Breathe and Blossom—What I Learned at a Biathlon Clinic

In the spirit of “welcome”, my word of the year, I’m trying to open myself to the flow of life. So, when I happened to walk through the Tahoe Donner cross-country ski center and saw a notice that a biathlon clinic (that’s skiing and shooting a target) was happening the next day, I signed up before I had time to talk myself out of it. For more than a decade, every winter, I promise myself that I’ll take a biathlon clinic and then somehow, magically, I am never available (or they aren’t offered due to pandemics). The date I signed up for was the only one of the three Sundays offered that I could participate. I didn’t have anything big planned for the Sunday and still I felt some resistance. Oh, it’s too cold. I don’t want to do it alone (originally it was something a friend of mine and I had wanted to do together, but that was already 10 years ago and she moved away 6 years ago). I’m tired from the week and would rather hang out on the couch.

I did it anyway.

Biathlon is my favourite Winter Olympics sport. As a spectator (and someone who cross country skis), it has always looked ferociously hard. Repeated ski sprints, punctuated by quick stops to take 5 shots at a target, with penalty loops if you miss any of the 5 shots. I tried to imagine what it would be like after skiing hard to stop and, instead of hanging over my poles gasping for breath, I had to calm my heart asap and be precise.

Now I know.

It is indeed ferociously hard.

Here’s a clip of some women’s biathlon highlights from this year. Note—in my clinic we practiced shooting from a prone position (pictured earlier) in which it is much easier to catch one’s breath and aim; versus the standing position, which is usual in world class competition:

I’m really glad I took the clinic. Even though it was brutally cold, especially on the bare trigger fingers. And even though when we did a 20-minute, 3-loop-3-rounds-of-shooting race at the end, I was DFL (dead fucking last) out of the 8 of us in the clinic. Still, that feeling of dropping prone to the ground, getting into position and raising the sight to my eye was a sizzle of power. I realized that I had never pulled a trigger in my life. Okay, I wasn’t pulling live rounds. For a first effort, we were using laser rifles, but still. I think of myself as a pacifist. Target shooting, even skeet shooting, has never appealed. I’ve never played paintball. Too close to the violence I don’t want in my life and the world.   

And this was different—not violent at all. Before I went, a friend said, Oh, that will be a great outlet for anger. You can imagine you are shooting at (insert name of any number of maleficent people in the world). I didn’t imagine. Shooting at a target was not at all about who I might be aiming at. Rather, it was about the Zen of controlling my breath, calming my nervous system and finding ease in the precision of the aim. In this, shooting was much more like rock climbing or mountain biking is for me. That dance between sharp focus and soft ease. Engaged and allowing. In fact, Gyöngyi, the lead instructor on the clinic and a former Romanian champion biathlete, was someone I had met before in a seemingly totally different context—she offers sound baths and sound healings.

One instruction she gave me about aiming resonated in particular: Start with the sight below the target and use your out-breath to allow the sight to blossom upward until the target is centered.

I’ve put what Gyöngyi said in bold, because as the days pass since the clinic, I notice how her words continue to act on my system, the metaphor extending to other things I’m aiming for in my life. That day, in the biathlon clinic, when I could hold the image in my head, I hit the target. More often, my impatience got the better of me. I didn’t want to pause for another breath. I was cold. Agitated by my insufficiency—ironically, since that very agitation interfered with my aim. And pressured by competition, which can be fatal to my performance. I want to already be good at the thing that requires patience to become good at it. A conundrum.

I notice my path for growth. Where else can I breathe and blossom?  

Also, I let go of my judgment of a friend’s regular target shooting practice as a disguised enactment of violence and set up a date to learn from him. I’ll keep you posted.

femalestrength · feminism · skiing

Give Girls the Opportunity to Fail

Out cross country skiing the other morning, I came upon this mother-daughter scene at the intersection leading to one of my favourite trails, a winding climb:

Frustrated daughter, who looked about nine-years-old, laying in the snow across the classic ski track (that’s the two parallel grooves), scuffing one ski into the track. Exasperated mother on skis, standing a couple feet away on the corduroy groomed trail.

