By Dakota Jones, who skis great
The running world is abuzz with the exciting new sport of ski mountaineering, but there’s another winter sport that’s been around a lot longer and uses just as much spandex. That’s right, nordic skiing is the underdog’s path to running success1 and I’ve been doing it for two whole winters already, so I’m basically a professional2. But maybe you’re not familiar with the sport, or you could use a refresher. So let me explain.
There are two disciplines in nordic skiing. On skate skis, you propel yourself forward with a distinct v-shaped motion, akin to ice skating. If you’re classic skiing, the skis stay parallel and you move forward by kicking down onto a pocket of sticky wax underneath the foot. Classic skiing is the original nordic technique (hence its name), whereas skate skiing has only been around since the early ’80s. In races from world cups down to junior events, both techniques are given equal billing, but newcomers lately seem to gravitate more toward skating. This, according to my girlfriend Paige (whose nordic credentials are so extensive I won’t even begin to list them) is a stupid trend. “Skating isn’t better than classic,” she says. “I love classic skiing. They’re both good.”
My unlikely rise in the nordic world began with Paige. She grew up nordic skiing, and she got me interested in 2015, when she was coaching the junior team. Her kids had a race and asked me if I’d like to help out with an event. “Sure thing,” I said, and then I spent a whole February day shooting a pistol into the air3 and laughing at kids who showed up with the wrong skis on4. Not long after, sensing another realm in which to get way too competitive, I got some skate skis of my own and immediately enlisted Paige to show me how to use them. She took me on a half-kilometer tour of the nordic center, at which point I realized this was going to take a little more work than I expected.5
“You need plant both poles at the same time,” she said calmly, looking back from the top of a small rise I was struggling to overcome.
“But I can’t!” I said, flexing every muscle in my body and trying desperately to keep from sliding backward. “If I do that, then I’ll fall back!”
“Well, your arms are straight out,” she replied. “You need to plant your poles near your bindings.”
“I can’t stay in one place long enough to move them!” I shouted back, growing frantic.
“You need to move your skis into more of a ‘V’ shape and step up on each alternately,” she explained patiently.
“But every time I lift one ski the other starts moving out of control!” My arms were shaking by this point, quickly losing strength.
Paige reached down to give me a hand and as I lunged forward to grab it my skis slipped out backward and I fell on my chest, then slid downhill into a snowbank. Things didn’t improve much after that, but my abs felt sore, and that seemed to be a good thing. After a while I took a break and watched Paige ski with smooth, measured strides around the lake. She glided across the snow seemingly without effort, powerfully kicking and poling in an easy rhythm that was wonderful to watch. I was impressed enough to try again.
I learned several things that day. My first realization was that nordic skis want to move, and they want to move fast. The instant I figured out how to clip into the bindings, I was on the move, and it took me several weeks just to master the art of staying put while wearing skis. Furthermore, once I graduated to intentional forward movement, I realized how much I rely on metal edges while skiing. I’m not a bad downhill skier, but I could hardly stay upright on nordic skis. There was nothing to dig into the snow to gain traction, and my skis wanted to move sideways nearly as much as they wanted to move forward. Consequently, I spent a lot of time on the ground.
But you know what? I’m an athlete, and just like when I ride bikes, drink beer, drive a car, alpine ski, play Monopoly, or bring my drum set to the dorms for the half-semester I went to college, I have two settings while nordic skiing: off and full-speed-ahead. Therefore, once I figured out the ‘V2’ technique for skate skiing (which is one of three techniques you use while skating and involves poling before each stride) I took it way beyond the limits of my control.
“Don’t worry, I’m an athlete!” I would scream to passersby who were frozen in horror watching me descend a hill with locked knees and my arms swinging wildly. At the bottoms of these hills I would usually straight line it into a snow bank or fall backward at terminal velocity and yard sale down the rest of the slope, shredding skin and clothes alike on the knife-like corduroy of the groomed trail. More often than not, Paige would patiently and methodically collect my hat from one nearby tree branch and my gloves from another and collect my skis from way off on top of the frozen lake and bring them all back to me as I slowly limped back to the track, emptying the snow from my pants and trying to get it out of my ears and nostrils.
“Thanks babe,” I’d say, kissing her on the cheek and putting my stuff back on. “Now check this out! I’m an athlete!” And the scene would repeat itself. This lasted for all of my first season of nordic skiing, which culminated in a truly spectacular end-of-season fall that could have killed me.
