Or “Why I sent out my holiday cards in March”
There’s a good reason I mailed my Christmas cards in March. Really there is. This season we can count three ski racers in our brood. And as long as we’re counting, consider these numbers: Our 11 year old has some 70 days on snow and well over a million vertical feet skied. There are 7,510 miles logged on our two cars, 63 loads of laundry (primarily fleece garments), 3 neck gaiters and 1 fur-trimmed, lime-green ski jacket, size 5, gone missing. There are still 6 weeks left in the ski season.
This year, we took the plunge and enrolled all three kids in three different ski-racing programs with Team Summit, a race club based in Summit County, Colorado. Every week since October, I’ve been trucking up to the mountains from Boulder, bringing my oldest son, Quinn, to training. He started running gates before the bullwheel was officially turning for the public. In November, Jeff and our younger two, ages 6 and 8, joined the fray.
We were afraid that our youngest might be too young—she insists on toting a minimum of two stuffed unicorns in her ski-jacket pockets—but yesterday she and I skied Spaulding Bowl at Copper, a super-steep double-black-diamond cirque that gives even expert skiers pause. (This, you see, is the ultimate payoff of signing kids up for ski team: you can ski anything on the mountain with your kids, even when they are in kindergarten, and you are slowing them down.)
Because the kids are in different programs, they go to different ski races on weekends. When the younger ones are at Eldora, our older one is at Keystone. When the older one is at Ski Cooper, the younger ones are at Beaver Creek. It’s a rare weekend when the whole family is at the same mountain. We are keenly aware that this is an insanity we brought on ourselves.
A few weekends back, Quinn and I headed to Crested Butte for the Prater Cup, one of the most intense, action-packed ski races on the schedule for ski racers in their tweens. This four-day race features three disciplines of ski racing: Super G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom. To give you a glimpse into the life of a ski-racing mom, herewith an abridged timeline of that weekend. I’m just hitting the highlights here; reading the full itinerary would wear you right out.
8 a.m. I drop Quinn with the coaches for a day of training on the Super G course. To the uninitiated, the Super G event splits the difference between full-on, pedal-to-the-metal Downhill racing and the turnier Giant Slalom event. But even these kids, some weighing in at a willowy 70 pounds, will reach speeds of 45 mph. Suffice it to say, the Super G is a nail-biter of an event for moms. I head back to Crested Butte South where we are staying at my pal Jill Sickels Matlock’s house. Jill and her husband, Ross, are in Japan with clients for the week they’ve kindly lent us their place. (Jill happens to hold four US Extreme Skiing titles, so we are getting good competition vibes staying here.)
The reason I’m driving back to Jill’s and not skiing myself is that I had forgotten to bring Quinn’s slalom skis to the mountain (I could have sworn the email said “1:30 pm” not “1:30 sl”). It is worth pointing out that my son has four pairs of skis. Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G, and fat skis. Did I mention he is 11? Our garage looks like a ski-shop warehouse.
I have a couple hours before the slalom training, so I start stuffing envelopes. Must. Get. Out. Christmas Card. Our holiday card is so embarrassingly late that I feel compelled to enclose a newsletter explaining why it is so late. Of course, the production of a newsletter only serves to stall the process even further.
4 p.m.: The Dan Memorial Prater Cup opening ceremonies begin with Milk and Cookies. Quinn is deathly allergic to milk and cookies, so this is an inauspicious start. But let me congratulate myself here on just happening to have in the car a Tupperware of home-baked oatmeal-raisin-chocolate-chip cookies that are dairy and peanut free. I rock! (Spacing the SL skis, notwithstanding.)
The Prater Cup has an element of the Winter Games to it. Each racer is assigned randomly to a country, which brings together racers from disparate ski clubs. It’s like the Junior Junior Olympics. Quinn gets placed on Team Belgium. The kids are then given passports and a sheet of stickers with their country’s flags. Over the course of the weekend, they need to trade flag stickers to fill up their passport, visit a series of points on the mountain in a sort of scavenger hunt on skis, and basically be good sports with lots of team spirit to earn “Prater Points” for their country. At the end, winning teams are awarded surprisingly substantial prizes, from Oakley goggles to Skull Candy earphones to Hestra gloves.
