Cross-Country Ski Your Way to Shining Health, Renewed Vigor, and Everlasting Happiness!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, February 1999

Cross-Country Ski Your Way to Shining Health, Renewed Vigor, and Everlasting Happiness!
Life got you down? Feeling morose, slaggardly, low on essence? Ah, dear friend, you need the curative powers contained within a pair of skinny racing planks (and, OK, 12 months of diligent effort). Skeptical? Just listen to one winner's remarkable story.

By Bill McKibben

January 1st, 1998: The first new person I met in the New Year was sitting across the cafeteria table from me in a tie-dye shirt at a yoga center in western Massachusetts. He looked over at me and said, quite casually, "You know, if you're generating mucus from one membrane, you're generating it everywhere." I wiped my nose and looked around for some better omen for the 12 months to come.

Which is when I saw Rob Sleamaker for the first time sitting apple-cheeked and grinning amid the leotard-clad ascetics, almost as out of place in this ashram as I was. He'd come to this "holistic center" to teach a weekend course on yoga and cross-country skiing. I'd come to listen in — but more than that, to see if he was the sort of guy I wanted to turn my life over to. Rob had agreed to coach me for the next year, to help me take my mediocre body and turn it into that of a cross-country ski racer. Not a champion, obviously, but a competitor. And something I'd never been: an athlete.

Rob looked normal enough — indeed, before the day was out we were sneaking away from the ashram cafeteria, with its seitan burgers and spinach stir-fry, to visit a decidedly unholistic local bar for an unorganic beer. Still, I wasn't sure I wanted to marry the guy. For the next 365 mornings when I climbed out of bed, Rob would be there, in the form of his personalized training gospel, telling me how long I was going to cardiovasculate that day and at what heart rate I was going to do it. If he said 228 minutes, that was how many I was going to do — not 227, and not 229. When he said run, I would ask how fast. I might actually see him only once or twice a month, but I would spend, he said, about 650 hours in his company. He would become a mental member of my family.

And so I had to make sure he understood. What I wanted was not just fitness, certainly not trophies. I wanted a break from myself. Call it early midlife crisis, call it silly, call it vain. I'd spent my whole adult life as an environmentalist and writer (and my weekends as, yes, a Sunday school teacher), preaching sacrifice, voluntary population control, the idea of Saving the Earth through Humility and Restraint. When my last book came out, one reviewer called me a "yuppie Gandhi." She meant to be stinging, but I didn't really mind — at the end of the 20th century there are worse things to be called. Still, I could feel myself slipping into a kind of insipidity; one entire possibility of my life — the fiercer, physical possibility — was slipping away for good. I mean, Ghandi had concave pecs.

Rob seemed the perfect guru for my transformation. For one thing, he was as much psychologist as exercise physiologist. "You're going kind of hard," he said one morning as I huffed and puffed up hills to impress him. My pretense punctured, I could just relax. And the last night of the workshop, as we sat again in the bar mapping out the year ahead, he turned to me and summed up my project better than I could have myself. "You have a mind, a body, and a spirit," he said. "If you want to use your intellect for one long period, that's OK. But you're born whole, and you can get back to that."

Bring it on! When he leaned over and lent me his heart rate monitor, it felt almost talismanic, as if I were leaving on a quest. I had to nasally generate some mucus to cover my emotion.

I grew up with no cruel disadvantages. A loving family, enough money but not too much, I was a victim of nothing. Except, in certain ways, myself. I was, in fact, a weenie. That is to say, when I was a boy, I hated the president of the United States for two reasons. One, the carpet bombing of southeast Asia, which as the child of a good liberal home I felt to be excessive. Two, the 600-yard-run, the final event of the annual President's Physical Fitness Test. The pull-ups were easy enough; I'd simply hang on the bar until it was abundantly clear to whatever sadist taught gym that year that I was not actually going to be able to chin myself. But the 600-yard-run had to be completed, albeit at a walking stagger, whole minutes after the rest of the class. What a jerk, Nixon.

