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The Luge Lesson

This time of year, I tend to get a little nostalgic about Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I began my consulting career and became a road warrior in the spring so I’m approaching the anniversary of that; Grand Rapids was the site of my first consulting job and I spent nine months there, so I had some time to get to know the city and surrounding area.  One of the things that helped in this was that on two weekends, rather than flying home as consultants normally do, I stayed in Grand Rapids and my husband, PJ, flew to Michigan instead.  On the winter trip, in casting about for something wintery to do, I was both delighted and a little dubious to discover that Muskegon, Michigan, just 45 minutes from Grand Rapids, has a winter sports park with a luge track.  For quite a reasonable fee, almost anyone can take a beginning lesson, as soon as you sign the not unsubstantial release form that covers unexpected events like death, mayhem and general maiming.

The winter that I worked in Grand Rapids, while it snowed lightly almost every day, it really wasn’t that cold most of the time–maybe in the upper 20s during the day, which was reasonably bearable even for me, flying up from Alabama every week.  The exception that winter was the weekend we took our luge lesson.  It was about 15 degrees that day.  The night before, we went to a Nordstrom Rack near the hotel and I bought a nice, medium-weight jacket that I added to my wardrobe.  While I can’t say it saved my life, it made a huge difference in my overall comfort and well-being. My core stayed warm even when I was afraid my fingers and toes were going to fall off. Next time I’ll remember to take hand and toe warmers.  A full luge session is 20 people, and ours was either full or close to it, which means we had a certain amount of time to stand around and wait our turn.  Climbing back to the top carrying the luge sled, while not the most fun part of the lesson, does help you warm up a bit.  Those suckers are heavier than you’d think.

While close together geographically, Muskegon and Grand Rapids can differ greatly in the amount of snow they get due to the lake effect from Lake Michigan.  The day we went, Grand Rapids got maybe an inch of snow and Muskegon got about six inches, most of it in a fairly short period that included the time of our drive.  It took at least twice as long as it normally would to get there and I took tons of pictures.  On the one hand, it was a beautiful wintery wonderland; on the other, a potential death trap. If we hadn’t already paid for our luge tickets, we probably would have turned back. That’s probably a rotten reason to keep going in any case, but “fools rush in” and so on and so forth. There was one spot, after we got off the main highway, where PJ was actually looking for a place to turn around because he was afraid we were going to get stuck, but about that time we saw the snowplow, the snow had finally started to let up, and things got a lot easier after that. The Muskegon Winter Sports Complex is part of a state park and offers a skating rink and skating trail through the woods, a sledding hill, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing; but their crowning glory is their luge track, which was designed by a local Olympian. You have to get there early to fill out the requisite releases and show proof of health insurance (not kidding), but after that we had a good time waiting in the lodge, people-watching and reading the sign advertising the local pond hockey league featuring Muskegon’s only skate up beer tent.

The first run I would compare with Bailey White’s trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a mule, which she describes as one of those things you do periodically in life so that when death finally does come you can say, “Oh yes, I remember this one,” and it won’t be so scary. The second run was a lot better and by the third run, I was starting to get the hang of it and was becoming more of an active participant, steering the way they had taught us, rather than just lying tensely on the thing passively muttering the luge equivalent of “I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks.” Feeling in control made a huge difference and I really had a good time.

Our second run was the first run of another woman in the group who was one of the leaders of a boy scout group who were in our class.  She had stayed at the bottom of the course on the first run so she could get pictures of each of the boys as they came down.  On her first run, there was no passive muttering.  On the contrary, everybody in the park must have heard her shrill, “Oh, my Gaaawwwwd!”  I was entirely sympathetic.

In spite of this, I could see myself becoming a regular if we lived close to Muskegon.  What a thrill!  Beginners aren’t allowed to start from the top of the track; they have a 700-foot run and the group times ranged from about 15.5 seconds (they said that was the fastest they had seen in quite awhile) to around 22 seconds. All of mine were remarkably similar, in the 18.0 to 18.5 range. They timed us to the thousandth of a second and I wish I could remember my fastest time exactly but I’m afraid I don’t; it was 18.00 something. PJ broke 17 seconds which was considered quite good. By the time we drove back to Grand Rapids, the snow had stopped and the roads were in better shape, but we were both exhausted with that peculiar lethargy born of a post-adrenaline rush.  We also found out the next day that sledding is a lot harder on the body, but that’s another story.

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