When bad conditions become challenging conditions

“It is not competing against yourself, or against other athletes, but it is ultimately the mountain that wins. What you realize after a time is you are there to play. What really makes the decision is nature, the mountains.” — Kilian Jornet

It all started to change when I ran into Dr. Alan Boraas while skiing at Tsalteshi Trails some five or six years ago.

The ski had been disappointing thus far. Like a sled dog seeing its owner rig up the sled, a sizable dump of snow had gotten me needing to ski.

Groomer Bill Holt, who wields his tools as delicately and masterfully as a surgeon, had not yet had enough time to finish his customary, perfect manicuring of the trails.

The corners were sloughy. The uphills were a punchy slog. Snow was piled awkwardly on downhill corners, forcing me to lurch around like a sailor on choppy seas.

At the bottom of one of those hills, I found Boraas. He asked me how the skiing was. The glint in his eyes, the chalky smile on his lips assured I wouldn’t render an honest verdict.

“OK,” I said.

I must have hid my disappointment about as well as I skied that corner, because he launched into a story about how snowshoes used to be the grooming method of choice on the peninsula.

But that’s not what I heard.

I had taken a class on the anthropology of the Kenai Peninsula from Boraas at Kenai Peninsula College. I thought of the people we had studied in the class, most notably the Dena’ina, who had enjoyed a successful existence long before Holt’s heavenly corduroy.

I also thought of a method I had used to tame stubborn back pain — learning to move all the joints in my body through a full range of motion, practicing visual skills, honing the vestibular system — all to give my brain a clearer idea of how to move and thus avoid pain.

That’s when it hit me. Our species has used its marvelous movement system for 200,000 years of survival in the harshest of environments, and here I was whimpering about using it to ski less-than-perfect trails.

Not even that day, but that minute, I made a change. The ski conditions that day were not bad, they were a challenge.

And as the proud owner of a brain of the species Homo sapiens, I was uniquely equipped to take in information from my eyes, joints and vestibular system, predict how my body needed to move, and instantly adjust and fine-tune movement to more than meet the day’s challenge.

Tough conditions started to bother me a lot less after that day. Nearly all of them became fun. Something drew me to the infinitely different footholds of trails and away from the monotony of pavement.

That something also pulled me to study the techniques of those who made the best of varying conditions in the activities I enjoyed — athletes like elite mountain runners Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg, and world champion skiers Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Marit Bjorgen.

It wasn’t until this week that I gained fuller understanding of what that something was. The revelation came from a video blog from Dr. Eric Cobb, creator of Z-Health Performance Solutions. That is the system I used to rebuild and hone my brain’s interaction with the joints, eyes and vestibular system.

Cobb talked about how the brain craves novelty — that brains get bored without challenge and don’t engage in as much adaptive change, or neuroplasticity, when doing the same thing day after day.

I had my answer to why I had come to crave different and challenging conditions. I felt fortunate to live on the Kenai Peninsula, where nature had a stunning array of puzzles to solve. My brain is a lucky brain.

Tackling these conditions have not made me a better athlete by standard measure. My times in the Salmon Run Series have gotten slower. Last winter, I missed my best time in the 50-kilometer Tour of Anchorage by an hour.

There are too many runs like Tuesday, when I stopped, like, 15 times on the Kenai beach to watch as boiling sunset mixed with roiling surf. Too many skis like Wednesday, when conditions were so icy it was not my heart that thumped, but my elbow after my eyes, joints and vestibular system failed me on an icy corner.

I have a friend who abhors metrics when it comes to endurance athletics. Anything — watch, phone, workout-tracking and social-networking programs like Strava — that puts an unnatural bind on her time in nature is strictly avoided.

I’m not there yet. After all, I’m a sports reporter who covers races. And isn’t Strava a form of one of Boraas’ ideals for a culture of the North — shared outdoor activity?

But I’m convinced we measure fitness far too much in minutes, miles and calories, and not enough on uniquely human movement derived from the joy of playing in nature.

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