Out of Her League - Ski Mag

Out of Her League

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I've never had those S.A.T. nightmares.

You know-the ones where the alarm clock doesn't go off, or you can't find a pencil? But since retiring from the World Cup six years ago, my slumbers have been haunted by dreams of another sort. I stand in the start of a slalom that plunges straight down the face of the Eiger, and instead of the high-performance 155-cm slaloms everyone else is wearing, I'm in street shoes clamped to a pair of 223 downhill skis. To top it off, Picabo is there. And she's eyeing me like a fresh piece of strudel.

Tonight is different, but not much better. I'm at a midsize ski hill in central Massachusetts, looking down a dual GS course that's all of 28 seconds long and flat as a pancake. The opponent sliding into the gate next to me isn't Picabo. Or Vreni. Or Pernilla. It's Jeff Crowley, a 49-year-old bag of bones wearing a speed suit that fits him like a fourth grader's arts and crafts smock. And he's champing at the bit. Why? Because tonight he gets to try his luck against an Olympian. Me.

Casually sliding into the gate in my extra-puffy North Face parka, brushing the snow off of my cruising skis, I look out across the red and blue gates and suddenly arrive at a troubling epiphany: This hack might actually beat me.

It's no nightmare. It's night league.

[NEXT ""]Thousands of skiers-pedigreed and other-shut down computers and pack up briefcases one night a week to brave the bitter cold and speed through the dimly lit gates of night league races. They come to test themselves-against old friends, anonymous opponents, sworn enemies. Their motivations are as varied as their backgrounds: beer, speed, thrills, camaraderie, revenge...beer.

At Wachusett, teams consist of six members, including at least one woman, loosely organized under the obligatory hokey name: Team Yard Sale, Carpe Skiem, Masters of Disaster. My team is Schlitz Racing. Teams race on a chosen night of the week, Monday through Thursday, for 10 weeks. The best three times of the season for each individual count toward the final standings. A NASTAR-type handicapping system allows racers of all ages and abilities to compete against one another on a more or less level playing field. Its nearly incomprehensible design seemingly accounts for everything from age to shoe size. It also provides competitors with more excuses than a Red Sox fan in October. At the end of the season, the top 30 teams move on, slates are wiped clean, and on a sunlit Saturday in March, winner takes all in a full-length, two-run GS dubbed "The Great Race."

[NEXT ""]But tonight it's Week 1, and it's cold and dark. The clock ticks down, and Crowley and I lunge out of the gate, skate twice, then drop into tucks. For the first 12 seconds or so, we're neck and neck. But then...Crowley starts to pull away. I straighten my line and try to close the gap, but it's already over. Sliding to a stop in the finish area, we turn to look at our respective clocks. There it is: Crowley: 28.52. Sheinberg: 29.07.

And here it comes. Crowley skates his way over to me and, in a pathetic attempt at modest humility, says, "Well, at least I can say I beat you once." I make an equally feeble attempt at pretending it doesn't sting, and laugh it off. We head for the bar, he with a secret grin, me kicking myself for not sticking to a decision I made six years ago to hang up the race skis for good. But it's too late: Thursday Night World Cups at Wachusett Mountain have begun.

So what is my motivation in all this? I guess it's part curiosity, part survival. Curiosity because I want to see if I can enjoy racing again. Will it be possible to return to the arena purely for fun and not for perfection, or will every moment be dragged down with years of ski-racing baggage and memories of what never was? Survival because through a recent series of events, I have decided to leave my sun-splashed chalet in Utah's Wasatch Mountains and move to the rolling hills of Connticut, site of my new job at ESPN. In short, I'm staring at life in my first cubicle, and I'm looking for any way to stay sane.

[NEXT ""]Enter Crowley, president of Wachusett Mountain and a 25-year night-league veteran who's tired of getting beaten by his siblings, David, Carolyn and Chris.They're all members of a Worcester Irish-Catholic family that made its fortune in bottling but found its passion in owning and operating Wachusett. The Crowleys are as competitive as they come, and nothing's worse than finishing third among the family's three night league teams. So when Jeff catches wind of my arrival on the East coast, he thinks one thing: "Ringer."

