Friday, November 29, 2013

Week 1 Recap

Today will be the fifth official day that I'll be out on skis. Somehow, the cold weather has stayed and the snow has, therefore, remained on the ground. After my first experience Saturday, I've been out on skis three more times, with poles, and will be out again today.
It's been absolutely amazing. Sunday and Monday were just home workouts, but Tuesday saw me back on the snow. It was a mild day Tuesday much more so than Saturday, and I thoroughly enjoyed the change in temperature. It wasn't the most pretty performance on my behalf. Other skiers had been out before us and had left small man made tracks, but the snow was soft and my skis kept flopping all over the place. It's a wonder I managed to keep moving forward. I fell probably about a half dozen times that day; maybe more. However, it helped because it made me less afraid of falling. If I could fall that many times and get back up and keep going, then there wasn't anything to be afraid of. We did a 4 kilometre circuit and I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't incredibly sore the next day.
Wednesday was a much shorter trip out as we were under time constraints. It was much crisper, but I was again pleasantly surprised that, once moving I stayed warm. Tracks had been made and I stayed in them for the most part. It was so amazing to be just floating along. My coach had been great and taken me out all week. He has had to ski with one pole only, especially the first day, since he's used one hand on my elbow or a thumb hooked under the waist of my coat to keep me from taking off into the forest. Wednesday there was less of that because the tracks made it possible for me to get a sense of direction. Despite it being a short outing, I think it was productive. It gave me more time to get a feel for the glide of skiing and how to maintain my balance. There was definitely less falling. I counted twice. The down hills, even though small, were freaking me out and the first hill we slid down I panicked which instantly meant I shifted my centre of gravity back and fell over. I made a real conscious effort to try to keep myself upright when we were out Thursday.
Thursday was another chilly day. The sky was even trying to give us more snow as we glided along. We did the 4 kilometre circuit again and took advantage of a bigger hill to practice going up and how to control your descent. There are a lot of little skills that I have seen just in the past three days building on each other. It's really exciting. For example, doing a 180 degree turn when you're blind and your feet are over a metre long is really tricky. Plus, you have poles in your hands which make you feel like you have four feet instead of two. This skill was alluding me. I kept crossing my skis, stabbing my skis with my poles, not turning the entire 180 degrees. But then, we added in another element-doing a 180 degrees while standing on an incline. I thought flat ground was tricky. Not only were my feet metres long, but I had gravity to contend with. I managed it though, with a lot of help from my coach. (We'll call him Coach T). However, when it came to doing a 180 turn on a flat surface again, it seemed like a piece of cake and I managed it fairly gracefully.
There have been so many things that I've been learning. We practiced going up a hill all three days we were out, but used different techniques in order to show me that there are various options. Yesterday we focused on really using the poles to help propel you up the hill. It was another case of figuring out how to coordinate arms and legs while fighting gravity when wearing equipment meant to make you slide. It felt very awkward and there was much thrashing, but for a few blissful stabs of my poles yesterday, my body finally did what Coach T and my brain was telling it to do. Coach T said to really jam the pole into the ground and use it kind of like a lever to heave yourself up. That's not exactly it, but the point is to make the pole bend; or so I'm told. Of course I didn't see the pole bend, no skier would have since the poles are being planted posterior to the athlete in order to give them more leverage, but Coach T said my poles bent. I certainly felt the difference. There was still much more flailing than pole bending, but the point is that it happened and I know what it feels like. Now, I just have to teach my body to do that all of the time; you use way less energy that way.
We also did a technique dubbed "double poling" on all three days. It's a technique a lot of the world class athletes are using. The first day it didn't go so well since I'd double pole myself into the tree line instead of holding a straight line of travel. The second day it went better, but I still fell doing it. Yesterday, I did the most and didn't fall once. The tracks kept me straight and I could concentrate on the motion of throwing my arms in front of me, jabbing the ground and hurling myself past my arms rather than being concerned as to what direction I was or wasn't going. It's definitely something I'll have to work on in regards to fitness and strength, but I got in a few good ones where I really got going. It was interesting for me to switch from the double poling back to "diagonal striding" (AKA regular skiing) and realise just how fast I had actually been going. The difference in speed really surprised me because I didn't feel like I was going very much faster than when using the regular technique. I think I even managed to get in the little hop at the right time during some of it.
I am by no means ready to race at world class levels, but i feel like I've made progress. I don't scream as much and I only fell on one hill yesterday as opposed to sitting down on all of them. I am so grateful to Coach T for his help and his time he's been dedicating to my cause. I'm grateful to his wife for being understanding and letting me borrow her waxless skis and poles. Even Coach T's daughter has donated to my cause. I was given the wrong boots at the ski swap and she's allowing me to borrow her boots for training before the camp as well as during the camp and my race. I've always believed that athletes are only as good as their support systems and if I can be half as good as my support system, I'll be happy. I couldn't do this without the support of my family and even complete strangers, and people I'm just getting to know. It's just the little things that make the difference: like my husband throwing a sandwich together for me as I rush about putting my gear on; my Mom driving me to various ski shops so I can try things on and price check; or Coach T picking me up for practices. It really makes you realise that there is definitely still good in this world.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

