Chris Shaffer | Reader Athlete Nov. 2011
Family: Wife, Sarah; daughter, Morgan, 3; son Ryan, 4, months
Occupation: Science teacher at North Country Union High School
Primary sport: Triathlon
VS: What is the appeal of competing in triathlons?
CS: I like the variety. It’s harder to get sick of it because you’re always changing from one sport to another, and there are so many areas for improvement. I’m a decent cyclist, but I’m not a great runner or swimmer, so I’m more competitive when I can do all three.
VS: How do you find time to train with two small children?
CS: I have a very understanding wife. She realizes this is almost therapy for me; it’s something I need to do. Without her, I couldn’t accomplish any of this. I also have what I refer to as an opportunistic training program. If I have half an hour, I figure out what I can do during that half-hour, be it 7 a.m., 4 p.m., or 8 p.m. Sometimes I’ll run or ride to work, and sometimes when we go someplace as a family, I’ll run home and my wife will drive the kids. It helps that I’m the cross-country coach at North Country Union High School, so I can train with the students.
VS: You ran the Boston marathon once. Is long-distance running also an interest of yours?
CS: I like pushing my body to this unknown phase, so I’ve also done an Iron Man–distance race, and I’m interested in eventually doing an ultra race. Even though I’m not as good at running as I am at cycling, I enjoy the challenge it brings. The thing with long distance is you don’t want to do it halfheartedly; you want to do it well. Right now, my best isn’t that good, and I believe if you’re going to do something, you should do it well once.
VS: You spent part of this summer in Iceland as part of a grant from Fund for Teachers. Tell us about that.
CS: I became aware of the disruption caused by the volcano eruption in Iceland two years ago when I ran the Boston Marathon, since there was a fear that many of the fastest runners from outside the country wouldn’t be able to fly in. My wife’s father won a Fund for Teachers grant and went to Nova Scotia to make guitars, and that’s how I learned about the program. To get a grant, you have to find something tangible and unique. I had just started teaching earth science and worried that I didn’t have enough of a background in it. How do you get kids excited about something you don’t know about? I thought going to Iceland would help since it is a very young country that provides a nice comparison to Vermont, which hasn’t really changed in 10,000 years, since the last ice retreat. I was the only Vermonter this year to receive the grant. All in all, this was a great year for me. I went to Iceland, I was awarded a spot on Team Aquaphor, which is put together by a brand of healing ointment that really does work, and then our son was born. I feel pretty fortunate.
VS: You even did a running race in Iceland. Was that different from races in the U.S.?
CS: Racing is racing. At the end of the day, everyone’s trying to beat everyone else, but there are little differences, including course marking, pre-race warm-ups, and in this case, a post-race pool party with hundreds of us going into thermal pools at the finish to relax. The race was a bit hard because I flew the red eye out of Boston, arriving at 6:30 a.m. I wound my way through the city, picked up my race number at 9:30 p.m., and ran at 10 p.m., so basically I was running a 5K with no sleep for 48 hours and a full day of sightseeing. Amazingly, I finished 10th overall and 3rd in my age group with a time of 19:11.
VS: In general, how was the Iceland experience?
CS: It was a life-changing experience. The photos don’t do it justice. The landscape is always changing, and I couldn’t adjust spatially because the sun swirled around rather than going enough in one direction. So I couldn’t be sure which way was north. It was hard because my son had just been born, and I was by myself a lot. At the end of the day, I was that creepy guy who wanted to talk to everyone.
VS: You’ve also done the Penguin Plunge for Special Olympics. How did that come about?
CS: Some of the teachers at North County put together a team for the Penguin Plunge at Lake Memphremagog, which is where I train. Back when I lived in Massachusetts, I went with some buddies to swim at Walden Pond in October. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but when we got out of the water, there was an older woman who told us how nice it was to see others swimming in nontraditional months, so that put us to shame. We vowed to swim every month. The hardest month was January because we had to break the ice with a rock, but because of that I knew I could do the Penguin Plunge.
VS: Have you always been a teacher?
CS: I was an engineer for seven years, and it was never fulfilling. I had nothing to show for my work. My wife always wanted to be a teacher, and I went to her classroom and her father’s classroom, and saw how you can really shape people as a teacher. I had testicular cancer at age 20 and that made me think a little bit more about what I wanted to do. I quit my job, and we moved to Vermont so that we both could teach and be closer to my wife’s family. It was the best decision.