I grew up racing on the cold, windy slopes of New England, and I was pretty sure I'd squeezed all the fun out of that by age 15. Still, Crowley is persistent. "It's a blast," he assures me. "You'll see. You gotta come up here."

January 15, 7:30 p.m.: Week two. As I pull into the Wachusett parking lot, it's eight below zero. That's without windchill. I know it's not Crowley's fault that this January will turn out to be the coldest on record in Massachusetts-ever-while my Park City pals are ringing in the new year with six feet of downy Wasatch powder. Still, I want to kill him. They cancel World Cups in weather warmer than this.

[NEXT ""]I pry on boots and head up one of Wachusett's two high-speed quads, this time equipped with race skis and determined to redeem myself. At least the redemption will be private, I think. With the National Weather Service warning of potentially deadly temperatures, few will be on the hill tonight, and I'll be able to face my demons alone.

Or maybe not. Not only is there a line of people at the start; they're stripping down to speed suits. These people are insane.

Unwilling to shed even a layer, I blast out of the gate, hurry down, fly across the finish line and scurry directly to the bar. The run feels fast, and I'm confident that a little extra effort-and race skis-will be enough to take care of Crowley and Co.

After the race, the Coppertop Lounge is packed and rumbling with raucous laughter. Bets, jibes and tall tales flow as fast as the beer. Some gather around the big-screen television in the corner to watch their runs on video. Others crowd the taps, where the Crowley boys hold court, talking about how they handled that "wicked crankah" on the bottom of the blue course and how they dent beer cans with their thumbs. ("Trucker dents," they call them.) It's low-grade mayhem, but then a race official walks in with a stack of result sheets, and the bar erupts into something resembling the NYSE trading floor. Pages get ripped apart, hands swarm the official delivery boy, even the video is paused while people investigate the numbers. For most of my racing life I couldn't wait until my name no longer came with a number printed next to it. These folks are dying for it.

[NEXT ""]"It's kind of insane," admits Rick Healey, captain of the perennially fast Foster-Healey team. "We look forward to it so much. Everyone in my office knows when it's Thursday night, because I'm out the door at 5. It's one of the few real competitive outlets I still have." Healey, owner of a Fitchburg, Mass., real estate agency, raced at Colby College in the late '70s and has fielded a team on Thursday nights for nearly 20 years. "I'm always comparing myself to someone my own age, and then against the young, fast guys. It's a sport that you don't want to stop, and the way they've designed this handicap system, it's possible for us to keep up."

There are clearly two different competitions going on. There are the raw times for flat-out individual comparison and unadultered bragging rights. Then there are the "fossil points," those calculated according to age and gender. These are the true measure of your value to your team, and they give a healthy handout to aging skiers. This explains the invitations Healey had printed for his wife Nancy's 40th birthday: "She's not getting older, she's just five percent faster!"

Few have more fun than Healey on Thursday nights. Some might say his competitive spirit is a bit over the top-for beer league. "I've been accused of that," he says. "But I try to compete in a positive way." Positive? Like when he called a state trooper friend because he wanted to be positive that one of his competitors wasn't lying about his age?

[NEXT ""]But it's all good fun. And if Healey represents one end of the spectrum, Charlie Cary holds down the other. Cary skied just a few times as a kid, then picked the sport up again at 43 when he moved to Princeton, Mass., home of Wachusett. He's never taken a lesson, but three years ago some friends talked him into racing. Even though it runs counter to his noncompetitive nature, he says he's hooked. "I do it more for the camaraderie than the competition," he says. "And for that physical pump that skiing gives me. It's the only sport I get that from."

For Cary, who runs his industrial wood-heating company from home, Thursday nights are a welcome social outing, and racing is a welcome opportunity to analyze and improve his skiing. "Now, when I cruise the blues, it's different than before," he says. "Now I'm thinking more about carving it out."

