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If you ski frequently enough, or fish often enough, or pursue any passion with regularity, like manna from heaven, exceptional results are bound to fall into your lap eventually, whether you plan for it or not. Rocket and I pulled into the ski trails parking lot on Friday with a loose plan to give her two or three miles on West Morrell or Cottonwood, followed by Rocket enjoying a dog nap in the car for an hour or so while I made a lap around the trail system. As I got out of the car, Lynn was just finishing up walking Nina out on the road and informed me that Cottonwood Lakes had been groomed earlier and there wasn't a mark on it. That's nothing short of miraculous for a Friday, but it had been another in a series of below-zero nights, so I suppose the sledheads were all in hiding at the Chicken Coop where it would be warm with access to TV and plenty of liquid refreshment, accompanied by a never-ending supply of arterially challenging food.


Cottonwood Lakes sounded pretty inviting, but I didn't realize just how inviting it actually was until I wandered over and got onto it with skis.


Oh, my.


11 on a scale of 10 doesn't do it justice. Just soft enough to give it that nice forgiving feel, but firm enough for long, sweet gliding. In fact, since it had been so cold for several days I'd brought my classic skis along, assuming that the trails would still be slow and abrasive. But, this was nicely ground, fine-grained old snow, and the only thing that might have improved the experience would have been skate skis. Classic was sweet, though, with or without classic grooves to ski in and my skis were tracking beautifully.



What nap?


The farther out we got the more sucked in we were and pretty quickly the original plan for the afternoon was out the window. We ski out there infrequently, so it was relatively new to her, and for a dog there is nothing better than fresh territory full of new sights and smells. She was happy, which made me happy and with skiing that good I couldn't see any justifiable reason for turning around at the gun range. So, we didn't. We kept going all the way to Mountain Creek where I realized that what would be an easy cruise back for me was going to be a grunt for a middle-aged dog. Sure enough, about half way back she started to lag on the downhills and by the time we dropped into Morrell Creek I was waiting for her to catch up at the bottom. We'd gone far enough for her, maybe even a little too far, but she wasn't holding a grudge. When we got back to the car her tail was still wagging and she still had interest in the overflow of smells in the parking lot, which is always a good sign that we haven't completely overdone it and fallen off the edge.


Sometimes you plan meticulously and make your own luck and sometimes things just drop out of the sky and plop at your feet. On Friday, it was pure, unadulterated luck.


A few dog tracks don't hurt anything.



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To skate or to classic? For me, that's often the question of the day from December through March. Ideally, I typically split my skiing time equally between both techniques and the 50/50 split has been made much easier by the PistenBully grooming we've been fortunate enough to have the past two winters. In the past when we were limited to snowmobile grooming we could only set track in soft conditions. With the PistenBully we aren't as constrained by conditions, plus the track that is set lasts longer and can take more abuse from skiers and the weather. Consequently, my choice is no longer dictated by whether or not we even have a viable classic track.


When skating became popular in the late '80's and early '90's it was the focus for pretty much everyone who was interested in racing. Races turned skate-oriented and often didn't even have a classic track, or if there was a classic track it was used for passing and for downhills. I was right there with everyone else and had no interest at all in skiing classic. Skating was faster, seemed more dynamic and fun, while classic had become old school and boring.


But, in the last ten years or so I've changed my tune and rediscovered the joys of skiing classic while still indulging in the speed of skating. Interestingly, the demand for skate clinics far exceeds that of classic. Yet, in the actual skate clinics, it's readily apparent that a good percentage of the students will never pursue skating seriously enough to ever become proficient at it.


Why is that? I'm convinced that the biggest obstacle to most novice skate skiers is physical conditioning. Many wannabe skaters underestimate the demands that skating will place on their bodies, particularly when they are developing their technique and learning to become efficient. Skating requires a much higher level of strength and aerobic conditioning than classic skiing and that's especially true when an out of shape beginner is flailing up a hill with a V1 that just isn't coming together. Even a long, very gradual upslope that appears unthreatening can grind your morale to dust if you're unable to pace yourself because the technique and fitness aren't quite there.


