Monday, February 27, 2012

Birkie Breakdown + the joys and lessons of being at home....

I’ve started a couple of different blog posts since making the trip home from overseas but haven’t finished any of them. Whenever I would sit down to write or finish my thoughts, I was always tempted to take them in a different direction. However, the gist of the missing posts was that it’s been great to be home. 

A quick layover in Seattle on the route home provided a chance to say "hi" to my parents! 

I’ve done all kinds of relaxing things like hang out with my cat Buggz, get out of town for a night with my husband Rob, and cook what I want, when I want it.  It’s the small pleasures in life that you take for granted when you are home that you miss on the road. For example, I love drinking coffee and reading the paper edition of my home newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News every morning. 

The spoiled Hellion of the house! 

I’ve realized that it’s a challenge to find the perfect balance between time at home and time on the road. If you’re gone all the time (and I was “scheduled” to be gone for five months, Nov-April) it’s TOO long and you might start to get a bit homesick.  On the opposite extreme, if you never leave home, it’s easy for life & training to get “stale” and you might start to wonder why you work so hard – and roller ski all summer in the rain if you never get to test your fitness against the “big fish” out there.

My somewhat abrupt trip back home has brought along overwhelming feelings of loving where I am from; the trails I train on, my house, community, friends, and family. At the same time, the distance and small break allows me to fully appreciate the experiences and the opportunities I’ve had on the road, racing in Europe.  Each side of the world is lovely in it’s own, special way and I feel extremely lucky to bounce back and forth from one continent to the other.  I have so, so many things to be thankful for.
This season has provided a great chance to experiment and I have learned a lot about myself & my needs and desires as an athlete.  This is an “off” year in that there are no World Championships and obviously, no Olympics. Therefore, it’s a great time to try new things - learn what does and doesn’t work so that I can plan the next two years ramping up into Sochi. 

I had a blast showing up to Anchorage High School Regions, unannounced to cheer on the APU junior athletes!  It was fun to see them skiing fast and most important, having fun doing it! 

Of course the unexpected nature of my wrist injury and subsequent stomach bug took a unique toll on my (physical) body and mental energy.  Had I continued on the roll I was on in November and December, who knows if the pull home would have been so strong? But, having experienced a long January and February in Europe without any significant results, I came home to re-fuel, rest up, and re-energize.

Last week Erik, my coach, sent out an article to our team the other day and included a quote by Muhammad Ali which really spoke to me:

"Success is not achieved by winning all the time. Real success comes when we rise after we fall. Some mountains are higher than others. Some roads steeper than the next. There are hardships and setbacks but you cannot let them stop you. Even on the steepest road you must not turn back".

I fully agree that having overcome adversity and hardship makes the sweet times even sweeter. Like this past weekend at the Birkie!

Racing the Birkie was not part of my original plan in my return back to the states. I needed to take one thing at a time, and make sure that I was feeling good before jumping aboard any race effort, be it the Birkie or a local race back home in Anchorage.  After a few days at home the idea entered my mind and all of a sudden it became more and more enticing.  Some of know that three years ago I competed in my first Birkie and lost the race in a lunge, photo finish at the line with Rebecca Dussault. Ever since I’ve been getting grief from my friends and I’ve wanted to come back and redeem myself. So, a couple days before the race I contacted the Birkie office and was reminded that Olympians have free entry in the Birkie for life – a fantastic perk if you ask me!

My lunge finish from 2009 - this was good for second place..... leaving me hungry this year! 

As it turned out, the Birkie was my first domestic race, and my first non World Cup race of the entire season.  Going back to the list of things I’ve learned this year is the fact that it’s healthy for mind and body to compete against a couple of different fields.  In World Cups, a fantastic day is top twenty and that great but there is something to be said for entering a race where you know the podium, or even the win is within reach.

