Sunday, March 26, 2017

When good workouts go bad (and vice versa)

I drove happily to the ski hill.  It was a week day, so there shouldn't be too many people there.  The sun was out.  What could go wrong?

Arriving at the lift, I gazed up at the front side runs.  The skiers already up there were making slow, big turns.  Oh no!  This could only mean one thing.  Ice!

But I was already there, so I got on a chair.  The wind suddenly increased.  Ice and wind?  Still, how bad could it be?

I bumped my way down the run.  The "grooming irregularities" threw me off.  My turns were tentative.  I caught an edge and fell, something I hadn't done in a long time.  A mountain host skied up to me.  "You must have won the boardercross yesterday," he said.  Ha ha ha.  I couldn't be mad, though; it was funny.  I made myself do a few more runs, but it just wasn't my day.

Today, I slowly gathered my stuff, trying to talk myself out of it.  It was a sunny Sunday, bound to be busy.  It might be icy again; there hadn't been any new snow.  I couldn't come up with a good excuse though, so I headed out to meet the ski bus.

Surprise.  Hardly anyone was there.  The snow was fast but soft.  The slopes were wide open and I rode the lift by myself.  I did more runs than I planned.

I often wonder why this happens.  A three mile run can seem like 10 one day.  Hills surveyors would miss seem difficult.  A weight I can usually easily lift seems tough sometimes.  A short hike feels like a death march.  Conversely, on days I really, really don't want to run, the miles are effortless.  Faced with a big mountain to climb and feeling uncertain, I end up being one of the strongest in the party.

Discounting any obvious reasons of illness, injury, or overtraining, I think it's nature's way of keeping you humble.  Think you're all that? Well, here's a day when you count every minute of your run and can't wait for it to be over.  And on the other hand, just when you're convinced you're no good at a sport and should give it up, here comes the best day ever.

Today was a good day.  Who knows how tomorrow's run will go.  But that's what keeps it interesting.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Older but wiser

My friends and I compare notes.  Runner's knee. An aching hamstring and sore hip.  Tennis elbow.  A mysterious pulled muscle in the back of the shoulder.  We talk about skipping runs for the elliptical, and avoiding certain weight exercises for awhile.  We joke about getting old, but we wouldn't have these aches and pains if we sat on the couch. 

Over twenty-five years ago, Bonnie sat under the visqueen that was keeping our sleeping bags and fire packs semi-dry from the torrential rain that had already put our fire out.  She was talking about why she had taken a job mentoring kids in the Youth Conservation Corps.

"I want them to know that even though I'm thirty, I can still do everything," she said, meaning building trails and fighting fire.  Younger than she was, we nodded solemnly. It made sense. We all knew people who, as the years went by, just decided they were old.  Their backs and knees would inevitably hurt.  They stopped doing things.

Thirty isn't considered old anymore except by some millennials who don't know any better.  And I'm happy to see that there are a lot of people out there like my friends, who are still getting after it.  When I'm picking berries on a certain mountain trail,  there seems to be a steady stream of men in their 60s and 70s running up the steep path to the summit.  Senior citizens chase the vertical at the ski area.  Gray haired hikers are all over the woods.

As a firefighter, I can usually still keep up with the 21 year olds, but I have to be smarter.  Some of these guys can play computer games and eat chips all winter and start running again two weeks before the season starts, but I can't.  I have to keep going.  If they feel a twinge of pain, they push through it, whereas I have to analyze: what's wrong now? maybe I should ride a bike today instead of run.  I pack lighter than they do, preferring to suffer by sleeping a little colder and eating less food rather than packing 55 pounds in my fire pack through the woods along with everything else we have to carry.

So we discuss our aches and pains, but we know we came by them because we're out there running, hiking, and snowboarding.  We're not planning on stopping anytime soon.  So if you see us on the trail, packing bear spray and wearing hiking skirts (except the guys), you better get to stepping, or we'll be passing you.  See you out there!

Sunday, March 12, 2017


"Good!" I thought smugly as I got my first seasonal referral list in early January. This was sooner than I had expected it, and I fully expected to get the pick of the litter. Maybe they would already be fully qualified helicopter crewmembers. Maybe even ICs (incident commanders, capable of managing small, noncomplex fires), I allowed myself to dream.

Alas, along came a hiring freeze, and my list languished in cyberspace. We weren't even allowed to make tentative selections, even though we knew there would eventually be an exemption. Wildland firefighting runs on temporary employees, who generally work from around May to October, depending on which area of the country they get hired in. Without seasonals, and no funds to make the jobs year round, we couldn't function.

Finally we got the exemption. Time to tackle the list! The only problem was, computer keys were clicking all over the country as other supervisors had the same idea. Two of my seasonals attained the holy grail, a permanent job, making more vacancies. Still, no need to panic, there were 104 people on my list. Right?

