The Long Goodbye.

21.Mar.2011 by Chelsea Little

I am not a crier. I would say that on average, I cry perhaps two or three times a year. I’m sure that in my 23 years of life here, there have been some years when I didn’t cry at all (they were probably in high school).

But so far in 2011, I have already cried twice. I’ve used up my quota of tears, and I’m at risk of regressing to the days when I was a small child throwing fits in the grocery store.

The first time was on January 25th. It’s not like I wrote down the date- I mostly remember it because it was the Tuesday before the Craftsbury Marathon.

For a long, long time, I had been wondering if I would keep ski racing after this season. I’d discussed it with a few of my teammates and in every conversation, I had said that I thought I would know when the time came to leave. What I meant is that my results would bad enough or good enough to guide my decision. But so far, that time hadn’t come. My results so far had been far from strong, but I’d also had very few races where I felt good. I was sure that if I felt good, I could ski faster.

But I finally realized that I didn’t want this question to dominate my season. I had to choose one way or another and get it over with. So after thinking for two days, I decided: I wasn’t going to keep on.

(So to Anders, who said he was “mad at the people who fired me”: I guess you can be mad at me. I fired myself.)

In my season and a half with the GRP up to that point, I hadn’t had a single result that had jumped out and grabbed anyone’s attention, especially not my own. I was fitter, stronger, and a better technical skier than when I graduated from Dartmouth. I trained better: longer on distance days and faster on intensity days. I was more coordinated and I had developed fast-twitch muscles for the first time in my life. But when I got in races, for whatever reason, the promise shown in training didn’t pan out. It’s something that Pepa and I have never figured out – I just should have been racing much faster than I ever did.

If I hadn’t improved with the GRP in two years, I didn’t think a third year would do the trick. Plus, I felt guilty taking up the incredible resources that this team had to offer when someone else – someone who was developing and improving – potentially had to leave skiing because they couldn’t find support for their racing career.

I toyed with applying to a different program because I was confident that I hadn’t reached my potential as a racer. But in the end, I felt that my time was up. When I became part of the GRP, I felt like I held a winning lottery ticket in my hand. I didn’t want to become addicted to gambling, so to speak; I didn’t want to be one of those racers who hangs around forever, racing to mediocrity and always hoping for the mythical result that would justify their ever-lengthening commitment to skiing.

In some ways it was like a huge weight was lifted. I could race for the rest of the season just for racing’s sake, for the fun of it all, without worrying about how my results or my FIS points would set me up for next year. I could really enjoy skiing in a way that I hadn’t before, not since high school, before the days when I put pressure on myself.

But I cried, too. I love skiing, and I love racing. Even though I had made my decision and I knew it was time to move on, it was hard to give up something that I loved so much. That’s where the tears came from, a realization that simply loving racing wasn’t enough to let me stay.

I decided to make the next eight weeks the best weeks of my life as a skier. I planned out some races I was excited about. I wasn’t going to mess around, now that these were my last chances.

That very weekend – the weekend of the Craftsbury Marathon – I competed in a mini-tour in Orford, Quebec. While I certainly wasn’t winning or setting any records, they were the best races of my career with the GRP. I felt like I was skiing well. I was “in” each race, responding to what was happening around me, attacking, making things happen. I had a ton of fun. I immediately wondered if I had made the right decision. What if every race could be like this? Wouldn’t that make it worth staying?

But I think that part of the reason I skied well was that I wasn’t worrying about anything. I didn’t change my mind – instead the races reinforced my commitment to leaving the sport.

After races in Stowe, Vermont, and then in Gatineau, Canada – both of which were fun but unspectacular, results-wise – my season veered away from its planned course.

I headed to the Midwest, where the SuperTour races I was signed up for in Madison were canceled due to political protests. After an unexpected training weekend, I raced the American Birkebeiner, which was supposed to be something for fun – I’m not a strong marathon skier – but had suddenly become the focal point of the trip.

I also got the opportunity to travel to Oslo, Norway, to help FasterSkier cover World Championships, most-expenses-paid. With few races in New England in early March, it seemed like a no-brainer to go. And it turned out to be the best trip I’ve ever been on.

But I didn’t really train while I was there. I skied, but it was the opposite of training; practically all of my skiing was in that grey zone where you are going hard, but it’s not a quality workout.

Then I came back to the U.S. and got a cold. Too many late nights, too little eating, too much drinking, and that not-training all added up to poor health.

By the time the Spring Tour rolled around – the last races of my career – I was in a bad spot, athletically. In the last month, I had done one race, which was a marathon, one set of max intervals in late February, one aborted threshold workout in which I felt terrible, and a set of thirty-second intervals to wake up.

I was not in shape to go hard. And it showed in the first two races. Yikes.

I had had this idea that I would finish my career with a bang. I think, somehow, I had believed that all the karma from anything good I had ever done as a skier would come back to me, and I would go out in a blaze of glory; maybe I’d even win a race.

Obviously, this is not how things work. Especially when you haven’t been training.

The last race of the tour was the best, in a number of ways. I just went out and skied. I caught a few girls in the pursuit, I raced as hard as I could, and I basked in the sun. Then I continued to bask in the sun during the men’s race, and during the post-race barbecue, and during the second ski that I made myself go on through the fields on Sam’s Run, and as we sat around in the yard drinking beer, our last activity as a team before Matt and I left. By that night, I had a vicious sunburn.

It was the best way I could have ended my career as a “serious” racer – even better than if I had won. On a perfect spring day, I was reminded of the best things about the ski world: camaraderie, community, and fun.

And when I left the assembled chairs, crates, and logs where my teammates were sitting in the sun, still drinking beers to celebrate a season well-done, I was sad to go pack up my few remaining belongings.

I had thought that since I had decided to leave two months ago, I would have had time to sort out these feelings. I didn’t think it would hit me all of a sudden as I left my now-empty room and carried the last box out to my car. But it did hit me, and I started crying for the second time in 2011.

Craftsbury has been my home for two years. Not since high school have I lived in a single house for as long as I lived at Elinor’s. Nor have I lived with the same people for so long, or felt as much part of a single place. For all the ups and downs, the adventures and bonfires, the frustrations and disagreements, the good races and the bad, this had been my place, where I belonged.

Saying goodbye to a place that has affected you so much is impossible, even if you’re excited about what comes next.

I kept crying as I gave my teammates hugs, wished them luck, and promised that I’d see them again. After briefly putting myself together, I cried as I drove by the Common for a last time, and then shed my final tears – perhaps for the year – as I turned off of South Craftsbury Road, onto Route 14, and towards the future.