Usually I love this time of year, when all the anxiety of qualifying is past and you can settle into the business of simply enjoying the long sunny days of spring. It’s the time of year when it’s our duty to relax, reflect and enjoy the privilege of just being together; to sit back and appreciate the miracle of people gathered on a hill, talking and laughing and admiring great efforts, of any speed.
I’m pretty sure I rhapsodize about this time of year every year.
This spring all that is a little tougher here in the east. I know, Vail is staying open an extra week, Utah just got dumped on, and points west are all living the dream. Here in the east, however, winter has been such a tease that it already feels well done. The trouble is, putting a fork in it right now feels like taking dinner out of the oven before the kitchen even starts smelling good. It feels wrong. We slogged through the season this far, patching up skis, creatively training and chasing races where we could. Surely we deserve a reward.
A couple of weekends ago I rode the chair with a coach who said he felt “strangely unfulfilled” as the season came to a close. “I feel like I didn’t really do my job,” he explained even while agreeing with another who felt like he put forth “120 percent effort to accomplish 80 percent” of what he had hoped. It was frustrating. One mom, who normally laments the premature exodus of kids from skiing and into spring sports said, “this year I can’t wait for the skiing to end!”
Kids tend to get salty towards the end of the season, assuring us and themselves that they are the only ones who struggled, that they’ve had a catastrophic loss of skill in the past two weeks and that all is lost. “I’m a choker,” “a failure,” “I’m never going to do this (good),” “I’m always going to do that (bad).” What sweetens them back up, usually, is the miracle of spring. This is when you can go to races just for the sake of the racing, and the camaraderie, and with any luck, the liberal dispersal of candy and swag. You can blow off steam freeskiing between runs and after the race, ski so long that you miss the awards and your gloves are heavy blobs of wet leather.
Not so much this year. Some seasons, I guess, are just like some periods of your life: you feel like you’ve been swimming upstream so long that at a certain point it makes more sense to turn around, put your feet in front of you to control the damage, and ride the rapids. Worry about minor injuries and embarrassing wedgies in the other side—for now it’s enough to keep your head above water and ride it out.
As an experienced coach reminded a kid who felt nervous and unprepared for big upcoming races: “If you love this sport and you want to take it as far as you can, you have to embrace the process.” Make no mistake—following this dream will exact a cost, financially for sure and most likely physically as well. Middle-age MRI’s reveal this last inevitability. All but the very, very few will get a dime from the actual act of ski racing, but if you choose to pursue it with all your heart you will be richer for it.
This is the kind of stuff that gets you through the low times on blind faith, and then one day, even in the most challenging winter, you get out there and it all makes sense. One day—one great run, one satisfying race, one smiling afternoon with friends, one spirit-lifting chairlift ride when you forget your troubles on the ground—is all it takes. We are such suckers for this sport. Each of us is one run away from being out of a rut. The hard part is believing in between those runs.
A couple of weeks ago was one of those days. We went to Waterville Valley for the first annual Clay Soper Memorial race, honoring not only a beloved member of the skiing community, but also the weekend racers who hit the road every Friday night to pursue their passion for this sport. It was a day infused with good vibes and sunshine, the perfect way to honor a ski racer. It reminded me of a response I got once from one of my former coaches, as my adult self was headed out on some wacky endurance challenge. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” I asked rhetorically. “Because we can,” he replied. So many ski races throughout the year are named in someone’s honor, and it is a beautifully fitting tribute. I can’t think of a better way to remind ourselves of how lucky we are for this opportunity, sunshine or not.
This weekend is the Sugar Slalom, that final moment in the east when you gather with other people nutty enough to love this sport. This year— in a year when Stowe scrambled to pull off 12 straight day of FIS and USSA races to salvage a ski racing season—it’s more than a celebration. It’s a triumph, and a time to say, “We did this. We made it through and we’re here to laugh about it. We’re wringing some sweetness out of this season that seemed determined to disappoint us at every turn.”
For a few more days at least I’m pretending the daffodils are not about to bloom. I’m stepping up to that trough of syrup and shoving a wooden stick into it to scoop out one last bite.