There is an old Chinese saying, “all good things come in pairs.”
Like skis, boots, poles, and Brians.
My first official week training for the Mammoth Winter Biathlon was filled with all of these good things.
I left you last week in rather dire straits: I had no cross country skis, no idea how to use them, and only six weeks to get it all together to compete in the biathlon.
First, I had to find some skis, so I stopped by Brian’s Bicycles and Cross Country Skis in Mammoth. I walked in to find the owner, Brian Ellison, fitting a pair of fellow newbies into their first Nordic ski boots. The store had several sections with a range of skis to rival any modern downhill ski shop, with its usual quivers of skis spanning from stiff, aggressive race skis to fully rockered powder skis, which look more like a snowboard for each foot. Cross-country skis took the opposite extreme, threatening to evolve someday from skinny touring skis into ice skates. How am I supposed to balance on those little twigs?
And then they tell me they don’t even have any edges!?! My memory flashes back to when I was 7 years old and my dad took me out for a day of cross-country skiing as a change of pace from a few days of downhill at the resort. My father, a true nature-lover, relished the peacefulness; and his impatient little tomboy managed to find the only little rope-tow at the cross country center with which to do some laps,
downhill-style. But not quite. Free heels, soft boots, and squirrely little skis with no edges made for a memorable new challenge, to put it nicely. I eventually gave up and found a new epic: trying to go uphill without sliding all the way back down the hill, backwards. Perhaps not the best introduction to the world of Nordic skiing.
A couple of decades wiser, I am ready to explore the sport again, give it another chance. But I needed a lot of help.
I explained my situation to Ellison: that I wanted to compete in the biathlon, that I’m athletic, have a basic level of fitness, but virtually no experience with cross-country skiing. Unphased, he gave me a quick run-down of the equipment, the range in prices and quality, and showed me his collection of used and year-old, new equipment. I managed to put together an entire setup—boots, skis, bindings, and poles—for cheaper than some might spend on a new pair of racing skis.
Obstacle number one, officially surmounted.
Now on to the second problem: how to use these little edgeless foot-twigs.
Talking to people around town about getting into Nordic skiing, one name kept on popping up in conversation: Brian Knox. A local business owner and passionate Nordic skier, Knox founded Mammoth Nordic Foundation to “support, develop and promote Nordic recreation” on the Eastside. Having seen what an elaborate network of groomed Nordic tracks can do for the community of other ski towns, he dreamed of bringing the wonder of Nordic recreation to us here—fun, healthy recreation for the whole family.
When I first spoke with Knox, his passion for the sport rang through loud and clear, and I was hooked before I had even tried it (despite my misadventures at age 7).
In addition to running his business, Knox is now also in charge of grooming miles of Nordic trails in the town of Mammoth Lakes, and raising the money to fund the project. (He is also expanding his efforts to the local schools with SnowSchool, an after-school educational program.)
With the low snow year, opportunities for grooming in town have been slim, but this week’s storm brought just enough new snow to put in a stellar classic ski track (the grooves that look like mini, inside-out train tracks).
Access is easy—the trailhead is at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center. Drive on over, park your car, strap on your skis, and off you go.
Knox emphasizes that classical, or diagonal stride, is the foundation of cross-country skiing. This is the traditional stride, and remains most efficient and versatile, as you can take it off groomed trails and thus, truly “cross country.” Skating is a much faster, more dynamic stride (and involves different equipment), and is thus now what is used almost exclusively in the biathlon—but it tends to demand more specific conditions, and it’s rare to be able to skate off groomed track. All of this said, Knox wanted me to spend some time, first, with the diagonal stride.
I met Knox the morning after the storm ended, giving the track enough time to set up a bit from the grooming the night before. I bobbed through the trees behind him in the fresh snow, as we headed toward the groomed track, my ankles wobbling much more than they are accustomed to with skis on. This might still be called skiing, but the equipment could not feel more different.
We got to the groomed track and threw our poles off to the side. We would start without them. Already seeing how hard these little skis were to balance on with poles in hand, I imagined myself careening down the trail, out of control but stuck in the tracks, like a 5-year-old at the wheel in Autopia.
Much to my relief, Knox started me off with a “chopping” stride—very short and, well, choppy. The quicker stride allowed me to keep my balance much easier than trying to glide as much as possible right off the bat. The first emphasis was on the arm motion—heavy hands, no bend at the elbows, swinging parallel to the skis, not across them as if you’re running. Several laps back and forth, and I was starting to get the idea. Then we added the poles.
When I teach people to rock climb, I start with footwork—it’s the foundation of climbing and the more you can use your big leg muscles, the more you can save your little arm muscles. No matter how buff you are, your legs will always be stronger than your arms. No surprise that cross-country skiing is the same.
Knox fitted my pole straps to fit snugly around the back of my hand, facilitating a pushing motion, much like paddling a surfboard.
“It’s not like a slot machine,” he said, you don’t want to pole yourself along. Keeping the poling motion mechanical, linear, and gripping only the snow behind my boots, I found it added just enough stability to go a little faster and play with the sensation of gliding just a little bit more. This was the beginnings of efficiency.
Knox advised me to consider the same principles of efficiency as I get out on my skate skis this week.
Technique trumps strength, as in many sports, so he urged me to find the flattest terrain possible as I hone my skating rhythm. Many of our local venues start with steep uphill grades—there is no shame in walking a ways until it flattens out. In the end, this is best for your technique and will make for much more efficient skating in the long run. The key to Nordic skiing, Knox said, is having a positive experience, especially at first.
This might explain my 20-year hiatus from cross-country skiing.
Here is this week’s recap on conditons:
•Tamarack has been stellar, across the board, but for those of you without a pass to Tamarack, there are still some great options.
•Lake Mary Road also has a free trail, also groomed by Tamarack, for hikers, snowshoers, and backcountry skiers. Park at the end of the road, click into your skis, or hike up a ways until it flattens out, then enjoy lovely, flatter terrain all the way to Horseshoe Lake.
•Rock Creek Road was reported to have some great skating this week, despite thin coverage. This is an advanced venue, as it is steeply uphill the whole way.
•The Shady Rest Area (where Knox and I skied this week), much more beginner-friendly, was finally groomed and in great condition after the storm, but of course, coverage is thin.
•And last, but not least, here is this week’s workout brought to you by Alana Levin, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Nordic Coach:
Lessons: Take a private skate lesson at Tamarack. Technique is going to get you farther than fitness in Nordic skiing.
Target practice: If you’re newer to skiing, you want to be sure you are skiing less—that means more accurate shooting and less penalty laps!
Distance ski: Get out and ski! Work on endurance, skiing for at least one hour continuously. You can keep the intensity as low as you need in order to last the hour.
More experienced skiers/biathletes:
Lessons: A great resource for your technique, for the same reason as above.
Target practice: Why not be accurate and prepared for the biathlon race?
Distance ski: Get out for up to two hours at an easy Level 1 exertion level (see below).
Interval ski: If you have been doing intervals this season and you are peaking for this race, your intervals should be at Level 4; if you’ve just been out skiing a bunch, keep your intervals at Level 3.
“Remember,” Levin said, “you have to ski fast to ski fast!”
For reference, here are the exertion levels, defined:
Zone 1: “I can talk and tell stories easily with my training partner during the session.”
Zone 2: “I can talk, but I have to catch my breath every sentence or two.”
Zone 3: “I can think clearly, but I can’t talk much.”
Zone 4: “No talk, need to focus.”
Zone 5: “30 seconds to two minutes of pain and suffering…”
Remember to keep logging your efforts in your Training Log, and check in next week for our third weekly workout!