As I made the right turn onto my favoured trail, the mother shot me a look of complicity, saying, “…” I don’t know what. I couldn’t hear her, because I wasn’t expecting her to speak to me and my ears were focused on the podcast in my ears. On another day, I might have just smiled, as if I’d heard and carried on with my ski. Instead, I felt myself in the girl’s insistent scuffing. The intensity with which she was destroying the track resonated with my own inner girl’s desire to be and do more. I stopped.

Me: “Pardon me? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

Mother: “I just don’t understand why she’s upset. She can’t ski up this trail. It’s too steep. I can barely ski it.”

Me (interior monologue): “The trail’s not that steep. Oh Mina, stop being so judgy. Also, the trail is actually pretty steep right at the top.”

Me: “Couldn’t she do the herringbone?”

Mother: “No. She can’t do it. It’s only her third day skiing.”

Hearing this, the daughter’s ski scuffing gets more vigorous and defiant.

Me (interior monologue): “What’s the harm in letting her try?”

Me (to the daughter): “Great skis. Look, they’re the same design as mine.”

I extended one leg and put one ski next to the daughter’s much shorter one, highlighting our matching black and red Atomics. The daughter glanced at me briefly with curiosity and then continued scuffing. With that, I smiled in what I hope was a consoling way at the mother and carried on with my ski.

For the rest of my time on the snow, the feminist brigade inside my head talked over each other in increasingly louder voices.

Why can’t the daughter at least try? What the worst that will happen if she tries and fails? That she will be discouraged? That she will never want to ski again? Never want to go outside again? Well, that seems unlikely. And why do I feel certain that this scene would not be playing out this way if the daughter was a son? Or if the mother were a father? A father would tell his son that he could climb the hill. Yes, true, sometimes that goes too far in the other direction. I don’t think the whole boot camp desensitization approach is the right way either. But isn’t there a supportive, middle ground? Somewhere between get-the-fuck-up-the-hill-on-the-double and oh-no-this-is-too-hard-to-even-try.  Are we so fragile as girls that we can’t even be allowed to attempt something seemingly insurmountable? Why can’t she be allowed to try and be frustrated and defeated and supported in that struggle? How will she grow her resilience?    

I so wanted to encourage that little girl to take on the hill. I wanted to contradict her mother, take the girl’s hand and let her know that she had all the courage she needed to take on this hill and that I’d be right behind her. And if she didn’t make it, so what, she’d have tried and that’s what counted and next time she’d probably make it. 

Mina at the top of Drifter, her favourite high trail at Tahoe Donner Cross Country (and where she was inspired to ski after the encounter with the mother-daughter)

There were other voices in my head, who told me that I had no right to even weigh in on the topic, because I’m not a mother, so what do I know about daughters; plus the just plain civil voice who pointed out it was not my place to say anything.

Yes. And.

I still know a little something about girls. I was once a girl who encountered frustrations. And I am a woman who has learned a lot of new things, some of which I’ve failed at and some of which seemed insurmountable when I took them on, and at which I did okay. I don’t have specific memories of my parents preventing me from or encouraging me to take on difficult tasks. There was a general ethos of try-and-try-again throughout my childhood. My parents also sent to me to an all-girls summer camp, run by a fierce woman who both cared about our safety and encouraged us to try hard things. I balk at lots of things, but I want to make my own decision about when I choose not to try or to stop trying. When I look around, I see how, even now, boys have bigger self-confidence than girls. Boys are quicker to claim that they are good at something (even when they aren’t really). I really (really) want this for girls, too.

