Into the Woods

Though I’ve been living on the plains for ten years now, I still think of the woods as Nature. Like my affinity for winter and snow, my love for the woods is rooted in the experience of growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Some of my earliest memories are of walking with my dad and sister across a snowy field behind our house in Daggett to a big stand of trees, where we’d have a bonfire and roast hot dogs. Later, we spent many weekends at our "hunting camp" outside Ironwood, a one-room shack near "Mount Iilola" in the Ottawa National Forest. (Though our family doesn’t own that cabin anymore, I still fantasize about biking in to it for a stay…) And Houghton-Hancock are really just clearings on the forested shorelines. I loved skiing and running in the woods outside Hancock, and finding old mining ruins among the trees reminded me that the forest was far older and stronger than it seemed.

I was surprised when I started college to read in William Cronon’s seminal environmental history of New England, Changes in the Land, that English settlers in the New World were repelled and terrified by the forests they found. I couldn’t imagine a more opposite reaction to my own feeling of being welcomed and enfolded and dwarfed by the woods, and I still can’t.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about cycling has been the discovery of new woods to ride in: Farmer Trail and Shady Lane Trail near Northfield; chunks of the Almanzo south of here and most of the Lutsen 99er and Heck of the North up north, and of course almost every yard of the Arrowhead 135 way up north

Arrowhead Trail

and the Fat Pursuit out west.

Yellowstone Trails

Idaho Woods

I can’t wait to get back to those snowy, dark, imposing, familar woods again soon.

Snow Depression

Exactly one year ago – on December 23, 2010 – I skied for 45 minutes in the Carleton Arb. According to last winter’s training log, I’d skied a total of 12:27:48 by then, beginning on November 14.

So far this winter, I’ve skied one hour, a couple weeks ago, just after we received our only significant snowfall of the season. This is the sorry snow situation around here right now:

The only “snowy” stretch of Arb trail.
Arb snow

All that’s left of our sledding-hill jump.
Sledding-hill snow

The dwindling bank of plowed snow at the end of our block.
Neighborhood snow

Ski Racing in Norway

The nordic skiing world championship in Oslo are well under way now, with five great races down. Even better (after lackluster crowds at the 2009 and 2007 worlds), the Norwegians are turning out in force: 70,000 turned up on Sunday to watch one of the premiere events, which was won by Norwegian Petter Northug:

The Norwegian media follows skiing pretty closely:


(Both photos from Oskar Karlin’s Flickr photostream.)

World Championships

On Wednesday, the 2011 Nordic Ski World Championships begin in Oslo, Norway – the city that almost literally invented nordic skiing, and the country that still dominates international elite cross-country skiing.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the Oslo Worlds since Oslo was named as host a few years ago, and now that they’re (almost) here, I’m practically nuts with excitement. I love the top-level ski racing (12 races in 11 days),  but I am also looking forward to the spectacle of ski racing in Oslo’s Holmenkollen park, a massive preserve above the city where Oslo-ites can and do turn out in enormous numbers to ski and to cheer on the racers. Some forecasts predict up to 100,000 spectators will show up for the marquee events, and the crowds for the other races won’t be tiny. And that means that the Norwegian racers will be revved up to perform well in front of their home fans – which, it’s certain, will see at least a few medals awarded to skiers in the famous red suits of Norge.

What’s even better than all that, though, is the fact that for the first in aeons, if not ever, an American is a favorite to win a gold medal, and other Americans have good shots at medals. First and foremost is the ebullient and insanely fast Kikkan Randall:

Kikkan Randall (image via
Kikkan Randall (image via

Kikkan is an Alaskan who won a silver medal at the last World Championships in 2009 and is now the best sprint racer in the world, wearing the red bib of the sprint-points leader and winning the last two sprint races on the World Cup circuit. She’s the favorite to win the very first medal event of the championships, the freestyle sprint held on Thursday. A gold – or any other medal – would probably seal her status as the best-ever American cross country skier.

