I was debating whether or not to bother trying to XC ski again. I had enough on my plate with running, cycling, swimming, and triathlon. I really didn’t need another expensive hobby and more gear. The closest place to ski is about 45 minutes away, and my first foray into XC skiing was not pretty.
My wife tried to encourage me to try it one more time on my own. If I hated it, I could just walk away. If I liked it, it would be a different winter activity. Also, the end of season clearance sales would be coming up in a month or so. Now was the time to get a little bit more exposure and decide if I want to take the plunge or not.
I had made time on my schedule to ski earlier this week, but temps were in the -20F range (before wind chill…and the wind was howling). I backed out. Today’s weather was near ideal…almost too warm. However, it was the weekend, and with few facilities making snow, I knew that the park would be crowded. I would want to get there early.
I am 45 years old, and I had only skied once prior to my first lesson about a month ago. I thought that it would be a little challenging to get the basics, but that it was attainable. After all, I had only picked up cycling and swimming a few years ago and I am now an Ironman.
The difference was that I originally learned to swim and to ride a bike as a kid. I only had one exposure to skiing as a child (I wiped out on the tow line for the bunny hill…and that was the end of that adventure). Here is the one existing photo of that traumatic experience…
Due to this lack of childhood skiing exposure, the feel of skiing is completely foreign. When I swam for the first time in a couple of decades, I simply jumped into the pool. The first few lengths were hard but I found my rhythm and I completed a half mile. Getting used to open water swimming was an adjustment, but the swimming basics were the same. I had a similar when I purchased my bike. I got a hybrid since it was more familiar, and the first few times around the block were terrifying but the skills came back. Learning new skills (like riding a road bike and using clipless pedals) took more time, but they were adjustments. The basics were still there, they were just a little rusty.
There are no basics for me and skiing. It is completely foreign. Shifting the center of gravity and moving my feet in a smooth fashion to propel myself forward while remaining balanced was a whole new skill set that I had to acquire. Unfortunately, I tend to be clumsy and uncoordinated.
This was proving to be hard. Very, very hard.
With my wife’s encouragement, I decided to try again today. She was right. I needed to know if I wanted to continue down this path. The only way of knowing would be to give it another chance.
I arrived at the trailhead shortly after it opened. The trails were not yet crowded. The weather was just below freezing with no wind. We have had minimal snowfall for the past several weeks. Most trails were closed except for one beginner trail for which snow is manufactured daily, the trails are also groomed dailyy and were lighted at night. The trail is 2.5 km with some curves and mostly “gentle” hills. The trailhead has a challet with equipment rentals and a cafeteria. It really is a nice facility.
I got my daily pass, rented my gear and headed out to the trail. It is still a struggle just to get my skis on. Once that was done, I got on the trail. There are two types of XC skiing…classic (aka touring) and skate skiing. Classic is easier and involves moving your ski straight forward and backwards (like on a norditrac). The trails are groomed with two parallel grooves that your skis slide into. Skating involves pushing your skis side to side. It is faster but requires a lot more coordination. The trail is simply packed down for this technique. Mixed trails (like this one) have the grooves on one side of the trail, and the other side is for skate skiing.
I was classic skiing and felt a little more secure once my skies were in the grooves. I started forward and I am immediately faced with a short but somewhat steep downhill. I really wish that there were breaks on these things. I was still trying to find my center of balence when I went whooshing down this hill (OK, I was going nowhere fast enough to be “whooshing” but I felt completely out of control). Somehow, I didn’t fall down. The path then took a sharp right hand turn and then a slow uphill. I kept focussing on my technique, on moving smoothly, and on keeping loose. It wasn’t happening. Less then a quarter of a mile from the challet is a practice area. I hoped to make it there. I didn’t. Just a few feet away, I lost my balence and went down. No injuries, and only a few witnesses. I remembered how to get up and did so fairly easily. A few more strides and I had safely reached the practice area.
This is the field that my lessons were taught at. It is pancake flat and completely deserted. The grooming is perfect with multiple perfectly straight grooves for classic skiing. I take about an hour, and I just kept going back and forth. I was able to take my time and get a little more comfortable with the movements and the balence. I started to loosen up a little. I came close to falling several times, but I never actually go down. Once I have gained some confidence, I returned to the trail…and I almost wiped out.
