Personal Essay: An Uphill Battle by Tim Donahue

FasterSkierJune 16, 2022

If you look at the lines that graph long-term athletic performance – VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, maximum heart rate, 10k running speed – it can be pretty demoralizing. Even before age 30, there’s a slow and steady cant downward, and then by the mid-40s, a descent into a valley that plunges toward the abyss’s void of emptiness.  

 Some of us choose to oppose these trendlines, wrestling with them like tentacles in a roiling sea of errands and bills and fraying cartilage and arthritis. During well more than one rollerski session each year, I think of the “strange resistance” Robert Frost describes in his poem “West Running Brook”:

“It has this throwing backward on itself / So that the fall of most of it is always/ Raising a little, sending up a little.”

This man, whose Vermont cabin touches the Rikert Nordic trail system, continues:

“It is this backwards motion toward the source/ Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,/ The tribute of the current to the source./ It is from this in nature we are from./ It is most us.”

The tribute of the current to the source. It’s as though Frost (who, I’m guessing would be Birkie wave 8 – at best) was tasked to make an inspirational T-shirt that captures the mind of a masters skier. I am proud to be a member of this infinitesimal subset of American society, and if you still think skis with holes in the tips look new, I imagine you are too.  

Tim Donahue mid-race during the 2020 Winter World Masters Games in Seefeld, AUT. (Photo: Garrott Kuzzy / Lumi Experiences)

 After too much running for my large frame and my knees, I began uphill skiing in earnest in my mid-30s, just as I knew these charts were generally tipping downwards. As I was effectively starting from scratch, though, I felt I had an advantage. I did not have to chase the ghost of my 22 year-old self, vaunted by a college program and a systematic knowledge of voluntary suffering. Skiing gave me a second athletic life, and as I opened its invitations to technique, training blocks, intensity sessions, and World Cup fandom, I delighted in every aspect of its complexity.  

 Nearly twenty years into it, the fires still burn, though sometimes it’s hard to tell whether I’ll coax any new flames or just ride along the glimmer of dying embers. Now into the swing of summer as we are, I find myself between an acronym – SAMITS (skiers are made in the summer) – and, a hammock. Can I throw another log onto this fire? Should I? It’s a question of little worldly consequence, and yet it’s the central question of this other world I’ve built for myself. 

 More than anything, the lure of skiing these days is that reliable doorway it opens into another place. I have sat through all-morning “self-care” sessions in hot rooms in masks, and then I have clicked into the Marwes and breathed. I have endured a full Guy Fieri cooking show in the doctor’s waiting room, then I’ve gently climbed through the woods with four points of contact. I just learned the world emitted more C02 than ever last year, and I needed to get out and roll among the innocent trees.   

This otherworldliness has especially come as I’ve lived in, and now just north of, Manhattan all these years. I have approximately one teammate (the great Sproule Love) and I get on snow maybe a dozen days a season. But new wheels roll well on fresh pavement even here, and it’s easy to let the mind return to the familiar grooves. On the rail trail that runs mercifully just out my door and now nearly connects through the entire state of New York, I can lather into a third hour under a canopy of early spring leaves and let the Wendell Berry in: “The health of nature is the primary ground of hope – if we can find the humility and wisdom to accept nature as our teacher.” Yes, skiing can soften the hard edges of the world and give way to the dance of balance and strength. And yet, sometimes I need more than this.  

 Sometimes, I can rouse the fires within to see a completely different world beyond, with its own muses and images. Here’s where I hear the siren song of Devon Kershaw and his allusions of carnage: the “rip their legs off” and “gun to tape annihilate” and the “going down to the basement.” Racing is just instinctual for me. I ran my first 10k back in 1979, when I was nine, and whether up stairs, across bogs and sand dunes, on bikes, on skis or snowshoes, I’ve raced every year since. To this career high school English teacher, it’s the opposite of grading essays.  

