Skate skiing: Gliding (or waddling) toward grace
Skate skiing just reeks of grace, doesn’t it? It’s all about gliding across snow, one foot after another in progressing V shapes, as other classic cross-country skiers shuffle along prepared tracks.I’m not a very graceful person, particularly when it comes to sports. Throughout life I’ve ditched soccer for gymnastics, gymnastics for swimming, and swimming for running. After moving to Aspen I learned how to be the quintessential knuckle-dragging snowboarder; I’ve spent summers plodding trails and trying to rock climb.
So with some trepidation I accepted an assignment to learn how to be graceful on skis – skate skis, that is.There are kilometers of sparkling, groomed trails smoothed over the expanse of the Aspen Golf Course. To a beginner, it’s daunting. Everyone around me is clicking into their skis, hoisting their kids into backpacks and wearing stretchy pants.Luckily, I discovered five minutes into my lesson, there is a beginner’s loop with a couple of small rolling hills where I could practice gliding virtually undeterred by the spandexed set. Three other women signed up for a lesson with me at the Aspen Cross Country Center.Pierre Pelletier, a friendly guy who regularly races on skate skis, helped us with the fit of our boots, and picked the correct poles and skis. Completely outfitted, we walked down to the snow and spent the first five minutes learning how to sway, sans skis. Pierre called it the pendulum – it’s the process of stepping from one leg to the next with all of your weight in tow, just as you will once the skis are attached to you boots.
Shortly thereafter we tried to put on our skis. But when it’s just the right temperature outside, snow packs into the bottom of your boots like cement, making it impossible to click into your bindings. After a few minutes of grunting and prying out the packed snow with our own fingers, we managed to stand up in our skis and snowplow down to the beginner’s loop.Here’s where the grace component is supposed to come in. Pierre took away our poles, so we could practice gliding along without any distractions. Two of the women in my lesson were off like rockets, halfway across the course before I had taken my fifth step. I was wobbly but learned quickly that it’s all about the confidence – you won’t glide if you don’t commit to shifting all of your weight onto one foot and then the other.”Good, Naomi!” Pierre called out, watching as I approached. My spirits soared until he mentioned that I looked a little like a penguin, making the photographer chuckle. He was right – I hadn’t realized my arms were pulled in to my sides, hands parallel to the ground.I made a mental note to loosen up a little as Pierre handed us our poles, and had us pole an entire lap around the course in the prepared tracks for the cross-country skiers.
Skate skis, it turns out, are just like classic nordic skis, except they’re missing a scalelike texture on their undersides. In other words, nothing holds you back as you swish from one ski to the next. These babies were made for gliding.Of course that’s not necessarily a good thing when you’re trying to learn how to use your stomach muscles to keep your butt forward while pulling yourself along in those constricted little tracks. Moving my feet didn’t help since they just slipped along. Needless to say, it was a tiring journey around the loop.But the real deal was next – learning how to use our poles and our feet to travel along the wide path, free of tracks. This is where things got a little confusing: The feet movement stays the same, but there are several different methods of poling to propel yourself along.My classmates and I looked equally awkward, and were all similarly perplexed when we realized that with our feet pointed outward into V’s, we could pick up quite a bit of speed on the downhill side of the course. Naturally the one time I bit the dust, I was going uphill and skiing a little too close to a classmate.
I thudded to my knees just once, and otherwise spent the class making laps around the course trying to pick up speed and grace at the same time. And I learned this: It’s easy to pick up speed if you don’t care how you look doing it. It’s very hard, however, to look graceful and make your motions as fluid as Pierre seems to do effortlessly.Here’s what’s encouraging, though: Pierre admits it took him a long time to make skate skiing look easy, even after years as an avid outdoorsman and serious bicycle racer. At the end of my lesson, Pierre said he was very pleased with my progress and my “amazing sense of balance.”And that’s what sealed the deal. Not only am I willing to try this sport again, I may even look into purchasing some new equipment with some advice from my new best friend, Pierre.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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