Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Learning to kick and glide

Cross-country skiing is a great way to get outside during winter, but it's also a sport that can seem insular to the unacquainted. Here's how one ski-shy novice took the first few steps.

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 1:40 PM

I can't relate to people who exult over fresh powder. The words take me back to Big Sky Ski Resort, with my face dented into the stuff and blood running from my nose after blacking out during the first run of my second season trying to alpine ski. I kept on skiing in a daze, because college-me thought that was a smart idea. The next day, when a doctor asked me to say the president's name, I got it wrong.

I quit downhill skiing after that, though I never had much going for me to begin with. My first season was also cut short when I snapped my collarbone on an icy black diamond. Come to think of it, I think I skied the rest of that afternoon too.

But since then winters have been a real drag. Most of my free time gets spent inside for a long, low-energy hibernation that leaves me out of shape when warm air finally returns. I needed another way to get outside when the weather's cold.

  • photo by Catherine L Walters

That's what brings me to a little square gym at 8 a.m. on a recent fall morning, explaining my comedy of athletic errors to one of the fittest guys I've ever met. Kiefer Hahn, who co-owns Momentum Athletic Training downtown, agreed to meet after I told him I'm curious about nordic skiing, a sport about which I know basically nothing. Hahn has been racing since he was a kid, and decades later he still looks almost boyish in a zip-up. His gym has a reputation for attracting elite athletes as clients, but he listens patiently as I express my interest in nordic as a more mellow alternative to bombing down a mountain.

Imagine my surprise when Hahn starts to describe the sport's own type of intensity. "That's what makes nordic skiing so hard," he says. "You're using everything."

"Everything," Hahn means, as in every part of the body. Not only does the sport require strong cardiovascular health and leg strength to kick the skis forward, but also upper body strength to push off with nordic skiing's tall poles and enough balance to stay upright with one ski in the air. Until then, the physical demands of cross-country skiing never really occurred to me. It just looks graceful from afar, like the skiing equivalent of a jog. The better comparison might be swimming.

Realizing this makes me glad I'm meeting with Hahn before trying to hit a trail. A friend had coached me in the basics of downhill, but I never felt in control. My legs burned after a few runs, my form suffered and I soon got hurt. Hahn's gym specializes in ski conditioning, offering a rigorous, twice-weekly program that starts in the fall. Each session rotates through 18 stations constructed in the spirit of functional training, an approach to exercise that Hahn says "speaks to the real world of movement" by engaging multiple muscle groups at once. He ticks off the components: balance exercises, heavy squats, treadmill running, agility training and plyometrics. "It's going to kick your ass," he says.

Hahn says all this with a big smile, in a way that feels supportive. He has me step onto a balance board, squat on a balance ball and do leg lifts on a balance pad set atop a wooden box. I stumble through the motions. "You'll get good," he says. "You're young."

  • photo by Catherine L Walters

When Hahn's next appointment arrives, I'm feeling excited but still have plenty of questions. I want to do more.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Missoula has an active nordic scene. It's anchored by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, a nonprofit run by volunteers who do a ton of work to groom local trails, organize races and help introduce young people/newbies to the sport. They're a diverse crew, as I find out when I stop by their annual meeting at Big Sky Brewing's tasting room. The club's longtime president, Craig Krueger, walks right over and introduces himself to me. We talk about trails, fundraising and Krueger's love for the sport. "I'm still excited to go out every time," he says, "after all these years."

Krueger says the Missoula area offers some great skiing opportunities. The club maintains trails in the Rattlesnake, Lubrecht Experimental Forest and Pattee Canyon. "It can be brown in Missoula and you go up there and it's amazing snow," he says.

Volunteers groom the trails almost daily during the season. The whole operation can cost around $20,000 each year, money that members raise in part by selling booze at Big Sky Brewing summer concerts. It's a great deal for nordic skiers, as the trails are free to use. And joining the club costs just $25 a year.

Joining the club also lends access to free group clinics aimed at kids, beginners and intermediate skiers, explains Kelly Carin, who coordinates them. Classes are typically held in January and February, and Carin encourages me to try one out, explaining how the club helped her feel at home in Missoula after moving here in 2008.

"I wasn't a part of the community before I joined the nordic ski club," she says. "The club has been that grounding force."

  • photo by Catherine L Walters

Carin reminds me to be patient as I learn the sport, but I'm still anxious to gather more information. My next challenge: gear. I head to Open Road on Orange Street, one of a few stores in town that sells and rents nordic skis, where co-owner John Wood spends 45 minutes walking me through the various equipment choices. Skate skis are different from touring skis, it turns out, but otherwise the equipment is fairly straightforward. Nordic skis are sized according to weight, because "the critical thing is you don't get a ski that's too stiff for you," Wood says. That's because the mechanics of the sport require skis that can both grip the snow and glide over it. Modern equipment solves this paradox by using a scale pattern toward the center of the ski and a cambered design that keeps it above the snow until the skier presses to kick off. A full setup—boots, skis and poles—will run $300-$400, but used gear isn't hard to find, and renting is also an affordable option.

I hold off on dropping any cash, figuring I ought to wait for a clinic to decide what kind of skiing, skate or touring, to try. But in the meantime I think about how Hahn summed up his conditioning philosophy to me: "This is about specific training for the shit you love to do outside." I'm sold on the approach. Now I just need to get out there again during winter.

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