By Christopher Cudworth
Conditions were perfect. Sunny skies predicted. Temperatures in the high 20s. Newly fallen snow on groomed trails at Herrick Lake.
First she had to finish a cycling Computrain workout that started at noon. Her legs were going to be fried. We’d also run 10 miles together the previous day in 7 degree temperatures. So I was in the mood for a recovery workout. So was she of course.
Skiing at the speed of light
We set out wanting nothing more than a nice experience together. Her shoulder is still coming back from rotator cuff surgery. Fortunately mild skiing does not strain the shoulder. You simply push along with the poles angled back and be careful not to fall.
Easier said than done sometimes. She bought it on a small downhill but had sense to slide to the side and use a butt roll for safety.
We rolled along the trails studying the light between the trees at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve in DuPage Country. I pointed out the fact that the snow in footprints actually appears lighter than snow on the surface. We stood together looking at that play of light and heard a barred owl calling in the distance. The afternoon light was getting softer, more purple around the edges. We were glad to be back home after an easy 5 mile ski.
At the end of our ski I also did a classic “reach for the boot” to adjust it and fell flat over. Once you’re tipping on skis, there is no real turning back. It is much like being clipped in on a bike. All that weight up around your head and shoulders has to go somewhere once you lose your balance. Down you go.
A few years ago I jumped in with my serious skate-skiing buddies and headed to southern Wisconsin. They lent me a set of skate skis and took off down the trail. I set up to go and…nothing. I’d forgotten almost everything I’d ever learned. They were already 50 yards up the trail when one of them turned around and waved at me to pick it up.
I waved back. “Go on ahead,” I said. “This is going to take a while.”
Trying to pay attention to what they told me took real mental work. Skate skiing is almost counter to all your instincts. You rock a bit when skiing, and push off with your knees and feet to propel yourself forward. And considering that I have spent an entire running career concentrating on good form that includes pointing my toes straight forward for maximum efficiency, the idea of pointing my toes out while skiing just feels wrong.
And it wound up wrong too. About a half mile into the first lap I tried to pick up the pace and things went all to hell. I not only fell, I fell hard. The sunglasses tucked so carefully in the front pocket of the Pearl Izumi cycling vest I’d co-opted for skiing took the brunt of my fall. Those glasses got crunched.
I lay there in the snow wondering how to untangle my skis when along came a band of those fit-looking characters you find all the time in Wisconsin. From the age of 26 through the age of 66 they have the same chiseled look about them, with perfect shoulders and calves, and just a touch of grey at the temples. It never gets grayer and it never goes away either. I’m rather convinced there is a spa somewhere in central Wisconsin where athletic residents go to dip themselves in water rife with sandstone to keep their bodies perpetually young.
Anyway, these guys took one look at me carving Hell’s Angels in the snow with my skis and stopped. “Are you alright?” one of them asked.
It did not look like I was alright. I know that much. There was a big chunk of snow stuck under the left side of my cap. I think one ski pole was officially sticking out my ass and the other once went from ear to ear.
“Yah, I’m fine,” I said back, trying to sound like a local.
Silence. “Are you sure?” the guy asked again.
I laughed, my face so close to the snow that I probably woke up some snow fleas, thinking it was spring. “Fine, yes,” I said. “I’m new at this.”
The rest of them skied past without looking. They did not want bad snow karma to wash off on them. They were probably skiing for the next four hours. That’s what skate skiers do. They ski until they literally disappear into the winter mist like a ghost. Then they are reincarnated the next day in time for work.
I used up several lives lying there in the snow. It took me five minutes to get up. Something hurt, but I did not know where. It was like taking one of those finger tests where they have you clench your fists backwards and then they point out a fingertip and say, “Move this one.”
And that is why I currently still view cross-country skiing as an activity, not a sport. I can ski classic pretty decently, and have skied up to 15 miles. But skate skiing still eludes me as a sport. Maybe next year.
Sport versus activity
And like I just said, at least in-line or Classic cross-country skiing is not so difficult as skate skiing. My two best friends are excellent skate-skiers. One is doing the Birkebeiner® (or Birkie) this year. In fact they’ve both done it many times.
The Birkie is way more than a simple ski race these days. There’s a 50K Birkebeiner® Skate race. There’s a 54K Birkebeiner Classic (Inline) ski race. There’s a 23K Kortelopet and a 12K Prince Haakon. I presume that’s the race for people with bad chest colds.
It’s all held February 22. Hey, that’s this weekend! Guess I better start getting in shape if I plan to ski the Birkie this year!
People I know have done it on even less training. Just like marathons, there are always nuts who get out there and compete with little or no training. They trust their bodies or else just flail on through. What pisses you off sometimes is how well they do. People train for months to run a 4:00 marathon and then some joker with thick calves, a beer gut and a bad pair of shorts goes out and does 3:56 without running a step in advance. You ask them how they did it and they say something stupid like, “One foot in front of the other, bro!”
You secretly wish they would die right in front of you. Yet you must up the courage and politeness to say. “Nice job! Very impressive!”
Then you go drink yourself silly. Because there is no real justice in this world.
Alternative Birkie events
But let’s say you don’t really like skiing at all. You like biking in the winter instead. Then you should sign up for the Fat Bike Birkie March 8. In fact that race has been designated the Fat Bike National Championships.
Where is all this Birkie stuff held, you might ask. In the far north woods of Wisconsin, I might answer. Hayward, to be exact.
So if you’re feeling frisky the last couple weekends of February into early March, and you don’t mind driving to where the roads end and the northerly version of Honey Boo Boo proudly resides, head on up to Hayward, Wisconsin for a Birkie of one sort or another.
I’ll be home skiing safely round the 5-mile loop at Herrick Lake this year. I’m already cycling, running and now swimming these days. For now I view cross country skiing as an activity, not a sport.