On Skis

It would appear that Old Man Winter is on my side. At least, this year, I consider him dumping 3 to 4 inches of snow on us as being on my side. Sure, it's minus 9 C, with a wind chill that drops it a few more degrees I am sure, but there's snow and that means I actually got to find out if I can actually ski.
That's right-I am Alberta bound to attend a training camp for skiing ATHLETES and we weren't even sure I knew how to ski. Turns out, I can. I'm a little relieved to say the least. Can you imagine me showing up with all of the national athletes and being like,
"Hi, I'm here to learn how to ski while you train for the Paralympic Games coming up in a few months."
We've had a few days in the past month where you could get out and ski, however, one of my guides was first out of town on a conference and then ended up having three kidney stone attacks.  So, skiing was out, to say the least. However, today worked out with having snow and everyone being healthy and so at 8:30 this morning, I made my skiing debut.
Technically, I've skied before which I think has helped, but it's been over 20 years. I was a little wee thing the last time I strapped on a pair of skis, participating in my local Jack Rabbits program. So, when I decided to embark on this crazy adventure, I thought that eventually it would come back to me, but I didn't realise that it would come back so quickly.
Instead of going to the ski trail, my guide thought it would be more beneficial to ski on a golf course. That way, the ground would be even and we should be mostly on grass; covered by snow of course. Also, the golf course would probably be empty which would give us the time and space to teach me how to ski. The first golf course we hit was a bit of a bust. A woman came out and told us that we weren't allowed to ski on the grass until there was a foot of snow because we would ruin the grass due to the chemicals they had put down. My guide was a bit confused since the owner of the place had told him we could ski, but since the owner wasn't there, we moved on. No point in burning bridges if we didn't have to.
The second golf course ended up being where we skied. We had a bit of a problem getting my right boot to stay clipped into the binding, but eventually it stuck. Snow had packed into the bar that goes across the toe and under the boot as well. At first, we were concerned that the ski binding was broken and our effort to ski was being thwarted again. The skis we used were "waxless" skis which means that you don't need wax on the bottoms. They are good for beginners, like me. The waxless skis don't have as much glide as the skis with wax, but again, it was good for me. Another small glitch we ran into was a bit of a miscommunication about poles.
I had told my guide that I had bought my poles and he thought I had them. However, the store was supposed to be cutting them to length and hadn't called to tell me they were ready yet. So, he thought I had poles when I didn't. That meant, my skiing debut was minus poles. At first, I was concerned. I thought having the poles would help me keep my balance as well as give me a reference point. Skiing on the golf green meant there weren't any pre-made tracks to guide my skis. I was freaking out a little bit, but I knew my guide had patience and that I could take my time.
Our first loop around the green went well. My guide stood beside me and held his arm at a 90 degree angle, as someone would when running with a blind runner who wasn't quite ready for a tether. I placed my hand on his wrist and we began striding along. All I could think was:
"How do I make myself move?"
But suddenly, I just started moving. It wasn't a motion I had to learn. It was like my muscles remembered what to do. After that first loop, my guide asked me if I wanted to try just skiing beside him, without his arm. I wanted to scream "noooooooooo!" There weren't any pre-made tracks. I didn't have poles! I hadn't been on skis in over 20 years! Was he nuts? I certainly was not ready. However, I thought of my training camp coming up in just two weeks and I let go of his arm; albeit reluctantly. I can't even walk a straight line, how was I supposed to ski in a straight line without poles or pre-made tracks?
The thought of:
"How do I start moving?" came again, and I just started moving forward again.
We spent an hour out there, sun shining, North wind blowing fiercely and me re-learning how to ski. It really didn't feel like an hour though.
As we did one loop after another, my guide started talking about more technique. He skied a circle around me while I stood still so I could hear the "kick" part of his stride and how far one "kick" made him glide. He said he was impressed and that I was already a good skier, we just now had to make me into a racer; all in good time.
And do you know what else? I only fell three times and my guide fell before I did.
My first fall came as I was working on the "glide" part of my stride. I got going faster than I was comfortable with down a small hill and panicked. I leaned my weight back in order to stop the "wooshing" motion (I really wasn't going that fast, but it felt like it to me) and I went straight down on my butt. My guide had said that if you don't fall you're not working hard enough so I hollered from my butt plant,
"I'm working hard enough now."
My second fall came when I was stepping closer to my guide because I had started drifting away from him by accident. My skis crossed and down I went. The third one I have decided wasn't my fault. We were heading back to the car and there was some kind of unnatural surface under the snow-maybe a polished platform-that was super slippery and I landed on my butt again.
Even though I fell three times and the stinking North wind was peeling my face off, I loved it. There's something to be said for being able to glide over snow completely unattached from a person or guide dog. I have always said that working with my guide dogs was the ultimate freedom because I could walk by myself without having to hold on to a person, and it still is, but from my experience this morning, cross country skiing is, apart from the guide dog, the closest thing I will ever come to moving as an independent person. It is the most amazing feeling. I've decided that if we can't make me a racer, I will always cross country ski.
I probably owuld have stayed out there for another hour, but I had a run scheduled in for the afternoon and I had cycled some intervals the night before. I am eager to get better and faster, but I really need to make sure I pace myself. Going into the training camp with an injury would be much worse than going in with a bit lower fitness level than I'd like. So, we loaded the skis back into the car and headed home.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Walking Barefoot in the Sand: My Traveling Bumble Bee

