I try to share our daily life as skiers on social media, but sometimes there is a longer story behind the scenes that I want to be sure I write. I think it’s important to be honest about the challenges as well as sharing the fun stories. I’ve heard it said that life as an elite athlete is something like riding a roller coaster; the highs are high, the lows are low, you’ll feel incredibly nervous at times and get addicted to the rush…and there’s going to be a camera present to capture the weird faces you make. You’re lucky to ride the ride, and you signed up for it! And I really do feel lucky to be here, alongside inspiring people, which is probably why I’m most often smiling.

So pumped about the new Salomon skis for the season!

If you’re here, you likely don’t need me to update you on all that’s happened since I last wrote a blog post; the Olympics, a spring of resting and recovering, the very best day of my whole life (I’m a married woman now!) and a summer and fall of productive training. I might someday finish a blog post I have partially written about the experiences I had behind the scenes in Beijing, but for now, let’s just say it’s been a good year, with very high highs, pretty low lows and a lot of emotion felt and shared with others. And if you want all the wedding details and photos, they’re on my Instagram (and will be, forever)! 

Testing skis with Cork (Sarah Brunson photo)

“But if you regularly update people on social media, why write at all?” 

Great question. When I was 17, I used to scour the internet (on our old dial-up internet connection, how charming!) for any behind-the-scenes stories of what it might actually be like to be racing the world cup as an athlete. I was very seriously considering doing it for a living, and I wanted to know. There are some stories that are just too long or complicated to share on social media, or some that seem too boring but aren’t boring at all if you’re a true nerd in the sport. 

An unfortunate moment in the Ruka classic sprint Photo by Modica/NordicFocus.

So between us nerds, here’s my top takeaways from our first few weeks of being on the road all winter! 

Pretty psyched to be back on snow (Lo photo)

Thanks to some very kind and generous donor support, we had a chef on the road with us in Ruka for the very first time! Tanya Alexander is a wonderful chef, and she provided some truly delicious and nutritious foods for us – and cooked for THIRTY PEOPLE out of a kitchenette. Astounding. This was huge, as in the past I have really struggled to get enough food or enough variety on my plate while at this venue. 

A slow sunset walk – slow in the speed I was moving AND slow in that it was a 2 hour sunset. (Julia photo)

Unfortunately (and, important to note, completely separate from our team food situation), I got really sick on Saturday (6 days before our first race) and my roommates woke to find me curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor. 

I know what you’re thinking…”didn’t you just go through something like this, at the Olympics right before the 30km?” And you’d be right; I did. It sucked then, and it sucked now, too. However, I think at the Olympics I had a (relatively) more minor form of food poisoning, and this time it seemed like more of a 24-hour flu type virus. We think I picked it up on the long travel over to Europe, because even though we all wore masks and washed hands frequently, you come into contact with a lot of people and surfaces during that much travel. It really wiped me out, and also emptied me out; I couldn’t eat anything for a day, and that came around later to get me. 

A visit with my parents (missing one dog here but the other is REALLY enjoying all the attention)

Luckily for me, we had a new team doctor traveling with us, so Dr. Jesse Coenen got put to work extremely quickly! I felt very well taken care of, by him and the entire team, and I bounced back after another day of slowly rehydrating and easy, short walks outside. All in all, I was really lucky. A 24-hour stomach bug is intense, for sure, but you also know when it’s over, and you know it’s safe for you to return to sport. I was going to be able to start the races; how fast I’d actually go was still up in the air. 

Race-ready! Julia, Lo and I (the Ruka roommate trio)

Lo (Lauren Jortberg) Julia Kern and I all roomed together, and we had a truly fun atmosphere the whole time. Those girls took such great care of me when I was coming back from being sick, and in return I obsessively wiped surfaces with cleaning wipes and was extremely relieved when nobody else got sick! 

This explains a lot (Lo photo)

Lo makes really, really good cookies, and Julia takes really, really good photos. Wow. 

