Monthly Archives: February 2015

Pro Cyclists Train in Vermont Winter

As I write this it’s -12 degrees and the State of Vermont is blanketed in snow. How cold is it? It’s so cold that on Saturday an avid fatbike enthusiast came to Spinning® class instead of riding outdoors. It’s so cold that my dogs had to break the ice on their water in the heated garage. It’s so cold that many of us have finally given up and are out there bundled up to within an inch of our lives just because we can’t bear to miss another day of some sort of outdoor adventure.  Rocking Chair measures snowfall

But to think of training in this stuff, bicycle training, is a reach. Skiing? Of course, but cycling? So, to learn more, I turned to a talented you rider in Central Vermont. Keep reading.  First you will learn about Elisa Otter. What you learn may surprise you. Then you will read what she has to say about all this. Enjoy and do read on.


Elisa Otter

Elisa Otter, Montpelier native, has only begun to show what she can do and already that’s a lot. At 28, Otter has demonstrated exciting cycling potential and, as a reliable source tells me, “This gal ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Elisa Otter

From Evergreen State College in Washington state, Otter landed at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., where she raced on the varsity mountain bike team. For a small liberal arts college “of under 1,000,” Otter says, “15 were from central Vermont.” There Otter received coaching and racing experience that catapulted her to an amazing journey.

After Wilson, Otter was recruited to coach and race as a graduate student at Union College in Southeast Kentucky.    “I was racing full-time with a sponsorship out of Kentucky,” Otter says, and then came a move to Colorado.

The name Leadville strikes fear in the hearts of runners and cyclists who know the challenges of racing there. If not fear, then respect. Otter won the National Championship for Category 1 Women (that’s overall) and then burned out. Fifty races in one summer, doing it all on one’s own, will do that to an athlete.

“I was pretty much forced to come back here,” Otter says. “I needed to ground myself.” It had been an astonishing summer, but Otter was depleted. “It was a gift,” she says. “I was able to see the window of where I want to go, but I wasn’t ready for it yet.”

After some time off and a soft re-entry, Otter got on a bike, renewed her pro license and returned to the National Championships in Pennsylvania where she finished in last place. But last place was a victory. “I did it,” Otter says. “I was scared. I had no idea you could overdo it.”

Living in Middlesex, Otter has gravitated to Northfield where she runs the after-school program at the local elementary school and is an enthusiastic member of Team Bicycle Express, a professional cycling team out of Bicycle Express bike shop on the square in Northfield.

Since 2008, under the leadership of Noah and Ezra Tautfest, TBE has worked to provide a community-based cycling experience for multiple levels of riders through professional, development and club teams who ride, train and compete in MTB, road and cyclo-cross races and events (for more information go to Riding with TBE, “I was training for fun,” Otter says. “It was great. I took pressure off myself. I had team support, loved the camaraderie and had a blast.”

July 2014, Otter was back, finishing 13th overall in the pro field of the National Championships in a four-day comprehensive event of cross country, short track, super D (as in the enduro stage, pedaling downhill as fast as possible combining endurance and gravity skills), that tests all elements.

Post race, Otter was better able to define her goals and was “really inspired.” Next came the World Cup in Quebec and qualifying for the U.S. Team in August. “It was awesome,” Otter says. “I lined up with 60 of the best women in the world.”

Today Otter continues to find fun in her cycling experience, even as she trains for bigger and better performance challenges. She values her home, family and community in Vermont and is testing her belief that a pro cyclist can indeed live and train here yet be a national and international presence. “I’m pretty focused,” Otter says. “My teammates are going to California mid-March for national races. I’m trying to do what I can within my own budget. I hope to bike full time on sponsorship on the World Cup Circuit eventually.”

What does winter training look like for Otter? On top of her 30-hour work week, she trains six days. She has a gym membership at First in Fitness in Montpelier where she works on strength and core twice a week and then spends another 10-15 hours a week on cardiovascular, aerobic exercise either outdoors on a bike or skiing, or indoors Spinning on a trainer with her team.