I was skiing the trails early one spring morning, early enough that the trails hadn’t been groomed yet. The previous day had been very warm, and the trails were gouged with tracks that skiers had cut in the slushy afternoon snow. However, the previous night’s temperatures had been well below freezing, meaning these tracks were now rock hard.
I was good enough at skiing by this point that I could maintain a steady speed while desperately and inefficiently hammering the ground with both poles and skis, but the skis’ lack of edges continued to vex me. I was moving well, but my skis had a habit of migrating off to the side or underneath the other while I tried to coast along, meaning I was forever jumping around trying to keep my balance. Nevertheless, in keeping with my normal attitude of just going all-out all the time regardless of logic or common sense, I crested the top of the nordic center’s largest hill at something beyond my lactate threshold and settled into a deep tuck for the ride ahead.
The hill was steep and long, with a gradual right turn in the middle. I was a little nervous about making the turn at such a high speed, but there wasn’t much time for contemplation at that pace. Luckily, with a few steps I managed to not only avoid disaster, but to actually increase my speed on the downhill. That’s how you do it! I rejoiced in my head. Man, I am such an athlete! And of course, that’s when it happened. While going at least 30 miles per hour, my left ski slipped easily, almost casually, into a frozen track that led off at a sharp angle to the left. All of a sudden I was skating off-balance on one ski, trying frantically to dig in an edge and regain my balance. But it was hopeless: my edgeless ski skittered off to join its brother, and I enjoyed a brief moment of weightless calm before slamming onto the snowy track like a watermelon dropped from a high building.
And I exploded, leaving blood and guts hanging from trees up to two-and-a-half miles away. There wasn’t enough of me left intact to use a casket at my funeral, so they just used the broken top half of my pole, with my severed hand still in the straps, embedded in a block of sandstone like King Arthur’s sword. People came from all over the world to pour out drops of malt liquor6 on the monument, and then it was placed in a space capsule and rocketed to the moon, where it will rest until time itself stops.
It was terrible.
Okay, maybe it didn’t happen quite like that. But I did hit the ground pretty hard, and one of my poles broke too. That could have maybe cut me, and whoa, I wouldn’t want that to happen. As it was, I suffered a pretty dark bruise on my hip that took almost a week and a half to heal. Gruesome, I know.
Anyway, nordic skiing is super good cross training for running, and it brings with it a great community of people who love working hard and being outside, just like in running. If you approach it calmly and humbly7, you can pick up the techniques really quickly and be skiing on day one. It’s a great way to take a break from running in winter but to stay in shape. Best of all, you can do it wherever there’s snow, mountains or not. Give it a shot!
1Depending on how you define success
2Again, pending consistent definitions
3Oh yeah, it was loaded. Okay, but only with blanks.
4Wanna’ read how I originally started this story? Here you go:
I was volunteering as the starter for a junior nordic-skiing race once when one kid started shit-talking to another. “Hey man,” he said, pointing down. “You got the wrong skis on!” They were lined up five abreast, only seconds away from the start of their heat, and my immediate reaction was that this was a devious tactic to undermine a competitor’s confidence. But then I looked at the kid’s skis and, sure enough, they said ‘Skating’ right on them in a cool fiery font. But this was a classic race. “WHAT!” the kid shouted, and I could see his face melt. “Oh my God! I’m wearing the wrong skis!”
There was a brief pause while everyone looked on, unsure what to do. Being the starter, I was in control of the timing of each race. Theoretically, I could have paused the race so the little doofus could rush off for his correct skis. But that would involve a ton of pain-in-the-ass timing adjustments and a likely rebuke from my girlfriend’s dad, who was in charge of the overall timing. So…
“Five seconds to go!” I called. The kid nearly burst into tears, but then settled into a reluctant starting position. I held the gun in the air, pulled the trigger, and then off they went, hammering the snow with their poles. These were sprint races and therefore short, so I watched avidly to see how our forgetful young friend would do. And you know what? He finished in second place. Well I’ll be, I thought.
5“Hang on, Paige. Are you saying I can’t be good at this right away, without effort?”
6And Sombra Mezcal, obviously
7Which style I in no way recommend
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Are you an, ahem, adult-onset Nordic skier? Did your introduction to the sport go like Dakota’s has?
- What parts of Nordic skiing are intuitive to you, and what parts are more difficult to learn?
- Do you regularly Nordic ski in the winter?