7 p.m. We meet up with the coaches and team in the lobby of the hotel where many of the racers are staying. The coaches review the game plan for the next few days. We talk about inspection and start times, start orders and bibs, extracurricular activities, and best guess for wax.
11 p.m. It is long past my bedtime, but I am out in Jill’s garage, hunched over a tuning bench, sharpening, stoning, waxing, scraping, and brushing Quinn’s race skis. In between edges, I’m running into the kitchen to check on the dairy-free pizza in the oven. Of course there’s a pizza party after the race tomorrow. Just so happens that I brought along the fixings for pizza. I rock! (Very very occasionally things go right for me in this department. Most of the time, in these situations, my son is looking at me sadly with his big brown eyes while somebody is handing out big gooey brownies or birthday cupcakes that he can’t eat and that I didn’t see coming.)
5:45 a.m. It’s time to get up, pack lunches, and fry up some thick-cut bacon and scrambled eggs. My son is a featherweight and it’s a Super G race. (Think F=ma. In a Super G, mass is your friend.) Quinn needs every ounce of fat he can get. I encourage the heart-attack special and load the skis in the car, all four pairs this time, just in case.
We root through the drawers at Jill’s and find Sharpies in red, yellow, and black. I tattoo the Belgium flag on Quinn’s cheek, and he uses the markers to decorate an old white soccer t-shirt for the basketball game.
8 a.m. We meet the coaches at the bottom of the lifts, and that’s the last I see of Quinn until I meet up with him in the finish corral. When he was younger, my husband and I were more hands-on on race day, hanging around the start, meeting up for lunch, and helping him strip down to his race suit at the start. But this year is different. At this age, the kids are becoming increasingly more independent. Yet they’re still young and, on occasion, need a little help. Quinn shoos me away. “You can go now, mom. See ya,” he says as he skates off to the lift. The wrong lift. I run after and point him in the right direction.
It’s a Nanny McPhee situation. If you’ve watched the 2005 movie with your kids, you’ll remember her sage words, “When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.”
10 a.m. After a very fortifying latte at Camp 4 Coffee, I head for Crested Butte’s hard core terrain. At most races, sadly, we parents spend most of the day hunkered on the side of the hill watching the races. I have gotten a sore neck from staring uphill all day. Ordinarily there’s little time for freeskiing. But the worthy terrain at Crested Butte is easily accessed, which means I can sneak away for a few ripping runs and scoot back to the race in time to shake my cowbells on the sidelines. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding….Cowbells are the internationally recognizably sound of a ski race. So much more civilized and European than those irritating plastic foghorns you hear at hockey games.
I take The High Lift to Teocali Bowl, a steep tree-studded run blanketed in soft fresh snow. It’s not skied out yet because the bowl requires a scant 10-minute hike out. The threat of an uphill slog keeps the riff-raff away. Next I jump on the North Face T-bar, which takes me to Crested Butte’s infamous North Face. It’s vertiginous and rocky, and the snow’s decidedly more firm here. I pick my way down adrenaline-inducing lines. I’m on telemark skis, a handicap that ups the degree of difficulty.
Towards the bottom, I come across a small whiteboard that reads “Cesspool, Thin Cover!” Now, a wiser skier would back up and choose a different line. Not me. I decide to take a look, and by the time I ascertain that at Crested Butte “thin cover” means the run is lined with cliffs and peppered with rocks. I’m too low to backtrack, so I go for it, trying to pick my way gingerly down the minefield. It’s hopeless; I leave a better part of the base of my right ski on one particularly razor-sharp hunk of granite. I make another lap, then panic that I’ll miss my son’s run, so I head back to the front side of the mountain, making turns on very slick trails at speeds that are totally unadvisable on free-heel equipment.