Along with Kikkan, Andy Newell has an outside shot at a medal in the men’s freestyle sprint (also held on Thursday), while Kris Freeman could place well in any number of distance events. Minnesotans Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Comptom will be competing in a number of events, though they’re unlikely to be in the money.

At any rate, it’s going to be a fun two weeks of ski racing – and I’m somewhat stunned to be able to legitimately say, “Go USA!”

Raced Out at the City of Lakes Loppet

The City of Lakes Loppet was, as usual, fun and tough. I put together a pretty good ski, suffering the whole way but working hard and ultimately enjoying it.

This year’s result can be interpreted in two ways. By time, I did a tiny bit worse this year, finishing in 1:46:16, five seconds slower than last year. By place, though, I did quite a bit better, which is pretty satisfying given that the overall field was 60 racers bigger this year and the men’s field was 25 racers bigger. Last year I finished 72nd among 234 men and 88th out of all 327 skiers; this year I finished 65th among all 261 men and 77th out of 386 racers. (There were lots of fast women skiing this year, I guess.)*

So there’s that. Subjectively, I felt pretty good – meaning, pretty bad, as if I was right on the edge of going too hard. Sitting here on the sofa enjoying an adult beverage, I have an extensive and not wholly unpleasant set of pains and aches pretty much everywhere, literally from the soles of my feet to the front of my head. I look forward to some creaky joints and sore muscles tomorrow.

The race itself was a bit unusual. I started at the very back of wave 1, which was probably not the best place to be: I could easily have started at the middle of the wave, which would have saved a lot of energy in the first half hour as I passed fading frontrunners. (Noted for 2012.) The start was surprisingly slow, and only picked up after the first 2000 meters or so, at which point the race really started in earnest.

Going up and down the short, steep hills of the first half of the course, I felt pretty good, equally able to stride up most slopes, thanks to good wax, and to herringbone well when I couldn’t stride. I also had good glide on the downhills, often catching and even passing racers ahead of me. (For that, thanks to the guy who runs the ski shop in town, who gave me some expensive wax that worked like a charm.) Here I am on the right, catching and passing the “North Star Nerd,” a guy who skis every race with a camera on his head or his back:

City of Lakes Loppet - Hoigaard's Classic (photo by Rich Hoeg)

Somewhere in this section, I slotted in behind bib #10509, a woman who was going my speed and picking excellent lines through all the corners. She pulled me through quite a bit of traffic on some of the flatter sections of the course, and then I led and pulled her through some hills. We caught a couple people who skied with us before falling off, but mostly hung together until we hit the first lake crossing, at which point classic striding became less useful than double-poling. I had more power than she did there, and dropped her.

Crossing the lakes, I picked out a few people ahead of me and then tried to ski up to them. In most cases, it worked – though many of these people, it turned out, were in the slower, shorter, non-competitive “tour” event. Still, they were targets and they helped me keep up a good pace. I was surprised when I checked my watch and saw that I was aleady at kilometer 22 – 2,000 meters from the finish. (No matter what the CoLL says, the classic race is not 25 kilometers!)

I didn’t have much left at that point, but I held it together to the finish – a nasty, slushy uphill that seems to go for a mile. I was pretty much trashed at the finish line, which is always entertaining because you’re instantly approached by people who ask you questions and need to do stuff with you – take your timing chip off your shaking ankle, find out how many loppets you’ve finished so they can give you the right pin, ask you to clear the area for incoming finishers. I helped them and coughed up a lung, then struggled away, downed about a gallon of energy drink, and went to change out of my soaking wet clothes.

As I sat in the changing room, listening to The Guys trade war stories, I overheard several comments about how slow the course had been, thanks to an inch of new snow overnight and unexpectedly warm temperatures. While I was skiing, I’d thought the trails had been awfully soft, but I’d figured that I was just excusing my own sense of skiing too slowly. I was thus interested to hear other, faster racers saying the same thing. And when I finally had enough fine-motor control to check my finish time on my watch, I wasn’t too disappointed to see that I’d skied through those bad conditions in almost the same speed at last year. Of course, going faster would hav been still better, but there’s always next year. Only 364 days (give or take) until then!

