BENNINGTON, Vt. – Inside an organic lunch spot in downtown Bennington, two Wisconsin natives glanced at an oversized chalkboard filled with sandwich options.
A moment later, they turned to each other to confirm they had made up their minds. Maria Stuber and Bryan Cook hadn’t lived in the area long, yet they already figured out the basics.
Bennington, southern Vermont’s largest city, wasn’t huge, but it had more going on than the hamlet of North Petersburg, N.Y. There, the ski-racing couple rented a loft about 15 minutes away.
“It’s like an intersection,” Cook said, sitting at a corner table in the small restaurant. He smiled at Stuber and they added it was good for rollerskiing.
The location also provided plenty of options. Born and bred in the Midwest, the two 28-year-olds said being within about 20 minutes of Williamstown, Mass., and Albany, N.Y., gave them a chance to explore the East.
After all, that was Stuber’s intention when she decided to accept South Vermont College’s job offer just over a year ago and coach its cross-country running team. With an off-season in 2011/2012, without the World Championships or Olympics to train for, Stuber figured the timing was right and moved to Vermont last January. Cook said he was ready to move as well since most of their close friends from Northern Michigan University had already done so.
“I really wanted to find something that I could do that would allow me to continue skiing, but not just fundraise my life away,” said Stuber, who spent three years with the Central Cross Country (CXC) Elite Team after graduating NMU in 2007.
“I just thought it would be a good time to figure out a situation where I could use my college degree and also continue ski racing,” she said of her Master’s in exercise science and Bachelor’s in physiology. “I thought cross-country running coaching would be perfect, and I pretty much just looked at all the jobs in the country that were available in places where it snowed.”
Despite training full time with CXC, Stuber started coaching in 2008, first at several programs in the Midwest and later on an individual basis. She went on to volunteer with the NMU running teams and CXC Adaptive Program while racing competitively. She won silver at the 2009 U.S. Nationals in the team sprint with Caitlin Compton Gregg, finished fourth at the 2010 American Birkebeiner and was fifth at the Birkie’s 50-kilometer skate race last year.
Stuber’s significant other since her freshman or sophomore year of college, Cook was also fifth in last year’s Birkie after placing second in Wisconsin’s celebrated ski marathon three years ago. He earned a World Cup start in Canmore, Alberta, in 2010 as a longtime standout on the SuperTour circuit.
A member of the CXC Elite Team since its inception in 2006, Cook took a year off to pursue his studies in 2008. He said the team was similarly understanding of the situation this time.
Last season, Stuber spent the better part of the winter flying all over the country to meet CXC at races. Cook stayed in Wisconsin until the season ended in April. At that point, they both knew the move and departure from CXC was final.
“Our initial plan was to still be on their marathon team, but then we started looking at the reality of the costs of flying all the time,” Stuber said.
Stuber and Cook also realized a change in funding distribution would leave the CXC marathon team with less to offer. They considered alternatives and met with Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) coach Pepa Miloucheva last year. She presented an option that was hard to refuse.
For the first time in the three-year existence of the GRP, Craftsbury Outdoor Center founders Judy Geer and Dick Dreissigacker decided to take on long-term training partners. In an email, Geer called Stuber and Cook their “guinea pigs.” They were expected to contribute to the Outdoor Center’s mission of elite racing and environmental sustainability, but at a lower level than their seven GRP teammates, who lived at the center.
“We realize that a full-time residency program may not be the right fit for every skier,” Geer wrote. “We wanted to explore some other structures. Maria had a job coaching [cross-country] running, but still wanted to train and race and we respected that.”
Throughout the summer, Stuber said she made the 3 ¼-hour drive north several times from her full-time job in Bennington to Craftsbury, Vt. There, she led running camps and clinics with three-time Olympian Lynn Jennings, the Outdoor Center’s head running coach.