I dream of a world where all genders are offered equal opportunity to fall down (literally and metaphorically) and be supported as they get back on their feet. So, I dare to write this piece, as a non-mother, to ask mothers: “Please give your daughters a shot at the hill, even if it feels too steep, even for you.”   

femalestrength · habits · motivation · new year's resolutions · skiing · training

Just Trying—For A Zesty Start to 2020

A few years ago, my cross-country ski mate moved to Montana. We had developed a relaxed, yet ferocious, approach to our shared ski workouts—lots of hard work and lots of chat time. My perfect workout partner. After she left, I lost my mojo.

I almost didn’t notice. For the first couple of years I was dealing with the run up and the aftermath of surgery for a neuroma in my foot. Not that I had to take any significant time off; it was more that the pain prior to the surgery dampened my enthusiasm and then I didn’t quite trust the absence of pain. Even as I write this, I know that my diminished energy for skiing was more to do with losing my partner-in-energy-for-fierce-workouts than it was related to the surgery.

When the ski season started this year, I noticed for the first time how many moments I told myself that I wasn’t fit enough anymore to do a workout from years past. For example, I used to ski up certain gradual hills using V2 (the most powerful skate ski stroke; think of it like the hard gear in the big chain ring on a bike). Now, I was intimidated by the prospect. I told myself that I shouldn’t even try until I got in better shape. Now, that’s a vicious cycle.

Then, skiing on December 31st, I suddenly realized—what am I doing? Just try, I told myself. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You can’t finish the effort you started? What does that even mean? I’m the one who decides when the effort is done. I’m the one who decides whether I made a good effort or a not. And, if I never make the effort, then I can definitely keep telling myself I can’t.

So, in the middle of my ski, I just tried. I alternated V2 with the moderate ski stroke I normally default to. The next day, January 1, as I was finishing my ski, I got inspired. First day of the year, more, first day of the new decade, try on a new attitude. Plus, I was buoyed by my effort the day before. As I approached the hill where I used to do V2 intervals, I decided to throw in one interval. Just one. Just try. The hill was SO hard. I almost coughed up a lung, as a friend used to say. I got to the top. My technique was a mess. I was done in. I felt that nice glow of accomplishment.

I’m starting to thread back in bits of workouts from the days with my ski pal. It feels good. Fresh. Exhilarating even, as I feel the fizz of enthusiasm returning. As always, the experience makes me question, where else in my life can I just try more? Just try feels forgiving. More about the intention than the outcome. I’m less daunted. I’m less likely to judge myself, when trying is the key to my pleasure, not accomplishing a certain speed.

On January 3, I did the whole interval workout I used to do. V2 up the gradual hill. Fast as I can around and down the other side. Double pole on the barely-discernible-uphill back to the start of the loop. Six times. Just enough energy left for some ski dancing in celebration.

I feel an uptick of overall life optimism from my new and renewed attitude on skis; a zesty feeling I wish I could bottle for the less pleasant days. But life’s operating instructions are pretty clear: Best Enjoyed Now.

Will do.

What’s on your Just Try list?


The Interior Design Benefits of Meditating

Yesterday I hit Day 45 in my meditation streak. The streak was inspired in part by Sam’s post about streaks, another part by the utter randomness my meditation practice had become and a third part by a meditation workshop I participated in on December 2. The last time I meditated for as many days in a row was in 2015. 

For this streak, I’ve asked myself to sit for at least 10 minutes every day, which means that for about 40 of the days I’ve sat for … 10 minutes.  

Small sculpture of cross-legged yogi reading a book and wearing a nightcap, with a red string around it’s neck, scarf-like (Mina got the red string on her first meditation retreat)

I’m tempted to judge myself for the shortness, but hey, I’ve been meditating regularly and so I’m less prone to! 

