Three No-Sick-Day All Stars Teach Us How to Survive Winter

When a man runs huskies over the Alaskan tundra, we listen

By Alex Lauer

Three No-Sick-Day All Stars Teach Us How to Survive Winter
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24 November 2017

Death, taxes and getting sick in winter.

Whether it’s a runny nose or a weeklong fever, you simply cannot avoid it.

And yet, there are people out there who never take sick days.

Like the actor who has missed just four performances over the last 30 years. Or the skier who once logged 2.5 million uphill feet in a year. Or the sled-dog champion who once put a knife through his hand 800 miles into the Iditarod.  

So we asked them: What are your secrets?

From 45-minute naps to ice baths to a musher’s favorite bourbon, this is your playbook to staying healthy this season.

Jake Berkowitz (2 images)

Photos: Chris Beck

Jake Berkowitz
Retired champion sled-dog musher. Completed his first Iditarod at 22. One of only five people to ever finish the race with all 16 dogs.

Qualifications:
“At the beginning of the [Iditarod] we would typically do eight-hour runs with four-hour rests. During those rests, I would get about 45 minutes of sleep because the rest of the time — there are no pit crews, there’s no one helping you, it’s a completely unassisted race — you’re having to melt snow to make water, then you’re having to prepare the dogs’ meals for them, you’re massaging the dogs, you’re taking their booties off, you’re putting their booties on. In that nine-day period, I’m typically getting about 18 hours of sleep in about 45-minute increments. The first third of the race you’re going up and over the Alaska Range. The middle third is the interior of Alaska which is known for brutal cold, and that’s when you’re traveling down the Yukon River. The last third of the race is on the Bering Sea coast which is known for violent winds and storms.”

Best advice for staying healthy:
“Being active in the winter is really important — getting your body acclimatized. If all you’re doing is once in a while going outside to go cross-country skiing, it’s great, but it’s tough on your body when you’re used to being indoors all the time. I remember coming off of Iditarod at the end of the season — it would be 64 degrees in my house and I would just be sweating profusely because my body wasn’t acclimatized to normal interior weather anymore.”

Worst advice for staying healthy:
I OD’d on 5-hour Energy drinks in the Copper Basin 300 and broke down in hives one year. I actually still hold the record in that race for the fastest time ever to finish. So I figured out how far apart I could space them, and I would actually take them before I would take one of my 45-minute naps, which helped me wake up from those naps as well.”

Moment that will make sick days feel not so bad:
It was 40-below-zero. I was in 5th position [in the Iditarod] coming into Unalakleet, which is the first checkpoint on the Bering Sea coast, about 200 miles from the finish line. It was brutally cold and windy and I was sleep-deprived, 10 hours into a 12-hour run. I was separating fish with my knife to snack the dogs and I wasn’t thinking clearly and did it in my hand. The knife slipped and went right through my left hand, severing the artery. I had to wrap something into that wound and still run my dog team two hours, trying to stop the bleeding into the next village.”

Go-to winter gear:
“My hands and my head always had fur on them. I found no man-made synthetic piece of equipment that could ever not get me frostbit hands. It was always beaver mitts that were made by somebody in Alaska and either a beaver or seal hat. Aside from that, Canada Goose was a company that sponsored me, and I wore their parka and bibs, and I was very, very happy with that.

“On my feet, I actually wore old military ‘bunny boots.’ You see them in every North Pole movie. They’re the big white boots that have the air valve on the side for when people were jumping out of planes. Basically they’re a double-walled rubber boot.”

Ultimate remedy:
I guess bourbon and coffee, bourbon and hot chocolate. I don’t remember the last time I took medicine. I don’t get sick very often, but when I do I’m usually not hungry or anything like that. But bourbon always make me feel better. I’m a big fan of Blanton’s.

Catherine Russell (3 images)

Photos courtesy Perfect Crime

Catherine Russell
Guinness World Record holder for the most performances as a character in a play. She has performed the role of Margaret Thorne Brent in Perfect Crime in New York over 12,500 times.

Qualifications:
I’ve missed four shows in the 30 years — for my brother’s and sister’s weddings. My brother got married in Boston so I had to get on a plane, so I had to miss. When my sister got married, the woman who was my understudy got sick. [Laughs.] I swear to God. So she went on for the matinee but she was too sick to go on for the evening and, it was in Connecticut, I came back for the evening show. That was 1988.”

“I also run the theater here. What I do most of the time is, I run the box office until ten-after-8 and then I run upstairs and put on a wig, grab a gun and start the show, so there’s no time for sitting around. I literally go from one job to another. For me, that’s a good fit. For other people, they need time to prepare.”

