You know what they say: “ ____ doesn’t happen overnight.”
That’s even true on the year’s longest night.
I still remember winding across a dark, windswept central-Minnesota prairie one winter evening, about this time. Thirteen-year-old me anxiously nibbled at a warm meal my mom had prepared so I could eat while she drove me 45-miles from after-0school basketball practice to my two-hour trumpet lesson. My nerves, products of a lack of practice, didn’t overshadow my overconfidence as I relied on my “talent” to pull me through. Turns out, talent only gets you so far.
Approximately 24.3 seconds into the lesson, the retired professor, generously donating his time to develop said ‘talent,’ realized the untrained embouchure he was dealing with. After failing to slur from a third-space C to the E above for a third consecutive time, he stopped, went downstairs and basically told my mom that if this was to be my level of investment, then this instructional agreement must cease.
For the next 10 years, I drilled ugly-sounding slurs so often, my twin brother moved out of our shared bedroom and flocks of confused Canada geese tried coming in. I never became Allen Vizzutti, but boy, the lessons I learned from my stoic, Finnish instructor stayed with me.
Finland — you know they have an entire day of darkness each year, right?
Speaking of, a couple weeks after announcing World Cup ski races in Ruka (Finland), I spoke with Zak Ketterson, a man who’s chiseled out a spot on the U.S. cross-country ski team with the same type of daily discipline and stepwise growth he’s used to hone his powerful skate technique and Marvel-movie physique. Images of sweat-drenched, shirtless Instagram stories depicting the physiological Nordic ideal — a man who has no problem setting the rollerski treadmill to a 14% incline and double-poling for three hours — come to mind when I think of this dude. Upon inquiring about his training, I half-hoped for a click-bait response detailing 30-hour weeks and 30-rep pull-up sets.
“I don’t feel like I ever go into a massive hole, even in a really big training block — I’m never just shattered,” he said, shattering my hopes for a good soundbyte. “The best approach for me has been patience and (thinking) big picture. I want to be in this sport for a long time and hopefully, my lifetime peak is when I’m 30 — not when I’m 20,” he continued.
“And for that reason, I didn’t feel such urgency when I was 18 or 19 to be the best in a matter of the next few years. I never had this massive jump of training volume from year to year.”
The physiological Rome ain’t built overnight.
Once, Flotrack caught Galen Rupp performing a 5×1-mile repeat session immediately after breaking the American two-mile record in a race. After nearly 7-miles worth of 4:04-paced running — probably all coming at the tail-end of a 105-120-mile week – Rupp bluntly contextualized the post-race workout with an incomprehensible — for most — honesty. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “the most important part of today’s workout is leaving something for tomorrow.”
After walking away from my first local Hershey track meet with a 15-second PR for 100-meters (…you think that’s funny?), I demonstrated a Euclidean mathematical promise, calculating my own father, at his collegiate peak, to have replicated my efforts 15 times in one race. Rupp did it 32 times and then did his ‘actual’ workout. Kipchoge’s sub-2-hour marathon record is the equivalent of 422 consecutive 17-second 100-meter dashes. In those elementary moments, the idea of running that fast for that long seems as impossible as the concept of enjoying a sunset bike ride at 9:00 p.m. is on Dec. 19th. You get from one place to another the same way: little by little.
Enough nerding out on running splits — back to music.
Not long after that short trumpet lesson, I sat with my trumpet professor, whom I grew to idolize in many ways, in a sparsely-filled concert hall. Allen Vizzutti was giving a masterclass to doctoral students. For several hours, Vizzutti ripped out runs to registers brass players rarely imagine much less play, dancing effortlessly between octaves and dumbing down the physical nature of an instrument mere mortals such as myself exclusively wrestle with …until he convinced everyone in the room tone production was as simple as speaking.
As he ended with Carnival of Venice, twisting his trumpet upside down during the final, most technical and awe-inspiring variation, I looked at my teacher. It seemed we both knew what the other was thinking.
At some point, Vizzutti struggled slurring from C to E, too. After months – maybe years — of consistent practice, that step became effortless. Then he repeated the process, added another step. Repeat, step, repeat, add, repeat. Eventually, everything becomes effortless — and anything becomes possible.
Every year, the winter equinox taunts me with these potential metaphors for axiomatic philosophical concepts. Somewhere in late November or early January, clarity of meaning feels hopeless, writer’s block sets in, and I feel like giving up. But this year, with every imperceptible two-minute increase of daylight, I was reminded that bit by bit, step by step, the world turns. Bit by bit, and step by step, excellence is achieved, rockets are launched, records are broken and concertos are composed.
Another mile, another set of free-throws, another round of penalty kicks, another run of your 12 major scales — they’re all little deposits in the bank.
And just like the return of daylight always occurs on some random February day when you realize, ‘wow, the days are getting longer,’ every worthwhile breakthrough stands on the shoulders of minute increases until finally, they’re profound enough to be noticed.
It’s natural to despise the patience required for physical gains; we’d rather skip to the Olympic podium and the school records. No one cares for drilling scales; can’t we just have the lead trumpet player crush triple high-C’s?
Most people hate the darkness this time of year, too. I suppose you could fly to New Zealand or petition, like my Duluth-residing brother would like to do, for an end to daylight savings time.
But without the darkness, we couldn’t marvel, or cherish, the gradual increase of each day’s new hope.
Until next year. Happy December 21st.
Keep on skiing, keep on striving.
– your skieologian-in-training