Have I achieved a higher level of consciousness? Am I having deeper thoughts now? If I am, then I should have noticed. After all, I am supposed to notice the thoughts I’m having (and, of course, then allow them to float past without attachment). Our workshop leader instructed us not only to notice our thoughts, but also to notice our noticings

Here’s the highlight reel of this morning’s thoughts-while-meditating: I should replace the woven wool blanket that’s wrapped around this pillow I’m sitting on. The blanket got so many loops of pulled yarn and holes from my cat, who died almost 7 years ago. I still miss him. I can let the blanket go. But my mother made it. Well, I could replace the blanket with one of the quilts she’s made me, which would be aesthetically more pleasing, even though I can’t see it while I’m meditating. I’m noticing that I’m thinking about my meditation set up. Let the thought go. Oh, I could use the quilt that used to be on my bed, because now I have a duvet. I really love the Boll and Branch sheets on my bed. Nice sheets feel so yummy. Those sheets at that Airbnb in Paris were crap. Scratchy. Or is sticky a better word? I should get a Boll and Branch duvet cover. Oh right, I can’t. I tried that and it doesn’t fit the CocoMat brand duvet. Why do I keep forgetting that? Well I could replace the duvet, too and put it on the guest bed. That bedspread is pretty old and not even bleach is getting out all the stains now. I’m noticing that I’m thinking about bedding. Really? What? Is that the gong to signal the end of the meditation? I didn’t hear the interval bells … Oh, I guess I can stop meditating now. 

Mina’s meditation cushion (really two stacked firm bed pillows) newly covered by a quilt her mother (a quilter, knitter and weaver!) made

The thing is, even in the midst of all these unZen thoughts, I feel pretty good. Like maybe I do have a bit more space in my mind. Less like I’m pushing against life. 

This morning I was out cross-country skiing after a big snow storm here in the Sierra Mountains. The only sounds were the shush of my skis and the phoomff of big clumps of snow falling off the Jeffrey pines and Red firs. Halfway through I realized I was in a bit of a trance, feeling the quiet inside my moving sweat-warm body and enjoying the little thrill of cold air under my arms through the open pit-zips of my jacket. The ski had become a moving meditation.

I’d like to keep my sitting meditation streak up for a while longer. Maybe I will find more of that meditative energy and strength in my workouts.  Maybe I’ll figure out some other small interior design issues.  

Anyone else streaking on something at the moment?


Relearning the virtue of patience and being a beginner again

In the past couple of years, I’ve been more seriously involved in two winter sports—squash and cross country skiing. I’ve blogged about my re-entry into competitive squash and my adventures in cross country skiing.  In neither case would I consider myself a beginner—I started playing squash almost 30 years ago (interspersed with long dormant periods), and cross country skiing has been a regular feature of my winter activity for the past 3 or so years, so both are familiar and comfortable.

However, I ventured way out of the zones of familiarity and comfort last Saturday, when I decided to try skate skiing. First, a few terminology notes. Cross country skiing can be done using different techniques, with correspondingly different skis. Probably the most familiar style is classic , which looks like this:


Then there is skate skiing, which looks like this:


Both classic and skate skiing are done competitively and recreationally. However, in in my area, most of the bike racers tend to skate ski during the winter; it’s an excellent and time-efficient workout, and is also good cross-training. Is it a better workout than classic skiing? Turns out that the answer is complicated, but this much is true: it’s much easier to be a beginner on classic skis than skate skis. The learning curve and fitness requirements are much steeper for skate skiing. Here’s why: if you’re not experienced on classic skis, you can still glide forward, but on skate skis you have to push yourself side to side, which is exhausting when you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, it’s exhausting even when you’re an expert.


I’ve been skiing classic regularly for a few winters now, and really enjoy it—it’s a way to get outside in the winter, get a workout, enjoy nature, and do something active and fun with friends of all ability levels. As in biking, if you’re in a mixed group, you can go slower and also stop for people to catch up and catch their breath.

In skate skiing, however, all that goes out the window. Or so I found out last Saturday.