Tomorrow is another matter. Speaking of TBE she says: “We definitely want to put ourselves out there as the Vermont based MTB team. Our mission is to promote a healthy lifestyle and spread the Vermont brand.” They are, after all, racing on an international level from small town Vermont.

Otter’s story tells its own message, but does she have another for you? “Keep moving,” Otter says. “We’re born to move and it’s become so easy not to. Moving stimulates happiness.” She adds, “When you start, it’s so hard it hurts. If you stick with it though, it’s euphoric.”

Article published Feb 15, 2015, “ACTIVE VERMONT”, by Elisa Otter for the Rutland Herald & Times Argus Sunday Magazine Section

Vermont: Training ground for Elite-class cyclists?

The first question asked when I say I race mountain bikes on a national level is, “Can you do that in Vermont?” It’s true. The winters are long, cold and snowy, making year-round bike riding difficult, if not impossible. It may be precisely these harsh conditions that provide the mental demand it takes to push oneself through the intensity of an endurance competition.

At least that’s what Elite-class racer Noah Tautfest of Vermont likes to think. He rides for the Bicycle Express Race Team based out of his shop in Northfield and is gearing up for highly competitive cross-country mountain bike season this year.

“It’s a mental sport when you get down to it,” Tautfest says. “Here, you have to fight the mental struggle of the harsh weather. It’s easy to do a six-hour training ride at 70 degrees in Arizona. But moving through the wind and cold, and people thinking you are crazy, that’s getting mentally prepared for the pain of a race.”

He should know. Tautfest has been spotted, bundled up and biking on a two-hour commute home in below-zero temperatures and on stormy nights. That is mental strength. Luckily for Vermonters, and according to Tautfest and top riders around the globe, cycling training does not need to be solely on a bike. In fact, mixing up training methods may be another positive aspect to training that is essentially forced in Vermont.

Montpelier native Andrew McCullough is another Vermont-based cyclist. His dedication and hard training landed him a spot on the professional road team, VCP Loudeac, based in Brittany, France.

“Being outside and moving in any capacity provides a mental freshness and inspiration to keep training,” McCullough says.

Before leaving for France, he spent a large amount of time cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking the trails of Vermont. Like Tautfest, McCullough recognizes the importance of the mental aspects of training.

Cycling, or any sport done year-round and at the volume necessary for Elite competition, can push athletes to “burnout,” a condition that can lead to severe depression. “Burnout creates gaps in training. You have to change it up, keep it interesting” McCullough says.

McCullough and Tautfest use indoor training bikes as a tool to keep legs accustomed to the motion of cycling, providing specific training for bike racing. But this method is used in conjunction with other cross-training methods and does not, and arguably should not, be the only method. The growing popularity of fat biking could change the perception of climates and conditions ideal for competitive bike training. Oversized tires (up to 5 inches wide) allow for low tire pressure and good traction on snow and ice. Centers around the country are building designated trail systems where sustained winter training on fat bikes could become a reality. Here in Vermont, Kingdom Trails in East Burke, the Catamount Family Outdoor Center in Williston and Fat Bike Vermont at Killington are already providing this service.

Endurance cycling requires pushing the body and mind to ruthless extremes. Without a solid network and the support of family, friends, teammates and coaches, an athlete will break. The small state of Vermont provides a strong sense of community out of which has come an astounding number of world-class athletes.

“I do some of my best training in Vermont,” McCullough says. “The community, camaraderie and active lifestyle are conducive to effective training. There’s so much support here and you can always find people to ride with.”

I, myself, am gearing up and training early for a competitive cross-country mountain bike season ahead. I have been racing for five years. Most of this time was spent down south where I was going to school. The last two seasons I have qualified within the Elite field and have raced with the fastest women in the country. But I have never trained through a winter in Vermont. I am curious to see if training in the cold, harsh conditions will deepen my mental capacity to overcome discomforts experienced in competition.