Photo, Ron Swee

So, Rob and I used our annual Alaska Airlines companion fare ticket and flew into Minneapolis Thursday, arriving late that night in Hayward.  Friday was full of testing skis, picking up our bibs, and attending a pre-race meeting with Andy Gerlach, Salomon, and Zach Caldwell who all generously provided support for the race. (Which was absolutely fantastic & essential to my success I might add!  Thanks guys!)

Rob felt the excitement of the “day before the Birkie” and I believe my tweet was something like, “Rob has succumb to Birkie Fever… me? My temperature is 98.6 degrees.”  Going into the race I did everything I could to remain mellow and relaxed.  The entire purpose of my trip home was R&R and I was determined not to let the race interrupt the primary goal of the trip.

Speaking of relaxing, Rob and I SCORED on accommodations and hospitality during our stay in Wisconsin.  My good friend Hannah from Whitman College days and her family have a beautiful cabin on Round Lake, just a couple minutes outside of Hayward.  Lucky for us, Marge and Ron were already planning on spending Birkie weekend at the cabin and “wined and dined” us, cooking fabulous pre-race meals and driving us to the start line early Saturday morning. It’s always fun to meet new, fantastic people and our visit to with them was surely one of the many highlights of the weekend. Thanks you two!

With the Swees, Ron & Marge 

Saturday morning came fast and furious with a 5am wake up.  However, I’m not sure my body knows what time zone it’s in these days due to my heavy travel schedule.

The women’s race started off at a manageable pace, with a large group of ladies, many of whom I’ve grown to be good friends with.  Then, after the halfway point near “OO” Caitlin Compton Gregg made a big move off the front, darting through the chaos of the feed station and the elite wave man our group had caught. I was trying to squeeze down a feed and watched her ski away from me while I was attempting to choke down my GU packet.  It took me a while to chase her down but chase her down I did. We skied together a bit before I realized that had lost the other women. I subsequently pulled up to Caitlin and told her, “We gapped em!  Let’s work together to get away and make sure our gap lasts!”  And that was exactly what we did. We skied together, each taking turns “pulling” and skiing up in front, allowing the skier behind to draft and relax.  While we are undoubtedly competitors, we are also friends and smart racers. We knew that we could work together, and secure the top two spots on the podium together if we could cooperate.  Shortly after our break we quickly skied up on Eli Brown, my freshman year college coach at Whitman.  He ended up tagging along behind us for the rest of our race, letting the men know that we were coming through. He would inform them of our presence, and then tell them which way to move. I coined him, our “guardian loudspeaker.”  If we had not had his help, we would have spent a lot of additional energy weaving our way through other skiers and communicating our presence.  (Two hundred men start ahead of us and we end up having to pass approximately 130 of them along the 52k course.) 

Similar to three years ago, the race came down to a sprint up the Main Street of Downtown Hayward.  Just like three years ago, I rounded the corner first (onto Main street) but instead of thinking, “What the HECK am I doing!” this time, with more experience, I thought, “I am NOT going to loose this time!”  

Main street Hayward. Photo, Ron Swee

We powered up Main Street in front of thousands of screaming spectators and luckily, I was able to hang onto the lead, crossing the finish line first for my first American Birkebeiner Title!  To say I was elated is an under statement.  I was ecstatic! Not only did I get to ski the race with two good friends, Caitlin (undoubtedly one of the best skaters in the country) and Eli, but I met my husband at the finish line and won a race that has been on my mind, and conscience for the last three years.  It was my first “win” of the entire winter and I had a blast every moment of the journey!  The rest of the day was hectic with the podium ceremony, media engagements, tracking down my skis & driving alternate routes home to shower.  We attended a dinner with Norwegian Olympic Champion & guest Vegard Ulvang and the official awards ceremony back up at the historic Telemark lodge. 

Greeted by our husbands, Rob and Brian at the finish line - fun stuff! 

I’m home for a quick 36 hours before turning around and flying back to Europe for the last remaining World Cups of the season. While the heavy travel schedule and arriving no less than 48 hours before my start in Lahti, Finland isn’t ideal, my trip home was well worth it and I’m fired up to finish the 2011-2012 on a high note!