My friend Janet and I decided to rent skate skis last weekend at Great Brook Farm,  a lovely groomed ski area near Boston. We went with our friend Jessica, who is a very experienced skate skier. She moves seemingly effortlessly, gracefully, and very fast down trails. Janet had taken a skate lesson and tried skating a few times, and I had witnessed her skating along, slowly and haltingly at first, but steadily. I thought to myself, how hard can it be?

It is shocking sometimes when you realize that something you thought wasn’t hard at all turns out to be really really hard. I had prepared by watching a bunch of youtube videos on skating technique. They all made it look easy. You put your skis in a v-position, push off one ski, and glide along, balancing on the other ski.

Surrounded by well-meaning friends, I tried to push off, but to my surprise, didn’t actually go anywhere at all. I tried again. And again. And again. Nothing. Wow—mind blown. Was I not going to be able to do this at all?

Somehow, by using poles to push myself along (skate skis are completely smooth on the bottom, so they slide very easily on snow) and stuttering along, I made it to a flat field area with a straight groomed trail. Jess was offering advice to Janet, who was making progress.

I was really frustrated—I could see what I was supposed to do, but couldn’t put it into action, and was seriously considering giving it up altogether. I had brought my classic skis with me, in case I wanted to switch.

Then something nice happened. Another friend we ran into—Dan, who cycles, skate skis, speed skates and roller blades (so he’s completely comfortable with this type of activity) said to me, “you just need to spend some time on the skis. It will take some time. Just stay on the skis for a while.” This was good advice. It calmed me down and helped me reset my expectations. I was going to have to spend some time not being able to do this, and at some point in the future, I was going to improve. Maybe not as soon as I would like (that is, immediately), but sometime.

I had completely forgotten what that was like—being absolutely at the beginning of learning how to do something. As adults, when do we experience this? Not often. It’s a scary and uncomfortable feeling. But I was intrigued and also heartened by Dan’s comments. He’s a shop teacher, so he’s used to introducing students to activities they’ve never encountered before. I decided to take his advice and just spend some time on the skis, in this one little area, by myself.

Sending everyone else on their way, with them agreeing to come back to check on me later, I proceeded to practice poling and pushing off one ski and gliding. I can’t actually say what happened, or even how long it took, but within an hour I was sort of skate skiing! It was tiring, it was solitary, and it was not comfortable. While I was practicing, a group of small children and some parents came through, with several of the kids on skate skis, just gliding along. Sigh. Well, there’s no way through it but to do it. And I did.

I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve, and (unlike Janet, who just bought skate skis at an end-of-season sale), I’m not yet ready to commit to this. But maybe after next season. It takes courage and patience to embark on something completely new and alien, and I’m working my way into acquiring enough of each to keep going at it. But I’m not giving up—there is fun out there to be had skating along on snow, and I want some more…


cycling · Guest Post · training

Revelations of a Winter Cross Trainer (Guest Post)

Snowy woods

It’s winter here in New England (finally), which means cold temperatures along with the requisite ice and snow.  For cyclists like me, this means one thing:  time for winter cross-training!  Sam blogged about the challenges and opportunities of winter workouts recently (see Seven winter cycling options and On pacing yourself post holidays), and with last season’s purchases of snowshoes and cross-country skis I’ve tried to relax into the shifts of cadence, discovery of new sore muscles, and the pleasures of moving my body in different ways.

With all this in mind, I headed to the snowy woods of Maine and New Hampshire last week with my boyfriend Dan and his kids for an after-Christmas cross-country ski trip.  The first day brought 4 inches of fluffy new snow, which was a treat (and welcome after recent melting and icing over of trails).  The second day, I focused on improving my technique by taking two cross-country ski lessons—a refresher one in the morning, then another in the afternoon to work on hills (going up and going down).  The third day, Dan and I explored a frozen lake on skis, and when we were not busy dodging kids on snowmobiles, we glided over snow and ice, checking out the quiet coves (hallelujah that those kids had to go refuel…).

