Professional cross country skiers are not usually preoccupied with environmental concerns like invasive aquatic species, composting, or even remembering to turn off the lights in their houses. Nor do they spend a whole lot of time doing trail work.
Instead, for the most part, skiers tend to take for granted the negative environmental impact of their sport, with elite competitors criss-crossing the country for races, fleets of groomers guzzling gas, and the voracious appetites of athletes of all ages.
Here at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, though, in Craftsbury, Vermont, a small group of skiers is trying to prove that it can still compete at the highest level of the sport while minimizing the environmental impact of its activities. In its first year, the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) is doing this by trying to reduce the impact of its travel, working on projects promoting sustainability, and even making sure to flip off light switches before leaving the house.
Their efforts consist mainly of trying to offset the negative impacts of competition and training, rather than actually reducing that impact outright. The team characterizes its efforts not only as a way to mitigate its own effects on the environment, but also as a way to set an example to athletes at all levels of skiing.
“It’s more about being conscious about the decisions [team members] make on a regular basis, and spreading that consciousness,” said athlete Tim Reynolds.
An environmental philosphy
The CGRP emerged this spring from a few convergent ideas. First, the New England Nordic Skiing Association (NENSA), had recognized that there was a gap in the development pipeline for college graduates and older skiers who wanted to make the next step in their careers.
At the same time, Reynolds, then a senior at Middlebury College, was working on a school project developing a business plan for a “green” racing team.
Originally, Reynolds had hoped to headquarter the team at the Trapp Family Lodge, in Stowe, Vermont, but those plans fell through. Judy Geer and Dick Dreissigacker-a couple who had purchased the Outdoor Center last fall and turned it into a foundation-stepped in and offered to host the team there.
Since the foundation’s new mission was to promote lifelong sports, sustainable practices, and the preservation of land, lakes, and trails, the focus on sustainability was a perfect fit.
Through an application process, six skiers emerged, all recent graduates from eastern colleges: Matt Briggs, from Colby College; Oliver Burruss, from Harvard University; Hannah Dreissigacker (Geer and Dick Dreissigacker’s daughter), and Chelsea Little, both Dartmouth College graduates; Lauren Jacobs, who graduated from Bates College; and Reynolds himself.
While the athletes’ previous commitments to sustainability were varied, all appear to have embraced the environmental philosophy of the team.
Before joining the CGRP, Briggs said, he wasn’t particularly conscious of his environmental impact. It has been interesting, he continued, “just learning what has an affect, and what you can do in your life to eliminate waste.”
“Especially as skiers, nobody’s more affected by [the environment] than us,” Briggs said. Reynolds was obviously personally concerned about the environmental impacts of skiing, but he said his idea to make the team “green” was about business.
“I just figured in terms of attracting sponsors, you’d have more success with that edge,” he said. “If I was a business, it seemed like something I could actually sell.”
Providing some person power
The athletes began arriving at the Outdoor Center in May and June to train with Coach Pepa Miloucheva, and the program was in full swing by mid-July.
All six team members live rent-free in a large farmhouse adjacent to Craftsbury’s ski trails, which Geer and Dick Dreissigacker also purchased last fall.
While a decent amount of space is filled with the equipment necessary to support six elite skiers in their training, there is still plenty of room for book collections, video games, and even a few paintings. And-a necessity for young people living in northern Vermont-wireless internet.
The team eats almost all of its meals at the Outdoor Center’s cafeteria, although they will have to cook for themselves during a few dead periods throughout the year. Geer also said that the foundation is paying for health insurance for anyone not still covered through a parent’s plan.
“It’s certainly better support than I would have gotten anywhere else,” said Briggs.
Geer-who along with Dick Dreissigacker was an elite rower during and after college-said that the foundation is providing the support because she and her husband understand the demands of high-level training.
“It is hard to train and work a lot of hours at once,” she said. “You can’t do trail work all day, because you get exhausted.”
Geer said that costs of supporting the team are not as high as if the program was operating on its own, without the existing infrastructure of the Outdoor Center. The additional meals, for example, are only a small marginal cost above what the cafeteria already serves to people attending running, rowing, and skiing camps.
Team members are expected to put in 15 hours of work a week in exchange for the support offered to them. Anything beyond that, they get paid for.
Those 15 hours are mostly dedicated to working on projects designed by the athletes themselves, which are intended to promote the CGRP’s “green” focus.
Jacobs is studying the ecology of Lake Hosmer, which the Outdoor Center uses for rowing. She’s taking weekly water samples, and is also working on a project to remove an invasive aquatic species from the lake.
“Ultimately, I want to establish some sort of education about the lake for local schoolchildren,” Jacobs said.
Other “green” projects already in the works include an initiative to get more local food in the cafeteria, as well as creating a composting program for its food waste. Another idea being floated is a carbon emissions inventory for the Outdoor Center.
In addition to their projects, the CGRP is also investigating ways that it can mitigate the effects of its travel to races, like by doing some volunteer service promoting sustainability in a venue’s surrounding area.