On top of all that, I also had the pleasure at the race of meeting two Twitter/Facebook friends – hi, Kuan! hi, Eric! – and talking skiing with another FB friend whom I’d only ever met once before – hi, Marjie! A nice capper to the day.

* The full accounting: I finished 7th out of 17 men in the men’s 35-39 age group (the top half), 65th out of 261 males (in the fastest 25 percent), and 77th out of 386 racers (in the fastest 20 percent). Last year, I finished 88th out of 327 racers (just outside the top quarter), 72nd of 234 men (just outside the fastest 30%), and 12th among the 22 men in my age group (the bottom half).

City of Lakes Excitement

Twelve hours from now, I’ll be about a half-hour into the 25km “Hoigaard’s Classic” event of the City of Lakes Loppet ski festival. I’m pretty excited about the race, which is my only real ski race of the year. (One of these years, I’ll do two or even more – but not this year.) I skied the classic race last year, and did better than I expected, which was very satisfying.

This winter, I’ve worked a lot on my technique and done quite a bit of intensity training, so I hope that I can shave five minutes or more off my time. A finish under 1:40 would be great, and seems possible given my technique and fitness. I’m a little bit worried by the fact that the race field is going to be gigantic this year: two waves of 220 skiers each, as versus three of about 110 last year. That’s a lot of traffic on some pretty narrow trails. I’m lucky to be in wave 1, so I hope I’ll have the chance to latch onto some good skiers right from the start.

The race is the alpha and the omega, of course, but almost as much as racing, I’ve loved the preparation, from setting up a training program and carrying out individual workouts to figuring out the wax and choosing nutrition for the race. This year has been especially good in all these regards, which is pleasing in its own right. The anticipation has been great – and now it’s time for the real deal.

Ski Racing

Today the Northfield High School nordic ski team held its annual fundraiser race in the Carleton Arboretum. I think I’ve raced this event four years in a row now, and I’ve always had fun – a 5 or 6 kilometer run through the Upper Arb, hitting pretty much every hill and skiing past groups of high-school skiers who dance, sing, clang cowbells, and generally root for you – including, this year, by standing on their heads. Naturally, the fields are a bit small, since the race only draws skiers from town: about a dozen men raced in the freestyle race which went off first, and nine of us lined up for the classic race that started five minutes later.

Whether the field included nine, nineteen, or ninety racers, I was mostly concerned with getting a hard workout, my last before next weekend’s City of Lakes Loppet race. That goal was achieved: I finished the 5.76k course in 23:09 and kept my heart rate around 80% or 90% of my maximum. (I was amused to see, on my heart-rate monitor, that my HR was already 110 as I stood on the start line: my standing HR at rest is usually about half that.)

For whatever it’s worth, my effort was good enough to take first place, by a minute or two. This is the second or third time I’ve finished first in this race, so I wasn’t totally surprised, but it is still nice to be first over the line. In the start area, a couple of the other racers looked serious, but I was able to get to the front (again: there were only eight others!) pretty much right away and then use the first long hill, about 500 meters in, to establish a solid gap.

Being able to ski at pace up the hills was awfully nice, but skiing alone, whether off the front or in the middle of the field, isn’t as much fun (or as fast) as skiing with someone or many someones. I occupied myself by concentrating on maintaining decent technique, by trying to go hard on the tough sections, especially the hills, and by crashing twice. The first was a slow, awkward sit-down caused by catching a ski in ruts that the earlier freestyle skiers had made on a downhill corner. This was a silly mistake, but the second crash was even sillier: I was descending a hill, at the bottom of which was a right-angle left-hand turn and four HS girls doing a chorus-line style dance. I put my head down for a second, gulping air, and when I looked up, I was much further down the hill than I expected. I tried to start a good outside-in turn to the left, but instead I somehow wound up skidding on my stomach right up to the four girls, who scattered quite satisfyingly. After both crashes, I managed to get myself up and skiing again pretty quickly, which was a small but important victory. (Nothing’s worse than crashing so hard you have to lie there recovering for a while.)

