The case for going fast

“I tried that once,” some of my friends have said about cross-country skiing, my absolute favorite outdoor recreational activity beyond all others, “but I didn’t like it.”

Sadly, this most misunderstood sport is often dismissed due to errant reasoning. “If I’m going to put on skis, I prefer to actually ski down hills,” or, “I don’t really get cross-country skiing. Like, what’s the point?”

That one that really gets me; it makes me shudder, shake my head and question what has become of Western humanity.

First let me separate for the reader a commonly exhibited form of the activity from what I consider to be the true nordic cross-country skiing experience, the one that brings its participant exhilaration and thrills, along with peace and serenity, meditative states of selflessness and mindfulness, a sense of accomplishment, and a special joy that simply cannot be had doing anything else anywhere on the planet.

By this, I mean that cross-country skiing, or at least the sort of cross-country skiing I am giving high praise to right now, is not shuffling on skis like a bored child dragging his shoeless feet across a living room carpet on a rainy day. Cross-country skiing is not “like walking with skis on.” It’s not like that at all. Dragging your feet across the snow and ice in a slow, tedious, monotonous and perhaps awkward and unbalanced motion may bring you or someone else some kind of weird self-disciplinary form of satisfaction, but that is not anything like the joyous act I devote these paragraphs to today.

Honestly, if your only experience “cross-country skiing” resembles walking with skis on, I cannot blame you for not liking it, or even for not “getting” it. Because it’s not it.

Cross-country skiing involves skill, and contrary to much misinformed modern lore, it also involves going fast. That’s right. Cross-country skiing is much faster than walking, and can be much faster (and way more engaging) than even running. Every skier need not be an elite, lycra wearing speed demon, but enough effort must be exerted to propel oneself forward in order to take advantage to fluid friction underneath one’s feet and skis. This makes one go fast, and by fast, I mean faster than a walk in the woods. Sometimes much faster. It involves leaning forward, using your arms and legs and abdominal muscles in concert and in almost equal intensity. After a long day of skiing, all of your body should be tired and sore, not just your feet (and maybe your bottom).

Taking a lesson, formal or otherwise, taught by someone who loves skiing and wants you to love it too, should be seriously considered if you are new to the sport. I know, this means delayed gratification, which is just not a popular concept these days. But you really should learn how to maximize your balance and technique to allow you to move on snow with efficiency and finesse.

And here’s a personal suggestion: Have someone teach you how to skate. Skating is a form of cross-country skiing that allows you to go even faster than traditional classic cross-country skiing does. Think of ice skating, but with poles. Your skis have only glide wax, and you push your skis to each side rather than kicking each ski backward with each step. This method takes even more practice, and it takes quite a bit more effort, but when you learn how to do it well, you will have discovered the greatest form of exercise known to humans, not just because it is exceptional for conditioning every part of your body, for endurance, for cardiovascular health, and for training for virtually any other sport including running and bicycling, but because it can bring you absolute and utter, pure joy.

Now I’ve been downhill skiing, and don’t get me wrong, gravity is great, powder is divine, and there’s nothing like the thrill and rush of a perfect downhill run on a sunny Saturday in January. But that kind of thrill, that dopamine release, is only part of what one experiences when nordic skiing.

Nordic skiers experience thrilling downhills, but also, in the absence of slope, skate-skiing a straightaway brings an exuberance of an entirely different nature. Your entire body is working in concert, at its peak efficiency, every muscle, and your brain is working too, directing all those muscle systems and limbs to perform very precise acts so that you can virtually fly across a groomed surface designed precisely to make that flight possible.

Uphills can be demanding, even exhausting, but when your body works effectively, when your skis are working for you, you can propel yourself upward remarkably effectively, and it is super satisfying. When you reach the top of a hill, you have a reward of a level section or a downhill to let yourself really fly again! You feel every part of your body work, you hear the rhythm of your breathing, you hear the snow under your skis, and your body and mind are working for you, you are free to let your mind wander, to enjoy the ride, all the while you are doing the very best thing you can possibly do for your body (on a Saturday in January). And you can do it for hours. No lifts, no lines.

Meditation masters say that meditation takes work, takes practice, and takes discipline. Cross-country skiing is a type of meta-meditation that can give you a sense of mindfulness, a high even, that is unlike any other. It is the kind of high that your brain and body rewards you for doing exactly the thing your body is designed to do; you are taking advantage of a human-designed tool that brilliantly and efficiently utilizes the human machine to go both fast and far, regardless of terrain. It’s more than just a thrill, and it’s beyond meditation.

Cross-country skiing can be a uniquely transformative experience, if you are capable and willing to put the effort into moving fast. There is nothing inherently wrong with shuffling along, but shuffling just doesn’t approach the potential pure physical and emotional joy of this particular recreational activity (I acknowledge there’s probably a metaphor for life in there somewhere, but I’ll refrain from going there; I actually think it’s perfectly ok to shuffle through life).

Just don’t say you’ve tried it, and didn’t like it, until you’ve gone fast.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.