Living by the Numbers

Two huge numerical digits came to inhabit our backyard yesterday.  I planted them there, surreptitiously.  And when night fell, the timer clicked on and they proclaimed in giant illumination my husband’s new age.  60.  The big 6-0.  A turning point I have already passed.60-Birthday-Bash-Molly-RichWrangling those numbers into place drove home the numerical realities of life.  Of growing older (I refuse to say old).  Of how I have come to measure life by different standards.  Of the milestones I have reached.  Of the impact on my active lifestyle.  Admitting to my mathematical background, I can’t help but ponder my new life status from a numerical perspective.

My passion for endurance sports has not waned with my age.  But its key indicators are clearly suffering.  I’m embarrassed to find I am pleased to complete a long run squeaking in just under 10 minute miles.  Admittedly 7s are ancient history, but whatever happened to 8 or 9?  I’m learning to let go of the single digits when it comes to pace, as long as I can still rack up the mileage numbers. Thankfully marathons are still within my reach, they just take longer.  PRs have fallen by the wayside.  And forget finishing under 4 hours.  Just crossing the finish line is rewarding enough.

If I’m getting slower, so is my competition.  And here’s a case where the numbers are declining.  As I move up the age categories, the field keeps narrowing.  Moving into a new classification is exciting, as it signals yet another drop in participation.  I actually placed 3rd in my age group in a marathon ski race this winter, and won a coveted Dala horse prize.  I just choose to ignore the fact that I was 3rd out of 3.

Having taken up distance cycling just 4 years ago, I don’t have the same competitive baggage.  And rather than focus on speed and racing, Rich and I have taken up cycle touring.  Our mantra is “You see a lot more of the world when traveling at only 12 miles an hour.”  Here it’s more about the distance figures.  Our annual tours have typically taken us over 1,400 miles.  And to date our longest trip has covered 2,350 miles.  It took us nearly two months to get there, yet by the end we still wanted to keep going.  That’s a measure of success.  I’d still love to top that number.

Not all cycle rides have to be that long.  100 has a nice ring to it.  A friend talked me into a Century Ride a few years ago, and it has now become an annual tradition.  Time is not a consideration, as long as we finish cycling before dark.  Thanks to the long summer days here Up North, we have yet to fail.  We may just need to start earlier each year.

Anniversaries are another good life measure.  For 24 straight years I have shared a cross-country ski weekend with a fellow mom/career woman/friend.  We do a lot of skiing and yes, I track the kilometers.  Our range may have narrowed over the years, but our support for one another and ability to come home recharged have been a constant.  All the more reason to look forward to our 25th trip. And to hope that number will continue to grow.

No matter how I look at it, I count myself very fortunate.  A little slippage here, a bit of stagnation there isn’t bad.  I’m still out there plying the pavement, spinning my wheels and gliding over the snow.  Good health and energy are gifts whose value can’t be calculated.  Not even for those of us who live by the numbers.

True Nordic Skiing

Skis, check. Poles, check. Boots, ski clothes and wax, check. For two avid skiers to visit the home of Nordic skiing in winter, the allure of plying the trails is irresistible. Never mind all the extra baggage required, we're going cross-country skiing in Norway!

Rich waxing our skis

There are plenty of trails to choose from around Tromso, and I select a loop based on the grooming reports – this one has fresh tracks laid just hours ago. Despite the old, dirty snow on the streets of Tromso, just a few kilometers away we find fresh powder. The lane where we park is pure ice – something we have learned is typical here, and we are thankful for the studded tires on our rental car. The sun tries to break through the clouds as Rich waxes our skis, and I feel the excitement build. We are really here, about to ski alongside a fjord.

Molly skiing by the fjord

I hadn't given it much thought, but if you ski away from the water, you're going to go up. Those mountains in the distance are beautiful, but they start right here. So we climb. And climb. The bonus is that we instantly have a wonderful view. The snow gets deeper and the grooming is excellent. At times it is wide enough for skate skiing, in other areas it narrows to a more modest woodland trail. But the firm tracks are a constant. They certainly know their skiing here.

Molly skiing by the lake

This isn't a workout, it's an “experiencial ski” Rich keeps reminding me. I don't need to be told, I have no inclination to hurry. No desire to push. I want to take it all in.

