Ski Medicine

It might not have been what the doctor ordered, but it was the best medicine I could take.  I was still coughing and dragging from a bout with the flu when Erik called.  “Would it be all right if I came up tomorrow night to ski the North Shore on Monday?  You’d be welcome to join me.”  Of course it was more than all right!

I tossed and turned all night long.  Was I crazy to spend a whole day skiing when I could barely get off the couch just days before?  I’ve never been one to hold back, nor necessarily listen to reason, so in the dark wee hours of the morning I rose and piled on layers of ski clothes.

As we drove the shoreline the sun rose in a cloudless sky, lifting over Lake Superior and bisecting the radiant band of orange hovering over the cold blue water.  By the time we reached the Sugarbush Trailhead above Tofte, it hung low in the sky sending long sinewy shadows across the trail but doing little to raise the zero degree temperature.  Pristine corduroy lay before my skate skis, crisp deep tracks for Erik’s classic version.  We entered the deep silence of the trail.Molly Sugarbush trails Erik Sugarbush trails

Erik had some serious skiing to do.  His goal was to complete the Picnic Loop and any other bits of trail he could find to ski 40 kilometers.  As a serious contender in the upcoming Birkie Classic race, he relished this extensive training opportunity.  So I waved him off, content to plod along at my own pace.

The cold snow squealed under my skis, glide eluding my fresh wax job, but the extra effort warmed my stiff chilled body.  I didn’t meet another sole for at least an hour and a half, skimming the snow, lost in thought.  Imperceptibly the sun gained strength, my fingers and toes rejoiced, and my skis slipped ever so slightly farther.  Weaving through the woods, uphill and down I lost track of time and distance.  Forgot my recent malady.

Through sheer luck, we finished at nearly the same time.  Flush with excitement over the fantastic conditions, Erik confirmed his 41k distance – to my 20k in the same amount of time!  Over lunch at the Coho Café we traded superlatives about our morning – the deep glistening snow in the woods, the distant lake views, the challenging but fun hills, the joy of skiing.

Erik Molly Coho Cafe

The Northwoods Ski Trail in Silver Bay gave us a leisurely afternoon ski.  Narrow single classic tracks wound through the woods, with snow laden pines slipping past our shoulders and towering overhead.  We skied together over the soft snow, sharing the views and even spotting a marten that scampered up a tree to peer down at us.  A steep uphill got our hearts pumping, and rewarded us with a long smooth downhill.  This wasn’t a workout, it was an experience.

Northwoods Ski Trails Erik Molly Northwoods Trails Molly Northwoods Trails

A full day, sharing a mutual love of skiing, chatting in the car, just being together.  One-on-one time with one of my adult children is a precious gift.  This one also delivered a hearty dose of healing.  Goodbye flu, I think I skied it out of my system.  And Erik?  He opted for another 15k on the Lester Trails when we returned, topping off his mileage above 60k.  We both got the medicine we needed.

Snowbound

We’re still waiting.  Two days ago at this time snow was falling in earnest.  Actually, it didn’t really fall, the wind swirled it in mad circles.  Whisking horizontally past the windows.  Sticking to the sides of the house.  Clinging to the trees.  It’s been a long time since the weather service used the word Blizzard.  This time it was accurate.  Snug inside, I enjoyed watching it rage.

Storming through the night, it finally tapered into delicate flakes as morning dawned.  Rich layered up and began the process of digging out.  Grabbing the yardstick from my sewing supplies, he took it down to the driveway.  Lest he be accused of exaggeration he had proof – 19″.  The accumulation took the life of his snowblower and required rigorous sessions of shovel, rest, repeat.  All day long.

Blizzard our houseThe news was filled with cancellations, including church services.  But no matter, we could travel no farther than the end of our cleared driveway.  Living on a remote road, we’re used to being last on the priority list for plowing.  So I donned my heavy boots and a backpack for a trip to the grocery store, grateful that it was so close.  Preparations for hunkering down.

Having covered the basics, I could hold back no longer.  This kind of snow just shouted Snowshoes!  And I answered the call.  That unplowed road was all that lay between me and forest land, crisscrossed by multi-use trails.  Not a sole trod before me, leaving deep pristine snow to explore.  Trees hung low, burdened with heavy blankets of snow, blocking my path.  Too pretty to disturb, I tried to skirt around them carefully.  The slightest bump released a mini-blizzard and sent branches flinging upwards.Blizzard snowshoeing 1Blizzard snowshoeing 2Silence reigned.  Only the plop of my snowshoes and the swish of trying to extricate them from the snowy abyss penetrated the quiet.  The sun began its gradual reappearance, signaling the real end of the storm.  Solitude worked its magic.Blizzard snowshoeing 3Day two dawned clear and cold.  The sunlight was as welcome as a rainbow after a thunderstorm.  Glistening snow.  Endless blue sky.  Warming rays of the sun.  Still the road remained clogged with snow.  There was only one sensible response.  Ski it!Blizzard XC skiing 1