Will the cross-country, backcountry and Alpine skiing help me to come into the season mentally fresh and excited to ride my bike? Will living in my home state, close to the support of my family and the active community I grew up in provide a stronger a sense of self? Will Vermont prove to be a training ground for Elite cycling? We shall see.

Elisa Otter, photo by Jeb Wallace-BrodeurPhoto of Elisa Otter by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur. 


The steps to fitness for the everyday athlete are built upon habitual daily exercise and healthy choices in diet and lifestyle.

It’s time for us to sit down and have a heart to heart talk. There are things that need to be said and things that need to be heard. None of what follows is my personal opinion, but rather based on education, experience, training and practice. I have had the privilege of watching others grow in health, strength and vitality. We coexist with a health care crisis that begs solutions. As individuals, we have the opportunity to make a difference. To proactively maximize our own wellbeing is our right, responsibility and opportunity.

Much of what you read on the Active Vermont page has to do with sports. We speak of athletes, competition and training. We also speak of events and activities that invite the everyday participant. Today I address general fitness for the general population.

Here’s the bottom line, right up front: you need to exercise aerobically 5-6 days a week, strength train at least 2, clean up your diet, get enough sleep, be a contributing member of a community, and include the spiritual piece as a component of your overall health.

If you are one of those who groan at the very thought of exercise, if you consider exercise as punishment, GET OVER IT. Exercise is a privilege. It is time for you to focus on yourself away from the call of demanding voices. It is time for you, your health and your dreams, your present as well as your future, to take center stage and strip away the distractions of daily life. It’s just for a little while, but it is well worth it.

Common advice for new moms is to take care of self first or they will be unable to care for baby and family. This is not self-indulgent, it is imperative and, as I said, a privilege. If you don’t believe me, just speak with someone who experiences life from a wheelchair.

Have you marveled at the courage of adaptive skiers, cyclists motoring along on their hand-crank recumbents, returning vets who run marathone on prosthesis or happy Special Olympians? Yes, well, as I said, get over it and assume your rightful place in the active quest for fitness.

Those new to exercise often consider it a chore because they do not identify as athletes. Who is an athlete? It is easy to see that those who reach the Olympic games, Superbowl or World Series are athletes. I asked Nancy Clark, nationally recognized Registered Dietician, author and speaker, how her “Sports Nutrition Handbook,” applies to ordinary people who do not consider themselves athletes but simply exercise for health benefits. Her succinct reply was “If you exercise regularly, you are an athlete.” Perhaps taking your self-identification to the next level would give you a boost in attitude about your daily exercise.

Did I say 5-6 days a week? Yes I did. Do you have dozens of excellent excuses not to do so? Yes, I’m sure you do and I do understand. The alarm goes off too early and your head hits the pillow at night too late. You have work commitments to fulfill, kids to take to practices, chores to be done, people to care for, appointments to keep and maybe even a night out once in awhile. But you also have time to exercise.

I worked for someone who liked to say, “Oh, you don’t have time to exercise? Well you DO have time for a heart attack.”

Consider the importance of exercise. By now the relationship between exercise and disease is known and established. Exercise as preventive as well as curative (or at least helpful) with respect to mental and emotional conditions is equally well proven. If you want to know more, do the research. Or you could skip this step and just get active.

Make the distinction between purposeful exercise and lifestyle activity. The admonition to exercise 5-6 days per week means to deliberately follow a training program (your own or one suggested for you and your specific needs). This is dedicated time designed to increase your cardiovascular as well as muscular strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and energy level.

Note, if you are already exercising regularly, perhaps it is time to take it to the next level. Whether you are new to exercise or ramping up an existing program, you need to take preliminary steps.

Talk with your medical care provider. You need a green light before you begin or make changes. It may be the same in other states, but here in Vermont the medical community seems to be peopled by professionals who strongly support exercise and then practice what they promote in personal and athletic lifestyles.