Classic, on the other hand, can be performed by simply placing one foot in front of the other as fast or as slow as you want. Sure, to become faster and more efficient at classic requires a lot more skill and finesse than simply walking down the trail, but if your goal is to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise on snow, then you can get the job done. This is what's commonly known as shuffling, and we get our fair share of shufflers in Seeley. There is no equivalent to shuffling in skating. Classic shufflers can still enjoy themselves. Skating "shufflers" I would have to describe as suffering. That isn't to say it's impossible to skate slowly, but it's a hell of a lot more fun if your technique is refined and your fitness level is reasonably good.


The new Seeley Lake Nordic Club board out for a team building shuffle.


Over the last ten years I've reverted more and more to classic skiing, and like I said, these days my goal is a 50/50 split between the two techniques. Sometimes my choice is weather dependent. If the overnight temps have fallen well below zero I'm getting my classic skis out. There's a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the snow in the skate lane will be the texture of sandpaper and the probability of good glide is slim to none. The classic track, on the other hand, is going to be packed harder and is going to be faster. That realization came to me on a super cold day about 25 years ago when I was working my tail off skating up Whitetail Hill and a good classic skier cruised by effortlessly in the classic track. That was a soul-crushing eye-opener. The second reason I like classic when it's cold is because my circulation ain't what it was 30 years ago and when I'm skating in single digit temperatures my hands are blocks of ice. With classic there's that nice arm swing that drives warm blood into your fingers with each stride.


I like skiing classic when there's been a big dump of fresh snow. Even with the PistenBully the skating lane can sometimes be super soft while the classic track is firmly packed. There's nothing more satisfying than the right kick wax on fresh snow in a solid track.


Classic can be as fast-paced or as relaxed as you make it. If I've had a big skate ski the day before, classic is a great way to use slightly different muscles, dial back the intensity and get in a good recovery workout. If I want to enjoy several hours of skiing I'm also more likely to ski classic. LIke it or not, I'm having to face the reality that the golden days of youth are way in the rearview mirror and unless there is an afterlife that looks a lot like this one, those days aren't coming back. But, I still love to get out and ski nonstop for 3 or 4 hours. Skiing classic gets that done without feeling the overwhelming need for a 90 minute nap when I get home.


So, when do I skate? There's nothing better than skating when the snow is fresh and packed firm, when it's granular and lightning fast, or when we've got that slight corn glaze that makes you feel like a super hero. Nothing is more satisfying than the sensation of flying when you're free skating in fast, forgiving snow.


I skate three times a week with the kids that I coach. We skate exclusively for a variety of reasons, (one of which is kid-management) and they love it. They want to go fast, they want to be dynamic, they're young and bullet-proof, so skating suits them well. Most coaching days I'll get in about 10k before the kids show up and I generally skate it so I don't have to deal with changing gear before they arrive. That helps take some of my edge off which makes me more prepared for wrangling a bunch of 10-12 year-olds.


Skate or classic? It's a matter of personal preference. I've rediscovered the joy of classic and the challenge of mastering the little subtleties of doing it well. But, I still love the power and speed of skating and won't give it up.



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This guy clearly prefers classic. He's skiing the wrong direction, but don't tell Bruce.



Approximately 1 billion years ago, when I first started cross country skiing, there was only one way to ski: classic. Only it wasn't known as classic because that's all there was. You inserted your floppy Fabiano boots into your three-pin bindings, pushed down the wire bail and off you went. I was new to cross country skiing and Seeley Lake, as were the people I was skiing with, and our skiing obsession took up most of our focus in the winter. Seeley was strictly a logging town in those long-lost days and snowmobiling along with ice fishing were the only recognized forms of winter recreation, which meant we were definitely community outliers as we flailed around on the logging roads and floundered through the woods.


