Sunday, February 2, 2014

Day 266 - Cross Country Skiing

I have never been cross country skiing. This winter sport has been a point of interest for me for some time, but my general reluctance to spend an extended period of time outdoors in the cold of winter has always convinced me to avoid giving it a try. Additionally, I had little-to-no knowledge regarding how to use cross country skis and equipment, which was a significant deterrent to the idea picking up some skis and heading out to the woods. As a result, I would periodically watch cross country skiers with wonder when I came upon them in my travels or caught footage of them on television. There was a big part of me that wanted to learn the sport, but I accepted the idea of living vicariously through others each time the thought of learning to cross country ski would cross my mind.

Of course, that perspective didn’t sit well when the winter of my “I have never...” year came about. Given my commitment to try 365 new things in as many days, I figured finally acting on my interest in cross country skiing would be an easy way to gain a new experience. As a result, I began floating the idea of making time to go cross country skiing during conversations with my friends and family as the cold set in. Although the vast majority of people I talked to had absolutely no interest in heading out to the wilderness for a few hours in the middle of winter, a few people said they would consider the idea. Luckily, the majority of those people were experienced with cross country skiing, which provided the added benefit of having a helping hand in my effort to learn. Excited by the prospects of finally gaining the experience, I started pinpointing some dates that would work in my calendar, hoping one of them would work for the few people that expressed interest in tagging along on my experience.

Our first stop

Fortunately, one of the dates I had in mind worked for my friend, Allison, and after a timely break in the abnormally frigid weather we were able to hit the trails this morning. With a pair of rental skis I picked up yesterday in tow, I headed to Allison’s house this morning to get the experience underway. Upon climbing into my car, Allison was ripe with ideas for skiing locations, which sent us heading southeast from Madison toward a new location for both of us, Lake Kegonsa State Park. With the sun shining and fresh layer of snow waiting, we entered the park in anticipation of our forthcoming experience and prepared to hit the trails.

Although I was completely inexperienced with cross country skiing equipment, the operation of the boots, skis, and poles was straightforward enough to make short work of my setup. Within minutes of our arrival at the park, Allison and I were clipped into our skis and ready to explore. A check of a nearby map and little deliberation led us to determine we would take a trail that permitted us to progressively build the length of our trek if we chose to do so. With that, we slowly put ourselves into position facing the direction of our route and pushed ourselves into motion.

"If I get lost look for my shades."
At first, my attempts to find the necessary rhythm of my arm and leg movements led to some awkward moments of imbalance, but after a few tumbles, some thought, and a little practice I was steadily making progress down the trail. As I found my feet, Allison provided a few tips and pointers on my posture and position over the skis, which helped both of us stay focused on our forward movement through the snow. Although Allison was clearly more comfortable on her skis than I was, our pace was quite evenly matched, which provided a comfortable approach as we moved deeper into my first experience. A few hundred yards into our route I was finding a groove, and I was getting a decidedly great workout. Except for a few face to face meetings with the trail early on, things were going well... until we came upon the first hill, of course.

Morning view
Doing my best to maintain momentum leading further down the trail, I watched as Allison worked her way up the steady incline with little variation in her rhythm. Doing my best to mirror her movements, I cranked my arms and legs using the approach I had found earlier on the trail, but my pace suddenly slowed and my path shifted off of the trail. Making little progress and running out of breath, I stopped briefly to think about the sudden change in the effectiveness of my method. Eventually, my thought process occupied me until  another skier unexpectedly passed me by. As he made his way up the hill with little effort, I watch his pattern of movements in an attempt to discern what I was missing in my form. As I did so, it quickly became apparent the skier’s movements focused on a lower center of gravity and more prolonged leg movements than a natural walking pace. Realizing I was attempting to mirror a sliding “walk” through the snow in my rhythm, I kicked my right foot forward through the snow and slightly delayed the following push from my left foot. The difference in my progress and the amount of effort required to maintain forward movement was instantly noticeable, and I was swiftly cruising down the trail. I had unlocked a cross country skiing “secret”, and it was immediately obvious it would make a massive difference during the rest of our time on the trails.

Getting started

Following the adjustments to my technique, Allison and I made short work of the next legs of the trails, which left us feeling good as we approach the midpoint of our route. As a result, we decided to take on an intermediate trail that wrapped through the woods and up one of the largest hills in the park. While the hill offered plenty of challenge for both of us, the sense of accomplishment we gained from conquering it provided us both a boost as we began the back half of the trails. In turn, we found ourselves back at the start of the course much faster than we had expected.

Intermediate, eh? Bring it.

A little downhill break

As we stood near the parking lot, a quick discussion made it obvious the two of us weren’t quite ready to bring our cross country experience to a close. At first, we kicked around the idea of taking on the Lake Kegonsa trails again, but given our mutually adventurous spirits, Allison and I decided we would make the most of our time by traveling to another location to take in more of the scenic beauty around the city we call home. In turn, we loaded up the car and headed to another unfamiliar location, Lake Farm Park, on the shores of Lake Mendota.

Nearing the end

Warm and a little sore from the first leg of our experience, Allison and I took our time plotting a course when we arrived at Lake Farm Park. With the breeze whipping into a frigid winter wind, we decided we would take a lakeside arc through the location as our final trek of the day. In turn, we hit the cross country trails once more, ready to take in more of the rustic winter scenery. Our path was quick to take us along the length of the lakeshore, which was a surprisingly long run; however, our previous practice and the discovery of successful rhythms on our skis had us wrapping up our time the trail shortly after our journey had begun.

Although it was fair to say both Allison and I could have kept skiing well into the afternoon, the dropping temperature and the over five and a half miles of trails we had covered during the day were enough to make us feel comfortable bringing the experience to a close. As we drove back toward the heart of Madison, Allison and I recapped the highlights and challenges of the day, ultimately concluding our time on the trails was time and energy well spent. On another winter day where it would have been easy to hunker down and avoid the weather, we went outside, explored the beauty of winter, and put our bodies to work. In my opinion, that’s an amazing way to spend a winter day, which makes me think I just might find myself on cross country skis again in the future.

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