Next you need to assess your current condition, define goals and plan the steps to reach those goals. You may need help. Join a gym, enroll in a class, hire a fitness consultant to help you structure a gradual but effective journey.

Aerobic exercise begins with a warm up and ends with a cool down. The common recommendation is for 45 minutes of continuous, methodical movement each day. At first the intensity may range from easy to moderate, but as fitness increases, so does intensity.

Mix it up. Vary the activity and the pace. Make one day a week a longer session. Include family or friends but keep going. The social benefits of a class encourage accountability and performance.

Show up at the gym before work or on your lunch hour if you must. You have your choice: elliptical, treadmill, stair climber, Spinner® bike, Concept2 rowing machine, and more. Which machine is the best? The one that you will use. So, use it.

Limited? Even those who are housebound, wheelchair bound, or walker bound can exercise. The growing field of physical therapy is opening doors that were once closed.

Once you have established the habit of exercise you are on your way and it’s time to strength train. The body is comprised of small, medium and large muscles that must be regularly put to the test against resistance. All healthy muscles gain strength and power over time when trained in balance and with proper technique. Injury can occur. Education is important. Do the research yourself or get professional help to learn the basics. Two alternate days a week of strength training is required to maintain and three days to increase.

It’s not all about exercise. Fitness is an equation. Exercise + Diet = Fitness.

DIET is, in fact, a 4-letter word. In many cases it is a bad word, a foul word, a damaging word. Use the Greek definition, “way of living,” or a more contemporary, “habitual nourishment,” and you’ll learn to respect it. Reduced to the lowest common concepts, a healthy diet is one that is varied, free of any and all processed foods, replete with fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and so on. An appropriate diet is also measured and devoid of excesses. Diet is based on choice. Choose to eat healthfully and it will become habitual. Replace old habits with new and you will default to the new.

Ultimately you will recognize the effects exercise will have on your body, energy and personality. You will find it easier to pick up the 50 lb bag of dog food, shovel the walk, climb the stairs and play with the kids. You will have a spring in your step and discover endurance as you navigate long meetings or late hours. You will look forward to your exercise time; it is the appointment with yourself that you must keep.

You will learn to choose foods that nourish rather than destroy. You will crave fresh, whole and clean ingredients that have begun to taste better to you than the processed meals of your past. You will fuel appropriately.

You will become more flexible, achieve balance physically and in your daily commitments, be more positive, less anxious and less fatigued.

You will look ahead at a future of possibilities. You will model for your children, grandchildren, neighbors and coworkers.

Exercise and nutrition may not protect you from the randomness, the sheer bad luck, of some diseases, but they can sure improve your odds.

The market is flooded with fitness advice. Avoid claims of a quick fix. Demand science. I have many fitness books on my shelves, but recently revisited the three below that I recommend.

A friend gave me a copy of “Younger Next Year for Women,” by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D. Because the cover is a very cute pink, I put it away without reading it until a trusted professional brought it up again. (There’s also “Younger Next Year,” the first book written, that is geared for men.) Read either. Just read it. It’s a decade old but science-based,90% relevant and 100% convincing.

John J. Ratey, MD presented ground-breaking work on the effect of exercise on the brain as well as stress, depression, ADHD, addiction, Alzheimers and a host of other current problems. By all means read “Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” (“Spark” was published in 2008. Ratey published a new book in 2014. My review copy is on the way and I’ll let you know more.)

Finally, “The Exercise Cure, A Doctor’s All-Natural, No-Pill Prescription for Better Health & Longer Life,” by Jordan D Metzl, MD (2013) presents many similar findings to the previous two books but adds exercise instructions and illustrations.

Metzl concludes: “May we all exercise for the next 100 years … and beyond.” Amen to that.

Donna Smyers on Sprint Triathlons in Vermont

A Sprint Triathlon is a user-friendly entry into the world of triathlons.