Blizzard XC skiing 27 Bridges Road was rife with snowmobile tracks, boot prints and the occasional ski track.  It made for a firm if bumpy surface which beckoned me upwards, crossing bridge after bridge.  But the real payoff was at the top.  Branching off onto Hawk Ridge the walkers disappeared.  Snowmobiles had pummeled the surface into a reliable ski surface.  Lake Superior spread out to the horizon, the city of Duluth lay in grids below.  The snowbound confines of the house dropped away as civilization lay at my feet.Blizzard XC skiing 3Returning downhill, I wondered if the snowplow had come.  If I would have to find a new way home.  I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to be able to ski all the way to the driveway.  Still snowbound.  Still waiting.  Time to plan tomorrow’s snowy adventure.Blizzard XC skiing 4

Sisu Initiation

What do nine women, including three sisters, three generations and a handful of close friends have in common?  Sisu!

Arriving at the National Forest Lodge near Isabella, I lugged my gear into the spacious log house that would be our home for three days.  As the newcomer to a group that has convened here annually for years, I wondered how I would fit in.  I needn’t have worried.  Gathering in the kitchen, one member had already laid out hand-made snowflake earrings (no two alike, of course) and lanyards emblazoned with “sisu,” its definition under our names: “Sisu begins where the perseverance and grit end.”  I knew it right then.  These were my soul-mates.  This was going to be a good weekend.

We made rapid work of choosing beds and dumping our bags.  The Flathorn-Gegoka cross-country ski trails awaited right outside the door.  As soon as we could strap on our skis, we set out to make the most of the remaining daylight.  Brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine offset the blustery wind, and soon we were sheltered by the deep forest.  With two-feet of newly fallen snow freshly groomed into narrow single classic tracks, we brushed shoulders with tall pines.  Branches laden with mounds of snowy fluff, sun peeping through, all sounds but the swish of our skis were muffled by the soft whiteness.Ready to ski at NFL

Morning brought sub-zero temperatures, but not a single Sisu sister hesitated.  Fueled by a healthy and hearty breakfast in the lodge, we donned all our layers and ventured forth on skis and snowshoes.  The pattern would repeat itself over the next two days.  Eat and ski.  Groups formed and reformed, venturing out until fingers and toes needed rejuvenating or the next meal beckoned.

Behind every Sisu sister, there is a lighter side.  Or a crazier one.  Some intrepid souls could not resist the lure of the sauna and polar plunge.  I readily admit to passing on this experience, but they didn’t hold it against me.
Snow Angels at NFL

Polar Plunge

There were no midnight sorties on the trail by headlamp.  Instead, fierce competitive streaks emerged.  Huddled around the dining table, we furiously shaped and reshaped crosswords playing Bananagrams, and drew artful clues for Pictionary.  This was serious business, perhaps enhanced by a sip or two of wine.

If sharing a passion for word games, skiing as many kilometers as daylight allows, nestling by the fire with a bit of wine, waking to the smell of brewing coffee and sneaking oatmeal cookies are any indication, I think I passed the Sisu initiation.  Thank you, sisters!

SISU Sisters 2019

Gliding Again

Fickle winter.  It teases us with cold weather but fails to deliver on the snow.  It wreaks havoc with my motivation and my love of the outdoors.  My identity as a cross-country skier is in shambles.

For weeks I have been unable to get excited about skiing.  I can’t drag myself across the street to ski on trails that are barely covered, and I convince myself that I’d rather go running anyway.  Despite slipping and sliding on the icy or snow-clogged Lakewalk, I take refuge in the familiar.  I just can’t get over the hurdle to embrace skiing instead.

But the recent snowfall engineered a shift.  It actually looks and feels like winter.  Distant memories return.  Suddenly I feel the draw of the trails.  The pull of a new blanket of snow.  The sun filtering through the trees and glinting off the soft white powder.  The crisp air brushing my cheeks.  It is mine for the taking.  This time I can’t help but answer the call.

On mySkiing ungroomed Lester first foray into the woods I discover that I beat the groomer to the trails.  Instead of crisp firm corduroy, I find soft untouched snow with a packed base not far beneath.  All sounds are muffled by this new fallen splendor.  The hush quiets my mind as the powder slows my skis.  I am moving in slow motion, but it makes no difference.  For once it’s not about the pace, it is all about the experience.

Lester on groomed trails

Day two and I’m eager to return.  The groomer has worked its magic in my absence.  I am early enough to enjoy some virgin terrain, cutting my own diagonal slices through the sculpted surface.  The tall pines still wear their mantle of white and the forest floor is a series of soft undulating mounds pocked with occasional animal tracks.  Whether real or imagined, the air feels fresher than ever.

I knew there was a reason I loved winter, I’d just forgotten what it was.  I’m glad to be out gliding again.

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.