Notes from the other track
By Marlene Farrell
Wintertime finds me running less to make more time for cross country skiing. Ever the competitor, I have been entering ski races for years. Of the two cross country ski disciplines — classic (also known as track or traditional) and skate — I find myself doing the latter more often because there’s less waxing involved. Thus I hesitated before registering for two classic races. But now that I’ve done it, I’m getting some time in the tracks at Ski Hill in Leavenworth.
Classic skiing has presented me with a paradox that, only after 14 years, I am starting to unravel. The bipedal motion of classic skiing may appear akin to walking, and at higher cadence, running. The illusion is quickly shattered when this runner enters a classic race (and another and another) and strides along at a supposedly peppy pace. But, like in Alice in Wonderland, I “must [ski] as fast as [I] can just to stay in place. And if [I] wish to go anywhere, [I] must [ski] twice as fast as that.” In other words, classic ski racing has been an exercise in impressively exhausting shuffling.
There are a number of discoveries I’ve made along my winter jaunts that have aided my skiing so I look less like a jogger with sticks stuck to my hands and feet. My biggest discovery has been there all along, but came as a slow dawning. Looking down, what appears to be an unassuming track is, in actuality, a vehicle for guided power and treacherous speed.
When it’s cold, a fresh track holds sharp edges and firmly guides my skis. If I’m balanced and smoothly transferring my weight from one ski to the next, the track and I work together, maximizing my forward motion. If, however, my technique lacks bold, precise movements, it can seem like the track is failing me as I flounder, slip backward, catch myself with my miniscule triceps. But, in fact, I’ve failed the track. It sedately watches my foolishness, waiting for a better skier to come along.
I used to distrust the track and its makers. I started skiing in earnest along the flanks of Mount Catherine at Snoqualmie Pass. If my uphill kick faltered, I would abandon the track for the skate lane. It seemed the groomer had set a track up a steep incline just to have it left immaculately untouched by the messy maneuvers of skiers like me.
And the downhill track roused even greater suspicion. On Mount Catherine the descent is 5 kilometers long and the track hugs snowy ledges, next to dizzying views. Sometimes curving wide, sometimes tight. Against better judgement I’d force my skis into the track and fold my body into a racer’s tuck until velocity told me to stand tall. Then I would stand tall until velocity told me to step out of the track and risk catching an edge and braking on my face. The alternative was to stay in the track and let myself get hurled off the mountainside (it never came to that).
These two ribbons of fate are strange indeed to a runner, used to placing her feet wherever she chooses. For runners, a decision to turn can be made instantaneously and flawlessly. There is no penalty unless the runner is so distracted that she hits an approaching street sign.
Leavenworth’s well-placed ski trails have gone far to assuage my lack of faith in the track. I think of the track now, not as confinement, but as a ride, ready to catch. There’s never a line and I can just hop on (or, more correctly, in). Those tidy slots allow me to slide along the trail and my attention can be directed to my hips, my core and the force of my pole plant. I’m freed from thinking overly about my feet because I trust the track.
When I crest each hill I have the choice to ease back as the slope lessens or push harder to see how long my momentum will rocket me on the downhill. I tend to choose the latter, in order to establish race-worthy habits.
And then I settle into a racer’s tuck. At Ski Hill my tucks range from one to 30 seconds long. Tucking is a floating, a hyper-alert, active restfulness. For the time, stretching out in zen-like clarity, my muscles sink into relaxed readiness. My movements are subtle, leaning inside a curve or changing my leading foot. My breath is quick at first, followed by deep inhalations that expand my lungs. I delight in the cold air, in my mouth and throat, because my body is working and warm. And mostly there is the strong thudding of my heart, bouncing in my chest like a child who doesn’t want the fun to end.
The tuck leaves lasting impressions. I wonder what it would be like to “tuck” while running. There’s really no comparison. I have to consciously perform body awareness checks while running because there are no natural pauses. My movement stops only at the end of a run, or when a crushing effort has made recovery essential. These classical skiing pauses, thanks to the track, give me gems for my pocket, to remember later in the day or later still, when the snow is gone.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.