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Direction II: Art Of Zen Bobsled Driving (12/13/12)

 Bree Schaaf drives bobsled

My last blog was about direction in the navigational sense, where my instincts constantly betray me.  Driving a bobsled is an entirely different set of instincts, instincts that are fortunately learned, but require just as much humility.

Bobsled is fast.  That’s the one thing people know about it, if they know about it... which most do thanks to Disney’s loving family-film portrayal of the Jamaican Bobsled Team.  I never get sick of people referencing it, because it makes us relevant.  In a world that we put so much time, money, and effort into, a little relevance goes a long way. 

So not only is bobsled fast, it’s unnaturally fast thanks to innovation in equipment, skilled coaching, and stronger/faster athletes.  For the most part, the law of gravity in combination with the steep grade of a track says that you will be going fast no matter what.  It’s the addition of physics that allows the sled to cross the finish line not only on all fours, but faster than gravity can pull it. It’s the brakeman’s job to help accelerate that sled as fast as possible at the start, and the driver’s job to accelerate the sled as fast as possible down the track.

Each turn on every track is completely unique and requires its own plan, which changes based on how the ice is cut as well as how you enter a turn and where you want to exit.  People have been studying curve theory since the dawn of sliding sports, which is looking for the fastest line in each curve.

Like race car driving, you want to use the g-force of a turn to accelerate the sled out of it.  Steering too much will cut too much ice and slow you down, while steering too little will leave you out of control and slamming walls.  In all sliding sports you are looking for the least amount of input into the sled at the precise time to be most effective.  If you are steering a ton and working too hard for perfect lines, you are only slowing yourself down.  To aid in this perspective, doubles men’s luge, because of its precise steering capability, actually goes faster than a 4-man bobsled.

What’s important to note is that all of this is learned.  No one is a natural at driving a bobsled.  Yes, some have greater propensity than others, but it is an entirely learned skill that takes years to develop sensitivity and a feel for the g-force pressures from your d-rings through the bungees to the runners on the ice.  Drivers often smash around their first few years, but after enough time you develop driving instincts that are utterly essential. 

When you’re driving a bobsled at speeds of up to 93 mph (my all-time fastest on a training run in Whistler), there is no time to ponder. Think of the time it takes you as you slow to a stop sign and decide to go right or left, that amount of time can equal 4 turns gone in a bobsled run.  You have to have a plan, a plan that’s rehearsed and visualized so much that when you’re in the track it becomes instinct.  There is absolutely no time to think ahead or dwell on a mistake, because the time it takes for those thoughts equals turns gone by. 

The official training in a World Cup week allows drivers to adjust to how a track is currently shaped (entrances and exits change based on the build up of ice), and formulate their official plan for the race.  But like anything in life, it’s only a plan and you have to be ready for anything and everything.  That is where the learned and honed instinct comes in.  You can have a plan, but as in any elite sport, game day is about relaxing and finding the zone where you’re almost outside yourself. 

Like in life, I’ve found that the more I try to plan a run in bobsled, the more it resists.  You can’t force the ice; you can only flow with it.  Push a track and it will push back in a major way, which is why most bobsled drivers are so humble.  The track is the boss and will humble you in a second if you think otherwise.

As instincts develop, I’ve often found that my first runs down the easier tracks are my best.  These are the runs where I am reacting, flowing, and not thinking.  We are remarkable beings, and it’s amazing how well our initial instincts serve us.  It’s when we start to question them that we go astray.  I’ve found that the closest I come to truly living in the moment, being utterly present, is during those 60 seconds of a bobsled run where you have no choice.  You deal with each turn as it comes to the best of your ability, with no room to dwell or anticipate.  That’s almost certainly part of why I love this sport so much.  It’s the challenge and the chance to be outside myself and my mind for roughly 120 seconds a day in search of the perfect run.