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Holly Brooks: Coping with a snowless winter

  • Author: Holly Brooks
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 14, 2015

Remember when it used to snow in Alaska? This winter it seems like the snow pack is measured in millimeters or freezing rain, and what used to be considered a measly two inches of snow seems like cause for celebration.

We all know the facts. We've read the headlines: Not a single day below zero for Anchorage in 2014; Alyeska and Girdwood businesses up against difficult economic times.

That said, I suppose there are some things to be thankful for, including lower heating bills, happier car engines and picturesque ice skating. While the ski industry suffers, the fat-tire bike industry flourishes.

This year has been different for me. I passed on the chance to spend another year on the World Cup tour with the U.S. Ski Team in order to focus on ski marathons, and because of that I have spent more time in Alaska this winter than I have in the past four years combined. While my Alaska Pacific University teammates were racing over Thanksgiving in Kuusamo, Finland, and West Yellowstone, Montana, I was in Anchorage.

While I dreamed about long tours of Kincaid Park in pristine conditions, my reality was very, very different. For weeks on end there was no snow and a layer of ice (and gravel and sand) everywhere, making roller skiing nearly impossible and downright dangerous. Instead I ran in my ice shoes and double-poled on my stationary machine in the garage.

While I trained without snow, my teammates raced in winter wonderland. I will never forget the elation I felt when my family retreated to Hope for Thanksgiving and I discovered the Hope Highway was dry enough to roller ski. Rejoice, right?

Finally, December rolled around, and the same day I completed my graduate-study final exams at APU I boarded a plane to Switzerland, for my first race of the season. The conditions in Europe were thin at best, and I wondered if I was flying halfway around the world only to have my inaugural marathon canceled.

Luckily, Davos, the site of my pre-race camp, defied tropical conditions and salvaged the 1.5-kilometer man-made loop created for World Cup races earlier in the month. However, 100 skiers on 1.5 twisty kilometers created a constant traffic jam. I was relieved to learn that just over the mountains in Livigno, Italy, the site of my race, the conditions were much better. Thanks to a robust fleet of snow guns and countless locals who spent the previous week shoveling, the La Sgambeda, my first marathon, went off without a hitch.

In the last few years I have witnessed amazing spectacles of engineering, creativity and perseverance that have provided enough snow for ski races.

In December, Davos averaged a balmy 45 degrees. With an impending World Cup to host, the situation appeared nearly hopeless. But the Swiss are ingenious. They decided to blow artificial snow at the top of 7,800-foot Fluela Pass, load it into dump trucks with a backhoe, descend 10 miles of switchbacks and create a 5-K loop.

Two years ago in Oberhof, Germany, the first stages of the Tour de Ski looked grim. It was too warm to blow snow and the ground was wet and warm. Organizers trucked ice from a fish-processing plant 500 kilometers away, spread it on a 2.5-K loop and then covered the ice with artificial snow from the adjacent year-round, indoor ski tunnel. Like I said, it's amazing to see what can be done just to hold a race.

I thought the training in Anchorage around Christmas was well above adequate. All over town I kept hearing how bad or nonexistent the skiing was, but compared to many other places in the world, I felt lucky. I was thankful for each and every snowflake and ice pellet that fell from the sky. Even better, after years of fundraising and technical difficulties, the snow guns at Kincaid are finally making snow. Thanks to science and engineering, Anchorage has beautiful snow to ski on.

Skiing has taken me all over the world the last four years, and this year will be no exception. After my first Christmas at home in ages I have departed earlier this month for the bulk of my marathon season. In the next three months I will race up to 11 ski marathons in 10 countries for a total of 569 kilometers.

I expect to encounter white-outs, heat waves, race cancelations and course modifications. As a professional winter athlete, I have learned that ample snow and cold temperatures are not a given, but a luxury. If anything, race courses and ski destinations have become less entwined with nature and weather patterns and more reliant on snow guns, backhoes and course construction design.

My advice to you is to remain optimistic regardless of snowfall, the color of the sky and the temperature on the thermometer. When you can't ski, bike; when you can't bike, run; when you can't run, walk with ice cleats. When all else fails, join the pilgrimage to Hawaii.

I'll see you in April, when I'm sure we'll be digging ourselves out of an epic blizzard.

Holly Brooks of Anchorage is a two-time Olympian and frequent contributor to Alaska Dispatch News. Follow her at hollyskis.blogspot.com, @brooksha1 or on her "Holly Brooks -- Dare to Dream" Facebook page.

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