I’m sitting in a restaurant in Spearfish, S.D., right now, trying to think about the past year.
In general, I hate the way the end of one year and the beginning of the next means people are expected to take stock of themselves and their lives. I think I do that more often – probably too much, asking myself too many questions and then feeling trapped under the weight of them.
But, like anyone else, here I am.
It’s Jan. 1, and I’m not who I was on this day last year. I spent New Year’s Eve cross-country skiing with Patrick and Dan and Lisa, who I’ve known for years from running and whom you might know from our “Legends of the Fall” running chat we had earlier this year. They’re great people, and we both know them from different parts of our lives, and it was great to spend the weekend together.
They were endlessly patient as they took us around – Patrick has cross-country skied a handful of times. Me? This weekend marked my second and third times – the first time being at a class at The Outdoor Campus several years ago, where my old neighbor Vickie and I decided to give it a try.
This time, Dan and Lisa invited us, and we said yes. Found somewhere to stay downtown and packed the car full of everything you might need – snowshoes and a bike and my running gear and the skis and the absurd amount of cold-weather clothing you need for all of these activities.
They all have skis – I don’t. So I did what anyone does, which is call Kristina and Barry Hein and ask what they have and what I can borrow. And because they’re who they are, they said yes, whatever we want, and with that I had a set of skis with fancy stickers on them I couldn’t pronounce.
We took them to a shop in Spearfish to have them waxed, and the guy gave me a weird look.
“Are these yours,” he asked.
“I borrowed them from a friend,” I replied.
“How much does your friend weight,” he asked.
“I don’t know, about 115,” I said.
“You know you’re going to smash these skis down,” he said to Patrick. “They’re racing skis.”
“No, no, they’re for her,” he replied, pointing to me.
The guy laughed, asked a lot of questions about the owner (and of course we talked about how awesome the Heins are, because they are), and then he asked me how much I’ve skied.
“Once,” I told him.
“OK, well, what’s your sport,” he asked.
“Trail running. Ultramarathons.”
With that he eased a bit and then proceeded to give me a stack of suggestions about how to stand, how to fall and how I better go on the beginner trails. It was a familiar refrain – Kristina had asked Patrick, “you’re taking her somewhere flat, right?” He wasn’t, not really. We were going wherever Lisa and Dan told us to go, and because they’re fit and fast and awesome, it wasn’t going to be easy. But because I’ve known all these people for so long, because I’ve bonked on a run with them and Patrick has on a ride with them, because they’re funny and patient and kind, I wasn’t worried. I told myself my endurance and sense of adventure would make up for my lack of coordination, and for the most part, that was true.
On Sunday, we went to the Dead Ox trailhead and Lisa made us all stand for a photo. That was the last time we saw them for the next three hours. That’s how I wanted it – they’re good, great, and I hate the pressure of slowing someone down. They went and told us there were a few spots it was so steep they sometimes take their skis off. We said we were going to go out for about an hour and a half and then turn around.
Dan told me to pretend I was on an elliptical, to get the hang of how to do it. That proved to be the most helpful advice from anyone.
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be in some ways, and it was harder in others.
I couldn’t get up any of the hills without full on dragging myself with the poles. I somehow stepped on my own feet about 10 times. The first time I fell, I went fully up in the air with my skis sticking up. At one point Patrick said, “You have snow on your head.”
It was that kind of day.
And it was awesome.
I fell – and this is a conservative estimate – about 40 times on Sunday. Sometimes I could get myself up OK, sometimes I had to lay there for a minute and figure out which body part attached to a device to move first to untangle myself. Every time, I was laughing.
There were a few climbs steeper than I would have liked, and a few times coming back down where I wasn’t sure how I was going to stop and steered myself into the deep snow, or just sat on the back of the skis like a kid, and other times I just sort of fell over to make it stop.
“You did better than I thought,” Patrick said.
“What were you worried about? My lack of coordination, the cold, the distance, what? Or do you need a write-in answer?”
“Coordination, mostly,” he said. “You’ll suffer through anything, that I know. I didn’t want you to have to.”
I didn’t. I got the hang of it for a bit, then fell out of rhythm, picked it up again, over and over.
I’ve never been so sleepy after a sport, except maybe swimming, which gives you that same sort of all over exhaustion. We stopped for lunch together, then tried to climb what turned out to be basically an icy hill to a cliff. We made it close enough to see then just bailed and slid back down on our butts.
Lisa made wild rice soup in a crock pot in her hotel room, and we rang in the New Year making fun of each other and talking about movies and drinking wine and eating old Christmas cookies and then all falling asleep by 9.
It was perfect.
Monday, we went out again, to a flatter and more open trail and did it all again for 2.5 hours, drank a beer in the parking lot after and then went our separate ways.
Patrick and I are doing some work right now, then heading to Custer to see other friends, staying in the hills an extra day to avoid driving across the giant state when it’s so, so cold and a little unsafe.
We missed the bulk of the bad weather in eastern South Dakota – it was about 30 when we got done today.
“We enjoyed a lovely tropical getaway to the Black Hills this holiday,” we joked.
It was blue, blue sky. No wind. People I love trying something new.
Being so tired about two hours into it on Monday, as we stared up a giant hill that Dan and Lisa made easy work of, and I kept sliding backwards.
“Just go on,” I told Patrick. “I’ll catch up.”
He wouldn’t, of course, and instead offered me a lesson in leverage with some suggestions about better pole placement to actually heave myself up the hill. The look on my face stopped him, and he said, “Or, we could take the skis off and hike to the top.”
That’s what we did, carrying all the gear with snow up to my thighs as we trudged for the next maybe 10 minutes. I told myself it was excellent training for Zumbro, where there is a real possibility it could be snowy, and where there will be about 50 miles of power hiking, that I already know.
We got to the top, sweating and swearing and then were rewarded with the slowest, gentlest descent, trees on one side, sunny open space on the other, Dan and Lisa at the bottom, taking a photo with the trailhead sign, arms around each other as they squinted into the sun.
“Come here, we’re taking your photo,” Lisa said. “Now kiss.”
It’s how she is – sweet and funny and loving. It’s a great quality and it’s nice to have someone remind us all – we love each other, we’ve all trained together for years, and we’re out here because we want to be. Because it’s a new year with a new start and new goals and dreams and people to pursue them with.
Because these are my friends and this is my life, and with everything that changes, a lot of it is exactly the same, just reconfigured.
If you ask me what I want in life, what makes me happy, it’s always been impossibly simple: Time outside, with the people I love, doing what we want to do. Reading a book, riding a bike, running a trail, pushing a kid on a swing, a backyard full of the neighbor kids, an evening on the deck with lights and backgammon and Paul Simon playing.
Laying in the snow, wondering how to get up when my arms are so, so tired, and the sky is so clear and my head is, too.
Standing up and looking down the trail and knowing that every time I fall, no matter how tired I am, I can get up. When I can’t? There’s help.
It’s all these people, and they’re willing and always have been.
Happy New Year.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear every other Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.