride accordingly. I remember seeing and feeling every little rut and bump in the track and trying to use it to your advantage. I remember that nifty little way you’d swing one of your poles forward when you switched from diagonal stride to double poling, and how cool it looked when others did it. I remember being in packs of skiers all in synch. I remember going out every weekend that there wasn’t a race and skiing 30 to 50 kilometers, and not thinking anything about it. I remember skiing in the rain, in bitter, bitter cold, in icy conditions, in slush, where there wasn’t any snow on the ground or when it was snowing so hard that you couldn’t see the next bend in the trail. And I remember doing it all because on those days when it was sunny and about -2C and your wax was good, there was no feeling in the world like it. It didn’t matter if you won or came in slower than your personal best, it was just great to be out there. The effort beforehand, and the soreness and tiredness afterwards, it was all worth it.

After the race, I started to cry. It was the worst cry I’ve had since I was in therapy, huge wracking sobs. And all because I realized that I’ll never have that feeling again.

When I was a young skier, just starting to enter ski races, there was a skier in my club named Karl. He was older, grey haired, and had started skiing in his home country (Germany, I think) when he was quite young. I was about 15, and he was probably in his mid to late 50s. He gave me advice and encouragement. The first year or two, he was well ahead of me in every race. Then I got a pair of real Peltonen racing skis instead of my heavy old Madshus light touring skis. They were light, they were fast, and they had three grooves in the tail that were supposed to break the suction on wet snow. They weren’t the most aggressive racing skis on the market, they weren’t even the most aggressive racing skis that Peltonen made. But they were mine. And the first race I skied in them, I cut a HUGE percentage off my previous best, and beat Karl by a small margin.

Karl became less and less of a factor in my later years, but I always thought that when I got to his age, I’d be enouraging young racers the same way. Between him and Jackrabbit Johannsen, I had enough role models to think that skiing was going to be part of my life for the rest of my life.

That was before the pain. And now I have to accept the fact that pain is going to be the defining element of the rest of my life, not skiing.

I had a dream.

Or rather, I had two dreams. Last night. Which isn’t all that unusual – what is unusual is that I remember them this morning. Usually when I wake up in the morning, I try and remember my dreams but I can feel them slip out of my grasp like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. And as they’re slipping away completely, what spells the final doom is that Vicki tries to tell me what she dreamt about that night. I’m so incoherent in the morning that it’s a wonder I can find my way to the toilet some times.
Continue reading “I had a dream.”