Psyched to be joining the "Birkie Wall of Champions" at the Telemark Lodge.

Soon to be reunited with these girls and the US Team in Europe: 
Our 4x5k relay team in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, pre-race

Thanks so much to everyone that made the Birkie weekend possible and a special thanks to my current sponsors who make chasing the dream a reality – the Rhyneer Clinic, Carlile Transport, Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, Northern Fruit Company, Kongsberger Ski Club, Conoco Phillips, Salomon, Swix, Rudy Project & Alaska Medical Solutions. Also, thank you so much to the many individuals who have contributed to my travel fund – you know who you are!

Last but not least, here are a couple of links to articles about the 39th Annual Birkie: 

Cheers & have a great week! Thanks for reading & more soon,

 With Norwegian Olympic Champion, Vegard Ulvang, post race


Saturday, February 18, 2012

It's a "laundry weekend"

You may be wondering why I wasn't on the start lists and/or the results from this weekend's World Cup in Poland...... that's because, as I write this I'm sitting at my kitchen table half way across the world in Alaska.  Yep. After more than twelve consecutive weeks on the road my bed was calling and I decided to take a short, un-planned trip to AK for a few days. It was a hard decision, and one that had to be made "spur of the moment" as opportunities for transport are limited and timelines were tight. Also, next weekend is one of the few "off" weekends on the World Cup and to make flying back to the US count, it's nice to have a larger chunk of time for the visit. 

It's funny that I'm home now, as opposed to earlier this winter.  After breaking my wrist there was certainly some pressure to come home for rehab but I choose to stick it out in Europe and continue onwards. My thought was to avoid travel, the ten-hour time change, and to stay in my racing/training "groove."  I toughed it out, training in Ramsau with one pole by myself through snowstorms and wind. Then came Russia and it's frigid conditions.  I thought the cold would give me an advantage (being from Alaska) but I had a really hard time in Saturday's -19c race with my face turning white and my body feeling horrible. Sunday I turned things around a bit and things were looking up. My result wasn't anything spectacular but it was coming around & I looked forward to finding that groove yet again. 

Monday we flew back to Munich on the charter flight from Yaroslav and Tuesday, it was all I could do to get out of bed. I slept all night & all morning. I finally got outside for a ski at noon but could hardly move. I went back to bed. The next few days were low in energy and I had some digestive issues - either from Russia or beforehand, I am not sure. Needless to say, the week was rough and on Saturday, in the Czech Republic, I dropped out of the race which is something I simply don't do.  My body felt like an underpowered fiat or a 20-watt light bulb; horrible. Also, I knew that I would be counted on to race the 4x5k relay the next day for the team. Had I struggled through the 15k in Czech, I would have absolutely nothing left in my already diminished tank for Sunday's team event and the team needed me; I needed the team.  

Saturday night I booked my ticket to fly home with the departure scheduled for the following day, a couple hours after the relay race. Then, funny enough, Sunday was great. I was able to hang with the pack and helped the US ladies have the best women's relay finish of all time. I felt better and I was having fun.  Then, I had to decide: Get on the plane and come home for a break, or stay in Europe, per my original plan and not return until April. I was indecisive; I agonized for a few short hours. As the song says, "Should I stay or should I go!?"  Part of me wondered, why, after such a long stint in Europe is this happening now? I've been here this long; don't go home when there are race opportunities to be had. After waking up my coach at 4:30 in the morning to talk it out and calling Delta only to realize that my special Internet fare was non changeable & non refundable (even though I had purchased it within 24 hours) I decided to get on the plane. 