My confidence suddenly shaken, I look at the trail before me. It is a downhill…as steep as the first hill I had faced followed by a 180 degree turn. Beyond that, I know that there is an even steeper downhill with a sharp left hand turn. Here goes…
I again feel the panic of being completely out of control and picking up speed. I tense up and almost go down. Somehow I regain my balence, make the turn and pick up more speed. No falls and I hit a gentle uphill. There is an access point to the trail there, and I pull off for a breather. A few minutes later I carry on. There was another steep (for me…this is a beginner course after all) downhill, curve, then an uphill. We learned a technique for climbing up a hill but have to leave the tracks and walk up in a herringbone pattern. Fortunately, I was able to just ski straight up.
Another whiteknuckled downhill and I reached the only “hard” part of this easy course…a steep uphill climb. No skiing up this one. Fortunately, there was a detour around it (a much longer climb that is far less steep). I was warned about this and I take the bypass. It is still a tough climb as I am still struggling to get traction off my skies. The end of the detour actually got quite steep. I started sliding backwards but was able to stop myself. Fortunately, nobody was around me. I get out of the grooves and try to herringbone my way up. I only had to travel about 25 yards but I could barely do it. Somehow, I stay on my feet and rejoin the main trail.
I pass by the practice field and realize that I was almost back at the chalet. Last month, at my lesson, I had to ski this part of the course and I really struggled. This time, it didn’t seem that bad. I skied up the last hill quite easily (the one that terrified me going down at the start of the day).
I had returned to the challet knowing that I had not skied the whole course. There was one additional loop going in the opposite direction, but I needed a breather. I got off the course, took off my skies (yay!) and went inside. There, I studied the map of the course. The remaining loop was short. I decided to go back out and do it. I figured that, if I ever came back, it would be easier knowing that I had completed the whole course once.
As soon as I left the chalet behind me, I realized this was a mistake. The biggest downhill of the day (steep, long, curved) was ahead of me. I truly felt out of control, and have no idea how I stayed upright. My Garmin clocked me at 15 mph which doesn’t seem fast on my bike, but it seemed a lot faster here. The trail was getting crowded. Someone almost went down right in front of me and I would have crashed right into them. I knew that, if I went down, the same would happen to me. After that white knuckle ride…I had to ski back up. It was another tough climb. That’s when I got “babied”. Yes, a mother skied past me while dragging a little baby carrier on skies behind her.
With that, my loop was complete. I eagerly ripped off my skies and returned them. My wife was right. I needed to try again to know if this was for me. It wasn’t. I was too out of control and could not get the hang of it. I could easily run, swim and cross train in the winter without picking up this new midlife crisis. I was glad I came out to eliminate the “what ifs”, but I was happy to walk away from this madness.
By the time I got back to the car, my certainty was wavering. I had done it after all. I skied the whole course and only fell down one time. I had handled downhills, uphills, twists and turns. The section of the course that I could barely manage last time seemed pretty easy this time. Weren’t my first couple of bike rides equally terrifying and seemingly out of control. Did I let that stop me? Didn’t it get easier? A lot easier? Wasn’t I able to do a century ride a few months later. Why should this be any different. It had become more comfortable and I had become more confident in these two hours. The next time (woah, did I just think “next time???) there would be nothing new. The first time would certainly be the hardest. There would still be a steep learning curve, but it should feel a little bit easier next time.
I am still not convinced that this is for me, but the door is still open. I guess my short term goal is to try it enough to go into the spring knowing if I will do it again next winter. If so, I could buy some end of season gear and sign up for an event. There is a wonderful event in downtown Minneapolis..”The City of Lakes Loppet”. It has 10k, 21k and 42.2k (marathon) options. The 10k would be a big enough short term goal if I choose to continue. Then, if I can do 10k, then why not further? Why not the Berkie…someday? I tend to dream big. I still don’t know if I will even continue skiing. But I know that, if I do, I will train for (and complete) that 10k.
After that (as I have learned over the past 3 years)…”Anything is Possible”.