Walking Barefoot in the Sand: My Traveling Bumble Bee: Nala is my third guide dog. We've been together for about nine months now and she's already moved across an ocean. One of my friends...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Alberta Bound

I got the good news yesterday morning. An email came in saying that I had been selected to go to the training camp in Alberta as a part of the contingency Ontario was sending. There are eight of us and I know no one; not necessarily a bad thing. We leave December 05 and the camp runs until the 8th. However, I won't be back so soon.
There is an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) sanctioned Cup of some sort being held after the camp and I'm racing in it.
Haven't been on skis in over 20 years and I'm heading to a training camp and then racing.
Why not?
The real reason is because I'm going to be getting classified which means that eye doctors basically confirm that I'm completely blind. This whole process requires that they see you competing after the classification to make it all official. So, if I want to be classified, I have to race. Classifiers aren't present at every competition so it makes sense to just get it done now.
We obviously don't care about the time, but are more concerned with technique and just getting the race finished. I'm not so nervous about the race-at least not yet-but I am a bit nervous about the camp.
Here I am going in with a bunch of athletes who are competing at the international level and I haven't skied in forever; never mind what kind of physical fitness I'm in. I've been working on that, but it's still nowhere where it used to be.
But, I'm slotted in now and so I'm going. All I can do is keep working out the way I have been, hope for some snow so I can get on skis before we go out there and enjoy the ride. I should probably also go buy some actual skiing clothes as well. ;)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

You Won't Miss Me

Today was the ski swap. This means, from what I gathered today, that loads of people cram into a location, searching through used and new ski gear; trying to find the exact item they want. I, on the other hand, had no idea what I was doing. So I stood aside until the guy who is thinking about being my coach arrived on the scene and showed me the skis he had put aside for me. The vice president of the ski club was originally going to help out, but she had gone out of town unexpectedly. So, her husband stepped up and found me a pair of boots. The problem was...
my feet were too big.
I've always known I have big feet, but when a men's UK 42 didn't fit, I began to think I didn't need skis; mine were already attached to the ends of my legs.
My big feet turned out to be a blessing in disguise though because those boots were more than slightly used. The leather had tons of creases in it and I was concerned the previous owner had left his stride pattern embedded in the bottom of the boot. That could potentially cause some serious postural issues.
Since everyone was shocked at the size of my feet, we began examining the possibility of me having to buy new boots as opposed to used. (Or, perhaps waxing the bottoms of my feet would serve just as well). The upside to purchasing new boots would have been that I could have worn the boots in to fit me. However, the downside was that new boots were significantly more expensive. As I stood on the church floor in my socks, the idea of new boots started to appeal to me. The new boots would last longer too. That said, dollar signs kept whizzing through my brain-150 for a "decent" pair of boots. I don't think my regular winter boots cost that much.
The decision was made for me though when one of the ski shop venders appeared with a pair of (much more) gently used women's ski boots. More excitingly, my abnormally large feet fit. There was enough wiggle room for a thicker pair of socks and potential feet swelling from physical exertion. Initially, my personal assistants were concerned because the boots are designed for skate skiing which I won't start until next year, but I pointed out that having the extra ankle support that skate ski boots provides as a blind person is not necessarily a bad thing. It was also brought to my attention that the colours of the boots and skis are quite loud-the skis being a bright yellow and the boots screaming even louder in red and yellow-but I figured, despite the obvious clashing, people would know it was me coming. In the future, when I'm purchasing new gear, I can be concerned with matching and perhaps not such a bold statement, but for now, this stuff will serve its purpose. With my reflective pink outer shell jacket that casts pink glare off of ice and snow, my vest that boldly proclaims "blind skier" on it, my nearly florescent yellow skis and my even brighter boots, you won't miss me.
The only thing I'm missing now are my poles.
I wonder what colour they will come in...?