There are things in life that pull out the rug from under you. Cross country skis, for example. Which shook me hard. After all, I’m an ambitious skier, and anything ski related always came naturally to me. Up to now.
Rainer, one of my coaches during the weekend, had just left me behind, at the first modest rise on our first loop together, right behind the ski jump in Seefeld. “Here we go,” Rainer shouted as we reached our first climb. At 51 years, he seems physically trained to the level of an Olympic athlete and is as much of a Nordic ski passionate as it gets. I saw him… gliding so effortlessly across the snow. So speedy and graceful! The silence broken only by the soft swish of his skis while he disappeared into the woods. Swish swish swish… and gone he was.
When Rainer accelerated toward the forest, I realized: There is a pretty steep learning curve in cross country skiing. It’s swooping. It’s fast. It’s graceful. And for a moment, I was actually gliding! That was a surprising adrenaline rush for me, the Alpine skiing buff, especially as Nordic skiing wasn’t quite the stuffy and boring experience I’d expected. Because then there it was. That freeing effortless moment when the skis glide and the snow swishes and the sky is illuminated with a crystal clarity against perfectly framed spruce and pine trees and you’re like, okay, I got it. I’m ready for the red trails. This moment gives outsize satisfaction. Euphoria. There’s just one problem with skate skiing: It gives up its beauty grudgingly. It is hard work. I would love to say that, armed with a few short lessons, I glided at bicycle speeds into the winter wonderland, a cross country skier transformed. I did not.
Rainer swooshed off and I focused on the rudiments of moving forward on those toothpicks of skis I had learnt before. As the trail gently climbed, I started to sweat. I slowed down and reduced expectations. First, I lost my rhythm. Then, I lost my breath, trying artfully to balance on that strip of narrow and slippery wood while gripping poles that are the perfect length to self-administer nose-bleeds. And then it happened, of course. I placed my left pole ahead in the snow, strictly speaking in front of my skis instead next to my skis. And once again I was the gawky beginner. I stumbled and found my skis disappearing from under me and ended up face down in the snow, which is a rather humiliating experience. I guess I would not have won prizes for style.
On the trail, a woman in her 70s chirped, “So what are you trying to do here?” as she skated effortlessly past my gasping, lathered frame. “Learning to skate ski,” I replied, trying to smile.
“Well, then you’d better get up,” she suggested and swooshed past.
One day before, I wandered around Seefeld to get oriented. The village was like no place I’d visited. Even though it was still winter, I saw almost no skiers; the ski racks outside the shops were filled with Nordic skis, not snowboards. Nordic skiers were snapping into their skis at the edge of the parking lot and shuffling down the trails. The streets simply stop where the skiing begins. It seems there are even more trails than streets. Which is probably true. I started to understand: Nordic skiing wasn’t an afterthought here, unlike at other ski resorts in the country. Here it was front and center. Here it was cool to be on skinny skis. Here was a place where people like Doris live and work, who patiently answered all my newbie questions and knew exactly what I needed. She kitted me out with the perfect rental equipment, which looked brand-new and provided some tips to help me in my quixotic quest to master skate skiing. She even showed me the racing skis they are preparing for competitions here at the Nordic Shop of Hannes Norz. And she answered my final question: “You can ski right out onto the trails from here?” “Oh, yes. Right up there,” she said, pointing to where the track began, some one and a half meters in front of the shop door.
Nordic skiing, I had understood, is a bigger part of the Seefeld scene than the sport is at most other ski resorts. They have specific accommodations for cross country skiers, they have superb cross country ski schools, they have special track grooming machines and they even have their own Nordic Ski Emergency Call (140). Determined to learn how to skate correctly, I signed up as a beginner with the local XC Academy. I took a lesson with Nordic ski instructor Nick who told me right at the beginning: “The best option to learn skate skiing is that once you get it, you have to practice, practice, practice. Be a ‘mile eater’.” The skis are much thinner than traditional ones, they are only 42 millimeters in width. My powder skis are three times wider. This, along with the fact that the boots only clip on at the toe, leaving the heel free to rise and fall, makes the first few steps worryingly awkward. Finding the balance is akin to a baby deer taking its first steps, but there was a pretty steep learning curve. Nick had me performing basic drills to get me comfortable on skate skis and he explained me that waxing Nordic skis can be a science and an art in itself. Wax will keep dirt out of the base, prevent the base from drying out and will keep your skis gliding fast. Although not necessary, a layer of glide wax will help to keep snow from sticking to the base, particularly in warmer temperatures. And then we started. Nick showed me the novice poling technique and we hit the practice trail in the Casino Arena, venue of the 2019 Nordic World Ski Championships. 200 meters, 500 meters, … After 1,000 meters I’ve progressed from hardly being able to stand up to actually moving, albeit somewhat gracelessly. And then, the glide came more naturally. I began to see why so many people are hooked on this sport. “Now, let’s hit a loop trail and get a scenery change,” Nick told me.
Day 1 ended with an endorphin-induced experience and, most important, with the feeling that I would want to keep at it. Tomorrow in the fairy-tale woods of Seefeld I would get a little better and faster — maybe we should try and ski from Seefeld to Mösern tomorrow, or the whole length of the valley? Day 2 began with sore muscles – abdomen, neck and buttocks. I recognized that, in addition to the core and lower body, cross-country skiing also makes active use of the muscles of the upper body. “That’s OK,” said Rainer Renauer, who on Day 2 took over as instructor. “You will get a little better with every kilometer you ski. When you start having fun, you know you’ve skated into skiing,” he told me. After a quick warm-up session, Rainer taught me a few new steps and provided me a number of tips. Getting a feeling for the material is key as a skate skier. It really makes a difference how you hold the pole—and how you plant it, he explained. Then we were off, delving deep into the woods. I skidded behind him on the flat piece of trail and felt that I was getting better, indeed. Moreover, I found out that good technique is hugely helpful in skate skiing — yet even more important are big lungs. Rainer told me that he had never ever suffered an injury from Nordic skiing. And then we approached the first climbs.
That afternoon, when we were sitting in the sun, sipping cappuccino, Rainer said: “In January 2018, the Kaiser-Maximilian-Lauf takes place here in Seefeld. It is a unique cross-country ski marathon with the short distance being 30 kilometers.” I started brooding. Jumping into a race sounded like a crazy challenge. But then there is no learning like the learning that takes place during a race. “It’s possible to aim for the 30k distance,” Rainer encouraged me. “You can even train here in the summer, on roller skis. Seefeld boasts some amazing tarmac trails for that. And you’ll be back on skate skis next January.” Rainer had just recently returned from The Vasa Race, the oldest and longest cross-country ski race in the world with a 90 km course in Sweden. Which sounds completely insane to me… 90 kilometers of cross country skiing! Well, thinking about it, the 30k is tempting. Still, my enthusiasm is riding high so who knows – a few more lessons to learn the climbing and descending part and I will be back in Seefeld in January. I am well and truly hooked. See you there, Rainer!