But if it hadn't deeply damaged me, my weeniness, it had left scars. My picture of myself as a pale dumpling never really changed. As time went on I moved to the woods, spent many long hours in the wilderness. I climbed high mountains. I rescued lost hikers. The rack on my car was worth more than my car. More than anything else I cross-country skied, out in the woods every day of the long Adirondack winters.

Still, I had never really challenged my body, not in competition. And so, at 37, at the age where age seems about to start, I thought I'd give it a shot. A year of living strenuously. I had no real idea what would happen — I knew there were thousands of training guides, dozens of magazines with recipes for stronger abs, Internet sites where you could discuss your VO2 max until your fingers ached. But I wanted to know what came between the before and after pictures. I wanted to know what happens when a normal human being goes all out.

To my mind, nordic skiing offered the perfect test. It summons every muscle, every emotion. It's a mix of dash and endurance, long thigh-burning ascents followed by swooping downhills, the most profoundly aerobic sport on earth. The physiologists, when they rank athletes by cardiovascular exertion, always come up with the same champions: rowers, Tour de France bikers, and above them all, nordic skiers.

Besides, it's my favorite sport: Gliding through the woods is the only time in my life I've ever felt graceful and speedy.

Of course most Americans could care less about cross-country skiing. Since Bill Koch's silver in the 1976 Olympics (still the only American cross-country medal ever) gave the sport its late-1970s popularity spike, the number of cross-country skiers has dwindled from roughly 12 million to below six. U.S. retailers sell only about 150,000 pairs of cross-country skis each winter. And at Nagano, CBS decided not to even show the sport's premier race, the men's 50k, so they could feature a figure skating exhibition the night after the actual medals were awarded.

Whatever else you can say about it, cross-country is a sport that works best when it's snowing, and on this day in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, it was not. It was, in fact, raining — soaking into the several feet of snow like grape juice into a paper towel, when I left the ashram and drove north to train for a week at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. Nevertheless, I skied every day, trying to eke some glide out of the softening base, experimenting with my heart rate monitor, and getting used to my new regimen of going slower, not harder. Rob, in his work with American biathletes and in his book, Serious Training for Serious Athletes (Leisure Press, 1989), had been one of the first to push the now widely touted idea that mileage counts less than intensity, and that most of the time easier is better. Much of my year's work would be this long, slow slog — an hour, two, three, sometimes four, at a heart rate of about 140 — on the theory that it would literally change my plumbing, make the network of capillaries in my muscles more dense, the better to drain away lactic acid.

My training was undramatic, like punching a clock. But it was justified by the promise that in a year I'd be fitter. Faster. That in the winter of 1999 I would be a competitor. Rob suggested I enter a few races that first winter, for the experience, and since I'd never been in a formal race of any kind — not a marathon, not a 5k, not a 100-yard dash — it seemed like good advice.

Craftsbury had a 20k competition scheduled at the end of that rainy first week. The trails filled with spandex-clad sylphs rocketing by on skis, including several Olympians tuning up for Nagano, and that morning the temperature suddenly dropped, turning what snow was left into bulletproof ice and shattering my confidence. Choosing the right wax in conditions like these is about as easy as performing thoracic surgery, so I twitched nervously around the start area, looking for tips. Finally the Rossignol team manager, glaring at me as if I'd asked for his wife's telephone number, mumbled something about purple klister, an evil, taffylike wax that I desperately applied.

Then we were off, with me at the tail of a pack of several hundred skiers. Halfway through the first 10-kilometer loop, I was reduced to herringboning up every hill and double-poling across every flat, my purple klister scraped clean by the ice. My glasses fogged and one lens fell into the snow, and I was on my knees hunting for it as everyone else zoomed past. Oh, and I took a wrong turn near the finish.