A halo! (photo by Julia)

I contributed to neither of these efforts, but I did help make a huge pan of dessert bars for Oleg’s birthday…he’s our head of the wax team and also our first birthday on the road every season! 

The annual Oleg birthday team walk!

I always work my way into the season, and this year was no exception. 

This used to bother me. 

I struggle to do anything halfway; when I commit to something, I’m all in. When I’m with you, I’m really there with you. When I love, I love hard. When I race, I collapse at the finish line. So “working into the season” used to be a tough concept for me to grasp. But it’s also been a necessary one. There’s a steep price to pay for going all-out all the time like that, and I think having a little temperance early on is part of what has allowed my body to make it through such an intense season of racing year after year. *Although, it should be noted, “making it though” is very relative, and if you’d seen my body breaking down last March firsthand, you might want to debate whether or not I really made it through a whole season. I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. 

A frosty 20km skate day! Photo by Modica/NordicFocus.

After the first weekend, I felt really pleased and happy with where my body was at; my energy felt right about where I think it should be at this time of year. Not in sharp race form yet, but not too far from it, either. My technique always takes a bit longer to come around, and with only 5 days of skiing before the first World Cup, I knew my brain would have to be 100% focused during the classic races in order for me to hold it together. I know I have more work to do, and I have very specific technique goals and takeaways that I’ll be working on these next few weeks. But overall, I was encouraged by where I came in after having the opportunity to work on snow for three weeks in Australia this summer, and I think that on-snow time helped me while striding up sugary tracks that were starting to break down. Years ago, conditions like that would have unraveled me, and I would have been slipping, wasting energy and bleeding time. I’m not saying I skied a particularly fast race, but overall I was really proud of the work we had painstakingly put in over the years on my classic technique starting to show though. 

Group think. (Sarah Brunson photo)

The really interesting thing for me was that while my body and my energy had bounced back after being sick and I felt normal while racing, I did have an interesting side effect. For the very first time in my life, my legs cramped up (pretty good, too, although you probably didn’t see it on TV) in a sprint race. They did this three times in three minutes. I wasn’t overly pleased about it. 

Scenes from the truck. This crew works SO hard, and I want to be able to do them justice by putting forth my best race effort, every time. (Sarah Brunson photo)

I got in touch with our team’s sport dietician and we made a plan for getting my body hydrated and fueled, one that I followed, and while my body felt normal in the 10km classic, things started to unravel again for me in the 20km skate. Which was a real bummer, as I was having a great time out there. I honestly love the chase, so hunting down one bib after another and working my way back up to the pack fighting for the podium was a real thrill. My energy felt great, I felt like I could keep pushing forever, but headed into the last lap I felt that all-too-familiar twinge in my legs that signaled muscle cramping was coming to get me. “Nope. Don’t you DARE.” I thought maybe, just maybe, a stern talking-to was going to somehow help? Like maybe my legs would be intimidated by my brain? 

They weren’t. 

On the last uphill, right when I’d gotten myself into great position, it fell apart and I was stumbling over my own legs, which were alternately locking out and seizing up. I had to throw in a double pole or two over the top (not a great sign of excelling in a skate race). 

Catching up with Ingvild after the 20km skate in Ruka while holding my muscles together. (photo by Modica/Nordic Focus)

We debriefed after the race, and while I don’t share this story for pity or feedback or any other reason than entertainment, it sometimes helps to know that even for experienced World Cup skiers, sometimes things just don’t work out. And, that’s ok. I think that’s why we keep racing. It’s exciting to chase after that elusive feeling of mind, body, skis, wax, tactics, pacing and technique all coming together at once. 

A tired face. (photo by Nordic Focus)

Luckily for me, I got to experience that feeling 5 days later! Lillehammer was a fun trip. The racing went really well, and despite some sickness making its way through more or less the whole World Cup, we still had a lot of fun. I got to resume my role of team dance teacher (I thrive in this role) and perhaps equally important, I finally got my hands on some Norwegian Christmas brown cheese. 