The trail skirts a lake with cabins alongside. We suspect we are skiing on a small road used to access the cabins in summer. However, it is clear that they are used in winter as well – perhaps reached by skis. That becomes my favorite part of the trail, winding through the trees. Scattered modest cabins on one side, lake on the other. Oddly enough, it feels very like Minnesota if I ignore the magnificent mountains.

Rich skiing by the mountains

Off trail the snow is deep and pristine. I am surprised to see numerous deep ski tracks criss-cross its surface, carving out their own back-country ski trails. It looks inviting and adventuresome, but I have no desire to leave the groomer's domain.

Here I can appreciate the silence of this sport. Swishing along the smooth tracks, we see only a couple of other skiers and a few walkers. At first I cringe to see those on foot, but clearly it is accepted here. They know enough to stay off the tracks and their boots barely break the firm surface of the snow.

The temperature is close to freezing, colder as we move inland. It is mild enough to get hot when we climb, cool enough to be chilly on our rapid descent. Our return trip is completed in a fraction of the time it took on the outbound leg. We now have a true Nordic ski experience in the bag. I can't wait to do it again tomorrow.

Sunny ski trail down to the fjord

 

A Tale of Two Ski Races

What a difference a week makes.  In the span of a short seven days, the weather did a full 180, rendering my two cross-country ski races completely different affairs.

As the Mora Vasaloppet approached, the weather forecasters had dire predictions for severely cold weather.  I held out hope that in time the atmospheric patterns would change and deliver us from the promised deep freeze.  But it wasn’t to be.  The night before the race, temperatures dipped to -15.  Packing for our early departure to drive to Mora included every warm layer I owned for skiing.  And I mustered my courage for a frigid race.

Molly and Rich before Mora VasaloppetGathering in the Mora high school auditorium, we were surrounded by racers donning all manner of protection.  The best were the moleskin patches custom made for faces, sporting brilliant patterns.  I never knew such existed!  Rich and I carefully scrutinized and selected our layers, then headed for the start line.

The start of the Mora VasaloppetIf it had to be cold, the sunshine rescued the day.  Its brilliant rays shone in a deep blue sky throughout the race.  Combined with the right clothing and plenty of hard skiing, I felt impervious to the cold throughout my 48 kilometer race.

Because of the low snow conditions, the usual point-to-point route was reduced to 12k laps.  The race crew did a phenomenal job grooming what little snow they had, and the cold temps reduced it to a squeaky cold and fast crust.  Looping four times around the course delivered an entirely different feel to the race.  While the fastest skiers are normally long out of site from my middle of the pack position, in this case they were soon lapping me – the fastest doing 2 loops to every one of mine!  As soon as I’d hear the rapid squelch of approaching poles, I knew enough to move to the side to let them fly past.  It proved rather unnerving, at times.  But on the other hand, there was almost a carnival atmosphere, seeing skiers passing in various directions as the course curved and turned back upon itself.

Following a successful finish, I had only a week before the American Birkebeiner.  In that time the temperatures soared, rain soaked the area for most of the day before the race, and it never got below freezing that night.  Could this be the same climate?

This time my concern was how few Birkebeiner starting linelayers to wear.  How little could I put on and still be warm when I begin to tire near the end of my 52k skate race?  Despite the 37 degree temp, the wind felt cold and I decided to err on the slightly warm side.

In typical Birkie style, the chute was crowded as I took my place among the 13,000 skiers that day.  And I never lacked for company out on the trail.  Even though we weren’t looping this time, I was still being continually passed.  Perhaps there is something to this age thing after all.

Molly after finishing the BirkieOnce again the groomers had worked miracles with quirky conditions, but this time the result was slow wet snow.  Ranging from soft to mushy, it made me work for every ounce of glide I achieved.  Downhills were unpredictable, as my speed varied with the ever changing composition of the snow.  But I persevered.  Even through the puddles that had formed on Lake Hayward – a final surprise with only 3k left to go.

Two races.  Two vastly different conditions.  But a single outcome.  Reaching the finish line.  A great sense of accomplishment.  And having a good time.

Skiing – and so much more

For twenty four years in a row we have maintained our tradition.  Without fail.  There have been years of sickness, but we overcame it.  We had small children at home – five between us – but still we escaped.  Snow failed to materialize, but we went anyway.  Jobs were stressful and demanding, but we left them behind.  A lot has changed over the years, but Susan and I still get away for our annual cross-country ski weekend every year.

