Kristina Groves: "Girl Train" & Other Tales From The Road
Kristina Groves is one of the world’s best long track speed skaters. Even if the Ottawa native is too modest to declare that herself, five medals including one gold at last year’s world single distance championships attest to it. She already has two World Cup wins this season.
And it turns out she’s also a skilled writer who sends out regular missives to friends, family and supporters about life on the World Cup circuit. Here, she shares her first two posts of the season with us, the first “Girl Train” filed after the opening World Cup in Berlin and the second “Saving My Socks” dispatched this week after another big win in the Netherlands.
Thanks to Kristina for this …
Girl Train (Nov. 11)
In an effort to stave off the perils of jet lag, the girls and I headed to downtown Berlin on the train for a late afternoon excursion and decaf latte. When our search for the shopping district proved fruitless we landed instead at the local Starbucks (sorry) for a warm drink to heat up our damp and chilled toes. In a way that only girls seem capable of, much gossip and gab ensued and we spent a good hour discussing all people and things speed skating. And in a way that only gossip seems capable of, in some small way, we bonded.
I train in a group of five girls and four boys, and even though we are a tight group we rarely socialize together outside of speed skating, which is one thing I believe has contributed greatly to our individual successes. At the rink, our coach, Xiuli (Wang), keeps us focused on the work we are there to do and we are oft viewed by other groups as overly serious skaters that never have any fun. This is not an entirely unwarranted description as our group is comprised of serious and professional (in spirit at least, if not in salary) athletes, but we do certainly have our fair share of fun. It just seems that suffering like dogs and working harder than you thought possible doesn’t qualify as fun for most people. But no bother, we are branded the black sheep and we don’t care.
As a result of Xiuli’s high expectations, demanding training programs and our combined work ethic and commitment to success, we have found a way to train especially well together, but we all have interests and social networks outside of our sport obsession that keep us independent and mentally healthy. We generally all get along just fine, albeit with the odd bump in the road, but still, I was pleasantly surprised to find us all together that afternoon in Berlin, relaxed and fully enjoying each other’s company.
Earlier that day we hit the ice for the first post-travel session, which is always a bit of a shock to the system. Having arrived in Berlin sans coach Xiuli, who arrived two days later, we spent this first training session on our own, and with only the girls of the group qualified to race the first fall World Cups, we were really flying solo. It was a quiet ice session in the afternoon; we were nearly the only five skaters on the ice, and thankfully it was also an easy one, just easy sets of laps together in a train, taking turns leading.
There are not many ‘girl’ teams in the world today that can depend entirely on themselves to train together at an adequate intensity to achieve world-class results. Often you will see smaller groups of girls training primarily with the guys, who pull laps for them, pull accels for them and generally raise them up to higher quality training. There are even one or two teams where there is only one girl who employs male domestique skaters to train with her. We are pretty proud of the fact that we are strong enough and secure enough to pull our own laps and push each other to higher and higher levels. Not to say that we don’t still train with the boys in the group, but when we do we pull our fair share of laps at a pace fast enough to still benefit them.
After we were finished our ‘easy’ laps, which felt brutal after travel, as they always do, we were chatting with a Danish skater who has been training solo in Berlin for the entire summer and fall. Speed skating is quite on the fringe in Denmark and as such there is not much of a team or program to speak of, so it is constant struggle for this girl to find a place to train and people to train with. She was initially told that she would be allowed to train with the German B team, but in the end that fell through and she ended up entirely on her own. She commented on how nice it was to see us skating together and instantly I felt both incredibly sorry for her and incredibly grateful for what we have together. This sport is so unique in that we need each other, we need a team, to do the training, but come race day we are alone in our goals and on the ice and fight hard to beat each other and everyone else. I can’t imagine tackling this sport alone, it seems impossible to me. It is all too likely that sometimes this Danish girl feels brutal during laps too, but has no one to share the brutal-ness with, or laugh about it with afterwards. We are lucky to have what we have, although in talking to this girl I realized how very much we take it for granted.
After coffee, on the train ride back to our hotel from downtown, we realized that we hadn’t bothered to take note of the name of our stop. It was rather dark and foggy out so we had to keep a watchful eye on every stop to make sure we didn’t end up lost in some remote corner of Berlin. Thankfully we recognized our stop when we saw it and made it home safely.
Our little excursion made me think that someday I’m going to have to get off a different kind of train - this crazy skating train - and right now I have no idea what station to get off at. As far as I can tell there is no map, and I’m both the conductor and only passenger aboard! I can only hope that when the time comes I’ll just look out the window and somehow recognize it as the right one. Thankfully, when I do, it will be with the knowledge that an incredible journey has come to an end and that I was lucky enough to take this ride with a very special group of uber-fast, uber-fun, uber-awesome skater girls.