 If you’ve ever been at the finish of the Lake Placid Triathlon, or watched a documentary of the famous (infamous?) Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, (Ironman World Championships held in Kona each year for those who have qualified), you’ve seen some graphic examples of human pain and exhaustion; physical, mental and emotional depletion.

You’ve watched masses of bodies on the run into the water, then off to bike and finally into running shoes for a grueling marathon finish. You’ve learned of countless miraculous conquests of individual athletes challenged by age, trauma, physical and mental limitations; individuals who have reached their goals – or not – in the face of unfathomable adversity.

Triathlons can be the theatre of heroics.

But, triathlons can also be within reach of the novice athlete and user-friendly. How can this be?

A triathlon comes in many shapes and sizes. The big daddy is the Full triathlon: 2.4 mile swim followed by a mere 112 mile bike race and ending with no less than a complete marathon, 26.2 miles.

The Half is just that. (The savvy call it the 70.3.) After a 1.2 mile swim and 56 mile ride, the run is sliced into 13.1 miles.

For most casual athletes, even the intermediate distances of the Olympic tri sound daunting: .93 mile swim, 24.8 mile ride and a basic 10k (6.2) mile run. These distances aren’t so bad unless you are actually racing them. (Note, many participants define their personal goal as simply to finish. Finishing = victory for some as much as coming in first = winning for others.)

The distances listed above are regulated and locked in, well, shall we say, iron? But, when it comes to the new darling of the triathlon world, the Sprint triathlon, distances vary at the discretion of the race organizers.

Sprint tris are growing in popularity for a very good reason: they are within reach of such a wide range of athletic ability that one can almost say that anyone can do them. Generally, the distances are: .5 mile swim, 10-12 or so mile bike, and roughly a 5k (3.1) mile run.

Going back to the notion that tris are user-friendly, consider this. Repetitive motions can result in overuse stresses, strains and injuries. Because training for a triathlon is divided by three, the risk of overuse injury is likewise diminished. Training for a Sprint triathlon, often provides a balanced means of challenging oneself that maintains mental, emotional and physical investment at an appropriate level and thus keeps training fresh and positive.

To learn more about Sprint triathlons, I spoke with Donna Smyers, a known and highly respected triathlete from Adamant, Central Vermont.

Donna Smyers, Beijing 2011

Donna Smyers, Beijing 2011

Smyers, a 30-year triathlete, has podiumed at Hawaii 12 times, 6 of which were age group wins. In 2014 she earned the title of National age group Champion at the Olympic distance, and World Champion at the Half-Ironman (70.3) distance. As her competitive career continues, so too does her role as coach, organizer of the Elmore Practice Triathlon Series and physical therapist.

For 20 years Smyers has treated her physical therapy patients with the same skill and commitment she dedicates to training for triathlons, marathons, time trials or cross country ski events. A glance at her academic credentials is enough to confirm her authority: BA and MS in Engineering from Dartmouth College 1979 and 1987, MS in Scientific Basis of Human Performance from University of Oklahoma 1991 and BS in Physical Therapy from University of Connecticut 1995.

The Elmore series is 9 years old. In Hartford, CT, Smyers was introduced to short distance and time efficient Sprint tris. “When I moved to Vermont, there was nothing at the time,” she said. Working in conjunction with the Green Mountain Multisport Triathlon Club, she eventually formed a Sprint series held at Lake Elmore State Park.

In 2007 there were six racers. Over the years the number has stabilized, but the group is small, both to conform to the State Park limit of 35 participants and to satisfy Smyers’ own preference to serve the purpose of this endeavor.

“I like the small size,” Smyers said. “It’s big enough to feel like a race but small enough to run with two to three volunteers per week.” Spectators and supporters cheer at transitions and the atmosphere is very personal.

“Elmore is the only low-key weekly triathlon series,” Smyers said. Others such as the Vermont Sun Series (scheduled for June 20, July 12, August 9 at Lake Dunmore) are a step up from the relaxed tris at Elmore (scheduled for June 11 and 25, July 9) that serve well as training for what may follow.