It's not as easy as it sounds. First, you have to offer the veterans a job before anyone else. This is reasonable, as many of them spent time being shot at in Afghanistan; the least you can do is give them some preference. However, many of them don't respond to your offer. They've applied everywhere, knowing they will get something; they can pick and choose. They have three business days to accept or decline. Most don't call back, meaning you can't offer the job to anyone else until the three days have passed.

Then there is the cell phone problem. Most people don't answer the phone when they don't recognize the number. My assistant and I felt like telemarketers, cold calling people all over the country. Most never called back. The trusting souls who answered the phone usually had jobs already. Even the newbies were taken.

Occasionally we thought we had stumbled onto a gem, only to contact a reference and find out something terrible. One applicant apparently stole from crewmembers, went AWOL, and got fired. Um, no. Other job seekers tried to be coy. "Well, nothing's set in stone yet," they would say when we asked if they had accepted another job. This was code for, I accepted something else, and they've already done the paperwork, but if something better comes along, I might bail.

Encouraging this behavior, some supervisors engaged in downright thievery, offering the applicant something special: more training, additional qualifications. A person who had bugged me all winter for a job called me to flee to the park after his paperwork had been processed, saying breezily, "well, it was my first choice." Muttering to myself that it would have been nice if he had told me he had a first choice, I momentarily wished for him a summer of sitting hostage on an engine, cutting out trails.

Eventually I found two takers. One hadn't even applied for a helicopter job; he appeared somewhat flustered when I told him I found him on a handcrew list. Still, he was intrigued enough to accept, the offer of cheap housing in the hotshot superintendent's rental trailer probably much of the draw. They are both pretty new to the game and one was born in 1996 (1996! I have outdoor gear older than that) but I think they will work out.

In the meantime, I don't send them pictures of the three feet of snow still on the ground at the office. They will like it here, or they won't. We will do our best, even though we haven't ever met, or even seen, these people. Summer is around the corner (I think).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dear Younger Me...

Remember a while back, when it was popular for bloggers to write letters to their younger selves, giving them advice and imparting wisdom they wish they had back in the day?  I always thought it was kind of silly, because 1. Younger Mes always think they know everything and would not have listened anyway, and 2.  Hindsight makes everyone smarter.  But despite being late to the trend, I thought I would give it a try anyway.

Dear Younger Me,

Please do these things.

1.  Wear more sunscreen.
2.   Get a more useful degree, like nursing or something.
3.   Don't date/marry/hang out with men who don't appreciate you.
4.  Stop it with the obsessive running.  Do a pushup or something once in awhile.
5.  Don't be a firefighter.  Do something that makes more money and isn't so hard on you.
6.  Settle down someplace!
7.  Save more money.


Older Me

Then I decided to break it down.

1.  Wear more sunscreen.   This needs to stay.  Younger Me was known to put on Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil and "lay out" in the sun for hours.  Foolish YM, focused on a tan, didn't realize that 90% of the signs of aging are caused by sun exposure.  Thanks a lot!

2.  Get a more useful degree, like nursing or something.  I wanted to be a park ranger in college, so I designed my degree around this.  But I can't really say it was wrong, because I did actually become a park ranger, and had an amazing time living and working in national parks.  So, scratch that one.

3.  Don't date/marry/hang out with men who don't appreciate you.  Facebook memes and quotes love to refute this, saying lofty things like. you meet each person for a reason, thanks to the ones who left me, blah blah blah B.S.  I don't need any jerks to teach me more about myself.  This one's legit.

4.  Stop it with the obsessive running.  Do a pushup or something once in awhile.  Truth, I used to be obsessed with running.  It was all I did, unless I went hiking, when I would often run before or after the hike too! It makes me tired to think about.  I don't do that anymore.  I still run, but I also lift weights, hike, snowboard, and a lot of other things.  Still, I can't be mad at this.  I was a good runner then.  I won races.  And I built a platform of endurance and learned to push through suffering, something that helps me when I climb mountains and work for hours on the fireline.  This one's out.

5.  Don't be a firefighter.  Do something that makes more money and isn't so hard on you.  This one's tough.  I see friends who made different career choices who have more money for retirement, and who can take vacations in the summer.  But, scratch this, because firefighting opened up an amazing world to me and brought me some of the most incredible experiences and people.

6.   Settle down someplace!  I have a gypsy soul.  I used to move every six months.  If I had stayed somewhere I would have more friends.  I might have paid off a mortgage.  But this one has to go too.  I've lived in Alaska and Hawaii, and a lot of places in between, including Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks.  I wouldn't want to give that up.

7.  Save more money!  I wish I had more.  But then I would have had to give up my favorite money-sucking activity, travel.  Give up sunrise on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro?  Camping on the shore of Antarctica? Backpacking around New Zealand? Impossible!

So here's what I'm left with:

Dear Younger Me,

Do these things.  Or not.  I warned you!

1.  Wear more sunscreen.
2.  Don't date/marry/hang out with men who don't appreciate you.

3.  Try not to regret anything.  Except not wearing sunscreen!


Older Me
Younger Me at high school graduation, probably not wearing sunscreen.