11 a.m. I’m back in time for the race. The smell of spray paint is in the air. Gore-texed graffiti artists have spray-painted giant country flags onto the snow: France, Japan, Austria, Sweden. Racers lap the course with large country flags rippling over their shoulders. Some kids have taken colored duct tape and covered their shin guards, helmets, and jackets in their country flags. In one impressive artistic display, one racer fashioned a Canadian flag on the back of his jacket, including a perfectly shaped maple leaf out of red duct tape.
Prior to the race, I’d heard from a friend that kids make flags out of duct tape. I didn’t realize it would be country flags, so the only duct tape I packed was hot pink and mud brown. No country I know of has a flag that’s pink and brown. (I do not rock.)
2 p.m. After the races, Quinn sends me packing again so he can ski around Crested Butte with his pals. It’s fine by me, because that’s another quick lap on the Headwall. I tell him I’ll meet him at the hotel later. But when I’m heading through Crested Butte’s base area, I find Quinn alone and struggling to load two pairs of skis on his shoulders along with his backpack. He gets one up, and the other falls down. He is now sweaty, teary, and mad at me for not being there. He doesn’t want me, but at this particular moment, he needs me. I do not rock.
4 p.m.Tragedy strikes: Quinn’s passport falls out of his pocket and is lost. Quinn is not too fussed about where he places in the races, but this is bad. He is very sad.
5 p.m. Quinn and I sneak into the hot tub at the hotel. As he cavorts and splashes about with his teammates, he forgets about the passport. I have a flashback to my own ski racing days in Lake Placid, when the zany Saturday night adventure amounted to sneaking into the hot tubs of the low-slung motels and motor inns.
6 p.m. The parents get together at Maxwell’s in downtown Crested Butte for microbrews while the kids head to Town Hall for a basketball tournament. One parent tells me, “My son is way more about the alternative sports played at sports competitions.” The gym smells like sweat and dirty feet. While Jared, Quinn’s Team Summit coach, has his game face on and is shouting strategies and encouragement to Team Poland from the sidelines, the coach for Team Belgium is a no-show. Quinn’s team is eliminated in the first round. Quinn decides it’s just plain-old bad luck to be on Team Belgium.
11 p.m. I am out in the garage, hunched over a tuning bench, sharpening, stoning, waxing, scraping, and brushing Quinn’s race skis. Again.
See above. More flag waving, spray painting, course inspection, cow-bell ringing, scraping, stoning, waxing, brushing, et al., only with a Giant Slalom race this time.
5:30 a.m. I am up even earlier on this last day because the boys’ team is meeting at the lift at 7:15 a.m. for course inspection. I repeat, 7:15 a.m. The day goes much like the past few days, only today’s race is slalom.
1:30 p.m.Because of the early start, the boys are finished by midafternoon so there’s time before the award ceremony for some freeskiing. Quinn has condescended to sneak away and ski with his mom. I take him to Teocali Bowl where we scribe arcs down chalky steeps and thread through the trees, dropping over boulders and fallen logs. “This is awesome,” Quinn says, grinning broadly. He doesn’t even mind the hike out; he chugs right up the trail like a seasoned backcountry skier.
In this moment, I realize the ski racing—and all the exorbitant effort that goes into it—is about more than just bashing gates and gunning for top-ten finishes. Even now the kids are reaping the rewards. We can see their independence and confidence growing. They bring their ribbons and medals to school, and they beam with pride when they tell their friends about races. They are intensely fit. And they are into it. When Aidan, our middle child, got his first speed suit, he wore it to bed. Possibly the most amazing thing: Our kids don’t gripe on weekends when we wake them up early, sometimes at O-Dark:30. Seventy days on skis and Quinn has been pumped to get out and train every time.
And we’re counting on this: That these early years are laying the foundation for a lifetime of great skiing. When our kids are grown and ripping turns on a blower, bluebird powder day on some mountainside somewhere (Chamonix? The Bugaboos?), they’ll remember how it was they got to be so good on skis and they’ll think to themselves, My mom rocks.
Oh, and when the kids are grown, maybe, I’ll get that holiday card out on time. Maybe.