This is Only a Test

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Fall is my favorite season, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. Yes, fall is beautiful and the crisp air promises the coming of ski season.

But as a ski racer, that anticipation was always tempered by a lurking dread of the inevitable escalation in dryland training. When the leaves began to turn, it was time to crank up the intensity in a final push to build strength.

Ski teams at all levels employ some type of torture test to monitor these efforts. One of the most hateful and memorable was the Max VO2 test.

While we were either on a treadmill or a stationary bike, the sports scientists hooked us up to a machine, put a respirator in our mouths and told us to keep a certain pace until further notice. Sometime just before death, they stopped the torture.

When all was said and done, the sports scientists determined our Max VO2 (a measure of how well the body utilizes oxygen) and our anaerobic thresholds (the point at which your body goes from exercising aerobically-with oxygen-to exercising anaerobically-without oxygen). In addition to showing whether or not we could push ourselves to exhaustion, the anaerobic threshold (AT) was used to determine our ideal training zones.

After undergoing years of these tests, I can confirm that there is a less scientific method for determining the AT. It is the point at which you hate everything and everybody around you.

Quite simply, your sense of humor disappears when the threshold is reached. One of my teammates illustrated this perfectly on the treadmill.

When the trainer yelled at her to keep up her pace, she nailed him with a left hook. Clearly, she was over the threshold. Oxygen debt does something to one's personality. It's not pretty, but it's a good test of how a person will react in crisis. Thanks to frequent group suffering, athletes are used to being at their absolute worst in front of each other.

A former teammate of mine who recognized the value of those experiences developed a theory about new relationships. She thinks every couple, before getting serious, should go on a hell-journey that taps to the core of physical and emotional capacities.

This includes, but is not limited to, a bad turn in the weather; running out of food; losing the trail; grossly underestimating the mileage; or breaking equipment. The experience has to be intense enough to crack the shell of good behavior that protects any new relationship.

As sure as the Max VO2 readouts reveal one's physical capacities, this test provides a psychological blueprint and full disclosure of each person's worst traits. From that, both parties have sufficient insight to decide whether to pursue the relationship.

Reach the AT, and you'll find out everything you need to know. I'm not advocating domestic violence, but I am a big fan of the "Divorce Ride" as a screening process.

The name comes from a particular outing my brother and I had a few years ago. On a ride that lasted hours longer than he had predicted, we climbed three summits, forded streams, crashed heavily, had no food and ran out of water.

When we finally reached civilization, battered and exhausted, we decided that had we been married, that ride would have been sufficient grounds for immediate divorce. The originator of the "trial by torture" had a similar experience last year on a Moab, Utah, bike trip.

Most everyone on the trip was part of a couple, so when the guides advised us that the first sign of dehydration was grumpiness, it became our excuse to absolve all manner of mood swings. It rained the entire first day, and we had to carry our bikes because the red clay locked our wheels.

The next day we were pedaling through deep sand, making imperceptible forward progress under the hot sun. Dehydration was epidemic, but no bikes were thrown and we were all able to laugh at the end of the day.

Weeks later, the torture queen herself got engaged and married her boyfriend of that trip. Unwittingly, he had passed her test. The Divorce Ride doesn't have to take place on a bike, as I was reminded last fall while hiking in New England.

The object of my desire had not yet seen my over-the-threshold side-but it was only a matter of time, and he'd been well-warned (mostly by the aforementioned brother). We were on a "short" hike in his old college stomping grounds, a trek he assured me would be no more than 45 minutes, getting us back in time to attend an afternoon wedding.

At the hour mark, as we were scrambling up slimy rocks, the summit nowhere in sight, he admitted that 45 minutes was the record time for the top Nordic athlete in his college prime. I was not amused. So he sped up, assuring me every 10 minutes that the summit was "just around the corner." Lies, even well-intentioned, don't go over big when you're over the AT.

It never actually came to tears or blows, but the lessons were learned. On the next hike, when it got longer than anticipated, and we rounded a corner to see the summit looming far above, he had a system in place.

He kept quiet but walked faster to maintain a safe range-close enough to hear my panting to know I was alive, but far enough to be out of earshot of my disparaging mutterings. Even though my competition days are over, and I can safely say I'll never again be scientifically tested for my AT, I can't get myself off the ski racer clock.

Fall still triggers some anxiety-the way every "Back to School" sign chills the soul of a school kid. There is sure to be plenty of suffering "just around the corner," but thanks to the insight it provides, none of it is wasted. Whether it's the Max VO2 test, a vacation from hell or the Divorce Ride, people who suffer together survive together.

Edie Thys, SKI's senior contributing editor, married her hiking partner over the summer. Contact her at ethys@skimag.com, or check out her previous columns at www.skimag.com