Elite freestyle racers take off (I am not in this pic)
Nostalgia is a feeling that can hurt and heal; it is a feeling that is as much about home as it is about the people in and around the home. But what about sports? Can I be nostalgic for the big game? You know, the one in which my team had two touchdowns called back because some poor knucklehead didn’t have his mouth guard in his mouth, but then, miraculously, the team roared back and ended up winning by something like 14 points (thus saving the knucklehead’s life)? Can I be nostalgic for the tension, the cheering, the threats made to my life, the soreness of my bleeding knees? Of course! Aren’t memories like these, the ones that involve pleasure and pain, that are the chief motivating sources of power and esteem for Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and Al Bundy on “Married with Children”?
Nostalgia can also be about the feeling of one’s body as it was fully immersed in an exciting and possibly dangerous sports situation. That reignited memory of an athletic event pulls one back into the moment—the collision of person and ground for example– so that comparisons between the past and the present are vivid and available. Available for what, though? Available for the nostalgic person to make decisions about the future based on the ways that these memories are sorted, meshed with other memories, and, well, interpreted. Should I stay on the couch and hold onto that memory that I think is unsurpassable? Or, should I get off the couch because I was that knucklehead, and so I want to do something now, or soon, something that I might remember in a better light? This sort of nostalgia is what I call “Sporting Nostalgia,” and I claim that it manifests itself very strongly in any sport in which the memory of one event impels the person to do it again. So, part endorphin rush, part memory crush.
Certain sports that navigate different terrain, such as marathons, bicycle races, triathlons, and even skiing can elicit a particularly strong sort of sporting nostalgia. Certainly other sports can be positively dripping with nostalgia. I will talk about those later, especially those sports that operate on similar fields—where the field is specifically made to mimic all other fields. But here, I want to discuss what kinds of nostalgia occur when traversing terrain outside of a gridded field. So, onto the road, the trail, the slopes.
The first sort of sporting nostalgia that I want to describe yokes midlife crisis to cross-country skiing. In order to illuminate this sort of nostalgia I will tell a story and let the reader do the interpretation.
This story is really about the pitfalls of opportunity. Make that opportunity plus ignorance. Then we should add in a dash of ego and just enough fitness to convince oneself of the idea of challenge, instead of empty, gasping, stupidity. These ingredients came together for me a few weeks ago.
My lovely wife Dorothy was about to go on a short trip to St. Louis to visit her folks and show off our two daughters. Her trip would enable me to attend a conference in Chicago. But at the last minute, Dot decided to cancel and go down the following weekend. Guilt set in, for my junket to Chicago was really, like all conferences, a chance to drink and smoke way more than I can when at home. I cancelled my own trip to Chicago.
She was going the next weekend though, and so I thought that I should do something healthy like cycle a hundred miles, or ski all day. It was too cold to ride my bike all day. The snow in Iowa City was finished, yet my new skate cross country skis were glaring hard at me from the back seat of my car. What to do? The wonderful research tool “Google” was a key component to my downfall. Entering “Cross Country skiing Midwest Feb 21” gave me “American Birkebeiner.” Sounded interesting. Hmmn, that’s a rather smooth looking website.
“Honey, I think I’ll do some skiing this coming weekend.”
“Good for you,” she replied. “That’s better than going to Chicago anyway… especially with all that drinking and smoking that you do at those conferences.”
“What do you mean!” I snorted. “I’ll have you know that I could have made some great contacts during–… so, I should do some skiing, huh?”
“Sure, why not, give you something to do. But, I was thinking of leaving the girls home with you.”
“Well, fine. The girls really love to hang at home with ol’ dad. Are you sure your parents won’t mind you leaving them behind?”
Dorothy and the kids were thusly out of my hair, enabling my glorious, fitness weekend. I reflected that I could easily ski the half Birkebeiner so my lack of fitness would not be a factor. Plus, I thought of this big event as more of like a one-day RAGBRAI, sort of like the wonderful, two-day TOMRV bike tour that I love to do, you know, stop whenever, finish, have a beer. Do your own thing. My last ski before the Birki was Feb 14th. But seriously, that was one killer hour of training, especially as the only snow left was a 200 meter patch of mush that was on the shady side of the Ashton Cross Country Course. But I made that hour count by skiing fast against the wind to replicate a hill work out. Monday and Wednesday I had lots of meetings and Tuesday and Thursday I had to teach all day, so I did not have a lot of time to get in much training. I figured I might sneak in a run on Friday morning before driving to Wisconsin.
