Alli Harvey: On omens, ski poles and the Tour of Anchorage

Alli Harvey

One of my favorite words is "auspicious." It's an adjective that means "conducive to success; favorable." I apply this word to many aspects of my life.

I land the Kleenex in the trash can successfully. An auspicious sign that I will continue winning at life, I think happily.

"Inauspicious" is an equally catchy word (adjective: not conducive to success; unfavorable). I think of it when I arrive at work in the morning only to slip on ice in the parking lot. Landing on my butt before I've even set foot in the office seems like a bad omen for the day.

Inauspicious is the word that got stuck in my head when I got the news last Friday that the March 2 Tour of Anchorage ski marathon course had been shortened due to unseasonably warm weather.

I was signed up to ski the 50-K course, from Service High School all the way to Kincaid Park. Some might say this was a terrible idea to begin with and that the abbreviated course, now 26-K, was a cosmic gift for me: a polite and graceful bow-out for someone who, like the rest of Anchorage, got her training time cut in half when the mid-January melt occurred. I considered that.

I also considered how excited I had felt about taking on the long course. One of my favorite aspects of the Tour of Anchorage is the opportunity to see Anchorage starting on one side and going all the way through to the other side. What other cities boast urban ski trails the way Anchorage does? It makes me proud and happy to live in a community that draws skiers from all over the world to compete, to see onlookers smiling in the cold weather all along the trail, ringing cowbells to cheer skiers on.

I am not an athlete, to be clear. What qualifies me is not so much physical prowess but a brazen will to get outside and sometimes fail hard. But I love this race, and I was at least mentally ready for 50 kilometers of skiing with thousands of my new closest friends.

So when I heard that the Tour had been cut in half, I felt crestfallen. I understood the decision, of course, and knew that the good people of the Nordic Ski Association Anchorage spoke truly when they reported, "the Kincaid stadium is a puddle." But the small child in me that frequently waits (and is usually denied) her turn to talk whined, "but WHY?!"

I showed up at Service High on race day, Sunday morning, around 7:45 a.m. wearing pants (check), with a jacket (check) and mittens (check). But while my layering system was present, my heart was not in the race. The words "inauspicious start" echoed in my mind. Even the cafeteria at Service High School felt emptier than it had in past years.

Still, when my start time rolled around at 8:42 a.m. I dutifully left the cafeteria to go grab my skis from the truck.

I popped the tailgate. And that's when it got louder. The word inauspicious rolled around in the bed of the truck at the same volume it clanged in my mind as I shoved things around:

Where were my ski poles?

My start wave left without me, skiing into the woods and then toward the mountains. I started walking back across the parking lot toward the main building, doing the duck-like walk of a person wearing slippery cross-country ski boots on icy asphalt. I was dumbfounded. How do I recoup from this, I thought? Can I run home and grab my poles? I did the math. That would take me an hour. That would be way too late.

I asked a couple of women who were about my height if they happened to have any spare poles. The sympathy I got was heartfelt but after a couple of attempts I was too crestfallen to ask another person. I asked if I could ski a later start. I couldn't. I completely understood but also felt even more upset at myself. I couldn't think of another way to salvage the race.

So, I did what any other adult would do. I called my best friend as I duck-walked back across the icy parking lot, averting my eyes from other skiers' as big, wet, warm tears went down my cheeks.

I got in my car and removed my race bib. I wiped off my face. I started to pull out of the parking lot, and then I saw two of my friends waving from the front seat of their car. They looked confused.

I re-parked nearby and called them to explain. I wouldn't be racing because silly me had forgotten my ski poles at home.

Jenny said, "No! We just cleaned out all our gear from the car last night!" and then she paused. "Well, my start time isn't for two hours. I have extra poles at home. I can give you mine now!"

Instinctively, I said, "No -- no, no, it's OK. Thank you so much, but I'm good, I'm not going to do it." I heard Sam in the background asking something, and Jenny responded, "I think she's made up her mind," then said to me, "Seriously, I can run home. My start time is at 11."

I thanked her again but declined and got off the phone. I sat back in the seat, the car still parked, working my way through that funny feeling of being offered something that I know I would do for someone else, yet not feeling able to accept it.

My phone lit up. It read, "If you change your mind, it's really not a problem."

I asked, "Are you sure?"

That's how I ended up accepting generosity from friends and participating in the ski race after all. I tripped and fell (finally) on the ice as I accepted the poles from Jenny (cue: inauspicious). I missed my formal start wave by 45 minutes. I skipped the notorious Spencer Loop, both for timing reasons and because it took longer for me to feel excited during the ski than I'd thought.

Even though it was a different Tour of Anchorage than I'd planned for, it was still a beautiful, fast, bright blue day ski. I felt grateful to be there, along with the skiers, onlookers, and friends who will loan ski poles on race day. Offering help is part of being in a community, and so is sometimes accepting it. I realized auspiciousness -- being conducive to success; favorable -- is something that can be practiced, even paid forward. It could even, I suppose, be planned for.

My ski poles were leaning against the closet wall in my apartment where I left them. Next year, I'll bring them and then some extras -- just in case.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.