In Ottawa a few weeks later, I was better prepared. A friend had blowtorched my skis with some exotic fluorocarbon in the parking lot. I had a brand-new spandex suit. I was sleek, all systems go. And then someone started telling a story about the time he'd forgotten to wear his wind briefs on a cold day just like this one and how it had taken him hours of excruciating pain to thaw himself out. "What are wind briefs?" I asked.

The World Masters Championships were next. It is true that by then I had acquired a fleece-lined jockstrap. Still, I had no more business racing against these guys than I did offering stock tips to Alan Greenspan. There are plenty of slow masters racers, but the Worlds mostly attracts those Norwegian team members who never bothered to stop training, hard-core types with suitcases full of wax and quivers full of skis. I was racing the sport's elite.

And race them I did, for about 30 seconds, as my 35-40 age group wave burst out of the starting gate. After the first of 30 kilometers, I'd lost sight of the pack; by the 10-kilometer mark, the next-older age group was starting to catch up. I felt like what I was — a wannabe, a different and lower species. I took a long, sprawling fall on a downhill, and I might as well have been back in gym.

And then something strange happened. I noticed another racer from my age group: number 2009. He was ahead, but I slowly gained on him, and when he stopped so a friend could hand him a drink I went on by. Galvanized by the idea of not finishing dead last, I refused to let go when he caught up on the next downhill. My mouth was cotton, my boot straps had come loose, but for five kilometers we powered on in our own little race, hardly noticing as others zoomed by. He finally pulled up for a rest with three kilometers left, and though I too began to bonk a few minutes later, he never caught up. The winner of my age group, a German former Olympic medalist, finished half an hour ahead of me, but I didn't care. I'd beaten 2009. I'd discovered some other guy inside me. Gandhi wouldn't have much cared for him, but I thought he was kind of cool.

By April I was in a world of pain. I had an ugly bit in my mouth, a valve that let me breathe in but trapped all my exhalations and sent them to a computer. A clip pinched my nostrils, and I was running, faster and faster, until I couldn't go any more. On the wall a sign read, sure enough, world of pain.

Rob and I had come to Lake Placid to test my mettle at Dr. Ken Rundell's sports science lab at the Olympic Training Center. The lab's centerpiece is the largest treadmill in the country, eight feet by 10 feet, capable of achieving a 30 percent grade. For the first quarter-hour or so it's manageable — the treadmill never gets too fast, and they stop you every three minutes to measure how fast your body is accumulating lactic acid. Then, when you've reached your aerobic threshold and your body is starting to fill with lactate, they stop taking the blood samples, speed up the treadmill, and force you to run until you drop.

My transformation so far had been like my wife's pregnancy five years ago — subtle at first, hard to discern from the outside. But I wanted confirmation. I wanted numbers. My number in April: a VO2 max of 54.42 ml, meaning that my body could consume that many milliliters of oxygen each minute per kilogram of body weight. Enough, said Rob, to let me hope for "the top third of my age group" in races. It was mostly a matter of genetics, he warned — it wouldn't go up much, maybe 5 to 10 percent by the time I returned to the treadmill in November. For a 37-year-old my score could be worse, but eight-time Olympic gold medalist Bjorn Daehlie, the Norse god of frosty propulsion, reputedly tests out at 96.

There was one number left to calibrate. After tweezing my thighs and hips and belly and back and arms with a set of calipers, Dr. Rundell announced that my body fat percentage was 11.73. Not bad, he said, but the elite athletes he usually tests run three to six percent.

Afterward Rob and I went to lunch. I was digging into my chips and salsa when I noticed he'd grown quiet. "We all like chips," he said finally, "but they do have quite a bit of fat." By week's end I had overhauled my diet completely. I read cans like a lawyer, searching for hydrogenated oils; I convinced myself that toast tasted fine without butter; I ordered low-fat meals on airplanes, which is like asking for extra whacks at the S&M parlor. I managed a 14-city book tour subsisting almost entirely on bagels and lox, no cream cheese. By day I answered questions about world population, global warming, child-rearing. But all the time I was itching to get back to the hotel treadmill. I watched so much CNN working out that Bernard Shaw interrupted my dreams. And my body had changed. The technical description would now be gaunt. I slid from 170 pounds to about 160, spread over a six-foot-three frame.