By Thursday, three days before the race, I got serious about signing up for the Birkebeiner. Maybe the shorter race, the Korteloppet, would be the smarter move, I thought. But if I am going to lay out all that cash, I might as well get my money’s worth. I called some friends who I knew had done it in the past. They were mildly encouraging amid their guffaws. They gave me some tips: “don’t start too fast,” “have you thought about wax?” “where are you staying?” Wax? I just got my skis this year, why would I need wax already? As luck would have it, the local shop, Geoff’s Bike and Ski, was open late on Thursday and they could squeeze me in. I mean I was skating, so I didn’t need grip wax for crying out loud. At the shop I ran into Jeff, an accomplished ski and bike racer. I told him I was doing the Birkallopet. He smiled and said “you mean Birkebeiner.” With his back turned to me (he was picking up some custom made gloves or something), he asked me where I was staying. And before I could remember the name, he answered for me: “probably Rice Lake.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“That’s where a lot of first-timers stay,” laconically.
“Wow, that’s great. Maybe we could ski together.”
Silence. Then, “I’m in the second wave, and you are in the tenth. Have a good one. And remember, don’t start too fast.”
Well, I could see that he was nervous, and so I let him go, even though I wanted to tell him about how hard I skied last Saturday. As he left the shop, I wondered what he meant by catching the second or the tenth wave.
After 6 hours of driving, I made it to the Rice Lake Super 8 hotel. Then I decided to drive to Hayward and check in and get my race number. Good thing I called the Birki hotline first. It seems that the registration was not in Hayward, but at the start of the race, at some lodge. After 2 more hours of driving I finally got to the Telemark Lodge. Signed in (Oh, that is what the tenth wave means: all first-timers like me who stay in Rice Lake because they decide to do this three days before the race) and soaked up the vibes. I was feeling pretty good considering the full day behind the wheel. A little hungry, but fine really. What I really needed was some new gear, now that would appease that twinge of uncertainty. I picked up some new gloves and ate dinner near the lodge. Then I drove 2 hours back to my hotel. I laid out my gear and then stretched out. As I was stretching I thought about how much to save for the finish, and I was reminded of Petter Northug’s strides up that hill in the 2007 World Cup race in Sapporo, wow, he really stomped their gizzards going up that last rise. Perhaps I would surprise myself.
• • •
Made it to the bus on time. Breakfast, check. Gear, check. Game face, check. Made it to the start tent by 9:30 am, check. Looking around I can see the fear oozing from their eyes. I got this thing. No sweat. At the line, I am amazed by the crowd. The last wave must have three or four hundred. A huge field filled with skiers and volunteers. I scootch toward the line. Every centimeter counts. And we’re off. Oops. No, we’re not. Pretty slow at the start. Need to free space. Wow, look at all those skiers go down. Hey, look out. That was close. Watch the poles, these are brand spanking new. I see some free space. I’m really striding now. Sheesh my heart rate is up there, but I’ll mellow out once the crowd thins.
I make a left and see the beginning of the telegraph line hills. The first one is more like a small mountain. I burn it up to the top only to see a row of hills just as big in front of me. No sweat, I can tackle these because there are only 8 major hills—and there is a rest area and food at the top of each of these hills—and then the course smoothes out at around 25k, or so I had overheard at the Telemark Lodge. At the top of the second hill, I taste metal shavings in my mouth. By the third hill I stop and take stock. There are about a dozen others stopped. Some are bent double, some are taking off layers. One guy throws his vest in the snow and skis off. I start to realize the massiveness of this thing. By the fourth hill I reflect on this fact: I have now skied more hills than my whole season, my whole life. These hills are not so much hills, they are small mountain passes. They are so steep that I have no technique with which to manage them (V1, V2, V3?). I watch as people pass me. That one woman is very smooth; I’ll try to imitate her. Say, this is a bit easier. I look up and she is 100 meters in front of me. But still, I feel fresh and strong, in a weird sort of tired way. I glide past the first food station at North End Cabin. Brilliant move, I gain precious seconds. The snow is not fresh. Six inches of mashed potatoes. Nice.
I stop at the second food station and see the folly of my enterprise. The scales fall from my eyes. Thus is my status: I have now skied 16 k: the longest of any ski outing of the entire year, of my entire life. I have been on skate skis exactly 8 times in my life. All of them within the past two months. There are no hills on my practice course. I am at my limit, my legs are shaking, my hands are frozen and cramped. I am a dead man skiing.
Stay Tuned For Part II…I will post it this Friday, April 10, by 5 pm.