Note: This article has been updated.
Peering up at a sign inside a pizza joint in Colville, Wash., Sam Tarling saw an opportunity. Like so many other spontaneous offers 21-year-old Dartmouth College racer seized to get out West, Tarling jumped at the chance to eat for money.
With an evening to kill and a stomach of steel, Tarling reasoned he couldn’t lose. The defending NCAA 10-k champion trumped similar challenges in the past.
Three quarters of the way through the seven-pound pizza less than an hour later, Tarling rethought his decision.
“I sort of did it on a full stomach,” he said almost two weeks after during an interview in Rossland, British Columbia.
He had already ordered a different meal when several Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) juniors dared him to get the pizza. If he finished the seven-pounder, the restaurant would eat the cost and give him $100 dollars and another pizza for free.
“I’m a total sucker for eating challenges,” the 6-foot-2 college junior said. “I was probably a little too confident going in.”
The pizza proved too mighty. Tarling got sick and paid for the pie.
“It had every topping on it and was a little undercooked and … was a little too doughy and sloppy for me,” he said. “Instead of paying for half of the cost of the trip to Canada, I ended up losing like a quarter of it.”
That was Tarling’s life in a nutshell — at least for the last three or so months.
Since late August when he wrapped up finals and left Hanover, N.H., Tarling had been on the road training and racing independently for Dartmouth. While he chose a similar route last year as a sophomore, taking the fall semester off and attending classes in winter and spring, Tarling has been more places and slept on more couches than expected.
His travel-intense schedule — starting in Middlebury, Vt., and ending in Canada — wasn’t entirely unplanned, Tarling said. It wasn’t exactly organized, either.
“I haven’t really told many people about my plans because I know what’s going to be good for me,” he said. “On paper, it might not look like the best plan to be traveling around, but most of this sport, to me, is mental.
“As long as I’m happy and eager to go training, I’m going to train my best,” he added.
While watching football with friends during his last night in Bozeman, Mont., Tarling considered extending his trip. Sun Valley racer Mike Sinnott, Team Homegrown’s Sylvan Ellefson and the Bridger crew were all headed to Silver Star, British Columbia. They suggested Tarling come, too.
Tarling called up his Dartmouth coach, Ruff Patterson, who said the team would rollerski in Hanover rather than travel to Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, for its annual camp. There was no natural snow back east.
“That was kind of a deal breaker right there,” Tarling said. “I called up the airline and luckily there was another flight that mimicked my flight pattern exactly two weeks later, same flight and no extra fees or anything, so that was an easy decision.”
The next day, he hopped in one of the BSF vans and started chatting with head coach Dragan Danevski. They decided to work out the financial details later and chatted about the Bridger program in the meantime.
After two nights on the road — one of which the pizza scarred — Tarling found himself in western Canada without a place to stay a few days before the NorAm races at Sovereign Lake. Upon hastily planning the trip, BSF athlete Leif Zimmermann suggested his friends in Silver Star might have an extra room, Tarling said. They didn’t.
“I found a nice little couch in the BSF house that I could put my stuff down and sleep on,” Tarling said. “But it was kind of like my head up on the arm and my feet were up on the end.”
He slept in his first bed in nearly a month in Rossland, where Tarling ended up by default when there wasn’t enough room in the BSF van back to Bozeman.
Since September, Tarling had bounced around seven states and provinces, joining the U.S. Ski Team in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, and working out with teams like the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) in Idaho and Team Homegrown in Vail, Colo.
He spent three days mountain biking in Moab, Utah, camping in the dirt outside a friend’s house because there wasn’t enough room inside, and lived at 8,000 feet (nearly 2,500 meters) in Vail for a month before first racing in West Yellowstone, Mont.
The idea was to get in as much training as possible before his college season started at U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine, Jan. 2-8. With about two years left before he graduates college — most likely with a degree in environmental studies and/or geography — Tarling figured it was a good time to check out ski programs as well.
“I didn’t really plan this to be like a review of all the clubs, but it just sort of worked out that way,” he said.
Most were extremely accommodating, he said. While staying with a friend in Middlebury, Tarling trained with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project in northern Vermont. His next stop was Lake Placid, after USST development coach Pete Vordenberg invited him to join as many national team camps as he could.