Another round comes. The bar has grown even rowdier since the results arrived, and I don't see anyone crying. It's making me feel good enough to take a look. I peel a beer-stained sheet off the floor and scan it for my name. Wow. Beaten again. By Crowley. By other guys. Even by a couple of the women.

Some ringer. I slide out back and down the stairs, dropping my skis off at the shop for "the works." On the way home, I dial up my brother, and hear myself saying, "Send me the GS suit!"

[NEXT ""]And so it goes for two-and-a-half bleak winter months. Every week, just when I think the walls of my cubicle are going to crush me, a message pops up on my computer: "You ready to bring it tonight, Olympian? -Crowley."

Oh, baby. It's Thursday. I run out of the building at 5 sharp, hit the same traffic jam on I-84, swear I'm not going to do this ever again, zoom up the Mass Pike, stress out across 290 through Worcester to Interstate 190 and then take a breather as soon as I hit Route 140. The last 15 miles through Princeton are dark and desolate, with only occasional houses lit up beside the road, their inhabitants surely hunkered around the wood stove, waiting out the brutal New England winter. But just a little farther ahead, like a carnival, the lights of Wachusett beckon.

[NEXT ""]Exactly 100 minutes after leaving my cube, I'm on the lift, loving the fresh air and absolutely raring to go. Sometimes I get there in time to take a run or two with my teammate, Sandy, who's always glad to see me because, as she would say, "Oh, good. Now my time won't hold us back." Or I catch up with people who are just out taking practice runs on the course after completing their two timed runs. One night I ride up with Tom and Chris, brothers on the Geritol Junkies team.

"You on a fast team?" one asks.

"Well, yeah," I say, not knowing how much information I'm comfortable divulging.

"Did you race in high school or anything like that?"

"Um, I used to race a lot, yup."

"Chris and I haven't really had any formal training," Tom says, "but we've been coming out here for years just trying to beat each other. It's amazing: Every time it's so close."

I let them go ahead and stay at the start to get ready. Off comes the jacket. Then the warmups. I scrape the excess ice off the edges of my tuned race skis, and I charge out the gate. When I stop in the finish I hear Chris say: "Wow, you weren't kidding you used to race! You're really good!" They've waited around to watch. I thank them and, feeling guilty for having misled them, confess to my background.

[NEXT ""]Riding back up the lift, I'm confused about how much pleasure I should derive from these races, and I'm not sure what I'm trye's not getting older, she's just five percent faster!"

Few have more fun than Healey on Thursday nights. Some might say his competitive spirit is a bit over the top-for beer league. "I've been accused of that," he says. "But I try to compete in a positive way." Positive? Like when he called a state trooper friend because he wanted to be positive that one of his competitors wasn't lying about his age?

[NEXT ""]But it's all good fun. And if Healey represents one end of the spectrum, Charlie Cary holds down the other. Cary skied just a few times as a kid, then picked the sport up again at 43 when he moved to Princeton, Mass., home of Wachusett. He's never taken a lesson, but three years ago some friends talked him into racing. Even though it runs counter to his noncompetitive nature, he says he's hooked. "I do it more for the camaraderie than the competition," he says. "And for that physical pump that skiing gives me. It's the only sport I get that from."

For Cary, who runs his industrial wood-heating company from home, Thursday nights are a welcome social outing, and racing is a welcome opportunity to analyze and improve his skiing. "Now, when I cruise the blues, it's different than before," he says. "Now I'm thinking more about carving it out."

Another round comes. The bar has grown even rowdier since the results arrived, and I don't see anyone crying. It's making me feel good enough to take a look. I peel a beer-stained sheet off the floor and scan it for my name. Wow. Beaten again. By Crowley. By other guys. Even by a couple of the women.

Some ringer. I slide out back and down the stairs, dropping my skis off at the shop for "the works." On the way home, I dial up my brother, and hear myself saying, "Send me the GS suit!"

[NEXT ""]And so it goes for two-and-a-half bleak winter months. Every week, just when I think the walls of my cubicle are going to crush me, a message pops up on my computer: "You ready to bring it tonight, Olympian? -Crowley."