It's not that I stopped eating — I ate four meals a day, oatmeal and spaghetti and raisin bran and salad, plus Gatorade, Clif Bars, Gu, Newtons. But I came to understand, I think, some of the anorexic's impulse. There are things you can't really control — how finally smart or attractive or athletic you are — but you can control what goes into your mouth. Part of being an athlete, I was coming to understand, involves an intense self-absorption, lovely and scary both. One night in Lake Placid I had dinner with Rich Kenah, the great American middle-distance runner, who told me, "To be an Olympic-caliber runner is basically to be selfish, to live within your own inner circle, without much room for anyone but yourself. I have to protect my time, my resources, my energy."

That's sort of how I found myself feeling; I didn't stint my daughter or my wife, but my friends must have found me changed. I went out for a hike one day with an old friend, but I was wearing my heart rate monitor, and we weren't staying in my zone, so I kept breaking into a trot, and soon his friendly ragging turned into sotto voce expletives, and he didn't call again all summer.

Who needs friends, anyway? Forget conversation — differentiation was my watchword, my obsession. Most days I went long and slow; others I sprinted. I worked just on the edge of what Rob calculated my body could stand. A week of my training schedule, chosen at random, looked like this:

Sunday: 205 minutes of what Rob called "overdistance," running or roller skiing at a heart rate between 135 and 146, with a 30-second burst of speed every 20 minutes or so.

Monday: 61 minutes of endurance training, moving fast enough that my heart beat 150 times a minute. Then 80 minutes of strength training — in my case, climbing aboard one of Rob's inventions, the Vasa Trainer, a sliding-seat contraption that mimics cross-country's poling motions.

Tuesday: 102 minutes of overdistance.

Wednesday: 164 minutes of overdistance, another 80 minutes on the Vasa Trainer.

Thursday: 41 minutes of overdistance and 61 minutes of uphill intervals, run right at my aerobic threshold of 165 beats per minute.

Friday: 82 minutes of overdistance, more time on the Vasa Trainer.

Saturday: Blessed rest.

In the middle of all this, I went to Rob's wedding — an epic of fitness. The parking lot looked like a convention of Thule roof-rack dealers, and a huge bowl on the buffet table held not shrimp or caviar but hundreds of Clif Bars. Thanks to Rob, though, I now felt at least slightly at home in this tribe. More guide than coach, more Yoda than drill sergeant, Rob listened to every new account of my aches and pains, my small triumphs and setbacks.

The enemy was less exertion than boredom — I now know every word you can spell with the letters "Fischer," and am capable of prodigious feats of mental calculation. If I'm roller skiing for 178 minutes, for example, then by the time I've gone six, I have figured what percentage of ground I've covered and, at 50 strides a minute, how many more it will take to bring me back to the car.

But I was starved for snow, for the glide that first seduced me into this sport. And so in midsummer, ostensibly to cover the unveiling of some new Salomon gear, but mostly to meet the great nordic skier Ben Husaby, I flew off to Mount Hood in Oregon. Ben and I did a little technique work, but mostly we talked about the rigors of the sport. Neither of us was inclined to exertion on that hot day, and while the rest of the press junket dutifully hiked with a naturalist to the lodge where we'd spend the night, Ben and I rode the chairlift. It made me feel perversely athletic to do so.

Cross-country skiing is such hard work because it's mostly uphill — the average World Cup loop climbs 6,000 vertical feet in the same distance as, say, a running marathon, and 30 percent grades are not uncommon. Husaby, a two-time Olympian, told me that in his best years he could go for a full half-hour within three percent of his maximum heart rate, 192 to 195 beats per minute. Now that's extreme, about as extreme as the human body gets, a lot more extreme than, say, street luge. Which makes cross-country today, with its old-fashioned emphasis on effort over attitude, an oddly countercultural sport. "In the nineties some of us were trying to make the sport a bit cooler," Ben said. "We were listening to the right music, wearing the right sunglasses. No one was paying any attention."

