Some great reasons to enter a cross-country ski competition this winter
Story and photos by Mark Nadell
A majority of Americans, including many avid outdoor enthusiasts, get their impression of cross-country ski racing from one of a couple sources.
The first image is of elite racers, seen on TV every fours years or so, like those we’ll be watching during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this year. You know — the ones with lots of body fluids frozen to their faces as they make their agonizing way around circuitous trails in a blur of limbs and sticks, only to fall face first in a fit of exhaustion across the finish line. And the overzealous announcer – who usually knows as much about cross-country skiing as we know about cricket – screaming into the microphone, “That Bjorn sure looks unbeatable today, doesn’t he?”
The other image many of us have of competitive skiers is that of Sierra hotshots who streak by in their form-fitting lycra while day tourers from sea level in bulky parkas gasp for air. Many of these racers are so seriously into their training that, to the uninitiated eye, they seem to be having about as much fun as mice in a maze.
We have good news for you, though. Cross-country ski racing isn’t all frozen snot and metronomic drudgery. It can be a whole lotta fun! And it doesn’t take world-class fitness to enjoy the thrill and excitement of trying to make your skis go faster than you ever could have thought possible. There are about as many reasons to try a cross-country ski race as there are races to choose from.
Maybe you’ve heard? Cross-country skiing is fantastic exercise. In the winter, there’s no better way to keep your body in shape than to go for a tour around the tracks. It works both the lower and upper body, including your core, provides a tremendous aerobic workout, and it’s low impact (so long as you don’t hit a tree!).
Entering an occasional competition is a great incentive to keep your fitness level and your technique at a higher standard.
Ski races are truly a social event with a community atmosphere and an instant shared bond with fellow active outdoor folk who like to enjoy a little mind/body challenge in mother nature’s yard.
Competitions are a great excuse to get together with friends and just go out and and have a good time, before, during, and especially after the event. Anyone who’s ever witnessed the smiles and laughter in the Cottonwood Restaurant parking lot in Truckee at the end of the 18-mile long Great Ski Race can attest to that. (Yeah, okay, the kegs of beer might play a role as well.)
Like many endeavors in retrospect, the stories that are told about past races just get embellished and “improved” over the years.
All of us can benefit from a bit of competition at times. It tends to focus our efforts to an identifiable goal, such as beating a specific time, placing in the top “whatever” in an age division, or just having an easier time than you did in the last race. By setting modest goals and then achieving them, we can feel better about ourselves, our bodies and occasional caloric gluttony (see below).
Carbo-loading is not a myth. Ski racers need most all the calories they can get their hands (and mouths) on before a competition, within reason, keeping in mind their power-to-weight ratio. Even casual competitors can use racing as a great excuse for a second plate. Watch out for empty calories lurking in processed foods (though you’ll burn those too!), eat wholesome and … please pass the pasta!
Racing forces us to evaluate and adapt our ski technique so we work less and cover more snow. This doesn’t mean every racer has to have the perfect diagonal stride or the most powerful skate. It just means that every skier can do a little better in the efficiency department. Racing also forces us to improve our downhill technique. Having a gaggle of panting skiers on your tail around some of the steeper downhill curves will do wonders for your “sitzmark avoidance” techniques.
You’re convinced, right?
The following is a list of Sierra Nevada races that are especially well suited to novice and experienced cross-country ski competitors alike. These races generally have something unique about them. They’re either known for a special attitude where the competitive spirit doesn’t overshadow the main goal of having fun, or the race is set on an unusually beautiful course, or else it can be considered a “classic” event that every cross-country skier should experience at some time in his or her skiing career.
These are just some of the fun events on the Far West Nordic race calendar. Just about every XC resort has at least one or two races, and some have a variety of distances throughout the season to test your ability and fitness. So pick a race or two and have some fun! You’ll have a great time, and your body will thank you afterward, although perhaps not immediately.
Mark Nadell is a graphic designer for the outdoor industry who sidelights as a ski coach for youth programs. He’s also editor of Nordic News, the magazine for the Far West Nordic Ski Association, promoting cross-country skiing in California and Nevada. In his spare time he also likes to demonstrate his ski fitness by outrunning younger guys on the basketball court.