On the day after Christmas, I think back to a request for a gift that my father granted me far back in time. It was 1971 or so, and my best friend in the little town of Elburn, Illinois was a kid named Eric Berry. His family was large and by no coincidence Catholic. His father would later become the Mayor of Elburn.
Every year the Berry family would take off to Colorado to go skiing in the mountains. The Berry boys were all pole vaulters on the talented Kaneland High School track team. Thus their love of thrill sports was in keeping with downhill skiing.
Eric eagerly pushed me to ask my father for a set of skis. I knew so little about skiing and was so eager to please my friend that I went along. And sure enough, my father bought me those skis.
I’m pretty sure my father was thinking about his youth in Upstate New York and the farm on which he lived. It backed up to a Catskill Mountain and I recall him telling me about skiing down that hill, which must have been 100% powder some winters. So my dad plunked down the money for those skis.
We didn’t really have that kind of money, and I’m not sure what moved him to engage in such indulgence on my behalf. I must have made an earnest pitch or something like it. There was another problem that would not be solved. The bindings on those skis were designed to fit actual ski boots. I didn’t own any of those either.
Yet I was determined to give the skis a try somehow. So I toted my skis to the Deaconry Hill, as we called it, a 300-meter incline just north of our house on Gates Street. I tried my best to shove some of those standard black buckle boots into the bindings and stood there looking down at the plain white snow below me.
Then I realized something else. I didn’t own any ski poles either.
I pushed myself off from a nearby tree and slid slowly down the hill, all the while flailing my arms for balance. At the bottom where the ground flattened out, I tumbled to the side and wound up lying on my side with my face half-covered with snow. It was cold outside, and quiet. Some birds were chirping above me in a tree.
That was the last time I used those skis. My friend Eric begged me to ask my father to let me join them on a ski trip to Colorado, but that was so far out of the realm of reality for our family I did not even go there with my dad. So the skis sat in the downstairs mud room. They were long and white and shiny, an extravagance that reminded me brutally of my naivete. From then on I considered them covered in guilt. What the heck was I thinking?
Cross country salvation
Ten years later my two long-time running buddies invited me to go cross-country skiing in southeast Wisconsin. With that sport, I developed some history as we often skied together in the early to mid-1980s. Our cross-country ski trips took us to Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, Kettle Moraine State Park near Lake Geneva and up to Decorah, Iowa where two of us attended college. Those were both realistic and fun trips in the company of gals that we loved.
Yet the most epic ski journey of all took place right out the back door in Illinois. We left from one my buddy’s houses and skied north for miles through deep February snow on a day that warmed to thirty degrees. The landscape was not yet covered with homes as it would be a decade later when farmers sold their property to developers. Which left us free to ski unhindered over hill and dale.
That trip lasted hours, and toward the end we even stripped off our upper layers and skied along without our shirts or jackets. And yes, I fell over in the snow that day as well. But this time it was glorious, not humiliating.
Trying new things
Trying new things in life is always good. Not knowing exactly what you’re getting into can also be exciting. That’s how it felt when I took up cycling more seriously in the mid-2000s. The same goes for the swim journey I’m now on as well.
It’s been a step-by-step process going from duathlons to triathlons as well. Along the way I’ve developed some realistic goals that are both age and situation appropriate even as they stretch me to try even newer things. Such will be the case with doing Olympic triathlons this summer.
If that sounds modest compared to those who’ve dived into doing an Ironman the first time out, and succeeded, well so be it. I’ve learned lessons many times about realistic and unrealistic goals. I prefer something in the middle. A bit of challenge is great, but begging for a set of downhill skis when I have neither the boots or poles or means to pursue the sport.
And that’s called maturity.