Perhaps they would have if the athletes had talked more about the pain. Cross-country is not about cool — it's about drool. Most World Cup racers sport little goatees of frozen saliva, the result of sweat, hyperventilation, and Gatorade tossed down at 40 miles per hour. In the early weeks of my training, on the night before the longest race of the winter, I'd eaten dinner with a 52-year-old ultradistance cyclist named John Spas Jr., who had lots of advice. ("In the morning, be certain to evacuate your colon.") What stuck with me most was this: "In every endurance event there is a time when you'll say, 'What the fuck am I doing here?' And you'll just have to say, 'This is what I do.'"

The next morning, I found myself up against four middle-of-the-packers on the last 17-kilometer lap of the 50-kilometer race. Passing me with 10 kilometers to go, one called out cheerfully, "Good luck." That was it. I got good and pissed, jumped on the tails of his skis, and passed him on a hill half a mile from the finish. It wasn't like me, this surge of aggression, strong enough to override my own blurring vision and pounding heart. I knew, all of a sudden, that I didn't have to stop when it started to hurt.

I was coming to understand that mental training — those gooey "visualizations" and "affirmations" — was every bit as real as my banging heart. One summer afternoon former University of Oregon track coach Bill Freeman told me about a story he'd seen in a running magazine, in which marathoners were asked what they thought about as they raced. "They interviewed dinks," he said. "People were saying, 'I mentally build a house.' That's pretty much how you define an unimportant athlete. He may forget his pain, but he's just hopping around out there. Rest assured that Frank Shorter was not building a house. He was thinking about his heart rate, his breathing, what the other athletes were doing."

Back at Mount Hood, Rob Husaby had referred me to a book called Endless Winter, an account of a World Cup season by his former teammate Luke Bodensteiner. And indeed, in retirement, with no need to keep his game face on, Bodensteiner made remarkably clear how it felt. Describing an Olympic race in which he'd spilled neon-red energy drink down his skinsuit, he wrote, "Sweat was running in rivulets down my face, and red juice was frozen solid onto my chest. My brain felt like it was imploding, being squeezed by my rushing, acid-filled blood. My vision was turning tunnel, fading from light gray to black in the periphery."

I hadn't pushed myself that hard, not yet. But Bodensteiner had also put his finger on something else: how different, how slightly better, I was starting to feel than "normal" people. After finishing 37th in that race, he wrote, "a weak-looking guy from the New York Times asked me a question, shoved a mike into my face, and then turned away, paying no attention to my answer whatsoever. I explained to his tape recorder that a soft, large mammal like himself, who's been on no larger a mountain than the Empire State Building, would have no understanding of this sport anyway, and I left."

Mentally and physically, by August this large soft mammal was getting hot to race. Like a man with an addiction, I was craving snow. Australia suffers the drawback of being a very great distance away, but it has the good marketing sense to stage its winter when the rest of the globe is mired in the friction of pavement and grass. So I headed to the Australian Alps, skiing on trails past gum trees, the smell of eucalyptus in the air.

But who had time for tourism? I'd signed up for a race at the end of my stay, a 25-kilometer event on the shoulder of Mount Kosciusku, the continent's highest peak. I thought about it every day of my trip — every hour, probably. I was wildly eager to check out the new engine housed beneath my ribs. Too eager: I hit the first hill at a manic clip, passing almost everyone in my wave, my legs moving like steel springs. I was very nearly giddy. But not for long. Before the race was a third gone, I felt leaden. I fell on a downhill. And I lost nearly all my will. I was reduced to a plodder. I started designing a house.

