Among the various athletic endeavors I have been fortunate enough to experiment with, and undoubtedly among the least-watched sports in the winter Olympic pantheon, cross-country skiing tops the list as one of my favorites.
Nordic skiing, as it is sometimes called, originated in Scandinavia as one of the earliest and most primitive means of transportation as well as an efficient way to hunt wild game. A version of the antiquated fast-paced hunting expedition is memorialized by the modern Olympic biathlon in which athletes must ski and perform a controlled shoot. The event is both bizarre and beautiful, just one contrast among many in this complex and fascinating endurance sport that manages to harbor many a life lesson.
Over the years, my family and I have traveled to Vermont, California, Canada and Utah in pursuit of great cross-country skiing. As with most of my other active encounters, I was introduced to it by my parents, who cross-country skied long before I was even a thought.
As soon as I was old enough to stand on a pair of skis, they hauled me up to the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt., where I took my first real lessons. Pretty soon I was waddling awkwardly behind my parents along the breathtaking trails, lined with pine trees teeming with fresh snow.
I took a liking to it, but I wasn’t as naturally inclined to every aspect of cross-country skiing as one may think. I was rather adept at down hills; I could speed along with ease, smoothly turning and gliding gracefully down the largest, steepest hills available. I was reasonably decent at keeping a steady pace going on flat terrain. However, I loathed going uphill.
I dreaded entertaining the very notion. Going up hill using one’s own muscle power is unique to cross-country skiing, as opposed to its slightly more grandiose and refined cousin, downhill skiing. It can be difficult to fathom why one would choose to climb up a hill rather than being carried up, especially considering the grueling pain in the legs and lungs during the ascent.
I was once in that camp of thought. Getting me to go uphill was like pulling teeth, yet my parents never considered reverting to downhill skiing. Still, I simply could not understand why I could not go downhill all the time. After all, that was the fun part.
I suppose it was a basic understanding of physics that supplemented my answer: You have to go up the hill before you can come down it.
Now I have discovered the secret those hills hide. Inside every intimidating, seemingly insurmountable mountain is a precious bounty of appreciation and satisfaction.
It is a feeling obtainable only through one’s own efforts. Then, and only then, can you go down, and not just go down, but truly experience the downhill in a way never experienced before.
You get to feel the rush of the wind and the deep surging of fresh, phlegm-less air into your lungs as you let gravity work its wonders. Your body knows exactly what to do and you just let it go. It is part pure guts and part pure bliss.
Cross-country skiing is not a constantly challenging and strenuous activity, though. The movement is fairly straightforward; as simple as walking. The body adapts to it with ease, moving swiftly and efficiently with gentle slithers.
Often times, it as easy as putting one ski in front of the other. It is both an art and a sport, requiring equal parts athletic prowess and angelic finesse.
Though somewhat akin to hiking, the heavy, arduous footsteps are replaced by long, elegant glides. Gentle, alternating stabs of poles facilitate forward movement, creating a rhythmic motion that is neither physically complicated nor easy.
The process is unapologetic and graceful, unpretentious, and yet poetic. And although it is a primal and rudimentary sport, most will never choose to pursue it, hence the grimaced expressions that often accompany my explanation of cross-country skiing.
A sport brimming with contradiction, cross-country skiing will never cease to both captivate and terrify me. And that is quite all right with me; it only keeps me coming back for more.