Tarling looked at his school schedule and training goals, and found a way to make two of them. He worked the rest of his fall travel around that.
Based mostly out of the east last year, Tarling rode around with the Maine Winter Sports Center. He similarly spent most of the preseason on the road, but occasionally stopped to visit his parents in Maine.
This year, he made it home to Cumberland for one night after Lake Placid. He spent the summer at school and went to Maine once in August for a few nights while sick with a stress- and sinusitis-induced migraine. That was an isolated incident, he said, which hadn’t happened since.
Asked about the wear of nearly four months of travel and several nights on futons, Tarling responded, “My neck kind of hurts.”
“This is definitely the first time that I’ve been on the road and not had a definitive plan of where I’m going to be sleeping that night or what I’m going to be eating,” he said. “It’s kind of like an adventure.”
For Tarling, that’s what made the fall so fun. Sure, he ran out of money in Canada after only budgeting through the West Yellowstone races in late November. But he valued experiences like training with the Alaska Pacific University (APU) and Central Cross Country (CXC) teams while in Park City. He learned more about a rival of his alma mater (Burke Mountain Academy) when the Green Mountain Valley School let him sleep on its couch in Bozeman.
“Things fell into place and I was really fortunate,” Tarling said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of my fall without support from friends and coaches.”
He also credited his parents and the New England Nordic Ski Association for helping support him financially. Last summer, he saved as much as possible while instructing sailing in Enfield, N.H., and tutoring for his main classes and French on the side. He acknowledged his work wasn’t the most profitable.
“I made as much money as I could without impacting my training at all,” Tarling said, explaining his goal to increase training hours by 10 percent yearly. By the time he graduates college, he hopes to be at the competitive range of 800-900 hours.
“Obviously, my biggest sponsor is my parents,” he added. “I’m totally dependent on whatever they’re willing to support me with.”
Upon leaving the east for Sun Valley in late September, he brought the emergency credit card his parents gave him in case of emergency. That could entail anything from a much-needed meal to a flight change, Tarling said.
On his last night in Rossland, where Tarling did not race but rather helped the BSF support its lone racer there in Zimmermann, Tarling said he was out of money and ready to get home. He hadn’t anticipated the costs of NorAm race fees in Silver Star and the race support, lodging and food that came with it.
He had kept receipts and hoped Dartmouth would have something left in its budget at the end of the season to pay some of his race fees. If nothing else, Tarling would know how much to anticipate spending in the future.
Ready for some rest before giving his all at nationals, Tarling said his fall had gone as well as he could have imagined.
“I have nine starts already and usually by this time, I have two or six if I’m lucky,” he said. “I definitely have a little bit more of a restless personality so when I get into a program where I’m just stuck in the same place for a long time, I really want to mix it up and get out of it and do something else. This fall has been really easy that way for me.”
For that, he was grateful for Patterson’s flexibility and Dartmouth’s academic D-plan that allowed him to take the fall off. His parents as skiers also understood what he was doing, but tried not to get overly involved, Tarling said.
“I really appreciate that they’ve sort of been able to step back a bit and let me develop as a skier in my own way,” he said.
Six days before Christmas, Tarling took a series of three flights to get to Portland, Maine. There, his mother picked saw him for the first time since September, one bag lighter. On his second stopover, he discovered the airline lost his gate-checked bag and the four pairs of ski boots, two pairs of running shoes, wax kit and training jackets in it.
He went home for the night, and two days later, left for Craftsbury to get on snow. Back with his parents for the holiday weekend, Tarling wrote in an email that the airline returned his bag on Christmas Eve.
Happy to have his hats, gloves, headbands and Buffs in place, Tarling went back to Craftsbury on Monday for a time trial on Tuesday.
“I gotta find snow,” Tarling said. “It’s not that I hate Christmas or anything, it comes at the total wrong time. I want to be focused on tapering and prepping for nationals and getting on snow as much as possible, and then I have to, like, go home and eat cookies and … go to all these dinner parties and stuff like that, be social.
“All I want to do is train,” he said.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.