In athletics there are many performances that have been achieved while overcoming great odds, but some stand out above all others.
In baseball, for instance, Kirk Gibson's pinch hit home run to win the first game of the 1988 World Series, when he could barely walk and only make a full swing by uncocking his wrists. In basketball it's hard to beat Michael Jordan's 38-point performance when he was sick with the flu during game five of the 1997 NBA finals. As for football, it's hard to top the emotional drama of Bret Favre throwing for four touchdowns for 399 total yards the day after his father died. But maybe the most astounding performance in all of sports was Lance Armstrong's return to cycling after being waylaid by a brain tumor.
Despite the stiff competition from the above famous performances, I believe cross-country skiing has a little known comeback story that belongs in the same category. In fact, it is my personal favorite against-all-odds sports comeback. It involves Marty Hall, a former Olympic coach for both the U.S. and Canada, and now best known for his feisty writing in Ski Trax, a Canadian Nordic skiing magazine. (See accompanying article for more details on Marty's career.)
About three years ago just after Thanksgiving, tragedy struck. Marty, then 70, slipped on ice and fell while getting into a van at the Silver Star Ski Resort in Vernon, British Columbia. He literally destroyed his right femur in the fall - the bone attached to his artificial hip. Surgeons implanted a 10-inch metal rod in his thigh. The fracture was so severe that the rod could not be held in place using screws so a special wire wrap had to be used.
I can vividly remember how I felt when I first heard the news. It was an emotional blow as Marty has become a good friend over the years. I knew that hip-related injuries for people over 70 were often, quite literally, the kiss of death. I just assumed that we'd seen the last of Marty the skier and maybe even Marty the acerbic writer. Given the fact that Marty hadn't raced in the 10 years before his fall at Silver Star, I was certain his racing days were over at least.
Korte age grouper
But was I wrong! Little did I realize the spirit, toughness and resilience of Marty. Unknown to me, Marty had set a goal to keep him going through prolonged rehab. The first I heard of this was two years later while perusing the results of the 2010 Kortelopet. Was I amazed to see Marty's name. I had assumed he was just getting around on crutches or a walker, but there he was skiing the Korte.
Even more amazing, he was first in his age group in the classic tracks, finishing in a miraculous 1:25:17 That put him 11:34 ahead of the next 70- to 75-year-old finisher.
And this was not a one-time thing. A year later, at the 2011 Korte, he did even better, finishing 14:21 ahead of the second-place age grouper.
I've always known Marty as one tough and stubborn guy who doesn't know the meaning of the word quit, but these performances were unbelievable.
One of the first things Marty told me he noticed was that his accident caused him to lose much of his sense of balance. Yet the winter following his fall, Marty was racing - "Stupidly," he admitted - as he hadn't fully recovered his balance. On his return to racing, he said it was natural for him to stick mainly to striding as he had back in his college days. While classic technique remained his strength, after his injury it was also safer. Racing in tracks reduces skiers' chances of get tangled up with one another. Marty wasn't interested in unnecessarily risking damage to his surgically repaired right hip.
But still, I wondered how he managed to make such a comeback. It's one thing to get back on snow and quite another to win his age group in the Kortelopet by such a huge margin.
Adapting to aging
It turned out that Marty had to make some surprise adaptations because of aging.
The first thing he noticed was that his heart rate had dropped considerably since his racing days. So almost any roller skiing effort at all brought his pulse up to race pace so easy recovery workouts were nearly impossible on snow or roller skis. He just couldn't go that slow.
So Marty made two adaptations. His roller skiing and ski workouts were almost never more than 90 minutes long and always in Zone 3. (Zone 3 is a comfortable speed just under race pace. "I could still talk with some difficulty at the tops of hills," as Marty described the effort.) In fact, when he read some of his workouts back to me from his racing log, most of these sub-lactate threshold workouts were under an hour in length.
Surprisingly, his second adaptation was to use other workouts for recovery, such as pushing a lawn mower.
Because of his lower heart rate, Marty was no longer doing a lot of easy, long distance skiing. His snow workouts instead were quite intense and it became necessary for him to monitor his rest to avoid overtraining. So he only skied three to four times a week for an hour to 90 minutes per workout, with one of those workouts being 10K to 15K of double poling. In fact, he did nothing for four complete days before his first Kortelopet, proving the benefit of rest.
It's true that many older skiers just like to log the hours and are uninterested in racing. But if you are an older racer, it might help to reevaluate your hours on snow, and how productive they really are. Are you training for speed or just putting in the time? You may find the Marty Hall method of fewer hours at a greater intensity might help you race faster, too.
As for racing the Kortelopet rather than the longer Birkie, Marty had this to say in Ski Trax: "For all you young guys who are going to say 'What about 50 kilometers?' Fifty kilometers is not racing for us. It's survival and no fun."
