I wish to ski like my dogs run
With passion and abandon every time
Nordic skiing showed pretty well in the last Olympic Games, now going on two years past. Now one waits, pre-Games, with trepidation. How much cross-country skiing will make it to prime time? It's a foolish exercise. What difference should it make? We will love the sport regardless. Yet we fret nonetheless.
We see, at some level, TV coverage as a measure of validation for what we do. To cross-country ski is to feel a certain detachment from popular culture, and as much as we may say we are not bothered by that, in some small way we are. Seeing Nordic races make the big time on TV gives us some sense of connection.
There is also the wonderful experience of watching superb athletes ply their skills. Cross-country skiing at its highest level reveals a grace and a beauty. We see the act of skiing for what it can be. How can that not inspire us? We see spot-on technique and take away lessons we can carry that to the trails.
I think that is one reason we wish to see Nordic skiers on TV during the Winter Olympics. We can all learn from watching them. We can all use some polishing of our technique. Seeing great skiers during the Olympics can help us. I think we all understand that.
There was a time when I wanted my ski technique to mimic the great racers, the picture-perfect confluence of timing and power, grace and efficiency, a thing done well at speeds that led the field. I wished to emulate their technique and I watched the games with that in mind.
But over time, something has changed for me. I moved from desiring the exactitude of form to more nebulous goals. I watched the great Cuban middle distance runner, Alberto Juantorena, run with sublime beauty and I came to wish that I could ski as he could run, smoothly but with power. I took the term "smooth power" as a mantra and in so doing took a step away from the specifics of rigid technique work with its analytical facts to a more personal overview.
In time would come another image, that of a river running uphill, which is, of course, impossible. Yet the image has appeal. Ski trails often remind me of rivers and streams, flowing as they do across the landscape of our particular part of the world. Ski trails, the good ones, have a rhythm to them, a graceful mix of twists and turns that remind me of small streams.
But ski trails flow uphill at times and a river never does. Yet the image stays with me, the admittedly illogical vision of a stream running uphill; smooth and steady and strong. And I think; what a strange image, how removed from reality. But is it? If left at rest at the top of a hill you and I will, invariably and with no effort, glide downhill like a river on a gradient. We succumb to the pull of gravity. But tell me how many times, at the base of a hill, do we flow upward?
We mimic a river, naturally seeking the drop. We never, when left unattended, go contrary to the law of nature and flow up. Yet we do go uphill of our own volition and exertion. So yes, we should ski like a stream running uphill, for when we do we defy certain laws of nature.
None of this has to do with the specifics of technique but all of it has to do with how I ski. I see technique as a quirky expression of who we are, as unique as our personalities. What bland lives if we all had carbon copy personalities. Without our little foibles how boring we would all be. If art is an individual expression of a universal truth, ski technique leaves room for an individual's expressions of their style. We all must be grounded in the basics of sound technique, of the proper transfer of body energy to inert ski, but beyond that our expression shows through as style, interpreted individually.
Technique as means to what end?
My technique today is what it is. It generally gets me to where I want to go. That's good enough for me. Is it perfect? Certainly not. It might be nice to be picture perfect, but how often does that happen? Perhaps more often for you than for me. My technique and my style is what it is and I can live with that.
A friend recently told me that with intense coaching and repetitive drills would polish my ski technique until it would glitter like a diamond. But that would take, he told me, up to five seasons. Then I'd have great technique and ski fast.
Alas, I do not wish to spend that much time and effort to achieve a result that lacks importance. I do what I can with what I've got. I do not wish in any way denigrate fine technique. As Nordic skiers, we all must achieve a certain level of it to help us reach whatever goals we have. My goal is no longer to ski fast. That does not make me better nor worse than those who do. Most skiers I know seek goals measured other than by the clock. Most skiers talk in terms of emotion than they do results. When you get to the emotional side of sport all bets are off as to where that may lead.
My inspiration today comes from my dogs. I have two: Riika, she of stocky build (think football linebacker, like Clay Mathews or Brian Urlacher), willful and smart as a whip; and Thor, a long-legged, blockheaded male, at times obstinate and seemingly moronic (and please, hold any editorial comments about that being typical of males). They are hunting dogs of an obscure German breed (Wachtelhunds, if you must know). They are, as dogs can be, a handful. They can bring varying levels of joy and mind-ripping frustration, often within minutes of the other.
My inspiration? As they cast ahead of me in the woods when we walk for grouse and woodcock, I see them run as I wish to ski. They have no technique. They simply run wild and free and naturally. They run smooth and easy, and when they run up the hills and ridges over which we hunt, they flow gracefully and with power. That is how I wish to ski.
Riika, the older of the two, is nine, an age at which dogs begin the long taper about which I do not wish to dwell. After a hunt she moves stiffly on aching with legs. But she has the smarts that come with nine autumns in the woods and the enthusiasm that pushes her to her limits. She runs like a two-year-old but hunts with the knowledge borne of experience. I think: that is how we, as skiers, should approach skiing.
Skiing with abandon & experience
We should bring to the snow the accumulation of experience, whatever technique that we have gained, and drive it all with a passion that we had when we first fell in love with the sport. We should honor technique but without obsession. We should ski uphill like a river running high and full.
There's one more lesson I take from my dogs: They never lose the joy that runs in their blood and drives them to hunt with a ceaseless abandon and unbounded passion. They never have a bad day in the woods. I, however, sometimes miss the wax or get chilled or find fault with the track and get pouty and show an unflattering self-pity about it all. My dogs never find reason to dismiss time spent afield. Every day is the best they will ever have.
I will watch Nordic skiing on TV when I can and take from it what I will. We can all learn. But when I call my dogs and lead them to the hills and the woodlots, that is when I find lessons more meaningful. And after skiing when I close my eyes and start to drift off, I think of skiing and of Riika and Thor, running uphill, smooth and steady as a river, with eyes alight with the joy of it all. And I think to myself, "That is all I need to know."
Mitch Mode started skiing with "proper" gear - wood skis and leather three-pin boots - more than 35 years ago. He has skied every American Birkebeiner since 1978 but no longer races. He is co-owner of Mel's Trading Post, a sporting goods store in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, named after his late father who started the business in 1946.
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