Cook wanted to extend Craftsbury’s single-track network for mountain bikers, but said he was lucky to land a job that unfortunately occupied most of his summer. Without any previous experience waiting tables, he said an upscale restaurant in North Bennington, Pangaea Lounge, took a chance and hired him as a server. He liked it.
The dinner shift gave him mornings off and the early part of the afternoon to train, and Cook said he intended to find more time in the fall, winter and spring to visit Craftsbury. Fortunately, their agreement with the center was both loose and flexible.
Cook said it was as simple as each side wanting to help the other. The two Wisconsin transplants needed a team, and Geer and Dreissigacker wanted to extend the GRP’s reach. Cook and Stuber will represent Craftsbury at the Birkie this year, likely with at least a few of their teammates.
In early November, the two flew back to the Midwest for a brief stint in Delafield, Wis., to hold their third annual 5- and 10-k Mountain King Run as a fundraiser. There, several of their close friends surprised them, registering with fake names and racing in costume to show their support. Because the race had grown to surpass their needs, Stuber and Cook said they were making Peak Nordic Ski Club a beneficiary. Regardless, any bit helped when it came to covering their skiing expenses.
“One of the dynamics to being part time is you get part-time support, part-time racing opportunities,” Cook said.
For example, he referred to the GRP’s trip to Finland in late October, in which its full-time athletes raced in Muonio. Regardless, Stuber could not have gone because of her coaching obligations.
In early November, she brought a few of her Southern Vermont athletes to the NCAA New England regional. It was the first time the college made an appearance at that level since 2003. Two of Stuber’s female runners, Olivia Botteron and Loni Masiero, set school records with the fourth- and fifth-fastest 6 k times, respectively, in Southern Vermont history. Two men, Hesbon Ogeka and Michael Regland, ran personal bests.
Stuber said the team’s season-long improvement was rewarding, and she hoped to recruit a roster full of competitive runners for next fall. One of the smallest schools in the NCAA with about 600 students, Southern Vermont wasn’t always known for its Division III athletics. Stuber wanted to make it one of the top two teams in the New England Collegiate Conference.
“It was a lot more work than I anticipated,” she said at the end of the season. “This year was pretty busy, jam-packed, but it’s good. It’s a good time for me to do it.”
While Stuber ran three to four times a week with the team, she said the training wasn’t ideal. The best part of the job was it’s flexibility in the off-season, and as soon as she wrapped up last fall, she amplified her rollerski training considerably.
When they could, Stuber and Cook said they coordinated their workouts. Cook found a valuable summer training partner in U.S. Ski Team veteran Andy Newell, who lives 15 minutes north of Bennington in Shaftsbury, Vt. Stuber said she trained with her good friend Aubrey Smith, the assistant coach of the Williams College nordic team.
“We’ve been working all the angles we can to get people to train with,” Stuber said.
As of late January, their plan had played out about as well as they could have expected. Before the season started in November, Cook said they were focused on getting settled and “trying to see what the East has.” They weren’t entirely sure which races they would do.
Four weeks ago at U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine, Stuber started off with the fourth-fastest time in the freestyle sprint. She went on to place 10th in the sprint, and recently nabbed third in a SuperTour 10 k skate race in Minneapolis.
“I don’t have any doubt that I’ve made the right move,” Stuber wrote in an email. “I needed a little bit of a life change and moving to Vermont and taking a full-time job was definitely that. Busy is not a bad thing when you enjoy what you do.”
Cook started the season with an Eastern Cup win in Craftsbury (where Stuber was second on the same day). He went on to notch his second-best result at nationals, finishing fifth in the 15 k freestyle. Perhaps he was already getting used to the East.
“I really like the Midwest, but at the same time, coming here and just the terrain with the Green Mountains, it’s different. It’s really nice,” he said. “Maria’s job was a really good opportunity so it was kind of like, ‘Hey, take your opportunities when you get them.’ ”
“I don’t know if we’re lifers, but we’ll be here a while,” Stuber said with a smile.
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Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.