Marlene Farrell: A Runner’s Musings on Skiing

Written on Feb 18th, 2011 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog

“You ski like a runner.”  My husband will say to me when I complain that, despite efforts to improve, I still have about a hundred things to work on in regard to my classic skiing technique.  In the snowy months, living for 6 years a ¼ mile from one of Leavenworth’s ski trails (and before that, in Snoqualmie Pass, living the same distance from 50km of ski trails), I have the opportunity to ski a lot.  Nearly every morning I can be out, just me, my headlamp, a few other souls whose lights dart past like shooting stars, and the groomer, bright and loud, creating a path of white bliss in its wake.  On the local trails, I do laps, sometimes quite a few.  On the flatter trails the effort can feel minimal.  There’s no pounding, and when conditions are fast, it’s like flying, being tethered to the earth only by a few snow crystals at a time.

But I’m not a skier.  I am a runner who skis.  I feel the difference in my bones.  I’ve been running for more than 20 years – I started as a young teenager in Virginia. Cross country skiing, on the other hand, didn’t come into my life until 1999, the year I purchased my first classic and skate skis while living in Minnesota.

When I’m out, in my car or walking through town with my kids, and I see a runner pass, I can’t help but stare.  It’s not an attempt at recognition (though this is a small town, so it’s frequent), and it doesn’t matter whether I was out for a long run earlier that day.  For a moment, that runner mesmerizes me and deep inside there is a longing to be that runner or to be right alongside.  Even in the crazy weather, like 10 degrees and snowing and here comes a guy running in shorts with glowing red legs.  The craving can be even greater then (though I would be more sensible in my attire) because to feel the elements is a reminder of being alive.

This does not happen to me when I see a skier, flushed and grinning, taking her skis off at the trailhead, gushing about the terrific snow.  Even as I click into my bindings and I know I’ll get that floating feeling that is harder to achieve running, a part of me hesitates and wants to go back to the car.

“Why?” I ask myself.  I think this weird difference stems from several sources.  For one, skiing is more complicated than running.  I fret, even when I’m putting on my poles, that I’ve forgotten something.  Sometimes I do forget something, like classic skis on warm days when the skate lane has turned to heavy mush.  But what is there to forget for running?  Your shoes?  Some people don’t even need those.  I can attest that you can run your first marathon oblivious to the virtues of synthetic clothing and be none the worse for wear except a few raw patches.

I get cold easier while skiing.  Not in my core, but at the tips of my fingers and toes.  There’s nothing like the pain of stabbing needles of ice in your fingers to drain the joy out of a beautiful crisp morning ski.

And maybe it’s because I’ve chosen to ski race.  There are endless running races to choose from, and I select my races deliberately so I can plan my training and tapering around each event.  Ski season is short and thus most races are crammed into January and February, back to back weekends and sometimes 2 races per weekend.  I don’t choose my optimal distance, I do it all and tend to learn more about my weaknesses than my strengths.  When I’m at the start line for a ski race (some are mass starts, others a long queue of interval starters) I am not filled with the glee of the chase, but rather have this sinking feeling.  As I’ve gotten better, the feeling is less pronounced but ski racing for me involves occasional spectacular crashes, the stress of passing with poles and skis akimbo, and seeing red as I crest a hill, attempting to hurtle downhill like I’m not afraid, and repeating over and over again until the end of the race.  It is vastly different from dialing in the perfect running pace that hurts just enough to know I will cross the finish line with nothing left to give.

With all this said, I am so glad I ski.  Honestly, it’s fun to wake up and get to choose, skate ski, classic ski or run today, each option appealing to a different part of me and also making me a more well-rounded athlete.  I’ve made friends through skiing that I would not have known otherwise.  I coach skiing to kindergarteners.  At the end of the season I am awed and a bit envious of the fearlessness and grace that define their skiing.  Unless you’re in Norway, ski events tend to gather smaller crowds than running events, but the atmosphere is equally festive and passionate.

At the beginning of each winter I burst out of my comfortable, predictable running bubble to participate in a sport that doesn’t come naturally to me, in which each stride I make toward better technique comes only after much time and effort.  Then, in the spring, the dirty snow sucks my skis back to the ground and I’m ready to lace up, lighten up and return to running that’s injected with a fresh perspective and an eagerness to hone my abilities in the sport I love most.

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