An hour or two after the race’s end, my legs, arms, and core were all pleasingly fatigued, and I had that post-exertion cough that usually means I was up at the edge for a while. I hope that I also pushed the edge out just a little bit: the City of Lakes Loppet is just 181 hours away!

Digging Jessie Diggins: A Great Minnesota Athlete

Beginning tomorrow, the snowy, far-off land of Estonia (squished between Russia and the Baltic Sea) will host the Nordic Junior & U 23 World Ski Championships – basically, the Olympics for top-level skiers under age 23. The United States is sending a very good group of 22 skiers which includes Jessie Diggins, a 19-year-old from Stillwater, Minnesota, who is one of the best skiers in the U.S.

Jessie Diggins
Jessie Diggins

Over her high-school career, Diggins pretty much dominated the state’s prep ski scene (the biggest in the nation!), leading Stillwater to state championships in 2008 and 2010 and winning three individual titles. She didn’t win the individual title in 2009 because she was too busy racing in Europe. Along the way, she also accumulated five U.S. junior national championships.

Those accomplishments were prelude to the current season, which is surely Diggins’s best. Skiing now on the “Vertical Limit” team of elite skiers who are supported by the Central Cross Country Ski Association (which governs XC skiing in the Midwest), Diggins competed in November and December on the top-level ski circuits in North America. She did pretty okay, racking up ten top-20 finishes, including two fourth places, a second place, and, just before Christmas, two wins in a tough three-event “mini-tour” in British Columbia.

This great racing set Diggins up for the U.S. National Championships, where she raced well in two races before capping the week with a national championship in the freestyle sprint. She actually crashed late in the race, but managed to ski her way back up to the other racers and then take a very narrow win – her first senior-level national championship, and the first for a Minnesotan in a long time.

All of that is great, but this Minnesota skiing fan hopes that, in turn, Diggins’s nationals title is the springboard to great racing in Estonia. The races there will be contested by many of the best young skiers in the world, but it would be great to see Diggins – or another American – win a spot on a podium.

No Bad Weather

According to Carleton’s weather station, the temperature at two this afternoon was about +5°F, with windchills in dipping down past -10°F.

This is undeniably cold, but with the City of Lakes Loppet coming up in a week and a half, I needed to do one last long ski this afternoon – at least a couple hours, and at least the race distance (25km or 15 miles). Well before the temperatures went all Irkutsk on us, I’d chosen today for that long ski.

Since waiting would do me no good – at least in a race-readiness sense – I emptied my workout-clothing drawers after I saw the forecast, and then this afternoon I just did it – 2:44:38 total time and 31km total distance. Except for the first five minutes, when I was just out of the warm car, I wasn’t cold at all. In fact, the only time I shivered was when I got home and failed to change out of my sweaty clothes fast enough.

That’s all to say that good clothing beats bad weather any day. Here are all 22 items I wore on my ski:

  • ski boots
  • “expedition” weight ski socks
  • polypropylene sock liners
  • heavyweight long underwear baselayer bottoms*
  • windbriefs*
  • boxer briefs
  • heavyweight ski tights*
  • wicking t-shirt
  • midweight thermal baselayer shirt*
  • heavyweight outer jersey*
  • windproof vest*
  • balaclava mask*
  • ski hat*
  • thermal glove liners
  • racing gloves*
  • ski mittens*

(All the asterisked items were one or another brand of ski clothing, mostly the incomparable Craft, from Sweden.)