And so, as fall wore on, it was back to my never-ending schedule of exercise. As Mark McGwire hit homers, I roller skied. As the stock market crashed and rose, I rode the Vasa Trainer. Forget Linda Tripp — I was watching videos of Vegard Ulvang striding up Scandinavian tracks. After a decade of full-time environmental writing, I was suddenly thinking more about the carbon dioxide load in my blood than about the CO2 heating up the atmosphere.

Finally, in November, I went back to the World of Pain. I was ready for the bit this time, and the printouts showed mostly good news. My VO2 Max had gone up about seven percent, to 58. My muscles produced a quarter less lactic acid. My aerobic threshold was about the same, but I was running half-a-mile-per-hour faster when I reached it. Oh yes, and my body fat had dropped almost in half, down to 6.69 percent. Those numbers were my new physical identity.

But there was one last station of the cross. And that was West Yellowstone, which in November is to nordic skiers what New Hampshire is to presidential candidates in March. Over Thanksgiving, the most serious cross-country skiers in the country descend on the town to train, and this kingdom of Winnebagos and T-shirt shops turns into a republic of the lean.

I was rooming with Ben Husaby, back for one last season with the Factory Team, an elite squad sponsored by Fischer skis, Salomon boots, and Swix waxes, the industry's dominant brands. For two days it felt awfully sweet to be back on snow, and then it felt awfully awful. "West," as the locals call it, lies at 6,666 feet, and the altitude nailed me: Slight hills trashed my lungs; walking up the Holiday Inn stairs involved gripping the rail with both hands.

Ben knew what to do. "Watching bad TV is a very important skill for an endurance athlete," he counseled, ordering me to bed. "We had one guy on the national team who could do it 12 or 13 hours a day." Even without altitude problems, he and the other serious athletes spent an enormous amount of time prone — two training sessions a day leaves enough energy to shovel down food and to nap. A man who doesn't even own a TV, I took his advice. Training was training.

Out on the trails, greats were swooshing past hopefuls. There's Carl Swenson, who won last year's Wisconsin Birkebeiner. There's Laura McCabe, twice an Olympian. Here's Husaby, stopping to help a 15-year-old kid from Casper, Wyoming, who is wearing a T-shirt and whose wax is icing up. Husaby melts the wax by licking it (with his tongue), and then rewaxes the kid and sends him on his way. It's as if spring training and Little League happened simultaneously on the same fields.

I flailed away on the groomed trails until, on Thanksgiving morning, Husaby told me we were heading into Yellowstone itself. A few park vehicles had left behind iced-over ruts on the closed road, so we could double-pole the entire way. For 25 kilometers I didn't move my feet, just crunched my stomach and pushed with my triceps and thanked heaven I'd done my sit-ups. It wasn't particularly painful, just endless, and I was used to endless.

We finally arrived in Madison Junction, deep in the park, to find ourselves surrounded by a herd of 300 bison. Husaby and veteran coach Rick Kapala and I headed off through the woods, skiing slowly around a deadfall. From a ridge we watched a coyote sitting serenely in the sun, surveying us and the bison. And then, because we wanted to see a particular hot pot, we forded the thigh-deep Gibbon River. Before long we were dressed again, double-poling another 25 kilometers back down the road as the sun bent behind the ridges.

We weren't going at racing speed — good nordic skiers cover 50 kilometers in two hours, and that's with hills to climb. But a year ago I couldn't have done anything like this. "You showed me some mettle," said Husaby as we finally clicked out of our skis. He didn't even need to say it. For once I knew it myself. I knew that in the year just past I had evolved, ever so slightly, in the direction of bison and coyote.

So now come the races — a couple of ski marathons in January and February, the epic Norwegian Birkebeiner in March. That'll be me, the skinny one, somewhere around the middle of my age group. If the drool is freezing to my chin, you'll know that I'm winning my own private race.

Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and, most recently, Hundred Dollar Holiday.

Photographs by Ted Wood and Nancie Battaglia

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