Best advice for staying healthy:
My theory is, if you don’t feel well but then you have to give a speech or take a test in school, somehow you’re able to get through it and then you collapse. We have this ability with adrenaline to go through it. If you can kind of make it go away when you have a test, shouldn’t you be able to make some illness go away?”

“I teach English at Baruch College, CUNY, so I teach college freshman and I say to them — at like a quarter of eight in the morning — when you’re riding the subway here coming to school, ‘Who looks happy on the subway coming to work?’ Look around the subway car. And they’re like, ‘Nobody looks happy.’ So I say, ‘OK, you have to be happy coming to work.’ I’m happy here standing in the classroom at a quarter of eight in the morning. I’m really happy. I really like being there, and they can tell. So I make them all think of a job they’d like to do in 10 years and interview somebody to figure out what would make them happy.”

Moment that will make sick days feel not so bad:
Early on in the run, The New York Times came to see the show — that was huge. One of the guys in the show at that time was supposed to shake me and knock me down on the ground. He literally threw me down on the ground and I blacked out for a minute. They say you see stars; when I opened my eyes I saw stars. I put my hand [on the top of my head] and there was blood. Now, I had the whole second act to do. The New York Times was there! They were not going to come back, OK? We were not important enough. So I just kept going. And I think I got a good review.”

Go-to winter gear:
I wrap up, I wear layers. So many buildings are hot, so today I have a sweater on over a shirt and I have a down vest and then I have a coat and a scarf. I also have to shovel the snow here, so I have snow boots and a mink coat — it must look pretty funny shoveling in my fur coat.”

Ultimate remedy:
“I’m the poster girl for bad behavior. I live on coffee, tons of coffee, and Snickers bars. Snickers should put me in a commercial. But if I don’t feel well I try to move around. I have a backyard, so I go outside to be in the fresh air. That makes me feel better. I wouldn’t want to be in a dark room under the covers. Getting out of bed automatically makes me feel better.”

Aaron Rice (2 images)

Aaron Rice
In 2016, he broke the record for longest distance skied uphill in one year: 2.5 million feet.

Qualifications:
Total, that was 2,506,446 feet of climbing and 332 days of skiing, which is like 7,600 vertical feet per day. What a normal day would look like for me is I would wake up half an hour before sunrise, eat a quick breakfast and then I’d drive up. I’d get there at 6:30, 7, 7:30 a.m. depending on the time of year, and ski for about 10 hours.

“Most of that time was spent walking uphill with skis and skins — skins have reusable glue on one side and a fabric that grips the snow on the other side. I would walk uphill for 85-90 percent of the day and ski down for 10-15 percent and do that over and over again. In the Wasatch Mountains it’d be like seven runs, because they’re short, and in Chile, when I was on a volcano, it might be just one run, because they’re 8,000-foot-long runs sometimes.”

Best advice for staying healthy:
“One thing I did before I even started the year — I knew that waking up in the morning was going to be hard, so I trained myself. I was living in Vermont and there was a little creek that went through my backyard, a freezing cold mountain creek. So for two months I told myself I would jump in it every single day. That meant even if I didn’t get home until nine o’clock I would go out with a headlamp and jump in. Having that mental training helped me get up in the morning.”

“Then there are a lot of smaller things: picking the right objective, what you love to do. People that try to go to some weightlifting class that they don’t really like to do, it’s going to be hard to stay motivated. But if you pick something like skiing powder, or my friend goes to spin class with a whole bunch of other friends and she loves doing it — that is going to motivate you way more than some ‘trying to get in shape’ reasoning.”

Worst advice for staying healthy:
“I worked eight hours a week at one of the lodges up in Utah, and in return they gave me unlimited food seven days a week, which was pretty great. There was an in-house baker and she would put out the ends of the brownies on the table, and I would get back from a long day and I’d sit down and eat brownie ends until I couldn’t. And then I’d eat dinner.”

Moment that will make sick days feel not so bad:
After the first month, I felt wiped out every single day. A lot of that was due to having overtraining syndrome or adrenal thyroid fatigue, which I had pretty bad. It took me about six months to recover after I fully stopped skiing this past spring. Then not even five weeks in, I broke my hand, so I was in a cast for six weeks. That was tricky, but I just lived with one hand for February and March.”

Go-to winter gear:
Ortovox makes some amazing, amazing gear. I love their merino base layers, their merino fleece mid-layers and their outer layers — all of that was my go-to every single day. I think hardshells are often overlooked when it’s cold, but they block the wind so much better than a softshell, and if it’s wet at all, it’s really the only way to go. And just having a layering system.”

Ultimate remedy:
I love my carbs, and one thing I do is in the fall I make a bunch of pesto and I freeze it in ice cube trays. So pesto and pasta hits the spot. And ginger turmeric tea, my mom would send me packages of that all the time.”

Header Photo: Chris Beck

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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