Over the years, I've seen many top older age-group racers followed Marty's path and migrate to the shorter distance.
Hitting the kick wax
Marty is responsible for perhaps the most famous wax job in American Nordic ski history by helping Bill Koch win the first and only Olympic cross-country medal for the U.S. at the 1976 Winter Games. But to this day the great waxing guru says he starts with the wax companies' suggestions for kick waxing. There's a lesson here for the average skier. For example, at the 2010 Kortelopet, Marty waxed two sets of skis, one with Toko and the other with Swix, and made small adjustments from there.
So maybe I'm prejudiced when I find Marty's comeback story to be my favorite. I love skiing, sure, but I also find his accomplishments inspirational. And there are times the aging skier needs all the inspiration he or she can get.
Lee Borowski is a past USSA Nordic Coach of the Year, Badger State Winter Games Athlete of the Year and the coach for several junior, senior and collegiate skiers of the year. He has also coached many master skiers who have won both national and world championships. Borowski is the author of several books and articles, and producer of four videos on cross-country skiing technique. He runs the website thesimplesecrets.com.
To order Borowski's "NEW Simple Secrets of Skating" or "The Simple Secrets of Striding," demonstrated through footage of Olympic and world champions, and available on VHS and DVD, send $25 plus $1.75 shipping to Lee Borowski, 4500 Cherokee Drive, Brookfield, WI 53045. Wisconsin residents add $1.27 tax.
Marty Hall: America's first paid Olympic Nordic ski coach
Full disclosure: I am not exactly neutral when it comes to Marty Hall. I still remember vividly the evening Marty spent at our house going over videos on technique. This was back in 1980 and I was new to skiing. Marty was in Milwaukee as the guest speaker for the Milwaukee Nordic Ski Club and I was amazed that he had time to spend helping us understand this new (to us) sport of cross-country ski racing.
The following winter I ran into Marty at one of the early USSA races. And luckily, we happened to have our wax bench set up next to Marty's and he told us what he had discovered to be the best combination for both kick and glide. In doing so, he introduced me to a unique way to hit the wax, by layering hard wax over soft.
This literally meant ignoring the wax labels and letting the snow dictate what worked and what didn't. I did go on to expand on Marty's method of layering waxes and it sure paid off in those early days. There were times I felt as if I had an unfair advantage. When people asked me what we were using, I'd tell them the truth and they wouldn't believe me.
Now days, most skiers know Marty more for his no-holds-barred writing for Ski Trax, where he might even surpass the late Howard Cosell for "telling it like it is."
What most skiers don't realize is that Marty was quite an all-around athlete in his own right. While attending the University of New Hampshire, he competed in an all-around ski event that featured four disciplines: Downhill, slalom, cross country and jumping. In his last year of NCAA competition, Marty finished in second place nationally.
While Marty says downhill was his best event, he just missed making the 1964 U.S. Olympic Cross-Country Team. After college, he spent two years in the U.S. Army and was a member of its biathlon team. There he got his first taste of international ski racing which set the foundation for his future as a coach.
But Marty was more than a one-sport athlete (if you can call his four-discipline ski event one sport). He accidentally took up football in a sequence of events that is nearly identical to how George "Win one for the Gipper" Gipp was convinced to go out for football, as depicted in the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne All American," starring Ronald Reagan. The UNH football coach happened to see Marty kicking the ball back and forth with the team punter. And surprisingly, Marty was punting the ball further than the team kicker.
So the next year, Marty became the team's punter and field goal kicker. The following year he also played defensive back. Then in his last year, he was switched to halfback, where he became the team's leading scorer.
Marty also sprinter on the track in college. A common misconception is that only slow-twitch muscled athletes can be successful at longer cross-country ski events. But the breakdown of top skiers I've coached has been about 50/50 between fast-twitch and slow-twitch athletes. My personal theory is that fast-twitch athletes can recover on the downhills, and that double poling, both while skating and striding, also aids in recovery by removing some of the burden off the legs. Marty is just one more example of a fast-twitch athlete having success in the distance world of cross-country skiing.
Given these accomplishments in college, it is no wonder that Marty was inducted in 2002 into the University of New Hampshire's Athletic Hall of Fame as "one of the best athletes ever to come out of this school."
Over the years Marty has found himself in the middle of many of modern cross country's huge changes. He was on the scene when ptex bases emerged, and it was he and his coaching crew who first unlocked the secrets of how to kick wax these new plastic skis. And it was this discovery that helped propel Bill Koch to his Olympic silver medal.
In fact, it is hard to find a modern innovation in Nordic skiing that did not involve Marty - from tubes to protect ski poles to building roller boards to developing World Class trails at Telemark and many other achievements. For a more complete list, Google "The Definitive Marty Hall" for an article in xcskiworld.com.