Oh, baby. It's Thursday. I run out of the building at 5 sharp, hit the same traffic jam on I-84, swear I'm not going to do this ever again, zoom up the Mass Pike, stress out across 290 through Worcester to Interstate 190 and then take a breather as soon as I hit Route 140. The last 15 miles through Princeton are dark and desolate, with only occasional houses lit up beside the road, their inhabitants surely hunkered around the wood stove, waiting out the brutal New England winter. But just a little farther ahead, like a carnival, the lights of Wachusett beckon.

[NEXT ""]Exactly 100 minutes after leaving my cube, I'm on the lift, loving the fresh air and absolutely raring to go. Sometimes I get there in time to take a run or two with my teammate, Sandy, who's always glad to see me because, as she would say, "Oh, good. Now my time won't hold us back." Or I catch up with people who are just out taking practice runs on the course after completing their two timed runs. One night I ride up with Tom and Chris, brothers on the Geritol Junkies team.

"You on a fast team?" one asks.

"Well, yeah," I say, not knowing how much information I'm comfortable divulging.

"Did you race in high school or anything like that?"

"Um, I used to race a lot, yup."

"Chris and I haven't really had any formal training," Tom says, "but we've been coming out here for years just trying to beat each other. It's amazing: Every time it's so close."

I let them go ahead and stay at the start to get ready. Off comes the jacket. Then the warmups. I scrape the excess ice off the edges of my tuned race skis, and I charge out the gate. When I stop in the finish I hear Chris say: "Wow, you weren't kidding you used to race! You're really good!" They've waited around to watch. I thank them and, feeling guilty for having misled them, confess to my background.

[NEXT ""]Riding back up the lift, I'm confused about how much pleasure I should derive from these races, and I'm not sure what I'm trying to prove. I'm actually feeling worse about doing better.

Until I see the results. I'm getting faster. I've beaten Crowley (and I let him hear about it). But who's this Jamie kid who beat me? By a full second? That's it. Bring on The Great Race.

Saturday, March 13, 9 a.m. Winter has finally eased, and it's a sunny 40 degrees out-perfect for race day. The joking and the trash-talking are noticeably subdued this morning. Instead, people are talking tactics and technique. The sun has burned away night's protective shield, and the course stretches twice its normal length, with a steeper pitch at the top. People are suddenly exposed, nervous, vulnerable.

The start area is a frenetic cluster of energy. Everyone is jumping up and down, swinging their arms every which way, brushing the bases of their race skis. Wait a minute: "People brought two pairs of skis today?" I ask. Someone yells back, "I didn't put $100 worth of wax on for nothing!"

[NEXT ""]Surely it would be considered boorish and overly aggressive for the Olympian to show up with two pairs of skis. But am I expected to politely serve up my ego for the crushing? To hell with manners. I can't wait to tear into my first full-length GS in six years, and I do not intend to lose. I tighten my boots and pole my way into the gate. Behind me, one of the women yells, "Hey, Carrie, should we tuck the gates on the top or not?"

"Never sacrifice your turns for a tuck," I yell back, and then I push out of the gate. The snow is hard; the course is perfect. What a treat to lay my skis on edge, feel my strength fight against gravity and then go with it as I swing through the gates. This is what I was first drawn to as a kid: the action, the speed, the risk. I blaze through the finish and skid to a stop, thinking, "I want to do that again."

During the first run, neuroses take their toll. Crowley overloads his tails and shoots off the course. "Story of my life," he grumbles. He's so bummed I can't even make fun of him. Skis are slammed, curses yelled. Now this is bringing back memories.

After the first run, Schlitz Racing is looking pretty good. We could have used Crowley, but we'll make do. Between runs, there are the typical shenanigans. Some guy tries to have me disqualified for not wearing a helmet. Bets are renegotiated. And as the sun beats down and the course glazes over, out comes the Cera-F.

[NEXT ""]On the second run, Schlitz skis solidly, and we finish feeling like we've got a shot. For the final time this season, we make our way back to the lodge. There, I'm relieved to see that, broken poles and battered egos aside, the added pressure of the day only magnifies the fun. A giant buffet, families and, of course, beer fill the lodge. Everyone swaps stories of the race and, more eagerly than ever, waits for the results. The best news is that Crowley feels so bad for letting us down he buys all the drinks.