A part of me felt like taking a short trip home was a retreat, a "white flag" so to speak. But I think that the winter caught up with me. My wrist, racing the tour with an injury, the rehab, and then to top it all off, feeling horrible for the week heading into Czech and then dropping out of a race. All of this compounded and I felt that the best way to recover, both mentally and physically was to do so in my own bed, in my own zip code.  So, that's what I'm doing. I saw my parents briefly in Seattle, I cooked a spicy Mexican dinner for my in-laws (four different kinds of salsa, FYI) I'm hanging out with my husband who has been a great sport (about living the "bachelor" lifestyle) about all of this, napping with my cat Buggz, and ensuring that I'm 100% healthy for my return to Europe and the World Cup. 

Yes, I will potentially be jet-lagged, yes, I will "toe" the line with some travel in my body, and yes, I've given up some precious World Cup starts and potential point scoring opportunities. But, a break was needed and as one my teammates so eloquently put it, she said, "Holly, think of this as an opportunity to go home and do your laundry!"  And that is exactly what it is..... a chance to do my laundry.... maybe wear a new shirt..... I might also tackle my taxes, my PFD application, enter a domestic race..... I will be back in Europe in time for races in Lahti, Finland and Norway. After that, only time will tell. 

If you've gotten this far into my detailed account of why I'm not in Poland at the moment, thanks for sticking with me.  It probably would have been enough (and acceptable) for me to say, "I'm home for a short break before the remainder of the season." Yet, the decision for me was difficult and I find myself questioning whether I did the right thing everyday.  However, I'm working on letting go of things that are out of my control and focusing on making the most of every situation. After all this is ski racing, not brain surgery and it's not a big deal, right?  Every other competitor, from every other country has taken break(s) at home and this is mine.  After just a couple days I'm already feeling better and I can't wait to get back to it - Lahti, here I come! 

Holly :) 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

ADN on the Czech Relay....

Alaskan on relay win best in US women's World Cup history

Anchorage's Holly Brooks, bottom right, and her teammates on the U.S. ski team celebrate their  fifth place effort in Noze Mesto, Czech Republic.

NORDIC: Alaskan helps u.s. quartet to best-ever finish at world cup.
The American women continued a historic World Cup season Sunday in the Czech Republic, and this time they did with their star on the sideline.
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Holly Brooks of Anchorage helped the U.S. ski team to fifth place in a cross-country relay race in Noze Mesto, Czech Republic. The result is the best relay finish by an American women's team in World Cup history, according to the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association.

"The crazy thing is that we did all of this while Kikkan was on the side of (the) trail taking pictures!" Brooks wrote in an email.

Randall, the three-time Olympian from Anchorage who is the world's fifth-ranked skier, skipped the race to hasten her recovery from a cold.

As for Brooks, she returned to competition a little more than a week ago after missing a month with a broken wrist. She skied the scramble leg Sunday and put the Americans in good shape after the first leg of the 4x5-kilometer classic. Brooks was part of a five-woman pack vying for fourth place in the exchange zone; just four seconds separated them when they tagged off.

Ida Sargent and Liz Stephen skied the middle legs and 20-year-old Jessie Diggins, a budding star not just on the American team but on the World Cup tour, powered the Americans to fifth place by skiing the fastest anchor leg.

Charlotte Kalla held off Diggins at the finish line to give Sweden fourth place, one-tenth of a second ahead of the United States.

It was a shining moment for the Americans, who are registering the country's best results ever this season, and a encouraging one for Brooks.

"To be able to sit Kikkan today ... and still put together a result like this is a good snapshot of the strength of these ladies," Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. women's head coach, said in a USSA press release. "We are moving forward with big visions for the next relay."

The Americans could very well contend for a medal with Randall in the mix. They were very nearly fourth without her. And there were two Norway teams in the race, both of them finishing in the top three. At the Olympics and World Championships, a country can enter only one team.

"In different circumstances," Brooks wrote, "this would have been a sprint for a bronze medal. If we can do this well without (Randall), just imagine how well we can do with her."

Brooks, 29, is coming off a broken wrist suffered when she slipped on ice while on a Christmas day training run in Austria. She skied the entire Tour de Ski -- nine races in 11 days -- with the injury before taking a month-long break from competition to rehab.