Dragging My Carcass Around

I went for a long ski tonight. Thanks to the exertion and an oddly wet snowfall, things got blurry just a few minutes into the session  and continued to get blurrier until I finished. At one point, I noticed what seemed to be a glove or mitten half-buried in the snow alongside the trail.

On my next lap, I slowed down to scoop up the item, thinking I’d stick it on a trailside sign for the owner to find later. Without stopping, I picked it up (rather deftly, if I do say so myself) and glanced down at it – whereupon I discovered that it wasn’t a glove or mitten, but a desiccated opossum. The empty eye sockets and bared white teeth were the tipoff.

I whipped the carcass back into the snowbank along the trail and continued on my way, now somewhat more grossed out than I had been.

Ski Camp

Over the Christmas break, I took advantage of a week away from work and plentiful, excellent snow to hold my own little ski-training camp. Not only was the “camp” a great way to burn off the Christmas calories, but it turned to be a decent way to get into something like ski shape as I look forward to the City of Lakes Loppet race on February 6 (and maybe a couple of short local races between now and then).

All told, I skied on ten straight days, and only stopped because I had to go back to work on Tuesday and because my almost-forty-year-old back needed a day off. I totaled only seven and a half hours of skiing in those ten days, but the hours were high quality, starting (almost by accident) with a good classic-technique coaching session and including equal amounts of technique drills and interval sessions. Though there’s always a lot of room to improve my technique, I was happy to discover that I still had some decent strength and stamina, even after losing the month of November to traveling, busy-ness, and sickness. Now I need to log some longer ski sessions, to get the body somewhat readier for 25 kilometers of racing at the Loppet.

Aside from the good “training effects” of this skiing, my time on the trails was invigorating in a couple other ways. I met a bunch of other skiers, and got to chat with a couple of them quite a few times. I also relished the renewed challenge of trying to ski fast – and the very occasional success at actually doing so. And most of all I enjoyed seeing the Arb turn from the brown of late fall to the white and gray of high winter. I’ll never get enough of sights like these:
Christmas Day Ski - 1

Signs That the World Is Not Going to Hell

A family friend dropped by right before dinner to give the girls chocolate-dipped Oreos.

Both girls can brush their hair extremely well and very quickly.

An hour’s ski lesson helped me improve my skiing and immediately eliminated my back pain.

The girls think that our last name is normal, but that “Callaghan” is beyond-the-pale weird.

Julia can rattle off the alphabet in sign language in about as long as it takes her to say it.

The ski trails are in much better shape than the streets.

The girls learned the lyrics to the chorus of a White Stripes song after hearing the song once; I’ve heard the song a dozen times and still botch the same lines. (I play much better air guitar than they do, though.)

At least a half-dozen websites provide excellent coverage of Nordic skiing.

Julia can ask, “Why do people have two butts?” and then immediately shift to singing a made-up song to Vivi: “How I love to stroke your golden hair…”

Heaven on Earth

Some people believe heaven is in the sky. Myself, I know that it can come down to earth, as today’s National Weather Service forecast suggests:

Tonight: Snow, mainly after 9pm. Low around 21. East wind between 8 and 13 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. Total nighttime snow accumulation of 3 to 7 inches possible.

Saturday: Snow and areas of blowing snow. Temperature rising to near 22 by 11am, then falling to around 13 during the remainder of the day. Wind chill values between -8 and 2. Blustery, with a east wind 13 to 16 mph becoming north between 25 and 28 mph. Winds could gust as high as 37 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 5 to 9 inches possible.

Saturday Night: Areas of blowing snow and a chance of snow before midnight, then areas of blowing snow after midnight. Cloudy, then gradually becoming partly cloudy, with a low around -13. Wind chill values between -25 and -35. Blustery, with a north northwest wind 25 to 28 mph decreasing to between 17 and 20 mph. Winds could gust as high as 37 mph. Chance of precipitation is 50%. New snow accumulation of less than a half inch possible.