The practice aspect is significant. A series such as the one at Elmore offers an opportunity for the hesitant to “try a tri,” or for the seasoned to hone specific skills, rev up the competitive engine or simply race full-out, all wrapped in a friendly package.

Flexibility is the theme for Elmore events. This is a time for new participants to discover how they might react in a situation, yet remain safe in doing so. Participants may choose to do only one or two of the three pieces, swim, bike or run, and yet be a part of the series and enjoy the same preparation, performance and celebration as everyone else.

Elmore is sanctioned as a triathlon clinic. What does this mean? USA Triathlon is the governing body for triathlons in the U.S. and serves to nurture Olympians as well as provide a governing, insuring and promotional role for the sport. To say that Elmore is sanctioned means that the events are “insured and must abide by USA Triathlon rules which help maintain safety and awareness,” Smyers said.

NOW is the time to begin to train. Let’s look at three of the pieces of the tri pie.

SWIM. “People say ‘I could never do a triathlon.’ If you can swim, you can do a tri,” Smyers said. “You must learn how to swim.” Prep in a pool now. “Get a lesson. Technique is 90% of swimming.”

You need regular time in the water. Elmore starts early and you can’t wait until you can swim outside. Find a Masters’ Swim group such as the one offered by First in Fitness in Berlin.

Don’t forget that swimming in open water presents challenges of its own. Be sure to find a way to do so before your first triathlon. Even experienced swimmers might be surprised by unanticipated anxiety in a lake or other outdoor body of water. Develop confidence in open water. (Another advantage of the Elmore series is that the swim is short and much of the time the water is not over your head. Walking or running on the bottom, however, is not allowed for this event.)

Then there’s the matter of a wetsuit. Some wear them, some don’t. A wet suit helps to keep you warm and afloat; a benefit when wearing one, but a different experience without. Practice as you will race.

BIKE. Biking at Elmore this year offers the benefit of new paving. For 9.7 miles on Route 12, cyclists will bear the responsibility of dealing with traffic but will happily be able to ride their road or tri bikes instead of the sturdier tires needed for the past few seasons of poor paving.

The bike portion of a Sprint triathlon is short. “Maintain your fitness now,” Smyers suggests, “and go outside as soon as possible. It takes over a month of biking to get your bike legs.” A new triathlete should be able to ride several 10-15 mile rides. Putting in more time does not hurt. The “low risk of injury balances the benefits of speed and comfort gained.”

RUN. “You should be able to run 2-3 miles,” Smyers said. “Good (proper) shoes are critical.”

It’s worth repeating that training for a triathlon is more balanced and imposes less stress on the body than training for a single event. “If you get hurt in one sport,” Smyers said, “you can usually continue with the others so there is less frustration.”


-A weekly training plan could be as simple as visiting each element 2-3 times each week, spending extra time on your weakest sport. At least one session should be a long one. If the race takes 1.5 hours, you need to be able to go that long.

-A classic novice mistake is to overlook the importance of transitions, the 4th component of a triathlon. Practice the triathlon skill of setting up your transition area and then getting out of the water, out of a wetsuit by yourself (if you wear one), and onto your bike. (Most people don’t change clothes at all and just wear a tri suit or even a bathing suit for the entire event.)

The second transition is the one from bike to running shoes. Drink while you’re on the bike, not when you stop. Use elastic shoelaces or lace locks on your running shoes.Transitions are so important that a triathlon can be won or lost by seconds saved in transition time. Ironically it is the easiest event to improve.

-Swimming is technique-driven. Try to relax and you’ll be faster. Anxiety from the swim could remain with you for the rest of the race. Do not become anaerobic in your swim and you’ll be faster.

-Finally, honor your sprint triathlon. “People say ‘I didn’t do a real triathlon; just one of those little things.’” Smyers said. “If you don’t think it’s real, you don’t think Usain Bolt is a runner.”

For more information about the Elmore Triathlon Practice Series or Fixer-Upper PT, go to