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Skieologians: Snail seminar

It's not about looking the part

Just get on the bike, ride until you're tired and eat until you're full.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

During a rainy morning this fall, I stopped mid-run to observe an animal that apparently calls Vail ‘home.’ 

Not a moose, elk, mountain lion or goat — all of those flashy Alpine logos whose silhouettes embody Colorado better than a Patagonia-wearing Patrick Dempsey ever could — but a lowly snail.

First, I figured it was just one of those odd-shaped mushrooms I’m too stupid to forage for. I bent down and tapped it with my finger, at which point the gastropod slid back into its protective shell.



Well, I’ll be darned. 

Instead of calling Dillman — our photographer — to snap what would certainly be an avant-garde Vail Daily cover photo, I thought about the unconventional sighting and muttered my worn phrase:

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“There’s probably a column in there somewhere.”

At my high school basketball coaches’ behest, I would order two Big Macs and a large chocolate shake after every road contest. Despite lifting weights five-days a week and consuming calories ad naseam, soaking wet my 6’2 frame was barely 165 pounds, which, according to Coach, was all that separated me from greatness.

When I left the sport for distance running in college, I went from being the skinny guy on the court to the Incredible Hulk on the track — which is to say I was carrying around unnecessary upper-body muscle. 



At some point, someone pointed it out. 

“You’d probably be faster if you stopped lifting,” he said in the dining hall, an appropriate place for such a realization to be relayed to me.

If you’re curious what this has to do with snails, stay with me.

Starting-line strategizing gradually turned into sizing up slender runners against my stocky frame. All of the sudden, my nighttime musings echoed Jared Leto’s from the movie “Prefontaine,” where the legendary American record-holding harrier perplexingly inquires of his girlfriend one night: 

“Nancy, do I look like a runner to you?”

Over the course of the next 16 months, I gave up barbells and allowed high-mileage pounding to gradually slim my frame to 145 pounds. It was done healthily and my times dropped steadily. On the cusp of what was to be a breakout, college-defining senior season, however, I developed a nagging tendon injury that eventually sidelined me indefinitely.

During that depressing winter, I cross-trained religiously, hoping for a spring comeback, and, even though I wasn’t running, shed body fat I couldn’t afford to lose. I woke up at night, my body incapable of retaining fluids; I could see individual muscle striations in my triceps — it all freaked me out. Long gone were those innocent McDonalds’ meals with high school friends — heck I probably went six months without having cheese on anything. Gradually, it became a focus — instead of the sport I pledged to be preparing for. I had traded the only real foundation for my identity for whatever number the scale read.

Eventually, I reached a breaking point, one which didn’t require intervention. In fact, my battle is but a brief side note few know about. When I ran across that snail colony, though, I felt compelled to share it. 

You see, given the choice of the entire animal kingdom, wanting to be a snail probably falls somewhere between ant and earthworm — who wants an existence of sliding across the mud and slinking into a shell? Usually, when kindergarten class polls are taken, eagle, wolf and T-rex are all safe bets to be drafted ahead of gastropods.

Yet, when we view ourselves in the worst light, we also erect imaginary limits, boundaries and barriers. How many metaphorical snails decline a local mountain bike race or trail run because they don’t want to picture themselves racing up Berry Creek alongside coyotes, wolves and white-tailed deer? Here’s the dirty secret, too: even the most ‘perfect’ looking athlete doesn’t think they “look like a runner.”

Contentment is elusive. Those who find it have a found a great treasure.

Covering or competing in sports for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen athletes of all shapes and sizes do amazing things. The litmus test for pitching in the majors isn’t whether your knuckles drag on the ground when you stand up. Just ask Chris Freud about Tim Lincecum. Playing quarterback doesn’t require a tall frame and huge hands — look at Doug Flutie. Tryouts for receiver aren’t open only to Randy Moss lookalikes — what about Jeff Campbell? Being a runner doesn’t mean your calf veins have to be visible, even if it’s a source of intimidation. The lesson extends beyond athletic morphotypes.

If you want to be a skier, you don’t have to drive up to the resort in a tricked-out Escalade. Just get there. If you want to be a concert pianist, your parents don’t need perfect pitch and neither do you. King David didn’t look the part, and he did just fine. If you love something — do it — and train ’til your hungry and eat ’til you’re full.

Don’t worry about where you live or what you look like. 

After all, even snails can live in Vail.


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