The results arrive with huge fanfare. And the winner is...SkiChair.com. Foster-Healey is thrilled to take home the silver, and Schlitz Racing has had a triumphant day, finishing third. As for me, I win the socially dubious title of Fastest Female. And I beat all the men but one. Now that feels good.

Most satisfying of all, though, is restoring the adventure and fun of competition. No screaming coaches. No tears. No despair. This league isn't about harping on flaws; it's about how much fun you can have in spite of them.

Does it bother me that there was still one guy who beat me? Hell, yes. And I'll be back next year to fix that. Meantime, at least, I'm pretty sure I'm finished with those nightmares

DECEMBER 2004

trying to prove. I'm actually feeling worse about doing better.

Until I see the results. I'm getting faster. I've beaten Crowley (and I let him hear about it). But who's this Jamie kid who beat me? By a full second? That's it. Bring on The Great Race.

Saturday, March 13, 9 a.m. Winter has finally eased, and it's a sunny 40 degrrees out-perfect for race day. The joking and the trash-talking are noticeably subdued this morning. Instead, people are talking tactics and technique. The sun has burned away night's protective shield, and the course stretches twice its normal length, with a steeper pitch at the top. People are suddenly exposed, nervous, vulnerable.

The start area is a frenetic cluster of energy. Everyone is jumping up and down, swinging their arms every which way, brushing the bases of their race skis. Wait a minute: "People brought two pairs of skis today?" I ask. Someone yells back, "I didn't put $100 worth of wax on for nothing!"

[NEXT ""]Surely it would be considered boorish and overly aggressive for the Olympian to show up with two pairs of skis. But am I expected to politely serve up my ego for the crushing? To hell with manners. I can't wait to tear into my first full-length GS in six years, and I do not intend to lose. I tighten my boots and pole my way into the gate. Behind me, one of the women yells, "Hey, Carrie, should we tuck the gates on the top or not?"

"Never sacrifice your turns for a tuck," I yell back, and then I push out of the gate. The snow is hard; the course is perfect. What a treat to lay my skis on edge, feel my strength fight against gravity and then go with it as I swing through the gates. This is what I was first drawn to as a kid: the action, the speed, the risk. I blaze through the finish and skid to a stop, thinking, "I want to do that again."

During the first run, neuroses take their toll. Crowley overloads his tails and shoots off the course. "Story of my life," he grumbles. He's so bummed I can't even make fun of him. Skis are slammed, curses yelled. Now this is bringing back memories.

After the first run, Schlitz Racing is looking pretty good. We could have used Crowley, but we'll make do. Between runs, there are the typical shenanigans. Some guy tries to have me disqualified for not wearing a helmet. Bets are renegotiated. And as the sun beats down and the course glazes over, out comes the Cera-F.

[NEXT ""]On the second run, Schlitz skis solidly, and we finish feeling like we've got a shot. For the final time this season, we make our way back to the lodge. There, I'm relieved to see that, broken poles and battered egos aside, the added pressure of the day only magnifies the fun. A giant buffet, families and, of course, beer fill the lodge. Everyone swaps stories of the race and, more eagerly than ever, waits for the results. The best news is that Crowley feels so bad for letting us down he buys all the drinks.

The results arrive with huge fanfare. And the winner is...SkiChair.com. Foster-Healey is thrilled to take home the silver, and Schlitz Racing has had a triumphant day, finishing third. As for me, I win the socially dubious title of Fastest Female. And I beat all the men but one. Now that feels good.

Most satisfying of all, though, is restoring the adventure and fun of competition. No screaming coaches. No tears. No despair. This league isn't about harping on flaws; it's about how much fun you can have in spite of them.

Does it bother me that there was still one guy who beat me? Hell, yes. And I'll be back next year to fix that. Meantime, at least, I'm pretty sure I'm finished with those nightmares

DECEMBER 2004

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