Our technique was improving through trial and error when in the early 80's someone came up with the bright idea of having a marathon ski race and OSCR was born. In order to be even somewhat competitive in OSCR we were forced to add to our arsenals of Epoke's and Truckers and Europa 99's with lighter, dedicated track skis, and upgrade our fashion selections to include wool knickers with knee socks. We had a rudimentary cross country trail system by that point, but it was never groomed, so if we wanted to train we were left with no option but to set our own ski track, either on the ski trails or a logging road. So, that's what we did. Only, to be honest, it was more like recreational skiing than training, and there was absolutely no science behind it. Adding to the lack of science was no small quantity of mind-altering substances consumed during these "training sessions". Keep in mind, though, that the OSCR aid stations were fully stocked with schnapps and bourbon, as well as hot chocolate, so our training strategies were firmly in keeping with the traditions of the times.


About the second or third OSCR, there was talk of a new technique called "skating", which sounded intriguing, but apparently controversial, and lo and behold along about the fourth OSCR some of the lead racers started trashing the classic track doing something they called "marathon skating". I wasn't convinced it was a good idea until the following year's OSCR when I got into a dog fight with Vince Meng, a dentist from Missoula. We were neck and neck with both of us skiing pure classic until we'd come to a long, gradual downhill or a flat, at which point Vince would angle his left ski out of the track and start pushing with that ski plus double poling, while gliding on his right ski. At that time, the race ran from Two Creeks Ranch in Ovando over the back roads to Seeley Lake. There were a lot of those extended, gently sloped, uphills and downhills. He'd slowly pull away from me until we reached the next climb where I would work my ass off to reel him back in. About the time I'd get back on his wheel here would come another slight downhill and he'd start inching away all over again. I couldn't keep that up forever and he started slowly pulling away, in the end putting a couple of minutes on me.


I was just smart enough to be converted, but right about that time, things changed all over again when racers started full-on skating with both skis, forget about the classic track. That meant in addition to pulling Jim Jaimes' homemade track setter to set a track, we had to drag a bed spring to satisfy the hotshots who were purely skating the race. That worked great for the first year, but the next year, I think it was like 1987 (I'm counting on Lynn to correct the record), when the grooming was done on Friday, only to have it snow 6" over night. This was the first time the race course had been set over Rice Ridge, which meant those poor bastards who were pure skaters were both climbing and breaking 6" of trail, alllll the way to the top. The smart guys worked together and skated in each other's tracks as much as possible, but there was a guy from Whitefish who had become accustomed to winning a lot of races, and there was no way he wasn't going to be the lead dog all the way to the finish. The predictable result of that misguided effort was by the time he reached the top, he was toast, and as each skier reached the summit they were treated to the sight of him hunched miserably over the warming fire, back to the trail, with a hot drink cupped in his hands.


I wasn't confident enough in my skating abilities to count on skating the entire race and had hedged my bet by putting kick wax under my foot. There was still no distinction between skating and classic skis which meant the flex and camber would still be fine for skiing classic. Talk about pure luck. Another skier and I were the first classic skiers and we took turns breaking trail for one another. We were passing a lot of struggling, dejected skate skiers as we steadily climbed to the top. Wade Cebulski was running the summit aid station and when we pulled in he confided, "you know, you're the first two I've seen who didn't look like they were about to puke." I didn't come close to winning that day, but I wasn't having fantasies of death freeing me from my agony, either.


There was no denying that skating was taking over and by the early 90's OSCR had turned into a pure skate event. Which is kind of too bad, because the first races attracted a lot of casual skiers who just wanted to test themselves by skiing 50 kilometers on whatever equipment they had in the garage. Of course, that meant a substantial number of skiers were taking 6-7 hours to complete the course, but it also made it an event more in keeping with the time honored Norwegian concept of "citizens race". In any case, it reached the point where at the race start Lynn would say, "if you take over five hours to finish, I can't guarantee there'll be any one at the finish line to greet you."


Skating long ago took over as the preferred technique in citizens races, but classic is growing again in popularity. I think I'll take a dive into that in my next post.


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