It was late November when I sat at my window in West Yellowstone and pondered the dances of the falling snowflakes outside. “I love winter” I thought, checking the outside temperature on my iPhone and pulling a blanket over my shoulders. It was a little cold for a tank top out there.
I do love winter. As a citizen of a first world country, I have the privilege of getting to enjoy winter for it’s better half, the one with snowflakes and sledding and nordic skiing. I can think it beautiful, nature’s pleasant nap, in which the world slows down and drifts slowly in and out of peace and restlessness. When it’s peaceful, glimmering snow crystals and blue bird days cure cabin fever and make better people out of all of us. When it’s restless, it’s just as easy to throw in the towel and sit at the window in a tank top, sipping hot cocoa and thinking “I love winter.”
Well folks, two weeks in Houghton, MI hasn’t taught me anything if not that that smooth, calm, loving winter I know has a nasty bite. Lake effect snows and Jack Frost temperatures have reminded me that, even with heat and cocoa, winter can be harsh. Case in point? I write this from the vantage point of my left eye, which has been doing most of the grunt work for my right eye, which is concealed by an eye patch. But it’s not a pirate eye patch, it’s a pretty eye patch, delicately bedazzled by my loving teammates.
How did I get said patch, you ask? My cornea was lacerated by the ice crystals of my frozen tears. That’s not even poetic hyperbole. It happened in a hard race, where it wasn’t even that cold, and it wasn’t until after I crossed the finish line that things came into focus (so to speak). The vision in my right eye was something akin to a frozen windshield, where my eyelids were nothing more than wipers of sandpaper scratching over it. But, as with most things, if the going gets rough, throw in an eye patch to lighten up the mood. (Trust me, I know, I wore a Barney eye patch on my left eye until I was five, and made loads of friends.)
The injury, and the day after spent alone in a cabin, gave me a lot to think about. First, as I talked about before, winter can hurt you. As has been proven by the tragic events in across the world in the past year, even the most skilled and professional athletes are at risk to nature. Winter is something to be loved, sought and protected, but also respected. Cross country skiing is no exception, it’s something that can be enjoyed, but you have to be prepared.
For my part, I wasn’t. I had layered well, but forgot about my face, which I had done so well to protect earlier in the week. 20K later, I crossed the line to realize that I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye. Disoriented, I fumbled out of the finish gate, at which point I realized that getting from the outside to the inside was going to be a hard time. One of my college friends saw me buckled in the snow rubbing my eyes, and assumed that I was crying from the race. She came to comfort me, rubbing my back and telling me that I was going to be ok. “No, it’s not the race,” I said, through frozen slurred words as blurry as my eye. In that moment, I had a tempting, sinful thought. I could say that I would have done better in my race if it weren’t for my eye. Luckily, I didn’t. I had wanted to do better, but I certainly hadn’t skied poorly, and the truth was that I hadn’t even noticed that something was wrong until I crossed the line.
Which brings me to my second striking thought:
When we race, we enter this incredible life-or-death mindset reminiscent of our ancient endurance hunting days. Our focus is forward, on the skier in front of us, and we notice little else around us. I hate to keep on using ocular cliches, but we enter tunnel vision, and the peripherals don’t return until we cross the line. That mindset is both really cool and completely terrifying. On one hand, when you’re in race mode, the mechanics of your mind and body combine to make you do things that you would never have thought characteristic of yourself. The same girl with great table manners who stresses over choosing menu items will make quick decisions, charge hills, move tactfully and aggressively whens she races. Your bib becomes a disguise that frees you of your conventions.
What’s terrifying, is that one of those conventions is a general sense for self preservation. Skiers try to race when they’re sick, tired and injured. We think that, as endurance athletes, perseverance is our mantra, that toughness is definitive of success. And it is, in a sense. The people at the top of the climb in Val di Fiemme two days ago, bent over their aching limbs, gasping for breath and energy? They embodied toughness. The ones who sat it out, who were tired, injured or sick and made the decision to bench for the day? They did, too.
As skiers, we don’t know when to stop. Skiing is hard, it hurts, so we just keep going. That’s why we need to rely on those around us, our teammates, coaches and parents, to remind us of our priorities. I love racing, I’ve devoted so much of my life to it and to success, but, in the end, it’s just not worth going blind for. That perspective (literally and figuratively) reminds us that racing is important, but it doesn’t define us.
To lighten things up, one last thing struck me in the whole ouch-my-eye debacle of 2015: how difficult it is to rock an eye patch. Walking into the Houghton Walmart to get my prescription eye drops, I thought that I wouldn’t get too much attention. I mean, worse things have definitely walked into the Houghton Walmart than a fashion crossed pirate. As much as I love being the center of attention (youngest child syndrome), this kind of attention was altogether different than any I had experienced. Children were both intrigued and afraid, like they were standing in front of a life size Disney villain. Adults were worse. From them, I got the I’m-trying-not-to-look-at-you stare. I became acutely aware of how little time I’ve spent in my life feeling different than those around me. It was sobering, almost as much so as learning how to put in lubed eye drops for the first time in my life, which was so tragically unglamorous I couldn’t stand it.
At the end of the day, I just had to grin and bear it (it being the bedazzled eye patch). With one sore eye (and a day sitting alone inside in the dark) came a year of introspective experience. I hope that when I lose the patch, I won’t lose these thoughts to which I had earlier been blind.
I also hope that I never again take for granted how many literary tropes there are that relate to vision. Like, wow.