Though her wrist is better now, she's dealing with some stomach issues and dropped out of Saturday's 15-kilometer individual classic race at Noze Mesto. She said she quit that race in order to save energy for Sunday's relay.

"Even though I didn't feel close to 100%, I was able to keep our team in contention," Brooks wrote. "Today's race was a lot of fun and just the pick me up I needed after a difficult beginning to the 2012 ski season.
"It's been a hard road back but I'm looking forward to the remaining races of the season."
Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Reemerging from hibernation.... in Russia of all places....

I know my blog has been quiet lately and I apologize for that. However, life has been quiet and simple, and dare I say, a bit boring. It's tough to train so hard all year, only to watch races from the "sidelines" although I wasn't even on the sidelines.... more like stalking my teammates on the computer!  But, that period of rehab is over, my wrist is feeling more or less better, and I am finally back on the road - this time, to RUSSIA! 

The crazy scene at the Munich airport with 1/2 of the World Cup field checking in for the charter flight

So far, Russia has been all that I envisioned and perhaps a little bit more. We were commenting on how we'd like to break through some of the Russian stereotypes but it's tough when the second you step off the plane you see women clad in fur & leather and stern military men, 1/2 in Arctic cammo and other half with their arms crossed wearing hats like you would see in the movies.... 

We had a slow, yet somewhat uneventful travel to get here. We took two days from Ramsau, opting to train in the morning, then drive to Munich and crash out at an airport hotel before jumping on the FIS charter from Munich to Yaroslav. I was certainly a bit nervous about the flight seeing that the main thing I've heard about is the hockey team that died two years ago at this same military base (airport) when their plane went colliding off the end of the runway.  Maybe it was the story or maybe it was my nerves but the landing certainly made my heart skip a couple of beats. We hit the ground at a really, really high speed and it seemed to take forever to slow down. I probably created the fish-tailing in my imagination but it was easy to do once we slowed enough to see that the entire runway was glare ice. 

Our "un-marked" flight into the Russian Military Base

Once we departed the airplane there was certainly no "Alaska Airlines 20-minute baggage guarantee" (which is SO SO awesome.) Instead, they unloaded each bag, one by one, painfully slow and I swear, saw how long it could take to get us on the road.  It seems that wherever we go and whatever we do, they are at least 5x the people needed for any one task. One person kind of works and the others all manage to appear "busy."  Every part of the journey took at least 5x as long as it needed too. At the end, I wasn't impatient, I was just sincerely fascinated by the different pace of life, and Russian life in general.

Our own Entourage on the way to breakfast.... fully suited up! 

The first distance race is this afternoon with another 3:45pm start for the ladies. After the Tour, these late afternoon starts are getting much easier although I must admit, I still don't like them. The temperature appears to be JUST legal at -19.8c the last time I checked.  Here are a couple of pictures in the meantime - I'll have more to report once the races actually happen. It's been almost a month since my last start and some people have warned me that it might take a couple of races to "get back up to speed."  I hope that's not the case but I guess we'll know in a couple of hours! 

 Check out the warning sign - heaters are good .... sometimes.... 

 Our wax cabin labeled with USA in Russian... 

 Thirsty? Take one of these pre-poured refreshing drinks at a meal. Koolaid maybe? 

 Lunch salad... 

 Sylvan showing off his colorful dessert of rainbow colored dried fruit and coffee

 Thats me in front of a sign advertising the races.... to my right, (lookers left) are summo suits waiting to be set up for the races. 

 Sadie and I checked out the Russian fur hat stand this morning and this bunny rabbit insisted on getting in the photo with us. Usually I pity people in mascot uniforms but on a day like this in Russia, it might be the warmest thing going! 

 Getting in a shot with the locals! 

 Not sure if there is tea in these or if its just a fire place..... 

Until next time, enjoy some pictures of Russia! 
Ciao & thanks for reading, 

ps. Dear Facebook: No, I would not like to add my name in Russian to my profile, thanks :)