The author, Tim Donahue, races the 2012 American Birkie with teammate Sproule Love (bib 97). (Photo: livestream screenshot)

 When I’m trying to connect with my limited stores power and speed, I’ll sometimes watch World Cup clips on YouTube. I see Petter Northug gritting his way through the field to take the 50k classic at the 2015 Falun World Championships; I see those last few k’s in the Beijing Olympic 30k when Jessie Diggins finishes on fumes for silver. (Yes, a proud moment in our household when my daughters encouraged me to name our puppy Diggins.) The one I’m thinking of now is the 2019 World Champs 30k skiathlon in Seefeld. It’s Sundy-Bolshunov-Røthe trying to destroy each other up the last few climbs, finding a hop skate after seventy-five minutes of redline racing, then spilling across the line with perfectly emptied tanks. Perhaps you have your own favorite clips.  

As I try to summon a summer interval in the suburbs, after dropping my daughter a sleepover, I can get to thinking about my own highlight tape, which Chad Salmela is definitely not narrating. I think of the 2006 Pepsi Challenge, when at 48k, I gave a nod to my one teammate and we made a decisive surge, dusting the last young buck riding in our train. I think about Bitch Hill, a steep little climb 40k into the Birkie, when several years later, I found the spring to fracture our large, lollygagging pack. I find these memories within, gently flogging me with their flagella. In part because it’s so hard to explain them in my faculty lounge in the Bronx, in part because they are the payouts of so much stoic suffering, and mostly because I just love it, I want to make more.  

This winter was different though. Mysteriously, I started feeling a constriction in my chest. I was often unable to get a full breath, even when reading in bed at night. When I tried to get out of zone three, I just couldn’t find the air. I saw my pulmonologist, my cardiologist, a gastroenterologist. I drew blood, I got tests. I got sucked down the Internet vortex: was it long Covid? Had I even had Covid? It took time and was expensive, and I didn’t learn much.  

With each race I had penciled into the schedule and had to decline, I felt the nip of disappointment. I didn’t want to say good-bye yet. Could I salvage, at least, something?  

One day in February after a good night’s sleep, I decided to enter a low-stakes challenge – the benchmark 10k rollerski time trial in Central Park. It wasn’t awful. In fact, it was an improvement from a few months prior. So, I succumbed to the beast and tried a few late-season races.  

It’s not a great feeling to stand on the starting line with a doubting mindset – “What am I doing here?” “Don’t blow up.” But that’s how things went – I felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. It was hard, humbling, and really not that much fun. But my last race of the “season” (four races total) offered a glimmer of hope. It was just a 5k relay leg, in perfect conditions on a rather flat course. Still, I felt relatively strong. I was actually able to pass people up a hill. So that’s the memory I’m choosing to take away. 

Tim Donahue in Maine during the summer of 2020. (Photo: Sproule Love)

But is it enough to justify all the rigamarole? That sixth hill interval when the pain just feels pointless? Those beautifully aimless workouts – where you go a little faster than you should – interrupted by the voice of prudence? The occasional margarita you eschew for some pious purpose? And then, when winter comes, all that fretting over Wunderground and waxes and websites, where you read about volunteers shoveling snow onto corners in dwindling hopes of staving off the coming thaw, toward which your travel no doubt contributes?  

 Ugh – yeah, it’s worth it! We skiers worship a rather demonic god, it seems. And its worth only grows because it’s so fleeting, like surfing through a barrel wave – exhilarating and bound to crash. Like trying to ski uphill forever. If you, reader, have not grappled with this same question, you probably will!  

Here’s the best revelation I’ve come to: I just want to be able to work hard enough so that going out on a long ski feels easy. For a recent New York Times piece about the pleasure of running slowly, one of the most popular comments was, “Running for joy beats running to win anytime.” I’m not quite there yet, but I see the light of this too. For now, I want my strength to be more than my pain. I know my imagination can supply the rest.  

Author Bio:

Tim Donahue teaches high school English at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in The Bronx. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and rollerskis year round. You can find his writing on climate change and education in The New York TimesUSA Today, and Newsweek.


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