Saving My Socks (Nov. 19)
As we navigate our way through various airports around the world, we tend to draw a lot of unwanted attention to ourselves; we are conspicuous travelers. This is not because we are loud and obnoxious (although some may argue otherwise) but rather because we are a large group of people all wearing the same clothes carting around massive amounts of luggage. This may come as a surprise to you – what could we possibly need to bring besides skates and a skimpy skin-suit? Well, the list is long, and in my case it seems, only getting longer as the years go by.
The item that really gets people’s attention is the bike box. Many of us bring bikes on the road. We use them for training (we don’t just skate in circles), for warm-up and warm-down on race day, for getting to and from the rink, and for getting into town and away from the hotel. I pack my bike in a large plastic hard case made especially for this purpose. I put other important things in there too, like shoes, skate sharpening equipment, snacks, food and spare blades. It can get pretty heavy, is quite oversized and a tad awkward to maneuver even with wheels. Random people are constantly coming up to me asking, ‘What is in the box?’ Most of the time they don’t even say hello, they just want to know what’s in the box. When I tell them it’s a bike some are satisfied with that and just walk away. Others are intrigued, so they pursue the chitchat to find out what I’m up to. The ensuing conversation that inevitably leads to speed skating has happened to all of us so many times we try to avoid it like the plague.
So, there’s the bike. But then I have to bring a trainer for my bike so I can ride it in my hotel room, or for warm-up at the rink. That’s bag number two. In this bag I’ll also include more shoes, more food, and some bigger, but stuff-able, clothing items. This year I decided to bring a blender to make smoothies because I never eat enough on race day and somehow can stomach liquids much better. So I put the blender in that bag too.
Then there’s the main bag, bag number three. This is the big one where I have to pack training clothes, skating clothes, casual clothes, lounging clothes, toiletries, various jackets from each of our team’s sponsors, and more shoes (in case you’re wondering, I need: running shoes, weight lifting shoes, cycling shoes, flip flops, and usually one pair of casual shoes). No matter how many times I go on the road, I always feel like I never get it right. Too many jeans I don’t wear, not enough training shirts, endless pairs of socks…
When I’m getting ready to pack, I make little piles all over the place and it always seems so ridiculous to bring so much stuff. Every time, I ask myself, do I really need this shirt, or that jacket, can I make do with less or do I have room to bring more? It’s an art form really, one I’ve been working on for many years. Miraculously I always manage to make it out the door, and, now this may come as a shock, so far I’ve always survived the trip with what I have!
I’ve begun to realize that I have some peculiar habits when it comes to living out of a suitcase for weeks on end. It seems that no matter how many pairs of socks I bring, I always end up at home with at least a few clean pairs. Now, this is not the result of poor packing or bringing too many pairs, but something else entirely. I’m not sure if it stems from some sort of primordial human instinct to conserve, be it energy, food, or fuel, for the unknown days ahead, but for whatever reason, even when I have clean pairs of socks, I will root through my laundry bag and re-wear a previously used (read: dirty) pair so as to ensure that there will always be clean pairs left. I thought maybe it was because I’m too lazy to hand wash them in the sink, with the laundry soap I have dutifully remembered to bring from home, but I will always do that if I run out of clean underwear.
There are a few rare and glorious places we go where we can do an actual load of laundry for free. Like at the hotel in Berlin. But when we start a trip in Berlin and have two weeks to go I still have lots of clean laundry, probably because I’ve already begun my hoarding, so it doesn’t seem urgent or necessary. At the hotel I’m staying at now it costs €5.75 to get one long-sleeved shirt laundered. And €1.70 for a pair of socks, € 4.00 for a t-shirt, €5.75 for pants… you get the idea – it’s a rip off. While I am occasionally desperate for clean laundry I resolutely refuse to spend €100 to do it. So instead I squirrel away my socks for the long weeks ahead.
I’ve often thought that I might as well just lighten my load and bring less stuff. Then I wouldn’t have to cart around clean pairs of socks and other clothes I will strangely never wear. You’d think that the amount of times my many bags have careened off the luggage cart to land all over the place in a big mess would teach me a lesson or two. Pack light! Only bring what you need! I have actually done this once or twice in the past, and in hindsight, with great regret, so perhaps that is the root of my strange behaviour. I ended up wearing the same clothes so often, and got so tired of smelling like a buffet that now I overcompensate by bringing too much.
Over the years I’ve become immune to the staring and pointing and questioning I endure for my own and my team’s necessity for traveling with all the necessary equipment and creature comforts of home. It is clearly and understandably a life that is mysterious and peculiar to most everyone who has not lived it. Still, I can’t help but laugh to myself when I think that if they all think I’m strange only because of the enormous pile of luggage on my cart, then they don’t know the half of it.