After 55 years, a new Joy of Nordic skiing

Nordic skiing has been a part of my life for 55 years, and as I approach the start of my seventh decade, I had assumed that I have experienced just about all the rewards the sport had to offer. Not so.

I remember being an eager high school skier, long on enthusiasm but short on talent, thrust into a cross country race in place of an injured teammate. I discovered to my astonishment that pushing hard had a positive impact on the result.

For a kid who was pathetic in junior high basketball and baseball, who “played” four years (mostly J.V.) high school football on the bench, and who still holds a school tennis record by losing 32 consecutive singles matches over four years, this revelation that success was possible in Nordic skiing, simply through hard work, was transformational for me.

By my sophomore year in college I had earned a spot on the varsity team, but was by no means exceptional. That year the final winter carnival of the collegiate season, which was also designated as the Eastern Intercollegiate Championships, was hosted by Middlebury at its Bread Loaf campus near the spine of the Green Mountains. As I recall, it was snowing hard and we were scrambling to find a wax that worked well in the accumulating powder. It was all classic technique back then, skating wouldn’t emerge for another decade. I believe we started at minute intervals, so in the falling snow, we were completely alone within seconds of leaving the starting gate.

I remember thinking a worthy goal for the race would be to hold off the good skiers starting behind me for as long as possible, then, as they each tracked me, to hang on to them for as long as possible. But a couple of kilometers into the race, before I heard any panting from behind, I spotted a ghostly shape through the falling snow on the trail ahead.

I soon recognized the skier as Brian Beattie, one of Dartmouth’s top racers and a member of the U.S. Nordic Combined team. At first, I was terrified that if I had caught Beattie so soon, I must have started much too fast and I would certainly burn out long before the end of the race. But I didn’t feel winded so I respectfully tracked Brian and got an encouraging remark in return.

From then on, it was full speed ahead. I never felt tired. I just seemed to fly through the snowstorm. No one was more surprised than I to learn, when the results were posted, that I had finished first — ahead of several more experienced skiers. In the decades since, whenever I hear of any athlete (a golfer, basketball player, major league pitcher, even a NASCAR driver) being “in the zone,” and appearing to win effortlessly, I know exactly what they are talking about.

Although racing and training for competition constitutes the majority of my time spent on skis, there have also been plenty of memorable, recreational outings.

Fifteen years ago, several Nordic skiing friends encouraged me to join them in an event called the “Ski Across Finland.” For a week in March, 200 cross country skiers, representing more than a dozen nations, skied from the Russian border near Kuusamo 444 kilometers west to Tornio on the Swedish frontier. We ate reindeer stew washed down with blueberry juice. In the evenings, we restored our aching muscles in stifling hot saunas, followed by rolling in the deep snow. This was a week of kicking, gliding and double-poling through a part of the world where skiing is not just a sport, but has been a central part of the culture for centuries. That was an adventure and experience to treasure.

There have been many other adventures and escapades on skis through the years, but few have brought the joy of one of my recent outings.

My granddaughter, Hazel, who is not yet two and a half, loves the outdoors, winter and skiing. Her parents have bundled her up, tucked her into a pulk (a small, fiberglass, Scandinavian sled designed to be pulled behind a cross country skier) and taken her out on the trails.

But Hazel prefers to have the cold air on her rosy cheeks and to see where she’s going, so I offered to carry her in a backpack. There is an entirely new level of enjoyment in having the small voice of your granddaughter squealing in your ear, “Faster, Papa, faster! More down hills, more down hills…!”

John Morton

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.