Norwegian (Ski Olympians) Would; Isn’t It Good?

Perhaps you too need a soupçon of inspiration for your March runs. Yes, the late-winter sun colors an added bit of blonde into each day’s margins here in the Northern Hemisphere, and so promise of longer days and their trails seeds the mind. But the recurring ice and the way snowbanks grow to look like smoke-whacked lungs keep tossing us back into grippy winter.

Here’s one way out; the recent Winter Olympic Games provide it. Follow this link to find your way to full replays of the original event live streams. There’s no running, of course, in winter’s Olympics, but they do feature its gliding foot-cousin, cross-country skiing, and any number of us have watched in some awe as a cross-country-skier-in-training takes on an off-season mountain on foot. Who has that mix of strength and stamina? Speculation that cross-country skiers may be the world’s fittest athletes seems well founded.

With this in mind I go in search of coverage of this year’s cross-country events. Here, I reflect as I noodle with my computer, is reason to genuflect—at least a little—to the online sources. In the past, I’ve been lucky to squeeze five minutes of cross-country coverage from whatever network had bid the most to bore me to tears with human-interest bios of skaters, boarders, lugers, etc. “We’re all lugers,” I wanted to shout. “I don’t come to Olympus to watch humans, I want gods.”

Now, with various sites for streaming, I can get the whole race, and—such a pleasant bonus—each one is narrated by an understated commentator sporting a mild Aussie accent. Television afterlife!

I tune first to the men’s 30-kilometer skiathalon. Leave aside the unwieldy name, here’s much of cross-country skiing in a single event: 15k of classic-style, kick-and-glide skiing, followed by a quick change of skis for 15 more k’s of amped-up, skate-style skiing. All of it tracked by a mix of hill-placed cameras and aerial shots. Television and South Korean organization seem a natural pair. The effect is immersive.

Because I attend to cross-country skiing only during the Olympics, I have no context for the current scene, nor do I know its characters. I guess, as ever, that the Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians will be prominent, and that, filtering south through Europe’s mountains will bring also some Germans, French, Swiss, and Italians into the mix of contenders. Then, there will be the not-yet-disgraced Russians, and the striving (but not arriving) U.S. skiers.

And it is so. The skiathlon’s seeded start and the commentary point to a very strong (ascendant?) Norwegian team and a longstanding powerhouse from Sweden. I settle in for more than an hour of racing.

Immediately, at the bunched start, one of the seeded Norwegians falls, taking down two trailing skiers. By the time Simen Krüger rights himself and starts to ski, he is 69th in a field of the same number. O, we feel for Krüger, but the camera returns to the front of the pack, and we forget him and his moment. When he does recur, we suppose, he will always be falling at the outset of the Olympic race.

For much of the first 15k, the Finn, Iivo Niskanen, kicks along out front, trailed by Swedes, Norwegians, and Switzerland’s “Super Dario” Cologna. I marvel at their climbing and the way they churn out k after k at RPMs most of us can’t hold to even for a short sprint; this goes on and on.

Occasional shots of ‘the pack’ do reveal a curiosity: Simen Krüger is working his way forward; there he is, outside the tracks, climbing by super-fit skiers on each uphill. When he nears place 30, he draws mention. “Remarkable,” says the commentator, and embedded in that word is acknowledgement that most would have been deflated and defeated by his initial fall.

But then there is the stoic’s counterpoint, one that serves us well when we are ‘out there’ in condition or conditions that spell trouble: what other world is there? Might as well keep on in this one.

We reach the change point, and skiers zoom in like triathletes to numbered berths, unclip from one set of skis, clip into the next, and then skate off. Early in this leg some of the classic-style leaders begin to slide back. But still sliding forward is Simen Krüger; the cameras begin to love SK. He is a skating dynamo—compact, forceful, his body moving in the skating motion like a relentless piston. Even as he nears the lead pack, having expended whole cities worth of energy to get there, he appears the strongest skier at the front… on the planet. SK has become a skiing E.T..

Here I leave off chronicle. You now know what happened. SK is a lycra-wrapped Nordic god; he blows by everyone; he wins. But really, you must go and watch this re-streamed.

I go out for a winter run, under the SK-influence. Not many steps into it, I realize I am elated, and in my altered state, I begin to seek out hills, chuffing up them, my mind dazzled with what I’ve just seen and with spring trails ahead. When the angle rises, I begin to chant Krüger’s name on my out breaths. Its two syllables fit precisely into my climb—Kru Gah Kru Gah, Kru Gah. Up I go. Kru Gah… Bring on any hill.

Two days later, I’m back in midstream when I meet the female equivalent to SK. On the third leg of the women’s 4 x 5k relay, the Norwegians have fallen back; the Swedes seem ascendant; conclusion is forgone, Norway, forlorn. Enter Ragnhild Haga. By now, I recognize a god. No one else, save SK, can ski this way. By the time Haga is done with her leg, the Norwegians are back in control and 5k away from another gold medal. Two Viking thumbs up for Haga! I go to another stream and watch her dominant win in the 10k freestyle.

And when I return to my running habit a few hours later, I am lifted again. At each hill I climb chanting these two Norse spirit names—Ha Gah, Kru Gah, Ha Gah, Ku Gah… up and up, as in a dream of motion.

Isn’t it good, Norwegians would? (John Lennon and Paul McCartney, slightly altered.)

Post note: over days, my gods multiply; they even go a bit multinational—Johannes Klæbo, Martin Sundby, then, Kikan Randall and Jessie Diggins! Then in the Games’ last race, OMB, O Marit Bjørgen! But my chant stays the same. Kru Gah Ha Gah Up Up.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Did you watch the Winter Olympic Games? Did they infuse energy, passion, or competitive fight into your your running?
  • When else have you become impassioned by someone else’s achievement? What is it about how we can be elevated simply through witnessing others’ success?
Sandy Stott

lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at [email protected]

There are 6 comments

  1. Jim K.

    Despite all admiration for the Norwegians, please keep in mind that the Norwegian Olympic team brought a total of 6000 asthma doses to South Korea. For 121 athletes!

  2. Lightning

    Not to say that there hasn’t been some shadiness in the Norwegian team with regards to asthma medications, but that’s a bit misleading. One inhaler is typically 200 doses. So 6000 doses might be 30 inhalers. You want different athletes to share inhalers?

    Asthma is fairly common in cross country ski racers due to hard breathing in cold, dry air. There have been dozens of articles on asthma, temperature limits, cold, etc. on the Fasterskier website going back to at least the early 2000s.

  3. Patty Hager

    “What other world is there?” May we all have the experience of Kruger-like focus. We can’t ski like these gods, but we can learn a lot from them, and bring them on runs as you do, Sandy.

    Thanks for more great writing

  4. Sandy Stott

    With the rain of implied doping, comes the light of some added context and so, perspective. Thanks for that Lightning.

    Sandy

  5. Kristina

    Thanks for bringing attention to this fabulous sport, it dovetails so nicely with trail running that I wonder why it’s not more popular. That Diggins sprint relay finish gives me chills every time I think about it (which is often). The Norwegians may be godlike, but our American ladies are right there with them! It’s inspiring how they’ve risen through the ranks these last couple years, based mostly on teamwork and a rock solid mental game. Jessie, Sadie, Sophie, Kikkan, Liz and all- these are my heroes!

    Also- Løp, Klæbo, Løøøøøøp!

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