There are also numerous smaller tasks-in some cases, strenuous ones-to be completed around the Outdoor Center. These include trail work, coaching Craftsbury’s Bill Koch League program, and even chaperoning kids attending rowing camps.
According to Geer, the program’s focus on post-college athletes is intended to put to use the knowledge that they have already acquired in school.
“The athletes get to train, but they also get to use and develop the skills they have, and get something for their resume,” she said.
Before the team was around, Geer said, the staff at the Outdoor Center had a number of ideas for projects that would promote the foundation’s new mission. But there weren’t enough free hands to put all of those ideas into practice.
“The green team is providing some person power,” she said.
One obvious concern is whether the work might interfere with the athletes’ training or recovery. But Miloucheva said that it hasn’t been a problem, and most of the team members agreed.
“It’s not that bad for them,” Miloucheva said. “The working schedule is quite easy. Their priorities can be shaped around their training…When they work for the center, they have lots of flexibility.”
On a recent Wednesday, in the middle of a difficult week, it indeed appeared that the team was not working too hard outside of their training. Between a rollerski in the morning and running thresholds in the afternoon, the athletes mostly stayed in the house-putting their feet up, checking e-mail, and venturing outside only to hit a few golf balls into a neighboring field.
Work wasn’t too far off of everyone’s minds, though. There were frequent discussions about projects, and evidence of the team’s labor over the past few weeks was everywhere: compost bins in the dining hall, a new stone patio, smooth trails between the team house and the cafeteria.
Under the microscope
Though the team’s work projects might sound like enough to keep the athletes busy all day, they’re still fully committed to a serious training program that Miloucheva closely monitors.
All of the members of the team were competitive racers on the college circuit, and many were standouts. Both Dreissigacker and Reynolds won races in the cutthroat Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association, and Briggs and Little had multiple finishes in the top ten.
The training is fairly standard for a high-level cross country skiing program: often multiple workouts each day, lots of intensity, weights, video, technique work. In July, the team was already spending a significant amount of time on rollerskis.
The athletes are constantly under Miloucheva’s microscope. During a recent running workout, she took lactate samples from Hannah Dreissigacker, pricking one of her fingers to draw a drop of blood, which was then analyzed by a small device to see if she was going at the right pace. (She wasn’t.)
Miloucheva is also making use of a new training tool, the Ski Erg, which is produced by Concept Two-the company owned by Geer and Dick Dreissigacker that is known mainly for its rowing machines.
The Ski Erg uses much of the same technology as the rowing machines, but rather than simulating the stroke of an oar, it simulates a classic skier’s double poling motion.
The device can gather data about an athlete’s power output, and Miloucheva has developed a number of protocols for testing values like VO2 max and threshold.
“It has a very good data transfer for skiers,” she said. “It’s a very reliable testing system.”
After training through the summer and fall, Miloucheva said that she plans to bring the team to the first two stops of the SuperTour, in West Yellowstone and Bozeman, Montana.
From there, anyone with a shot at qualifying for the pre-Olympic World Cups, U-23 World Championships, or the Olympics will head to the U.S. National Championships in Anchorage.
Ultimately, Geer said, it would be great to see some athletes jump from the CGRP to the National Team. For those for whom that is not as likely, Geer said simply that the team is there to support its members’ athletic goals.
Most of the athletes said that they hoped to spend at more than a year with the team, and Geer said that she expected that Craftsbury’s commitment to the skiers would be at least that long.
Whether or not to stay on for another year will be between Miloucheva and the athletes, Geer said, but the decision will probably be based on whether the skiers are improving.
“We expect that at the end of each season, we’d take stock,” Geer said.
The things they can control
It’s clear from the team’s work at the Outdoor Center that its members are dedicated to their cause. But the question remains: With the resources consumed by grooming, making new equipment, and travel to Montana, Alaska, or even Europe, just how sustainable can a professional ski team be?
While no one can claim that volunteering at a race site isn’t a good thing, can such actions really offset the environmental costs of making the journey to get there?
Writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben has written extensively on both cross country skiing and climate change, and he helped Reynolds on his plan for the CGRP.
In an e-mail from the Maldives, where he was organizing against climate change, McKibben acknowledged that the CGRP’s efforts won’t completely mitigate the effects of their travel.
Instead, he said, the real point of the team “will be to use it to demand political change-at this point, that’s what will actually do anything about global warming.”
“My hope is that the Green Racing Project will carry strong political messages with them as they go-and maybe even help pressure Vermont’s recalcitrant Governor Douglas to do something useful about energy,” McKibben said.
Reynolds also admitted that there was a certain amount of inevitability of the CGRP’s environmental impact.
But while there is definitely some hypocrisy involved in traveling to races, Reynolds said, “at least we’re acknowledging that.”
“Racing is a priority, so we’re not going to not go to Anchorage because you have to fly there,” he said.
Instead, Reynolds said, the team members are focusing on the things that they can control, like the food they eats, the cars they drive, and how they light their house.
“We can’t change the ski races-we’re probably still going to have to fly to places,” said Geer. “The only way to make it happen is in the rest of your non-skiing life.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.