Tik Tok dance teacher, at your service. (Sarah Brunson photo)
The Christmas shopping trip in Lillehammer (Sarah Brunson photo)
My 2 favorite kinds of brown cheese. (Sarah Brunson photo)

All three days of racing were a mix of adrenaline, nerves, excitement and joy, and they made me remember that I truly enjoy the race day atmosphere, even when I’m nervous. It was very special to be back on the podium and to have another win in the 10km skate, and to be honest, also a relief of sorts. I work hard to try not to internalize (or absorb at all) any of the pressure to produce results, because focusing only on the outcome rarely produces an outcome you’re happy with. But I’m also not totally oblivious. The pressure is there, and at this point in my career, it’s there to stay. The good part is, it’s up to me how I deal with it! And I usually choose to deal with pressure by investing in the team. 

Finish line hugs after the 20km mass start classic (Sarah Brunson photo)
Girls group ready to race prep (Sarah Brunson photo)
Ready to test skis (Sarah Brunson photo)
A happy hop onto the podium. (photo by Modica/Nordic Focus)

One of the highlights of the Lillehammer race weekend was seeing so many US fans out on course! Their energy and cheering was so inspiring. 

The group from the Methow Valley doing the most amazing job cheering on the big climb! (photo from Kent Murdoch)
Saying hi to the Methow Valley group after the race (Sarah Brunson photo)

I think the most important thing to remember about the days that go well is that they’re not actually all that different from the days that don’t, if you feel you’ve truly done all that you can. You still have an incredible team of people working their hardest to get you to that start line with your best chance. You still plan, train, prepare and then send it as hard as you can. You still hurt like hell at the finish. You might get an embarrassingly large wheel of cheese – or you might not – but that’s not really within your direct control. So it’s ok to feel just as proud of the days when you don’t win, and it’s also ok if winning doesn’t shift your mood the way you imagined it might. 

The girls to my rescue at the finish line when I couldn’t move (or breathe, or think, really). (photo by Modica/Nordic Focus)
It’s a demanding sport. (Sarah Brunson photo)
One of our PT’s, Ryan Peterson, helping me in the finish pen after the skate sprint in Lillehammer. (Sarah Brunson photo)

The things that did shift my mood in the most positive way, much more than racing itself, was the team atmosphere we have going on right now. It feels supportive, fun, lighthearted…even though when it’s time to get down to business and focus, we can turn it on. 

Girls yoga group (Julia photo)
Honestly not sure what the heck I’m doing here but it looks like I’m racing Matt. (Sarah Brunson photo)

I especially enjoyed getting to do the race day braids and glitter for my teammates, and the pre-race camaraderie always feels like a special thing to be a part of. 

Race day vibes. (Sarah Brunson photo)
Morning rituals. (Sarah Brunson photo)
An important pre-race ritual, the hair braiding. (Sarah Brunson photo)
This is the moment when I can just slow down and breathe and not worry about the race. (Sarah Brunson photo)
Getting Sophia glittered up pre-race! (Sarah Brunson photo)
I get asked a lot about the glitter. Here is the plan; Dermatone first, biodegradable glitter second. Smile, remember it’s supposed to be fun and you signed up to be here. Then go race as hard as you can. (Sarah Brunson photo)

Now we are in Beitostølen, ready for another triple race weekend! It’s been a gorgeous few days of sunrises that get you excited to get out the door, and tourist tracks that remind me why I’ll be skiing my whole life.

This is how mornings should be, every day. (Lo photo)
Alayna and I enjoying a sunset run in Beito
Lo and I having a really fun chill ski up the tourist tracks!

Last but certainly not least, a huge thank you to our volunteer staff. These amazing men and women take time away from their jobs, their loved ones and their lives to come on the road with us for a week or a few at a time, to help keep the ship afloat. We would almost certainly sink without them. Thank you, you know who you are!