This year’s venue was Golden Eagle Lodge, on the north side of Bearskin Lake on the wonderful Central Gunflint Trail Ski System.  We stayed in a lovely cabin aptly named “Trailside” and took full advantage of our proximity to the 70k of XC ski trails at our door.

It wasn’t long before the weekend’s unique qualities began to reveal themselves.  And as each new challenge presented itself, we coined a new term.  It seemed better than complaining, and far more fun.

IMG_2363Adaptability  It’s the characteristic needed when things don’t turn out as expected. Like the gas fireplace that ceases blazing after the office closes at night.  And your figure out it’s the only source of heat in the cabin.  Or when the enormous clumps of snow that once graced the tops of the pine trees melt enough to fall, creating tree avalanches that obliterate the ski trail with icy mounds.  Or topple weakened trees across the trail.  It’s the turn-on-a-dime trait that comes in handy for revising ski plans to take advantage of trails that have been groomed in favor of those still coated in refrozen snow.  It’s figuring out how to use a percolator when you’ve only ever made drip coffee.

IMG_2365Lurch  This is what happens when the snow gets warm and wet, and ices up the bottom of your skis.  It creates a huge snowball underneath your foot, which effectively stops all forward progress.  Your body lurches forward with the momentum of your former glide, while your ski remains firmly planted in the ski track.  And an inane sound escapes your lips as you try to regain some sense of balance (and lose all hope of retaining any dignity).

IMG_2360Perseverance  It keeps you going when you realize you have chosen an overly ambitious distance to ski given the sticky snow conditions.  It makes you move when you fear you will be finishing your ski in the dark, and your headlamp is still back at the cabin.  It becomes your strength when you are dead tired after dragging your snow-bound skis across the snow (and lurching).  Its mantra sounds something like “think of crisp, chilled Chardonnay waiting for you.”

IMG_2375

Yet for each challenge the rewards were many.  Skiing at sunrise, watching it paint the sky with orange stripes.  Baking in the heat of the sauna, letting our aches drip away.  Sunny days, warm temperatures.  Talking, sharing, laughing caring.  Sipping that Chardonnay.

 

It’s a rare friendship that endures this long.  Perhaps it’s even more rare to keep up a tradition this long.  But we’re unlikely to miss next year’s milestone – 25 years of skiing together.  And so much more.IMG_2381

Snow in Abundance

When snow declines to come to the cross-country skier, the only reasonable response is for the skier to go to the snow. It doesn’t take much research or experience to know where to find it. The Gunflint Trail consistently delivers on snow accumulation.

The drive up the North Shore is typical. Lake Superior’s warming influence reduces the snowfall near the shore. A leap of faith is required to believe one is indeed headed for significant snow. Turning inland from Grand Marais and slowly ascending the hillside the transformation is not yet apparent. But within a few miles, there it is. Snow. Lots of it.

An island along the Gunflint TrailThe road is snow covered, the only sound the scrunch of the tires as they turn over frigid squeaky snow. The sky couldn’t be bluer. And the star of the show is the forest. A heavy wet snowfall earlier in the winter has covered the trees with huge deposits of snow. This is not your standard Christmas tree flocking. It is deep snowballish accumulations on all available branches. And it is stunning. In case I’m still not convinced, one step outside the car to take a photo lands me in thigh-deep powder.

Unnavigable ski trailWe quickly learn from the locals that the snow is both a blessing and a curse. The blanket of wet snow brought destruction as well as beauty. Bending and breaking trees, miles of trail were blocked and closed. Despite massive efforts to clear the trails, the clean-up work exceeds the available resources in some areas. In particular, the Banadad Trail‘s 28k of ski trail are largely inaccessible, with clearing efforts able to open only seven kilometers on the western end.  Indeed, many fear for the state of portages in the BWCAW.

Our destination is Bearskin Lodge, home of the central Gunflint cross-country ski system with over 70 kilometers of trails and excellent grooming. Fortunately, Bearskin’s trails are nearly all open. Four days of unlimited skiing await us. And so does the cold. Arriving in the midst of a cold snap, we encounter overnight lows down to -19 and daytime highs in the single digits below zero. But the brilliant sunshine and blue skies are more than fair compensation. Donning layers of suitable apparel, we are easily able to enjoy the amazing beauty of the Northland as well as the skiing.

Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 1 Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 2 Stride after stride delivers more dazzling scenery.  I can’t help but think the tall narrow pines cloaked in snow are the spitting image of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical trees. Seuss-like trees on the Bearskin trailsAnd snowshoeing takes me even further into the depths of the magical woods.

Snowshoeing at Bearskin Lodge Yes, this skier is happy.  With abundant snow on the Gunflint Trail.

Outdoor Fitness Center

Most cross-country skiers heading to Tofte to ski the Sugarbush trail system are seeking the natural beauty of those lovely wooded trails.  With extensive kilometers of well groomed trails, it’s one of my favorite systems on the whole North Shore.

But this time I have other motives.  Faced with yet another snow drought year, I am seriously behind in my training for the Birkie and Mora Vasaloppet.  Each marathon race is over 50 kilometers, and normally by now I would be skiing longer and longer distances to prepare.  But it’s hard to get inspired without snow.  While I should have been out skiing, I was still pounding the pavement in my running shoes.  I was seriously lacked in seasonal motivation.

Ungroomed ski trail at Lester-AmityThe latest snowfall finally fueled my passion.  At long last I could walk across the street and head into the woods on my skis. It was only then, skiing on beautiful new snow surrounded by trees and forest, that I remembered why I love the sport so much.  It all came rushing back, even if my form and technique was lagging behind.  It rejuvenated my soul.

But alas, it was only a taste.  The warm weather and thick wet snow made skiing arduous at best, and foiled the groomers’ attempts to tame the messy snow.  Emergency measures were in order.  Hence the trip to Tofte.

Ignoring the allure of the scenic woodland trails, I don my skis and head up Onion River Road prepared for a good workout.  Unlike the woods, it is wide, has a firm flat surface, no bushes or branches sticking up through the snow, and grooms beautifully.  The air is chilly, so the freshly groomed surface has set up perfectly, delivering virgin corduroy.  I delight in being the first to ski on it.  My skis glide over its surface and I immediately fall into a good strong rhythm.

It is my best ski of the season to date.  It feels so good to push myself, to press through the uphill stretches and work on technique.  I can taste those races, and know I am getting stronger.  At last.

Skiing Onion River RoadThe further up the road I go, the more snow-laden the trees.  The pines tower overhead, a stark contrast against the blue sky.  It is intensely quiet, with only the sound of my skis against the snow and the squelch made by my pole plants.  The wind whips against my face, refreshing as I grow warm with the effort.

It is the idyllic workout.  Clearly this is no Saturday ski through the park.  I am there to train.  To further my endurance and to ready myself for the challenge.  And what a place to do it.  In the perfect outdoor fitness center.Forest Ranger cabin with a warm fire at the base of the trails

Super Silent Sports

I love the term “silent sports.”  It embodies what I treasure most about outdoor activities.  Human powered, surrounded by nature, testing one’s physical strength and endurance, going the distance.  My day isn’t complete without an hour or more spent engaged in this pursuit.

Lester new snow 2When the snow fell yesterday, I couldn’t wait to get out in it.  Six inches of fluffy new powder lay on the ground, and I knew the ski trails would not yet be groomed.  But for once I actually preferred it that way.  Admittedly, I had new waxless classic skis I wanted to try out, but I was also anxious to just get out in the deep new snow.

Lester new snow 1Cross-country skiing undoubtedly qualifies as a silent sport.  But skiing the untamed fresh snow brings it to the pinnacle of silent.  Normally my skis would swish over the groomed trail with a satisfying sound that testified to a long glide.  My poles would make squeaky complaints as they pierced the snow and angled against the crust until they were released for the next plant. Natural sounds, yes, but noisy in their own way.

The fresh layers of snow muffled all those sounds.  Those that had skied before me were long gone, leaving only a vague trace.  My skis slid quietly through the downy snow and although I made slow progress over the hidden tracks it was deeply satisfying.  There was no need to hurry, no urge to push to the max, no impulse to get in a good workout.  Just plowing through the snow was enough.  My poles too were muted as they stabbed the soft snow, gaining just enough purchase to help propel me forward.

The woods lining the trails were equally muffled.Snow shadow  The pine boughs were layered with snow and the ground under the trees was blanketed by the snowfall.  Any noise I managed to make was immediately absorbed by my surroundings, as if it had never existed.  It was a world shrouded in stillness.

All it took was six inches.  Half a foot of fresh white snow to transform a silent sport into a super silent one.  I relished every bit of it.