Okay—so far this is a nice (if rather ho-hum) story of one woman’s ski vacation.  But what was definitely not ho-hum was what I learned about myself, sports culture, and the folk physics of movement in the course of 3 days of physical activity outside my comfort and expertise zones.  Herewith I turn to a few revelations about winter cross training that I found surprising or useful.

1) Doing any sport at all requires at least this one thing:  RELAX.  And you need to relearn this with any new sport.

From cycling, I know the importance of releasing tension in the body:  for instance, road riding efficiently uphill requires sitting up and back a bit on the saddle, opening up your chest so you breathe better, and allowing your hams and glutes to do their work.  Going downhill on a mountain bike, you need to stay off of and behind the saddle, loose and relaxed—it lets the front wheel float over obstacles and balances the bike.

After 2 cross-country lessons, I learned the same lesson all over again about skiing:  in order to turn, stop, go up or downhill, I have to relax and let the big body muscles do their jobs.  Who knew that, in order to apply pressure to the big toe for turning your ski, you had to relax from the hips?  Relaxation is a universal principle, but it feels different in each physical context.  Discovering what that means in cross-country skiing is fascinating, challenging and satisfying.

ski fashions in action

2) Every sport has its specific fashion and gear conventions.

I have a lot of cycling gear.  I mean A LOT.  For instance, I have a pair of gloves for every increment of 10 degrees Farenheit from 70 down to about 20.  And so on.  So when this trip came up, I pulled out cycling jackets, gloves, glove liners, wind pants, headbands, hats, and my camelback to carry water and snacks, confident that I had everything I needed.  And I did—but it wasn’t cross-country specific.  On the trails, I found out that cross-country skiers mostly wear fanny packs (which in fact makes more sense—easier access), and lighter gloves (I switched at lunch).  Also, as a relative outsider, it was amusing to see the Swix-brand fashion parade.  Having some distance and lack of intimacy with those conventions gives me some perspective on those of my own primary sport, and maybe even some motivation to resist some of the sillier fashion dictates (do I really have to wear my glasses OUTSIDE the helmet straps all the time?).

3) Changing sports shifts your place and increases your awareness of sports participant pecking orders.

As a cyclist, I’m well aware of the implicit coolness hierarchies of participants of my sport.  These hierarchies are determined in part by speed, observed technique (for instance, pedaling cadence—higher cadence usually denotes a more experienced cyclist), clothing, and what brand and model of bike you are riding.  Of course, so-called coolness is contextual and varies among different sports subcultures—what is hipster-cool is not old-school-cool or racer-cool.  Pecking orders exist in every sport, and we get used to occupying those spaces, along with the perks and burdens that come with them.  One feature of road cyclist pecking orders is that some cyclists don’t acknowledge some others on bikes when they encounter them on the road.  Of course it’s not always safe to make eye contact, wave or say hi to another person on the road, but it seems polite to do so in general, regardless of what sort of bike that person is riding, or how fast that person is going.

On any metric I am near the bottom of the cross-country skiing hierarchy; I own my equipment, but my skis are back-country ones, not classic race or skate skis.  My technique is coming along, but I still bobble and stutter, and my poles aren’t always under the best regulation.  I stick to the flatter trails, occasionally trying some hills.  I’m having fun, so it’s all good.  However, I couldn’t help but notice the cross-country hierarchy in action, too.  In my lessons, the instructor was quick to point out which and in what ways skiers were more experienced by pointing out their gear, clothing and techniques (all for educational purposes), but it also felt humbling and familiar.

The stakes are very low here—this is not my job, and it’s not even my primary sport.  But it reminds me that pecking orders exert influences on all us athletes, and those influences aren’t all benign.  They can interfere with participation, improvement, and the joy that comes with moving your body in new and different ways.  Seeing this through a fresh perspective will, I hope help me be more aware of ways hierarchies can affect my physical activities, and also help me think about ways to steer clear of them. I’d much rather spend my time gliding about and enjoying the view…