Race days begin at 5:15 when I crawl out of bed already late and then scramble in darkened chaos to get ready. The vans technically pull out at 6am, but the head coach and my boss always leaves early; even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going, he will still leave without you. When it’s cold outside, -10 like it frequently is before winter sunrises in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the vans can take a while to clean off and turn over and then a good 20 minutes to defrost, and the walk from my dorm to the parking lot is a few minutes as well. Time all adds up on these mornings.
My van is the crappiest vehicle in the bunch. It’s been in and out of the shop all winter, and it no longer has a radio. I am convinced that I was specifically assigned this van because I am my boss’s least favorite employee. It reminds me of my first car that slowly fell apart over three years of ownership. That’s basically my van. In addition to the radio going, I discover this morning that the cigarette lighters don’t work either, so that rules out my iPod as an alternative source of music. In a frantic rush, I grab some portable speakers from one of the kids and plug another mp3 player into them for the hour plus drive to Jay Peak.
The snow is abating and the moon is beginning to set as I drive up Route 91 towards Canada. It’s a brilliant orange, and it peaks out from behind several mountains along the drive. Everyone in my van is dead asleep within 10 minutes of driving except for Chris who’s riding shotgun. Chris is a quiet, focused, intensely serious 13-year-old boy. I catch him staring out the window at the moon for several minutes before I exclaim, “Would you look at that thing? Isn’t it beautiful?” After some deep reflection he replies, “Yep.” That’s the most Chris will say to me all year.
The weather on the highway is not indicative of the weather at the mountain. Jay Peak is covered in a cloud, and as we walk towards the lodge, the rumors are already spreading. There’s ice on the lifts. They’re not running. We’re going to have to wait it out until the lift operations staff can de-ice them. It’s a good thing I’m almost as good at cards as I am at coaching ski racing.
The ice won’t melt. We play cards for an hour while we await word from the mountain. Then we play cards for another hour. We’re butting up against the edge of opportunity. If the lifts don’t open soon, there will not be enough time in the day to actually hold the race. We convene as a group of coaches to discuss options. Everyone is ready to call it a day, to pack it in, and to get a warm cup of coffee for the drive home. And then my boss proposes a brilliant idea: who needs lifts? Why not just hike? I was mentally already back in my living room watching re-runs of The Real World when I set out on foot to ascend the course.
Despite the cold and frozen mist falling from the sky, the hike wasn’t half bad. I had gotten into the nasty habit of eating too many breakfast sandwiches before parking my lazy ass on the side of the mountain all winter long, and it’s refreshing to start off the day with a more physical pursuit. The athletes who had to hike and race, however, were not necessarily embracing the experience as an opportunity to warm-up. I repeat the mantra that got me through a month-long NOLS course in the Wind River Wilderness of Wyoming: just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you’ll be at the top.
Results from the race prove to be less extraordinary than the experience itself. After hiking up the hill and sweating up a storm, the coaches had to stand out in the cold while athlete after athlete tackled a frozen, crusty slalom course with little tact or grace. Then we got to repeat the whole process for second run. Yet, for a few hours, it seemed like the suggestion to hike was worthwhile. After all, we had saved the race even if it didn’t bring out the best skiing.
What the Great Jay Peak Hike Fest of 2008 did bring out, however, was the weakened immune systems of athletes and coaches. For the next two weeks, viruses circled the campus crippling staff and athletes alike in a festering swarm of infection and illness leading everyone to conclude: we probably shoulda’ just played cards.